Americans United for Separation of Church and State today filed a lawsuit in federal court to block a Wisconsin public school district from holding graduation ceremonies in the sanctuary of an evangelical church.
The suit, filed on behalf of a graduating senior and several families in the district, challenges the Elmbrook School District’s decision to hold graduation ceremonies for Brookfield Central High School and Brookfield East High School at Elmbrook Church.
“Public schools should schedule graduation ceremonies at public venues where families of all faiths or none will feel welcome,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Some parents and children do not feel comfortable attending commencement in this religious setting. Graduation is too important to leave some families out.”
Elmbrook Church displays a large cross in its sanctuary, and the facility includes other religious iconography as well. Church officials have refused to cover the cross. On at least one occasion, members of the church passed out religious literature to graduation attendees in the lobby.
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The plaintiffs, who have chosen to remain anonymous, assert that they are extremely uncomfortable attending graduation at the church, given its religion-permeated environment. The plaintiffs also feel unwelcome at the church because it teaches that non-Christians like the plaintiffs, and even some denominations of Christians, will go to Hell.
Elmbrook is a theologically conservative evangelical Christian church with strong views on contentious religious and political issues. The church says homosexuality is “not an acceptable lifestyle” and is “contrary to God’s will,” attacks atheists as people “who think they are smarter than God” and even condemns TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey for promoting “a spirituality that is at fundamental odds with the historic biblical faith.”
AU’s Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister, said Elmbrook is free to teach its doctrines, but many Americans disagree with them.
“I can understand why gay kids, atheist kids and kids from other non-evangelical faith groups would not want to graduate at a church that condemns them,” Lynn said. “Public school commencement ceremonies ought to be held at a place where every family feels at home.”
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AU Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser, who is lead counsel in the case, added, “Graduating seniors should not be forced to choose between entering a religious environment of a faith to which they do not subscribe and missing their own graduation. Graduation should be a joyous occasion for students and their family members, and it should not be ruined by such religious coercion.”
In its complaint, Americans United notes that there are other facilities available for graduation ceremonies and that virtually all of them are non-religious in nature. Other school districts in the area use them.
Americans United is seeking a preliminary injunction barring the school district from holding its graduation ceremonies, scheduled for June 6 and 7, at Elmbrook Church or any other house of worship.
The complaint and preliminary injunction papers in Does v. Elmbrook Joint Common School District No. 21 were drafted by Luchenitser and AU Madison Fellow Elizabeth J. Stevens, in consultation 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.