Atheist Suit Against SC School for Hosting Graduation in Christian Chapel to Be Reheard in District Court!

File photo of a young undergraduate waiting to receive his degree at his graduation ceremony.
File photo of a young undergraduate waiting to receive his degree at his graduation ceremony. | (Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder)

A lawsuit accusing a South Carolina public elementary school of proselytizing Christianity by hosting its fifth grade graduation ceremonies in a Christian chapel and encouraging student speakers to include prayer in graduation speeches, will be reheard in U.S. District Court after an appeals court remanded an earlier district court ruling that sided with the school district.

The American Humanist Association filed a lawsuit seeking a preliminary injunction against the Greenville County School District in 2013 after Mountain View Elementary School allegedly violated students' first amendment rights at the school's graduation ceremony, which was held at at a local Baptist university's chapel auditorium.

The association's lawsuit additionally claimed that school officials also encouraged students that were picked to give a speech during the ceremony to write out prayers that were to be recited during their individual graduation speeches.

Although the U.S. District Judge G. Ross Anderson, Jr. denied the AHA's request for preliminary injunction in the initial lower court ruling last December, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the judgement will be vacated because the court did not provide any analysis in the ruling. The case has been reassigned to U.S. District Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks, who has tentatively set the retrial for July of 2015.

AHA is providing counsel to an anonymous atheist student, and her parents, who claim she was uncomfortable when one of the student graduation speakers began to pray and other students bowed their heads at the school's May of 2013 graduation ceremony held at the chapel.

AHA's court filings claims the school tried to coerce the athiest student into participating in "school-sponsored religious activity" and tried to get her to "believe in God and adopt Christianity."

The lawsuit further adds that school officials picked two student speakers to give a speech at the graduation ceremony each year and that school officials asked the student speakers to write out a prayer on paper to recite when they give their speech. AHA also claims that the prayers were reviewed by a teacher or other school employee prior to the graduation.

In response to an AHA demand letter from attorney Monica Miller, the school district's general counsel, Doug Webb, sent a letter to Miller that did not deny that school officials encouraged the student speakers to write out the prayers for review. Webb's letter stated simply that "the school will not endorse the use of prayer by students at any awards program or school-sponsored event in the future."

However, Miller was not happy that Webb's letter did not outright say that prayer will not be offered at future school events. Even if a student speaker wishes to say a prayer on his or her own accord, Miller and AHA hold that "it is unconstitutional to include any prayer at a public school graduation … and only an announced and enforced policy expressly prohibiting such prayers at future events would resolve this issue."

Webb replied sending Miller another letter stating that if the school district were to prohibit student-initiated prayer at its graduation ceremonies or other events, that would also violate students' first amendment rights.

"Prohibiting such independent student speech would go beyond showing neutrality toward religion but instead demonstrate an impermissible hostility toward religion," Webb's letter stated. "Your concern regarding the impressionability of elementary age students is not valid since the Supreme Court and the Fourth Circuit have both held that the impressionability of a student is not a relevant consideration if a school is not actually advancing religion."

The Alliance Defending Freedom (AFD), a conservative Christian advocacy group, issued an amicus brief supporting the school district allowing student-initiated prayer.

"America's Founding Fathers regularly opened public ceremonies with prayer, and federal appeals courts have ruled that students can do the same at graduation ceremonies because the speech is the student's, not the schools," AFD attorney Matthew Sharp said in a statement.

AHA's lawsuit wanted to also prohibit Mountain View Elementary from using Turner Chapel and Music Center for the graduation ceremony. Miller's letters stated that no matter what the circumstances are, public schools are not allowed to hold events at religious institutions.

Webb responded saying that due to the growth in the school's fifth grade class, the school needed to find a new location for the event because the school's cafeteria lacked adequate space. In the school cafeteria, students could only invite three family members.

He stated that the most reasonable and accommodating option in the nearby area that school officials found was the Turner Chapel, which offers stadium seating and can hold as many family members that want to attend the event. The first year the school's graduation ceremony was held at the chapel was 2012.

The school district's general counsel further stated that because all Christian iconography, such as crosses and bibles, were removed by school officials before the students occupied the chapel, hosting the ceremony there does not violate students' first amendment rights. But Miller replied saying that even if the iconography is removed from the chapel, it would still be a violation of the law to host the graduation there.

"Creating an atmosphere that neither advances nor inhibits religion does not unconstitutionally entangle the state with religion as you suggest," Webb's letter to Miller states.

The school district's position is that the no preliminary injunction needs to be issued from the court because the district had resolved the only unconstitutional issue, which was the school's officials endorsing and reviewing the student-led prayers.

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