Let all enjoy
Star-Ledger (nj.com), from the Web, March 17, 2007
NEWARK, NJ, Mar.10 -- An
honors graduate of West Side High School is suing the Newark school district
because his graduation was held at a Baptist church. The suit says he
didn't attend because he is a Muslim who believes he should not knowingly enter
a building containing depictions of God or other religious iconography.
Would others be uncomfortable in a mosque? A synagogue? A Jehovah's
Witness hall? Public school graduates should not have to worry about such
things at their graduation.
It does not matter whether anyone complains or if the law permits public schools
to use religious facilities for secular purposes. What matters is that
schools do what is reasonable to let families enjoy a milestone event without
compromising their beliefs.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represents the West Side graduate and
his father, said the school first used the church for its 2005 graduation.
With more than 300 graduates and their friends and relatives, the school could
not accommodate the ceremony.
Another family asked the ACLU to intervene that year. The school
district's general counsel cited court decisions in support of a school's right
to use churches for nonreligious needs but added that "based (on) the legitimate
concerns of our student and parent, I will advise district administration to
refrain from scheduling events in church locations." That was the right
approach, yet West Side went back to the church for last year's ceremony.
Newark also has a tradition of saluting honors graduates in what is supposed to
be an ecumenical, nonreligious service at Sacred Heart Basilica. Barringer
High School, which neighbors the Catholic cathedral, holds its graduations in
the basilica. Many families and graduates must love those ceremonies in
what is an extraordinarily beautiful setting. Others may have wrangled
privately about going or skipped the ceremonies because of the religious
The suit alleges the West Side senior class was told last year that those who
attended the honors convocation in the basilica would get extra tickets for
their graduation. If so, that was a serious mistake. The pressure to
find seats for graduation is so great that any such offer would turn what is
supposed to be voluntary into something coercive.
There are local colleges that could accommodate large high school graduations.
This year West Side is using Newark's Symphony Hall -- for $6,000, about six
times what it cost to use the church. The district said the city will not
give a discount. It should.
Newark -- which is spared much of the expense of running its schools because of
large and necessary state subsidies -- can spare the money to defray the cost
for any school that needs to hire graduation space. The city can ask for
help from local businesses and employers. Let the entire city celebrate
with due consideration for a legitimate concern.