The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear an appeal from the Elmbrook School District, leaving in place a federal appeals court decision that said holding public high school graduations in a church was unconstitutional for violating the separation of church and state.
In 2012, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled against the Elmbrook School District for holding graduation ceremonies inside Elmbrook Church in Brookfield.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed the suit in 2009 on behalf of nine students, parents and graduates of the district, praised the Supreme Court's decision not to hear the appeal.
"No student should ever be forced to choose between missing their own graduation and attending that seminal event in a proselytizing environment inundated with religious icons and exhortations," Alex J. Luchenitser, Americans United's associate legal director who argued the case, said in a news release.
On Monday, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said they would have heard the case, citing the recent ruling that upheld the tradition of having prayer before government meetings.
"It is perhaps the job of school officials to prevent hurt feelings at school events," Scalia wrote in his dissent. "But that is decidedly not the job of the Constitution."
David Cortman, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit legal and religious organization, also cited the court's recent ruling in the Town of Greece v. Galloway, which stated that mere "offense...does not equate to coercion."
"Church buildings should not be treated like toxic warehouses simply because they normally house religious activities," he said in a written statement. "That has never been the intent of the First Amendment."
The U.S. Supreme Court first bypassed the case last May.
The district no longer holds graduation ceremonies at the church.
The Supreme Court's decision ended the case's five-year saga.
From 2000 to 2009, both of the district's high schools — Brookfield Central and Brookfield East — held graduation at the church because its size allowed graduates to invite as many friends and family as they wanted. The church also was an air-conditioned facility, unlike school gyms. Neither high school has used the church since 2010, when a new field house was built.
In April 2009, Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a suit on behalf of nine unnamed plaintiffs that described how graduation ceremonies at the church were staged so that students received their diplomas on a "dais beneath an immense Christian cross," which the church would not allow to be covered, court documents say.
In September 2011, a three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the district's decision to use the church for graduation was "neither impermissibly coercive nor an endorsement of religion on the part of the district."
Five months later, the full panel of judges on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a full review and heard oral arguments on the case.
In July 2012, the appeals court ruled in a 7-3 decision that the district violated the constitutional separation of church and state — reversing the ruling by a district court and the 7th Circuit's three-judge panel.
Judge Joel Flaum wrote for the majority: "We conclude that the practice of holding high school graduation ceremonies in the Elmbrook Church sanctuary conveys an impermissible message of endorsement."