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Supreme Court Ducks Fight Over Church-School Divide

The court declined to take up a challenge involving a decision Milwaukee-area public school to conduct high school graduation ceremonies a church.

The U.S. Supreme on Monday ducked a fight over government and religion.

The court declined to take up a challenge involving a decision by the Elmbrook School district in suburban Milwaukee to conduct high school graduation ceremonies in the auditorium of an evangelical Christian church, after finding that school gymnasiums were too small and too hot.

Although the ceremonies themselves contained no religious content, religious symbols remained in the auditorium. Some current and former students and their parents sued, claiming they felt uncomfortable and unwelcome in the setting. A federal appeals court ruled in their favor, finding that holding school events in a church conveys a message of government endorsement of religion.

Two Supreme Court justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, dissented from the court's action Monday. They said the court's decision earlier this term, allowing the opening of public meetings with a Christian prayer, made clear that even though some may take offense at a religious message, that doesn't constitute coercion.

"It is perhaps the job of school officials to prevent hurt feelings at school events. But that is decidedly not the job of the Constitution," Scalia wrote for the two dissenters. They said the court should have taken the case to reverse the lower court ruling.

Advocates for the separation of church and state hailed the decision not to take up the case.

“This case should serve as a warning to public schools that it’s not appropriate to hold important ceremonies like graduation in a religious setting,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United.

— Pete Williams