TRENTON, N.J. The state American Civil Liberties Union chapter is suing the Newark public school district on behalf of a Muslim teen over a school's decision to hold its graduation ceremonies in a Baptist church.
The New Jersey ACLU said on March 7 that it was suing the district because the decision to hold graduation in the church prevented West Side High School senior Bilal Shareef from attending. Shareef's religious beliefs forbid him from entering a building with religious images, the civil liberties group said.
The 2006 ceremony violated several provisions in the state constitution prohibiting public institutions from showing a religious preference, the ACLU asserts.
The plaintiffs seek unspecified damages and a ban on further public school ceremonies in places of worship.
District lawyer Perry Lattiboudere said on March 8 that the district believes state law allows the use of religious facilities out of necessity. He added that the district makes efforts to cover up religious symbols in churches when it uses them for graduations.
The lawsuit in state Superior Court joins a long line of legal cases in the U.S. in recent decades that have challenged practices in which public schools have become intertwined with religion.
The ACLU said the district promised after the 2005 ceremony to avoid holding a graduation at a religious location again.
But in 2006, graduation was again held at New Hope. And the principal at the time told seniors they would get two additional graduation tickets for family and friends if they attended a separate Roman Catholic baccalaureate Mass, according to the ACLU.
Lattiboudere said there were no secular spaces available to handle the school's roughly 250 graduating seniors and guests.
"There was clearly a need to use the facility in '05 and 2006. And we've made an effort to use nonreligious facilities," Lattiboudere said.
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 financial aid.