Seventh Circuit Holds School District’s Graduation Ceremony at Local Church Violates First Amendment

September 14, 2012

By: Adam Dauksas

Recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that a Wisconsin public school district’s practice of hosting its high school graduation and senior honors ceremonies at a local Christian church violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Under the test espoused by the U.S. Supreme Court, if a district’s practice lacks a legitimate secular purpose, has the primary effect of endorsing or inhibiting religion, or fosters an excessive entanglement with religion, it will most certainly violate the Establishment Clause.

In Doe v. Elmbrook School District, the Court of Appeals found “[t]he atmosphere of the Church, both inside and outside the sanctuary [where the particular graduation ceremonies occurred], is indisputably and emphatically Christian.”  Prior to receiving their diplomas, students had to pass through the church’s lobby, which contained tables “filled with evangelical literature, much of which addresses children and teens.”  In addition, the lobby’s walls were adorned with Christian banners and posters, and church members even manned religious information booths during some of the ceremonies.

The graduation ceremonies, themselves, took place on the dais at the front end of the church’s sanctuary, over which rested a 15- to 20-foot tall Latin cross that was fixed to the wall. During the ceremonies, students sat in the front rows of the sanctuary’s pews, where Bibles, hymnal books and donation envelopes remained.

After stressing that each judicial determination of whether a particular governmental practice violates the Establishment Clause must be “case-specific,” the Seventh Circuit in Doe concluded “that conducting a public school graduation ceremony in a church – one that among other things featured staffed information booths laden with religious literature and banners with appeals for children to join ‘school ministries’ – runs afoul of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.”   In particular, the Court found that the district’s practice of hosting its graduation ceremonies in such a “proselytizing” environment had the effect of impermissibly endorsing religion, and was religiously coercive.

While the issues and facts presented in Doe are by no means prevalent among Illinois school districts, the case illustrates that a district can violate the First Amendment not only inside the classroom, but also outside of it as well by “summon[ing] students to an offsite location for important ceremonial events” where overt displays of religion are located.  However, other cases have established that churches and religious centers can be permissibly used by public schools for ceremonies, meetings, etc. If your district finds itself needing to borrow such facilities for any of its functions, we urge you to contact an attorney at the Firm to discuss the First Amendment concerns.