In The News
A Graduation Held in Church Leads to a Suit
By TINA KELLEY
NEWARK, March 7 — A Muslim student sued the Newark public schools on Wednesday, claiming that he was unable to attend his high school graduation last June because it was held in a church. The student, Bilal Shareef, 18, said it was against his beliefs to set foot in any building with symbols involving God.
“The position I was put in was very, very uncomfortable,” said Mr. Shareef, who graduated from West Side High with a 4.0 grade-point average and is a student at Union County College in Cranford. He is seeking damages and an order to bar the use of churches for future graduations
Ed Barocas, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the student’s lawyer, said that under the state’s Constitution, no person can be “compelled to attend any place of worship contrary to his faith and judgment.”
“I think the New Jersey courts will recognize that the right to go to one’s graduation is essentially part of a student’s right to a public education,” he said. “The culmination of one’s school career is at graduation, and it is one of the most significant moments in a child’s life.”
But Perry L. Lattiboudere, the school district’s lawyer, said that state law “allows some use of religious facilities by public school districts, and we believe under the circumstances our use was a permissible one.”
He said West Side’s graduation ceremonies would be held at Symphony Hall in Newark this year.
Mr. Barocas said that he complained about the church setting on behalf of another Muslim student in 2005, and that Mr. Lattiboudere said then that he would advise administrators against holding future events in churches and would “work with the church to remove or conceal religious symbols for the duration of the ceremony.” The suit says that the symbols were not covered. Mr. Lattiboudere said he believed some were.
Not all Muslim groups adhere to the prohibition against entering buildings with religious iconography. Louay Safi, the executive director of the Islamic Society of North America, which has 400 affiliated mosques, said “this is the first time I have heard of a student not wanting to just visit a church on that grounds.”
The imam of the Islamic Cultural Center in Newark, where Mr. Shareef worships, could not be reached for comment about its stance. Mr. Shareef said, “I can’t speak for all Muslims; I know some that don’t mind and some that do.”
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit educational association, said the use of churches for graduation ceremonies was a growing phenomenon, but he was unaware of any other lawsuits over the issue.
Ahmad Shareef, Bilal’s father, said he “would have been proud to see Bilal walk up to receive his diploma,” but was “even more proud that he stood up for our beliefs.”