(Photo: Elmbrook Schools)
A major church-state watchdog group has expressed opposition to a Wisconsin school system's filing of a petition to have a case regarding graduations being held at a church sent to the Supreme Court.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State called upon the U.S. Supreme Court to not hear an appeal brought by Elmbrook School District of Brookfield.
Simon Brown of Americans United wrote on the organization's blog "Wall of Separation" on Wednesday that Elmbrook "holding graduations in the religious environment of the church violates the Constitution."
"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," wrote Brown. "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."
In 2009, Americans United filed suit on behalf of some parents against Elmbrook School District over the school system's decision to have a couple high schools hold graduations at a nearby church.
U.S. District Judge Charles N. Clevert Jr. heard the case and ruled in favor of Elmbrook. From there the case went before a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit who also ruled for Elmbrook in 2011.
However in July, the full court of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 7 to 3 against Elmbrook, concluding that holding a graduation ceremony in a church where religious imagery was clearly visible to participants was unconstitutional.
The two Elmbrook high schools, Brookfield Central and Brookfield East respectively, have not held a graduation at the church since 2010. School officials have maintained that the auditorium at Elmbrook Church was used due to a lack of space at the public schools themselves and the lack of other alternative secular venues.
Elmbrook officials have also maintained that the ceremonies themselves were nonreligious in nature and had no connection to the church other than the usage of the auditorium.
Brookfield Central and Brookfield East halted the usage of the church facility once school construction had been completed, making school facilities capable of holding the graduation ceremonies. Nevertheless, the case has continued onward because both sides see the suit as having broader ramifications on the issue of public school usage of church buildings.
Brown's remarks came in response to a petition filed last week by the district and its legal representatives, which include The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, and Axley Brynelson LLP.
In their petition, Elmbrook argued that the full court (or en banc) decision by the Seven Circuit in July ignored the long history in the United States of government bodies using church facilities for secular events.
"The en banc decision is particularly mistaken given the long American tradition of government use of church property. Since the early days of the Republic, local governments have rented property from churches for secular public activities," reads the 35-page petition in part.
As aforementioned by Brown of Americans United, the Supreme Court hears only a small fraction of the cases brought to them by petitioners.