Mississippi School District Stops Prayers After Atheists' Threaten to Sue

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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)An empty classroom is seen in this undated file photo.

A Mississippi school district has agreed to stop having prayers and sermons at mandatory faculty convocations after an atheist group threatened to sue them.

The Washington, D.C.-based American Humanist Association announced that the Jackson Public School District had agreed to stop the religious practices.

JoAnne N. Shepherd, district counsel for the Jackson Public School District, responded to AHA via email that the convocation was meant to be "an inspirational and motivational event for employees returning to start the new school year."

"However, please be advised that in the future, the district will ask its convocation speakers to refrain from religious activity," wrote Shepherd on Wednesday.

"Additionally, the convocation committee will follow federal and state law with regards to religious activity when planning future convocations."

Monica Miller, attorney with the AHA's Appignani Humanist Legal Center, said in a statement released Thursday that her organization was "very pleased" with the decision.

"We're very pleased that the school district has promptly responded to this issue and has made assurances that future school-sponsored assemblies will comply with the Establishment Clause," said Miller.

AHA's lawsuit threat came in response to a mandatory teacher convocation held by JPSD earlier this month.

Teachers present heard a Christian pastor deliver a prayer, as well as other speakers frequently invoke "God" and "the Lord" during their remarks.

AHA learned of the convocation courtesy an unnamed attendee, who described the approximately three-hour event as a "church service."

Miller of the AHA Legal Center wrote a letter to JPSD on Monday denouncing the religious tone of the compulsory event.

"This letter serves as an official notice of the unconstitutional activity and demands that the School District terminate this and any similar illegal activity immediately," wrote Miller of AHA.

"To avoid legal action, we kindly ask that you notify us in writing within two weeks of receipt of this letter setting forth the steps you will take to rectify this constitutional infringement."

Some took to the defense of JPSD, including attorney Steve Crampton of the American Center for Constitutional Rights.

Crampton explained to the online publication One News Now that "hurt feelings" are insufficient to "constitute a constitutional injury."

"And that would be one of the first and most important arguments raised in defense in any legal action that might fall out from this situation," argued Crampton.

"I hope that the community will stand up and this school board will stand up against this kind of intimidation tactic."

Regarding JPSD's response, AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt stated that the decision was a matter of respecting others.

"By upholding the separation of church and state, the school district is respecting the rights of teachers of minority faiths, as well as the rights of teachers who do not profess any faith," said Speckhardt.