The Supreme Court decided this week not to hear a recent case from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which has jurisdiction over Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) regarding public school graduation ceremonies in churches. As Franczek Radelet reported when the decision was handed down in 2012, the Seventh Circuit held that a Wisconsin school district violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by holding a graduation ceremony in a church with pervasively religious symbols. The Seventh Circuit found that such action could lead to the perception that the school endorsed the Christian religion. As we explained, the court stated:
Regardless of the purpose of school administrators in choosing the location, the sheer religiosity of the space created a likelihood that high school students and their younger siblings would perceive a link between church and state.” The majority reasoned that a reasonable observer could “conclude that the District would only choose such a proselytizing environment aimed at spreading religious faith – despite the presence of children, the importance of the graduation ceremony, and, most importantly, the existence of other suitable graduation sites – if the District approved of the Church’s message.”
After last week’s decision allowing prayer before town meetings (which we covered in an FR Alert), one might have expected the Supreme Court to take up (and even reverse) the Seventh Circuit’s decision. But the Court declined to even hear the appeal.
In a relatively uncommon step, Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, dissented from the Court’s denial of review in the case. Scalia compared the complaints of non-Christian parents about holding graduation ceremonies in churches to his own dislike for the public playing of “rock music and Stravinsky,” and expressed his belief that based on prior Supreme Court precedent, such an aversion “cannot be imposed by law because of the First Amendment.” In other words, according to Scalia and Thomas the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment does not even apply to, let alone prohibit, holding graduation ceremonies in churches. Scalia argued that because the Seventh Circuit’s decision was en banc (before all the judges of the Seventh Circuit), prompted three powerful dissents, conflicted with decisions that have long allowed graduation ceremonies to take place in churches, and conflicted with decisions upholding other public uses of religious spaces, Supreme Court review should have been granted.
The Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case means the Seventh Circuit’s decision remains good law, and binding law for school districts in its jurisdiction. Notably, the decision does not hold that a graduation ceremony may never be held in a church or other religious building. Rather, the decision cautions against such proceedings being held in a location with the “sheer religiosity” of the church in question in the case. As our previous summary explained:
[T]he church . . . had a 15-20 foot tall cross at the front of the sanctuary, as well as Bibles and hymnals in the pews and religious literature in the lobby, including signs and pamphlets targeted at children. Some years, church members staffed the information booths and/or distributed religious literature.”
The reality of the decision, however, is that it is legally risky to hold a graduation ceremony in any church, and so caution is warranted by schools considering doing so. At the very least, review of the question by legal counsel is imperative.