How Far Should We Go With the Separation of Church and State?

Elmwood Church

A few weeks ago I did a post and an episode of the Virtual Office Hours on the controversy over whether or not the Ground Zero Cross should be displayed at a publicly funded museum devoted to the tragic events of 9-11.  In those pieces I argued that this was not a church-state issue, but a public history issue.  If the cross gave meaning to the people of New York and the nation in the wake of the attacks, then it had historical significance and thus belonged in the museum.  A federal court agreed.

In yesterday’s Washington Times, Robert George, a law and politics professor at Princeton (currently in residence at Harvard), told the story of another church-state case that has found its way to the federal courts.  Today the Supreme Court will decide whether to a hear a case on the “constitutionality of holding a high school graduation in a church auditorium.”  Secular groups do not want the Elmbrook, Wisconsin  School District to hold its graduation ceremony in a local megachurch because to do so would “cause students to believe that the district was endorsing Christianity.” The 7th U.S. District Court of Appeals agreed with them.

As George informs us, the Elmbrook School District chose the church auditorium because it was the best, most affordable place in town to hold a graduation ceremony.  It has a bigger space than the school gym, has more parking, has more seating, and has air conditioning. As far as I can tell, the religious character of the building had nothing to do with the decision.

The church in question is Elmbrook Church, a non-denominational evangelical megachurch located in the Milwaukee suburbs.  Some of my older evangelical readers will recall that the long-time pastor of this church was popular Christian writer and speaker Stuart Briscoe.  (Others may be familiar with his wife, Jill Briscoe). I think I am safe in saying that Elmbrook Church was a megachurch before megachurches were popular.  It has been a flagship congregation on the American evangelical landscape.

Megachurches like Elmbrook Church are known for massive auditoriums, gymnasiums, spaces for post-service sociability and fellowship, audio-visual technology, and excellent sound systems.  In many communities the megachurch has better facilities than any other building in town.  Some megachurches do not even contain religious imagery because their leaders want to be sensitive to newcomers and those who are uncomfortable at more traditional churches filled with crosses, icons, altars, and stained glass windows. Many megachurches rent their facilities for weddings, basketball practices, and conferences.  (My daughter’s 6th grade public school basketball team occasionally practices in one).

Here are two of the spaces in the Elmbrook Church:

Why can’t the evangelical propensity for building large spaces make a contribution to the common good in towns like Elmbrook, Wisconsin?  When does a multipurpose space become a religious space?  When does a religious space become a multipurpose space?

Robert George gets the last word:

…Faced with expensive lawsuits over their graduation venues, most school districts simply will capitulate moving graduation to worse or more expensive venues and harming students and school budgets. One school district in Wisconsin already has been forced to do just that: It moved its graduation ceremony from the Elmbrook church auditorium to a cavernous, 42,000-seat baseball stadium at triple the price of the church.

All of this calls for a deep breath and a dose of common sense. The Supreme Court has long held that the Constitution permits the government to be neutral toward religion meaning that the government can treat religious entities on the same terms as nonreligious entities. That was just what the school district did here: It examined all available venues and chose the best facility for the price. The fact that the best facility happened to be a church did not make a neutral, common-sense decision unconstitutional.

Any other result would require the government to be overtly hostile to religion. No longer could school districts compare religious and nonreligious venues on equal terms and choose the best venue for the price. Instead, they would have to avoid religious venues, even when doing so harms students and school budgets. The Constitution does not require such a counterintuitive result.

…Let’s hope the Supreme Court takes the Elmbrook case and spares us and our school districts and students unnecessary expenses.