Humanist Group Will Get Another Chance to Challenge Elementary School’s Religious Graduation Ceremony

Last year, the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center found out that administrators at Mountain View Elementary School in Taylors, South Carolina held their “graduation” ceremony inside of a church.

To make matters worse, the program for the event very clearly listed two separate prayers — both of which were led by students. Furthermore, both were Christian prayers that referred to “Jesus” and both were approved by a school official before the ceremony:

It’s possible to hold a public school graduation in a church — other districts have gotten away with that — but even Christian administrators who want to sneak prayers into the ceremony know well enough to call them “invocations” instead of giving away the game and they make sure school officials are not linked to the prayers.

The AHA sent the district a letter warning them of the consequences, but the school’s response didn’t quite indicate how they would change the ceremony in the future other than reiterating that “the school will not endorse the use of prayer by students”… which left the door wide open for prayers to continue without the school’s public support.

After another round of back-and-forth, the district took a stand and said they would not stop student-initiated prayers, leading the AHA to file a federal lawsuit on behalf of a family in the district.

Unfortunately, December’s court hearing was a mess. The judge, Ross Anderson, said things that no one with a strong knowledge of the facts should have said, a claim the AHA suggested in a court filing:

Although the Verified Complaint set forth the language of one of the prayers… which the Defendants admitted was a “prayer” delivered at a MVES ceremony… and included a photocopy of the 2013 Graduation Program, which listed two “Prayers”… the court questioned whether a prayer was actually delivered, telling Plaintiffs’ counsel: “I just don’t like you putting stuff in the record that you can’t back up.”

Turning to Plaintiffs’ counsel, the court opined, “And then you come down from New York; is that right? Are you from New York?” to which counsel replied: “No, Your Honor. I practice down in Lexington, South Carolina, where I’ve lived for 20 years.”… Judge Anderson then admonished: “I am, frankly, very upset with the way you have proceeded in this case… You have alleged all of these things about how horrible the school district is. Not one thing have you offered any proof.”… He proceeded to call the pleadings “slanderous per se” and said: “It looked like it was written by a PR man… That is not acceptable.”

Both parties previously agreed to a 90-day extension of the scheduling order but Judge Anderson refused to grant it, contending, “[a]t my age, 90 days is a lifetime. I want to at least try and finish this case[,]” and concluding: “This is what you call, in my opinion, making a mountain out of a molehill.”

In short, Anderson’s handling of the case was exactly what you would expect from a stereotypical ignorant bigot who happened to fall into a position of power, not an educated person whose job is to understand all sides of a case before making a ruling.

The AHA filed a motion with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit asking for a reversal of Anderson’s dismissal of the case, saying that they filed the motion because his ruling was “nothing more than the court expressing its personal dislike for the case.” (They also requested that anonymity for the plaintiffs be preserved so that they don’t face any harassment or discrimination for their courage.)

“Previous federal court rulings have been clear that public school graduation ceremonies must be secular in nature to comply with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” said Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “There is no legal reason for the judge to have denied the motion to stop these practices pending the final outcome of the case.”

When you consider that the prayers were not student-led, but an official part of the program, and when you consider that the ceremony was held in the chapel of a Christian university that uses the logo that reads “Christ makes the difference” even when other venues were available, it’s hard to see how the district is in the right.

This week, the Court of Appeals did the right thing. They essentially wiped Anderson’s ruling off the record because his decision wasn’t based on the merits of the case. That means the AHA’s lawsuit can proceed, but this time, with a different judge assigned to hear the case:

In denying Plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction,
the district court provided no analysis of the law and made no
attempt to apply the four factors mentioned above to the facts
as alleged in the complaint
. Thus, we are constrained to remand
the case for reconsideration of the issue.

If that isn’t a legal slap=in-the-face to Anderson, I don’t know what is. It doesn’t mean the AHA will win the case with the new judge, but at least they’ll get a decision that’s based on the facts of the case. And I firmly believe that when an impartial judge looks at the facts here, the only logical conclusion is that the district is pushing Christianity onto the students.

(via Religion Clause. Parts of this posting have been published before)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X