The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release
Contact: (202) 466-3234,Joe Conn,Rob Boston,Sandhya Bathija

Americans United Warns Milwaukee-Area Schools Not to Hold Graduation Ceremonies in Church

Graduations Could Lead to Litigation, Cautions Religious Liberty Watchdog Group


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

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

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.