Mississippi School District Forced to Pay Up After Violating Court Order and Repeatedly Promoting Christianity

I swear I’ve written more articles about the Rankin County School District in Mississippi than anywhere other school district in the country — never for good reasons.

The most pressing story is the one that started in April of 2013, when students at Northwest Rankin High School 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. After not hearing back from the administration, they filed a lawsuit 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.

In November of 2013, the AHA announced good news: 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.”

The school district owed her and the AHA’s attorneys $15,000 in all to cover attorneys’ fees. And part of the settlement was that the school wouldn’t be holding religious assemblies anytime soon.

Which is why it was somewhat surprising that they ignored that very settlement just a few months later.

According to a motion of contempt filed by the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center in May of 2014, there was a district-wide awards ceremony held at Brandon High School (also in the district) on April 17 — during the school day, so students had to attend — and a Christian pastor delivered a prayer at the event.

That wasn’t all:

The School District also issued a memo regarding “important events” to students at Brandon High School with the following instructions: “April 17-2014 — ACT Awards Ceremony, 9 a.m., for all students with an ACT of 22 and above in Multipurpose Room; please dress in church attire.”… Consequently, many students showed up wearing an “Easter Sunday dress or church dress.”…

After the students were seated, they were told to stand up for the prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance… They were then told to bow their heads to pray… The prayer referred to “God” several times and alluded to Jesus… The Christian Reverend said in the prayer, “we are not only celebrating death, but also life.”… Because the event was held days before Easter, this was obviously a reference to the resurrection of Jesus Christ… Students could see the principals and other school officials standing and bowing their heads in prayer…

Not only did the District violate its own settlement, they did it with the original plaintiff Gracie Bedi sitting in the audience!

The AHA said a monetary punishment was required this time because the district disobeyed a court order and it requested $1,000 each from the school district and the principal of Northwest Rankin High School. It also requested $20,000 for each future violation of the law, not because they wanted the money but because that amount might be enough to persuade district officials to put a stop to their preaching ways. That money was all in addition to attorney’s fees.

It was just unbelievably stupid of the school to do this.

“Public schools are not in the business of prayer. Specifically making time for prayer in assemblies and award ceremonies threatens our nation’s constitutional principles and disregards the rights of our children,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association.

“Precedent set by both the U.S. Supreme Court and numerous federal courts clearly affirms that prayer in public schools violates the constitutional requirement of separation of church and state and infringes upon the religious liberty of non-adherents,” said Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “It’s shocking that the school would so blatantly violate the Establishment Clause and the rights of its students.”

Keep in mind that months after all this went down, this past October, the District was in trouble again when one school allowed representatives from the Gideons to hand out Bibles to students during the school day. The principal even sent out an email to fifth grade teachers to “please walk your class through the lobby at that time.”

You may be wondering how the District responded to all these charges.

Since intelligence clearly isn’t prevalent in the administration, take a wild guess:

First, [District officials] argue that, because it was not mandatory for [Bedi] to attend the ACT Ceremony, the District’s actions did not violate the Establishment Clause… Secondly, the District contends that any liability arising from a First Amendment violation should be excused since school officials are ill-equipped to understand the complexities of constitutional law… Lastly, Defendants argue the principal of Northwest Rankin High School, Charles Frazier, is protected from liability because his mere participation in the ACT Ceremony does not constitute a violation of the Agreed Judgment…

In short, their defense was: We’re too dumb to understand a simple concept that our lawyer could have explained to us in about a minute.

Hell, I’ll do it again in one sentence: Don’t promote religion during school hours.

Six words. Not bad.

Today, the AHA announced that a judge has ruled (again) in their favor:

The United States District Judge Carlton W. Reeves issued an order holding the school district in contempt and permanently enjoined the school district from “including prayer or religious sermons in any school-sponsored event.”

“The court’s order vindicates our client’s First Amendment freedoms and seeks to ensure that the school district will comply with the Constitution and cease its egregious practices of endorsing prayers, sermons and other religious activities in the future,” said Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

Judge Reeves is just blistering in his judgment:

The District has not complied with the Court’s order. Under the Agreed Judgment, [Bedi] acquiesced to not pursue her lawsuit with the pledge that the District, in turn, would ensure future compliance with the provisions of its newly adopted policy on religion. That was the quid pro quo. Defendant failed to honor its end of the agreement. The District’s breach did not take very long and it occurred in a very bold way. Its conduct displays that the District did not make any effort to adhere to the Agreed Judgment.

Understandably, eradicating practices, which over time have been systemically engrained in an institution’s culture is a task that requires time. But the first step to take must be one which informs all employees of a new policy. When the policy is breached, district officials should take corrective action. In the Court’s view, the District has not made any cognizable efforts to comply with the Establishment Clause or its own Religion Policy. On the contrary, it has acted in clear defiance of the law. A contempt finding is appropriate.

The District now owes Bedi $2,500 for forcing her to sit through a prayer during that ACT Awards Ceremony and an additional $5,000 because she exposed their Gideons charade.

Wait! That’s not all! The District will have to pay her $10,000 every time they violate the law in the future.

And all that’s on top of the legal fees they now owe the AHA.

In all my years of writing about these issues, I’ve never seen District officials disregard the law so blatantly. But at least, this time, they’ll have to pay the price for their irresponsibility. Administrators care far more about promoting Jesus than they do about educating students properly.

(Large portions of this article were posted earlier.)

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