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.
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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 school district in Enfield, Connecticut, agreed to settle with Americans United 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 Elmbrook Church, 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 Brookfield East High School. 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, that Elmbrook could hold its graduation ceremonies in a church.