Humanist Group Sues School District That Held Graduation in Church and Included Christians Prayers in Ceremony

Back in June, we learned that administrators at Mountain View Elementary School in Taylors, South Carolina held their “graduation” ceremony inside of a church.

Maybe they could’ve gotten away with that — other public schools have held cermonies in similar places — but the event’s program didn’t even attempt to shy away from promoting Christianity, listing two separate prayers:

As I wrote then, “school officials didn’t just cross the line. They destroyed the line and then prayed to Jesus to patch it back up.”

The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center sent the district a letter warning them of the consequences of continuing future ceremonies in the same location with these prayers.

The district responded the next day, but failed to say how they would change their plans for the future:

With regard to the prayers given at the program by students of Mountain View Elementary School, the District can assure you that the school will not endorse the use of prayer by students at any awards program or school-sponsored event in the future.

That’s legalese for “We won’t publicly admit that we support the students, but we’re not going to stop the Christian prayers.”

In fact, a school official asked a student to deliver the first prayer. And the closing prayer, also recited by a student, was this:

“Thank you for coming. Let us pray. Dear Lord, thank you for this day and all your many blessings upon us. Lord, bless each and every one of our teachers, leaders and parents. Lead, guide and direct us as we begin this new adventure into middle school. We give you the praise for all our accomplishments. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.”

Very Christian. Not okay at a public school graduation.

A second letter from the district even clarified that they weren’t going to stop these prayers in the future:

With regard to a student delivered a prayer or providing a religious message during a school-sponsored event, the District will not prohibit this practice as long as the prayer or message is student-led and initiated and does not create a disturbance to the event. Prohibiting such independent student speech would go beyond showing neutrality toward religion but instead demonstrate an impermissible hostility toward religion.

Umm… no. Not true. And you know this practice would have stopped in a heartbeat if the prayer in question were anything-but-Christian.

Yesterday, the AHA filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the family of a Mountain View Elementary student against the Greenville County School District, Superintendent Burke Royster, and Principal Jennifer Gibson. They’re claiming that the district violated the Establishment Clause through their actions.

The federal courts have been clear that events like these violate the constitutional principle of separation of church and state,” said Monica Miller, an attorney and legal consultant with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “Any event sponsored by a public school must not violate that principle.”

When there are alternative, acceptable spaces for an elementary school graduation readily available, there’s no reason to hold it in a church on a Christian campus with a motto like “Christ makes the difference” and a logo like this:

And there’s certainly no reason to include Christian prayers. District officials can claim to be “hands off” all they want, but they know damn well that people in South Carolina are overwhelmingly Christian and that just about any student speaker they select will give a prayer to Jesus.

Save it for church.

District officials thought they could get away with this. Now they’ve been caught violating the law and pretending they did nothing wrong. It’s time for a judge to enforce the law since they can’t be trusted to follow it on their own.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Sarah

    Feel free to share your thoughts on the Greenville News Facebook site about it. We’re a bit outnumbered in this area…

    • Bess Hudson

      I thought about it but after seeing something close to a death threat on there, I decided against it :( I just don’t have the stomach for it today. It’s sickening to think that I might stand in line at the grocery store next to people who think that way or open doors for them or whatever. Here’s the one I’m talking about: “STUPID PARENTS and /or STUPID Citizens.. If they are not happy with these type ceremonies and location choices then may I suggest “a Bullet between the eyes”….”

      • harvin

        Bess, I’m right there with you. I don’t comment on half the things I want to because of the nonsense being spewed on that page. The lack of basic, logical dialogue is astounding, and so frequently replaced with “you’re an idiot”/”you’re going to hell”/”you should be shot for thinking like that” comments that encourage violence and hatred toward those they disagree with. The comments that ignore fact and continue to scream in hatred are the ones that frighten me the most.

      • UWIR

        Have you reported it to FB? Given the other things they’ve shut down, I can’t see how they would be able to claim that doesn’t violate TOS.

        • Bess Hudson

          Yes, I did actually. :)

  • Cyrus Palmer

    Here come the fundies. ‘Its just a prayer, it’s not a big deal, atheists are sue-crazy and dumb’.

  • Brian Westley

    Hemant, it’s worse that anyone realized. This is from a commenter on the Greenville News facebook page:

    As the article states, and as I know from attending NGU, prayer was a required part of hosting the graduation there. Thus, students of a secular institution were made to participate in a religious ceremony, held in a religious setting. While it’s nice of NGU to offer the facilities free of charge, the public has to realize they still require prayer at ALL events and generally let a spokesperson from the university take the floor briefly.

    • harvin

      That is my comment. I wasn’t at the graduation, but judging by the Greenville News article and this one, the gathering fit every NGU event I’ve described: you can’t use the facilities unless someone gets in a word about Jesus.

  • baal

    ” impermissible hostility toward religion.”
    Is there case law or statute saying that it’s impermissible to be hostile towards religion? I don’t think stopping prayers at a secular governmental function counts as hostile but even if it were, would that be illegal?

    • UWIR

      The idea that the government must allow prayers at every activity is absurd. Does a math teacher have to allow students to interrupt lessons with prayers? Does a judge have to allow a juror to interrupt testimony with a prayer? If this ever gets to oral arguments, I’d like to see the this guy interrupted every time he opens his mouth with prayers to FSM, and if he objects, tell him he’s being impermissibly hostile towards religion.

  • Holytape

    Cooly, the christian said, “It’s such a little thing, I don’t see why you atheist get your feathers ruffled about this, when you lead such meaningless lives.”

    The Atheist replied, “If it is such a trivial thing, you won’t mind if we skip it this year?”


  • JWH

    Would it be possible to file a supplementary lawsuit over having an elementary-school graduation in the first place?

  • Bitter Lizard

    Did you see the invitations? They aren’t subtle about this.

    • wow

      Just wondering where in world did this invite come from ? Pretty positive I nor my child received anything that looked liked this. As a matter of fact those kids that are posted up there front dont even go to Mt. View. If you made this up you are one dumb ass yourself. Grow up! Plus know all the facts. Such as the parents of that child knew where it was being held. We had to fill out a permission form. Two if its held at mountain view each student could only have two people to come. If you have it at one of the other local schools (which stay on lock down) because crazy people these days. It still would not have been big enough. It sucks all the way around for everybody. At the end of the day all children are going to suffer because of sue happy people. But please don’t worry about it . Its not your tax dollars that will be wasted.

      • randomfactor

        And of course that explains the prayers–why, if they didn’t have prayers the ceremony wouldn’t be nearly long enough.

        For what it’s worth, the posted “invitation” is incurably stupid.

        • wow

          Again the whole lawsuit us based on venue from what I’ve read. Here’s the thing I don’t even remember the prayer nor does my kid or anyone else’s. Those kids were so pumped about getting out of school I doubt they even cared what was being said at all. Trust me it was long enough there was about 15 different awards handed out that almost every student received. Unlike dumb ass people on this post our kids are pretty smart. Again its our school our community and our children that will suffer because of outside people getting involved that most likely don’t care about the so called victims.

  • DougI

    If fundies aren’t allowed to force their religion upon others then they whine about being persecuted. I just wish these people would go away so civilization could progress.

  • Stefan

    For all the christians saying it isn’t such a big deal. hmm then I guess if a school made students pray to allah and give thanks unto him for his prophet it’d be cool right?

  • Itsrealfunnythat

    Gotta get them young or they become free thinkers.

  • Itsrealfunnythat

    Tell them they can keep the prayer if they recite a passage from the Pastafarian book as well. Also the Koran and Torah I guess.

  • Anna

    With regard to a student delivered a prayer or providing a religious message during a school-sponsored event, the District will not prohibit this practice as long as the prayer or message is student-led and initiated and does not create a disturbance to the event.

    In addition to the incredible violation of church and state, I find it distasteful that they are pretending that the fifth grade students had any part in initiating that prayer. How many elementary school kids just spontaneously decide to recite prayers? In my experience, none of them. They all have to be encouraged to do so by adults. It’s beyond obvious that a 10-year-old didn’t write that prayer.

    • queenknitter

      My children attend this school. I work as an adjunct at North Greenville University. I have a PhD from Indiana University in Rhetorical Studies with a minor in American religious history. I am more than a little aware of the dangers of conflating religion and civic life. My current research is exploring the intersection of conservative politics, revivalism, and white supremacy.

      There is very little nuance in all these discussions of this issue. Neither side is as ignorant or bull-headed as their opposites assume.

  • Klil

    Guess what Greenville County won! PRAISE GOD! AMEN!