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.
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.