Churches and Graduations

Joe Carter covers a story up in Milwaukee at my friend’s, Mel Lawrenz’s, church:

I got this for the judge; maybe he appreciates the potency of aesthetics. Carter thinks it exemplifies activist judges.

The Story: The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling that holding a public school graduation in a church violates the Establishment Clause when the church has an indeterminate number of religious icons and symbolism in the building.

The Background: The court ruled inDoe v. Elmbrook School District that a high school administration violated the First Amendment’s no-religious-establishments by holding a graduation ceremony in a church building because of that particular building’s “proselytizing environment.”

As Richard Garnett explains, there was no dispute that the reasons for holding the ceremonies in the building had nothing to do with evangelism and everything to do with space and comfort. But, because the building is “indisputably and emphatically Christian,” the court majority concluded that holding the ceremonies in this building both “endorsed” religion and “coerced” religious exercise. The court wrote:

Regardless of the purpose of school administrators in choosing the location, 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.

Why It Matters: The ruling appears to be a peculiar and disconcerting expansion of the Supreme Court’s already flawed Establishment Clause jurisprudence. The ruling does not explain what type or number of religious imagery constitutes a “proselytizing environment.” If this standard is allowed to become a precedent, future rulings could determine that any religious imagery creates an environment of proselytization and must be excluded.

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  • Well, Orthodox Jews are forbidden from entering a church. It would seem that holding the ceremonies in a particular church would have inherently religious consequences.

  • Patrick

    They’re wrong, the building in and of itself is nothing and neither was the Jerusalem temple, otherwise Yahweh would not have had it torn down twice by pagans punishing ancient Israel, right? Let them right in the holy of holies. Where Yahweh had left earlier of course.

    You’d think that ancient precedent would have informed Judaism about the value of a building and it’s religious value.

    Anyway, to the article. What else is new? American culture is hostile to Christ.

    We should not expect it to be otherwise, it’s the world, we’re of Christ. It will get worse, believe that. This is why it bothers me when we expect the state to operate as God’s kingdom and almost all of us do in some form or fashion.

  • Robin

    I think the interesting thing here is that this particular school is left without a place to celebrate graduation in the future. They chose the church because their school facilities were insufficient and they didn’t want to have it in an outdoor venue due to heat and lack of air-conditioning. The students chose the church because the facilities were large enough and it was comfortable for the guests.

    A couple of the dissenting judges in this case also noted the absurdity of the logic of the establishment clause used here. According to this reading of the clause it is “establishing” a religion if the building is used for secular purposes by the school at which attendance is completely voluntary (noone really fails to graduate if they refuse to show), but it is not establishment if the building is used for the secular purpose of voting, at which attendance is compulsory if you choose to participate in the democratic process.

    Either this decision will be overturned, or there will be a massive reconsideration and church buildings will be banned from all public functions from town hall meetings, to voting, to government-funded blood drives and awareness campaigns.

  • Robin

    I also got the feeling from the ruling that the problem was with the religious symbolism and literature present in the building, but it was never addressed specifically. Does this mean that you couldn’t host something at a Catholic Church because there would be artwork and crucifixes, but you could hold it at a reformed church because there will be no visual depictions of God or religious activity? Very confusing distinctions if the problem isn’t that it is a religious building, but that religious paraphernalia is present in the building.

  • PJ Anderson

    More of the same from our put of control courts.

    FWIW, our church hosts a local high school graduation in our worship center and gyms. Our worship center seat 3000 and the gyms can accomodate an additional 1000. We’re the largest venue in the county. They can meet here and we don’t have too many overt “Christian symbols” in the rooms. It’s a good fit for the county and school. Our parking lots alone can handle most of their traffic flows and we have a good satellite parking system.

    The cost for the school is about $2000 for our facility which basically covers our electric and minor staffing (A/V team) during the event. The next largest venue, which can only accomodate 2000 total, costs about ten times that much for the graduation and there is an extra cost for the practice.

    Apparently common sense and reason aren’t prerequisites for judicial service anymore. The above ruling is a continued demonstration of this reality. The dissent is worth reading. Judge Posner destroys the ruling.

  • Patrick

    They could do like Notre Dame did and cover up their crosses. Not a reasonable option for e believer, IMO.

  • dopderbeck

    This is an interesting case. Rick Garnett is a friend and colleague of mine, but IMHO this case is a bit more complicated than he suggests. I do agree that the establishment / free exercise jurisprudence is a mess. And I agree that Judge Posner’s dissent concisely explains how and why the establishment / free exercise jurisprudence is a mess.

    But: consider this key fact in the case, recited in both the majority opinion and in Posner’s opinion:

    The District admits that Church members manned information booths that contained religious literature during the 2009 graduation, and a DVD recording of the 2002 ceremony shows people staffing these tables. The District also admits that during the 2002 ceremony, “Church members passed out religious literature in the lobby” although neither the District nor the Does divulge further details about how the distribution took place or at whose behest.

    Does this activity, in connection with the pervasive religious symbolism in the builiding, put the establishment clause issue in a more difficult light? I think it does.

    Consider also this argument in Judge Posner’s dissent:

    How often are visitors to churches converted by the visit? Conversion generally precedes attendance. How many of the millions of non-Catholic visitors to St. Peter’s—Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and so forth—have converted to Catholicism as a result of their visit to that awesome site?

    Hmmm… Judge Posner doesn’t seem to have much of a theology of sacred spaces, does he? Personally, I have a picture of myself from a couple of years ago standing in one of the light beams in the nave of St. Peter’s in Rome. If I ever do become Catholic, the experience of that sacred space most definitely will be one part of the equation.

    Consider also this quote from Posner’s dissent: “The idea that mere exposure to religious imagery, with no accompanying proselytizing, is a form of religious establishment has no factual support, as well as being implausible.”

    Again, not much of a theology of aesthetics here, is there? As another personal example, recently I took a little tour of the chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York. The iconography in an Orthodox church / chapel most definitely and intentionally serves a “proselytizing” function — it is a living representation of the assembled body of Christ in Heaven and on Earth and is designed to draw the eye and the soul towards worship. What would Judge Posner say about a public high school graduation in a space that is so self-consciously visually liturgical?

    OTOH, I understand the reaction that it can’t be the case that the presence of any religious symbolism at all at a public function is an establishment clause violation. But I wonder if a thoroughgoing theology of the aesthetics of worship spaces would, indeed, suggest that a public function can’t be held in a church sanctuary without implicating the establishment clause?

  • dopderbeck

    And, consider this hypothetical: a public high school graduation is held in the sanctuary of a local Satanist congregation, which rents out the space for a fee. The walls of this space are decorated with pentagrams and other demonic imagery. Some of the Christian students at the school fear that this imagery, in itself, in fact invites the presence of real, oppressive demonic forces. Indeed, the Satanist group believes that these images are anti-icons — visual gateways to the realm of the demons. The actual graduation ceremony, however, is conducted only by public school officials who have no personal connection to the Satanist congregation.

    Establishment clause violation? I think so.

  • scotmcknight

    Dopderbeck, I overreached … though I did see his statements. Your light clarifies the situation even more.

  • Robin

    A. Lear corollary would also be an immediate halt to any school trips involving trips to sacred spaces. After all if people are going to be converted by the mere presence of sacred imagery we can’t have class trips to the. national cathedral or notre dame.

  • Nancy L.

    As a member of the church and the parent of a student involved in one of the graduations, this issue has been discussed quite a bit. The heart of this church is to serve the community and this was one way to do so. It is not known to the public the identities of the ‘Does’ that brought the suit so there are no specific religious offenses that can be addressed. In one of my discussions, a friend brought up an excellent point: why then do we have polling places located within churches? Is that not a stronger link between church and state? Over reaching by activist judges? Absolutely! Misinterpretation of the establishment cause? Without doubt!

  • Robin


    If you are still lurking. How does the fact that it is congress who is prohibited from an establishment of religion bear upon this case. This was a local school decision, it clearly wasn’t congress making the decision. Is it common in constitutional law to say that any prohibition placed on congress (or any branch of government) automatically is placed upon all branches and all levels of government?

  • I was senior pastor at Elmbrook Church from 2000 to 2010, so I have some details to flesh out this story.
    1. Numerous schools over the years have used our facility for their graduation for many years. They are anxious to do so. When we opened our facility in 1994 we believed we should serve community needs for certain community events. The school districts (including parents and kids) have felt very strongly that the space and comfort helped them. 3,000 seats means students can have ample guests, and the air conditioning was better than sweltering gymnasiums.
    2. The church never initiated these arrangements, but responded to requests.
    3. We have always been extremely sensitive to the issue of proselytism, and never had any church members do anything with the events. We always have a few volunteers around when there are thousands of people in the building, largely to answer the most pressing question: “where are the bathrooms?” and other practical matters. I have no idea what the mention of literature distribution means. That is not our policy or practice.
    4. My personal opinion (not speaking officially for the church) is that this court judgment which claims having a graduation in a church “endorsed” religion and “coerced” religious exercise is ridiculous. It is condescending in the extreme to say that intelligent people cannot understand the concept of a rented facility. Our space, in fact, is very spartan–no stained-glass windows, no candles, no statues, no altar. There is a simple wooden cross mounted on the back wall of the church. And yes, when you drive in the driveway it does say “Elmbrook Church.” What we heard from countless parents and students over the years is that they in no way felt they were drawing into a religious experience by stepping into the building. Here is an irony, I think: the handful of people who think this objectionable, with a high view of human dignity, are really portraying human beings as weak-willed and feeble-minded. They need to be protected lest their eyes fall on a religious symbol and they are swept away in religious sentiment they did not choose.
    5. Sadly, the whole line of argument fails the common-sense test, does not line up with what has actually happened in our facility and in many others across the country, and further divides our communities into secular and sacred ghettos.

  • Pat Pope

    But groups go into churches knowing full well what they are. It’s not like they show up for their meeting, event, etc. and then have some epiphany of what it is and what it represents. There are plenty of people who come into churches for any variety of reasons and leave the same way they came in. But I will tell you, that having served in church leadership, we did always see it as an opportunity to open our doors to the public on the hope that someone might be impressed either by an encounter with a member, some of the literature or just by the hospitable treatment. So, while we didn’t outright proselytize, the hope was that people would be impressed in some way to return for worship.

  • Pat-
    No surprise that believers would see any bridge to the unbelieving world as a potentially good thing. If not, we’d be pretty indifferent about the glory of God and the need of humanity. But it is possible to be a blessing to a community with no strings attached. As I’ve watched dozens of community events where throngs of people pass through the building, I’m simply grateful for the opportunity to share the blessing of a great facility. This is not unlike the issue of believers doing acts of mercy because it is inherently right–no strings attached. What a shame if we are so overly-sensitive to the charge of proselytism that we draw ourselves in like turtles in a shell. (I’m not saying that you’re saying that specifically, Pat.)

  • Pat Pope

    Actually, you and I are saying the same thing Mel about being a blessing to the community. That’s what we were about and we didn’t shirk back from that nor were there any strings attached. More often than not, we had to try to sell the congregation on the idea of opening up the building to more and more events and groups if they weren’t overtly religious services. People weren’t afraid of being unfairly charged. They were just into their building–it had become an idol and if it wasn’t a worship service or something that they couldn’t make sure Jesus’ name was being spoken, they didn’t want any part of it. People even had a hard time with Upward Basketball games being on Sunday, but if you open your church to certain programs, everybody is not going to share your views, necessarily. Some people are drawn to certain programs because they see them as positive for their family, but while Sunday is sacred to some churchfolk, the same is not true for everybody else. So, we have to often balance reaching people vs. giving up some of our traditions that are barriers to reaching people.

  • Good points, Pat.