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Doe v. Elmbrook Sch. Dist. - 687 F.3d 840 (7th Cir. 2012)


A public school graduation ceremony in a church—one that features staffed information booths laden with religious literature and banners with appeals for children to join school ministries—runs afoul of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause as applied to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause. That conclusion is consistent with well-established doctrine prohibiting school administrators from bringing church to the schoolhouse. The same result should obtain when administrators bring seminal schoolhouse events to a church—at least to one with proselytizing elements. The constitutional flaw with such activity is that it necessarily conveys a message of endorsement. Moreover, the Supreme Court's coercion cases cannot be meaningfully distinguished—because endorsement, especially as it relates to children, has the potential to be coercive.


The School District of Elmbrook (District) is a municipal public school district centered around Brookfield, Wisconsin. Its two major high schools were Brookfield Central and Brookfield East. For part of the last decade or so, Central and East have held their high school graduation ceremonies in the main sanctuary of Elmbrook Church, a local Christian evangelical and non-denominational religious institution. The atmosphere of the Church, both inside and outside the sanctuary, was indisputably and emphatically Christian. Crosses and other religious symbols abound on the Church grounds and the exterior of the Church building. The graduation ceremonies took place on the dais at the front of the sanctuary, where District school officials and students with roles in the ceremony were seated. A large Latin cross, fixed to the wall, hung over the dais and dominated the proceedings. Subsequently, Plaintiff Does, a group of past and present students and their parents, brought the instant action against defendant District, claiming that the District's practice of holding high school graduations and related ceremonies at a non-denominational, evangelical Christian church violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution of the United States. For redress, the Does sought injunctive, declaratory, and monetary relief. After denying the Does' motions for a preliminary injunction and for summary judgment, the federal district court granted the District's motion for summary judgment, finding that the District did not act unconstitutionally when it held secular high school ceremonies at Elmbrook Church. The Does appealed.


Did a school district's practice of holding graduation and other ceremonies at a non-denominational, evangelical Christian church violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution of the United States?




The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit noted that Establishment Clause jurisprudence has long guarded against government conduct that has the effect of promoting religious teachings in school settings, and the case law has evinced special concern with the receptivity of schoolchildren to endorsed religious messages. The Court held that the 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. Although the setting of a symbol can shape its message, there was no doubt that a sectarian message was conveyed by a cross prominently displayed in a house of worship. According to the Court, the practice of holding high school graduation ceremonies in the Elmbrook Church sanctuary conveyed an impermissible message of endorsement. As such, the message of endorsement carried an impermissible aspect of coercion, and the practice has had the unfortunate side effect of fostering the very divisiveness that the Establishment Clause was designed to prevent. Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment for the District.

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