This is big: The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals just ruled that a Wisconsin school district violated the First Amendment when it held its graduation ceremonies in a church.
The backstory: Elmbrook School District in Brookfield, Wisconsin held its graduation ceremonies at Elmbrook Church (an evangelical, non-denominational Christian church) from 2000 to 2009. That’s not necessarily a Constitutional violation — sometimes, it’s the only available space in a community large enough to fit a lot of people… but that wasn’t the case in Brookfield, since other venues were available.
In addition, you would hope the school district made sure pro-Christian symbols and literature were minimized as much as possible. Again, that wasn’t the case. According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State:
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.
So AU filed a lawsuit. Initially, a lower court said the district did nothing wrong. So the anonymous plaintiffs appealed to a three-judge panel at the Appellate Court.
In September of 2011, two of the three judges also found that the district did nothing wrong (PDF).
So the last option was to ask for an en banc review of the case by all the judges at the Appeals Court, including the three who had already heard the case. That motion was granted and that brings us to today.
The 10-judge panel ruled 7-3 against the district (PDF) — they were wrong to hold their graduation ceremonies inside that church.
Some excerpts from the ruling (which is worth reading in full):
Here, the involvement of minors, the significance of the graduation ceremony, and the conditions of extensive proselytization prove too much for the District’s actions to withstand the strictures of the Establishment Clause.
The District admits that Church members manned information booths that contained religious literature during the 2009 graduation, and a DVD recording of the 2002 ceremony shows people staffing these tables. The District also admits that during the 2002 ceremony, “Church members passed out religious literature in the lobby” although neither the District nor the Does divulge further details about how the distribution took place or at whose behest. According to Doe 1, when he attended his older sibling’s graduation, “[m]embers of the church, instead of school officials, handed out graduation materials during the ceremony.”
We conclude 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 as applied to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.
In this case, high school students and their younger siblings were exposed to graduation ceremonies that put a spiritual capstone on an otherwise-secular education. Literally and figuratively towering over the graduation proceedings in the church’s sanctuary space was a 15- to 20-foot tall Latin cross, the preeminent symbol of Christianity.
True, the District did not itself adorn the Church with proselytizing materials, and a reasonable observer would be aware of this fact. But that same observer could reasonably conclude that the District would only choose such a proselytizing environment aimed at spreading religious faith — despite the presence of children, the importance of the graduation ceremony, and, most importantly, the existence of other suitable graduation sites — if the District approved of the Church’s message.
Once the school district creates a captive audience, the coercive potential of endorsement can operate. When a student who holds minority (or no) religious beliefs observes classmates at a graduation event taking advantage of Elmbrook Church’s offerings or meditating on its symbols (or posing for pictures in front of them) or speaking with its staff members, “[t]he law of imitation operates”… and may create subtle pressure to honor the day in a similar manner… The only way for graduation attendees to avoid the dynamic is to leave the ceremony. That is a choice… the Establishment Clause does not force students to make.
My favorite part of the dissenting opinion may be where the judges try to argue that holding a graduation ceremony in a church isn’t coercive at all:
Elmbrook Church is full of religious symbols — but any space is full of symbols. Suppose the School District had rented the United Center, home of the Chicago Bulls and the Chicago Blackhawks. A larger-than-life statue of Michael Jordan stands outside; United Airlines’ logo is huge. No one would believe that the School District had established basketball as its official sport or United Airlines as its official air carrier, let alone sanctified Michael Jordan. And if the District had rented the ballroom at a Hilton hotel, this would not have endorsed the Hilton chain or ballroom dancing.
Of course, neither the United Center nor the Hilton chain makes it part of their mission to evangelize basketball or dancing… Evangelical Christians, on the other hand, want to make converts out of everybody.
AU argued this case from the beginning and they were thrilled at the victory:
“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.”
The district’s last option now is to ask the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling. I would hope, after all this unnecessary fighting (and waste of taxpayer money), they just accept the loss and move on.