Brookfield, Wisconsin — A school district in Wisconsin is asking the United States Supreme Court to rule on whether it is permissible for high school graduations to be held in church buildings.
The Elmbrook School District has filed a petition to the nation’s highest court surrounding a case that began in 2009, when it was challenged by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C. -based organization led by Barry Lynn, an ordained Church of Christ “minister.” The organization contended that Brookfield High School’s practice of hosting its graduation ceremonies at Elmbrook Church violated the separation of state and religion. It also asserted that symbols inside of the church, such as a cross and others, implied a government endorsement of Christianity.
While the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals initially ruled in favor of the district, upon review of the decision by a full panel of ten judges, the court reversed its ruling 7-3, opining that both branches of Brookfield High School violated the Constitution.
“We conclude that the practice of holding high school graduation ceremonies in the Elmbrook Church sanctuary conveys an impermissible message of endorsement,” the panel wrote.
The district had argued that the lawsuit was moot as graduations were already being transitioned to a new field-house.
In August, the school board voted to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court anyway so that it did not appear that the district was admitting that it had committed any wrongdoing. The Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, which is also currently representing the popular craft chain Hobby Lobby in its challenge against Obamacare’s abortion pill mandate, filed the appeal to the nation’s highest court on Friday.
“Students and school officials conducted the graduation exercises without participation by the church,” the petition outlined. “It is undisputed that the graduations themselves contained no religious content. No invocations or prayers were ever offered, and no religious references were ever made.”
It also explained that the lawsuit filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State was on behalf of certain attendees who did not like meeting in a church building.
“Respondents are nine current or former district students or their parents, some of whom have attended past graduations at the church and assert that they ‘felt uncomfortable, upset, offended, unwelcome, and/or angry’ because of the religious setting,” the 47-page document outlined.
Attorneys with the Beckett Fund state that church facilities are often utilized for graduations because the rent is reasonable.
“Public schools across the country rely on churches to provide a comfortable, cost-effective facility for graduation ceremonies,” said Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel for the legal organization. “Religion is not asbestos, and the Constitution does not require the government to treat churches as contaminated buildings that are uniquely unfit for public events.”
In addition to the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, the district is also being represented by Michael McConnell, a constitutional expert from Stanford Law School, and local attorneys in the Madison, Wisconsin area.