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OPINION - Graduation in the church sanctuary

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) The lawsuit was born of innocence. Brookfield's two high schools had small gymnasiums, and on graduation day school officials didn't want students to be limited to just two guests. They decided against holding the ceremony outside; what if it rained? So they rented the largest hall they could find. It happened to be the Elmbrook Church, a modern mega-church with a large air-conditioned sanctuary, a big stage, wide seating, and a balcony. Students voted on the venue.

The ceremony would be entirely secular, but it would be held in a church.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sued.

Among their objections: there was a large wooden cross above the stage; the church would not allow it to be removed or covered. That church's specific teaching that those who don't believe are condemned to hell. One plaintiff, a student, said he was forced to choose between attending a ceremony in a house of worship or missing his graduation. Another family that joined the lawsuit shielded their name in court filings and said they feared social ostracism if they spoke up.

An appeals court ruled that the ceremony was a violation of separation of church and state. Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear the case, allowing the lower court ruling to stand.

The decision is wrong.

Being around religious trappings is not unconstitutional. Nor is conducting government business in a house of worship. (There are hundreds of churches and church-affiliated schools that are used as polling stations around the country. In one strange case in Pennsylvania, a church school agreed to cover images of Christ on Election Day but left uncovered posters of Barack Obama, which were used as part of a class civics lesson.) Today Brookfield holds graduation in a new, larger field house.

The simple solution is to look at what the Constitution actually says: " Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. " That's all, nothing else. The oft-quoted wall of separation between church and state was written by Justice Hugo Black in Everson v. Board of Education , quoting Thomas Jefferson in a private letter to a Connecticut church. It's not in the Constitution. Justice Black's holding greatly expanded the actual constitutional text. He wrote: " Neither a state nor the federal government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax,in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa ." Even with all that extra-constitutional language, holding a school graduation in a church auditorium is not a violation.

There are dozens of religious inscriptions and images on federal buildings, including the U.S. Supreme Court. Moses holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments is one of the figures sculpted atop the Supreme Court building representing the great law-givers of mankind. Other tablet imagery within the court building includes ten roman numerals; historians disagree wither this references the Ten Commandments or the Bill of Rights.

On the chance that someone might be offended of feel uncomfortable upon entering the highest court of our land, shouldn't these images be plastered over? Or should we acknowledge that the Constitution doesn't guarantee that were entitled to feelings of comfort or to be un-offended?

Chris Conley
6.17.14

Image: Elmbrook Church (web site)