UPDATE: Elmbrook Schools Chief Disappointed in Church-Graduation Ruling

Holding public high school graduation ceremonies in a Town of Brookfield mega-church violated the Constitution, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

(Updated 1 p.m. Tuesday:) Elmbrook School Superintendent Mark Hansen expressed disappointment Tuesday that a court ruled holding graduations at Elmbrook Church violated the First Amendment, and said Elmbrook will continue to use Brookfield East High's field house for future ceremonies.

"While we are disappointed with the majority opinion of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, since 2010 the School District of Elmbrook has used its new field house at Brookfield East to accommodate graduation ceremonies for both high schools," Hansen said. "The district will continue to use the field house in the future. There is no further need for graduation ceremonies to be held at Elmbrook Church."

The school district's legal counsel, Kristi Foy said the district had not made a decision on whether to see review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Given the recent ruling, we are currently working with legal counsel to determine how to proceed in a manner that most efficiently resolves this case," Foy said.

Hansen said the district is focusing on its primary mission: educating students and not where to hold graduations.

"Our primary focus as a district has always been to spend our time and resources on educating our students," Hansen said.

A federal appeals court ruled Monday that the Elmbrook School District violated the First Amendment to the Constitution when it held previous graduation ceremonies in a church.

The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit based in Chicago was 7-3. An attorney for the plaintiffs said it was the first federal court ruling in the nation on the issue of holding public graduations in a religious setting.

The court said its ruling was not broadly rejecting governmental use of church spaces, citing legal precedent for churches to be used as polling sites and a charter school's location in a church space without religious iconography. But it said in this case Elmbrook Church's cross and other religious materials in the presence of the public school graduation ceremony violated the Constitution.

"An unacceptable amount of religious endorsement and coercion occurred when the District held important civil ceremonies in the proselytizing environment of Elmbrook Church," U.S. Circuit Judge Joel M. Flaum wrote in the opinion.

Do you agree with the decision or not? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who sued on behalf of nine families whose names were kept anonymous, praised the reversal.

"We are very pleased with today’s decision," Alex J. Luchenitser, the group's associate legal director, told Patch in an email.

"As a result of today’s ruling, no student or parent in the three states covered by the Seventh Circuit (Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois) will ever be forced to enter an intensely religious environment of a faith not their own in order to attend their high-school graduation — a seminal event in the lives of students and parents," he said.

Elmbrook reviewing decision with attorneys

Elmbrook School officials said Monday they waiting to comment until they reviewed the opinion with legal counsel. To challenge Monday's ruling, the school district would need to seek a rare review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Luchenitser said he believed the decision would have a "broad impact all across the country, and discourage school districts" from holding their graduations in religious spaces.

He noted that last week the for Separation of Church and State to end its practice of holding graduations in a megachurch. The Enfield Board of Education voted 6-3 to settle and have the district's insurer pay a portion of the plaintiff's legal costs, reportedly up to $500,000.

Regarding the Elmbrook case, Luchenitser said some of the nine plantiffs have sought monetary damages that have not yet been set. He said he would seek a settlement with Elmbrook, rather than have the federal court establish damages.

Monetary damages unresolved

"While some of the plaintiffs have sought monetary damages in their complaint, this is not a major part of the case," he said.

"Some of the plaintiffs were so deeply uncomfortable attending graduations at Elmbrook Church – an intensely religious environment festooned with proselytizing symbols, banners and pamphlets of a faith not their own – that their graduations ceremonies were ruined as a result. The plaintiffs did not want their own families, or anyone else, to be subjected to that kind of experience in the future," he said.

Elmbrook said that a desire for better comfort, air conditioning and space spurred it to hold its graduation ceremonies for years at , a nondemoninational Christian in the Town of Brookfield, rather than the hot school gym with bleachers.

Then-Superintendent Matt Gibson asked the church to cover its large cross in the sanctuary above the graduation stage but the church refused. There also were other religious symbols and in some cases, some evangelism near the entrance, according to the lawsuit brought by the Washington D.C.-based Americans United. Families sat in the pews. 

Elmbrook moved its graduation ceremonies back to the high school in 2010, after building a new field house at . Graduations have not been held in the church since 2009.

Americans United said their clients want to ensure Elmbrook doesn't return the ceremonies to the church.

Monday's ruling reverses the finding of the federal appeals court's three-member panel, which had ruled, 2-1, .

Summer Roberts August 20, 2012 at 04:05 PM
If I had to actually do things to my body in order to be there, I would be offended. But I am not sure I would be offended if they didn't enforce any rules to make me feel like they were trying to conform me to their religion while I was there. Just simply seeing their symbols, etc. would mean nothing to me. Because, not being my religion, they wouldn't hold any meaning to me. If they tried to control my dress, that isn't appropriate. If the church had said that everyone had to wear dresses and slacks and noone could wear shorts, et cetera, that would seem like them pushing their views and values on them. Do I think they could have covered their cross? Absolutely, they could have. It was the churches own First Amendment right to display it. It was the students decision to overlook it and continue to hold the ceremony there. But I still don't see where the First Amendment was violated in this case. I am not that old (getting older!), but I remember prayer in schools, so it couldn't have been that long ago that it was allowed. We also said the pledge every day. That was such a pride of our beloved country and the principles on which it was founded. I do not judge others religion or beliefs. It is unfair to do so as everyone has the right to their freedom of religion. To each their own. But, I stand by my thinking that the constitution was not violated in this case. It's just too far of a reach. That is just my opinion, everyone has their own. Even the courts! ;)
Randy1949 August 20, 2012 at 04:14 PM
1962. I remember it well because we eighth graders had a joke: Teacher: What are you kids doing whispering at the back of the class? Students: We're telling dirty jokes. Teacher: Thank goodness - I was afraid you were praying. This was a grey area in regards to the Constitution, which was why it had to go through the courts. By the way, even at the age of ten I had begun to leave the words 'under God' out of the Pledge of Allegiance. The government has no business putting religious sentiments into my mouth.
BCHS06 August 23, 2012 at 09:20 PM
congrats randy, what an intelligent man you were at such a young age! too bad you're immaturity then is now just a pain in the butt for everyone else. Thanks for making me graduate at a school that was my cross-town rival. what a BIG man you are!
BCHS06 August 23, 2012 at 09:24 PM
lyle, so if the students want to graduate there then why not let them graduate there? why make them graduate at a school they did not attend and were rivals? why should anyone care what you think? are you graduating HS (you only do it once!) or are the students that want it at elmbrook church?
Randy1949 August 23, 2012 at 09:33 PM
I didn't make you graduate anywhere. I think that was the decision of your school board. Imagine it -- having to graduate in an actual school building and a cross-town rival at that! Oh, the horror! Just curious -- what class year were you?


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