On June 16, the United States Supreme Court stood by a lower court ruling that a high school in Wisconsin had acted unconstitutionally by organizing its graduation ceremonies at a local megachurch.
In 2000, the district allowed a school to organize its graduation ceremony at the Elmbrook Church, which happens to be the largest church in Wisconsin, because the school did not have proper infrastructure for the same. While no church employees were present during the ceremony, some students and parents protested the choice of venue itself, arguing that the presence of religious objects overshadowed what was meant to be a celebratory occasion.
The lower court referred to the incident as “coercive” and “offensive” when they learnt that pamphlets, banners, bibles and other religious objects were present in the church while the graduation ceremonies were held. They said holding graduation ceremonies at a church violated the separation of church and state. Additionally, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case on Monday, reaffirming the lower court’s decision in the process.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented in the decision to let the lower court ruling stand. In the dissent, Scalia, who is Catholic, drew parallels between the exposure of children to religious objects and his own dislike for the public playing of Stravinsky or rock music, implying both parties have to put up with such demonstrations even though they may not necessarily be damaged by them.
“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,’” said Scalia.
Different religious liberty groups reacted differently to the Supreme Court’s decision.
“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. We are very pleased that the decision of the appeals court will stand,” said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“Church buildings should not be treated like toxic warehouses simply because they normally house religious activities. 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,” said David Cortman, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Arizona-based Christian law firm.
I see nothing wrong with using a Church as a meeting hall for a graduation ceremony. Many churches rent out their buildings for secular events. I just have a problem with religious ceremony or rituals during a government proceeding like school.
The government, and by extension the school, cannot favor one religion, or even one sect of one religion, over another or they exclude. America isn't about exclusion.