A South Carolina federal court ruled in favor of common sense and comfort when it decided that a fifth grade graduation ceremony can be held at a chapel of a nearby Christian university rather than the cramped “cafetorium” in the elementary school. Not only was this decision a victory for comfort and common sense, it reinforced the legal principle that churches and religious institutions, like universities, should not be discriminated against solely because of their religious identity.
Mountain View Elementary School, within the Greenville County School District in South Carolina, had held its fifth grade graduation ceremonies in a “cafetorium”, a cafeteria that is transformed into a stage and auditorium and where parents and friends can witness special events. And if you have ever attended one of these events in the south, with the heat, cramped space and the overflowing crowds, “crematorium” might also be a word that comes to mind. The crowds are so bad for the graduation ceremonies that families are limited to just 3 people per student to attend the event. And to make this scene even more comical, the adults were required to sit at tables in elementary-sized chairs.
Because many of these families were not too fond of the sardine-in-a-can graduation ceremonies, they sought a better venue. Just 3.1 miles away, the North Greenville University chapel was large enough to host the graduation in comfort. The Chapel seated approximately 2,000 rather than the 545 that could be squeezed in to the cafetorium. And rather than miniature chairs that look like a scene stolen out of “Honey, I Shrunk the Furniture”, the Chapel has padded individual chairs. It is safe to say that grandmas everywhere were applauding this change of venue.
But not everyone was happy. The American Humanist Association, allegedly on behalf of some unnamed students, filed suit to stop these graduations and to require a return to the crematorium, I mean, the cafetorium. To this group, the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution prohibits public schools from having a graduation ceremony in padded chairs in a chapel.
Luckily, the court fully understood that the Establishment Clause requires no such thing. The court rejected the motion, and the graduations will continue as planned. All family members can attend, and grandma will not have to worry about cramming into a miniature table and chair.
In a similar case, Doe v. Elmbrook, a court reached the opposite result and held that a public high school could not hold its graduation ceremonies at a church. ADF attorneys filed a friend of the court brief in that case asking the Supreme Court to reverse this broad, discriminatory ruling against churches. David Cortman, Senior Counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, said, “Church buildings should not be treated like toxic warehouses simply because they normally house religious activities. That has never been the intent of the First Amendment.”
That case is currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, and we will continue to fight to prevent unlawful discrimination against churches and religious institutions. If your church or church organization is being discriminated against, or your school is not allowed to use a church as a venue, contact an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom today.