Just Say No: Supreme Court Should Skip Elmbrook Church Graduation Case

Public schools should not hold graduations in religious environments. Doing so sends a message that non-believers should stay away.

Five days before Christmas, the Religious Right delivered a most unwelcome gift to the U.S. Supreme Court – a petition asking the high court to hear a case involving public school graduation ceremonies held in a church.

Back in 2009, Americans United filed suit in federal court on behalf of nine students, graduates, and parents who objected that the Elmbrook School District near Milwaukee, Wisc., used Elmbrook Church to host high school graduation ceremonies.

Americans United explained that holding graduations in the religious environment of the church violates the Constitution. The mega-church outside Milwaukee failed to remove religious symbols and texts during the graduation ceremonies. In fact, students and parents sat in pews with Bibles and hymnal books directly in front of them, and also saw church promotional materials telling children that they were “God’s Little Lambs” and inviting all attendees to return to the church so that they can “know how to become a Christian.”

Elmbrook Church even displayed a large cross, which church officials refused to cover, in the sanctuary where graduation ceremonies were held.

The mega-church also attacks the beliefs and identities of some of the students and parents who had to go to the church to attend their graduations. The church condemns atheists as people “who think they are smarter than God.” It refers to homosexuality as “not an acceptable lifestyle” and “contrary to God’s will.”

Americans United noted that there are many non-religious facilities available for the graduation ceremonies, and other school districts in the area make use of them.

A federal court ruled against AU, and a three-judge appeals court did as well. But AU attorneys pursued another appeal, and a 10-judge panel from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled the earlier decisions, voting 7-3 in favor of Americans United this year.

Writing for the majority, Judge Joel M. Flaum said holding a public school commencement in the Elmbrook Church sanctuary conveyed “an impermissible message of endorsement” of religion and was “religiously coercive.”

Flaum added 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.”

But did that home run of a decision persuade the Religious Right to give up? Sadly no. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Religious Right-allied legal outfit based in Washington, D.C., has asked the Supreme Court to take up this case. 

“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,” Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

No one is suggesting that religion is asbestos, but that doesn’t mean public schools should hold graduations in religious environments. Doing so sends a message that non-believers should stay away. 

“Public schools serve an incredibly diverse population,” AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said in September. “It is vitally important for our schools to make all students feel welcome, regardless of their views about religion.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has a lot of serious issues to weigh in on these days from healthcare mandates to same-sex marriage. The Elmbrook case has been decided correctly by a lower court, and further consideration of the matter would be a waste of the high court’s valuable time.  

As the Journal Sentinel noted, the U.S. Supreme Court accepts less than two percent of the thousands of petitions it receives annually. Let’s hope the Elmbrook case is among the 98 percent.