The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 7-3 that high school graduations held in a church violate the constitution. The case concerned graduations held in Elmbrook Church, a non-denominational evangelical church in Brookfield, Wisconsin.
A panel of the 7th Circuit ruled last year that holding graduations in the church was not unconstitutional but the full court disagreed, ruling that the symbols present in the church, including a large cross, amounted to a government endorsement of a particular religion.
“The same risk that children … will perceive the state as endorsing a set of religious beliefs is present both when exposure to a pervasively religious environment occurs in the classroom and when government summons students to an offsite location for important ceremonial events,” Judge Joel Flaum wrote for the majority.
The ruling marks a far-reaching victory for the organization Americans for the Separation of Church and State, which filed a lawsuit three years ago alleging the ceremonies were unconstitutional.
“The decision makes clear to public schools that it’s not appropriate to hold graduation ceremonies in venues festooned with religious symbols,” the group’s executive director, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, said in a statement.
While a parent was the first one to object to the Elmbrook School District’s decision to move graduations to the church, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Anti-Defamation League, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State all also objected. Americans for Separation of Church and State filed a federal suit against the district in 2009.
The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause forbids the government from establishing an official national religion and prohibits favoring one religion over another or over non-religion. The school district is considering appealing the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.