Court backs high school graduation ceremony in church

A federal appeals court has ruled two public high schools in Wisconsin did not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by conducting high school graduation ceremonies in a nondenominational Christian Church. A panel of the 7thU.S. Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the church graduations did not result in government-coerced participation in religion or government endorsement of religion.

The case involved the Elmbrook school district in suburban Milwaukee, which used the Elmbrook Church for its commencement ceremonies until 2009. In 2009, Americans for Separation of Church and State filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of nine unidentified students and parents, who argued they were offended by graduations in a Christian church.

They argued the graduates were compelled to enter a “sacred space”  and had to view religious symbols, including a 20-foot cross and pamphlets and hymnals that imposed religion upon them. A federal district court judge, however, ruled in 2009 the graduation ceremonies weren’t religious and interaction between the church and the district was limited. The students and parents appealed, leading to the September 9 appellate ruling.

In his dissent, Judge Joel M. Flaum said the school district’s use of a church that is engaged in proselytization sends a message of government endorsement of religion. However, the majority opinion, written by Judge Kenneth F. Ripple, states, “Graduates are not forced, even subtly, to participate in any religious exercise of other sign of religious devotion, or in any other way to subscribe to a particular religion or even to a religion in general.”

The school district’s graduation ceremonies were moved in 2009 to a new school facility.

To access the appeals court ruling, see: http://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/ca7/10-2922/10-2922-2011-09-09-opinion-2011-09-09.html.