The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

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

Americans United Files Suit to Block Public School Graduation Ceremonies in Wisconsin Church

Watchdog Group Files Case on Behalf of Local Families Who Object to Sectarian Venue for Public Event


Americans United for Separation of Church and State today filed a lawsuit
in federal court to block a Wisconsin public school district from
holding graduation ceremonies in the sanctuary of an evangelical church.

The suit, filed on behalf of a graduating senior and several
families in the district, challenges the Elmbrook School District's
decision to hold graduation ceremonies for Brookfield Central High
School and Brookfield East High School at Elmbrook Church.

"Public schools should schedule graduation ceremonies at public
venues where families of all faiths or none will feel welcome," said
the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Some
parents and children do not feel comfortable attending commencement in
this religious setting. Graduation is too important to leave some
families out."

Elmbrook Church displays a large cross
in its sanctuary, and the facility includes other religious iconography
as well. Church officials have refused to cover the cross. On at least
one occasion, members of the church passed out religious literature to
graduation attendees in the lobby.

The plaintiffs, who have chosen to remain anonymous, assert that
they are extremely uncomfortable attending graduation at the church,
given its religion-permeated environment. The plaintiffs also feel
unwelcome at the church because it teaches that non-Christians like the
plaintiffs, and even some denominations of Christians, will go to Hell.

Elmbrook is a theologically conservative evangelical Christian
church with strong views on contentious religious and political issues.
The church says homosexuality is "not an acceptable lifestyle" and is
"contrary to God's will," attacks atheists as people "who think they
are smarter than God" and even condemns TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey
for promoting "a spirituality that is at fundamental odds with the
historic biblical faith."

AU's Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister, said Elmbrook is free
to teach its doctrines, but many Americans disagree with them.

"I can understand why gay kids, atheist kids and kids from other
non-evangelical faith groups would not want to graduate at a church
that condemns them," Lynn said. "Public school commencement ceremonies
ought to be held at a place where every family feels at home."

AU Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser, who is lead
counsel in the case, added, "Graduating seniors should not be forced to
choose between entering a religious environment of a faith to which
they do not subscribe and missing their own graduation. Graduation
should be a joyous occasion for students and their family members, and
it should not be ruined by such religious coercion."

In its complaint, Americans United notes that there are other
facilities available for graduation ceremonies and that virtually all
of them are non-religious in nature. Other school districts in the area
use them.

Americans United is seeking a preliminary injunction
barring the school district from holding its graduation ceremonies,
scheduled for June 6 and 7, at Elmbrook Church or any other house of

The complaint and preliminary injunction papers in Does v. Elmbrook Joint School District No. 21
were drafted by Luchenitser and AU Madison Fellow Elizabeth J. Stevens,
in consultation with AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan. James H. Hall
Jr. and F. Thomas Olson of the Milwaukee civil-rights firm Hall Legal,
S.C. are serving as co-counsel in the case.

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.