A district court judge ruled that a South Carolina school district cannot allow official prayers or religious music at their graduation ceremonies, bringing an end to a years-long legal battle.
Judge Bruce Hendricks of the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, Charleston Division issued an order on Thursday in the case of American Humanist Association et al v. Greenville County School District.
In his decision, Judge Hendricks issued a permanent injunction 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.”
The judge also ruled that students giving remarks at ceremonies could under certain circumstances include a prayer or other religious content provided that no one else was asked to participate.
Further, the judge ordered that any programs or fliers for a ceremony featuring a student speaker must include a disclaimer that explains that the student’s remarks do not reflect the positions of the school district.
Monica Miller, AHA senior counsel who served as lead attorney in the case, celebrated the decision in a statement released Friday.
“We are thrilled that the court is finally putting an end to flagrant school-sponsored prayers and Christian hymns at public school graduation ceremonies,” stated Miller.
“This was a long fight for justice for students who do not wish to encounter government-sponsored religion at their own graduation ceremonies.”
Beth Brotherton, spokesperson for Greenville County Schools District, released a statement to media that the ruling affirms “many of its existing practices to avoid religious entanglement.”
Brotherton also applauded the ruling for upholding the right of religious student expression.
“We are pleased that the Court has upheld the fundamental issue of the case and supported our position that students selected to speak at graduations based upon religiously neutral criteria, have the right to share their personal stories, even if those include a religious message,” stated Brotherton, as reported by local news outlet WSPA.
“We are also pleased that the Court refused to grant AHA’s request to prevent all remotely religious messaging or prayer at School District events. As a district, we have made every effort to consistently comply with the constitution and protect the rights of all students.”
In 2013, the AHA filed a lawsuit against the school district on behalf of an unnamed family whose child attended a graduation ceremony, which was held in a chapel and featured prayers.
In 2015, a district court issued an injunction against future graduation prayers but it did not rule against holding ceremonies in houses of worship.
AHA continued its litigation against the school district, eventually winning decisions on both the issue of school-sponsored prayer and holding ceremonies at a chapel.