High School Graduations at Church Violate Establishment Clause: 7th Cir.

By Andrew Lu on July 26, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A federal appeals court ruled that Elmbrook School District violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by holding its high school graduations at a church.

For almost a decade, one of the district high schools held graduations at a nearby Christian church. The school had good intentions as it previously held graduations in its hot, stuffy, and cramped gym. The nearby Christian Elmbrook Church offered more spacious accommodations and a more comfortable environment for students and their family.

However, as time went on, the graduation ceremonies become more religious with church workers passing out evangelical literature, reports the State Bar of Wisconsin. Non-Christian attendees eventually complained.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment generally prohibits the government from making laws that establish or favor religions. Government entities like public schools run afoul of the prohibition when they take action that advances or promotes a religion, or if their action is "excessively entangled" with religion, reports the State Bar of Wisconsin.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Elmbrook School District was too tangled with religion. Along with the passing of Evangelical literature, the court noted that during the graduation ceremony, the church had set up information booths laden with religious materials and banners for children to join "school ministries."

The court however was quick to point out that they were not condemning all government use of church-owned facilities, including future school graduations at churches. Instead, the court cited the highly fact-specific nature of Establishment Clause cases and reiterated that their ruling only applied to this particular case.

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