The Enfield Board of Education held a special meeting Tuesday night to discuss a proposed settlement of a lawsuit filed two years ago, pertaining to the board's former practice of holding high school graduations at the First Cathedral Church in Bloomfield.
The graduation site had been challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Connecticut and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. They filed suit in 2010 on behalf of two students and three parents, who said they would be uncomfortable if forced to enter a Christian house of worship in order to attend graduation ceremonies.
In 2010, U.S. District Judge Janet Hall issued a temporary injunction, ruling that Enfield would not be allowed to hold graduation at the 3,000-seat megachurch.
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“Having considered all three analytical frameworks for determining whether the government action at issue has a principal effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion, the court concludes that it does not have such an effect, and therefore violates the Establishment Clause," Judge Hall wrote in her decision. "By holding public high school graduations in an identifiable church, under the circumstances and context of this situation that would be known to a reasonable observer, Enfield Public Schools endorses religion. By attempting to “neutralize” the First Cathedral by covering up many (albeit not all) of its religious images, Enfield Public Schools unconstitutionally entangles itself with religion. And finally, by requiring a graduating senior - or a parent of one - to enter First Cathedral in order to be able to participate in his or her graduation - or to watch their child graduate - Enfield Public Schools has coerced plaintiffs to support religion.“
held graduation at First Cathedral from 2007 to 2009, while conducted commencement exercises there in 2008 and 2009.
In 2010, following Judge Hall's ruling, the ceremonies were moved back to each school's grounds. The 2012 graduations were held, for the first time, on each school's artificial turf field.
Following the 2011 municipal elections, the new school board met to discuss a settlement offer from the ACLU, but decided to not even vote on the proposal, which would have permanently barred future graduations from the church.
A closed-door executive session meeting. which included a representative of the town's insurance company, was held Tuesday in the Enfield Room at Town Hall. Following executive session, the board returned to open session, and Vice Chairman Vinny Grady moved to accept terms of another settlement offer.
After the motion was seconded, considerable discussion ensued, which at times degenerated into angry bickering. Board members constantly interrupted others, and occasionally raised their voices in disgust.
Although the amount of the settlement proposal was not revealed, it was inferred during the open portion of the meeting that it is a substantial amount of money.
"At $300 an hour, this reflects 10 solid weeks at 24 hours a day," board member Kevin Fealy said. "I question calling it a settlement; I call it extortion. We are allowing ourselves to be bullied by people with big pockets. I will be on record as fighting this 100 percent."
Fealy repeatedly asked to postpone the vote to allow time for more information to be gathered, and for public involvement.
"Since November, every major decision has been behind closed doors," Fealy said. "I'm asking to postpone the vote long enough to get outside information."
Board member Chuck Johnson expressed concern that "we're doing this in a veil of darkness."
Following some heated exchanges, Chairman Tim Neville called for a 10-minute recess. That break wound up lasting more than 50 minutes, with private conversations taking place in the hallway and outside the building.
When the meeting resumed, Grady motioned to table his original motion until another special meeting. That will take place Wednesday, July 18 at 7:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers at Town Hall.
Neville said that meeting will be an open meeting, and will include audience participation on the agenda.