Applying the Establishment Clause to Public School Graduation Locations

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently overturned a Wisconsin district court and ruled that a public school district’s practice of renting the auditorium of a nearby church for graduation ceremonies violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In John Doe v. Elmbrook School District, a group of unidentified parents, or “John Does,” objected to Elmbrook School District’s use of Elmbrook Church’s auditorium for graduation ceremonies. The District is a public school district located in and around Brookfield, Wisconsin. The practice in question began in 2000, when high school students at two different district high schools became fed up with graduation ceremonies held in the high school gymnasiums. The ceremonies were “chaotic” and “extremely hot.” At the request of an overwhelming majority of students, school and district officials rented the auditorium at nearby Elmbrook Church, which provided air-conditioning, free parking, and comfortable seating among other things. The church charged approximately $2,000-$2,200 for each ceremony, a standard rate for such facilities. A small group of non-Christian parents and former students became “offended” and “uncomfortable” as a result of the use of the church facility and subsequently filed suit to stop the practice.

The District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin found that the practice did not endorse religion, and granted summary judgment in favor of the District. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit relied heavily on the Lemon test, and found that the District’s practice violated the Establishment Clause. The court held that the practice had the effect of “endorsing religion.” In coming to this conclusion, the court cites heavily to a list of religious imagery and paraphernalia found in the church and said that the environment itself was designed to create converts to Christianity. The court further held that the practice was “religiously coercive.” In holding this, the court said that holding an audience captive in a church environment, even for secular reasons, creates “subtle pressure” to accept religious beliefs. The court then reversed the ruling of the district court and found for the plaintiffs.

It should be noted that the legendary Judge Posner wrote a rather rigorous dissent in this case. He begins by noting that much of the existing Establishment Clause case law can be characterized as “formless,” “unanchored,” and “subjective.” He also laments that cases and decisions on religious matters often abandon reliance on actual evidence and devolve into judges relying on their “personality,” “upbringing,” and “emotions.” Judge Posner notes that it was undisputed that the church location was chosen for purely secular reasons, and attendance at the ceremonies was not mandatory. In addressing the majority’s heavy reliance on the religious imagery found in the church, Posner notes that many historic sites contain far more religious imagery and symbols but would never be called “religiously coercive.” He concludes by pointing out that “offense can’t be the criterion for an establishment of religion…” and “hypersensitivity is not a First Amendment principle.”