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Unveiling the truth
Church's policy big part of graduation controversy


June 3, 2009

The legal battle continues over the Elmbrook School Districtís continuing attempt to hold the graduation ceremonies for Brookfield Central and Brookfield East at Elmbrook Church this weekend.

The media narrative on the controversy is oversimplified as follows: In this corner, wearing the pinstriped suits and Cheshire cat grins, we have the Elmbrook School District - champions of the comfort of air conditioning, unlimited graduation attendees, and two JumboTrons for easily viewing the graduation ceremonies. And in this corner, wearing the "Lucifer Rulez" T-shirts, we have the ragtag bunch from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group which likely includes members of non-Christian religions or simply religious agnostics.

And in the audience, seemingly isolated from yet still manipulating the ongoing fray, sit the Elmbrook Church elders, whistling and glancing up toward the ceiling, occasionally whispering to each other and smirking proudly. After all, this controversy is what they wanted, right?

As expected, when Elmbrook Church officials are asked about the situation, their typical response is "no comment." The megachurch has this luxury, since the media narrative is already well-formed, and the official Milwaukee media outrage machine has decided that the church itself has nothing to do with the controversy. According to the media narrative, the evil non-Christians in Brookfield are conspiring against a completely innocuous graduation setting, and they are too easily offended by nothing. In reality, if not for an Elmbrook Church decision changing the churchís policy on the veiling of religious symbols during church rental events, the situation never would have escalated to this point.

Last week, during a segment regarding the issue on WTMJ radio, host Jeff Wagner was directly asked by a caller whether he knew if the religious symbols at the church, such as the huge cross at the front of the facility, were going to be covered up during the event. His response: "The only symbol is this giant cross, and they do not cover it up."

But this limited response from an outrage specialist hides the relevant history regarding the symbols, a history which explains the entire controversy. A few years ago, the school district received complaints about graduation services at the church, said Elmbrook School District Superintendent Matt Gibson. As a result, the permanent religious symbols, such as the huge cross, were veiled by the church at the request of the district for the ceremonies that year. This simple action went far enough to avoid the controversial fine line between government sponsorship or endorsement of a particular religion, and it was enough to satisfy the original complainants. A similar compromise this year may have been enough to alleviate the majority of the objection, opening the door to an end to the legal challenge.

But shortly after the original veiling took place, Gibson said, the church elders decided that the church would no longer veil or remove anything permanent for church rental events, such as public school graduations. By making such a change immediately after receiving the original complaint, the church was drawing a clear and intentional ideological line in the sand, while pouring fuel on any future controversy. By refusing to cover the huge cross, Elmbrook Church was throwing down the gauntlet to future renters of the facility, effectively saying, "Take our facility for the day, and the permanently affixed symbols of our belief system come with it. Donít like our symbols? Then donít rent our facility."

As a church that doubles as a rental facility, Elmbrook certainly has the right to set such a rule. But considering the original controversy that had already occurred, this decision by the church should have sent an immediate signal to the school district, forcing the district to choose another location for future graduations.

School officials and students say that hosting graduation ceremonies in the school gymnasiums present problems with heat, comfort, and parking, as well as potentially limiting the number of ceremony attendees per student. In other words, the graduation ceremonies would be exactly like most high school and college graduations around the entire country: crowded and hot, with limited attendance.

Suffering through a long, uncomfortable graduation ceremony is a time-honored rite of passage in America. Why did the Elmbrook School District insist on withholding this typical and expected rite of passage from its graduates, while choosing to replace it with an alternative that was always destined for controversy?

The district says that, beginning next year, the graduation ceremonies will likely move back to the high school campuses. Unless Elmbrook Church is willing to reconsider its inflexible approach to veiling symbols during public rental events, or until another location can be found, the school campus is where the graduation ceremonies belong.

(Tim Schilke is the author of "Growing up Red" and lives in Grafton. His column runs Wednesdays in The Freeman.)

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