Fight Over Religious Symbol Could Stall NJ Graduation Ceremony

ACLU wants cross atop auditorium covered up, building owners say it's not possible.

By Ida Siegal
|  Thursday, May 12, 2011  |  Updated 9:19 AM EDT
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It's the ceremony that has some residents upset.

It's the ceremony that has some residents upset.

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More than 100 parents and alumni of Neptune High School in New Jersey turned out for a meeting Wednesday night after learning this year's senior class may not be able to graduate in an historic auditorium in Ocean Grove because it features religious symbols.

The massive dome-like wooden structure, known as the Great Auditorium, was built in 1894 and has been the site of Neptune High's graduation ceremonies for the last six decades. 

The auditorium features a large cross on the roof and three other religious symbols inside and outside the building, and the graduation ceremonies have often had religious undertones.

This year, the American Civil Liberties Union complained to the school district on behalf of one woman who attended last year's ceremony and was offended by the religious symbolism. She doesn't live in the district.

The school modified its program in light of the ACLU complaint, but the ACLU insists the cross itself be covered.

"We thought the main concern was the program so we changed it along the lines of what other school districts across the country have had to do," said Neptune Township School Superintendent David Mooij. "The ACLU said it wasn't sufficient."

The ACLU says it is not threatening legal action and it doesn't want the children to have to graduate somewhere else, but it does want the massive cross covered.  

The owners of the building say that's not possible. With graduation looming, the two sides are at an impasse. The school district fears they will end up in court.

Parents fear their children will miss out on an important school tradition.

"You have generation after generation that has walked down those isles," said alumnus Tracey James. "And as a student you're a rock star for a day."

The Great Auditorium belongs to a Christian ministry, but there's debate as to whether it would be called a church. The auditorium does host church services there, but it has also held countless concerts, eight presidential visits dating back to Ulysses S. Grant and numerous graduation ceremonies over the years.

At this point, there have not been any complaints about the religious symbolism from parents whose children will be graduating this year.

"That's where graduation is ...that's where it's always been," a parent shouted to the crowd attending the meeting.

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