Court Orders Commencement Moved from Saturday for Observant Jew

A federal court in New York ruled last week that a school board must reschedule its 1988 high school graduation so that a Sabbath-observing student can attend without violating his religious beliefs.

The lawsuit was filed by the American Jewish Congress on behalf of David Smith, 17, who alleged that the North Babylon (NY) School Board’s decision to hold graduation exercises on a Saturday violated Smith’s First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.

Smith, an observant Jew, will be a senior at North Babylon Senior High School this fall. With the help of his father, Rabbi Richard Smith, David Smith had requested that the school board move the 1988 graduation to a day other than Saturday. When the North Babylon School Board unanimously refused Smith’s request, AJCongress filed the suit.

In a 38-page opinion issued August 11, District Judge Jacob Mishler of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York ruled that in refusing Smith’s request to move the graduation day, the school board placed “an unconstitutional burden” on Smith’s “First Amendment right to the free exercise of his religious beliefs not to engage in secular activities on the Sabbath.”

COURT REJECTS THE MAIN ARGUMENTS

The court rejected all three of the main arguments that the School Board raised in defense of its decision not to move the Saturday graduation.

The court ruled that because Smith’s inability to attend a Saturday graduation is rooted in his religious belief, his request triggered the protection of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. The court also ruled that graduation exercise was an “important benefit” that Smith would be deprived of if held on a Saturday, so the Saturday graduation imposed an “unconstitutional burden” on Smith’s free exercise.

Mishler distinguished a graduation from sporting events, dances and stage productions because it is “conducted as part of and as an extension of the education program.”

Finally, the court held that the school bard did not prove that it had a “compelling interest” to justify retaining Saturday as a graduation day. Under current law, proof of a “compelling interest” would be sufficient to overcome a claimed burden on free exercise rights.

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