Graduation Ceremonies In a Church?

Graduation Ceremonies In a Church?

Students and parents at two Wisconsin public high schools are suing the school district to prevent this June's graduation ceremonies from being held inside a local mega church.

A lawsuit filed last week by Americans United for Separation of Church and State on behalf of nine students and parents in the Elmbrook, Wisc., school district, claims that conducting graduation ceremonies in a place of worship violates the Constitution and makes some attendees feel uncomfortable.

"Students literally have to walk up under a giant cross to get their diplomas," said Americans United's Executive Director Barry Lynn. The graduation ceremonies for Brookfield Central High School and Brookfield East High School, the two schools named in the suit, are set to take place at the 3,200-seat Elmbook Church on June 6 and 7.

"It's not an appropriate venue for a multi-cultural and multi-religious community," said Lynn.

None of the nine plaintiffs have been identified publically to prevent "social ostracism," according to the suit. A lawyer for Americans United declined to make them available to for an interview.

The suit, filed in federal court in Milwaukee, is seeking a court order that would force the two schools to find an alternative venue for the graduation ceremonies.

One plaintiff, identified in the complaint as a senior set to graduate in Elmbrook Church this spring, said in court papers that seeing his older sibling graduate in the church made him feel "uncomfortable and upset."

"Photographs from that graduation include the cross, and serve as a permanent reminder of the discomfort that the ceremony's location caused," the students claim in the complaint.

Another plaintiff in the suit reported feeling "unwelcome" and "like an outsider" during a past graduation ceremony at the church because of the presence of Bibles and hymnals in the pews.

The complaint also notes the "immense" size of the cross that hangs in the church and the fact that it "appears directly in attendees' line of sight."

Heather Weaver, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's religion program, which is not involved in this case, told that graduations should not be held in churches when there are other workable options.

"When there are suitable alternative venues as appears to be the case here, public school students should not have to go to church to take part in the final event of their high school careers," said Weaver.

"The school district has the responsibility that all students of all faiths or no faith can attend without feeling religiously pressured," said Weaver.

Matt Gibson, the Elmbrook School District superintendent, told that Elmbrook Church was originally chosen by students themselves after they requested the ceremonies be moved out of the schools – which had a limited amount of space for guests – and into an alternative venue with air-conditioning and handicapped accessibility.

"The students asked their principals if they could check out some other locations for their graduations and the principal said yes," said Gibson. "They looked at a variety of locations, and the one they settled on was the church's auditorium."

This scouting process has occurred every year since 2000 at Central High School and since 2002 at East High School. The church has been chosen each year as the venue for the graduation.

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