Appeals Court to Review Suit Over Wis. Graduations at Church

A federal appeals court in Chicago will review a lawsuit decision against a Wisconsin school district that held high school graduation ceremonies at a local church.

Elmbrook School District was sued for using the auditorium at nearby Elmbrook Church for graduation ceremonies for its two high schools. The case will be going to the full Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals for review.

"Students at Brookfield Central and Brookfield East High Schools respectively chose to schedule their graduation ceremonies offsite at the Elmbrook Church Auditorium due to lack of space," said Melinda Mueller, communications manager for Elmbrook Schools, to The Christian Post on Thursday.

According to Mueller, the church and schools have no other connections and the graduation ceremonies have been nonreligious in nature.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is the organization behind the lawsuit, which was first filed in April 2009 in response to complaints from some local families. The suit was defeated in September 2011 when a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit ruled 2 to 1 that having graduation ceremonies at a church building was constitutional.

Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United, said that the church-state group appealed and asked the full Seventh Circuit to review the decision of the panel.

"The three-judge panel's ruling was vacated, and we are optimistic that the full bench will rule against forcing public school students to go to a church to get their diplomas," said Conn to CP.

"All families should feel welcome at public school commencements, and that will never be the case if those ceremonies are held in sectarian settings."

Among those who sided with Elmbrook Schools in the case is the Alliance Defense Fund, which submitted a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the school system.

"We believe that the original panel of the federal court of appeals correctly ruled that it is constitutional for a school to use a church building for its events," David Cortman, ADF senior counsel, said.

"The freedom that our country offers means that you may come in contact with things you don't necessarily agree with, including other religions. But that does not mean that every encounter with anything religious automatically violates the so-called separation of church and state."

Before the Seventh Circuit panel made the decision currently being reviewed, the case had been decided by a lower court in 2009. U.S. District Judge Charles N. Clevert Jr. ruled against Americans United, stating in the hearing that "a ceremony in a church does not necessarily constitute a church ceremony."

Elmbrook is not the only school district that has been brought to court by Americans United over having held graduation ceremonies in a church facility. In May 2010, Americans United filed suit along with the American Civil Liberties Union against Enfield Public Schools of Connecticut over their decision to hold a graduation ceremony at a nearby megachurch. Later that year, U.S. District Court Judge Janet C. Hall ruled against Enfield, and the two high schools held their graduation ceremonies elsewhere.