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You Can't Do That in Church

By Robyn Hagan Cain on July 24, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that two public schools cannot continue to hold graduation ceremonies in a local church.

If you work for a school that planned to hand out diplomas to your 2013 graduations in a church, it’s time to think about your backup plan. The Seventh Circuit issued an en banc ruling on Monday, holding that the Elmbrook School District’s church-based commencement ceremonies resulted in government endorsement of religion and coercion of students in violation of the Establishment Clause, reports Education Week.

For at least part of the last decade, two Elmbrook high schools have held their graduation ceremonies in the main sanctuary of Elmbrook Church, a local Christian evangelical and non-denominational religious institution. The impetus to move one school's graduation to the church came from the student officers of the senior class of 2000, who believed that the school's gymnasium--the previous venue--was too hot, cramped and uncomfortable. The other school followed suit two years later.

The atmosphere of the church, both inside and outside the sanctuary, is indisputably and emphatically Christian. During at least several graduations, members of the church passed out evangelical literature at booths in the church's lobby.

A group of past and present students and their parents (collectively, the Does) sued the School District of Elmbrook (the District), claiming that the District's practice of holding high school graduations and related ceremonies at a non-denominational, evangelical Christian church violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 7-3 decision, agreed that the graduations at the church violated the Establishment Clause, but noted that the ruling applied in only a narrow context. The appellate court specifically articulated that its decision should not be applied to condemn all government uses of religious facilities, or even all public school activities in religious facilities.

The dissenters, however, found that there was a "total absence" of evidence of religious coercion, reports the Wisconsin Bar. Judge Kenneth Ripple, joined by Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook and Judge Richard Posner, noted in the dissent, "At most, [the District's] rental of the space at the church recognized the existence of the church, a reality certainly permissible under the Religion Clauses."

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