I thought the drama at Northwest Rankin High School had finally come to an end, but it hasn’t.
In case you forgot the story, last April, students at the Mississippi high school attended a mandatory assembly featuring representatives from nearby Pinelake Baptist Church who told the students that they needed to accept Jesus in their lives. They even showed a video:
In the video, two young men were interviewed who had once led “troubled” lives. To find hope, the men described various behaviors such as turning to drugs, sex, cutting, suicide, and the like. They then explained how turning to Jesus Christ solved their problems and recommended that other people turn to Jesus Christ as well.
The American Humanist Association said at the time that when students tried to leave the Performing Arts Building so they wouldn’t have to listen to the preaching, they “were harassed by a principal and told to sit down.”
The Appignani Humanist Legal Center of the AHA immediately sent the school a complaint letter. After not hearing back from the administration, they filed a lawsuit against the school in which the extensive and jaw-dropping details about the assembly were listed in full.
But why read that when you can just watch a video of the assembly taken by students?
As I wrote before, there’s absolutely nothing legal about any of this. The school cannot force students to sit through a Christian sermon, even if other students are presenting the material.
Yet, no one would have known any of this was happening without the help a brave student, Magdalene “Gracie” Bedi.
In a piece for Humanist Network News, Bedi talked about why she took action:
I abandon anonymity not to call attention to myself, but rather to call attention to the case and better validate its purpose. As a student at the high school, I have been privy to the thoughts and analysis of my peers, and what I’ve heard has been incredibly disheartening. Rather than reviewing the case objectively, I have been written off as an angry atheist, a scorned student, and even as a greedy child looking only for profit. Allow me to defend myself against such harsh conclusions.
I am not a scorned student. Northwest has been nothing but kind to me throughout my several years of public education, and I may attribute my depth of awareness to the very thorough and efficient curriculum. The faculty is perhaps the best in the state and may be among the best at the national level. It is not my intention to rebel against or insult the high school itself. My grievances are only with the inappropriate and unconstitutional actions by the administration and staff.
It was clear from the start that Gracie was not an anti-Christian hater hell-bent on ruining the school’s name. She was a law-abiding student who wanted her school to be respectful of all students and not just the Christian ones.
The judgment includes an admission of liability by the defendants that they violated the Establishment Clause, the provision of the Constitution that requires separation of church and state. It also requires the school district to comply with a new policy that prohibits future such violations and orders the defendants to pay the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees.
“A lot has been accomplished and I’m pleased with the outcome of the suit,” said Magdalene “Gracie” Bedi, the student plaintiff in the case. “I’m grateful for the school’s maturity throughout this ordeal and I look forward to graduating with them on a positive note. No one should have to question their rights in a public school and I think Northwest [Rankin High School] realizes this now.”
“We are pleased that the school’s administrators have admitted that they violated the Constitution and agreed to continuing court oversight to prevent future violations,” said William Burgess, legal coordinator of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “There was clear evidence that these Christian assemblies were endorsed and organized by the school. To continue to deny a constitutional violation had taken place was untenable.”
And that brings us to what happened this past week.
According to a motion of contempt filed by the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, there was a district-wide awards ceremony held at Brandon High School (also in the district, obviously) on April 17 — during the school day, so students had to attend — and a Christian pastor delivered a prayer at the event.
That wasn’t all:
The School District also issued a memo regarding “important events” to students at Brandon High School with the following instructions: “April 17-2014 — ACT Awards Ceremony, 9 a.m., for all students with an ACT of 22 and above in Multipurpose Room; please dress in church attire.”… Consequently, many students showed up wearing an “Easter Sunday dress or church dress.”…
After the students were seated, they were told to stand up for the prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance… They were then told to bow their heads to pray… The prayer referred to “God” several times and alluded to Jesus… The Christian Reverend said in the prayer, “we are not only celebrating death, but also life.”… Because the event was held days before Easter, this was obviously a reference to the resurrection of Jesus Christ… Students could see the principals and other school officials standing and bowing their heads in prayer…
Wow… I don’t understand why the district would dare to violate its own settlement at all, much less when the original plaintiff was in the crowd receiving an award!
The AHA says a monetary punishment is required because the district disobeyed a court order and it’s requesting $1,000 each from the school district and the principal of Northwest Rankin High School. It’s also requesting $20,000 for each future violation of the law, not because they want the money but because that amount might be enough to persuade district officials to put a stop to their preaching ways. That money is all in addition to attorney’s fees.
“Public schools are not in the business of prayer. Specifically making time for prayer in assemblies and award ceremonies threatens our nation’s constitutional principles and disregards the rights of our children,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association.
“Precedent set by both the U.S. Supreme Court and numerous federal courts clearly affirms that prayer in public schools violates the constitutional requirement of separation of church and state and infringes upon the religious liberty of non-adherents,” said Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “It’s shocking that the school would so blatantly violate the Establishment Clause and the rights of its students.”
We’ll see how the district responds. In all my years of writing about these issues, I’ve never seen district officials lose a religion-based court case this badly — and then completely disregard the verdict and continue with the same illegal practices that got them in the mess in the first place. But that’s exactly what’s happening in the Rankin County School District.
Let’s not forget that we know about these violations of the law thanks to one courageous atheist, Gracie Bedi. What an incredible young woman.
(Portions of this article were posted earlier.)