June 23, 2014

​Supreme Court Won’t Wade into Fight Over Graduations in Churches

 ©2014 Religion News Service

The U.S. Supreme Court, on June 16, let stand a
lower court ruling that a Wisconsin high school acted unconstitutionally when
it held its graduation ceremonies in a local megachurch.

The case, Elmbrook School District. v. Doe,
involved a high school in a suburb of Milwaukee that rented the
nondenominational Elmbrook Church for its graduation exercises multiple
times through 2009. In 2012, the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals called the event “offensive” and “coercive.” The church’s banners,
pamphlets, Bibles and other religious materials remained in the sanctuary
during the graduation.

As is their custom, the justices did not give a
reason for declining to hear a challenge to the 7th Circuit ruling.

Monday’s decision may be a signal by the
court that despite its approval of sectarian prayers at public meetings in
the Town of Greece v. Galloway decision in May, it draws
the line at exposing children to religious symbols when they have no choice
about it.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas
dissented in the decision to let the lower court ruling stand. They argued in a
seven-page opinion that the Greece v. Galloway decision undercut the 7th
Circuit decision in Elmbrook.

In the dissent, Scalia, a Catholic, likened the
exposure of children to religious symbols at graduations to his own distaste
for the public playing of “rock music or Stravinsky,” implying he — and they —
have to put up with it but are not damaged by it.

“It may well be . . . that the decision of the
Elmbrook School District to hold graduations under a Latin cross in a Christian
church was ‘unwise’ and ‘offensive,’” Scalia wrote. “But Town of Greece
makes manifest that an establishment of religion it was not.”

Reaction from religious liberty groups was

“Church buildings should not be treated like
toxic warehouses simply because they normally house religious activities,” said
David Cortman, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative
Arizona-based Christian law firm that specializes in First Amendment cases. “We
hope the Supreme Court will clearly affirm in a future case that government
neutrality toward religion is not achieved by treating it like asbestos in the
ceiling tiles of society.”

“No student should ever be forced to choose
between missing their own graduation and attending that seminal event in a
proselytizing environment inundated with religious icons and exhortations,”
said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United for
Separation of Church and State and the attorney who argued the case on behalf
of the plaintiffs. “We are very pleased that the decision of the appeals court
will stand.”