WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear a case surrounding whether high school graduations may be held in churches, allowing a lower court ruling to stand that declared the practice to be unconstitutional.
The court issued its denial on Monday, with Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissenting.
“It is perhaps the job of school officials to prevent hurt feelings at school events,” Scalia wrote. “But that is decidedly not the job of the Constitution.”
The case, Elmbrook School District v. Doe, has been battled in the court system for the past 14 years. In 1990, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) filed suit against the Elmbrook, Wisconsin school district after some expressed offense at hosting graduation at the non-denominational Elmbrook Church.
According to the suit, the religious symbols and materials displayed at the church were considered coercive toward Christianity.
The district court and a three-judge panel with the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals both ruled in favor of the district, finding no First Amendment violation by the practice. However, even though the school district discontinued using Elmbrook Church for graduation services, AU filed an appeal, requesting a full review by the complete 7th Circuit.
In 2012, the court overturned the decision 7-3, asserting that to expose students to the religious symbols displayed at Elmbrook presented “an unacceptable amount of religious endorsement and coercion.”
“[T]he sheer religiosity of the space created a likelihood that high school students and their younger siblings would perceive a link between church and state,” it wrote. “[I]f constitutional doctrine teaches that a school cannot create a pervasively religious environment in the classroom … it appears overly formalistic to allow a school to engage in identical practices when it acts through a short-term lessee.”
The district then appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined the case today after two years of shelving the matter.
“No student should ever be forced to choose between missing their own graduation and attending that seminal event in a proselytizing environment inundated with religious icons and exhortations,” said AU associate legal director Alex J. Luchenitser in a news release following the decision. “We are very pleased that the decision of the appeals court will stand.”
But Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Christian legal organization that has handled numerous cases involving God at graduation,
“Church buildings should not be treated like toxic warehouses simply because they normally house religious activities. That has never been the intent of the First Amendment,” said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman. “On the contrary, as Justices Scalia and Thomas remark in their dissent, the Elmbrook School District did not violate the Constitution, and the 7th Circuit’s bad decision in this case clearly conflicts with the Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Town of Greece v. Galloway, which stated that mere ‘offense…does not equate to coercion.’”
The organization stated that it hoped the court will, at a later time, declare “that government neutrality toward religion is not achieved by treating it like asbestos in the ceiling tiles of society.”