Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Americans United Expresses Disappointment Over Court Ruling Allowing Public School Graduations In Wisconsin Church

June 2, 2009
Decision Is Loss For All Students And The Constitution, Says AU’s Lynn
A federal judge today ruled that a Wisconsin public school district can hold high school graduation ceremonies in a church.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which sponsored the litigation to stop this practice of the Elmbrook School District in Brookfield, Wisc., expressed regret over the decision.

“Public school graduations should always be held at locations where all families feel welcome,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “This decision fails to respect all students and the Constitution.”

U.S. District Judge Charles N. Clevert Jr. denied a preliminary injunction ordering the school to move this year’s June 6 and 7 graduation ceremonies to a secular location.

School officials made plans to hold the commencement ceremonies for Brookfield Central High School and Brookfield East High School at Elmbrook Church, an evangelical Christian mega-church in suburban Milwaukee.

AU filed Does v. Elmbrook Joint Common School District No. 21 on behalf of a graduating senior and several families in the district on Apr. 22. The plaintiffs, who have remained anonymous with the court’s approval, were extremely uncomfortable attending graduation at the church, given its religion-permeated environment.

At previous Elmbrook Church graduation ceremonies, graduating seniors received their diplomas in the church’s sanctuary on a dais beneath an immense cross, which is nearly 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide. On their way into the sanctuary, students had to pass religious displays and symbols in the church’s lobby and passageways, such as portraits of Jesus and quotations from the Bible. Bibles and hymnals lined the pews where parents and students had to sit.

In addition, plaintiffs felt unwelcome at the church because it teaches that non-Christians like the plaintiffs – and even some denominations of Christians – will suffer eternal torment in Hell. The church also says homosexuality is “not an acceptable lifestyle” and is “contrary to God’s will” and attacks atheists as people “who think they are smarter than God.”

The church’s Web site even condemns TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey for promoting “a spirituality that is at fundamental odds with the historical biblical faith.”

“Graduation should be a joyous occasion for all students and their families,” said AU Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser, who argued the suit before Judge Clevert on May 29. “We’re disappointed that students in these schools will have to submit to a religious environment, where they continuously face an enormous Christian cross, as the price of attending their own graduations.”

Added Luchenitser, “We will continue our fight to stop schools from forcing students to go to church in order to graduate with their classmates. We are optimistic that higher courts will declare this practice unconstitutional in the future.”

AU submitted documents to the court showing that there were at least 11 secular venues in the area that could accommodate the graduation ceremonies, some of which are used by other local high schools. As of the May 29 hearing, six of those venues were still available for the June 6 and 7 graduations, including the Wisconsin Exposition Center, which can seat 4,000 people.

The complaint and preliminary injunction papers in the lawsuit were drafted by Luchenitser and AU Madison Fellows Elizabeth J. Stevens and Jef Klazen, in conjunction with AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan. James H. Hall Jr. and F. Thomas Olson of the Milwaukee civil-rights firm Hall Legal, S.C., are serving as co-counsel in the case.

(Students and parents of students in the Mukwonago School District, which also holds graduations at Elmbrook Church but is not currently a defendant in the lawsuit, are encouraged to contact Americans United at cg@au.org if they object to the church graduations.)

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