Appeals Court Rejects Graduation in Wisconsin Church

Appeals Court Rejects Graduation in Wisconsin Church July 26, 2012

It’s rare that an appeals court accepts an en banc rehearing and even rarer that the rehearing is successful in overturning the decision made by a three-judge panel, but it just happened in a Wisconsin case. A 10 judge en banc panel has ruled that a public high school cannot hold their graduation ceremonies in a church.

The court made clear that this is a very limited ruling, that it does not apply to every case where a school holds graduation ceremonies at a local church. But the facts of this particular case made it pretty obviously unconstitutional, for reasons the ruling makes clear:

To reach the sanctuary, visitors must pass through the Church lobby, which also has served as a natural

congregation point for graduates and their guests after past graduation ceremonies. The lobby contains tables and stations filled with evangelical literature, much of which addresses children and teens, and religious banners, symbols and posters decorate the walls. In the middle of the lobby is a large, circular desk displaying pamphlets such as “{young adults},” “{couples ministry},” “{middle school ministry},” “{high school ministry}” and “{college ministry}.” 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. According to Doe 1, when he attended his older sibling’s graduation, “[m]embers of the church, instead of school officials, handed out graduation materials during the ceremony.”

So the church took the ceremony as an opportunity to proselytize and the school let them do it. That’s pretty blatant and indefensible. You can read the full ruling here.

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  • DaveL

    The link isn’t working. Try this one instead.

  • The links in the OP and in the first comment aren’t working because it is a temporary link. While I can’t seem to force a permanent direct link, this link should direct people to the list of documents (click on the Flaum opinion). In case that doesn’t work, the case no. is 10-2922

  • A somewhat hypothetical point, but… Orthodox Jews are not supposed to enter churches or temples of other religions. Avoiding religious spaces avoids such problems entirely.

  • All the stories on this subject that I see are about high schools and below. What about public colleges? Is that an issue, or are college students – adults – supposed to be “immune” to the proselytizing on their own or something?

    My local community college holds all their regular graduation ceremonies in their own huge gym, but holds the ceremonies for the medical field (medical assistant, nursing, lab technician) in the local Catholic church. Is that thought to be OK, then?

  • ricko

    One of the schools that have availed themselves of this “place” is Brookfield Central, it’s almost two miles from where I live in Wauwatosa, although it’s in another county (Waukesha as opposed to Milwaukee):

    In fact, I go to the food store closest to there, the Pick ‘n Save on Capitol Drive in Brookfield.

    They ought to have known better, but they didn’t…. Or did they? They also put up incredible numbers for Scott Walker and, previously, John McCain… My city went the other way. I think I’ll stay here.

  • psweet

    ricko, I think Ed pointed out it’s not just the use of the church building, but the fact that the church was taking advantage of the occasion to actively proselytize. Simply renting out the hall to use wouldn’t be a problem at all.

  • sundoga

    Neither link is now working.

  • billydee

    Growing up Catholic in the 50s and 60s I remember that it was a huge sin to even enter a Protestant church, even for a funeral or wedding. I was even scared shitless about going into one of the Eastern Rite Catholic churches in my neighborhood. I think all that changed after Vatican II. I always wondered why Bill Donohue never got on Rick Santorum’s case for all the fundamentalist Protestant services he attended.