A Muslim student who sued because his public high school graduation ceremony was held in a Baptist church has received an apology from the largest school district in New Jersey and assurances that it will not hold future events in houses of worship.
Bilal Shareef said he had to skip his 2006 graduation from West Side High School because his religious beliefs prohibit him from entering buildings containing icons of God.
"I was forced to choose between honoring my education and my faith, and no one should be put in that position," Shareef, now a college student, said in a statement. "I'm proud I stood up for my beliefs and I'm proud that my experience will keep other students from having to face the choices I did."
The lawsuit was filed on his behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union. Newark public schools apologized to Shareef and his father and agreed to change its policies under terms of the settlement announced Monday.
Schools Superintendent Dr. Marion Bolden said in a statement that the location of prior ceremonies was "not in any way intended" to make students or parents uncomfortable.
"We're very pleased," said Ed Barocas, the ACLU lawyer who represented Shareef. "These are important policy changes to ensure that no student is made to feel like an outsider as Bilal was."
Barocas said the ACLU wrote a letter to the district in 2005, demanding the church-graduation practice cease after the parent of another student complained. After graduation was again held at the church the following year, the Shareefs complained, and the ACLU filed suit on their behalf.
School officials defended their decision to schedule graduation at New Hope Baptist Church, saying it was based on the need to accommodate 250 graduating seniors.
Barocas said an ACLU volunteer who called various locations around Newark was able to find a number of suitable alternatives.
The Newark district has about 43,000 students.