- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the Newark public school district, saying a school’s decision to hold its graduation ceremonies in a Baptist church violated a Muslim student’s religious freedom.

The New Jersey ACLU said Wednesday that it was suing the school district because its decision to hold graduation in the church prevented West Side High School senior Bilal Shareef, a Muslim, from attending. Mr. Shareef’s religious beliefs forbid him from entering a building with religious images, the civil liberties group said.

The incident violated provisions in the state constitution prohibiting public institutions from showing a preference for certain religious sects over others; compelling people to attend a place of worship; and segregating or discriminating against public school students because of their religious principles, the ACLU-NJ asserts.

“Schools should not sponsor activities that exclude some students from participation on the basis of religious belief,” said ACLU-NJ’s legal director, Ed Barocas, who is representing Mr. Shareef and his father.

The lawsuit in state Superior Court in Essex County seeks to forbid further public school ceremonies in places of worship and an unspecified award of damages to the Shareefs.

District lawyer Perry Lattiboudere said yesterday that the district thinks 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.

It joins a long line of legal cases in the United States in recent decades that challenged practices in which public schools have become intertwined with religion. Traditional practices such as prayer at graduation ceremonies and extracurricular activities have been questioned.

The ACLU-NJ said it first complained about a West Side High School graduation at New Hope Baptist Church in 2005, but agreed not to sue when the district’s legal director made assurances that the school district would avoid holding a graduation at a religious location again.

But in 2006, graduation again was held at New Hope. The principal at the time told graduating students that they would get two additional tickets for family and friends to go to the graduation, provided they also attended a separate religious baccalaureate ceremony for the class at a Roman Catholic church, the civil liberties group said.

Mr. 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,” he said.

With about 43,000 students, the urban district is the state’s largest.

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