The separation of church and state has increasingly become a hotly debated issue in this country. In the context of schools, it has received the most attention from this country’s highest court. From school prayer to the observance of religious holidays, from textbook content to school vouchers, this area of school law has some degree of impact on nearly every aspect of a child’s educational experience.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Beginning in the 1960s, the Supreme Court of the United States began striking down state laws permitting (or even mandating) the recitation of Bible verses in school. In Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Supreme Court articulated a three-part analysis (the so-called Lemon test) to determine whether school (government) actions complied with the Establishment Clause’s constitutional requirements:
- The school action must have a secular, or non-religious, purpose.
- The primary effect of the action must neither advance nor inhibit religion.
- The action must avoid excessive entanglement of government with religion.
Thus, in the realm of education law, if an action taken by the school board does not comply with any one of these three prongs, it will violate the First Amendment.
To illustrate, the U.S. District Court in the District of Connecticut recently found that the Enfield Board of Education’s plans to hold the graduations for its two high schools at a Christian church were unconstitutional. In that case, despite the availability of comparable secular facilities, the board appeared to give in to “aggressive lobbying by a religious organization” to hold the ceremonies at First Cathedral in Bloomfield. Although there were plans to cover or remove overtly religious symbols, the school board played an active role in deciding what constituted a “religious image or message.” In addition, there were several large crosses and images that could not be covered.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Connecticut filed a lawsuit on behalf of several non-Christian students, asserting that allowing the Enfield Board of Education to hold graduation at this location violated the Establishment Clause. In its Complaint, it stated:
[T]he location coerces students and parents to receive the overwhelming religious message of the Cathedral as the price of attending a seminal event in their lives; communicates a message of governmental favoritism of the Christian religion; entails the use of public funds to support religion-infused graduation; and excessively entangles the Schools with a religious institution.
The District Court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, which sought to prohibit the school from conducting the graduations at First Cathedral. It found:
[P]laintiffs have made a substantial showing that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that holding 2010 graduations at First Cathedral constitutes an impermissible endorsement of religion because it conveys the message that certain religious views are embraced by Enfield Schools, and others are not.
The District Court’s decision was based on the character of the venue, noting various attributes of the facility (namely the crosses) and stating, “First Cathedral creates an environment… overwrought with religious symbols.” The perception of a reasonable person attending graduation ceremonies at First Cathedral would leave them with the impression that “Enfield Schools… [are] closely linked with First Cathedral and its religious mission, that it favors the religious over the irreligious, and that it prefers Christians over those that subscribe to other faiths, or no faith at all.” The District Court also extensively discussed the unique context and history of the board’s decision to hold the graduations at First Cathedral.
Two years after the courts found against the Enfield school district, its board of education voted to accept a settlement of the lawsuit. “Under the terms of the settlement… [the plaintiffs’] legal fees would be partially reimbursed, and the town would agree not to hold its graduations at First Cathedral.”
The lawyers at Maya Murphy, P.C., are experienced practitioners of school law and assist clients in Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, and Westport. Should you have any questions regarding religion in schools or other education law matters, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.
 See, e.g., Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962); Abington v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963).
 403 U.S. 602 (1971).
 Complaint pp. 1, Does v. Enfield Board of Education (D. Conn. 2010). http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/2010-5-5-DoesvEnfield-Complaint.pdf
 Ruling Re: Plaintiffs’ Motion for Preliminary Injunction pp. 15-16, Does v. Enfield Board of Education (D. Conn. 2010). http://www.acluct.org/downloads/Enfieldgraduationdecision.pdf
 Id. at 16.
 See Footnote 3, pp. 1-2.
 See Footnote 4, pp. 26.
 Id. at 30.
 Id. at 32.
 Id. at 32-38.
 “Enfield School Board OKs Settlement In Lawsuit Over Graduations Held At First Cathedral,” by Kristin Stoller. July 18, 2012: http://articles.courant.com/2012-07-18/community/hc-enfield-aclu-lawsuit-settlement-20120718_1_chairman-timothy-neville-peter-jonaitis-alex-luchenitser