Amid legal fuss, church to host graduates

But a judge scolds Brevard public schools for choosing a site where a cross on display has led to a lawsuit.

Associated Press
Published May 19, 2005

ORLANDO - A federal judge on Wednesday gave four Brevard County public high schools the go-ahead to hold graduation ceremonies at a church displaying a Christian cross, but he criticized the school district for choosing a religious facility.

U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell refused to stop the ceremonies at Calvary Chapel of Melbourne because the plaintiffs - a student, her Buddhist father and another parent who is an atheist - filed their case too late. Bayside High's graduation is today; commencements for Eau Gallie, Melbourne and Palm Bay high schools are set for the next two days.

"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," Presnell said from the bench after a brief hearing Wednesday afternoon.

School officials had argued that there is nothing out of line with the venue.

"This is a graduation ceremony; it's not a religious ceremony," said Sara Stern, spokeswoman for Brevard Public Schools. "We're handling it as a purely secular purpose. Therefore, because there are no religious icons other than the cross in the back, we feel that the facility is not unconstitutional."

Presnell's decision did nothing to halt the lawsuit.

"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," said Mark Tietig, the attorney who filed the suit.

In 2004, three schools held their ceremonies in the church's sanctuary, which features seating for almost 3,700, air conditioning and video screens. Melbourne High decided to join the others after rain disrupted last year's commencement.

According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which brought the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs, school officials refused to consider alternatives despite receiving complaints. The only concession was to agree to turn off a light illuminating the 16-foot cross behind the sanctuary's dais.

"This kind of symbolic joining of government and religion makes some families feel like they're second-class citizens," Americans United executive director Barry Lynn said.

Those suing are Jennifer Musgrove, a senior graduating from Palm Bay High; her father, David Musgrove; and Dianna Narciso, whose son is a ninth-grader at Palm Bay. Narciso founded the Space Coast Freethought Association, and wrote a book, Like Rolling Uphill: Realizing the Honesty of Atheism.

Stern said possible alternate sites - the arena at nearby Florida Institute of Technology, or bleachers on the schools' athletic fields - are less able to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Florida Tech spokeswoman Karen Rhine said the campus' Clemente Center seats 3,200, and would cost $2,000 per school. Calvary Chapel is charging half that, according to church spokeswoman Melody Glover.

Glover said the church also is giving the schools a DVD copy of their ceremonies, for later duplication and distribution.

"We just want to help the graduates and make it a memorable ceremony for them," Glover said. "So, I feel sad that this has happened, if it comes down to it they can't hold it here.

"On the other hand, the request on covering the cross ... it's the only thing that's in there, but we're not going to. It's part of who we are."