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Judge allows Elmbrook graduation ceremony in church

June 2, 2009

A federal judge refused to order the Elmbrook School District to move its graduation ceremonies this weekend from the large church where it has been holding high school commencements for nearly a decade.

U.S. District Judge Charles Clevert delivered his decision Tuesday, following a three-hour hearing last week on a request by a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group to bar the church graduation as an unconstitutional violation of the divide between church and government activities.

"A ceremony in the church does not necessarily constitute a church ceremony," Clevert said from the bench.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed its lawsuit against the Elmbrook district in late April, following the district's refusal to move the ceremonies to a secular site as requested by the group. The organization filed the lawsuit on behalf of nine unnamed current and former students, parents and taxpayers in the district.

School officials and their attorneys defended their choice of Elmbrook Church as the site of graduation ceremonies for Brookfield Central and East high schools, saying the church's 3,200-person capacity facility was chosen for its convenience and comfort. Ceremonies are secular, despite the presence of Christian iconography, including a large cross that hovers over the dais where graduates receive their diplomas, they argued.

This year's graduation ceremonies for the schools are slated for June 6 and 7. School officials said they had made no back-up plans in case they lost their argument in court and have even proceeded with demolition plans at the schools' gymnasiums, reducing the capacity of those venues should they be needed.

"A ceremony in the church does not necessarily constitute a church ceremony," Clevert said from the bench.

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