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Georgia School Disctrict Forced to Pay Atheist Group $22,500 in Lawsuit Over Coach-Led Team Prayers

Chestatee High School Football
The Chestatee High School War Eagles gathered in a team huddle. |

A public school district in Georgia will have to pay a humanist organization $22,500 through its insurance carriers after the organization sued the school system over allegations that local high school coaches led their teams in prayers and included biblical passages on official team log books and promotional banners.

In December, the American Humanist Association filed a lawsuit against the the Hall County School District in Gainesville, Georgia, over the district's practices of allowing coaches and other faculty to lead in team prayer during official school events and allowing Bible verses to be printed on team documents.

After sending warning letters to the school district last August, the lawsuit called out the prayer traditions of various athletic teams from Chestatee High School and North Hall High School.

The lawsuit alleges that Chestatee coaches have on many occasions led their teams in prayer during games and practices. The lawsuit also alleges the school's coaches have led in prayers for over five years.

The litigation cites that the school's wrestling coach and marching band director have also led their squads in prayer.

While the wrestling coach allegedly cited Ephesians 6:12 to explain to his team that "Jesus was a wrestler," the Chestatee marching band director allowed the marching band to elect "student chaplains."

Along with the allegation that the North Hall baseball coach led his team in prayer, the lawsuit adds that the Chestatee football coaches included a citation to Galatians 6:9 at the bottom of workout logs that were given to each student-athlete and also allowed Proverbs 27:17 to be included on a banner used at a game.

In addition to suing the school district, the lawsuit also lists District Superintendent William Schofield and Chestatee High Principal Suzanne Jarrard as defendants in their official and individual capacities.

AHA's Appignani Humanist Legal Center announced last week that the case was settled outside of court.

The terms of the settlement require the school district to pay the plaintiffs' legal fees, which amount to $22,500, and requires the district to host a training session for its employees before the start of next school year to educate them on First Amendment rights and religious neutrality in school.

Schofield asserted in a statement that the district will not be paying the $22,500, as its insurance carriers will be footing the bill.

"The Hall County School District admits to no violations of state or federal laws," Schofield said. "The district will continue to hold the expectation that individuals within our organization abide by the laws of our land. The Hall County School District will make no monetary compensation to the plaintiffs. Insurance carriers are negotiating all questions regarding legal fees."

Although the school district admits no wrong when it come to violating federal and state laws, Schofield admitted that training for employees on what their limitations to freedom of religion are while acting in official capacity is necessary.

"All parties agree it is paramount that the Constitution of the United States is protected and upheld," Schofield wrote.

"Furthermore, in a manner similar to the routine training provided to staff in areas such as child abuse reporting and the security of personal records, we agree that routine professional training for staff should include the legal rights and responsibilities of individuals regarding issues related to religion in the public school setting. While public school students are guaranteed wide-ranging religious freedoms, employees' rights are more limited when in their work settings."

AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt said in a statement that he sees the agreement as a major "victory for the separation of church and state."

"When public schools remain secular, they uphold the rights of all students to learn, free from unnecessary religious intrusion," Speckhardt stated.

The AHA was also victorious earlier this month in a lawsuit against Mississippi's third-largest school district.

The lawsuit accused the Rankin County School District of violating the First Amendment right of an atheist student who thought she was required attend a county-wide honors assembly, which opened up with a prayer by a Methodist minister.

As a result of the lawsuit, the school district had to pay $7,500 to the 16-year-old atheist student while it is still liable to pay more in legal fees.

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