MILWAUKEE — A federal judge ruled yesterday that a public school district in a Milwaukee suburb may continue to hold its graduation ceremonies in a church.
U.S. District Judge Charles Clevert issued his ruling in response to a lawsuit brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The Washington, D.C., group had argued that the setting violated students' and parents' constitutional rights by creating an atmosphere that makes non-Christians uncomfortable.
The Elmbrook School District plans to use Elmbrook Church for Brookfield Central and East high schools' commencement ceremonies on June 6 and 7. School district officials say they chose Elmbrook Church and its 3,200-seat capacity for convenience and comfort.
"I'm relieved," Elmbrook Schools Superintendent Matt Gibson said. "The students are going to be able to graduate in their preferred location."
Addressing the court, Clevert said the "ceremony in the church does not necessarily constitute a church ceremony," according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Alex Luchenitser, senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the Associated Press he was disappointed in the decision.
"The students are going to be forced to go to church at the price of attending their own graduation," he said. "They're going to be forced to sit in a sanctuary facing an enormous cross for two hours, facing Bibles, hymnal books in pews right in front of them."
Luchenitser said the organization would talk to its clients and did not plan to attempt to stop the graduation ceremonies from taking place. Americans United filed the lawsuit on behalf of students, alumni and parents who are not Christian. Some belong to other faiths and others are atheists.
"At this point, technically we could file an appeal," Luchenitser said, but added:. "It's unlikely we'd file an appeal of this particular ruling on the preliminary injunction motion because there's not really enough time for the court of appeals to adequately consider the matter.
"We need to talk some more among everybody involved, but we do plan to keep fighting this case and eventually bring an appeal to the Court of the Appeals for the Seventh Circuit."
Brookfield Central High School has held its graduation at the church since 2000. Brookfield East High School has done so since 2002.
"The reason for moving off campus in the first place was the small gymnasiums, the lack of air conditioning, the lack of handicap accessibility, the need to ticket to limit the audience because of capacity," Gibson said. "Our plan is to hold graduation on campus in our new facilities next year."