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Ruling may be long time coming in Elmbrook church vs. state graduation suit

Arguments have been made; opinions now need to be written

Feb. 21, 2012

It could be months or even another year before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decides whether it was constitutional for the Elmbrook School District to hold its high school graduations at Elmbrook Church for most of the last decade.

Lengthy decision process

The Court heard oral arguments Feb. 9, but is likely to take a normal lengthy course before rendering a decision, according to Alex J. Luchenitser, legal director for Americans United, the organization that has been pursuing the case on behalf of nine unnamed district families.

"The Court may very well take or has already taken a preliminary vote on the matter," Luchenitser said. "However, a majority opinion needs to written, and judges draft their own opinions and comment on other opinions. The first decision may actually change, depending on the outcomes from the opinions."

The case

The suit argues that the families said the church environment made them feel unwelcome and uncomfortable.

"It was a spirited argument in front of the 10 judges," Luchenitser said of the Feb. 6 hearing. "We were very happy to get this opportunity after the three-judge panel previously ruled against us.

"Public school students and parents should not be forced to spend hours in an intensely religious environment in order to attend their own graduations."

The school district moved the graduations to Elmbrook Church because students and their families wanted an improved venue with ample seating, air conditioning and more parking.

Brookfield Central held its graduation ceremonies at the church from 2000 to 2009. Brookfield East held its graduations there from 2002 to 2009.

The schools moved the graduations back to district facilities in 2010, once a 2008 referendum passage paved the way for completion of ceremony-appropriate gathering space.

Larger impact

Americans United, Luchenitser said, is pursuing several similar cases around the country. Elmbrook's case is important to his organization's mission of separation of church and state because the results would establish a precedent.

"We have seen cases in Chicago, Connecticut, Michigan and Georgia," Luchenitser said. He noted that the suit's local relevancy is that Elmbrook would be prevented from having church-held graduation ceremonies in the future.

"There is a feeling that they might want to go back there," he said.

Elmbrook Superintendent Matt Gibson refuted that notion.

"I would say the same thing that we have said from the time we had our own facilities," Gibson said. "We have no future intention of holding graduations at Elmbrook Church."

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