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Posts Tagged ‘Neptune graduation’

By Charles Layton

One of the most disturbing things about the recent fuss over swan boats on Fletcher Lake was the way information about that proposal was withheld from our citizens.

One example: Sometime this spring the promoters gave a presentation to the Fletcher Lake Commission — a public body — but the fact that they did so was never made public in any way. People in Ocean Grove who care passionately about that lake, and who normally ask to be notified about the Commission’s meetings, were not notified about that particular meeting. This, they say, was suspiciously unusual. Even now I cannot find anything on the Neptune Township website about that meeting. If you click on “Agendas & Minutes” and then click on “Fletcher Lake Commission,” you get a blank page. The Bradley Beach website is equally unhelpful. We only learned what was afoot with Fletcher Lake because some Ocean Grovers got wind of it, purely by accident, and spent an inordinate amount of effort digging out the facts.

Why the official silence?

Another issue of huge concern to our town was the recent settlement between the Neptune Board of Education and the ACLU. But have you seen anything on the school district’s website explaining the terms of that settlement? I can’t find it there. Have you heard school board officials describe the terms in any detail? Blogfinger published those terms in full because no one else was doing so, questions were flying and erroneous accounts were starting to spread. But the details we published didn’t come to us from school officials; we had to get them via the ACLU.

Again, why so much official reticence?

Here’s something else Ocean Grovers urgently care about: the North End Redevelopment Plan. But there’s a general lack of understanding among our citizens as to what that plan contains. The plan’s full text is available on the Neptune Township website, but just try to find it. Here’s what you have to do: Type “redevelopment” into the search field. (Typing “north end” gets you nowhere.) Scroll down to “Economic Development” and click the phrase “Read More.” Then scroll way, way, way way down until you get to “Redevelopment Plan-OG North End.” It took me two days to figure this out; it was like searching for The Lost Chord.

On Saturday the Home Owners Association passed a resolution about the North End, and that resolution includes a request that the Township use its website to keep citizens informed and updated. Good idea, and we hope the HOA continues to press the point.

Here’s another transparency issue: demolition by neglect. We try to keep people up to date on the court proceedings against the owners of problem properties in Ocean Grove. But wouldn’t it be better if the Municipal Court kept its schedules of trials and hearings online so every citizen could keep up — not just about code enforcement cases but all cases? This is the 21st century, the information is already in the court’s computers, and it is a basic public record.

Sometimes information that rightfully belongs to the public is kept from us because someone in authority wants it so. And sometimes it’s kept from us because no one cares enough to make the effort to share it. But whether the motives are active or passive, the result is the same: people are left in the dark about the workings of their government.

We used to rely on the media to keep us informed, but our local news media are weaker and more overextended than ever before. Given the economics of the news business, this won’t change. So if people in Ocean Grove want sound information, they’ll have to start demanding it.

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THURSDAY, May 26 — The Neptune school district’s attorney today sent the ACLU of New Jersey a certified copy of the school board resolution agreeing to the terms of the settlement between the two parties.

This is the final step in resolving the dispute.

The full text of the resolution, approved by the school board on Wednesday, is as follows:

WHEREAS, the Neptune Township Board of Education has, for more than 70 years, conducted its High School graduation ceremony at the Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove; and

WHEREAS, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has raised various concerns both to the content of the graduation program and the use of the Great Auditorium as the graduation venue; and

WHEREAS, the Board and the ACLU have agreed to various changes to the High School graduation ceremony designed to address the ACLU’s concerns while preserving the Great Auditorium High School graduation tradition; and

WHEREAS, the Board seeks to memorialize its agreement with the ACLU in a formal Board Resolution.

NOW, THEREFORE, the Board of Education of the Township of Neptune, in the County of Monmouth, resolves as follows:

1. At the 2011 graduation ceremony and in the future, the religious sign on the choir entrance door will be covered;

2. At the 2011 graduation ceremony and in the future, the Board of Education will cover the two large electronic signs within the Great Auditorium so that they are not visible during the course of the graduation ceremony;

3. At the 2011 graduation ceremony and in the future, the Board of Education will not illuminate the cross on the front of the Great Auditorium while attendees and graduates are entering, participating in and leaving the graduation ceremony; and the entrance where the cross is displayed will not be the primary entrance and;

4. At the 2011 graduation ceremony and in the future, the Board of Education will not incorporate any hymn, prayers or other religious content into the graduation ceremony;

5. At the 2011 graduation ceremony and in the future, pupils and guests will enter the Great Auditorium through the doors located at the south, west and north sides of the building and no pupils or guests will be required to enter the Auditorium from the east side of the building where the cross is located.

So moved.

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NOTE: For background on the dispute between the school board and the ACLU, go here.

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Prior NHS graduation in the GA. neptunematters.com

By Charles Layton

Neptune school board president John Daniels announced Wednesday night that the board and the American Civil Liberties Union have reached agreement.

This means the district’s senior class will graduate in the Ocean Grove Great Auditorium on June 17, as previous classes have done for at least the past seven decades.

Daniels made the announcement at the start of a Board of Education meeting at Summerfield School. The ACLU, he said, “has accepted the compromise that we have made… This case is closed, ladies and gentlemen. We won’t be talking about this any more.”

Graduation plans had been thrown into turmoil in recent weeks over the ACLU’s threat to bring suit over the inclusion of religious rites and symbols in past graduation ceremonies and over the use of the Great Auditorium — a house of worship — by a public school. The ACLU was acting in behalf of a grandmother of some students.

The deal that was reached on Wednesday gave the ACLU and its client nearly everything they had been seeking. According to ACLU attorney Jeffrey Pollock, he and his co-counsel, Seval Yildirim, received a compromise proposal recently that contained the following provisions:

  • The board would agree that this and future graduation ceremonies would be free of religious content, i.e., prayers and Christian hymns.
  • The Great Auditorium could be used for graduations if the two large religious signs on either side of the stage were covered during the ceremony, the large cross outside the building remained unlit, and the choir door to the left of the main entrance near the gazebo was also covered.

The ACLU had earlier asked that the cross on the front of the building be covered, but the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which owns the building, refused to do that. Having the cross unlit instead of covered turned out to solve that problem.

Pollock said that he and Yildirim took the board’s offer to their client on Tuesday, the client agreed to the terms, and on Wednesday they notified the board’s attorney.

Pollock said in an interview that if the board accepted those terms, “I think this matter may be quickly and easily resolved.”

Daniels said, in addressing the audience at Wednesday night’s meeting, that the board had not “folded” during negotiations. But, he said, “times have changed,” apparently referring to court rulings involving the separation of religion and government. He spoke very briefly and did not mention the terms of the agreement.

Pollock said, quoting an old saying about negotiations, “To me the sign of a good offer is that both parties are unhappy.”

One of the last sticking points, apparently, was the ACLU’s demand that the two electronic signs on either side of the stage be covered. Some said there were concerns that this could not be done without risking damage to those signs. These are the signs that say, on one side, “Holiness to the Lord” and on the other side “So be ye holy.”

In recent days the dispute had begun attracting national attention. Fox News had featured interviews and reports about the issue, and two legal groups associated with fundamentalist Christian organizations had offered to defend the school district free of charge if the ACLU followed through with its threat to bring suit.

The grandmother first raised the church-and-state issue last summer at a school board meeting. Shortly thereafter, the ACLU began negotiating in her behalf. Although the school board rather quickly agreed to eliminate religious references from the graduation ceremony, the question of religious signs in and about the Great Auditorium remained a sticking point until the very end.

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By Charles Layton

The Neptune Township Committee approved a resolution Monday night supporting continued use of Ocean Grove’s Great Auditorium for high school graduation. Mayor Kevin McMillan said he “didn’t feel the students should be deprived of it. They’ve worked hard.”

The American Civil Liberties Union is threatening to sue over the use of a place of worship for a public school graduation. The Neptune Board of Education has agreed to eliminate all religious content from the program, including an invocation and the playing of religious music, but the two sides are at an impasse over the presence of certain Christian symbols in and about the building, including the large white cross in front. The Camp Meeting Association, which owns the building, has refused the ACLU’s request that those symbols be covered over during the ceremony.

Committeeman Randy Bishop said, “The students themselves are quite upset about not being able to graduate there.”

As of now, it remains unclear whether the ACLU will follow through with its threat to try to block the use of the Auditorium in court. In effect, the two sides appear frozen in a game of chicken. Graduation is scheduled for June 17.

Bishop said there is no other venue available that is anywhere near as good as the Auditorium. It has been the site of Neptune graduation ceremonies for at least seven decades.

Committeeman Eric Houghtaling said he had attended several non-religious events in the Auditorium, including his own high school graduation, and had never paid much attention to the religious signs in the building. “At my graduation all I remember is the American flag” that lights up behind the stage.

For a more detailed account of the dispute, go here.

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Fox News meets Ocean Grove. Photo by Charles Layton

By Charles Layton and Paul Goldfinger

The dispute over Neptune High School’s use of the Great Auditorium for graduation ceremonies drew national attention on Wednesday, when the Fox News program “Fox and Friends” featured interviews about the issue. Fox also posted a story and a video report on its website.

The television segment was based on interviews with Neptune School Superintendent David Mooij and Rev. Scott Hoffman of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association.

Also on Wednesday, a born-again Christian legal advocacy group announced that it had offered to represent Neptune High School in court, free of charge, in the event of a law suit.

The school district has been in negotiations with the American Civil Liberties Union — and under threat of legal action — over its use of the Ocean Grove Great Auditorium for high school graduation ceremonies. The ACLU is asking that certain religious signs, including the large white cross outside the building, be covered during this year’s graduation and that the practice of having a Christian invocation and Christian hymns as part of the program be discontinued. (Read our original story by clicking here.)

The legal advocacy group, Liberty Counsel, sent a letter to Mooij and the school board, dated May 17, saying it agrees with them that the school district “does not violate any student’s constitutional rights by simply using a church building to host graduation ceremonies.” The letter said that, “assuming we reach an agreement on strategy,” Liberty Counsel would be happy to represent the district and “cover all the legal costs.”

The organization describes itself as “a national public interest law firm specializing in constitutional law, particularly free speech, religious freedom, and church-state matters.” It has offices in Florida, Virginia, Texas and Washington, D.C. It’s press release and letter to Mooij can be found on its website: click here.

Mooij told Fox News that, as a result of negotiations with the ACLU, the district has already agreed to discontinue the practice of including an invocation and religious music in this year’s graduation ceremonies. However, the covering up of religious signs in and about the building has become the sticking point. Hoffman told Fox that the Camp Meeting would not agree to removing those signs. “The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association is a Christian ministry,” Hoffman said, “and we can’t change who we are.”

Both Hoffman and Mooij were interviewed on Tuesday by Lauren Green, a Fox religion correspondent. Hoffman told Blogfinger that his interview with Green was brief, because he sees the CMA as “peripheral” in the dispute. He did say he was “supportive of the school board.”

Graduation is scheduled for June 17. The ACLU is representing the grandmother of one of last year’s graduating seniors. The woman also has relatives scheduled to graduate from Neptune next year.

Fox and Friends Report May 18 2011

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The Great Auditorium interior during the Choir Festival. Photos by Paul Goldfinger

— UPDATED STORY: Includes interview with ACLU attorneys —

By Charles Layton

The American Civil Liberties Union is threatening legal action unless the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association removes religious symbols from the Great Auditorium prior to Neptune High School’s graduation ceremonies there.

The dispute is over the constitutional issue of separation of church and state.

Graduation is scheduled for June 17.

The Neptune Board of Education has been negotiating with ACLU attorneys and their client for some time and has made several concessions in hopes of avoiding legal action. According to Superintendent David Mooij, the board has agreed to remove all religious content from the graduation program. However, Mooij said, the two sides remain stuck over the ACLU’s claim that “religious objects” should also be covered from view. The objects at issue are the large white cross on the front of the building, the two lighted religious signs inside on either side of the stage (shown in photo above) and a religious symbol at one of the doorways.

Mooij said the Camp Meeting Association, which owns the auditorium, has offered to make some concessions but says it “can’t take down or cover those signs, and I agree with them.”

The two ALCU attorneys said they thought it would be a simple and inexpensive matter for the Camp Meeting to cover up the four signs for the night of the graduation only. “We don’t think that’s too much to ask,” said Jeffrey Pollock, a Princeton attorney who is handling the case along with his wife, Seval Yildirim, a law professor at Whittier Law School in California.

Neptune High School has been holding graduation ceremonies in the Great Auditorium for six or seven decades. Shortly after last year’s graduation the grandmother of a graduate sent a letter to the school board objecting to the ceremony’s religious content and to its location in a place of worship. She also voiced her complaint at the board’s September work session.

The board took the complaint seriously and, following lengthy discussions, decided to do away with all religious content in the graduation program, including the traditional student invocation and the playing of “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

“We thought things would be OK going forward,” Mooij said. “Some time elapsed before we heard back from this individual by way of the ACLU. The ACLU acknowledged our programmatic changes but said there were still problems with the venue.”

Pollock and Yildirim told me that if the school board and the Camp Meeting do not agree to cover up the religious symbols, they would probably recommend to their client that she file suit, either in state or federal court. The New Jersey courts might be the more likely choice. “The New Jersey constitution has more specific limitations upon the actions of a public entity like a public school,” Pollock said. However, he said, both the state and federal constitutions have a strong preference “that a public school find a place that is nonreligious, so that if you’re not of that religion you don’t feel excluded.”

Mooij said holding the graduation in the auditorium was important to the school because it “has historic significance and status” and also because of the large number of people it can accommodate. “We print 3,000 tickets every year,” he said, “so families can bring not only moms and dads and siblings but grandparents and aunts and uncles. To get 3,000 seats anywhere else, this community would have to travel a considerable distance.”

He said it was unclear how long the school has been holding its graduations there, but “our high school secretary’s father is 91, and he graduated there. And he said his was not the first class to do so.”

The grandmother who initiated the challenge has no relatives graduating from Neptune High this year, her two attorneys said, but she does have relatives scheduled to graduate next year.

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For more stories on this issue, go here and here.

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