District That Lost a Challenge to Hold Graduation in a Church Will Ask the Supreme Court to Review Case

Last month, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Elmbrook School District in Brookfield, Wisconsin violated the First Amendment when it held its graduation ceremonies in a church. You can read a summary of the case here.

The inside of Elmbrook Church

At the time, I wrote this:

The district’s last option now is to ask the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling. I would hope, after all this unnecessary fighting (and waste of taxpayer money), they just accept the loss and move on.

Well, looks like they’re ignoring me. Last week, they voted to ask the Supreme Court to hear their case:

On Tuesday, August 21, the School District of Elmbrook Board of Education voted 5-2 to appeal the 7th Circuit Court’s decision in the case of Does vs. School District of Elmbrook to the United States Supreme Court.

The district says it has attorneys who will work for free for them, but they’re also adding that it won’t cost the taxpayers more than $15,000. Money that should be going toward the education of students but will instead go to see if school-sponsored ceremonies in openly religious venues are ok.

The best outcome here would be for the Supreme Court to just decline to hear the case — which is what they do most of the time, anyway. But this is a case involving church-state separation… and given the current makeup of the court, it’s possible Justices Scalia and Thomas could persuade their conservative colleagues to accept it for review.

For what it’s worth, the whole case is moot for the district. They haven’t held a graduation ceremony in the church since 2009 after a new fieldhouse was built. They’re doing this for the sake of principle… to see if other districts can get away with it. And if they win, who knows, maybe they’ll be relocating the event back to the church.

(Thanks to Angela for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Ggsillars

    In the past, I would have expected the Supreme Court to make short work of this by refusing to grant Certiorari, effectively letting the lower court’s decision stand.  With the current court, however, I’m a bit nervous.

    • Spoolyk

      Activist courts cut both ways!

  • A3Kr0n

    These people are insane. There is no other explanation.

  • jdm8

    That they continue is silly, they’re still using and risking taxpayer funds to make their principled stand.

    • kenneth

      At this point, the board members should be held personally liable for any fees and damages in this fight. Unless they can articulate some real reason why church graduation furthers the educational needs of the students or the interests of the tax payers, they have no legitimate reason to press ahead. They’re simply fighting their own personal culture war battles with public funds. 

      • chanceofrainne

        +1

  • The Other Weirdo

    We have our corporate quarterly gatherings at a local Greek Orthodox church, mostly because it’s the cheapest facility with the required size and available parking. The priest isn’t present, nor are any crosses visible, nobody talks about anything except corporate business. For all intents and purposes, it might as well be a conference room in some hotel. I’m sure if that high school was holding a ceremony on these sorts of terms, nobody would even think twice about it.

  • CultOfReason

    The fact that they continue this fight seems frivolous to me considering they now have another viable venue for their graduation.

    That said, for schools in very small towns that may not have other viable or cost effective options, then I don’t necessarily see a problem with using a house of worship, assuming certain constraints can be applied, mainly:

    1. Crosses or other religious relics should be removed or covered up
    2. bibles and missiles (service books) should be stored out of site
    3. Prayers should not be conducted
    4. No proselytizing  of any nature, including making church bulletins available to the attendees

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      Nor did the court in this case.   It was a combination of “other venues are available” and “no attempt to make this one non-religious for the graduation”.  One school official tried to get the church to cover the cross, but the church refused.

  • The Watcher

    I’m not worried. Hemant is right, the case is moot, both colloquially and legally. That means there is no reason for the Court to hear it.

    • RedAmongBlues

      The case is not moot for two reasons. Some of the plaintiffs are suing for actual damages (stemming from the 2009 graduation), and the District has unequivocally refused to agree to not return to the Church.

      It’s very two faced: The district argues they were in search of an affordable venue with air conditioning, and now that they have one, they refuse to agree they no longer will use the Church. Secondly, all along the District has been arguing this is not about religion, but about a secular decision based on parking, comfort, big screen TV’s, cost, etc.

      So why is the District accepting the assistance of the Becket Fund for Religious Freedom as their pro bono legal team?

  • Angela

    I should have also mentioned that the former School District Superintendent was on the board of trustees of Elmbrook Church.  The current School District Superintendent is also a member of Elmbrook Church.

    Heresay info from people I know is that the first year they held graduation there, the cross was covered up, but in subsequent years, they didn’t bother.  There were hymnals and other religious propaganda in the pews where friends and family sat for the graduation ceremony.

    Also, this is by no means a small community that didn’t have other available options.  We’re in a large suburb of Milwaukee.  As to cost, given that the Superintendents have personal ties to Elmbrook Church, I’m sure the church cut them a deal on the rental of their space and/or let them use the space for free.  Does that make it right, though?

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      Heresay info from people I know is that the first year they held graduation there, the cross was covered up

      The court decision says it was covered up “by accident” one year.  Other requests were met with the Church saying they had a policy against ever covering it up.

      Heresay info from people I know is that the first year they held graduation there, the cross was covered up

      Not according to the decision.  It specifically mentions that there was no claim of impropriety by the school officials who were affiliated with the church, and the church charged the standard rate.

      • Angela

         Thank you, Rich.  I haven’t had the time yet to take a look at the official documents yet, which I why I wanted to make sure that I mentioned that some of what I “know” is heresay.

        The general gist of conversation about it here among many parents I know from the District is that we whiny non-Christians should really shut up and accept the fact that we’re minorities and, as such, should quit irritating the majority with our squawking.  It’s really disheartening.

        • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

          I see I messed up quoting you, but it looks like you got the gist :-)

          Have they yet asked why you whiny-Atheists never go after the Muslims?

          Edit: Oh, and ‘activist judges’.

          • rover serton

            whiny-Atheists… Nice way to stay classy.  Mostly because Muslims don’t push this crap on us.  YOU do.

            • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

              Hint: when in doubt, click the icon next to the user’s name.

          • Angela

             I see I neglected to proofread MY response, but you got the gist, too.  ;-)  Been a long day!

  • Xeon2000

    I’m torn over this issue. If it made financial sense and/or there was no other venue, then as long as they kept it secular I would support it.

    Now if there were other/better venues or the church worked heavily to prosyletize, recruit new members, and hold a service as part of the school sponsored event, that would be a big no no.

    Consequently, if the local mosque was available to rent for a secular event, they could be given consideration too. We know the Christian majority would choke on their own tongues over that idea…

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/DG3R7TJV2PKYJ4E5PRQKBWJIHY yahoo-DG3R7TJV2PKYJ4E5PRQKBWJIHY

    Local people think that if they don’t appeal they’ll be out more money due to the settlements, but I see no evidence for this. Also the last paragraph of the judgement is interesting: “Until the Scíieinpp decision in 1963 prayer was common in public schools in many parts of this country, yet religion had less salience in the public sphere than it has today. Separation rulings by the Supreme Court seem only to stimulate religious fervor. Religions thrive on persecution, real or imagined. Where would Christianity be without its martyrs? The real winner of this case is likely to be—Elmbrook Church.”

  • Max Exter

    It’s always fun to see these rulings.  Judge Hamilton’s chambers are literally the next door down from my office, so I see him all the time.  So not only is he quite pleasant to chat with, but he also contributes to good rulings!


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