Just weeks after ruling in favor of public prayer in Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court opted not to take up a separate First Amendment case, leaving in place a lower court decision that said public high school graduations held in a church with religious symbols violated the separation of church and state.
In the Elmbrook School District v. Doe decision, the justices did not explain their denial of the appeal from the Elmbrook School District in Brookfield, Wisconsin, though Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas did indicate they would have heard the case.
In a seven-page dissent, Scalia said he wanted the court to take up the case and that the choice not to hear it was not consistent with the high court’s recent decision that favored sectarian prayer at town board meetings, according to the National Constitution Center.
“Because [Town Of Greece] made clear a number of points with which the Seventh Circuit’s decision is fundamentally inconsistent, the Court ought, at a minimum, to grant certiorari, vacate the judgment, and remand for reconsideration,” he wrote.
But Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a legal group that works to instill church-state separatism and that filed the original complaint in 2009, praised the decision.
“There was no need for the U.S. Supreme Court to take this case,” said Barry W. Lynn, the group’s executive director, said in a release. “The matter was resolved correctly by the court of appeals. This case should serve as a warning to public schools that it’s not appropriate to hold important ceremonies like graduation in a religious setting.”
The debate traces back to a series of legal battles in 2012 over the Elmbrook School District’s decision to move graduation to Elmbrook Church, a local, non-denominational house of worship. One of the district’s schools began using the facility in 2000 and the other did the same in 2002, Reuters reported.
Officials said the location was more convenient and comfortable, as there was air conditioning, but some former and current students and their families felt the move posed a church-state infraction, so they sued.
Religious symbols were at the center of the debate. While portable religious symbols were removed during the ceremonies, a large cross was displayed over the stage.
What developed was a series of legal battles. First, a federal judge backed the school district — and a three-panel appeals court did as well. But then, when the case was re-heard by the full panel, the 10 judges reached a different conclusion, noting that the district’s church use did seem to violate the Constitution.
Rather than reevaluate this 2012 decision, the Supreme Court opted to let it stand. The schools no longer hold graduation at the church and haven’t since 2009 when a new gymnasium was built.
What do you think? Should public schools be allowed to host graduation ceremonies in public schools? Take the poll: