Judge Says SC School District’s Prayer-Packed Graduation in Church Violated Law

More than four years ago, we learned that administrators at Mountain View Elementary School in Taylors, South Carolina held a “graduation” ceremony inside of a church.

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Maybe they could’ve gotten away with that — other public schools have held ceremonies in similar places — but the event’s program didn’t even attempt to shy away from promoting Christianity, listing two separate prayers:

As I said back 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 at the time warning them of the consequences of holding future ceremonies in the same location with these prayers.

The district responded immediately, 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 prayers, but we’re not going to stop people from saying them.”

In fact, a school official asked a student to deliver the first prayer. And here’s what the closing prayer, also recited by a student, sounded like:

“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 down the road:

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.

That sounds good… until you realize that the door was still open for administrators to ask students to speak (*wink wink nudge nudge*), knowing that the student population was overwhelmingly Christian and would pray on their own. Considering that these ceremonies were held inside of a church, that gave students even more reason to recite a prayer in their speeches. (Hell, that may be part of the reason those students were selected.)

So in September of 2013, 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 claimed 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.”

They also pointed out the problem with the venue.

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:

The initial ruling finally came down in May of 2015, with U.S. District Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks saying there was no evidence of anything illegal going on and that the District “ha[d] gotten it exactly right.”

… precisely because of the historical inclusion of prayer and religious speech at graduations, in this school district and State, it is conceivable that the cultural residue of prior practices might continue to color and confuse the application and invitation of, even now, constitutionally neutral practices. The undersigned is vigilant to identify any kind of wink and nod maneuvering.

But, the plaintiffs now have a serious kind of evidentiary problem

The ruling said the AHA was right about the illegality of the prayer policy prior to 2013, but didn’t go that far with regards to prayers at future graduation ceremonies. Furthermore, the judge said the family filing the lawsuit didn’t have proper standing to bring the case. He didn’t say anything about the church venue for the ceremonies.

The AHA was very disappointed with the ruling:

“It’s a sad day when the courts allow students to be subjected to Christian prayers during what should be a secular graduation ceremony,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “These prayers exclude kids and families of minority faiths and no faith.”

“Federal courts have been unanimous in determining that prayers at public school graduations are unconstitutional,” said Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “It’s alarming that the District Court upheld permitting Christian prayers to be delivered to impressionable young children in a Christian venue.”

In July of 2015, they filed an appeal:

“The Supreme Court and lower court cases make clear that graduation prayers violate the Establishment Clause, regardless of whether they are student-initiated, because they coerce students to participate in a religious exercise and are unavoidably stamped with the school’s seal of approval,” said Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

The detailed argument explained how the judge got it wrong and how the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled against district-sanctioned prayers at school events.

In June of 2016, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its response. And it was… not exactly good or bad news. There were a lot of parts to it.

Here’s what the justices said:

1) The earlier ruling was vacated. (Yay!) That original ruling in which a judge said there was no evidence of anything illegal going on and that the District “ha[d] gotten it exactly right”? It meant nothing anymore. The justices asked the lower courts to decide the case again (hopefully with a different judge).

2) Standing would have to be reassessed. Because the original students represented in the lawsuit had moved away, the District claimed the case shouldn’t move forward since it was moot. However, the AHA said that it also represented other members whose children still attended the school. The Fourth Circuit therefore sent the case back to the lower court to decide if the AHA’s additional plaintiffs had proper legal standing. On that end, we were kind of back to square one.

3) The lower court would have to rule on the merits of the chapel issue. The District Court never addressed whether it was okay to hold graduation ceremonies in a church. The Fourth Circuit was now saying the lower court would have to rule on that issue, no matter what.

So it wasn’t a victory. Not yet. But it was another chance for the AHA to make its case because the earlier ruling against them no longer mattered.

That’s why the AHA is thrilled to announce today that the same District Court judge from a few years ago, Bruce Hendricks, has ruled in their favor this time around.

In the case of whether graduation should have been held in a chapel? The court says the District never should have done that.

The fact that the district chose to hold the ceremony (which included school-endorsed Christian prayers) in a clearly Christian place of worship in the presence of religious iconography, including, among other things, a cross on the podium and eight stained glass windows depicting Christian imagery, only further created a likelihood that observers would perceive the district as endorsing a particular set of religious beliefs. There has been no showing that the chapel was the only available venue for the graduation ceremony, and in view of the overall circumstances of the event, there can be no doubt that the setting in which the ceremony occurred conveyed a message of religious endorsement and created a likelihood that the school-aged children would perceive a link between church and state.

For that, the AHA will get one shiny dollar from the District. (It was never about money.)

What about the wink-wink-nudge-nudge prayers in the future? After the Court said that AHA’s plaintiffs have proper standing to sue if these prayers occurred again, the judge admitted the school’s ostensibly legal prayer policy doesn’t actually work that way in practice.

While the Court is inclined to agree with several of its earlier conclusions insofar as the revised policy as written appears to pass the Lemon test, the Court has grave concerns about the constitutionality of the actual practices of the school district and the revised policy as implemented, as the record now contains evidence tending to show that the school district continues to endorse certain religious activity. In other words, despite the district’s assertion that religious messages will be permitted at school events only when they are truly student-led and -initiated (and when the students delivering the messages have been selected based on genuinely neutral criteria), the evidence offered by AHA paints a different picture.

The judge points out that the District still makes students stand during that part of the ceremony, something you don’t normally do when a student speaks. The District still calls the prayers an “invocation” even though they promised there would be no “formal or sponsored ‘invocation.’” And apparently District officials “make it clear to students that prayer is allowed” when selecting speakers, in essence putting emphasis on the whole wink-wink-nudge-nudge thing.

The judge didn’t quite say the prayer policy was unconstitutional, though. He’s giving both sides two months to reconcile their differences through mediation before making any final determination.

Still, that’s a major change from a few years ago and a huge victory for church/state separation.

“We are very pleased with the court’s ruling, as it properly recognizes that the government’s use of a pervasively Christian, proselytizing environment unconstitutionally exacts religious conformity from a student as the price of attending his or her own graduation ceremony,” said [attorney Monica] Miller. “This was a flagrant violation of students’ First Amendment right to be free from religious coercion by the state.”

(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)

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