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Neptune High School graduation. Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove, NJ. Photo by Jean Bredin, Blogfinger staff. ©

Neptune High School graduation. Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove, NJ. Photo by Jean Bredin, Blogfinger staff. ©

Monday night.  June 20, 2016.  the first day of summer.

Text and all photos below by Paul Goldfinger, Editor @Blogfinger

I got to the Great Auditorium as the names of the Class of 2016, Neptune High School, were being read.  There was a joyful noise as cheers erupted, one after the other, like a happy chain reaction. Then they all stood for the Star Spangled Banner, and then  over 300 Scarlet Fliers were clutching their diplomas as they flowed out into the twilight.   I stood there,  enveloped by the moving throng.  There were hugs, kisses, laughter and yes joy all around me.  It was hard to focus the camera.

The crowd was in motion as the grads greeted their families, friends and colleagues.  No doubt there will be parties, as there should be, because this is such a momentous accomplishment for these teen-aged students.   At this moment, only the here and now seemed important.

I was shooting very quickly, recording motion all around, trying to capture moments of truth.   There was little chance for composition.

When the images later popped up on the computer screen, I was surprised to see the faces.  Besides excitement and happiness, so many seemed serious. What was in their minds?  Was it fear of the future or were they merely overwhelmed by the moment?  They can’t control the expressions on their faces, but they will have many chances later to reflect on the meaning of what just occurred.

So congratulations to all the grads of Neptune High School  ’16.  This is an achievement to be proud of.

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SHIRLEY McLAINE:

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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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Crowd reacts to pro-Great Auditorium comment

Text by Charles Layton, Photos by Paul Goldfinger

Neptune school officials met with more than 200 parents, students and residents Wednesday night to discuss the ACLU’s threat to file suit over use of the Great Auditorium for this year’s high school graduation.

School Board President John Daniels opened the meeting. Standing at a podium on the floor of the high school’s auxiliary gymnasium, Daniels told the crowd that the board “is one hundred percent behind the cause of this event … to continue at the Great Auditorium.”

Superintendent David Mooij then explained the issue and took questions from the audience. But the meeting ended as a kind of pep rally, with people expressing mutual support along with anger and sadness over the possibility that a court might not permit the class of 2011 to graduate in the Great Auditorium, as previous classes have done for at least seven decades.

Neptune Township School Superintendant David Mooij

In addition to the anger and sadness, however, was the obvious sense of the pride the people of Neptune take in Ocean Grove as a place for their seniors to celebrate graduation. One woman said her daughter would be the fifth generation of her family to graduate in the Great Auditorium. Another spoke of the emotion she felt when the American flag lights up behind the auditorium stage. Mooij spoke of the auditorium’s unique historical significance.

Chante Reeves NHS '11

Chante Reeves, a member of the class of 2011, told the crowd, “We’d rather be in the Great Auditorium than any other venue.”

Not a single person rose to defend the ACLU and its client, who are challenging the use of a place of worship for a public school event. (For background on the ACLU’s objections and the school’s response, go here.  For a timeline of events, go here.)

Mooij emphasized that no suit has yet been filed. The ACLU and the school board are still negotiating, and the board continues to plan for graduation in the auditorium, he said.

In answer to audience questions, he said the ACLU still had time, before graduation, to file for an injunction to block the use of the auditorium. Should an injunction be granted, he said, “We do not have a backup plan yet,” but he promised that the seniors would have a good place to graduate no matter what. He ruled out holding the graduation outdoors because of the possibility of bad weather. Asked where the school board would get the money to fight a law suit, if it came to that, Mooij said no such money was allocated in the budget but that the board “will do what they have to do in case of a legal challenge.”

He said the administration has considered a few other venues, including the Paramount Theater in Asbury Park. But no other place will have nearly as much seating capacity as the Great Auditorium. Using the auditorium allows the school to distribute from six to eight tickets for each of the 320 graduating seniors, versus three to four tickets per senior at any alternative site, he said. He also made clear that the board would not give up the auditorium unless forced to do so by court order.

He announced that the date of the graduation, originally scheduled for June 20, has been moved up to June 17, which is a Friday. (This had nothing to do with the ACLU dispute.)

Before opening the meeting to audience questions and comments, Mooij asked that everyone “observe decorum” and respect differing opinions. For the most part, the audience members did so. However, emotions ran high, there was much enthusiastic applause at people’s comments, and one woman broke into tears as she tried to describe how much graduation in the Great Auditorium meant to her.

Mooij urged people to make their voices heard by writing letters to the Asbury Park Press and speaking out in other forums. But he also noted that, in the event of a law suit, “it’s the legal arguments that will dictate the outcome” rather than public emotion and rhetoric.

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