Is a high school graduation in a Wisconsin church unconstitutional?

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If there’s no religious observance involved, is it OK to hold a high school graduation in a church?

The Supreme Court today released its orders for the week without any decision on whether to hear the Wisconsin case, after an appeals court ruled that Elmbrook School District’s decision on where to hold its graduations violates the separation of church and state, partly because students could opt not to attend their graduation if they didn’t want to be “immersed in religion.”.

But the school district’s lawyers, in their Supreme Court brief, argue that the appeals court decision discriminates against religion…

The District would be required to place a thumb on the scale against any venue with religious imagery, even if it were objectively superior. Such discrimination is not, as Respondents claim, “the fundamental premise of the Establishment Clause.”… Rather, it “foster[s] a pervasive bias or hostility to religion,” which “undermine[s] the very neutrality the establishment Clause requires.”

Lawyers for those who disagreed with the church locale are urging the Supreme Court not to touch the appeals court ruling until more cases of this nature are settled.

But in a brief filed with the Supreme Court, they dismiss the school district’s assertion that students are coerced into a religion setting:


As for the en banc court’s observation that, when students see their peers engaging in religious rituals or receiving proselytizing materials in a deeply religious setting during the capstone event of their school careers, “‘[t]he law of imitation operates’ and may create subtle pressure to honor the day in a similar manner” , the School District embarks on a flight of fancy in contending that the court has somehow threatened the constitutional right of students to engage in voluntary religious acts in an otherwise nonreligious public-school context. It is the School District’s decision to hold graduations in the Church’s religious

setting that is responsible for the coercive pressure here.

It’s no longer a yearly issue in the Brookfield-based district, which held graduations in an evangelical Christian church for a decade. It built a new field house where the ceremonies are now held.

  • Kassie

    If it is unconstitutional to hold a public high school graduation at a church, even if not religious observance takes place in the school, would it also be unconstitutional to have voting booths in a church too?

  • BJ

    Good point Kassie.

    I’m guessing the voting booths are not actually in the worship area, where the graduation was.

    I’m guessing that the Catholic’s doing the sign of the cross and kneeling as they sat or crossed in front of the cross was what triggered this.

    Very different from the school district requiring all students and family to do the sign of the cross and kneel. Peer pressure (from others) doesn’t count as government establishment of religion – and since it is not requiring joining the church to graduate…..

  • Kassie

    BJ let’s hope so. I doubt the City of Minneapolis could pull off an election without the use of churches, and I imagine most cities would be in the same boat.

  • Jamison

    I’d be surprised to see Catholics doing anything. The church was simply called “Elmbrook Church”, I assume it was a Protestant church.

  • Robert Moffitt

    My high school graduation was at Butler Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, where the finale of the movie “Hoosiers” was filmed.

    Some might call that a place of worship.