Monday, September 12, 2011

Air-Conditioning Takes Priority over Secularity?

Many American households display a similar iconic photo in a widely visible spot in their home: a framed picture of their high school graduate walking across the stage in cap and gown, accepting their diploma. But for graduates of Brookfield Central and Brookfield East Public High Schools in southern Wisconsin, this proudly displayed memory contains another focal point: a 20-foot tall cross above the stage.

Brookfield’s graduation had traditionally been held in the school’s gymnasium, which was much too small and too hot for the graduating class, their families, and their guests to sit comfortably during the ceremony. In 2000, the students requested to hold the ceremony in a nearby nondenominational evangelical Christian church because the venue was much larger and more comfortable than any space the school could provide. The senior class approved the venue change by a majority vote, and the superintendant, who happened to be a member of this church, agreed to hold the graduation in the church’s huge theater, on the grounds that the church provided more space, amenities, and convenience than the school’s gym, and allowed students to invite more guests than they would have if the ceremony was held at other local, secular venues.

Students and families from the school and Americans for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit arguing that holding graduation ceremonies in a place of worship violates the Constitution and makes some attendees feel uncomfortable, and requested a court order to force the schools to find an alternate, secular venue. This week, a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that as long as the graduation ceremony didn’t hold religious elements, there was no government endorsement of religion, and therefore no violation of the Religion Clause.

Walking across the stage at high school graduation to accept a diploma is considered a rite of passage in American schools, and forcing public school students in a multi-cultural and multi-religious town to choose between asking their families to sit in a mega-church to watch them accept their diploma under a giant cross or skip this momentous occasion all together is not Constitutional. The 7th Circuit Court found that as long as the ceremony did not contain religious messages or religious pressures, no endorsement of religion was taking place. Essentially, they found that as long as religious paraphernalia was only visible and present but not explicitly mentioned, there was no problem.

But, with this ruling, there is a huge problem. This church, although large, air-conditioned, and “convenient”, is a widely accepted and extremely visibly a place of worship. Pews contained Bibles, prayers, and hymnals, and a giant cross above the stage. One student claimed that the ceremony, which did not mention any denomination or the church itself, was completely secular, and therefore an appropriate venue. But since when are courts okay with the presence of religious paraphernalia or venues for supposedly secular settings as long as they aren’t “explicitly mentioned”? Would it be okay for a schoolteacher to hold class in a room of a nearby church simply because the church’s multipurpose room, while decorated with Bible verses, was larger than the school’s? What if a Judge held Court in the Synagogue down the street because the Court was overscheduled and overcrowded? According to this Court’s reasoning all of these situations could be acceptable because no religious messages are explicitly stated or endorsed—the groups are simply using the venue out of “convenience”, with no religious intent. The consequences of allowing a public high school to hold a secular graduation in a church for convenience reasons are somewhat limited in scope, but the consequences of allowing this "convenience" excuse for violating the Religion Clause to become precedent has dangerous implications because oftentimes, secularity does require extra effort, and these standards should be upheld for future cases where a lot more is sacrificed in the name of convenience.

Verbal messages and readings, while important, are not everything—no one can claim that simply omitting religious speech makes holding a ceremony in a church non-religious. Sitting in an empty church in silence, even while no one else is present, is still a religious activity because churches are still an obvious place of worship, regardless of what the venue is being used for. What if you were planning your Muslim wedding and the Imam tried to convince you that it would make more sense to hold your ceremony at the Catholic Church down the street because it’s bigger, and air-conditioned? True, it’s not a Mosque, but don’t worry—they wouldn’t say or read anything Catholic, so no one will notice the venue at all…right?

17 comments:

Harry R. said...

I disagree with Pamela regarding the use of the church for graduation. The reason for the move was entirely logical and desired by a majority of the students. While there were religious symbols present, religious symbols are seen at all times but do not necessarily constitute the imposition of religion. I also feel that it is significant that the graduation ceremonies were moved back to a school venue once an appropriate room was available. This shows that the intent of the school was to hold their ceremonies in as comfortable a location as possible, be it a church or not.

Zoey Goldnick said...

I agree with that the move to this Church is an imposition of religion regardless of if the speeches contain religious references. In the case we discussed about a teacher putting a picture of Jesus by the clock, or a cross in the room, most people reasoned that this was still bringing religion into the classroom and was inappropriate. The students were also faced with an unfair choice when voting. If the school was going to change locations, the choice should be between TWO secular venues.

TNTbo said...

I understand that the graduation was moved to the Church for the sake of convenience, and I do not think that the religion clause was violated, but this is entirely illogical. Would I have been offended that there is a giant cross in my graduation picture, no. But Brookfield has to acknowledge the diversity within their public school and realize that this was going to cause trouble. I would be interested to see the tally on the votes. Had each and every member of the senior class voted that it was okay to hold the ceremony at the mega church, it would be fine. But even if there were just one or two students uncomfortable with being at the mega church, that is a total disturbance to their graduation day, and an unfair burden.

PamelaR said...

In response to Harry: The fact that the move was desired by a majority of students shouldn't be a reason for the choice to be appropriate--if this reasoning were legitimate, then you could also argue that it is appropriate for many states to have established state religions, just because the majority of the members of the state would in fact agree on the same religion.

Allison S said...

I agree with the government in this situation. I think the problem here is not that the ceremony was held in a church but that there still was paraphernalia. Had the church been cleared of its bibles and crosses I think the ceremony would have been fine. I recognize that being in a church may be uncomfortable for some people but I would be okay with having my graduation ceremony at a Mosque as long as religious paraphernalia was covered.

Elena T said...

I agree with the ruling and feel that it was not unconstitutional. It was evident that the school went through a lengthy process and explored other options, it was not as if they purposely chose the venue because it was a Christian church. I understand why many people disagreed with the move, and possibly there could have been a compromise, and a curtain could have been put up behind the graduating class covering the cross, but I thing the decision to have it at the church was in everybody's best interest.

Harry R. said...

In response to Pamela, I did not mean that the wishes of the majority was the justification. Rather, the justification for the move was based on the desire to have a more enjoyable ceremony for all involved. Religion was not the basis for the move and not focused on in the ceremony in any way. As such, this venue is used in an entirely secular manner and should be constitutionally allowed.

BryceS said...

I agree with Harry because the motive of this move is entirely based on logical, secular principles. Yes, there exists paraphernalia in this building, but none of it is being enforced or preached to the graduates and their families. These people have the luxury of attending their son's and daughter's graduation with their extended family members (not to mention, a/c) and still have something to complain about. So what if there is a bible in front of you, no one is telling you to read it and you're not there for any religious reason whatsoever.

Sophie K said...

Despite the fact that the graduation ceremony was moved to the church for convenience, I agree with Zoey. The move to the church is unquestionably an imposition of religion. Since Brookfield is a public school, supported by government funding, the idea to hold a secular graduation ceremony in a church never should have been discussed. Only secular venues should have been proposed. I also think it is interesting to note that the superintendent is a member of this church. His membership may give people the wrong impression that Brookfield High School is starting to endorse this local church.

kanderson said...

I mean what is the school to do if there are too many people. You have to move the service. But, is it neccessary to move it to the church? What about outside? Many schools have their services outside and everything plays out just fine. Though it is upsetting for some, I agree with Harry, it makes sense. It is logical. At the end of the day, it is a public school. Many different individuals go to public schools. We do need to make sure that all were taken into consideration. I would hope that all other possiblities for location were thought of before this was decided upon.

Christy said...

I think how Pamela opened her entry was important, would you want your graduation pictures to have a cross in the background if you were graduating from a public school? And weren't a Christian? The only way having a public school graduation ceremony at a church would to empty the pews of the Bibles and not have a cross near the main focal point. Use the extra space and air conditioining, but don't display the Christian symbols.

Casey K said...

I believe there are legitimate arguments for both sides of this issue, but in the end I must sympathize with the families of non-Christians that are told that they must celebrate in a building that can cause them to feel uncomfortable. The reasons to move the ceremony are valid, but to have an event for a public school in a church seams completely unreasonable. A public education should not have any connection to religious beliefs at all, and having this graduation in a church is unfair for those students that do not believe in Christianity.

ChristopherJ. said...

The fact that we are even having this argument saddens me greatly. So the graduation was held in a church; so what? The ceremony was totally non-religious. There's a word for being so intolerant of other people's beliefs that you can't stand to be around them: bigotry. Anyone who felt that uncomfortable by just being in a church is obviously so intolerant of the beliefs of others that they shouldn't be living in a predominantly Christian nation. These people need to suck it up and worry about more important things in life.

Marissa V said...

I disagree with Pamela. The decision to move the graduation ceremony to the church as far as I can tell has nothing to do with religion. The church is a bigger venue where even extended family members are able to see their loved one's graduation. Whether it be a church or a synagogue, the school simply chose the venue based on convenience for the people. It is not like the priest is leading the ceremony or forcing the people to read the bibles. Why should everyone have to cram into a smaller space for the sake of keeping it "secular"?

Grant Z said...

I also disagree with Pamela and believe that holding the ceremony in a church is not imposition of religion. In an ideal world, there would not be a cross hanging above a graduation ceremony in a public school; however, I believe it is logical and a sacrifice the school and students should be willing to make in order to hold a ceremony in air conditioning. Many grandparents cherish the opportunity to watch grandchildren graduate, and this could become a potentially dangerous situation for the elderly if it is too hot inside the gymnasium.

Sam S said...

While I agree that the decision to move the graduation to a non-denominational church has a lot of good reasoning behind it, I cannot agree that it is right to hold a public school graduation in a church. Even though there was no religious aspect to the ceremony, the fact that many graduates that were not Christian, or did not believe in any religion, had their pictures of a very secular ceremony overcast by a very religious symbol.

Jon W. said...

In my opinion to move the graduation service to an air-conditioned church was not an imposition on religion. It was simply the best viable option for the students and their families. Yes, it would have been ideal if the religious paraphernalia was covered to completely secularize the service but since religion was not mentioned in the ceremony it is not infringing on the rights of others. Personally I would rather sit in a church, synagogue, or mosque with a/c then a crowded gymnasium in June any day of the week.