By Conn, Joseph L.
Church & State , Vol. 65, No. 8
When news broke that a federal appeals court had ruled against public school graduation ceremonies in a Wisconsin church, lawsuit plaintiff Ashley Dunbar was filled with happiness and relief.
Said Dunbar, "It means that I will not have to see another of my children graduate high school in a church under a large cross."
Dunbar--not the plaintiff's real name--was one of nine anonymous non-Christian students, parents and graduates who challenged the Elmbrook School District's practice of holding high school commencements at Elmbrook Church.
Represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, they argued that forcing children to go into a pervasively religious institution--of a faith to which they don't subscribe--to get their diplomas violated their religious liberty rights.
On July 23, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
Writing for the 7-3 majority, Judge Joel M. Flaum said, "Our conclusion is that the public school graduation ceremonies at issue, which took place in the sanctuary of a non-denominational Christian church, violated the Constitution. ... Here, the involvement of minors, the significance of the graduation ceremony, and the conditions of extensive proselytization prove too much for the [School] District's actions to withstand the strictures of the Establishment Clause."
The decision was an extraordinary victory for the dissenting families, Americans United and church-state separation.
A federal district court had ruled in favor of the school district, and a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit had done so as well. Americans United attorneys, however, were determined not to let those losses deny justice to the families involved. They asked the full 7th Circuit bench to rule on the Doe 3 ex rel. Doe 2 v. Elmbrook School District case.
The subsequent en banc decision was a sweeping win for secular public schooling and First Amendment principles.
In his majority opinion, Judge Flaum found that holding a public school commencement in the Elmbrook Church sanctuary conveyed "an impermissible message of endorsement" of religion and was "religiously coercive."
Flaum, who was appointed by President Ronald W. Reagan, noted that the church facility not only featured an auditorium with a 20-foot-tall cross hanging over it, but also included religious materials aimed at students and adults. Pews were festooned with Bibles, hymnals and "scribble cards" on which "God's Little Lambs" could draw.
"Put simply," wrote Flaum, "the environment was pervasively Christian, obviously aimed at nurturing Christian beliefs and gaining new adherents among those who set foot inside the church."
Dunbar and the other plaintiffs were elated with the court's action.
"It is a matter of minority rights, as embodied in the Constitution," said Dunbar. "In this case those of the majority religion saw nothing wrong with imposing their will on everyone attending graduation.
"Over and over, it was stated that 'it's just a church' and 'the graduation itself isn't religious'--yet the setting infused the ceremony with the trappings of Christianity, despite the existence of graduates and families from the Muslim, Jewish, Humanist and Atheist traditions," Dunbar continued. "Public schools must avoid showing preference for any religion--whether through graduation exercises, holiday assemblies or other activities--in order to maintain equality. Public schools need to focus on education, not religious indoctrination."
Elmbrook Church was particularly unwelcoming to the plaintiffs because of its reputation in the community. An evangelical mega-church in a Milwaukee suburb, the congregation makes clear its conservative theological stance.
The church condemns atheists as people "who think they are smarter than God." It refers to homosexuality as "not an acceptable lifestyle" and "contrary to God's will. …