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Federal court rules Wisconsin schools' graduations in church were unconstitutional

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FILE: 2006: The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.AP

A federal appeals court ruled Monday that two Wisconsin high schools violated the U.S. Constitution by holding graduations in a church -- among the most recent decisions in a long-running debate about the separation of church and state.

A three-judge panel from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September the schools did nothing wrong by hold graduation in Elmbrook Church, in the southeastern part of the state.

However, the full 7th Circuit reversed the panel, ruling Monday the ceremonies were unconstitutional and noting students were exposed to religious messages in the form of a giant cross that hung over the church's sanctuary and religious pamphlets on middle school and high school ministries and hymnals in the pews.

The case against the schools was filed by a group of anonymous students and parents, arguing the ceremonies violated church-state separation.

"This decision upholds the separation of church and state, it upholds the Constitution. It ensures the students in Wisconsin will not be forced to enter an intensely religious environment as the price of attending their own high school graduation," Alex Luchenitser, an attorney for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed the suit on behalf of the group, told  brookfieldnow.com.

Earlier this month, a local school board in Connecticut voted to settle a lawsuit suit involving the American Civil Liberties Union dating back to May 2010 for holding high school graduations in church with religious icons on display.

Other such cases have occurred in Georgia, Maryland and New Jersey, where in 2006 a Muslim student sued the Newark public schools system. He argued he could not attend graduation in a church because it was against his religious beliefs to be inside a building with icons of a Christian God.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.