On Friday, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 (PDF) that public high schools holding graduation ceremonies inside churches were not violating the Establishment Clause and church/state separation.
“There is no realistic endorsement of religion by the mere act of renting a building belonging to a religious group,” Judge Kenneth R. Ripple wrote for the majority.
… Graduates weren’t forced to participate in any religious exercise, Ripple wrote. As for the religious environment, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t shield someone from encountering others’ religious beliefs and symbols, he said.
“The encounter with religion here is purely passive and incidental to attendance at an entirely secular ceremony,” he wrote.
In 2009, Americans for Separation of Church and State filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of nine unidentified students and parents who described themselves as non-Christians. They argued graduations in a church offended them.
Graduates were compelled to enter “a sacred space” and had to view religious symbols such as a 20-foot cross that towered over the graduation proceedings, religious pamphlets and hymnals, which imposed religion upon them and sent a message the government was endorsing religion, they contended.
… Judge Joel M. Flaum wrote in dissent that the church’s prominent religious symbols and literature amounted to a religious message students might have felt pressured to adopt.
“The sheer religiosity of the space created a likelihood that high school students and their younger siblings would perceive a link between church and state. That is, the activity conveyed a message of endorsement,” Flaum wrote. “The only way for graduation attendees to avoid the dynamic is to leave the ceremony. That is a choice … (the U.S. Constitution) does not force students to make.”
There’s a lot wrong with this ruling, beginning with the fact that the students voted to approve the venue… as if that’s some sort of justification for it.
And what about the cross on stage?
It sounds eerily similar to some controversial high school graduation ceremonies held in Georgia:
But that’s not religious, say two of the three judges.
The dissenter, Judge Flaum, added that if school officials had to go out their way to “secularize” the venue, that shows it was the wrong place to begin with:
None of this is to suggest that school officials should have exercised a higher degree of control over the church’s environment, scrubbing it of religious symbols or working to tailor its message to a secular audience. Such a course would have run afoul of Lemon’s excessive entanglement prong… Instead, school administrators should have examined the space that students voted for and recognized that it was not an appropriate location for holding a public high school graduation ceremony.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which lost this case, is considering appealing the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but doing that, having the case accepted by the Court, and getting a victory there seems like a series of long shots.
The question now is what implications this will have for Christian administrators of public schools who will see this ruling as a green light to move their own graduation ceremonies to local churches.
The decision technically only affects Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. However, other state courts may cite this decision if there’s a lawsuit. It’s also possible that another Appeals Court, say the generally liberal 9th Circuit Court, could hear a similar case and rule the other way… in which case the Supreme Court could step in and make a final decision. Lots of possibilities and I’m not very optimistic about any of them.
(via Religion Clause)