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WHAT OTHERS SAY: Holding graduation in a church seems harmless

Tuesday, June 17, 2014 | 11:40 a.m. CDT

In cities and towns all across the country, there are public schools that hold graduation exercises in churches.

And all across the country, there are certain individuals who don't think that's right.

Since the year 2000, the School District of Elmbrook, Wis., has been holding high school graduation ceremonies at a local evangelical megachurch.

Why? Well, the district had been using the high school gym, which was hot and crowded. The church provided a large, comfortable setting for students and their families..

But in 2009 a group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State, representing several current and former students, filed a lawsuit charging the district's use of the church's auditorium violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Specifically, the group said students were forced to pass beneath a "large cross" — a permanent fixture of the church's decor — to receive their diplomas. The group also complained about religious literature being available in the lobby and pews of the church during graduation exercises.

This, they said, amounted to sanctioned proselytization and was coercive.

The school district fought the lawsuit and won in district court.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the lower court and ruled that "the practice of holding high school graduation ceremonies in the Elmbrook Church sanctuary conveys an impermissible message of endorsement. Under the circumstances here, the message of endorsement carried an impermissible aspect of coercion, and the practice has had the unfortunate side effect of fostering the very divisiveness that the Establishment Clause was designed to prevent."

The school district appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Monday, the court refused to hear the appeal. Which means the Seventh Circuit's ruling stands.

In our view, this is a case that should never have seen the light of day. Using a church sanctuary for the comfort and convenience of students and parents on a big day in their lives is not an endorsement of the church's religious views.

But there are those in our society who will never be happy until any display of religion is banished from our eyes.

So, what does this mean for other cities where graduation ceremonies are held in churches?

Nothing for now. In refusing the appeal the court did not set any kind of standard. But it did open the door to other lawsuits, in other cities.

Maybe even our own.

Copyright Texarkana (Ark.) Gazette. Distributed by the Associated Press.


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