Last month, a federal court blocked a South Carolina school district from including Christian prayers at graduation ceremonies. It was the culmination of a six-year legal battle that could have been resolved much more quickly if the school officials weren’t so eager to push God onto those audiences.
And now the school district has decided… it wants to keep fighting. Because some Christians refuse to accept the fact that public schools aren’t extensions of their churches.
You can read about the lengthy history of the Greenville County School District’s religion problem right here, but the gist of it is that administrators were promoting religion at graduation ceremonies (more recently by allowing students to deliver the prayers), holding those events in chapels, and urging attendees to participate in the prayers.
U.S. District Judge Bruce Hendricks couldn’t trust administrators to just do the right thing, so last month, she laid out some very specific guidelines for how the District needed to proceed with graduation ceremonies. I’d paraphrase them like this:
1) No prayers can be listed in the official graduation programs. No euphemisms (like “inspirational reading”) either.
2) School officials can’t encourage prayers during graduation ceremonies in any way.
3) If students speak at graduation, they must be chosen under religiously neutral criteria that’s listed in writing.
4) School officials can’t give those kids copies of old remarks as a template for their own.
5) The parts of the graduation ceremonies that involve student messages must be printed the same way for every school in the District. (That way, one school can’t make a “mistake.”) And none of those programs should direct the audience to stand during students’ remarks.
6) If administrators see the students’ speeches in advance for any reason, they must make sure prayers aren’t in them.
7) Students who wish to include prayer in their speeches cannot ask the audience to participate with them (like by standing or bowing their heads). And if there is prayer in the students’ speeches, school officials cannot join in.
8) All graduation programs that include students’ remarks must say, “The views or opinions expressed by students during this program are their own and do not reflect the policy or position of the school District.”
9) District officials must give administrators at each school a copy of these guidelines in writing, and those administrators must give the guidelines to student speakers as well.
We can summarize that even more succinctly: Formal prayers at graduation are forbidden, and if kids choose to include prayers in their speeches, the administrator better have nothing to do with it.
And yet this week, the school board decided those rules weren’t clear enough. They claim the new rules cause “confusion” because they favor secular speech over religious speech — as if religious neutrality is somehow anti-Christian.
“Based on a review by our legal counsel, portions of the [injunction] also shift the district away from its practices of neutrality and instead infringes on student speech by requiring the district to disfavor religious speech as compared to secular speech,” [board chairperson Lynda] Leventis-Wells said.
They need a new lawyer, because I’m not one and even I can see that line of reasoning is flat-out wrong. The rules don’t infringe upon students’ rights, because they’re still allowed to invoke religion if they choose to. The rules just prevent administrators from promoting religion since that’s what they were doing earlier.
The court wants neutrality. School officials don’t. They have no idea what that means. They have no business challenging the court’s decision just because the board is full of incompetent people who think promoting Christianity ought to be the default position at graduations.
Sarah Henry, spokesperson for the American Humanist Association, responded to the new lawsuit in a statement:
We at the American Humanist Association are disappointed to see that Greenville County School District is choosing to protest a fair decision. Our legal team will not stop fighting for justice for all students who are constitutionally and morally entitled to a graduation celebration free of government-sponsored religion.
Students should not be made to feel like outsiders at their own public school, let alone at such a momentous occasion, as the courts have now repeatedly recognized in sound decisions. We will continue to defend the wall of separation between church and state and the rights of students to have a graduation ceremony that is inclusive of all, religious and nonreligious alike.
This is such a waste of time by the District. When are they just going to accept the fact that they lost? Students deserve better than the adults charged with making decisions for them.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian for the link. Portions of this article were published earlier)