A two-year-old lawsuit filed in protest of the Enfield Board of Education's practice of holding high school graduations in a Bloomfield megachurch came to an end Wednesday night, when the board voted to accept a settlement proposal made by two activist groups who brought the suit.
In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed suit on behalf of two high school students and three parents, who objected to holding graduation ceremonies at the First Cathedral Church.
During construction of a new athletic complex, held its graduation at the church in 2007. Both Fermi and Schools utilized the church in 2008 and 2009.
Let Patch save you time. Get great local stories like this delivered right to your inbox or smartphone every day with our free newsletter. Simple, fast sign-up here.
After the board decided to hold the ceremonies in Bloomfield again in 2010, the lawsuit was filed, and District Court Judge Janet Hall issued a temporary injunction barring use of the religious building for a public school function. Commencement exercises at both schools have been held on school grounds since then, with the 2012 ceremonies taking place for the first time on the new artificial turf fields.
Under terms of the settlement, the school board agreed not to hold future graduations at the church. The plaintiffs' legal fees would be partially reimbursed, reportedly up to $500,000, by the Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency (CIRMA), the Board of Education's insurance provider.
Prior to the vote, which took place at the conclusion of a two and a half hour special meeting, audience participants and board members expressed divided opinions as to whether to accept the proposal.
Former school board members Lynn Scull, Bill Thomson and Judy Apruzzese-Desroches spoke in favor of settling.
"Our mistake was in continuing to go there, and in pursuing the suit," said Apruzzese-Desroches, who consistently voted against holding the ceremonies at the venue while serving on the board. "Where it's held should not be the issue; that it's held is what's important."
Board Vice Chairman Vinny Grady, who made the original motion to accept the settlement following a tumultuous on July 10, said via conference call, "I would like to end this tonight. We are voted in as nine members to make responsible fiscal decisions."
Board members Joyce Hall, who also participated via telephone while away on vacation, and Jennifer Rancourt said the majority of emails they had received in recent days indicated support for the settlement.
"I believe in fiscal responsibility, and I feel going forward with this is irresponsible," board member Tina LeBlanc said.
Several others expressed opposing viewpoints, referring to the plaintiffs as "bullies".
"I am a taxpayer, and if it costs me a little more I'm okay with that, but at least I'm standing up for principle," resident John Unghire said.
Board member Kevin Fealy said, "Because the past boards did not keep their word, I am not bound to right their faults. Deep pockets with nothing to lose have the opportunity to push us into a corner. It sets a bad precedent in my house to succumb to it."
Attorney Tom Gerard, representing CIRMA, said, "The insurance carrier has the contract right to make a settlement."
In response, board member Chuck Johnson said, "We have not gone to trial yet. We have a temporary injunction against us, and to me, it's premature for the insurance company to do this to us. It's a heinous way of dealing with a customer."
After considerable debate, the board voted 6-3 in favor of settling. Johnson, Fealy and Peter Jonaitis were opposed.
"I am disappointed in the 6-3 vote that took place, but I am happy that we finally got this before the public, so people who attended tonight's meeting and people who watched it on TV have a better understanding of some of the things that we went through behind closed doors," Jonaitis said after the meeting. "We had to use a parliamentary procedure to get this before the public. I wish we had done this earlier, when people were still in town. It was a bad time of the year. I'm really upset with the insurance company; I feel like they're the ones who are causing us to do something that we think is important to do on principle."
Board Chairman Tim Neville said, "It was an emotional discussion. People had strong views on either side, but I think the will of the board was to make this decision in the best interest of the system and the kids. I'm pleased we had an open session, and I think ultimately the decision we made was the right one."