Tuesday, July 24, 2012

7th Circuit En Banc: High School Graduation In Church Violated Establishment Clause

In a 7-3 en banc decision yesterday in Doe 3 v. Elmbrook School District, (7th Cir., July 23, 2012), the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals held that two Wisconsin high schools violated the Establishment Clause when they regularly held their graduation ceremonies in the sanctuary of a non-denominational evangelical Christian church. Judge Flaum, writing for the majority and attempting to limit the decision to the facts of this case, said that "an unacceptable amount of religious endorsement and coercion occurred when the District held important civil ceremonies in the  proselytizing environment of Elmbrook Church." He explained:
high school students and their younger siblings were exposed to graduation ceremonies that put a spiritual capstone on an otherwise-secular education. 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....  [T]he sheer religiosity of the space created a likelihood that high school students and their younger siblings would perceive a link between church and state....
[I]f constitutional doctrine teaches that a school cannot create a pervasively religious environment in the classroom... it appears overly formalistic to allow a school to engage in identical practices when it acts through a short-term lessee.
Judge Hamilton joined the majority opinion but also wrote separately to respond further to the dissents.

Judge Ripple wrote a dissent, joined by Chief Judge Easterbrook and Judge Posner.  He said in part:
To the reasonable attendee ... it was obvious that the public high school that educated the graduates does not own the church and did not place in the church the various displays and iconography that disturb the plaintiffs.... [I]it would be totally unreasonable for any student to attribute to the District any endorsement of the message of the iconography; it belongs to—and they know it belongs to—someone else. It symbolizes the landlord’s view, not the District’s view....

At bottom, today’s holding requires that the state assume the affirmative obligation of avoiding any association with a “pervasively religious” organization when that association would require an individual to be exposed—even incidentally and passively—to expressions of that organization’s “religiosity.” Should this principle ... become imbedded in our law, it will undermine significantly the principles that presently form the foundations of our Establishment Clause jurisprudence. Those religions that toe the line and conform to the profile of a “safe religion” will enjoy full acceptance by the civil polity. Those who remain “pervasively religious” will find themselves in the shadows of the American journey.
Judges Easterbrook and Posner each wrote a separate dissent as well.  Judge Posner ended his dissent as follows:
Separation rulings by the Supreme Court seem only to stimulate religious fervor. Religions thrive on persecution, real or imagined. Where would Christianity be without its martyrs? The real winner of this case is likely to be—Elmbrook Church.
Americans United issued a release announcing the decision. [Thanks to Scott Mange for the lead.] 

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