January 2012 Church & State | People & Events

An Americans United legal case challenging a Wisconsin public school’s decision to hold graduation ceremonies in a church is about to get a second look in federal court.

A full panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed to hear Doe 3 ex rel. Doe 2 v. Elmbrook School District. An 11-judge panel will decide whether it is constitutional for a public school to hold graduation ceremonies in the sanctuary of a church.

Americans United attorneys asked the full appeals court to reconsider a recent appellate panel decision upholding the Elmbrook School District’s use of Elmbrook Church to hold graduation ceremonies for two local high schools.

In a Sept. 9 decision, a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit ruled 2-1 that the practice does not violate the separation of church and state. On Nov. 17, Americans United received word that the ruling has been vacated, and the full bench of judges will rule on the lawsuit.

AU attorneys hailed the development.

“I am very pleased that the full appeals court is going to look at this case,” said Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser. “It is wrong to ask public school students to submit to an intensely religious environment as the price of attending their own graduations.”

Elmbrook Church displays a large cross in the sanctuary where graduation ceremonies are held, and the facility is replete with other religious iconography. Church officials have refused to cover the cross during graduation ceremonies.

During graduation ceremonies, parents and children sit in pews filled with Bibles and hymnal books, “Scribble Cards for God’s Little Lambs” and church promotional cards that ask them whether they “would like to know how to become a Christian.” The church’s lobby is filled with evangelical pamphlets and postings, many of which are aimed at children and teens.

The Americans United lawsuit was filed on behalf of nine students, parents, and graduates of the school district. The plaintiffs feel unwelcome and extremely uncomfortable attending graduation ceremonies at the church due to its religion-permeated environment.

Americans United notes that there are many non-religious facilities available for the graduation ceremonies. Other school districts in the area use them.

The lawsuit is being litigated by AU’s Luchenitser in consultation with AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan. James H. Hall Jr. and F. Thomas Olson of the Milwaukee civil rights firm Hall Legal, S.C. are serving as co-counsel in the case.

The case will be argued Feb. 9.