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SC school board settles lawsuit with atheist group over student-led prayer at graduations

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File photo of a young undergraduate waiting to receive his degree at his graduation ceremony. |

Months after a court awarded an atheist group $456,000 in a lawsuit against a South Carolina school district for holding graduation ceremonies with prayer and hymns, Greenville County School District has agreed to pay $187,000 in a settlement that would protect the religious freedoms of students and employees.

District’s board members voted 8-3 to pass the settlement with the American Humanist Association, which not only significantly reduces the amount to be paid by the district but would also allow staff to bow their heads during student-led prayer, which the previous court order prohibited, Greenville News reported.

If approved by a judge, the settlement would end the lawsuit filed in 2013 on behalf of a 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.”

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

According to the settlement, any graduation speaker must be selected based on religiously neutral criteria, and that district employees must not review or edit the remarks, according to Fox Carolina, which reported that other stipulations include the right of district employees to respect student-led prayer and that district policies and training procedures remain neutral on religious topics, neither encouraging nor discouraging the religious speech.

The school district’s attorney Doug Webb was quoted as saying that the schools’ former insurance company would pay the fees and that it would not cost the school district. “This agreement would protect and secure the free-exercise rights, the freedom-of-speech rights of students and employees,” Webb said.

After the ruling of the U.S. District Court for South Carolina, the district told Fox Carolina that they would appeal the 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,” it added. 

Monica Miller, AHA’s legal director and senior counsel, responded to the district’s decision to settle the lawsuit by saying that the agreement was in the public's best interests even though it meant the group would receive less money than the judge ordered.

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