By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) – High school graduations in a southeastern Wisconsin church adorned with religious symbols and literature violated the separation of church and state, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.
A 7th Circuit Court of Appeals panel found last year that Brookfield Central and Brookfield East graduations in Elmbrook Church didn’t amount to a religious endorsement. But the full court ruled 7-3 that symbols in the church, including a giant cross on the wall, conveyed a message that government was endorsing a particular religion.
“The same risk that children … will perceive the state as endorsing a set of religious beliefs is present both when exposure to a pervasively religious environment occurs in the classroom and when government summons students to an offsite location for important ceremonial events,” Judge Joel Flaum wrote for the majority.
The ruling marks a far-reaching victory for the organization Americans for the Separation of Church and State, which filed a lawsuit three years ago alleging the ceremonies were unconstitutional.
“The decision makes clear to public schools that it’s not appropriate to hold graduation ceremonies in venues festooned with religious symbols,” the group’s executive director, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, said in a statement.
The schools’ attorney, Lori Lubinsky, said in an email to The Associated Press that her clients are considering appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Given the conflict in judicial opinions and given the significance of the decision and the impact on schools nationwide, this case should be reviewed by the highest court in the land.”
The dispute began in 2000, when Brookfield Central senior-class officers told Elmbrook School District officials they wanted to move graduation from the school’s hot, crowded gymnasium to the nondenominational evangelical Christian church. The senior class approved the move and Superintendent Matt Gibson, a member of the church, signed off.
East moved its ceremony to the church two years later, and the church charged the district between $2,000 and $2,200 per graduation ceremony.
A parent asked the district to stop using the church in 2001, saying she wasn’t a Christian and didn’t want her child exposed to what she considered hateful teachings about non-Christians. The same year, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union also objected to the ceremonies.
In 2002, the Anti-Defamation League and Americans United for Separation of Church and State both objected. In 2009, Americans for Separation of Church and State filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of nine unidentified students and parents who described themselves as non-Christians.
They argued graduations in a church offended them, contending graduates had to enter “a sacred space” and view religious symbols and literature ranging from a 20-foot cross that towered over the proceedings to religious pamphlets and hymnals. They said it all amounted to government endorsing religion.
A federal judge in Milwaukee ruled the graduations weren’t religious and interaction between the church and the district was limited.
The students and parents appealed. The schools moved their graduations to a new field house in the spring of 2010, arguing the move rendered the case moot.
A three-judge panel from the 7th Circuit rejected the students and parents’ arguments in September, holding graduates weren’t forced to participate in religion. Flaum was the lone dissenter on the panel.
He wrote in Monday’s ruling that the church’s atmosphere is indisputably Christian and religious symbols abound. Visitors must pass through a lobby with tables and stations filled with evangelical literature directed at children and teens, he said, adding that church members staffed information booths during the 2009 graduation and tables during the 2002 ceremony. He also noted that the giant cross “dominates the proceedings” and as Bibles and hymnals were present in the pews during the ceremonies.
He concluded that the cross, religious pamphlets and other symbols clearly established a Christian environment aimed at recruiting people to the faith.
“A reasonable observer … could reasonably conclude that the District would only choose such a proselytizing environment aimed at spreading religious faith … if the District approved of the Church’s message,” Flaum wrote.
Judge Kenneth Ripple wrote in dissent that the graduations featured no references to religion, prayers or religious speakers.
“The graduates knew … the iconography represents the beliefs of those who use the space, on another day, as a place of worship, not a place of graduation,” he wrote. “Indeed, it would be totally unreasonable for any student to attribute to the District any endorsement of the message of the iconography; it belongs to – and they know it belongs to – someone else.”