Elmbrook School District, near Milwaukee, began holding graduation ceremonies at the non-denominational Elmbrook Church in 2000, at the request of graduating seniors. The students asked for the change because the church’s auditorium was much larger and more comfortable than the previous sites, high school gyms, which were cramped, had mostly bleacher seating and were not air conditioned. The school district fielded complaints from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the ACLU of Wisconsin, Americans Unted for Separation of Church and State, and the Anti-Defamation League. The district was ultimately sued by a group of parents and students describing themselves as atheist, humanist, non-theistic and adherents of other religions. The plaintiffs alleged that use of the church venue for graduation made them feel “uncomfortable, upset, offended, unwelcome and/or angry.”
The appeals court ruled that having a public school graduation in a church is not coercion or endorsement of religion by the government. Graduations are no longer held at the church since the school district has completed construction of a new, larger field house and has also renovated the gyms that initially prompted the move to the church.
Pacific Justice Institute has battled the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation in courts across the nation. PJI president Brad Dacus commented on the ruling, “We are pleased that the Seventh Circuit has rejected yet another frivolous lawsuit attempting to force an extreme anti-religionist viewpoint on America. It is telling that these plaintiffs could not even accept a student-led decision designed to provide a more comfortable environment. Churches continue to be leading civic and cultural institutions in our country, and they have much to offer our communities.”