Does v. School District of Elmbrook

Last modified 2012.03.14

  • Status Closed
  • Type Counsel
  • Court U.S. Court of Appeals, U.S. District Court, U.S. Supreme Court
  • Issues Public Schools, Religious Minorities

For nearly a decade, the Elmbrook School District near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, held its high-school graduation ceremonies in the sanctuary of an evangelical Christian church. A cross towered over the dais upon which graduation speakers addressed the audience and graduating seniors received their diplomas.

Students and parents sat in pews with Bibles and hymnal books directly in front of them, along with 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.” And guests encountered religious symbols, displays, and pamphlets on their way into the sanctuary.

In April 2009, we filed suit in federal court on behalf of nine District students, graduates, and parents, alleging that the Establishment Clause prohibits the District from holding its graduation ceremonies in a church. After we amended our complaint in June 2009, each side filed a motion for summary judgment. In July 2010, the court granted the school district’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case.

We appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. In September 2011, a divided panel upheld the trial court’s decision, by a 2-1 vote. In dissent, Judge Flaum observed that just as “well established doctrine prohibit[s] school administrators from bringing church to the schoolhouse,” the same prohibition applies “when administrators bring seminal schoolhouse events to a church.” Read our opening brief and reply brief to the Court of Appeals. 

In October 2011, we moved for a rehearing before the entire Seventh Circuit. The court granted our request for rehearing, and in July 2012 ruled in our favor by a vote of 7 to 3. The Court held that the use of Elmbrook Church for graduation was unconstitutional, becuase it endorsed religion and coerced students into religious participation.

The school district sought review from the Supreme Court. In June 2014, the Supreme Court denied review of the case, thus preserving our victory in the Seventh Circuit. Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, dissented from the denial of reviewRead our brief in opposition to Supreme Court review.

In October 2014, we and the school district agreed to a settlement of the remaining issues in the case. Under the settlement, the school district is prohibited from holding any future graduation or senior honors ceremonies at the church, and it also paid damages to the plaintiffs.

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