Legal Update: Supreme Court Lets Elmbrook Decision Stand – Schools Should Seek Secular Space

On June 16, 2014, the Supreme Court denied certiorari in Doe v. Elmbrook School District,declining to review the decision from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Elmbrook case held that a public school district violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution by holding high school graduation ceremonies inside of a church.  The Court acknowledged that the church facilities were not selected for a religious purpose, and that the church was superior to the District’s facilities, which were “too hot, cramped and uncomfortable.”  However, the Court found that “an unacceptable amount of religious endorsement and coercion occurred when the District held important civil ceremonies in the proselytizing environment of [the] Church.”

Specifically, the Seventh Circuit noted that:

  • The atmosphere of the Church, both inside and outside the sanctuary, was indisputably and emphatically Christian.  Crosses and other religious symbols abounded on the Church grounds and the exterior of the Church building.
  • To reach the sanctuary, visitors had to pass through the Church lobby, which contained tables and stations filled with evangelical literature, much of which addressed children and teens.  Religious banners, symbols, and posters decorated the walls.
  • Church members staffed information booths during the graduation ceremonies, and passed out religious literature in the Church lobby.
  • Members of the Church, rather than school officials, handed out graduation materials during the ceremony.
  • A large Latin cross, fixed to the wall, hung at the front of the sanctuary and dominated the proceedings.  The Church refused the school district’s requests to cover the cross.
  • During the ceremony, students and guests sat on pews that contained Bibles, hymnal books, and other religious materials.

The Seventh Circuit held that the Establishment Clause prohibited school administrators from bringing seminal schoolhouse events to the church.  The use of the church necessarily conveyed a message of endorsement, and such an endorsement was coercive, especially with regard to the children.

Two Supreme Court Justices, Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas, dissented from the decision not to review the case.  They argued that the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals should reconsider its ruling in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, which held that a city council could precede its meetings with a short prayer.

Because the Supreme Court declined review, the Elmbrook decision is final and binding within the Seventh Circuit, which includes the states of Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.  Although the Elmbrook decision is not binding on courts in other states, other courts may find its reasoning to be persuasive.

School districts that plan to use church facilities for school events should consult with counsel.  Although Elmbrook can provide some guidance, each case must be evaluated on an individual basis.

Click here for the Supreme Court’s denial of Certiorari and here for the 7th Circuit decision that now stands.