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Brookfield schools found in violation of First Amendement

BROOKFIELD - Two suburban Milwaukee high schools violated the separation of church-and-state when they held their graduation ceremonies in a large church a few years ago. That's what a federal appeals court ruled yesterday.

The full Seventh Circuit Court ruled on a 7-3 vote that a giant cross and other symbols in the church sent a message that the government was endorsing a particular religion. Back in 2000, senior class officers at Brookfield Central High School succeeded in moving the commencement from what they called a hot gym to the non-denominational Elmbrook Church. Brookfield East followed suit two years later.

In 2009, the Americans for the Separation of Church-and-State filed a suit on behalf of nine non-Christian students and parents. They said they were offended by having to enter a house of worship and seeing religious symbols at their graduation. School officials said it was a moot point, because the ceremonies were being moved in 2010 to a new school field house. A federal district judge said the graduation ceremonies were not religious, and there was limited interaction between the church and the participants. A three-judge appellate panel agreed. But the full appeals court overturned that panel, in favor of the Church-and-State group.

The group's director, the Reverend Barry Lynn, said yesterday's ruling makes it clear that it's not appropriate for schools to hold graduations in places quote, "festooned with religious symbols." Schools' attorney Lori Lubinsky says they're considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. They said the high court should review it, considering the impact of the appellate ruling on schools throughout the nation.