Students Victorious in Lawsuit Against Public High School’s Mandatory Come-to-Jesus Assembly

Last April, students at Northwest Rankin High School in Mississippi attended a mandatory assembly featuring representatives from nearby Pinelake Baptist Church who told the students that they needed to accept Jesus in their lives. They even showed a video:

In the video, two young men were interviewed who had once led “troubled” lives. To find hope, the men described various behaviors such as turning to drugs, sex, cutting, suicide, and the like. They then explained how turning to Jesus Christ solved their problems and recommended that other people turn to Jesus Christ as well.

The American Humanist Association said at the time that when students tried to leave the Performing Arts Building so they wouldn’t have to listen to the preaching, they “were harassed by a principal and told to sit down.”

The Appignani Humanist Legal Center of the AHA immediately sent the school a complaint letter (PDF). After not hearing back from the administration, they filed a lawsuit (PDF) against the school in which the extensive and jaw-dropping details about the assembly were listed in full.

But why read that when you can just watch a video of the assembly taken by students?

As I wrote before, there’s absolutely nothing legal about any of this. The school cannot force students to sit through a Christian sermon, even if other students are presenting the material.

Yet, no one would have known any of this was happening without the help a brave student, Magdalene “Gracie” Bedi.

In a piece for Humanist Network News, Bedi talked about why she took action:

I abandon anonymity not to call attention to myself, but rather to call attention to the case and better validate its purpose. As a student at the high school, I have been privy to the thoughts and analysis of my peers, and what I’ve heard has been incredibly disheartening. Rather than reviewing the case objectively, I have been written off as an angry atheist, a scorned student, and even as a greedy child looking only for profit. Allow me to defend myself against such harsh conclusions.

I am not a scorned student. Northwest has been nothing but kind to me throughout my several years of public education, and I may attribute my depth of awareness to the very thorough and efficient curriculum. The faculty is perhaps the best in the state and may be among the best at the national level. It is not my intention to rebel against or insult the high school itself. My grievances are only with the inappropriate and unconstitutional actions by the administration and staff.

It was clear from the start that Gracie was not an anti-Christian hater hell-bent on ruining the school’s name. She was a law-abiding student who wanted her school to be respectful of all students and not just the Christian ones.

And I’m happy to report she’s finally vindicated. Earlier today, the AHA announced that a federal judge had ruled in her favor:

The judgment includes an admission of liability by the defendants that they violated the Establishment Clause, the provision of the Constitution that requires separation of church and state. It also requires the school district to comply with a new policy that prohibits future such violations and orders the defendants to pay the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees.

“A lot has been accomplished and I’m pleased with the outcome of the suit,” said Magdalene “Gracie” Bedi, the student plaintiff in the case. “I’m grateful for the school’s maturity throughout this ordeal and I look forward to graduating with them on a positive note. No one should have to question their rights in a public school and I think Northwest [Rankin High School] realizes this now.”

“We are pleased that the school’s administrators have admitted that they violated the Constitution and agreed to continuing court oversight to prevent future violations,” said William Burgess, legal coordinator of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “There was clear evidence that these Christian assemblies were endorsed and organized by the school. To continue to deny a constitutional violation had taken place was untenable.”

Gracie is still humble and graceful in victory. I absolutely love that.

The school district now owes her and the AHA’s attorneys $15,000 in all to cover attorneys’ fees. And you can bet they won’t be having religious assemblies anytime soon.

This was the sort of assembly public school officials sometimes green-light because they assume they can get away with it. They know it’s proselytizing, but they don’t care. Gracie showed us that, even in Mississippi, a student armed with the law can conquer administrators who mistake the school for a church.

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.

  • CanuckAmuck

    Score one for the good guys!

    • Chris

      Girls!

  • paulalovescats

    “But why read that when you can just watch a video of the assembly taken by students?” Because it’s easier!! I must be getting old. I couldn’t hear it.

    • rtanen

      The video gets louder after the first part, but it is very quiet. Probably because it was recorded on a smartphone with no specialized microphone.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      And of course some people are completely deaf and rely on either closed captions or transcripts.

  • AFabulousAtlantanAtheist

    What is it with Christians shoving Jesus down children’s throats. I’m sure those Christians now feel persecuted.

    • Sinfanti

      Always reminds me of George Carlin in the movie Dogma:

      Cardinal Glick: … hook ‘em while they’re young.
      Rufus: Kind of like the tobacco industry?
      Cardinal Glick: God, how I wish we had their numbers.

  • 3lemenope

    But why read that when you can just watch a video of the assembly taken by students?

    Because I prefer the blood vessels in my head to remain intact?

    • CanuckAmuck

      You do have a way with words.

      • 3lemenope

        Thanks. :)

    • busterggi

      Some things do need warning labels.

    • ScottG

      Many of us are on phones, in a quiet setting, and/or at a workplace where running videos is bad form.

      I believe the Rachel Maddow Blog captions each video with “for those of you who can’t watch videos…” and then fully explains what is shown, or at least gives the highlights.

      • Cattleya1

        She also has the seemingly tireless and presumably well-paid Steve Benen to produce her great blog.

  • Michaela Samuels

    “I think students need to learn about tolerance! It shows the state of our society that we cannot even preach TRUTH to our children in their schools.”

    It’s coming. You know it’s coming.

    • Drakoe

      What truth is there in pushing your myth on a captive crowd? Save your myths for church, where those who share your delusion can pat each other on the back in peace.

    • Justin T. Storar

      You should have your calculator rights removed.

    • bamcintyre

      That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence. – Christopher Hitchens

    • Michaela Samuels

      I fear my intent was missed on the down voter. : (

      • Duntada

        Silly person on the internet, parody doesn’t exist here.

        • randomfactor

          “Parody error.”

          • JohnnieCanuck

            Geek!

            I say that in the nicest way.

    • Guest

      Oh

  • the moother

    Love the way it’s the ladies taking an equal stand against this stupidity. I guess this is also proof that religion subjugates women.

    • Michael R

      Sorry, but how does that say that religion subjugates just women? This is subjugating an entire school.

      • the moother

        Religious women are simply not allowed to stand up for what is right.

        Also, when the school got called on breaking the law how are they being subjugated?

        • Michael R

          I meant subjugating the students in the school, not the school itself. Sorry for the confusion.

          The subjugation you’re speaking of seems to be more directed to their religious standpoint rather than the fact that they simply found it unconstitutional for them to have to sit there. I’d say they’re being subjugated based on their secularism.

  • wright1

    Those are brave young women, to go public like that in an overtly religious community. I’m grateful to have such committed citizens in the younger generation.

  • Jeff

    Interesting that most of the local news outlets seem to support this, as do the comments. I didn’t see any outrage over their persecution. Could this have even more lasting effects on the community, like replacement of many of the administrators?

    • Paul Tjaden

      Congratulations to these brave young ladies for calling these idiots out. Great job girls. You are my heroes!

    • UWIR

      Those are some ambiguous pronouns, there. They’re supporting “this” as in the decision, or “this” as in the assembly? “Their persecution” as in the girls’ persecution, or as in the school officials’ alleged persecution?

      I sure would like to see criminal liability in addition to civil. Anyone who takes public funds for their own private agenda should be charged with embezzlement.

      • Jeff

        Maybe not embezzlement, but malfeasance. And stupidity.

  • R Bonwell parker

    Even if that assembly were designed to “spread the good word,” it would be an outrage that it was so blatantly forced upon students who have no choice but to attend that school. However, it’s far worse. That assembly does nothing but turn people against each other. Nobody would be “converted” by such condescending and shameless propaganda. It just institutionalizes the Christians so they feel justified in treating non-Christians as lesser people.

  • onamission5

    A hearty “well done” to these young women!

  • ElRay

    Did anybody watch the whole thing? Was the harassment by the principal caught on tape? If so, what’s the timecode?

    • Randy Meyer

      Yeah, that’s what I was hoping to see too!!

  • Theodore (Tugs) Njáll McCowan

    Ask the school’s Christian groups and teachers to pony up the bill.

    • http://rolltodisbelieve.wordpress.com/ Captain Cassidy

      Oh don’t I wish we could.

  • https://www.facebook.com/jean.hoehn/info?collection_token=1524166867%3A2327158227%3A35 Phatchick

    Even as a christian, I’m insulted. These groups do NOT speak to me or my beliefs, just a very narrow sect. Kudos to these young ladies, they are in the right, that was one very unnecessary assembly.

    • UWIR

      It would be difficult to fill an entire assembly with stuff that all Christians agree on. But that doesn’t stop the fundies from presenting their views as “the” Christian perspective.

  • Jasper

    This is why I wouldn’t mind having a nation-wide ad campaign targeting highschool/grade school students. They have no idea this stuff is illegal, for the most part… and if the entire faculty is in on it, these infractions go completely under the radar.

    We need to raise awareness – if your school is proselytizing, that is staggeringly illegal, and you can nail them on it.

  • Rebecca Smith

    I had the misfortune of being born and raised in Mississippi in the 1970′s, where ther wouldn’t have been a snowball’s chance in Hell (pun intended) of winning a case like this. I am extremely happy for the litigants, and I hope other schools doing the exact same thing (like they were when I was both a student *and* a faculty member) will take heed. This has no place in a public school setting.

  • ichuck7

    I wish we could up the stakes. It wouldn’t happen but… We could set the consequence that if you are found to be violating the establishment clause, you, the administrator, lose your job and get a one or two year ban from education plus anyone else involved.

    • ichuck7

      Is that too harsh? I tire of hearing school after school blatantly violating the constitution.

      • http://frothslosh.typepad.com/ Ol Froth

        I think its totally appropriate. The people responsible aren’t punished, unless they face some sort of sanction from the school board.

  • Mark Gore

    Owned. But going to such lengths to paint her as “not an angry atheist” is unnecessary. What these scum did was blatantly illegal and immoral regardless of who files the lawsuit or why.


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