Grouchy Over Graduation: Some Wisconsinites Say AU Is 'Just Evil'

This morning, I started off my work day by taking a call from a "concerned citizen."

Her "concern" was that Americans United was "just evil." She wanted me to know how awful AU was for sending letters yesterday to three public school districts and a community college, asking them to stop using Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisc., as the venue for graduation ceremonies.

Later, as I was scanning today's news, I came across an article that referred to AU as "nattering nabobs of buttinski-ism" and claimed that we have "God cooties." This was also in response to our letters from yesterday.

The article was followed by comments from people who had very strong opinions (based on inaccuracies) about Americans United and our executive director, Barry Lynn.

Mostly, they attacked AU for being anti-Christian.

"Americans United would have no problem with it being held in a mosque or a synagogue," one commentator wrote. "Americans United only opposes things like this if they involve a church. Show me one time when Americans United was upset about a government/mosque or synagogue mix. Barry Lynn has never been opposed to Muslin [sic] or Jewish involvement in government functions."

Another commentator said, "Compare Lynn's comments about the foot bath issue to his comments about a public school having a picture of the 10 Commandments. On the foot bath issue AU was as timid and tepid as they could be. They said the minimum that they could say and as mild as they could say it. Against Christians they usually let fly with both barrels loaded with 00 shot."

I'd like to set the record straight.

Americans United does not approve of any government-sponsored religion, regardless of which religious belief it is. If these graduation ceremonies were being held in a mosque or a synagogue, we'd still oppose them.

And Americans United was not "timid and tepid" on the "foot bath issue." (This was a reference to a decision by some public universities to install special foot-washing stations for Muslim students.) Americans United's attorneys sent a letter, just as they did to the Wisconsin schools, advising that creating the foot-washing stations with public dollars could lead to "unlawful fostering of religion."

In this particular situation involving the Wisconsin schools, the church has a 30-foot cross hanging directly above where graduation speakers stand and where students line up to receive their diplomas. In 2007, Americans United first sent a letter asking the schools to either change the location for graduation, or in the alternative, to at least cover up the religious symbols during the graduation ceremony. They refused.

At past graduations, the church even displayed banners reading "Leading Children to a Transforming Life in Jesus" and "Lord of Lords," and church personnel distributed religious pamphlets and other materials to graduating students and their families

Americans United's concern over this matter has nothing to do with being "anti-Christian" or having "God cooties." It is simply a matter of upholding the Constitution.

The Supreme Court said in Lee v. Weisman that because "high school graduation is one of life's most significant occasions, conditioning attendance on exposure to unwanted expressions of religion is a particularly egregious constitutional violation."

Holding public school events in a house of worship where religious symbols are present sends the message to students that the school favors the religious views embodied in the symbols. Our Constitution does not allow for that.

So while we may not be the most popular all the time, and some may even think we are "evil," AU is proud of its work in ensuring religious liberty for all Americans – even for the students graduating this spring in Wisconsin public schools.

One more thought on this: The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's story contains an online poll. I know these are not scientific, but as of this writing, at least, 65 percent say they oppose holding a public school graduation in a church. Maybe AU's perspective isn't as out there as some people seem to think.