Last week, Max Nielson contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to file a complaint against Irmo High School in Columbia, South Carolina. Irmo has a long standing tradition on holding a vote among the seniors as to whether or not to have a prayer during the graduation ceremony.
The school district ignored the cease and desist letter (PDF) from the FFRF on Max’s behalf.
Attorney Aaron Kozloski sent (on behalf of FFRF) another cease and desist letter (PDF) on Friday. This one was more blunt:
You were previously contacted by FFRF and asked to refrain from violating my client’s rights. It is my understanding that you have refused to do so. I hope you will avoid the time, trouble and expense of litigation and honor my client’s request by immediately prohibiting delivery of the graduation prayer, and by rescinding or suspending the unlawful district policy.
If the prayer is delivered, it is my clients’ present intention to seek damages, permanent injunctive relief, and under 42 U.S.C. § 1988, attorneys fees and costs. Should you have any questions, please contact your own attorney.
Over the weekend, many of you emailed Dr. Steve Hefner (superintendent of the school district) and Rob Weinkle (principal of Irmo High School). Despite all of the emails and both letters, the superintendent and Lexington/Richland District 5 are refusing to back down.
Today, at 12:00p in the Carolina Coliseum, there will be a prayer at Irmo High School’s graduation.
Which means the Lexington/Richland 5 School District is going to be sued.
Dr. Hefner met with Max yesterday to discuss possible outcomes of the complaint, but he ultimately declined the request to cancel the prayer. He eventually replied to Max with his decision in an email:
I have reflected on everything you said during our meeting and, while I empathize with your position, I do not believe that I can in good conscience grant your request for me to step in and interfere with the decision of a majority of students who voted earlier this school year to include a prayer at their graduation ceremony.
As I mentioned to you during our conference, while I am a staunch supporter of the separation of Church and State, I do not believe that Freedom of Religion should be interpreted as requiring Freedom from Religion within the public schools. Here, I most [sic] note that I disagree with your characterization that the prayer in question is State-sponsorship or endorsement of the Christian faith. The decision to offer a prayer tomorrow was initiated by and will be offered by students, who in so doing are exercising their Freedom of Religion, with the School District’s only involvement being administrative as far as the distribution and counting of the ballots.
I’m not sure how one can be a staunch supporter of the separation between church and state and yet still decide to go through with the prayer. I’m also amused that Dr. Hefner says he doesn’t believe that freedom from religion falls under freedom of religion considering who he is being sued by.
As far as the worry that Max’s case will be invalidated after he graduates (it’s possible that he couldn’t have an injunction since he can only graduate once) — there is already someone who has agreed to sign on as a co-plaintiff from the Irmo Sophomore class. Max has been lucky in that he has gotten a lot of support from his fellow classmates as well as a lot of Irmo alumni.
In the meantime, Max sends his thanks to those of y’all who emailed Dr. Hefner and Mr. Weinkle over the weekend.