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Enfield Board of Education Accepts Settlement Offer In Graduation Site Lawsuit

The settlement ends more than two years of litigation over use of a Bloomfield church for commencement exercises.

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.

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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."

janet July 20, 2012 at 10:34 AM
Good point Charlotte, perhaps we should pay them in Monopoly money since "In God We Trust" does not appear!!
Lin Chojnicki July 20, 2012 at 11:28 AM
.... if haven't already done so, this is well worth the read http://enfield.patch.com/articles/kiner-s-korner-donna-szewczak-the-voice-of-reason-and-fiscal-restraint
Pat Droney July 20, 2012 at 12:41 PM
Where exactly is the parking you're talking about? There is little parking adjacent to the Town Green, which is why the 4th of July has a shuttle bus from the Square. You're talking about adding thousands of dollars to the event for additional security. If it's going to be held in Enfield, having it at the schools makes the most sense.
Jim Dodd July 20, 2012 at 10:02 PM
Imagine that, the ACLU backed the BOE into a corner and CIRMA threw in the towel. Well why are you surprised? The schools don't teach Civics and Constitutional Law instead they boil it down to "Social Studies" Maybe if they taught the basics of our Constitution the ones who brought upon this lawsuit would realize it has no base. In fact the meaning of Separation of State and Church is that the government cannot dictate that its people must practice one religion over another. That does not mean that the use of a religious building or land can not be used for a public function. If the church required all attendees to say a prayer that that would be another story, then you have the grounds. Not to just use the building to host an event does not violate the separation of church and state. This whole thing is as absurd as restricting all public vehicles such as public works, police etc from being parked on the property of OLA or the congregational church as an affiliation of church and state. God (yes God) forbid they are parked in the front when one of these plaintiffs drive by. They could say the town is promoting that religion. The fact is this was a waist of time resources and our tax dolors and just amplifies the ridiculous behavior of the "It's all about me" population today. Think about this. If the founding fathers of this country didn't make decisions based on their religious beliefs, this country wouldn't exist, and you wouldn't have a lawsuit to peruse.
Laurie August 03, 2012 at 03:08 PM
I agree with you Jim. I, along with other parents who have kids in High School are very disappointed with this outcome.

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