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Graduation Ceremonies Moved to Other Locations

Two public schools cancel ceremonies at a Lake Forest sanctuary after complaints.

June 08, 2005|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

Two Orange County public schools canceled this month's graduation ceremonies at a Lake Forest church after complaints they were violating the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.

Marc Lipoff, a senior at Northwood High School in Irvine, said Tuesday that he had threatened to sue if the school did not change the location from Saddleback Church, one of the nation's largest.

Lipoff and the parents of a student at Serrano Intermediate School in Lake Forest complained separately to the Orange County/Long Beach chapter of the Anti-Defamation League.

The Jewish group wrote similar letters to the schools in March, saying it was "deeply troubled" by plans to hold the ceremonies in a house of worship. "It is unfair to compel attendance at a graduation ceremony at a church," the letter said. "Attendees should be able to attend graduation without fear of religious coercion."

The league did not accuse the schools of holding overtly religious ceremonies.

Northwood Principal Tony Ferruzzo said the school's last two graduations were at Saddleback Church, which provides large video screens and comfortable surroundings. He said that at last year's ceremony, the audience overflowed the sanctuary and some people watched as it was televised.

He said the graduation was moved to the Bren Center at UC Irvine because of the student's complaint and because of the arena's larger size. "The bottom line is: It was time for us to move to a public facility," Ferruzzo said.

Renting Bren will cost $8,200, as opposed to $2,500 for the church, Ferruzzo said.

Other high schools in the Irvine Unified School District have their ceremonies at the football stadium at Irvine High.

Serrano will hold its ceremony, promoting students to high school, on June 24 at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine.

Laura Ott, assistant to the superintendent of Saddleback Valley Unified School District, said Serrano had held the ceremony in a variety of locations, including Verizon, El Toro High and at the church.

Ron Wenkart, general counsel for the Orange County Department of Education, who was called by Serrano officials after the school received the Anti-Defamation League letter, said it was unclear how a lawsuit would turn out because appellate courts have not taken up the issue.

He said he knew of no other schools in the county that held ceremonies at a church or religious building. He said this was the first time the issue had been presented to him.

Glen Kreun, executive pastor of Saddleback, where 22,000 people worship on weekends, said Trabuco Hills High has held functions at the church.

"We feel that we are a community church," he said. "We try to do everything we can to be available to the community."

He said the church has not talked to the league.

Kreun said the church objected to a suggestion that a 10-foot cross in the sanctuary be covered for the graduation ceremonies. "We are allowing them to use our facility, we're more than happy to do that, but to modify our facility, we don't think it's an appropriate thing to ask us."

Lipoff, 18, who will attend UC Berkeley as a civil engineering major, said that when he learned early this year that graduation would be held at the church, "I was in disbelief."

He said he talked to his counselor and the vice principal and was told that the church would not allow the cross to be covered.

"At that point, I said, 'OK. It seems like there's nothing I can really do. Graduation is going to be at the church. I'm not going.'

"I just don't feel comfortable being in a church," Lipoff said, "whether it's graduation or church services, and it's a public school and I shouldn't have to make that decision about going or not going."

Lipoff, who is Jewish, complained to the Anti-Defamation League. Kevin O'Grady, associate director, said the district superintendent assured him the ceremony would be moved next year.

Lipoff wasn't satisfied and told the league that he planned to sue. "His parents decided that whatever Marc wanted to do, they would support him," O'Grady said. Lipoff's father is a retired lawyer.

O'Grady said that about the same time he relayed the message to the district about a possible lawsuit, the district called him to say the ceremony was being moved to the Bren Center.

"I feel good I changed it for myself, and two, that I changed it for people that didn't stand up for it and three, because it's the right thing to do," Lipoff said.

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