More than two years ago, we learned that administrators at Mountain View Elementary School in Taylors, South Carolina held a “graduation” ceremony inside of a church.
Maybe they could’ve gotten away with that — other public schools have held ceremonies in similar places — but the event’s program didn’t even attempt to shy away from promoting Christianity, listing two separate prayers:
As I wrote then, “school officials didn’t just cross the line. They destroyed the line and then prayed to Jesus to patch it back up.”
The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center sent the district a letter at the time warning them of the consequences of continuing future ceremonies in the same location with these prayers.
The district responded immediately, but failed to say how they would change their plans for the future:
With regard to the prayers given at the program by students of Mountain View Elementary School, the District can assure you that the school will not endorse the use of prayer by students at any awards program or school-sponsored event in the future.
That’s legalese for “We won’t publicly admit that we support the prayers, but we’re not going to stop people from saying them.”
In fact, a school official asked a student to deliver the first prayer. And the closing prayer, also recited by a student, was this:
“Thank you for coming. Let us pray. Dear Lord, thank you for this day and all your many blessings upon us. Lord, bless each and every one of our teachers, leaders and parents. Lead, guide and direct us as we begin this new adventure into middle school. We give you the praise for all our accomplishments. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.”
Very Christian. Not okay at a public school graduation.
A second letter from the district even clarified that they weren’t going to stop these prayers in the future:
With regard to a student delivered a prayer or providing a religious message during a school-sponsored event, the District will not prohibit this practice as long as the prayer or message is student-led and initiated and does not create a disturbance to the event. Prohibiting such independent student speech would go beyond showing neutrality toward religion but instead demonstrate an impermissible hostility toward religion.
Asking students to deliver these prayers is illegal, though, and you know this practice would have stopped in a heartbeat if the prayers in question were anything-but-Christian.
So in September of 2013, the AHA filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the family of a Mountain View Elementary student against the Greenville County School District, Superintendent Burke Royster, and Principal Jennifer Gibson. They claimed that the district violated the Establishment Clause through their actions.
“The federal courts have been clear that events like these violate the constitutional principle of separation of church and state,” said Monica Miller, an attorney and legal consultant with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “Any event sponsored by a public school must not violate that principle.”
When there are alternative, acceptable spaces for an elementary school graduation readily available, there’s no reason to hold it in a church on a Christian campus with a motto like “Christ makes the difference” and a logo like this:
And there’s certainly no reason to include Christian prayers. District officials can claim to be “hands off” all they want, but they know damn well that people in South Carolina are overwhelmingly Christian and that just about any student speaker they select will give a prayer to Jesus. Hell, that may be part of the reason those students are selected.
The ruling finally came down this past May, with U.S. District Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks saying there was no evidence of anything illegal going on and that the District “ha[d] gotten it exactly right.”
… precisely because of the historical inclusion of prayer and religious speech at graduations, in this school district and State, it is conceivable that the cultural residue of prior practices might continue to color and confuse the application and invitation of, even now, constitutionally neutral practices. The undersigned is vigilant to identify any kind of wink and nod maneuvering.
But, the plaintiffs now have a serious kind of evidentiary problem…
The ruling said the AHA was right about the illegality of the prayer policy prior to 2013, but left open a door that would allow prayers in future graduation ceremonies. Furthermore, the judge said the family filing the lawsuit didn’t have proper standing to bring the case.
The AHA, as expected, was very disappointed with the ruling:
“It’s a sad day when the courts allow students to be subjected to Christian prayers during what should be a secular graduation ceremony,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “These prayers exclude kids and families of minority faiths and no faith.”
“Federal courts have been unanimous in determining that prayers at public school graduations are unconstitutional,” said Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “It’s alarming that the District Court upheld permitting Christian prayers to be delivered to impressionable young children in a Christian venue.”
On Tuesday, they officially filed an appeal:
“The Supreme Court and lower court cases make clear that graduation prayers violate the Establishment Clause, regardless of whether they are student-initiated, because they coerce students to participate in a religious exercise and are unavoidably stamped with the school’s seal of approval,” said Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.
The detailed appeal explains how the judge got it wrong and how the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled against school-approved prayers at school events.
This battle isn’t over. District officials said they would continue to defend their interpretation of the First Amendment.
(Thanks to Brian for the link. Large portions of this article were published earlier)