Another High School Student Makes a Stand

Yesterday, another high school student sued her school for pushing religion on kids.

She is remaining anonymous, but her 18-year-old friend Alexis Smith is not. Alexis recently graduated from the Northwest Rankin High School in Mississippi’s Rankin County School District. Since the student is a minor at 16, she has to sue through someone of legal age. Alexis is a hero – not to mention a truly awesome friend – for stepping in and helping the real plaintiff, who still attends the school, to protect her anonymity and protect her family’s privacy.

Rankin County in in Central Mississippi. Mississippi’s capitol, Jackson, is just a few miles away in the next county over. Rankin County is blessed with the presence of Pinelake Baptist Church.

Pinelake is a huge evangelical Baptist Church with several “campuses” around central Mississippi and one further north, in Starkville, where Mississippi State University’s main campus is located. With so many campuses, Pinelake sounds almost like a college itself, doesn’t it? This church takes its educational outreach seriously.  Their website is huge, slick, and sermons are available for download as well as live streaming, just in case you might miss one. And somehow the church managed to insinuate itself into the Rankin County School District, so as to help violate the First Amendment with impunity.

Beginning April 9, Rankin High School allowed Pinelake to conduct a mandatory assembly for its senior class. The next day, the junior class was required to attend an identical assembly. The following week, the sophomores had to go. The school did not tell students in advance what the purpose of the assemblies were, nor did it allow them to opt out.  All three assemblies consisted of the same Christian video and presentation. The focus of the assembly was how the students could find “hope” in Jesus, since they couldn’t find hope elsewhere. A complete description of this sick assembly is contained in the complaint that was filed yesterday in federal court.

What a sad message. What a defeatist attitude to sell to kids. They can’t find hope in their own relationships and commitments, so they have to fabricate a “relationship” with an imaginary friend they will never see, who will never laugh or cry with them, who will never speak directly with them, to ever have “hope.”

One senior recorded the entire assembly on a cellphone. Faculty and parents stood by the door to the room where the assembly was held, preventing students from leaving. Several students actually did try to leave, and were told to sit back down by the school’s truancy officer. The assemblies all ended with a group prayer. The plaintiff was not the only student to object to the school’s proselytizing, either.

After the first two assemblies, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center sent a letter to the school pointing out the First Amendment violation and asking that the two remaining assemblies be cancelled. The sophomore and freshman assemblies were postponed, but the Pinelake sophomore assembly was rescheduled and held this past Monday, April 22.

The plaintiff has asked for declaratory relief, which is a finding by the court that school is in the wrong. She also asks for a temporary and permanent injunction against future assemblies and promotion of religion by the school, for nominal damages, for her attorney’s fees. She has asked for punitive damages against the principal of the school in his individual capacity, for violating the law after the violation was pointed out to him.

She should get all that. The law’s pretty clear.

When this situation was first reported in Christian media, they phrased it as “Humanists Fuming Over High School Assembly Offering Hope in Christ to Troubled Teens.” The argument seemed to be that since students organized the assembly, it was perfectly okay to require every kid in school to sit through it. The assembly was required for all students – not just the troubled ones, as the article would have us believe. And when students are both required to go and prevented from leaving by school officials, it is a school-sponsored event, not a student-sponsored one.  Now we know that  formal complaints about blatantly illegal activity constitute “fuming.”

I wonder if the Christian right will say that the federal prosecutors in Boston are “fuming” when they file murder charges against the Boston Marathon bomber, too.  After all, Dzhokar Tsarnaev has his right to religious speech, and so what if someone is inconvenienced or made uncomfortable by it?  Oh, wait. That was Muslim speech. Nevermind.

(And, yeah, I know those two situations really don’t compare. But snark.)

 

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Got a legal question? Email me at anne@aramink.com. I’m a lawyer, but there’s only a 2% chance I’m licensed in your state. Whether I answer your question or not, sending me an email or reading this blog post does not create an attorney-client relationship between us. I’m on Twitter as @aramink, and you can see my regular blog at www.aramink.com.

 

About Anne

Civil rights activist Anne Orsi is one of the spokespeople for the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers and is the primary organizer of Reason in the Rock, a conference on science, secularism and skepticism. Got a question? Email her at anne@aramink.com. She's a lawyer but may not be licensed in your state. Sending her an email or reading her blog posts does not create an attorney-client relationship. Find Anne on Twitter as @aramink, and read her regular blog at www.aramink.com.


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