By Rory Gray, Alliance Defending Freedom Litigation Counsel
Churches have always served a key role in American society, not only as centers of worship but also as polling places, food pantries, concert venues, and general meeting places. So it is hardly surprising that when the Elmbrook Community School District in Wisconsin lacked an adequate venue for its high school graduation ceremonies, it rented a local church. Graduation moved back on campus once a building was completed that could comfortably accommodate every student’s guests. But the District’s secular use of a church building upset the atheists who so often view religion as a kind of communicable disease that must be quarantined from public life. And they filed a federal lawsuit to prohibit the District from renting a church, in the future, for any purpose.
Thankfully, the district court saw the atheists’ religious phobia for what it was and ruled that renting a church to obtain “an adequate, convenient, cost-effective graduation venue” did not violate the Establishment Clause. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit in Chicago agreed, citing the lack of evidence that the District had “any religious purpose” in renting the church and noting the District’s clear desire “to make use only of the Church’s material amenities.” But, unfortunately, the fact that everyone acknowledged the District rented the church’s building simply for its large, air-conditioned auditorium was not enough for a majority of the Seventh Circuit’s judges sitting together en banc.
Contrary to what four judges had already found, seven out of ten Seventh Circuit judges sitting on the en banc Court concluded that the District violated the Constitution by failing to run away from the church’s “pervasively religious” facilities at full sprint. Oddly emphasizing the church’s rather conventional religious symbols and decorations, the Court declared that churches are generally off limits, which means that schools must rent secular facilities no matter the inconvenience or cost. For example, the Court noted that if all secular buildings burned to the ground in a natural disaster, the District’s rental of a church would pass muster. Otherwise, the Court viewed exposing high school students to “pervasively religious” church buildings as simply too dangerous. The Court’s fear was that students might voluntarily undertake religious activity inspired not by the District but by their friends.
The Seventh Circuit’s reasoning is deeply troubling because it supports the atheists’ view that religion is a dangerous force that must be isolated and contained—a view which has no basis in the Constitution. Alliance Defending Freedom fights against such misconceptions on a daily basis and we filed a friend-of-the-court brief recently that urges the Supreme Court to take the Elmbrook case. The brief explains that nothing in the Constitution requires government to treat churches like the leper colonies of the modern American state. And it emphasizes the dangers the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning poses to religious freedom by requiring discrimination against not only churches but religious students as well. Indeed, the Seventh Circuit viewed private religious conduct—protected by the Free Exercise Clause—as the primary justification for finding an Establishment Clause violation.
Your support is key in the legal battle ahead. We ask that you pray for the Supreme Court, that the justices would grant review in the Elmbrook case, and for our attorneys, as they continue our legal efforts. And we ask that you would also pray for a change of heart in the atheists: that they would learn Christianity is not a plague that threatens humanity, but the cure by which God chose to save it.