OP-ED | July Justice In CT
Leave it to the gods of litigation to provide news junkies like me with endless entertainment. But amusement turns to anger when those gods’ actions cost taxpayers precious time and money.
Look no further than what has happened in Enfield, where the school board voted 6-3 last week to settle a two-year-old lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United For Separation of Church and State.
Spurred by complaints from a handful of parents and students, those organizations objected to the school district’s habit of holding high school graduations in a large Catholic church in nearby Bloomfield. The practice, the plaintiffs insisted, forced students to “have to choose between submitting to an unwelcome religious environment and missing their graduation ceremonies.”
The case really hinges on the so-called establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which is generally accepted to mean the government cannot establish a national religion or favor one religion over another.
Even as an agnostic, I can scarcely see how the practice of holding public school commencement exercises in a church violates anyone’s constitutional rights. Now if Enfield school officials had invited the parish priest to offer Communion and lead the audience in a few Hail Marys, that would clearly cross a line. But no one was being forced to take part in a religious ceremony, nor were there any robed church officials present. So it’s clear to me that the establishment clause was not violated and no one was actually denied religious liberty.
So the issue really boils down to whether the Enfield Board of Education showed favoritism in choosing Bloomfield’s First Cathedral over another place of worship. The plaintiffs say the board chose First Cathedral “even though more than a dozen non-religious sites in the area were available to host graduation ceremonies,” while the board insists none of those sites were air conditioned. Inasmuch as neither argument addresses the lack of constitutionality alleged in the complaint, both are little more than distractions. No, I fail to see how anyone’s rights were being violated. And I’d say that even if the board had opted to hold graduation in a mosque or a church of Scientology.
So who are winners and losers? I’d say it’s pretty clear. According to the sketchy terms of the settlement, the plaintiff’s lawyers, whose $1 million tab will be partially picked up by Enfield taxpayers, have emerged victorious. So too have the five hypersensitive students and parents who thought this was a battle worth fighting.
Now I’m waiting to see what will happen in my own hometown of Salisbury, where the Board of Selectmen has the curious habit of holding public hearings and town meetings in the Congregational Church whenever the Town Hall across Main Street cannot support large crowds.
Will the ACLU intervene in Connecticut’s far northwest corner? After all, someone might feel uncomfortable or intimidated by Christian symbols while voting on a cell tower or a zoning application. Stay tuned.
It looks like the case of the Central Connecticut State University professor accused of larceny and lying to investigators has been resolved. Readers may recall I wrote a column about the case of Ravi Shankar early this year.
Shankar, in a bargain with prosecutors, pleaded guilty July 16 to one count of making false statements and received a one-year suspended sentence.
Despite Shanker’s admission last year that he had tried to scalp $22,000 worth of soccer tickets to cover $70,000 in accumulated debt and revelations that he had tried to get a CCSU technician to wipe clean the hard drive of his university-issued laptop, prosecutors decided not to charge him with first-degree larceny and evidence tampering, both felonies in Connecticut.
Shankar was subsequently arrested in North Haven after he rear-ended another vehicle and fled the scene. So the professor also faced charges of driving under the influence, evading responsibility and operating an uninsured motor vehicle. He pleaded no contest to a single DUI charge and again received a suspended sentence.
Shankar was placed on paid administrative leave for much of the last academic year but will return to CCSU in the fall, apparently as if nothing had happened.
In an email to the Journal Inquirer, Shankar said he has no intention of resigning his post since “none of the offenses I have been convicted of have any bearing on my teaching nor on my aptitude as a scholar.”
Right, but only if he thinks setting a very poor example for his students won’t affect his teaching. As someone who manned a classroom and roamed the halls of a high school for 12 years, I can tell you most emphatically that it does.
Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com, is the editor of ctessentialpolitics.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company.