Federal Court Upholds Public School Graduations in Church

By Mark Walsh — September 12, 2011 2 min read
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A federal appeals court has upheld a Wisconsin school district’s use of a Christian church for its high school graduation ceremonies, saying the practice was not an unconstitutional government establishment of religion.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, ruled 2-1 that the church graduations did not result in government-coerced participation in religion or government endorsement of religion.

The case involves the Elmbrook school district in suburban Milwaukee, which from 2000 to 2009 used a local church auditorium for the graduation ceremonies of its two high schools, as well as other facilities of the same church for events such as senior honors nights.

The challengers, a group of non-Christian students and parents, objected to the school district’s rental of Elmbrook Church, an evangelical church with many Christian symbols on display throughout its facility. The challengers’ suit alleged that the superintendent’s membership in the church played a role in its selection (which the superintendent denies), and that during some graduation ceremonies the church operated its information booth or passed out evangelical literature.

A federal district court ruled for the district, and in a lengthy Sept. 9 decision in Doe v. Elmbrook School District, the 7th Circuit court affirmed.

“Graduates are not forced—even subtly—to participate in any religious exercise or other sign of religious devotion, or in any other way to subscribe to a particular religion or even to religion in general.” said the majority opinion by Judge Kenneth F. Ripple. “They are not forced to take religious pamphlets, to sit through attempts at proselytization directed by the state or to affirm or appear to affirm their belief in any of the principles adhered to by the church or its members. Instead, the encounter with religion here is purely passive and incidental to attendance at an entirely secular ceremony.”

In his dissent, Judge Joel M. Flaum said the school district’s use of a church that is engaged in proselytization sends a message of government endorsement of religion.

“I believe that conducting a public school graduation ceremony at a church—one that among other things featured staffed information booths laden with religious literature and banners with appeals for children to join ‘school ministries'—runs afoul of the First Amendment’s establishment clause,” Judge Flaum said.

Elmbrook’s high schools have not used the church for graduation ceremonies since 2009. They have used a new school district fieldhouse instead, but the 7th Circuit panel unanimously agreed the case was not moot because some plaintiffs sought damages and the district said there was some chance the church might be used in the future.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.