Establishment Clause; graduation ceremonies
It did not violate the Establishment Clause for a public school to hold its commencement ceremonies in a church.
“The Does present ample evidence that the Church is indeed a highly religious and unmistakably sectarian setting. Christian symbols and messages are permanent aspects of the building’s structure and decoration; nonpermanent religious messages are present in the lobby and remain in the pews during the graduation ceremony. No one could fail to notice the giant cross that hangs over the dais and ‘appears in attendees’ line of sight when they watch’ the ceremony. R.56 at 5, ¶ 28. In short, an objective observer undoubtedly would be aware of the religious nature of the setting.”
“Yet the Does offer no evidence to suggest that the District has in any way associated itself with these symbols or with the beliefs expressed by the Church or that any of the religious messages—the materials in the pews, for instance—were placed there especially for graduations rather than being standard fare for the Church’s own activities. Indeed, the content of the graduation ceremonies and the speeches always has been entirely secular. As such, an objective observer would understand the religious symbols and messages in the building and on Church grounds to be part of the underlying setting as the District found it rather than as an expression of adherence or approval by the school. Indeed, the record demonstrates that the graduates, and by implication many other members of the audience, such as their parents, knew affirmatively that the Church simply had been rented for the occasion as the preferred venue of the participating graduates. The record also shows that the venue is rented regularly to other groups in the community in need of a similar facility for their gatherings. The observer also might be aware of efforts taken by the District to minimize the religious nature of the setting by securing the removal of non-permanent displays from the dais of the sanctuary, efforts that further distance the District from the Church’s message. ‘[W]ithout more,’ Agostini, 521 U.S. at 227, the District’s use of a religious facility for a secular purpose does not irretrievably create a symbolic link tainting the association of the two entities.”
10-2922 Doe v. Elmbrook School District
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, Clevert, J., Ripple, J.