Wisconsin Public School Allowed To Hold Graduation In Evangelical Church

A federal court ruled last month that a Wisconsin public school district may hold its high school graduation ceremonies in a church, rejecting a lawsuit sponsored by Americans United. 

AU, which brought the legal challenge on behalf of students and parents in the Elmbrook School District in Brookfield, Wisc., expressed regret over the decision.

“Public school graduations should always be held at locations where all families feel welcome,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “This decision fails to respect all students and the Constitution.”

U.S. District Judge Charles N. Clevert Jr. denied a preliminary injunction ordering the school to move this year’s June 6 and 7 graduation ceremonies to a secular location. Clevert did not issue a written opinion but said the use of the church is permissible because there is no religious content during the ceremony.

Americans United intervened in the matter earlier this year after parents contacted the group. The parents were upset over school officials’ plans to hold the commencement ceremonies for Brookfield Central High School and Brookfield East High School at Elmbrook Church, an evangelical Christian mega-church in suburban Milwaukee.

The school district has used the church for several years, insisting it is the best facility available that can handle a large crowd.

At previous Elmbrook Church graduation ceremonies, seniors received their diplomas in the sanctuary on a dais beneath an immense cross, which is nearly 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide. On their way into the sanctuary, students had to pass religious displays and symbols in the church’s lobby and passageways, such as portraits of Jesus and quotations from the Bible. Bibles and hymnals lined the pews where parents and students had to sit.

Some parents and students also felt unwelcome at the church because it teaches that non-Christians – and even some denominations of Christians – will suffer eternal torment in Hell. The church also says homosexuality is “not an acceptable lifestyle” and is “contrary to God’s will” and attacks atheists as people “who think they are smarter than God.”

The church’s Web site even condemns TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey for promoting “a spirituality that is at fundamental odds with the historical biblical faith.”

AU filed Does v. Elmbrook Joint Common School District No. 21 on behalf of a graduating senior and several families in the district on Apr. 22. The plaintiffs, who have remained anonymous with the court’s approval, were extremely uncomfortable attending graduation at the church, given its religion-permeated environment.

In its legal documents, AU argued that there were plenty of secular venues available in or near the community. AU submitted documents to the court showing that at least 11 secular venues could accommodate the expected crowds. The group pointed out that some of these facilities are used by other local high schools. 

AU Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser, who argued the suit before Clevert on May 29, said the judge’s decision was disappointing.

“We will continue our fight to stop schools from forcing students to go to church in order to graduate with their classmates,” Luchenitser said. “We are optimistic that higher courts will declare this practice unconstitutional in the future.”

Following the June 6 graduation ceremony, AU received an e-mail from a parent who attended. She reported that the church had three information kiosks open during the event, staffed by church members.