High Court Won’t Back Public School’s Church Graduations

The U.S. Supreme Court declined a chance to allow more intermingling of government and religion, letting stand a decision that barred two Wisconsin public high schools from holding their graduations in a Christian church.

The justices today rejected calls from the Elmbrook School District to either review the case or order reconsideration in light of a May 5 Supreme Court ruling. That decision upheld predominantly Christian prayers at the beginning of town council meetings.

A federal appeals court concluded in 2002 that the commencements, held for a decade in the sanctuary of an evangelical church, became an improper government endorsement of religion. The appeals court said students had to walk under a 15-to-20-foot cross to receive their diplomas.

Elmbrook and its allies said a number of schools around the country use churches for graduations because of space needs. They contended that the lower court ruling will limit the ability of local governments to use churches for polling places, town meetings and charter schools.

The Chicago-based appeals court said its ruling was a narrow one that didn’t preclude governmental use of churches in other circumstances.

Graduation Ruling

The Supreme Court in 1992 ruled that public schools couldn’t arrange for clerics to offer prayers at graduations because of the risk that children would be coerced into participating.

In the most recent ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the town council setting was different from graduations because it involved “mature adults” who were free to leave the room during the prayer. Kennedy, the court’s swing vote on religion cases, also wrote the 1992 decision.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, saying they would have granted a hearing, or at least sent the case back to the appeals court for reconsideration.

Scalia wrote for the pair that the Constitution doesn’t protect students from being offended or made uncomfortable by public displays of religion. He likened the students’ position to his own when someone plays music he dislikes in public.

“It is perhaps the job of school officials to prevent hurt feelings at school events,” Scalia wrote. “But that is decidedly not the job of the Constitution.”

The case is Elmbrook School District v. Does 1-9, 12-755.

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