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Judge allows graduation in church but...

Earlier this year Jennifer Musgrove, at the time a senior at Palm Bay High, took on the Brevard County, Florida, school board over the decision that her school made despite objections to hold graduation in a church. In her federal lawsuit she was represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) and joined by her Buddhist father David Musgrove and atheist Dianna Narciso, parent of a ninth grader at the same school.

On May 18 AU asked Federal District Judge Gregory A. Presnell to stop a total of four Brevard County high school graduation ceremonies from taking place at a church. AU charged that holding the graduations at Cavalry Chapel, a large West Melbourne church, would be unconstitutional because alternative secular facilities were available and the church refused to conceal religious symbols that were inside the building.

While Judge Presnell denied AU's request and permitted the ceremonies to commence, he did so only because, at that juncture, there was insufficient time to change the location of the graduations, which were scheduled for May 19, 20, and 21. Judge Presnell also indicated that a secular facility should have been chosen.

Determined to ensure that Brevard county keep future public school graduations out of church, Musgrove and her lawyer, Mark Tietig, are currently pursuing a permanent injunction against future church-hosted graduations. Ultimately, Tietig said, "I think that we will obtain the permanent injunction and other relief sought, either through court order or through formal agreement with the defendants."

In a recent interview, Larry E. Hughes, chairman of the Brevard School Board, said he feels the court sent an unmistakable message about the graduation issue. "The judge was very clear in his findings. The only reason he did not place an injunction was due to the time factor--it was simply too late to arrange a viable alternative."

Despite the clarity of the judge's ruling, however, Hughes said it remains to be seen whether his colleagues will put their feet to the fire and make the correct decision. "There will be enormous political pressure to fight this;' he said, "regardless of cost or inevitable outcome. I believe that, privately, each board member knows that holding a ceremony in a church complete with religious symbols is not right. It remains to be seen if they will have the courage to stand up and say so."

The case in question stems from David Musgrove's initial objections to his daughter's graduation being held at a church. Musgrove contacted AU in April after Palm Bay High denied his requests in March to have the ceremony moved to an alternate secular location--or to at least cover up the religious icon-ography within the church.

On May 2 AU issued a letter calling on Brevard County School Superintendent Richard A. DiPatri to relocate Palm Bay Highs graduation from Calvary Chapel to a secular venue. In the letter, AU stated that "holding graduation ceremonies in such a venue constitutes a strong message of unconstitutional endorsement of religion by requiring students and their families to choose between missing graduation ... [or] being subjected to unwanted expressions of religion."

In a response, issued ten days later, DiPatri denied the group's request on the grounds that Calvary Chapel was the only nearby facility capable of accommodating Palm Bay Highs expected 3,500 guests. In the statement, DiPatri wrote, "The school's use of this facility is for the purely secular purpose of accommodating a very large graduation ceremony in an available, indoor facility located in the school's community."

Previously Palm Bay High had held graduation at the school's own football field, which several other Brevard County schools have done this year, and at the Clemente Center, belonging to the local Florida Institute of Technology. Contradicting claims that the church is the only facility capable of handling Palm Bay Highs ceremony, the Clemente Center's website states "approximately 3,400 people attended graduation in May of 2002." Additionally, Clemente Center Director Mark Ritter said the center is among the largest venues in South Brevard. He also said 3,200 people attended FIT's most recent graduation ceremony.

Those involved in the case also questioned how the event would remain purely secular when the church consistently refused to remove or even cover the fifteen- to twenty-foot cross standing center stage. Before the ruling, the church's communications manager, Melody Glover, told Florida Today that Calvary Chapel wouldn't cover the cross. "It's part of who we are. We're just offering our facility, but we're not going to hide what our facility is."

AU argued that legal case history made it clear that a religious venue couldn't be used unless "all religious symbols are covered or removed."

In principle, Judge Presnell agreed with AU's concern about the constitutionality of holding the graduations at a church. The Orlando Sentinel reported the judge as having labeled such practices "questionable at best." Additionally, Presnell's decision doesn't impede Musgrove v. School Board of Brevard County from continuing. In fact, his comments seem to spell out a potential victory for the plaintiffs. The Associated Press reported that the judge said, "I don't necessarily approve of the school board's decision because it seems clear to me that a secular facility without these religious icons should have been chosen."

After the judge's ruling, Tietig, who filed the suit, was quoted as saying: "The writing's on the wall, to use a religious analogy, that the school board cannot pull this kind of stunt for commencement exercises in the future."

Echoing his optimism, David Musgrove said he believes he and his daughter have won in the larger sense. "I couldn't be happier," he said. "I think it's a major victory. I think it's a victory because the judge found our case had merit on every constitutional issue we brought in. The only thing that was against us was the timing."

Musgrove also believes the judge's criticism of the Brevard County School Board will resonate through out Florida. "I think it sends a message to the state of Florida that there's a judge on the federal court that interprets the First Amendment in a way that we believe it should be interpreted; and will make other venues, other school districts think twice before they do this."

Despite the tumult which has grown out of the case, Jennifer Musgrove, who, on the day the case was filed, had to be escorted to her classes out of concern for her safety, said she had to take a stand. "I don't want (Christianity) interfering in my life," said Musgrove, now eighteen, "especially when it's violating separation of church and state. It's supposed to protect us and it's not working."

After her turbulent battle with the school, Musgrove, already a recipient of the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship, was presented with the Space Coast Freethought Association's Defender of the First Amendment award. This Brevard County group also raised six hundred dollars in scholarship money to aid Musgrove as she continues her college education--and hopefully her commitment to the separation of church and state. She is expected to begin college this fall.

Jeff Nall is a community activist and freelance writer. He has contributed to publications such as the Humanist, Toward Freedom, Humanist Network News, Freethought Today, Clamor, and Impact Press. This column is an updated version of one appearing online in Humanist Network News. He lives with his wife and daughter in Brevard County, Florida.
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Title Annotation:CHURCH & STATE
Author:Nall, Jeff
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Sep 1, 2005
Words:1229
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