KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Portage Public Schools is arguing a student’s lawsuit calling for graduation to be moved because it falls on a Jewish holy day won’t succeed because courts have already decided that similar cases don’t constitute a violation of the First Amendment.
In a document filed with the court Tuesday, the district’s attorney Mark Ostrowski cited two previous cases. In one of them, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided in a 1988 case that scheduling graduation on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, did not violate a Jewish student’s right to practice his religion because he didn’t need to go to the ceremony to get his diploma.
The student suing the school, Portage Northern High School senior Minaleah Koffron, says her religious observances prevent her from attending graduation on May 26, which is also the Jewish holy day of Shavuot. She is arguing that the district is violating its anti-discrimination policy, Michigan’s civil rights law and the First and 14th Amendments.
The defense says that the first anyone at the district heard from Koffron or her family about the conflict was Feb. 21 of this year, which it says 180 days after the school told students when graduation would happen. It argues it’s too late to change the date now, saying it would affect many of the 290 other graduating seniors and the about 2,400 people expected to attend the ceremony.
The school district is calling for the case to be moved entirely to federal court, though Koffron’s attorneys want part of it to remain in Kalamazoo County Circuit Court. In his Tuesday brief, Ostrowski argued that the county court is being “influenced by the barrage of publicity generated by Plaintiff and her attorneys in contacting all local media in an effort to prosecute her claims in the court of public opinion.” He argued that his clients “have been treated unfairly” — citing difficulty getting court documents and a last-minute hearing rescheduling — and was concerned that would continue if the case remains in Kalamazoo County.
A temporary restraining order telling Portage Northern to move its graduation date remains in effect while the case moves its way through the courts.
The first federal court hearing is scheduled for April 20.