In a decision prohibiting public school graduation ceremonies at First Cathedral in Bloomfield, U.S. District Court Judge Janet Hall ruled that “Enfield schools sends the message that it is 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 case was brought to court by the by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State on behalf of two high school seniors and three parents, all anonymous complainants.
"In addition to the character of the forum,” Hall determined, “the history and context of the decision to hold the graduations at First Cathedral also support the conclusion that, in doing so, Enfield Public Schools has endorsed religion."
The suit was filed, we are told in a news account, because the parents of the students “alleged that using the church was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by government. The plaintiffs wanted the graduations held in a nonreligious setting.”
Following the decision, lead attorney Alex Luchenitser said “We are thrilled, of course, with the ruling. We're thrilled the students will not be coerced to go to church at the price of attending their own graduation.”
The decision involves both legal and etymological concerns.
For instance, the judge ruled that in allowing a non-religious secular ceremony to occur in a building in which religious ceremonies are held, the Enfield School system “sent the message that it is closely linked with First Cathedral and its religious mission.”
Since the school system in Hall’s judgment is linked “closely” with the “religious mission” of a church, it is vitally important to know: 1) What is the mission of First Cathedral church? 2) What is a church? 3) What is a mission? We all know, with apologies to former president Bill Clinton, what “is” is.
Without delving very deeply into the matter, it is possible to suppose that the “mission” of First Cathedral church – a church being the body of the faithful, including ministers and lay people – is to spread the good new of Christianity and, whenever possible, to make conversions to the church.
Atheists rightly object to both points; other Christian faiths may object to conversion; and other non-Christian faiths may object both to conversion and the promulgation of a message with which they cannot in good conscience agree.
Since the ceremony involved was secular in nature, it seems rather implausible that the non-clerics who officiated at the ceremony would be able to effectuate the mission of First Cathedral.
Part of the problem in interpreting whether a graduation ceremony, entirely secular in nature, occurring in a church building “endorses” religion lies in the meaning of the word “church,” which is used, depending upon the context, to indicate both a building and a religious congregation assembled for a religious purpose, such as a mass or a baptism.
Certainly if prayers were recited at the secular ceremony, one may imagine that a line separating church and state had been impermissibly crossed. In such a case, it may reasonably be said of students attending a graduation ceremony, particularly were they atheist by inclination or believing members of a different faith, that they had been “coerced” to participate in a religious event.
Under the circumstances cited by Hall, it is a bit of a stretch to conclude that anyone participating in the graduation ceremony at First Cathedral would have been engaged in an unconstitutional religious event. And only neo-pagans who believe in homeopathic magic could assert with some reason, assuming homeopathic magic is reasonable, that buildings are inherently religious, or that religious objects -- crosses on Catholic Church buildings, for instance – posses some magical quality that may bend those who see or touch the objects to a certain purpose. Buildings, by themselves, are not magical structures, and one need not fear that persons who come in contact with them will be, so to speak, religiously polluted.
Judges who review Hall’s decision should take care they do not fall under the influence of pagan or neo-pagan ideas in their interpretation of the religious clause of the First Amendment; nor should they fear they will be religiously polluted by such words in that amendment as prohibit the U.S. Congress and other lesser legislative bodies from making laws establishing a national church (not really a building) or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.
The words “religious establishment” in the amendment, though somewhat ambiguous, are not magical incantations, and judges should not fear religious contamination by coming into contact with them, no more than atheists passing under the crosses attached to Catholic church buildings should fear conversion under their shadow.
Only neo-pagans – not that there’s anything wrong with neo-paganism – believe in homeopathic magic, the practice of which would not be allowed, one hopes, in graduation ceremonies or in, as some may think, wildly implausible interpretations of graduation ceremonies in which buildings serve as carriers of religious infections.