Commencement Controversy

AU Lawsuit Says Graduation In Church Is Too Much Of A Cross For Students To Bear

In high school, Casey Albright was a “closet atheist.”

“I used to tell some of my friends freshman year that I didn’t go to church,” Albright said. “They were flabbergasted by that. I eventually realized that I had to hide who I was as a person because I’d get torn apart if I came out.”

Albright went to high school in Brookfield, a conservative suburb of Milwaukee, Wisc. The public school choir there sang hymns, and the graduation ceremony was held in a church. And to most in the community, there was no doubt that this was how things should be done.

But to Albright’s family, the school’s failure to remain religiously neutral made them feel like outcasts.

That’s why Albright, Albright’s family and others in the community are serving as plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the school district’s practice of holding graduation in a church. The challenge was filed in federal district court April 22 by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. (Albright is a pseudonym because all plaintiffs have chosen to remain anonymous to protect themselves from retaliation.)

“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,” said Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser, who is lead counsel in this case. “Graduation should be a joyous occasion for students and their family members, and it should not be ruined by such religious coercion.”

In 2005, the year Albright graduated, the family tried to take a stand against the school’s policy of holding commencement at Elmbrook Church, an evangelical congregation with thousands of members.

At the church, graduating seniors receive their diplomas in the church’s sanctuary on a dais beneath an immense cross, which is nearly 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide. On their way to the sanctuary, students pass religious displays and symbols in the church’s lobby and passageways, including portraits of Jesus and quotations from the Bible. Bibles and hymnals line the pews where parents and students sit.

But school district officials were indifferent to the objections from the Albright family and to other complaints received over the years.

“Everyone would always ask, in an accusing tone, ‘What’s your problem with it?’” Albright said. “They would tell me I was being ridiculous and that I just wanted attention. They asked me to defend my position. I didn’t want to prove my feelings to every single person. I was 18 years old; I didn’t want to deal with that.”

So when commencement rolled around, Albright didn’t want to outwardly protest any more. But sitting in Elmbrook Church for commencement made the graduating senior feel very unwelcome.

“Educators are supposed to never put a student in an uncomfortable atmosphere,” Albright said. “You don’t do that by putting the graduation ceremony in a specific church that thinks people who are different than them are going to spend eternity in damnation.”

Since 2000, the school district has held the graduation ceremony for Brookfield Central High School at Elmbrook. In 2002, another high school in the district, Brookfield East, also began holding commencement ceremonies at the church.

It’s no surprise that some families are uncomfortable at the venue. The mega-church is theologically conservative 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,” and attacks atheists as people “who think they are smarter than God.”

The church Web site even condemns TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey for promoting “a spirituality that is at fundamental odds with the historic biblical faith.”

Before filing the Does v. Elmbrook Joint Common School District No. 21 lawsuit last month, Americans United first asked the school district in June 2007 to move its graduations to a different location or at least remove or veil any religious symbols, including the large cross.

The school district refused to change locations and responded that the church would not cover the cross.

Elmbrook Senior Pastor Mel Lawrenz told ABC News, “To cover the cross becomes more of a negative statement than accomplishing anything really practical.”

So in February of this year, AU attorneys wrote another letter to Superintendent Matt Gibson to advise the school district to move commencement away from the church for this year’s June 6 and 7 ceremonies.

“[T]he Supreme Court has held that because ‘high school graduation is one of life’s most significant occasions,’ conditioning attendance on exposure to unwanted expressions of religion is a particularly egregious constitutional violation,” the AU letter asserted.

“Videos and photographs of recent years’ ceremonies make clear that the cross suspended above graduates’ heads dominates the space; its prominence and immense size cannot help but draw the eye,” the letter continued. “Indeed, an uninformed observer might well assume that Brookfield’s high schools were private Christian schools, and an informed observer would perceive that at these public schools, religion – and Christianity, in particular – is favored or preferred.”

The letter concluded, “As we advised in our original letter, we urge you to move the ceremonies to a secular venue.”

Still, Superintendent Gibson refused.

In a Feb. 26 letter to AU, the school official said, “[T]he reasons for holding the graduation ceremonies at the Elmbrook Church Auditorium are purely secular. Those reasons include providing a venue that is large enough to host all the graduates and their family members, providing air conditioning, accommodating the disabled, offering audio and visual technologies, as well as offering sufficient parking.”

There may be other reasons as well.

Gibson, several members of the school board, at least one of the high school principals and some other school district personnel are members of Elmbrook Church.

In an interview with a local radio station following AU’s filing of the lawsuit, Gibson said the school just wants to “honor the decisions of the students who would like to hold the graduation there.

“The reason it was chosen in the first place, by Brookfield Central and then Brookfield East, is the gymnasiums were small and could not accommodate everyone,” he said. He described other options as “hot, stuffy, not air-conditioned.”

In the past, students voted on the location to hold the graduation ceremonies, and they chose Elmbrook Church, even though the Supreme Court has ruled that holding student votes on religion-related issues is unconstitutional. The schools discontinued such votes a few years ago. Instead, Gibson relies on past student votes to determine the location for the graduation.

In most of the years in which student votes were held, only two or three options were on the ballot, and one was always Elmbrook Church. And in some years, the ballots only contained two options, Elmbrook Church and the school’s gymnasium.

When Albright voted in 2005, school officials made sure to highlight all the amenities of Elmbrook church versus the gymnasium.

“The school board made it seem in its description that it was the best possible venue,” Albright said. Albright believes that school officials distorted the information they presented, “just to make Elmbrook look the best.”

In fact, there are many secular, desirable venues where the school district could hold the graduation ceremonies, including the county exposition center that seats at least 1,800 people. (Each school’s graduating classes have 300 to 350 students.) Many other high schools in the area hold their commencements at other secular sites, including a local technical college’s auditorium, which seats approximately 1,900 people, and the U.S. Cellular Arena, which seats 10,000.

Through the years, Gibson and the school board have not heeded any complaints about holding the graduations at Elmbrook Church, despite objections from parents, community members and civil liberties groups. In the past, both the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Anti-Defamation League have advised the school district to move the graduation ceremony to another location.

“It’s about only one thing: insinuating Jesus into the ceremony as much as possible,” said Chris Albright, Casey’s parent, who is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

“Each time they have the commencement, the government is forcing 1,500 people to go to the church,” Chris said. “Some of these people may be in the market to change churches. They see how plush it is, they may make the decision to change their church. It’s a good marketing tool for the church.

“I feel really uncomfortable with my tax dollars going to this,” Chris continued. “The school district is paying the church $2,000 per commencement, and that money goes to the church to help it propagate its positions.”

When Chris questioned the school district for holding the graduation ceremonies in the church with a towering cross overhead, the only response the school gave was, “It’s just a symbol.”

“They kept saying that,” Chris recalled. “But what if the symbol was a swastika, would that be okay then? It’s about what that symbol means, and to me, a non-believer, the cross symbolizes eternity in hell for me. That’s not very friendly.

“Could you imagine if the school district returned commencement to the gym and put a cross behind the podium?” Chris continued. “Wouldn’t that be really obvious that that is totally wrong? But that’s exactly what is happening when the school forces all these people to go to this church.

“When I was at the church for my [child’s] graduation, I saw some Muslim and Hindu families,” Chris concluded. “I could tell they did not look comfortable, either.”

Superintendent Gibson said in the radio interview that he has received offers from out-of-town legal groups, volunteering to represent the school district.

Jay Sekulow, Religious Right attorney and chief counsel of TV preacher Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, called AU’s lawsuit “ridiculous.”

“If this was a worship service for a public school then clearly there would be a problem,” Sekulow told ABC News. “But it’s not; a school is just using it for convenience.

“To those who say they’re uncomfortable, they’re in a free country,” he continued. “They’re going to see and hear things that they don’t like, that’s the price of freedom.”

But freedom shouldn’t come at the expense of minorities’ constitutional rights, Albright said.

“Since a lot of families go to church, they think everyone should be like them, anyway,” Albright said. “What they don’t realize is that the Constitution was set up to protect the minority. But [the school district] counts on people not saying anything. They know that the community is behind them.”

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn agrees with Albright and points to the importance of this case to people of all faiths and none.

“Our country’s public schools are filled with Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, non-believers, the list goes on,” said Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. “This school should know better. Public school commencement ceremonies ought to be in a place where every family feels at home.”

As Church & State went to press, a preliminary injunction hearing was scheduled May 29 before Judge Charles N. Clevert Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.

Joining AU Senior Litigation Counsel Luchenitser on the legal team for the case are AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, AU Madison Fellows Elizabeth J. Stevens and Jef Klazen and Milwaukee civil rights attorneys James H. Hall and F. Thomas Olson.

Please see the July/August issue of Church & State for updates in this case.