Americans United for Separation of Church and State has asked a Wisconsin public school district to stop holding graduation ceremonies at a local church.
Since at least 2001, two schools in the Elmbrook School District Brookfield East High School and Brookfield Central High School have held commencement exercises at Elmbrook Church. School officials have reportedly ignored complaints raised by members of the community.
In a June 7 letter to Elmbrook Superintendent Matt Gibson and other school officials, Americans United said that holding graduation ceremonies in sectarian surroundings violates the separation of church and state. AU urged the officials to find a neutral venue to conduct this year’s ceremonies or ensure that the church’s religious symbols are removed or covered during the ceremonies.
The sanctuary where the graduation will take place features a large cross displayed prominently above the spot where graduation speakers stand and where students line up to receive their diplomas. During past graduations, the sanctuary also contained religious banners such as “Leading Children to a Transforming Life in Jesus” and “Lord of Lords,” and church officials handed out religious pamphlets to graduating students and their families.
The school district has indicated that no religious banners will be displayed and no distribution of religious materials will occur at this year’s graduations. The district, however, has said that this year’s graduations will proceed at the church, and the cross will not be covered even though it was veiled at a prior graduation. The district also has not agreed to ensure that future graduations will take place at a secular venue.
“Graduation is an important milestone in students’ lives, and all families should feel welcome at the ceremonies,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “We urge school officials to stop ignoring the concerns from the community and take action to ensure that church-state separation is fully respected both this year and at future graduations.”
Lynn added, “Elmbrook parents who are concerned about this issue should contact Americans United by phone at (202) 466-3234 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss options for correcting the situation there.”
In the letter to school officials, Americans United Litigation Counsel Aram A. Schvey stated that conducting “public-school graduation ceremonies in such a pervasively sectarian environment plainly violates” the First Amendment principle of church-state separation.
AU’s letter warned the Brookfield school officials that the federal courts have barred public-school officials from coercing students in matters of religion, even subtly, or taking other action to promote or endorse religion.
Citing a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Schvey wrote that federal courts have been “particularly vigilant” in ensuring church-state separation requirements are adhered to in the public schools.
“Consequently,” Schvey observed, “requiring high-school students and their families to choose between entering a house of worship filled with sectarian iconography and foregoing the once-in-a-lifetime event of graduation violates the constitutional prohibition against religious coercion.”
By using the church to conduct its graduations, added Schvey, the high schools also are sending the unconstitutional message that they are promoting or favoring religion.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.