School District Cites First Amendment To Bar Schools From Holding Graduation In Churches

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Kate Anderson Contributor
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A Florida school district informed schools last week that they were not allowed to host graduation ceremonies in churches, claiming it would appear like the district is “endorsing” religion, according to an email obtained by Liberty Counsel.

Principals were sent an email on May 12 from Brian K. McDuffie, executive director of Policy & Compliance for Duval County School District, requiring them to cancel any plans they had made to hold graduation ceremonies at religious institutions because of “religious entanglement and constitutional issues.” Several schools already made plans for graduations at churches in the area, they then contacted Liberty Counsel, a Christian organization that “advocates, supports, advances, and defends” religious groups, who then sent a demand letter to the district arguing that the situation violated the First Amendment by creating a “hostile” attitude toward religion. (RELATED: California Officials To Pay Churches $1.4 Million Over Abortion Health Care Mandate)

“It is neither endorsive nor coercive for a school to hold an event in a church for reasons unrelated to the religious mission of the church (e.g., cost, space, comfort, availability, tradition, etc.),” Liberty Counsel wrote in the letter. “Moreover, the sudden banning of long-running and annually recurring DCPS events solely because they are located on church properties—and the resulting jeopardy for valuable, long-standing community partnerships— is hostile to religion in the eyes of community members for whom these events have become familiar and important traditions for nonreligious reasons.”

McDuffie argued in his email that the “law in the area of public school use of religious facilities is not well developed,” citing the decision in Elmbrook School District v. Doe where a district court determined that holding a graduation in a religious space would indicate an endorsement. Liberty Counsel responded in the letter that while the district court had reached this conclusion and the Supreme Court opted not to take up the case, Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas had argued that the decision should be overturned by the lower courts because it was based on the “infamous Lemon test—which the Supreme Court had since abandoned.”

Liberty Counsel further explained in the letter that in the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the Supreme Court appeared to agree with Scalia and Thomas’ opinion of the Lemon test. In light of this, the letter stated that the district’s policy to bar graduations in religious buildings did not fit with recent Supreme Court precedent and should be removed.

Liberty Counsel noted that as a result of the district’s decision, Chets Creek Elementary School, Hendricks Avenue Elementary School and Holiday Hill Elementary School were all forced to cancel their graduation ceremonies at the last minute to prevent breaking district policy, according to a press release.

McDuffie and Liberty Counsel did not immediately respond to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment.

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