TRENTON, N.J. A lawsuit on behalf of a Muslim honor student whose religious beliefs kept him from attending his high school graduation because school officials held the ceremony in a Baptist church has been settled.
Newark public schools apologized to the former student, Bilal Shareef, and his father and agreed not to hold future events inside houses of worship, under terms of the settlement announced yesterday. If the district holds events in auditoriums or social halls owned by religious groups, religious images will be covered, the agreement specifies.
"The district has affirmed in the agreement that it will not conduct any school function or event in a place used principally as a place of worship or other facility owned by a religious facility unless the location is secular in appearance and any religious symbols are removed or covered," schools Superintendent Dr. Marion Bolden said in a statement.
Bolden said the location of prior ceremonies was "not in any way intended" to make students or parents uncomfortable.
"We're very pleased," said Ed Barocas, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who represented Shareef. "These are important policy changes to ensure that no student is made to feel like an outsider as Bilal was."
Shareef, now a college student, skipped his 2006 graduation from West Side High School because his religious beliefs prohibit him from entering buildings containing icons of God.
"I was forced to choose between honoring my education and my faith, and no one should be put in that position," Shareef said in a statement. "I'm proud I stood up for my beliefs and I'm proud that my experience will keep other students from having to face the choices I did."
School officials defended their decision to schedule graduation at New Hope Baptist Church, saying it was based on the need to accommodate 250 graduating seniors.
Barocas said an ACLU volunteer found otherwise.
"We had a volunteer call various locations around Newark, and within a day we found four or five places that are able to house the number of people they wished to house and that are not cost prohibitive," he said.
Barocas said the district also agreed to suspend its practice of awarding two extra tickets for graduation to students who agreed to attend an earlier baccalaureate ceremony at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic Church.
Barocas said the ACLU wrote a letter to the district in 2005, demanding the church-graduation practice cease after the parent of another student complained. The Shareefs complained after graduation was again held at the church the following year, and the ACLU filed suit on their behalf.
With about 43,000 students, the urban district is the state's largest. It's also among 31 districts in the state's neediest areas that get special state aid.