By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday let stand an appeals court ruling that a Wisconsin school district could not hold graduation ceremonies in a church auditorium because of concerns about the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on government endorsement of religion.
The nine justices were split on the decision, with Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas saying the court should have thrown out the ruling by the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against Elmbrook School District.
The case concerns the school district near the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield, Wisconsin. The district says it moved graduation ceremonies to the nearby Elmbrook Church, a non-denominational evangelical Christian church, only because it was more a convenient location with more parking, comfortable seating and air conditioning.
Several current or former students or their parents filed suit, saying there was a violation of the Constitution's First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion but prohibits government endorsement of religion in the amendment's so-called establishment clause.
Scalia wrote an opinion outlining his objections, saying the court should have asked the appeals court to reconsider its decision based on the high court's 5-4 ruling in May upholding prayers before town meetings in the town of Greece, New York. In that case, also focusing on the establishment clause, the justices ruled that sectarian invocations do not automatically violate the U.S. Constitution.
The school district’s attorneys say the court’s reasoning in that case bolsters their argument because there was no religious motive for the decision to move the ceremonies to the church.
The graduation ceremonies, beginning in 2000 for one of the schools and 2002 for the other, contained no religious content or references, and non-permanent religious symbols were removed, the school district maintains. The auditorium does, however, feature a prominently displayed cross above the stage.
A federal judge ruled for the school district, as did the appeals court. But when the appeals court reheard the case, a divided panel reached the opposite conclusion, finding in a July 2012 ruling that moving the school event to the church conveyed a message of religious endorsement even if the purpose of the move was not religious.
Since a new school gymnasium was built in 2009, ceremonies have been held there.
"There was no need for the U.S. Supreme Court to take this case," Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a statement. "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."
The case is Elmbrook School District v. John Doe, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-755.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham and Grant McCool)