(Washington, D.C.) – Attorneys at the American Humanist Association (AHA) urge the U.S. District Court of South Carolina to put an end to the Greenville County School District’s decades-long practice of including prayers in graduation ceremonies in a legal memorandum filed today, at 6:05pm.
“The school district’s practice of subjecting captive student audiences to prayers at graduation ceremonies forces nonreligious students to choose between attending one of life’s most significant occasions and forgoing it only to avoid the pressures of participating in a religious ritual,” says Monica Miller, Senior Counsel at AHA and lead counsel in the case. “The Supreme Court made clear that the Constitution forbids public schools from placing students in this untenable position,” Miller added.
The AHA’s just-filed brief seeks final resolution in its years-long challenge to bring this South Carolina school district into compliance with the First Amendment.
The AHA filed its lawsuit in 2013, asserting that the district’s two practices of holding elementary school graduations in a Christian chapel, and of including prayers in graduation ceremonies, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In 2015, the District Court ruled in part in AHA’s favor, holding that graduation prayers delivered prior to 2013 violated the Establishment Clause, but upheld the practice going forward based on the school district’s promise that prayers would be entirely “student initiated.” Still, the court explicitly enjoined the district from encouraging prayers and from using religious language on written programs. The court, however, neglected to rule on the AHA’s separate chapel policy claim.
The AHA successfully appealed to the Fourth Circuit, resulting in a 2016 victory that overturned the lower court’s ruling with instructions for it to evaluate the chapel claim and reconsider the prayer claim. On remand, the District Court ruled in the AHA’s favor that using a Christian chapel violates the Establishment Clause. While the court postponed its ruling on the prayer issue for mediation and further briefing, the court admonished that it had “grave concerns about the constitutionality of the actual practices of the school district and the revised policy as implemented.”
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. “The school district has demonstrated it is either unable or unwilling to respect the constitutional rights of religious minorities, requiring serious court intervention,” Miller stressed.
Read the AHA’s Fourth Circuit opening and reply briefs here and here.
The American Humanist Association (AHA) works to protect the rights of humanists, atheists, and other nontheistic Americans. The AHA advances the ethical and life-affirming worldview of humanism, which—without beliefs in gods or other supernatural forces—encourages individuals to live informed and meaningful lives that aspire to the greater good of humanity.
Special thanks to the Louis J. Appignani Foundation for their support of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.
Shake Things Up by Sitting Out the Pledge of Allegiance