Supreme Court decision could impact Elmbrook case
School board to study Town of Greece v. Galloway case
Attorneys from both sides of the Does vs. School District of Elmbrook case, which tests the constitutionality of a public high school holding a graduation ceremony in a church, are closely monitoring another church-and-state case the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear in its next session in October.
The case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, involves two residents who sued Greece, New York, claiming that the town violated their First Amendment rights when officials began board meetings with Christian prayers.
In preparation for an upcoming decision, the Elmbrook School Board entered a closed session at its July 30 meeting to confer and strategize with Kristi Foy, the district's director of human resources and staff counsel.
"We're definitely keeping our eyes on the Galloway case," Foy said.
In addition to Foy, several attorneys have offered pro-bono assistance to Elmbrook, which minimizes litigation costs for the district. According to the district's website, Elmbrook has paid an insurance deductible in the amount of $5,000. The board says the district's out-of-pocket expenses for the appeal will not exceed $15,000.
The high court has bypassed the Elmbrook case several times over the past six months, but it could — and many suspect will — review the case in an upcoming session.
Graduation at Elmbrook Church
From 2002 to 2009, both Brookfield East and Brookfield Central High Schools held their graduation ceremonies at Elmbrook Church for its larger seating capacity and other accommodations.
The district moved both graduation ceremonies to Brookfield East's newly built field house the following year, and acknowledges that there is likely no further need to hold events at Elmbrook Church. However, School Board members and district administrators want clarification on whether in the future they could rent religious facilities for school events.
In 2009, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., decided to file a motion to prohibit the district from holding graduation ceremonies at Elmbrook Church.
Rob Boston, the nonprofit's director of communications, said his organization decided to take up the case when several parents complained that they were not comfortable in the church setting.
"We thought they had a really good point," Boston said. "A public ceremony like this ought to be open to everybody and take place in a neutral setting."
Reading tea leaves
Boston said the Elmbrook case is "quite different" from Town of Greece v. Galloway; however, when it comes to the Supreme Court, attorneys are always reading the tea leaves.
"Anytime the Supreme Court hands down a decision on the separation of church and state, it's possible they could rewrite the rules or hand out something that's very sweeping," Boston said.
Both sides agree that there is a reasonable chance of having the Elmbrook case accepted by the court, largely because of its national implications with respect to a public entity's ability to access religious venues.
The U.S. Supreme Court typically receives about 10,000 petitions for review each year, and it accepts between 80 and 100, or roughly 1 percent, of those petitions.
Boston said it will likely be next spring before the Elmbrook case is heard. The Supreme Court can deny review of the case, grant review, or send the case back to the circuit courts to be reconsidered.
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