June 17, 2014 – The U.S. Supreme Court decided it won’t review a case on whether a school district in the Milwaukee suburbs violated the U.S. Constitution by holding high school graduations in a church.
Yesterday, the court denied review in Elmbrook School District v. Doe, a case in which a group of non-Christian plaintiffs brought suit against Elmbrook School District, alleging that holding graduations at a church coerced unconstitutional exposure to religion.
Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that the school district’s action violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution because holding graduations there advanced religion or fostered a prohibited entanglement with religion.
Elmbrook School District, based in Brookfield, held high school graduations at Elmbrook Christian Church from 2002 to 2009. Students had complained that the high school gymnasium was too hot and overcrowded. They wanted a different venue.
The district agreed to hold graduations at the church, which contained a large Latin cross in the sanctuary where the graduations were held. It also contained other religious symbols and fixtures that the church refused to cover as a matter of policy.
During some graduations, members of the church passed out evangelical literature in the church’s lobby, which contained religious decorations. The non-Christian plaintiffs said this setting made them feel uncomfortable and ruined the graduation experience.
As of 2010, the graduations were moved to a new fieldhouse, but the plaintiffs wanted damages for past grievances. They also sought a permanent injunction to ensure that no future graduation would ever be held at a church.
The case made it to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. A three-judge panel ruled that the school district’s use of rented church space was “neither impermissibly coercive nor an endorsement of religion.”
However, a majority (7-3) en banc Seventh Circuit Appeals Court reversed course in July 2012, when it concluded that “an unacceptable amount of religious endorsement and coercion occurred.” The decision prompted the school district’s high court appeal.
The U.S. Supreme Court had wavered on whether to hear the case. It was “relisted” 10 times for discussion at its weekly conferences in 2013 and 2014.
Attorneys had speculated that the court was holding a decision pending another church-state case. Yesterday, a 7-2 majority decided to pass.
Two justices – Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas – dissented from the denial of certiorari. They said the case should be reconsidered in light of a recent ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 U.S. __ (2014), in which the court ruled that a practice of saying prayers before town hall meetings did not violate the Establishment Clause.
According to SCOTUS blog commentator Lyle Denniston, the dissenters pressed “energetically” to grant review, arguing that Town of Greece “had undercut the basis of the lower court ruling against graduation rites in a church” and “that the town board prayers case had made it harder to prove coercion from exposure to religious symbols.”
The denial means the Seventh Circuit’s en banc decision in favor of the plaintiffs will remain in place, and the school district will likely be on the hook for damages.