Graduation ceremonies at public schools should emphasize what the departing students have in common, not what makes them different. That can be difficult if students receive their diplomas in a church or other place of worship dedicated to a faith that only some of them share. This week the Supreme Court correctly refused to disturb a lower-court ruling that such arrangements are unconstitutional.
Over several years graduation ceremonies for two public high schools in suburban Milwaukee were held in the main sanctuary of the non-denominational Elmbrook Church, which was dominated by a large cross. The graduates' families sat in pews containing Bibles, hymnals and a "Scribble Card for God's Little Lambs." After students and parents filed a lawsuit, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the arrangements violated the 1st Amendment because "the sheer religiosity of the space created a likelihood that high school students and their younger siblings would perceive a link between church and state."
The school district appealed to the Supreme Court, and supporters of the separation of church and state worried that the court's conservative majority would respond sympathetically. After all, the court voted 5 to 4 last month to uphold the policy of a New York town that began its meetings with prayers by guest chaplains who were overwhelmingly Christian and who often led prayers in Jesus' name.
But the justices wisely declined to review the decision in the graduation case, suggesting that even some members of the majority in the New York case aren't ready to abandon the court's long-standing position that combining church and state is especially problematic where impressionable children are concerned. The 7th Circuit's reasoning was consistent with Supreme Court decisions against prayers at graduations and football games.
In a characteristically pungent dissent from the decision not to hear the case, Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, argued that the court's ruling in May's prayer case undermined the 7th Circuit's view that government bodies may not "endorse" religion.
Acknowledging that some people are offended by public displays of religion, Scalia wrote: "I can understand that attitude: It parallels my own toward the playing in public of rock music or Stravinsky." But he argued that, while principals might want to prevent hurt feelings at school events, "that is decidedly not the job of the Constitution." Fortunately, his colleagues didn't agree.