Brookfield East and Central high schools will hold June graduation ceremonies at Elmbrook Church unless a court order says otherwise, a district official said.
Advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit April 22 in federal court in Milwaukee to stop Elmbrook School District from holding graduations at the church. The group is also seeking a preliminary injunction to stop this year's ceremonies from proceeding as planned.
Superintendent Matt Gibson said the district and its legal counsel believe the decade-long practice of holding graduation at the church does not violate constitutional law.
"We're clearly using it for a secular purpose," Gibson said, adding: "The ceremony just happens to occur in a church auditorium."
The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said the theology taught at Elmbrook Church forces some graduating students and their family members to either expose themselves to a religion contrary to their own views or miss an important milestone in their lives.
"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.
According to a news release from the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United, the suit was filed on behalf of a graduating senior and several other current and past parents and students, who wish to remain anonymous.
Church offers ample space
Gibson said students and staff have repeatedly chosen the church because it offers ample seating and parking, as well as air conditioning, all at the same cost or less than the district would pay to hold the ceremony in its own smaller gyms, which are not air conditioned.
A change in venue at such late notice would inconvenience district families and their relatives, Gibson said, as it would probably also require a change in time and date.
Brookfield East is scheduled to graduate its seniors at Elmbrook Church, 777 S. Barker Road, Brookfield, at 11 a.m. Saturday, June 6. Brookfield Central's ceremony is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday, June 7, at the church.
Until then, the district will work to respond to the lawsuit. Gibson said several agencies have already volunteered services, and the district has insurance to cover any costs involved in litigation.
Threat issued in February
Americans United sent a legal challenge to Elmbrook and three other districts on Feb. 11, telling them to change the planned location of their graduation ceremonies or face legal action. The group requested a formal response by Feb. 27.
In February, Gibson said the graduations would go on as planned this year. The district had already planned to move the ceremonies back on campus in 2010, after completion of the high schools' new gymnasiums.
In response, Alex Luchenitser, an attorney with Americans United, said moving the ceremonies next year might not be soon enough to avoid a legal challenge.
Of the other districts challenged, only New Berlin has agreed to move its ceremonies. Mukwonago and Waukesha County Technical College still plan to hold graduation at Elmbrook. Americans United has not filed a lawsuit against Mukwonago and WCTC because no one has come forward claiming injury because of the ceremonies being held in the church.
New Berlin Superintendent Paul Kreutzer said School Board members chose to move the ceremony for Eisenhower High School for fear of litigation and liability issues.
Isral DeBruin can be reached at (262) 446-6608.
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