Education

Supreme Court’s Next Potential Religion Case: Public School Graduation at Church

By Mark Walsh — May 08, 2014 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld prayers before town meetings, it is ready to decide whether to take up another establishment of religion case, this one involving a public school graduation ceremony held at a church. And it is getting fresh advice about what it should do with the latter case.

The justices were holding the appeal involving the Elmbrook School District in Wisconsin pending its decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, involving a New York state town that had relied predominantly on Christian ministers to deliver prayers before its town council meetings. The court ruled 5-4 to uphold the town’s practice May 5.

To some, it may not seem like the issues in the two cases were all that similar, but the court often holds appeals that might in any way be affected by the outcome of a pending decision.

Besides, in the appeal known as Elmbrook School District v. Doe (Case No. 12-755), at issue are some of the high court’s various tests for evaluating whether a government practice violates the First Amendment’s prohibition on a government establishment of religion.

In Elmbrook, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, ruled 7-3 in 2012 that the school district’s use of a Christian church for its high school graduation ceremonies resulted in government endorsement of religion and coercion of students in violation of the establishment clause.

From 2000 to 2009, the school district near Milwaukee had used the auditorium of Elmbrook Church, an evangelical “megachurch” with many Christian symbols on display throughout its facilities, for the graduation ceremonies of its two high schools.

The practice was challenged by a group of non-Christian students and parents, whose suit alleged that during some graduation ceremonies the church operated its information booth or passed out evangelical literature.

The majority on the 7th Circuit court was troubled by the breadth of Christian symbols and activities at the church during the public school event. Dissenters cited various rationales, including that the objectors were being hypersensitive to religious symbols.

Both sides of the Elmbrook case rushed to file new Supreme Court briefs in the case after the court issued its Town of Greece decision this week.

The school district argues in its supplemental brief that the 7th Circuit’s analysis on coercion of non-adherents “is fundamentally at odds with Greece.” The high court should at least vacate the appeals court ruling and order a fresh look, the district says.

But even better, “given the importance of the [coercion] issue and the lingering confusion in the lower courts, the court would be well-served to grant the petition now rather than allow the conflict and confusion to worsen,” the district says.

The brief cites instances from this spring when school districts in Ohio and Georgia moved their graduation ceremonies from church auditoriums because of legal uncertainties.

The school district’s brief was filed May 6, one day after the Town of Greece decision. On May 7, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington group representing the challengers to the Elmbrook practice, filed a response (which is not yet online).

The Greece decision “reaffirmed that the legislative-prayer context is far different from that of public school graduations,” the Americans United brief says. “The [Supreme] Court concluded that there was no religious coercion in Greece because the audience was composed of adults who could easily avoid the prayers; here, schoolchildren are the audience, and they have no way to avoid Elmbrook Church’s religion-permeated environment without entirely missing their once-in-a-lifetime graduation ceremonies.”

The group urged the Supreme Court to simply decline review of the 7th Circuit decision.

The justices scheduled the appeal for their private conference on May 15, and a public announcement of what they will do with the case could come as soon as May 19.

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


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP
Education FDA: ‘Very, Very Hopeful’ COVID Shots Will Be Ready for Younger Kids This Year
Dr. Peter Marks said he is hopeful that COVID-19 vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds will be underway by year’s end. Maybe sooner.
4 min read
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021. On Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, Marks urged parents to be patient, saying the agency will rapidly evaluate vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds as soon as it gets the needed data.
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021.
Jim Lo Scalzo/AP