A federal judge Tuesday heard a plea on behalf of a group of Enfield parents and students that the town be permanently banned from holding graduation exercises in First Cathedral in Bloomfield. Their attorneys argued that evidence presented to a different federal judge last year, which led to a temporary injunction against the church graduation, should with other evidence submitted since be enough to make the injunction permanent without a full trial.

Attorneys for the Enfield Board of Education agreed that the judge has before him all needed evidence, but argued that it should persuade him to reverse last year's ruling for the plaintiffs without further trial.

If U.S. District Judge Christopher Droney rules against both motions for summary judgment he will set a trial date in Hartford.

Almost a year ago, two students and their families, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, the American Civil Liberties Union's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, went to court to protest the school board's decision to hold graduations at First Cathedral in Bloomfield.

The plaintiffs told the court in May, 2010 that being coerced inside the cathedral where they would be surrounded by religious symbols for hours would cause them extreme discomfort.

U.S. District Court Judge Janet Hall on May 31, 2010 held that conducting graduation exercises at the cathedral violated the Constitutional requirement that the government remain neutral in matters of religion. She said that forcing families to attend First Cathedral in order to participate in graduation would amount to religious coercion, and ordered the Enfield school board to find other sites for the ceremonies.

That ruling applied only to the June 2010 graduations of Enfield and Fermi High Schools, leaving open the question of future graduations.

In her ruling, Judge Hall wrote that the church's architecture contained religious imagery and symbolism that could not be ignored. She described a large cross on the Cathedral's roof, a cross behind the stage, and numerous biblical scenes and passages on posters. She said that holding the ceremonies at the church would make it would appear that the school board endorsed religion. Enfield had held graduation exercises at the Cathedral for several years while its playing fields were being restored, but voted to continue at the church even after repairs were completed.

The school board told the court that it preferred the Cathedral because it was air-conditioned, had ample parking and enough seats for graduates and their guests, and was within its budget. The ACLU presented evidence that other suitable locations, some at a lower price, were available for graduations.

Hall also wrote that the school board's offer to "neutralize" First Cathedral by covering up some of the religious images would amount to an unconstitutional entanglement of government with religion.

In early 2010, the school board had first voted not to hold graduation at the church, but then reversed itself in April after hearing from members of the Family Institute of Connecticut, a conservative Christian organization.

The hearing on whether there are sufficient undisputed facts to support a "summary judgment" making the ban permanent is scheduled Tuesday March 8 at 10 a.m. in front of U.S. District Court Judge Christopher Droney in Hartford.

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