Advocates of complete separation of church and state saw a victory Monday when the United States Supreme Court left in place a court decision that said public high school graduations in a church with religious symbols violated that constitutional right.
In the case of Does v. Elmbrook School District, a group of students and parents sued the Wisconsin-based public school system for holding graduation at Elmbrook Church.
The plaintiffs in the case were a “group of past and present students and their parents,” collectively called the “Does.” They claimed the Elmbrook School District’s “practice of holding high school graduations and related ceremonies at a nondenominational, evangelical Christian church was violative of the establishment clause of the Constitution of the United States.”
High schools in the Hall County School District have held graduations at Free Chapel for years.
Hall Superintendent Will Schofield said he didn’t know the specific details behind the decision, but called it “disappointing.”
“In many communities, the only facilities able to accommodate one of the most significant events of a K-12 experience, high school graduation, are places of worship,” he said. “It seems to me that forcing these celebrations to be held in a venue that is not large enough for a grandparent or family member to participate, based upon what happens there on Sunday morning, is dogmatic and simplistic.”
He said that, even with holding graduations at Free Chapel, seniors’ families are still limited by ticket numbers. Schofield called it “by far the largest venue in our county.”
“I am quite certain we will continue to plan for Hall County graduations in the location that best serves our students and their families,” he added.
In 2012, the federal appeals court in Chicago found that a giant cross on the wall of Elmbrook Church and other religious symbols that were visible during graduation ceremonies conveyed a message that government was endorsing a particular religion.
Portions of the decision read “the Supreme Court requires us to examine the context in which government interacts with a religious organization.” It acknowledged the graduation ceremony was secular, but the particular location was “dominated by a huge cross on the front wall, facing the pews. Religious banners festoon the interior walls and proselytizing pamphlets are within easy reach of persons seated in the pews and walking through the lobby.”
While there was no evidence school officials promoted the literature, the court decided having graduation there “conveys an impermissible message of endorsement.”
“The First Amendment, via its Free Exercise Clause, guarantees that government will not impinge on the freedom of individuals to celebrate their faiths, in the day-to-day, or in life’s grand moments,” the conclusion reads.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said they would have heard the case, but by turning it down the Supreme Court effectively upholds the decision.
Since the complaint, the Elmbrook School District has built a separate location to hold graduations.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.