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Americans United Warns Milwaukee-Area Schools Not to Hold Graduation Ceremonies in Church
Graduations Could Lead to Litigation, Cautions Religious Liberty Watchdog Group
WASHINGTON - February 11 - Americans United for Separation of Church and State has warned three Wisconsin public school districts and a community college that they may face litigation if they do not stop holding graduation ceremonies in a church.
In letters sent today, Americans United advised officials at the Elmbrook School District in Brookfield, the Mukwonago Area School District in Mukwonago and the New Berlin School District in New Berlin that their actions violate the First Amendment. In addition, a similar letter was sent to officials at Waukesha County Technical College in Pewaukee.
"Graduation is a public event that must welcome all students, parents and families," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Holding the ceremony in a Christian church replete with sectarian symbols inevitably makes some attendees feel left out."
All four educational institutions have been holding graduation ceremonies at Elmbrook Church. The church has a 30-foot cross hanging at the front of the sanctuary directly above where the graduation speakers stand and where students line up to receive their diplomas. Church officials have said they would not cover up the cross.
In addition, at past graduations, the church displayed banners reading "Leading Children to a Transforming Life in Jesus" and "Lord of Lords," and church personnel distributed religious pamphlets and other materials to graduating students and their families.
"Although attendance may be technically voluntary, graduations are once-in-a-lifetime events of immense civic and social importance to students and their families....," asserts AU's letter to the secondary schools. "Accordingly, the Supreme Court has held that conditioning attendance at public-school graduations on exposure to unwanted expressions of religion is prohibited."
The AU letters were written by Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, AU Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser and AU Legal Fellow Elizabeth J. Stevens. The letters were accompanied by requests for documents relating to the graduations.
Luchenitser warned, "There is still time to resolve this matter without a lawsuit. But we are prepared to go to court if that's what it takes to end these unconstitutional graduations at church."
Luchenitser said that AU's Legal Department had received complaints from local residents concerned about the matter. He urged parents and students in the affected school districts who object to having graduations in a church to contact him or Stevens at (202) 466-3234 or firstname.lastname@example.org.