Graduation Ceremonies In a Church?

The first year the graduation was held at the non-denominational Christian church, Gibson said that the 15- to 20-foot tall cross that is noted in several of the plaintiff's complaints was obscured.

"The first year we held graduation at Elmbrook they veiled the cross," said Gibson. "Then the church decided that they wouldn't do that anymore and they would only remove temporary things – such as banners that are religious in nature but that can be put back up after graduation."

Mel Lawrenz, the senior pastor at Elmbrook Church, argues that the cross was never purposely veiled but was rather hidden by graduation decorations that were relocated in the following years so that the cross would be in full view.

Asked whether the church would be willing to veil the cross during this year's graduation ceremony, Lawrenz said that covering the cross would be "an insult to the identity of the church."

"Elmbrook Church has always tried to be a good neighbor and a resource to the community," said Lawrenz. "A wide variety of schools and other organizations have asked to use the Elmbrook facility for graduations, music events, and other community functions, and over the years we have heard widespread gratitude by these many groups for what they were able to accomplish in the facility."

"To cover the cross becomes more of a negative statement than accomplishing anything really practical," said Lawrenz. "Everybody knows a church building is being used."

Sarah Mucek, a 2001 graduate of Brookfield Central, said that she remembers the cross being "pretty visible" during her graduation.

"From my perspective, the facility was a church but the ceremony was completely secular and focused on the high school," said Mucek. "It did not mention any denomination or the church itself, so for me there was no problem."

Mucek said that while she does see where some people could take issue with the ceremony occurring in a church, she said that the way the facilities were used by the school were "nothing but welcoming and inclusive."

The church is also the nicest place in the area to host the event, according to Mucek.

"The church is absolutely the biggest venue in the area," she said. "If we did it at the school it would have had to be in the cafeteria and the facilities at Elmbrook are so much nicer."

Gibson said that there have always been a "handful" of complaints regarding the religious setting for public schools' graduation, but said that the Elmbrook Church remains the most sensible choice.

"I view this as a practical matter," said Gibson. "Questions have been raised periodically through the years by a handful of people and I don't discount them, I take them seriously. But the majority of students are OK with the church and as long as it's constitutional."

Gibson said the cost of holding the ceremonies at the church, which about $2,000 per school according to court documents, is on par with what it would cost to pay janitors overtime and crews for setting up and breaking down seating if the schools were to host the graduations at their respective campuses.

Students have consistently chosen the church for their graduations because it has more space and amenities than any of the other local options, including an exhibition center with half the number of seats as Elmbrook.

The church's 3,200-person capacity lets each student invite an unlimited number of guests. Graduating classes at the schools range from 350 to 400 students.

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