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.


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