Does using a church facility for graduation ceremony violate the Constitution?
The Supreme Court has yet to decide if it will consider widely watched cases about public schools using a church facility to host graduation ceremonies, and the use of prayers to open township board meetings. But an answer could come as soon as today.
The court is also considering another case with separation of church and state implications called Town of Greece v. Galloway.
The court could announce some type of action on both cases on Monday morning, based on its conference last Thursday.
Constitution Daily contributor Lyle Denniston covered the Elmbrook story and its history in detail last month.
In Brookfield, Wisconsin, a western suburb of Milwaukee, the two local high schools for years staged graduation exercises in the sanctuary of Elmbrook Church, an evangelical congregation not affiliated with any denomination. The practice began in 2000 with a choice by one of the high schools, at the request of its graduating class, to move the ceremony out of the school's gym, because of limited conditions there.
The church's leaders and its congregation had no role in the graduation celebration, and there was no one on hand to offer any kind of religious counseling.
But for nine people, current and former students and their parents, the site itself was the problem, with its religious symbolism and significance. They said the exposure to artifacts of faith offended them and compromised the experience of graduating.
The lawsuit continued, even though the district stopped using the sanctuary, as the challengers took the case on to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
A three-judge panel there agreed with a trial judge, finding no First Amendment religion problem. But the full circuit court reconsidered. Splitting 7-3, that court found that the Elmbrook Church site could not avoid being coercive for the students and their younger brothers and sisters attending the ceremony.
The decision was then sent to the Supreme Court for consideration.
At the heart of the case is the Establishment Clause in the Constitution's First Amendment, which deals with issues about the separation of church and state.
In its petition to the court, the attorneys for Elmbrook School District asked the court to decide, "whether the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from conducting public functions such as high school graduation exercises in a church building, where the function has no religious content and the government selected the venue for reasons of secular convenience."
Among the parties involved in the case are The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The court is also mulling over Town of Greece v. Galloway.
In 2008 two Greece, N.Y., residents sued about the town's practice of having a prayer delivered before board meetings.
They believed the practice violated the First Amendment because of the types of prayers offered. A U.S. District Court said the prayers didn't violate the First Amendment. But the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in May 2012 overturned the lower court decision.
"The town's desire to mark the solemnity of its proceedings with a prayer is understandable; Americans have done just that for more than 200 years. But when one creed dominates others — regardless of a town's intentions — constitutional concerns come to the fore," Judge Guido Calabresi wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel last May.
The community of Greece is mostly Christian and most of the prayers offered at its board meeting were Christian or came from Christian clergy within that community.