NEPTUNE, N.J. -- New Jersey's Neptune High School has settled with the American Civil Liberties Union over complaints that its graduation in a Christian camp auditorium violated the First Amendment.
The case is the latest example of what appears to be a growing trend of church-state separation advocates targeting high school graduations.
In the 70 years Neptune High School has held graduations in the Christian-owned Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove, N.J., there has never been a First Amendment complaint - until now.
Neptune Schools Superintendent David Mooij said one community member, backed by the ACLU, complained last year that the graduation violated the First Amendment.
The complaint alleged that Neptune endorsed religion in both its program and venue.
It noted that the commencement program included the hymn "Onward, Christian Soldiers" and a student-led prayer. The complaint said a cross outside and two religious signs inside caused the venue to be offensive.
In the end, a compromise was reached that satisfied both parties.
The school district agreed to scrub the hymn and the prayer. Neptune also agreed to use banners to block the interior signs and not light the outside cross.
"I think the whole matter is about people's rights to a point of view, people's right to express their opinion," Mooij said. "It's whether those rights and opinions can influence a total community, the way this looked to be headed."
The bottom line, Mooij said, is that the school district wanted to keep its tradition and avoid a costly court fight.
"It would have been money spent on legal fees rather than instructional programs," he explained.
But for many in Neptune, the tradition was the priority.
"They've been doing the ceremony there for years and I think they should continue that," one Neptune resident.
"I think it's utterly ridiculous and they need to get a life," disgruntled Neptune resident Fred Aubery said.
The ACLU, which declined all interview requests, commended the settlement, saying it "will allow students of all faiths and backgrounds to enjoy their graduation ceremony without feeling like outsiders based on religious differences."
But American Center for Law and Justice attorney Vincent McCarthy, who helped advise the school district, said the ACLU's claim that Neptune's ceremony would endorse religion doesn't line up with current case law.
"If a pastor were to get up and lead a prayer at the beginning of graduation, or if there were to be some sort of religious service at the same time, that would be a constitutional endorsement," he said.
"But merely holding a graduation in a church facility does not constitute an endorsement of religion," he said.
McCarthy warned he believes the move to ban graduation ceremonies from being held in religious venues is just the beginning.
The end goal, he said, is to drive an even bigger wedge between church and state, a campaign that could change graduation for an untold number of students, their families, and their communities.