The Rankin County School District in Mississippi is a lot like the Tangipahoa Parish schools in Louisiana, always looking for any possible way they can insert Christianity into their activities. Rankin County has now been found in contempt for failing to comply with a previous court order.
The original consent decree is from 2013, when a suit was filed over a number of Establishment Clause violations, including holding mandatory school assemblies where preachers gave their “testimony” and urged students to come to a revival at a local church. In November, 2013, the case was settled with a consent decree requiring the school to cease any and all activities like this, including prayer at any school-sponsored event. Six months later, they violated that agreement by holding an awards ceremony for students who did well on the ACT, on school property during the school day and with a pastor there to say a prayer.
The case, in which the plaintiff was represented by the American Humanist Association, was then reopened after they filed a motion for contempt of court. The judge has now agreed to hold the school district in contempt. The school is being fined $7500 and again ordered to comply with the consent decree. If any further violations occur, those penalties will likely go up significantly, as they should. The AHA said in a press release:
The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center applauds a United States District Court for its decision to grant a motion for contempt against Rankin County School District in Flowood, Mississippi, for violating the Establishment Clause.
“This order is a victory for all students, including those of minority religions and with no religion,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “Students’ rights must be respected, and they should not be made to feel like second-class citizens in their public schools.”…
“The court’s order vindicates our client’s First Amendment freedoms and seeks to ensure that the school district will comply with the Constitution and cease its egregious practices of endorsing prayers, sermons and other religious activities in the future,” said Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.
The school’s arguments for why they shouldn’t be held in contempt are simply ridiculous. From the judge’s order granting the contempt motion:
The first and third arguments are absurd; the second would really need a whole different word invented to describe how utterly ludicrous it is. “It’s just so hard to understand this stuff, we’re just too stupid to read the decree we agreed to, please don’t punish us!” If you can’t figure out how not to violate the Constitution continuously, maybe you’re in the wrong line of work. If you’re that fucking clueless, we certainly don’t want you guiding the education of children. The judge was slightly more tactful in laughing that argument out of court:
First, they argue that, because it was not mandatory for M.B. to attend the ACT Ceremony, the District’s actions did not violate the Establishment Clause. Secondly, the District contends that any liability arising from a First Amendment violation should be excused since school officials are ill-equipped to understand the complexities of constitutional law. Lastly, Defendants argue the principal of Northwest Rankin High School, Charles Frazier, is protected from liability because his mere participation in the ACT Ceremony does not constitute a violation of the Agreed Judgment.
The District next contends that the Court should consider the complexities of First Amendment law and the difficulty laypersons face when attempting to comply with it. They argue that the Supreme Court’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, handed down on May 5, 2014, confirms the density of First Amendment jurisprudence. In Town of Greece, the closely divided Court found that legislative prayer need not be nonsectarian and that the town did not violate the First Amendment by opening town board meetings with Christian prayers that aligned with traditions of the United States.
Advancing the decision of Town of Greece is the District’s version of a Hail Mary Pass. On the one hand, the District claims that Town of Greece provides an apparent inconsistency in constitutional law which bolsters its contention that “a lay person is not equipped to undertake the study and interpretation that a lawyer brings to a question of law.” On the other hand, the District has previously told the Court that its “Religion Policy is stated in terms which are clear and easily understood by teachers, administrators, other school officials, and any groups seeking to make use of the school facilities.”
Town of Greece is not the source of confusion as the District contends. Here, Defendants were previously before the Court for similar constitutional violations. At the time of the 2014 ACT Ceremony in question, not even six months had lapsed since the parties entered into the Agreed Judgment — a decree which also stemmed from the promotion of Christianity during a school-sponsored event. Not only was it informed, the District drafted a Religion Policy meant to “make clear and demonstrate that its policy is to fully comply with the Establishment Clause of the first Amendment of the United States Constitution.” Also, as mentioned, in an earlier motion for partial summary judgment, Defendants professed that the Religion Policy is stated in unambiguous and easily discernable terms. Town of Greece has sparked no confusion nor has it injected any ambiguity into the parties Agreed Judgment.
And this, by the way, is why they have lawyers. But they should find one that doesn’t make idiotic arguments like this one when they’re taken to court. You can read the judge’s contempt order here.