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Parents & Student Sue Over Cross Displayed at Graduation
SOURCE: Orlando Sentinel
Laurin Sellers
May 18 2005

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PALM BAY -- A high-school senior and two parents want a federal judge to stop the Brevard County school district from holding graduation ceremonies this week in a church that won't cover up its 25-foot-tall cross.

The plaintiffs expect to file a lawsuit today in U.S. District Court in Orlando to force Calvary Chapel of Melbourne to conceal the Christian symbol or forbid Palm Bay High School from holding its ceremony there Saturday.

The outcome of the case also could affect three other Brevard schools, which have scheduled commencement exercises at the church Thursday, Friday and Saturday, along with future graduation ceremonies countywide.

School officials said Tuesday that they have no intention of changing their plans, and a church official said hiding the huge cross "would be kind of like covering up who we are."

"The one thing we would not do is cover up a cross," said Calvary's administrator Bill Beck, adding, however, that the church had agreed not to illuminate the symbol during graduations.

Attorneys for Americans United for Separation of Church and State have notified the school district of its plan to sue on behalf of David Musgrove, his daughter, Jennifer, 18, and Dianna Narciso, the mother of a Palm Bay freshman.

Ayesha Khan, legal director for the group, described David Musgrove as a Buddhist and his daughter and Narciso both as atheists.

None of the plaintiffs could be reached for comment Tuesday.

According to the suit, the U.S. and Florida Constitutions prohibit public schools from holding events in houses of worship unless all religious symbols are covered or removed.

The suit alleges that the Musgroves, Narciso and her son, Daniel, who hopes to graduate from the school in the future, object to and are offended by the district holding commencement exercises there.

The district's actions, the suit says, have made them feel unwelcome and like "outsiders" because they don't share the beliefs represented by the symbols on display in the church, including a dove, hymnals and the cross built into the wall of the sanctuary.

"Jennifer wants to attend her high school graduation but does not wish to be subjected to a religious display at what by law should be a secular event," the suit states. "For Jennifer Musgrove, high school graduation is a significant, once-in-a-lifetime event."

If it is held in the church, the suit says, Jennifer will have to submit to an unwanted religious display, take part in a ceremony with religious trappings or forego her graduation ceremony entirely.

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said Tuesday that he had not heard of other public schools in the state holding graduation ceremonies in churches.

"Is it really true that their only choice was a church?" he said. "Surely, there must be a sports arena somewhere, somewhere not in the shadow of a cross."

Before 2004, the Brevard district held graduation ceremonies in various locations, including football fields and an arena at Florida Institute of Technology.

But last May, Bayside, Eau Gallie and Palm Bay high schools held commencement exercises at Calvary Chapel because it can seat 3,000 people.

According to the suit, the district received complaints about the location, including one from Narciso that informed officials they were violating the law.

"Despite those complaints, and with almost a year to find an alternative venue, school district officials nonetheless decided to return to Calvary Chapel for the 2005 ceremonies for Bayside, Eau Gallie, Melbourne and Palm Bay high schools," the suit says.

In a recent letter to the plaintiff's attorneys, Brevard School Superintendent Richard DiPatri cited weather concerns as a reason not to move commencements to the football fields.

He also noted that Florida Tech was unsuitable because "the configuration of the facility does not allow many of the parents and guests to see their graduates walk and receive their diplomas."

District spokeswoman Sara T. Stern said late Tuesday that officials would use a football field as a back-up plan, if necessary.

"But the bottom line is we're still going to hold the ceremonies at Calvary Chapel unless a judge tells us we can't," she said.

~end~

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