The Elmbrook School District violated the Constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state by holding past graduation ceremonies at Elmbrook Church, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the group that filed the lawsuit in 2009 on behalf of nine anonymous plaintiffs, hailed the decision as an important victory for personal liberty in this country.
“This decision upholds the separation of church and state, it upholds the Constitution,” said attorney Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for AU. “It ensures the students in Wisconsin will not be forced to enter an intensely religious environment as the price of attending their own high school graduation, a seminal event in their lives.”
Some of the plaintiffs have claims for monetary damages due to the emotional suffering that occurred as a result of the district’s choice of graduation venue, Luchenitser said, adding that his next step is to talk with those families and the school district’s legal counsel to see if a settlement can be reached. If not, a district court will review the claims and make a determination.
Luchenitser said the financial gains were not the prime motivators for the plaintiffs.
“They felt graduation was ruined because it was held in such a deeply religious environment,” he said. “We’re hopeful this case will have a big impact around the country.”
The goal is to make sure no one faces this situation in the future, he said.
While other courts have ruled on similar cases, this is the highest court to have rendered an opinion thus far, he said, making this a significant case.
Elmbrook School District could ask the Supreme Court to review the case, but Luchenitser said he feels it is unlikely that body would agree to hear it.
In the past, Elmbrook School District officials have said they chose to hold graduations for Brookfield East and Brookfield Central high schools at Elmbrook Church because it was a large enough venue to allow the graduates to invite as many family members and friends as they wanted. Also, it is air-conditioned.
Commencement ceremonies moved back to district property in 2010, after the construction of Brookfield East’s field house.
Superintendent Mark Hansen said while the district is “disappointed” with the ruling, Elmbrook “will continue to use the field house in the future. There is no further need for graduation ceremonies to be held at Elmbrook Church.”
Hansen also noted the district is working with legal counsel to determine the next steps in resolving the case.
“Our primary focus as a district has always been to spend our time and resources on educating our students,” he said.
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