By Charles Redfern, first published on www.creedible.com, June 18, 2010
Come. Hear the echoes of human pit bulls. Drive north on I-91 in Connecticut toward Enfield, where its 44,895 residents have seen America’s secular bar mitzvah morph into a cause, a principle, a dogma, with a cast of characters including the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United For the Separation of Church and State, a state-wide family-values organization called the Family Institute of Connecticut, a federal judge, The American Center For Law and Justice – which Pat Robertson founded in 1990 as an ACLU counterweight – and a Board of Education with Gregory Stokes, a respected pastor, as its chairman. There’s been a lawsuit, a federal ruling, and an open feud between the FIC’s Executive Director Peter Wolfgang, and Rick Green, a newspaper columnist. Dedicated people – volunteers who serve their community for no pay – have been portrayed as wishy-washy, liars, conspirators, and extremists.
And oh, almost forgot: there are these kids; something about them and diplomas.
Take Exit 48 – the last before you cross the Massachusetts line – turn right on Elm Street and pass through Enfield’s business center with its Outback Steakhouse, a Denny’s, a mall, a plaza, and Asnuntuck Community College. Veer left, then slow down when the businesses fade into lawns and trees. Stop. Look to your left. There’s an elementary school and, attached on the right, the Enfield Public Schools Administration Building. The ever-earnest Wolfgang told its staffers their town is “ground zero in battles that really affect the whole nation:” heady stuff, especially since they were already struggling over finances that would eventually lead to a $62.7 million budget and the elimination of 65 jobs, 34 of which are teaching positions. Twenty six teachers are slated for layoffs; the remaining eight will retire. What’s more, a panel recently recommended the closing of one of its high schools. Such moves usually cut deep into community identity and always bring strife.
Now drive straight until you reach North Maple Street. Turn right. Pass the Elks Club. Stop and view Enrico Fermi High School on your left, which was opened in 1971 and named after the Italian physicist and Nobel Prize winner who participated in the Manhattan Project. The students – especially the seniors – heard those human pit-bull echoes as they’ve geared up for their day, that festive right of passage: graduation, when they whoop it up after their walk across the stage before joining the company of supposedly mature adults.
Then backtrack through Enfield, drive under I-91’s overpass, turn left on US Route 5. You’re in historic, old New England, complete with large colonial homes. This town was settled in 1679 and incorporated in 1683 as part of Massachusetts (surveyors later discovered a mistake and redraw the maps). Jonathan Edwards preached his monumental, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” here in 1741, which helped launch a mammoth revival commonly called “The Great Awakening.” Stop at Enfield High School, the one recommended for closure. Its students have also heard the echoes as human pit bulls growled over their day, that right of passage: graduation … whoop it up … mature adults.
Head south, past the Congregational Church (the successor to the older meeting house in which Edwards preached his sermon), then get back on I-91. Take Exit 36, drive west on Connecticut Route 178 until you reach the intersection of Park and Blue Hills Avenues. There it is, diagonally across, the immense First Cathedral – over which The Most Rev. Archbishop LeRoy Bailey, Jr., presides – perched like a 3,000-seat convention center beneath its own towering cross and surrounded by enough parking for … well, a convention: a graduation, even, maybe even the third consecutive graduation for Enfield High and the fourth for Enrico Fermi …
Except the judge, the District of Connecticut’s Honorable Janet C. Hall, has said no. They can’t have it there. Holding graduation ceremonies at that particular church at this particular time would entwine the church and state and violate the first amendment.
The pit bulls roar as the blogosphere lights up; the beleaguered Board of Education members despair; the smiles recede among the seniors because their day – their right of passage, their moment they’ve fondly relished – has been smothered beneath a quilt of principles and dogmas. One wonders: Was this sorry episode inevitable? What if the adults had yielded to all the lectures they gave those very graduating seniors through the years? What if everyone had memorized James 1:19 (“My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry …”)? Or James 1:26 (“If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless”)? Or, perhaps most important, Proverbs 18:17 (“The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him”)?
The saga begins in the winter of 2006, when Fermi High selected First Cathedral for its graduation ceremonies because the school’s athletic field – the usual scene of diplomas, weeping mothers, stoic dads, and bored siblings – would be under repair. All very innocent – except the move prompted a no-nonsense letter from America’s intrepid gadfly, the exasperating and courageous ACLU: “Dear Chairperson Racine (Sharon Racine, Board of Education’s head at the time): We are writing today to inform you that it is unconstitutional for Enrico Fermi High School to hold its graduation ceremony at the First Cathedral Baptist Church as planned.” It all adds up to a government entity favoring a religion, which is “repugnant to the Constitution.” The letter sites Supreme Court precedent, and explains: “these concerns are especially poignant in the context of elementary and secondary schools, where courts have ‘heightened concerns with protecting freedom of conscience from subtle coercive pressure’ (a quote from a circuit court opinion) since the influential minds of children and young adults are involved.”
To its credit, the ACLU offered alternative sites.
A pause: Unlike some evangelicals, I do not view the ACLU as Satan’s law firm – although I thoroughly disagree with some of its stances, especially Roe v. Wade – and accusations that it is inherently anti-religious are simply not true: Its lawyers filed a friend-of-the-court brief in January against a Puerto Rican law they claim “effectively ban(s) Jehovah Witnesses from freely expressing their faith in the streets in Puerto Rico.” It argued in behalf of an ordained New Jersey Pentecostal inmate last year whom prison officials had barred from preaching. They also pled the cause of Florida high schoolers who walked the halls in T-shirts that blared , “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one goes to the Father except through me” and, on the back (take a breath): “Islam is of the Devil.” And then there’s the first line of a press release, dated October 1, 2009 (this is so ACLU): “The ACLU of Virginia today asked the principal at Gate City High School to honor the free speech rights of students who plan to protest the ACLU at the school’s football game tomorrow night.” The organization had warned the school not to deliver a prayer over the public address system. Students responded by printing up a thousand T-shirts with the words, “I still pray …” on the front and “In Jesus’ name” on the back. The school was about to ban the shirts at a football game, but the ACLU argued in their behalf: the government had not mandated the T-shirts; therefore, they were lawful.
Admit it. Any gutsy organization that battles for your right to protest against itself requires admiration.
However, that remark about “the influential minds of children and young adults” was a real thigh slapper: a veritable hoot. I want to call up Sam Brooke, then the staff attorney and author of the 2006 ACLU letter, and tell him: Sam, this is secularized New England. Different statistics on church attendance abound, but all their conclusions invoke one word: “Grim.” We’re the “pastor’s graveyard,” the expanse a famous preacher allegedly designated as his favorite sight “in the rearview mirror” as he drove away to a flourishing church in southern California. One survey put only 14 percent of Connecticut’s residents in houses of worship on weekends – which means the vast majority of those impressionable young adults go slack-jawed at the word, “doxology.” Their brains have been washed and rinsed in Madison Avenue’s Hedonism as they’ve strolled the malls in quests for belly shirts. I remember a moment while standing in a Dunkin’ Donuts line, holding my then three-year-old son with his T-shirt bearing our church’s name. A twenty-something glanced at the shirt, then said: “That’s, like, a fanatical thing to put on your son.” I resisted my inner smart aleck: “That’s, like, a rude thing to say to someone you don’t even know …” Wow. We’re fanatics because we go to church.
… But I get it, Sam. Not your territory: the mall isn’t government property and Madison Avenue has the right to speak and the kids can assemble and yada-yada-yada – and I know you’ll defend my right to scream verbal flames over that one statement even as I admire your organization. So I hereby say a genuine “thanks” while stifling the urge to swat you like one of Maine’s black flies …
Only the ACLU makes you feel that way.
School Superintendent John Gallagher wrote a letter that later proved significant for Enfield and two other school districts using the church’s building: Would the Cathedral remove the religious banners for their graduations? A member of the graduation site committee said all religious items would be removed or covered, but they never were.
The ACLU filed no lawsuit when Fermi High held its graduations at the site in 2007, nor did it in 2008 and 2009. It filed a protest but no suit when Enfield High transferred to the Cathedral in 2008 due to its own field repairs, nor was there any court action last year.
The Fateful Letter
Then came the lawyer-to-lawyer memo to Enfield’s attorney, dated November 18, 2009, delivered via e-mail and snail mail, with the letterheads of the ACLU of Connecticut, the ACLU Program on Religion and Belief, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Hint with a neon sign: We’re serious. The attorneys had recently filed a Freedom of Information Act request (the neon flares: we’re really serious). And then words from the letter itself: “As you may have surmised from the nature of our recent FOIA request, we have been retained to file litigation on behalf of Enfield Schools students and parents to stop the Schools’ use of the Cathedral, for such use violates the US Constitution and the rights of religious minorities. But we hope that the information conveyed … will obviate the need for a lawsuit by convincing the Schools to voluntarily abandon the practice. We understand that four of the nine members of the Enfield Board of Education are newly elected and are taking office this month …” There were attachments of previous letters.
Everything about the letter screams: “We’re really, really serious.”
I feel a wave of compassion for the men and women on that Board of Education, volunteers all – especially for its chairman, Gregory Stokes, the pastor of Cornerstone Bible Church, which meets at a youth center in neighboring East Windsor. I met him once. His easy laugh and affable personality matches his self-effacing blogs – and it’s obvious many respect him: He’s a Republican in a Democratic town, yet he gathered a whole slew of votes in the last election and was chosen as the board’s chairman, which means he makes peace and reaches across the aisle. I long for a time warp so I can warn them: Be very careful. Lawsuits are always ugly – especially those involving religion and churches. Many judges dread them and try to pawn them off on mediators. News reporters and columnists will swarm, pretending they care. Don’t believe them. You are a means to a “sexy story.” Interest groups will use you in their eternal fight against the supposedly evil ACLU. And you’ll lose even if you win. Your names will be hauled through the mud: you’ll be right wing theocrats or left-wing secularists bent on societal destruction. Even worse, you will see your casual, ad-hoc comments in court documents, itemized as “evidence.” Lawyers gather facts to build a case, not to discover the underlying truth. In short, the pit bulls will eat you up.
A Little Lesson on the Constitution
Another warning: You are being thrust onto the vagaries of Constitutional Law, where nothing is as it seems. Take the first amendment’s so-called “establishment” clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” This seems easy. The Board is not making a law about establishing a religion; it is not prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The country’s founders, who saw themselves as Christians even if some were Deists, almost always saw religion as good. Indeed, it can be argued that America’s revolution was nurtured in religion: members governed New England’s Congregational Churches, not priests, and they hired and fired their pastors. They cultivated democracy’s milieu. The founders also viewed the anti-clerical French Revolution with horror.
So it’s an open and shut case …
Not even close. Questions pile in: What about snake handling? Or depriving a child of blood transfusions – which the framers could not have foreseen because their era’s doctors bled people to cure them (memo to our ancestors: Eat your apples; please keep that doctor away)? Or religious injunctions against saluting the flag? Or … or … or … Or how do we apply any clause in a document written for a fledgling country of 3,929,000 (1790 census) in which France owned contemporary Nebraska and Spain occupied the land of Tinsel Town? Just to exaggerate so everyone gets it: The establishment clause was initially written to stop Christian farmers from burning each other at the stake. The Constitution’s framers could not anticipate today’s urban, pluralistic society – although Hamilton came close. Judge Hall is under a mandate to stick to higher court precedents and guidelines. There’s the three-pronged “Lemon Test,” which stems from a 1971 Supreme Court ruling that said legislation should have a secular purpose, should neither advance nor inhibit religion, and should not lead to “excessive government entanglement” with religion. There’s also the “reasonable person” test: Could a reasonable person infer that a government entity is favoring one religion over another – whether the government meant to or not?
That’s why a text written by Lee Epstein and Thomas Walker, Constitutional Law for a Changing America: A Short Course, is 767 pages long – with double columns.
Behold the fear of the original framers (who, incidentally, doubted the Constitution’s viability): Any “bill of rights” is a Pandora’s Box. Hamilton, whom Theodore Roosevelt dubbed as “the most brilliant American Statesman who ever lived, possessing the loftiest and keenest intellect of his time,” persuaded participants at Philadelphia’s Constitutional Convention to leave them out: one “right” would demand a qualifying “right” and soon there would be a hundred. But the states demanded them, so they were eventually inserted.
The Board Votes – And Votes Again
The Board initially voted 6-3 on January 26 to “bring the kids home” (Stokes’ words), thus joining four other schools in opting out of a First Cathedral graduation (the schools: Windsor High, South Windsor High, East Hartford High, and the Metropolitan Learning Center). But then came the objections: On February 23, Enfield High’s senior class president, Rachel Zeni, presented a petition with 425 signatures requesting off-campus graduation ceremonies.
Read the meeting’s parched minutes. The tension leaks. One 47-year resident could not attend her eldest grandson’s graduation due to rain; her third grandson’s First Cathedral graduation as “wonderful.” The board should “fight for this.” Another: “take on the ACLU. The reality is the ACLU does not have a case.” Another: Relatives are traveling from Jamaica. Another “stated she pays taxes from every paycheck she earns;” another: “stated we will be voting in the next election and your decisions will influence our voting decisions;” another: “this is the children’s graduations and we should support their decisions” (which is intriguing; Enfield High seniors favored graduation ceremonies on the school’s front lawn in 2008, 103-33, yet they were still held at the Cathedral); another: “the constitution does not mention the separation of church and state.”
Sprinkled throughout are references to budget shortfalls and accusations that the newly-elected board wasn’t doing its job.
Board members responded by rescinding their vote to bring the graduations home, 5-3. They didn’t know it, but well-meaning pit bulls were at the door, ready to haul the board into a fight that would draw national attention.
Stay tuned for Part 2