SCOTUS: No Public School Graduations In Churches

The Supreme Court declined to hear a case contesting the unconstitutionality of holding public school graduations in churches Monday, Religion News Service reports.

The case, Elmbrook School District v. Doe, centered on a Milwaukee high school that had been holding its graduation ceremonies in a local nondenominational megachurch — where Bibles, crosses and other religious paraphernalia remained on display during the ceremonies.

In 2012, a lower court found that “an unacceptable amount of religious endorsement and coercion occurred when the district held important civil ceremonies in the proselytizing environment of Elmbrook Church,” a ruling now left in place by the Supreme Court’s denial of review. (RELATED: Supremes could hear church-state controversy over high school graduation venue)

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing with characteristic humor and bluntness, dissented from the decision: “Some there are—many, perhaps—who are offended by public displays of religion. Religion, they believe, is a personal matter; if it must be given external manifestation, that should not occur in public places… I can understand that attitude: It parallels my own toward the playing in public of rock music or Stravinsky. And I too am especially annoyed when the intrusion upon my inner peace occurs while I am part of a captive audience, as on a municipal bus or in the waiting room of a public agency. My own aversion cannot be imposed by law because of the First Amendment.” Justice Clarence Thomas joined him in the dissent.

Scalia went on to argue that the lower court’s decision ignores precedent set in the recently decided case Town of Greece v. Galloway, in which the Court ruled 5-4 that opening legislative sessions with prayer does not violate the Establishment Clause. “In this case, it is beyond dispute that no religious exercise whatever occurred. At most, respondents complain that they took offense at being in a religious place. … It is perhaps the job of school officials to prevent hurt feelings at school events. But that is decidedly not the job of the Constitution.” (RELATED: Does the Constitution require lowest-common-denominator prayer?)

Legal journalist Lyle Denniston has suggested that the deciding factor pushing SCOTUS to reject the appeal was the potential coercion of children, which was not a factor in Town of Greece, although he also notes that “because the Court never explains its refusals to hear a case, there is no way to know what led it to bypass a case.”

The school district first moved its graduation ceremony from the “hot, cramped, and uncomfortable” gymnasium to Elmbrook Church at the request of the student body in 2000. “The students repeatedly voted to use the sanctuary,” reports Courthouse News Service, “which, unlike the school’s old gymnasium, offers amenities such as air conditioning, adequate and comfortable seating, and a large parking lot.”

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