Neptune High School seniors will continue decades of tradition tonight when they hold their graduation ceremony at the Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey had threatened to sue the school district if changes weren't made to the ceremony after a grandmother complained about the location and religious references in the ceremony last year.
"The Board of Education and the administration is pleased that there has been a resolution," said Neptune Township Superintendent of Schools David A. Mooij this morning.
"The intent of the district was always to keep the tradition alive. We understand that certain people had faith-based objections, one way or the other, but as a public school district, our intent and our goal in fact was always only to be continuing that tradition that had been there some 70 or 80 years," said Mooij.
"It's a building that cannot be duplicated anywhere, let alone within the geographical and municipal boundaries of Neptune. Students can walk there. There's a possibility of thunderstorms tonight. We don't have to worry about it. The most we can accommodate at our high school would be 1,500, but we have been used to printing 3000 tickets, and this facility can handle that," he said.
Katie Wang, communications director for the ACLU of New Jersey, declined to comment on the record Thursday other than to say the media had blown the issue out of proportion, but Wang emailed Patch a news release.
"We are satisfied that the actions by the district will allow students of all faiths and backgrounds to enjoy their graduation ceremony without feeling like outsiders based on religious differences," the statement said.
"The national press on this has gotten way out of control," said Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association Chief Administrative Officer Scott Hoffman Thursday.
It had been reported, for example, that students would be forced to enter the auditorium from the rear so as to avoid passing the prominent white cross that adorns the front of the building, but there are no front entrance doors and students have always processed from the rear, said Hoffman.
"That's nothing new," he said, conceding that "minor adjustments" had been made, including allowing the school district to display banners "in a place they think is appropriate."
"I'm sure their objective there will be to make it hard to see" [two lighted signs at the front of the auditorium], said Hoffman. The historic signs say "Holiness to the Lord" and "So Be Ye Holy."
Thursday the signs were hidden behind banners that say "Neptune Township School District: A Community of Learners" and "Neptune High School: A School of Excellence & No Excuses."
The cross on the front of the building, which is usually lit at dusk, will remain dark until the ceremony is over, said Hoffman, estimating it would mean a 30-minute delay.
Although the Great Auditorium is a Christian ministry, the Camp Meeting Association wants Neptune high school seniors to continue their tradition, he said.
"It's incredibly important to them," said Hoffman.
Fox News reported that the conflict began "after the grandmother of one of last year's graduates complained not only about the large white cross adorning the top of the building's facade, but of the religious signs inside, and what she felt was a heavily religious tone to the ceremony, which included student-led invocations and the singing of Christian hymns, most notably 'Onward Christian Soldiers.' "
A source at the rehearsal Thursday said the invocation and benediction had been replaced with four student speeches, including a welcome speech and a farewell to the class of 2011 speech.
"Student speeches were always there. The invocation and the benediction have been removed. That was removed in the beginning as a concession to the individual even before the ACLU became involved," said Mooij.
"There's federal case law regarding that. ...The government can't sponsor prayer," he said, naming a case involving an East Brunswick football coach as the primary influence for the district's decision.
"The town became stronger. It was a galvanizing moment for the town ... There's a lot of faith in this town. Faith that people expressed in prayer actually led to a true, amicable resolution," Mooij told Fox.