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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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