Elmbrook School District v. Doe

Where would you rather attend your high school graduation: In a hot, sweaty gym? Or in a state-of-the-art auditorium? For the Elmbrook School District, the question is a no-brainer: It chose the auditorium.

The school gym was hot, cramped, and sweaty in the month of June—with no air conditioning, inadequate parking, poor handicapped facilities, and only folding chairs or bleachers for seating. So the senior class proposed moving graduation to a local church auditorium.

The auditorium had more space, more parking, better handicapped facilities, and better seating. It had large video screens for close-up viewing. It had air conditioning. And it cost the same as the school gym.

The District happily moved graduation to the auditorium for the next decade, and the students were delighted.

Then came the lawsuit. A secularist organization claimed that certain students were “offended” and “angry” at the use of the church auditorium. They admitted that the graduation events were entirely secular, and that no prayers or religious references had ever been made. But they disliked the fact that there was a cross at the front of the auditorium, Bibles and hymnals in the pews, and church brochures in the lobby.

A federal district court quickly rejected their lawsuit. But surprisingly, the Chicago-based United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that renting the church auditorium was unconstitutional. It said that the “religious environment” of the auditorium created a risk that graduating students would “perceive the state as endorsing a set of religious beliefs.” Judges Ripple, Posner, and Easterbrook dissented, pointing out that holding graduation in a church auditorium no more endorses religion than holding graduation in a movie theater endorses movies.

The case is vitally important—for both practical and constitutional reasons.

Practically, hundreds of school districts across the country hold graduations in religious venues. Such venues are often the best and cheapest available, and courts have been upholding the practice for almost 100 years. If the Seventh Circuit’s decision stands, school districts across the country will have to scramble for alternative venues that are either worse, more expensive, or both.

Constitutionally, the case presents a vital question: Is the government allowed to be neutral toward religion, or must it treat religion as something harmful that should be avoided? The Supreme Court has traditionally championed neutrality as the constitutional ideal. If it departs from that ideal in this case, the consequences for the relationship between church and state would be profound.

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For years, Brookfield Central High held their graduation ceremony in their school auditorium which was hot, cramped, and uncomfortable–lacking air conditioning, adequate seating, adequate parking, or adequate handicapped facilities. At the students’ request, the school moved graduation to a nearby church auditorium.

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