Federal Appeals Court Rules That Wisconsin Public School May Not Hold Graduation Ceremonies In A Church

Church-State Watchdog Group Celebrates Ruling Reversing Lower Court Decision In Elmbrook Case

Americans United for Separation of Church and State welcomed a decision today by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that a Wisconsin school district violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution when it held its graduation ceremonies in a church.

Ruling in Doe 3 ex rel. Doe 2 v. Elmbrook School District, a 10-judge panel of the 7th Circuit voted 7-3 in favor of Americans United. Writing for the majority, Judge Joel M. Flaum said that “conducting a public school graduation ceremony in 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.”

This decision by the full court, known as an en banc ruling, reversed a Sept. 9, 2011 decision in which a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit ruled 2-1 that the school district’s practice did not violate the separation of church and state.

“We applaud the court’s wise decision,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The decision makes clear to public schools that it’s not appropriate to hold graduation ceremonies in venues festooned with religious symbols.”

Americans United filed suit on behalf of nine students, parents and graduates of the Elmbrook School District in Brookfield, Wisc. The plaintiffs felt like outsiders at the graduation ceremonies because of the religion-permeated environment provided by the church.

Elmbrook Church displays a large cross, which church officials have refused to cover, in the sanctuary where graduation ceremonies are held. The facility is filled with other religious iconography.

At graduations, parents and children sit in pews filled with Bibles and hymnals, “Scribble Cards for God’s Little Lambs” and church promotional cards that ask them whether they “would like to know how to become a Christian.” The church’s lobby is filled with evangelical pamphlets and postings, many of which are aimed at children and teens.

Americans United noted that there are many non-religious facilities available for the graduation ceremonies, and other school districts in the area make use of them.

Alex J. Luchenitser, Americans United’s associate legal director, who argued the case, said: “I am very pleased with today’s court decision. It is absolutely wrong to subject public school students to an intensely religious environment as the price of attending their own graduations.”

The case has been litigated by AU’s Luchenitser in consultation with AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, with assistance from former AU fellowship attorneys Elizabeth Stevens, Josef Klazen and Robert Shapiro. James H. Hall Jr. and F. Thomas Olson of the Milwaukee civil rights firm Hall Legal, S.C. are serving as co-counsel in the case.

 

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.