CHICAGO (CN) - Two Wisconsin high schools violated religious freedom by holding graduation ceremonies in a church, the full 7th Circuit ruled.
The Elmbrook School District has held graduation ceremonies at Elmbrook Church, a nondenominational Christian parish in Brookfield, since 2000. The school district said it chose the building to provide comfort and space, not to promote Christianity.
The class of 2000 first asked school officials to move the event from the school's "hot, cramped, and uncomfortable" gymnasium, suggesting the church as an alternative. After students raised part of the $2,000 rental fee, Superintendent Matt Gibson obliged. The students repeatedly voted to use the sanctuary, which, unlike the school's old gymnasium, offers amenities such as air conditioning, adequate and comfortable seating, and a large parking lot.
School officials preside over the ceremonies, which proceed on a dais in the main sanctuary.
Several individuals protested, however, over the Christian atmosphere, which the 7th Circuit described as indisputable and emphatic, noting crosses and other religious symbols that decorate church grounds and the exterior building. A giant Latin cross hangs at the front of the church.
A custodian "inadvertently" covered the cross during the 2000 commencement, according to testimony from Gibson, but church officials subsequently refused requests to veil the cross in future events, citing a general church policy against covering its permanent religious displays.
Religious literature, including prayer books, fliers and membership forms, also permeate the pews and entrance hall.
Though school officials moved graduations to a newly constructed field house building in 2009, Americans United for Separation of Church and State had already filed a complaint on behalf of nine pseudonymous individuals.
After a federal judge sided with the school at summary judgment, a divided appellate panel agreed in September 2011 that the use of rented church space was "neither impermissibly coercive nor an endorsement of religion."
Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook and Judge Kenneth Ripple made up the majority in the original decision. Judge Joel Flaum wrote a 13-page dissent.
But the full court vacated the opinion two months later in favor of an en banc rehearing.
The judges split 7-3 on Monday in favor of the plaintiffs.
"Regardless of the purpose of school administrators in choosing the location, the sheer religiosity of the space created a likelihood that high school students and their younger siblings would perceive a link between church and state," according to the 34-page lead opinion authored by Flaum. "That is, the activity conveyed a message of endorsement."
High school graduations are ubiquitous in American life - a compulsory school event for all practical purposes - a factor that heabily increases the chances that non-Christian attendees would feel like outsiders to a favored religion, the court said.
"True, the district did not itself adorn the church with proselytizing materials, and a reasonable observer would be aware of this fact," Flaum added. "But that same 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."
A church environment could also coerce students to accept Christianity, the judges found.
"The only way for graduation attendees to avoid the dynamic is to leave the ceremony," Flaum wrote. "That is a choice ... the establishment clause does not force students to make."