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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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 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

  • John Eberhard

    Thanks for sharing another segment of the nonstop war on Separation.

    • Patrick James Bayham

      ever read the constitution?

      • Nate Frein

        Pretty sure he has. Pretty sure he’s on the side of the students trying to hold the school accountable.

        And also pretty sure that the fact that he shares a last name with the blog author isn’t a coincidence…

      • islandbrewer

        I’m just going to guess that you’re one of these “Separation of Church and State isn’t in the Constitution” people, and are ignorant of nearly 200 years of interpretation and jurisprudence on the Establishment Clause.

        Care to prove me wrong?

      • Baby_Raptor

        Have you? Because if you have, you’d know that this is blatantly illegal.

        Not that the Christianists are likely to care. They usually don’t…To them, only they have rights.

      • John Eberhard

        Why, yes, I have read it many times. Do you understand the difference between a phrase and a concept?

        I’m not sure exactly why you ask, so let me cover some of the most common reasons one hears for questions like that in this context..

        The most common and erroneous statement I hear about the constitutional separation of church and state is, “Show me where the constitution has the word “separation”! It isn’t in there!” While this may be technically true, it isn’t nearly the “Gotcha!” they think it is.

        My usual first response is, “Show where the constitution has the phrase “freedom of religion”! It isn’t in there!” I don’t think anyone would argue there isn’t freedom of religion simply because that specific phrase isn’t in there. The right to a fair trial is generally accepted to be a constitutional principle; yet the term ‘fair trial’ is not found in the Constitution. Any reasonable person would recognize these are shorthand phrases used to describe the meaning of a small part of the constitution. That is exactly what “separation of church and state” is, also.

        The concept of separation and the framework to implement it are in the constitution, just as for freedom of religion and for fair trial, or for “monogamy” in the bible, even if the specific word “monogamy” appears nowhere in the bible.

        Rather than argue over whether the word “separation” is in the constitution, let’s focus on what no one can deny IS in the constitution. Article 3, Section 1 says:
        “The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.
        The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority….”

        This specifically gives the Supreme Court the authority to interpret the Constitution under their judicial power over the law. If you take the baby step to admit the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, you are forced to accept that the Supreme Court has the right to rule on its interpretation. The interpretation of the court has been consistently that there is separation of church and state. There is realistically no denying that the Supreme Court has the authority to make that call, so that’s the way it is. Of course the theocrats will say the SCOTUS made the wrong call, but no reasonable person is really going to accept the judgment of Joe Blow on the street over decades of decisions by people whose lives are spent marinating in and studying constitutional law and whose decisions are based on decades of established precedents. If the Separation clause is illegal, the federal judiciary must have been mistaken all these years, and still is.

        They are the refs who have the authority to make the call, and they have clearly made the call for separation. Entertaining as the theocrat’s arguments against the Separation clause may be, they are scarcely new. By now they’ve failed to convince generation after generation of American judges.

        The next most frequent thing I hear is, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…….How is allowing prayer in school (or the ten commandments, or a prayer banner, etc.) establishing a state religion?”

        Constitutional literalism is the last gasp rationalization for those who reach for it merely as an excuse to have their antiquated and unconstitutional religious and moral nonsense forced into public institutions and the culture at large. It has virtually no relevance to actual jurisprudence, and even the tiniest amount of thought towards how a society would actually function by interpreting the constitution literally reveals it to be not just staggeringly impractical for any complex society with complex differences of opinion, but just transparently silly.

        The jurisprudence and precedent on the establishment clause in relation to school prayers is fairly clear, despite relentless pressure from the religious right to change it. Literalism is a concept of intellectual interest only and has virtually no practical relevance to the actual law or meaning of the constitution.

        To not know these facts is true ignorance. Knowing them, and misrepresenting them because one WISHES they weren’t the facts, is dissembling and misrepresentation (commonly known as lying) and nothing more.

        You must take the whole phrase into consideration: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”. To only quote the first part is to take out of context and to skew the meaning. The SCOTUS—remember, the ones with the authority to make the call–realize the ONLY way to achieve BOTH of these is to keep the government neutral through separation of church and state.

        Thus, it is entirely appropriate to speak of the “constitutional principle of church-state separation” since that phrase summarizes what the First Amendment’s religion clauses do-they separate church and state.

        • otrame

          John, you play a great game of wack-a-fundie. Pleasure to watch, as always.

        • Kerry

          John, this is one of the best response I have ever seen on this subject. I happen to deal with the “America Christian Founding” regularly. I have several close friends that are close to David Barton, if you can believe. I love Chris Rodda’s research.

          You might also enjoy the site from The Library of Congress on the Jefferson Danbury Letter which most of this discussion is based on.


      • Glodson

        Your question turned out to be the wrong question to ask.

  • Patrick James Bayham

    nail these xtians to the wall!

    • islandbrewer

      No, make these people who are shoving their religious views down unwilling students throats abide by the Constitution and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

    • TCC

      Go away, troll.

      • baal

        I’m not sure he’s a troll vs just not too bright. He also abuses ellipses.

    • otrame

      Patrick… May I call you Patrick?

      Would you care to state explicitly whether you think the school and principal in question were wrong or right for forcing children to attend an assembly with a strong religious component? Please explain your reasons for your stand on the issue.

    • Glodson

      Yes, holding these Christians to the same law as we would hold anyone else is a horrible thing. Won’t anyone think of the poor Christians in this country who are so persecuted that they can’t even break the law and infringe on the rights of others anymore?!

  • Mo Reno

    Kidnapping charges should be filed, as well, if they did not permit the students to leave.

    • aoscott


    • wmdkitty

      Or unlawful imprisonment.

  • baal

    It’s faintly shocking that christians think they can use the school’s police power to round up the students for a sectarian event like this. Imagine if the Eastern Orthodox Church or (cthulhu forbid) the wiccans did the same.

    • Kerry

      Hell imagine just a Mormon film!!! The Baptist’s would be suicidal.

  • Christine

    It’s a good thing I wasn’t there. Getting myself arrested for trying to enforce reasonable behaviour would make life more difficult. I’m amazed that there wasn’t a riot as students tried to leave.

  • Jayn

    “The focus of the assembly was how the students could find “hope” in Jesus, since they couldn’t find hope elsewhere”

    It’s amazing how people trying to ‘help’ tend to say the most depressing stuff. This ranks somewhere around, “Jesus loves you even though you don’t deserve it.”

  • islandbrewer

    Off topic, but I really don’t like this Disqus setup.

    • invivoMark

      But… but… I can rate up posts like JT’s dad’s above this one!

      Also, the threading is easier to see on my display. I’m ambivalent about the way it re-orders posts by ratings rather than chronology, but otherwise I’m a fan.

      I wish the change didn’t hide all the previous comments on earlier threads, though.

      • Glodson

        That’s my problem too. I went to see older posts, but couldn’t find any of the older comments in some of them. Maybe there’s a few bugs to work out.

      • John H

        There’s an option just above the actual comments display (on a real browser at least, not sure if mobile goofs it up) to select how they are ordered.

        • invivoMark

          Ah, cheers! Now I’m totally sold on this setup. I like options!

        • Brendan Reid

          I really hate that Disqus defaults to “Best”. It makes trying to follow the conversation impossible. I hate having to choose Oldest from the pull down menu every time. Would be nice if the Disqus dashboard had a provision to set the default to one’s preferred comment order view – not to Best. Disqus or JT are you listening?

  • Ben Roy

    One thing I taught my daughter (aside for thinking for herself) is that if someone tries to force their religious beliefs on her she needs to stand up for her self, and if that means walking away so be it.
    If she had been in this school she would have walked out, and no one would have stopped her, the school officials would have been informed that they are committing false imprisonment and the authorities would be notified along with the media and every Atheist/Humanist organization in the country.
    I hate cell phones, but when things like this arise, they sure do come in handy. Props to the kids who recorded the event.

  • Bob Level

    Substitute all of this pertaining to Christianity and replace it with Muslim teachers preventing students from leaving a talk about the teachings of Mohammed and the community would be looking to fire everyone at the school that instigated this. I love irony.

  • Dip Stick

    great! more money from the school system, get some balls and toughen up.

    • Glodson

      Can’t believe I missed this one.

      Yea, let’s not be concerned with the illegal actions of the school. Let’s just ignore this because of the school’s budget. People should just suck it up and walk off this government endorsed religious field trip despite it being a blatant clash with the Establishment Clause.

  • Maine Skeptic

    This is the most thoughtful coverage I’ve seen on this story, and I wrote an article about it myself. Further weakening the Rankin County School District’s position is the fact that the school administration has apparently ( according to a NWRHS teacher on the Pinelake website) invited the local evangelical churches into the school where they have gone room to room praying for and with teachers (and students?) and ‘taking dominion.’