A U.S. Federal District Court has fined Mississippi's third largest public school district $7,500 after a minister opened up a districtwide honors assembly with a prayer invocation, an act that violated a 2013 court settlement that ordered the district to stop "proselytizing Christianity."
U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves has for the second time ordered the Rankin County School District to stop allowing prayers to be held at school events. The judge has also banned the distribution of Bibles on school campuses.
The school district was ordered to pay a student plaintiff from Northwest Rankin High School in Flowood, who was represented by the American Humanist Association, $2,500 because the student attended an assembly at Brandon High School in May 2014 that began with a prayer led by local Methodist pastor the Rev. Rob Gill.
The assembly, which was not mandatory, was designated to honor all of the district's students who scored higher than a 22 on their ACT college tests.
The school district was additionally ordered to pay the student $5,000 because the lawsuit exposed that the school district allowed Gideons International to hand out Bibles to fifth graders at nearby Northwest Rankin Elementary School in October 2014.
Along with the $7,500 in fines, the school district will also have to pay the student's legal fees, an amount that will be determined at a later date. Reeves also threatened the school district with a $10,000 fine for any future infractions of the order.
The school district first came under legal fire when the same Northwest Rankin High student took the school district and the school's then-principal, Charles Frazier, to court in 2013 for forcing him to attend a series of assemblies that promoted Christianity.
The school district and the student then agreed on a settlement in which the district admitted it violated the student's First Amendment rights by forcing him to attend such assemblies, and also paid his legal fees.
But after being notified about Gill's prayer to start the honors ceremony in 2014, the AHA filed a motion accusing the district of being in contempt of court for failing to uphold its end of the settlement.
Although lawyers for the school district argued that Gill's prayer did not violate the 2013 orders or the student's First Amendment rights because attendance at the assembly was optional, Reeves did not side with the school district's arguments.
"The district's breach did not take very long and it occurred in a very bold way," Reeves wrote in his judgement. "Its conduct displays that the district did not make any effort to adhere to the agreed judgment."
In his summary, Reeves accused the school district of trying to indoctrinate students with Christianity.
"It deliberately went out of its way to entangle Christian indoctrination in the education process," the judge argued. "From the accounts detailed in the record, it appears that incorporating religious script and prayers with school activities has been a long-standing tradition of the district."
Rankin County Superintendent Lynn Weathersby said in a statement issued through school board attorney Fred Harrell that despite the court's ruling, students and teachers will continue to pray. However, district staff will have to adjust in order to comply with the ruling.
"As long as there is testing in schools, we believe that teachers, principals and students will continue to pray," Weathersby stated. "That being said, the school district will certainly abide by the order of any court to the best of its ability and will take whatever action necessary to make sure that all principals and teachers are updated on the current status of the law and that order."