MS School Held in Contempt for Refusing to Stop Violating First Amendment

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:

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 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:

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.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • moarscienceplz

    I think the Superintendent and maybe a few Principals should spend a weekend in jail. I bet that would clarify their understanding of the First Amendment.

  • timmmmm

    How about the fine being paid by the persons who authorized the prayer, instead of the school district?

  • Loqi

    I have no difficulty finding ways to avoid violating first amendments rights. Perhaps the fact that this superintendent is less able to do that part of his job than me implies he’s not qualified for the job.

  • tbp1

    I’m not the first person to notice this, but how is that the people who continuously accuse secularists of following “situational ethics” and having no objective basis for moral beliefs are constantly lying through their teeth?

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    The judge has now agreed to hold the school district in contempt.

    That seems a bit harsh. Why punish the whole district simply because one Athiest was “harmed” by prayer? And what about the Religious Liberty of the school district?

    I tell you, if stuff like this keeps up, it’s going to get harder and harder for us Moral Americans to force your children to participate in my religion.

  • eric

    On that second defense – if I was the district’s insurance carrier and I heard them say that in a court of law , my rates just shot up by a factor of 10.

  • eric

    @1 and @2: AIUI its extremely rare for government officials to lose their immunity. But this certainly seems to be a case that would qualify. Flagrantly violating a legal agreement you signed 6 months ago? Telling the courts you put in place a clear policy and then violating that policy? IMO there’s no doubt the judge could go directly after the actors. The real question is whether he/she thinks its worth the legal headache and appeals that would likely ensue.

  • Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    This, by the way is the same school district where Neil Carter (about whom you wrote yesterday) lost his job after a student outed him as an atheist.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1017276335 Strewth

    eric@6. I agree. If they can’t even keep a lawyer on retainer to advise them on what they’re agreeing to in a court judgement, the insurer’s actuaries are going to the dusty areas of their tables for sure.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Strewth, back when I was in an insurance-blues fusion band, my stage name was Dusty Tables.

  • https://www.facebook.com/neilcarter74 Neil Carter

    Incidentally, this is the school system that let me go when they found out I’m an atheist. The one you posted about just the other day?

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/dispatches/2015/07/13/the-real-gods-not-dead-story-is-the-opposite-of-the-movie/

    It’s the same school district. These people wear their religiosity on their sleeves, and they celebrate each legal failure as evidence that they are honoring God with their sacrifice. These infractions are like a badge of honor.

  • Larry

    These infractions are like a badge of honor.

    Well, then, let’s make sure those badges of honor come at increasingly steep prices until such time as the good people of Rankin County start to squeal like Ned Beatty’s character in Deliverance.

  • Artor

    My guess is that the district is footing the bill on this themselves. Insurance is for covering unforeseen problems. If the district administrators can be given a court order they signed themselves, and flagrantly violate it within months, no insurance company in the country is going to pay out on that, I would imagine. I’m not an insurance agent, but that seems pretty basic.

    I wonder if the school district can then sue their (hopefully former) administrators in civil court to recover some of their losses?

  • John Pieret

    Here is the relevant part of the school district’s policy that they agreed to abide by:

    It is the policy of the Rankin County School Board that school activities conducted during instructional hours should neither advance, endorse or Inhibit any religion; should be primarily for secular purposes and should not obligate or coerce any person Into participation in a religious activity.

    Oooooh!!! That’s so hard to understand, Judge!

  • http://onhandcomments.blogspot.com/ left0ver1under

    Religion is like sex. It should be done in private and between consenting adults. It should not be forced on the unwilling, and children should definitely not be involved.

  • dingojack

    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.”

    Well yes Your Honor, I did park in that ambulance zone in front of the ER for 12 days, but all that law-stuff is just so hard to understand an’ complex an’ stuff, therefore I can get out of paying the fine, right?

    @@ Dingo

    —————

    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.”

    Whew. What luck that actually participating in an activity, doesn’t actually mean he participated in that activity. Imagine all those relived bigoted bakers.

  • http://atheist-faq.com Jasper of Maine

    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.

    Don’t we hear on a regular basis, the phrase “Ignorance and/or stupidity is no excuse”? Try that on a police officer, “Officer, I didn’t know the speed limit was 25 through here!

  • drizzt

    Bryan Fischer is loosing his mind over this : http://www.renewamerica.com/columns/fischer/150729