Supremes could hear church-state controversy over high school graduation venue

A First Amendment controversy over a Wisconsin public high school’s use of a large, non-denominational Christian megachurch for high school graduation ceremonies may be headed to the United States Supreme Court.

In late December, Elmbrook School District in suburban Milwaukee petitioned the high court to review a July ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of the plaintiffs, a group of students and their families, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

Reversing an earlier decision by a three-judge panel (and a previous lower court decision), the full 7th Circuit court ruled 7-3 that the doctrine of separation of church and state prohibits the district’s practice of holding graduations at the church

Like a great number of churches, Elmbrook Church is home to substantial religious imagery including a large cross over the stage. There are also Bibles in the pews.

The school district held its graduations there because it provides plenty of seating as well as dependable, comfortable air-conditioning, according to Brookfield Patch. The district says prayers and religious references were not part of any graduation ceremonies.

The 7th Circuit was not convinced.

“We conclude that an unacceptable amount of religious endorsement and coercion occurred when the district held important civil ceremonies in the proselytizing environment of Elmbrook Church,” the majority said.

The case began in 2009 with a lawsuit filed by the Washington, D.C.-based group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Journal Sentinel notes.

While Elmbrook School District hasn’t held its graduations at the church since 2009, it has enlisted a legal dream team for the potential high court litigation. A prestigious national law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, is involved, along with noted Stanford University Law School professor Michael W. McConnell and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

“If the Supreme Court agrees to hear the school district’s appeal, it has the potential to become one of the most significant church–state cases in many years,” Luke Goodrich, an attorney at the Becket Fund, told the Journal Sentinel. “Public schools across the country rely on churches to provide a comfortable, cost-effective facility for graduation ceremonies.”

The odds that the Supreme Court will hear the case are slim; the nine Justices grant certiorari to less than two percent of all petitions filed in any given year.

“We think it’s very unlikely that the Supreme Court will take the case,” Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told Brookfield Patch.”If it does take the case, we feel good about our chances of prevailing, and while we understand that the school district has the right to pursue this appeal, we think it’s not a wise use of the resources and time of the school district.”

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