High School Graduation Ceremonies Can Be Held in Church, Say Judges

On Friday, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 (PDF) that public high schools holding graduation ceremonies inside churches were not violating the Establishment Clause and church/state separation.

“There is no realistic endorsement of religion by the mere act of renting a building belonging to a religious group,” Judge Kenneth R. Ripple wrote for the majority.

… Graduates weren’t forced to participate in any religious exercise, Ripple wrote. As for the religious environment, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t shield someone from encountering others’ religious beliefs and symbols, he said.

“The encounter with religion here is purely passive and incidental to attendance at an entirely secular ceremony,” he wrote.

In 2009, Americans for Separation of Church and State filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of nine unidentified students and parents who described themselves as non-Christians. They argued graduations in a church offended them.

Graduates were compelled to enter “a sacred space” and had to view religious symbols such as a 20-foot cross that towered over the graduation proceedings, religious pamphlets and hymnals, which imposed religion upon them and sent a message the government was endorsing religion, they contended.

… Judge Joel M. Flaum wrote in dissent that the church’s prominent religious symbols and literature amounted to a religious message students might have felt pressured to adopt.

“The sheer religiosity of the space created a likelihood that high school students and their younger siblings would perceive a link between church and state. That is, the activity conveyed a message of endorsement,” Flaum wrote. “The only way for graduation attendees to avoid the dynamic is to leave the ceremony. That is a choice … (the U.S. Constitution) does not force students to make.”

There’s a lot wrong with this ruling, beginning with the fact that the students voted to approve the venue… as if that’s some sort of justification for it.

And what about the cross on stage?

It sounds eerily similar to some controversial high school graduation ceremonies held in Georgia:

But that’s not religious, say two of the three judges.

The dissenter, Judge Flaum, added that if school officials had to go out their way to “secularize” the venue, that shows it was the wrong place to begin with:

None of this is to suggest that school officials should have exercised a higher degree of control over the church’s environment, scrubbing it of religious symbols or working to tailor its message to a secular audience. Such a course would have run afoul of Lemon’s excessive entanglement prong… Instead, school administrators should have examined the space that students voted for and recognized that it was not an appropriate location for holding a public high school graduation ceremony.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which lost this case, is considering appealing the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but doing that, having the case accepted by the Court, and getting a victory there seems like a series of long shots.

The question now is what implications this will have for Christian administrators of public schools who will see this ruling as a green light to move their own graduation ceremonies to local churches.

The decision technically only affects Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. However, other state courts may cite this decision if there’s a lawsuit. It’s also possible that another Appeals Court, say the generally liberal 9th Circuit Court, could hear a similar case and rule the other way… in which case the Supreme Court could step in and make a final decision. Lots of possibilities and I’m not very optimistic about any of them.

(via Religion Clause)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Anonymous

    beep beep, I’m a judge. Discuss. Yes, I’m tired.

  • Stacy

    Very unfortunate and narrow minded of the judges.  When I graduated high school, our commencement was held in a church, and I remember feeling incredibly unwelcome and like I was having the religion forced upon me.  By selecting the church, the school has an appearance of endorsing it and its beliefs, and that’s just wrong.  I know that Christians would be absolutely outraged if a school tried to have a graduation ceremony in a mosque, with Muslim symbols hanging over their children’s heads, and I wouldn’t expect them to just “get over it” and accept that, so it seems like that understanding should be extended to other belief systems as well.

  • Heidi

    Hear that, kids?  Next time, vote for a strip club. After all, “there is no realistic endorsement of strippers by the mere act of renting a building belonging to a strip club.”

  • Anonymous

    My high school is located right next to a Catholic church and activities are held in the “fellowship hall” not infrequently, namely an annual “kindness retreat” for 5th graders and a “courage retreat” for 8th graders. About one school choir concert a year is held in the sanctuary. On the same note, our choir/band music is frequently Christian in nature.

    I expect mine isn’t a unique scenario. I’m not in the deep south; I’m in Minnesota. I feel no need to challenge anything because I don’t really feel oppressed. Alone, maybe, but not oppressed. Now, if someone tried to force me to say the “under God” that I regularly omit or started making slanderous comments about atheists, things would be different…

  • Cutencrunchy

    As long as the students can add to the scenery with hail Satan signs posters and outfits.. my guess is the venue would suddenly be more obviously an imposition of religion on a supposedly free of religion venue.. it is the oppression of being corralled into the ‘standard’   – the norm – ‘the way it is’ – making sure anyone of different ideology feels marginalized

  • Karen L

    This shows a lack of imagination on the part of the judges.  As in, just imagine the school was holding graduation in a mosque.  Would it be OK?  Whether or not the court thinks it would be OK, clearly the community (assuming a typical majority Christian community) would be very upset, and I’m sure would quickly and successfully agitate for change.  

    If the judges can understand that, then they should be able to see why using a church is equally problematic.

    Karen

    • Adviser_Moppet_23

      Usually the way it goes. The christian majority doesn’t see a problem with holding public events in churches. It’s only when someone else’s religion gets the same treatment do they all of a sudden care about separation of church and state.

      • Austin

        Which is the most ridiculous, disgusting, hypocritical thing about christians. They’re so mentally unstable that they are literally unable to see anything other than the untruths they’ve been taught since they were old enough to retain information. The second someone suggests the ceremony be held in a religious setting that isn’t a church, there will be violence, riots, and lynchings from the masses of uneducated people that formerly shouted “equality!” while simultaneously bashing gays, atheists, and everyone from every other religion. 

  • Karen L

    This shows a lack of imagination on the part of the judges.  As in, just imagine the school was holding graduation in a mosque.  Would it be OK?  Whether or not the court thinks it would be OK, clearly the community (assuming a typical majority Christian community) would be very upset, and I’m sure would quickly and successfully agitate for change.  

    If the judges can understand that, then they should be able to see why using a church is equally problematic.

    Karen

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1535286477 Roxane Farrell Murray

    Sometimes if you want to play, you end up in churches.  My last quilt guild met in one.  The funny thing was that it had a really awful stained glass window, and if you kind of squinted, it looked like Jesus was holding a quilting hoop–although I think it was just a vague, stupid draping of his robe.

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    This is in some ways going to be much worse for religious students than atheist or agnostic students. Some religions have direct prohibitions on going into the places of worship of other religions. Many Orthodox Jews for example believe they cannot go into a church (this sort of thing is a holdover from when Judaism was a henotheistic religion). Of course even without that, atheists, agnostics, members of other Christian denominations, moderate Jews, Muslims, etc. etc. will feel unwelcome and with religious pressure. This seems to be the wrong decision. Judge Flaum’s dissent seems straight on. 

    • Anonymous

      Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot attend any type of event in a church of a different faith… I had a few employees who were JW.  We had annual awards and one year, the only place we could find to rent for the huge banquet was a (nondenominational) church hall.  They both complained to the home office for being discriminated against.  They did not attend.

  • Annie

    Hmm.  My daughter’s band holds their winter concert in a church… not because they endorse the religion, but because the church lets them use it for free.  Churches are very often a much cheaper (or even free) venue for these types of events.  I’m not saying that makes it right to hold events such as graduation at a church, but we do need to keep in mind that many schools just don’t have the funds to rent a place.  I see this as more of a logistical issue than an attempt to indoctrinate.

    • Grant Gordon

      I agree, so long as the ceremony itself is secular, I don’t see any issues renting space that belongs to a church, they often have large venues at a reasonable price.

    • Austin

      I’m a concert pianist and an atheist. I regularly play in churches. But what most people somehow don’t realize is that it’s an entirely different situation than this. Religious movements are a part of the history and development of music, so playing a certain type of music in the setting the music was intended for doesn’t make me uncomfortable in any way. School, on the other hand, should never have anything to do with religion. And placing a graduation ceremony in a religious building, no matter how many of the students agreed to it or whether it’s a church or a mosque, will ALWAYS make at least one child feel uncomfortable, and that’s exactly why we have the first amendment. So that the one child that’s different doesn’t have to feel like an unwanted minority. 

  • PJB863

    There’s a flip side to this argument.  Sometimes churches rent space from schools to hold services on Sundays.  The argument in both cases here is that the space is available and affordable at the time it’s needed.  Not the best case scenario, but it might be the only alternative to holding services/graduation ceremonies outdoors in the rain.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    If this goes to the current Supreme Court, aka the High Council for the Defense of the True Faith, any complaint about crosses looming over graduating students will be dismissed out of hand, since in the Mojave Desert Cross case Scalia and others of the legal pontiffs declared that crosses aren’t symbols of Christianity anyway. They’re symbols of the dead. 

    So I guess the kids will be graduating inside a large crypt…?

  • http://twitter.com/jonathanfigdor Jonathan Figdor

    Just to provoke the conservatives, how about we vote to hold it in a Mosque. And integrate Muslim prayer into the ceremony. I wonder how “irreligious” they would find that…

    • Jesus Loves You

      “All theists are stupid and irrational. Except Muslims. And Hindus. Well, and basically everyone who isn’t Christian.”

      • Thoughts

        And the award for completely missing the point goes tooooo……

        She isn’t advocating a mosque ceremony, but pointing out that some groups are selectively blind on matters of church/state separation.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t see how this could hurt. As long as the officiators of this event don’t proselytize directly or indirectly- no Lord’s Prayers, no call upon on Allah or Yahweh or Zeus for that matter, it shouldn’t be an issue.
    And frankly I’m getting sick of the ” Replace the church with a mosque and people will lose their collective sh*t” example. We get it already. People are intolerant towards the imaginary fairies of their peers while professing the teachings of tolerance and humility as taught by their imaginary fairy.
    It’s called hypocrisy. 

    • alsohairy

      Except what most christians conveniently CONTINUE to forget is that it’s a church. It’s a building that evokes emotion in a large majority of the people that go into it, who quite often feel compelled to express their feelings with those around them. Just because you wouldn’t start telling your friend about how great christianity is, doesn’t mean the other people around you wouldn’t start doing exactly that. Christians are pretty bad at keeping their religion to themselves, after all. And just because you understand that christians are hypocrites, it doesn’t mean that christians understand that. Hence the constant reminders up and down this page. The people saying it are probably hoping it will knock some sense into the blind sheep.

  • Michael

    Both my universities had graduation ceremonies in religious buildings. I graduated in absentia twice.

  • David McNerney

    One of the (many) reasons I came to an atheistic conclusion was that, as a Catholic at a Catholic school, I was required to attend mass regularly.

    Bad mistake on their part – because you very quickly begin to realize that you are not looking at a deeply significant spiritual event, but instead, you are actually just attending a play: there are actors, there’s a script, there are sets and there’s a stage.

    Seeing through the veil of the church ceremony helped me to see through the veil of the whole thing.  In the long run by diminishing the significance of these “holy” places, the triumphant religious might find that they are in fact the overall losers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    “[Graduates were compelled to view] religious pamphlets and hymnals, which imposed religion upon them”This is where I see the big problem. Holding the ceremony in a church is unnerving but I can imagine it would probably be alright as long as it’s kept secular without any preaching. I agree If church people are handing out pamphlets and hymnals or praying during the ceremony, that makes all the difference.I do agree with Judge Ripple in saying “As for the religious environment, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t
    shield someone from encountering others’ religious beliefs and symbols.” We all know the hypocrisy argument that all the Christian supporters would be mortified if the 20 foot cross were replaced with a 20 foot crescent moon & star. But this isn’t a deal of public opinion or social stigmas. I’d be just as okay with symbols of Islam hanging around as long as there is no active preaching, and the law doesn’t shield me from encountering those symbols even during a taxpayer funded ceremony.

  • gsw

    OK, try having it a catholic church, with a life size statue of a dead body being tortured on a woodn contraption. Then when the ‘commencement’ commences – so to speak – yess, HEY, CAN YOU COVER THE CORPSE, I’M GONNA PUCK!

  • Rich Hammett

    Wow.  The voices of reason are few and far between in this thread; most of you (including Hemant) are being VERY religious about this.   Look at the comment by rlrose328, and realize that you are making the EXACT same religious argument that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are.  You do NOT have the right in the country not to see religious symbols.  You cannot be forced to worship them, or what they stand for, but as a human being you should be polite to them, and as a student in a school, you can be forced to be civilized.  Besides the JW comment above, the one about “Hail Satan!” signs shows more of the incoherence of your complaint.

    Churches are (especially here in Georgia, where I saw Hemant’s last complaint) often very many and very include large spaces for community activities.  AVOIDING using churches makes you oddly religious and worshipful of their holy symbols.  The students should not be subject to proselytization as a condition of using the building, obviously; but, different from Hemant, I’m not opposed to them having the opportunity.  We’re training them to be adults, and if you treat religion as something magic they need to be protected from, then they may discover this magic and be completely unprotected by reason.

  • Rich Hammett

    Wow.  The voices of reason are few and far between in this thread; most of you (including Hemant) are being VERY religious about this.   Look at the comment by rlrose328, and realize that you are making the EXACT same religious argument that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are.  You do NOT have the right in the country not to see religious symbols.  You cannot be forced to worship them, or what they stand for, but as a human being you should be polite to them, and as a student in a school, you can be forced to be civilized.  Besides the JW comment above, the one about “Hail Satan!” signs shows more of the incoherence of your complaint.

    Churches are (especially here in Georgia, where I saw Hemant’s last complaint) often very many and very include large spaces for community activities.  AVOIDING using churches makes you oddly religious and worshipful of their holy symbols.  The students should not be subject to proselytization as a condition of using the building, obviously; but, different from Hemant, I’m not opposed to them having the opportunity.  We’re training them to be adults, and if you treat religion as something magic they need to be protected from, then they may discover this magic and be completely unprotected by reason.

    • http://thegodlessmonster.com/ The Godless Monster

      What you said…

  • http://thegodlessmonster.com/ The Godless Monster

    I just don’t see an issue with this. My son’s high school graduation was in a church and it never occurred to me to whine about it. It was a secular ceremony held in a rented building that was large enough to accommodate all of the students, faculty and proud family members.
    Secular options for buildings that are set up to handle large crowds like that are extremely limited in many parts of the country. Church buildings are often the ONLY option.
    Unless and until someone starts opening a chain of secular conference centers, we need to roll with the punches. Much ado about nothing, in my opinion.

  • Annaig

    My nephew graduated from High School in June and it was in a church. I was happy that the church had no obvious religious symbols and actually had a variety of world flags along the walls. If you missed the sign going in you would have missed it being a church.

    Cathedrals in the middle ages were places of community gathering. While the priest was reciting mass in Latin everyone else  was conducting business, catching up on gossip, etc. There were no seats so people were free to mingle. Churches have a long history of being more than a worship house. Even in medieval times people found better uses for the space.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Aaron-Scoggin/100000044792747 Aaron Scoggin

    To me, as mentioned above, this is much ado about nothing. Could the giant cross have been covered up? Yes, it could have. But it’s not illegal. And while I think we have the right to be free of religious indoctrination, we do not have the right to not be offended. 

  • Anonymous

    The solution to this is to have the graduation in the church, and then say something blasphemous during the secular graduation ceremony. Hold a prayer in Allah’s name, praise the FSM, make a vocal defense of church and state, whatever. Next year the church will probably get the message and not offer the building.


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