On Monday, a federal appeals court ruled that the Elmbrook School District violated the Constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state by holding past graduation ceremonies at Elmbrook Church. (See Brookfield NOW article).
Per Brookfield NOW:
“ The court’s opinion states that its decision was determined by Elmbrook’s particular situation, pointing to the facts that minors were involved, the event was a significant one in their lives and that ‘conditions of extensive proselytization’ were present—most notably a large cross hung in front of the audience and religious reading materials were present as well.”
A group called Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed the lawsuit on behalf of nine plaintiffs in 2009. Obviously, they are not the only folks who consider it inappropriate to hold public high school graduation ceremonies in Elmbrook Church. It is also apparent from comments posted to news articles about the case and court rulling, that some parents are upset with Elmbrook District administration for wasting taxpayer money in pursuit of this lawsuit.
The District of New Berlin recently hired some administrators from Elmbrook. It wouldn't be surprising if you are wondering if the new hires are ideologues who will act recklessly and waste our tax dollars, and whether they'll care about all the District’s students.
In 2008, the New Berlin School District held Eisenhower’s high school graduation at Elmbrook Church.
The NB District’s explanation for that was heavy rains caused flooding of the football field where Eisenhower’s outdoor graduation ceremony normally would have taken place.
Uh, huh--- but why not use the Eisenhower School gym? Prior to 2008, the gym had been the alternate site for graduation whenever there were weather concerns which made an outdoor ceremony problematic. Had that been done in 2008, the Eisenhower seniors would have graduated at the school they’d been attending.
And don’t forget that the New Berlin School District operates two taxpayer-funded high school facilities in New Berlin. Surely, the Eisenhower graduation ceremony could have been held at New Berlin West.
The point is, the District had some options. Clearly, the NB Eisenhower high school commencement ceremony could have taken place at a public facility within the New Berlin School District rather than at Elmbrook Church.
New Berlin West HS seniors graduated at New Berlin West in 2008. In contrast, the 2008 Eisenhower graduation was not held at a public school in the New Berlin School District—or even within the City of New Berlin—it was held at Elmbrook Church, an evangelical Christian megachurch in Brookfield.
And guess what happened afterward? The New Berlin District intended to use Elmbrook Church again for Eisenhower graduation ceremonies! However, in February 2009, Americans United sent a legal challenge to four districts including the Elmbrook and New Berlin Districts, telling them to change the planned location of their graduation ceremonies or face legal action.
The NB District moved Eisenhower’s graduation ceremony back to the school. An April 28, 2009 Brookfield NOW report stated, “New Berlin Superintendent Paul Kreutzer said School Board members chose to move the ceremony for Eisenhower High School for fear of litigation and liability issues.”
***Update 7/26: A July 24 Education Week report by Mark Walsh states:
"The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, ruled 7-3 that the practice of the Elmbrook school district near Milwaukee resulted in government endorsement of religion and coercion of students in violation of the First Amendment's prohibition against any government establishment of religion."
"We conclude 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," Judge Flaum said in the majority opinion.
"In this case, high school students and their younger siblings were exposed to graduation ceremonies that put a spiritual capstone on an otherwise-secular education," Judge Flaum added. "Literally and figuratively towering over the graduation proceedings in the church's sanctuary space was a 15- to 20-foot tall Latin cross, the preeminent symbol of Christianity."
Here's a link to Walsh's post: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/school_law/2012/07/appeals_court_rejects_use_of_c.html