Court awards atheist group $456K over public school graduation prayer lawsuit

Unsplash/Charles DeLoye
Unsplash/Charles DeLoye

A court awarded an atheist group approximately $456,000 after they won a years-long lawsuit against a South Carolina school district for holding graduation ceremonies with prayer and hymns.

Last year, the American Humanist Association won a lawsuit against Greenville County School District for their practice of holding graduation ceremonies with sectarian religious elements.

The U.S. District Court for South Carolina awarded AHA $446,466 in attorney fees and $9,776 in other expenses on Tuesday, which was below the previous requested amount of $584,026.

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Greenville County Schools told local media outlet Fox Carolina that they are probably going to appeal both the fee and decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

“Throughout this case, the School District has argued that students, like other citizens, have the right to free speech, including that of a religious nature,” stated the school district.  

“On this main point, Greenville County Schools successfully convinced the Court to uphold its consistent position on the central issue of protecting student speech and supported the district’s belief that students should be allowed to speak from a religious or secular perspective at a graduation.”

Greenville added that they “will continue to remain committed to protecting students’ rights to free speech, while remaining neutral to religion.”

In 2013, the AHA sued the school district on behalf of an anonymous family whose child attended a graduation ceremony that featured Christian prayers delivered by students and religious music.

In July 2019, District Court Judge Bruce Hendricks issued a permanent injunction against the school district, ordering that the school district, among other things, could not include a prayer “as part of the official program for a graduation ceremony.”

“The district also shall not include an obviously religious piece of music as part of the official program for a graduation ceremony,” wrote Hendricks.

“The district and/or school officials shall not encourage, promote, advance, endorse, or participate in causing prayers during any graduation ceremony.”

Hendricks also ruled that students could, under certain circumstances, include religious content in their speeches provided that no one else was asked to participate.

The judge further ordered that any programs or fliers for a ceremony with a student speaker include a disclaimer saying that the student’s remarks did not reflect the opinions of the school district.

“We are thrilled that the court is finally putting an end to flagrant school-sponsored prayers and Christian hymns at public school graduation ceremonies,” said Monica Miller, AHA senior counsel, in a statement last year.

“This was a long fight for justice for students who do not wish to encounter government-sponsored religion at their own graduation ceremonies.”

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