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Monday, June 23, 2014

Supreme Court Declines to Hear Establishment Clause Case Involving Graduations in Churches

On June 16, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by two Wisconsin high schools of a Seventh Circuit decision finding them in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because they held their high school graduation ceremonies in churches.  That means that the Seventh Circuit's decision in Doe 3 v. Elmbrook School District (7th Cir. 2012) is final.

The Seventh Circuit had explained its ruling against the school districts as follows:  
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. 
The Seventh Circuit's decision was not unanimous.  One of the dissenters, Judge Posner, wrote: 
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]t 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. . . .
Similarly, the Supreme Court's denial of certiorari was also not unanimous.  Our friends at RLUIPA Defense do a great job summarizing the dissenting opinion to the Court's denial of certiorari. Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, argues that the Supreme Court should have granted certiorari to either hear oral argument or to vacate the Seventh Circuit’s judgment decision in light of the Court's recent decision in Town of Greece that upheld prayer at town council meetings against an Establishment Clause challenge.  

You can read more about the Supreme Court's decision to decline the appeal, as well as the dissent here.

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink


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