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RANDALL v. PEGAN

June 14, 1991

MAGGIE AND GARY RANDALL, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CHARLES R. PEGAN, AS SUPERINTENDENT OF THE LETCHWORTH CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, AND BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE LETCHWORTH CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, GAINSVILLE, NEW YORK, A GOVERNMENTAL BODY OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Telesca, Chief Judge.

DECISION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Gary Randall and his daughter Maggie, a graduating senior at Letchworth Central High School, commenced this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 seeking principally to enjoin the Letchworth Central School District and its Superintendent, defendant Charles Pegan, from sponsoring, promoting or "influencing" a religious baccalaureate service for its high school graduates on June 16, 1991. The case is presently before the court on plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction and defendants' cross motion to dismiss, both of which were returnable on June 14, 1991. For the reasons discussed below, the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction and the defendants' cross motion to dismiss are denied.

BACKGROUND

The facts of this case are derived from the pleadings and the affidavits submitted in support of the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction and the defendants' cross motion to dismiss.

For many years, a religious baccalaureate service has been held in connection with the commencement exercises for the Letchworth Central High School.*fn1 The purpose of the baccalaureate service is "to honor graduating students and their families, [to] bring them together to reflect upon their years at school and to challenge them to use their talents to further society's goals."*fn2 Traditionally, the high school principal and the officers of the senior class arranged the service by choosing the speakers, typically local ministers and pastors, and by preparing the program.*fn3

In accordance with this long standing tradition, formal invitations were distributed in March of this year notifying the high school's graduating seniors and their parents that the annual baccalaureate service would be held on Sunday, June 16, 1991 at 8:00 p.m. These invitations were prepared by a private entity and were purchased by those seniors of the Letchworth High School interested in sending them to family and friends.*fn4

In May of 1991, Maggie Randall and the New York Civil Liberties Union (the "NYCLU"), at her request, contacted defendant Pegan and asked that he cancel the baccalaureate service on the grounds that it violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights against state establishment of religion.*fn5 Although he initially refused, the Superintendent, along with the defendant school board, eventually decided to cancel the service on May 28, 1991 and thereafter adopted a public resolution on June 10, 1991 formally announcing that it was no longer involved in sponsoring the baccalaureate. The defendants also canceled their then pending order for programs which they had submitted prior to the initiation of the instant controversy.*fn6

In response to the defendants' withdrawal of their sponsorship of the event, students from the "Purposeful Life Club," a nondenominational study group, approached Superintendent Pegan and informed him that they would be interested in conducting and sponsoring the service.*fn7 Although the group initially considered holding the service in a church, it later concluded that such a forum would be inappropriate because it would suggest an affiliation with a particular religious view.*fn8 They therefore decided to conduct the baccalaureate in the school auditorium as originally had been planned and, in accordance with district policy, completed and submitted the requisite building request form, along with $50, to the school board.*fn9 The group thereafter made invitations for the event and, at their own expense, delivered them to the students and their families. As presently constituted, the baccalaureate service will be conducted and controlled by students in the Purposeful Life Group and a number of religious speakers, one of whom is nondenominational, will participate.*fn10

DISCUSSION

1. Standard for Preliminary Injunction

In order to prevail on their motion for a preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs must demonstrate (a) irreparable harm and (b) either (1) a likelihood of success on the merits or (2) sufficiently serious questions going to the merits to make them a fair ground for litigation and a balance of hardships tipping decidedly in their favor. Wallace Intern. Silversmith v. Godinger Silver Art, 916 F.2d 76, 78 (2d Cir. 1990).

It is well settled that "[t]he loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury." Parents' Assoc. of P.S. 16 v. Quinones, 803 F.2d 1235, 1242 (2d Cir. 1986) (citations omitted). Accordingly, if the plaintiffs can show that the baccalaureate service is a violation of the Establishment Clause, they will have demonstrated both an irreparable injury as well as a likelihood of success on the merits.

2. Establishment Clause

The First Amendment provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." U.S. Const. Amend I. In Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 91 S.Ct. 2105, 29 L.Ed.2d 745 (1971), the Supreme Court refined the principles underlying this proscription into a three part test. "Under the Lemon analysis, a statute or practice which touches upon religion, if it is to be permissible under the Establishment Clause, must have a secular purpose; it must neither advance nor inhibit religion in its principal or primary effect; and it must not foster an excessive entanglement with religion." County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, 492 U.S. 573, 109 S.Ct. 3086, 3100, 106 L.Ed.2d 472 (1989). Since Lemon, the Court has "particularly relied on . . . [this three prong test] in [virtually] every case involving the sensitive relationship between government and religion in the education of . . . children." Grand Rapids School Dist. v. Ball, 473 U.S. 373, 383, 105 S.Ct. 3216, 3222, 87 ...


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