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Six years ago, administrators at Mountain View Elementary School in the city of Taylors held a “graduation” ceremony inside of a church and included two separate prayers in the program. The American Humanist Association’s (AHA) Appignani Humanist Legal Center sent a letter to the District in 2013 warning them of the consequences of holding future ceremonies in the same location with these prayers. They promised they would not “endorse” prayers in the future, but when students initiate the prayer it would be fine.
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 and multiple administrators claiming that the District violated the Establishment Clause through their actions. U.S. District Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks said there was no evidence of anything illegal going on and that the District “had gotten it exactly right.”
After the AHA appealed the decision, in December of 2017, the same lower court judge, Bruce Hendricks, ruled in their favor.
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.
Last August, the AHA had to sue the District again because prayers continued.
In the memorandum filed today, the AHA provided overwhelming evidence (supported by over 70 exhibits) showing that the district is continuing to subject captive student audiences to graduation prayers, contravening Supreme Court precedent, and even violating the terms of the 2015 injunction by using religious language in written programs, encouraging students to pray, and asking audiences to stand for explicitly Christian prayers.
Judge Hendricks admitted in his latest ruling that “the district’s current practices are not completely neutral toward religion” and gave some guidance on what should not be done in similar ceremonies in the future.
- The district shall not include a prayer –whether referred to as a prayer, blessing, invocation, benediction, inspirational reading, or otherwise–as part of the official program for a graduation ceremony. The district also shall not include an obviously religious piece of music as part of the official program for a graduation ceremony;
- The district and/or school officials shall not encourage, promote, advance, endorse, or participate in causing prayers during any graduation ceremony.
“We are thrilled that the court is finally putting an end to flagrant school-sponsored prayers and Christian hymns at public school graduation ceremonies,” said Monica Miller, AHA senior counsel and lead attorney in the case. “This was a long fight for justice for students who do not wish to encounter government-sponsored religion at their own graduation ceremonies.”