(Washington, D.C., September 6, 2018) – The American Humanist Association (AHA) has just filed its supplemental response in its lawsuit to permanently stop the Greenville County School District from subjecting captive student audiences to prayers and proselytizing remarks at public school graduations.
“The school district failed to provide any applicable legal support for its longstanding and clearly unconstitutional practice of including prayers, Christian hymns, and Bible readings in public school graduation ceremonies,” says Monica Miller, AHA Senior Counsel and lead attorney on this case.
Today’s response to the school district’s memorandum—filed in the U.S. District Court of South Carolina—cites settled Supreme Court precedent holding that student-initiated prayers and Bible readings delivered to captive student audiences at school-sponsored events violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The American Humanist Association also cites federal court precedent holding that the inclusion of Christian songs and proselytizing remarks at graduation ceremonies are equally unconstitutional.
“The school district also fails to grasp that a single graduation prayer would violate the Constitution according to Supreme Court precedent. In 2017 alone, we counted at least 12 overtly religious graduation remarks, including Christian prayers and proselytizing sermons,” Miller remarked.
The AHA’s lawsuit commenced in 2013, challenging the district’s two separate graduation practices of holding elementary school ceremonies in a Christian chapel, and including prayers in ceremonies district-wide. After a successful appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals regarding preliminary motions, the Fourth Circuit reassigned the case to a new judge upon finding the original judge biased against the American Humanist Association. In 2015, the District Court held that graduation prayers delivered prior to 2013 violated the Establishment Clause. The court enjoined the district from officially encouraging prayers and from using religious language (i.e., “invocation” and “benediction”) on written programs. The District Court, however, refused to enjoin student-initiated prayers and ignored the AHA’s second claim regarding the Christian chapel practice.
The American Humanist Association filed a successful second appeal to the Fourth Circuit, which overturned the 2015 ruling. The Fourth Circuit directed the District Court to: (1) determine the chapel issue; (2) determine whether the AHA continued to have standing to permanently stop future graduation prayers; and (3) if so, to reconsider the prayer issue.
In 2017, the District Court agreed with the AHA that using a Christian chapel for graduation ceremonies violates the Establishment Clause. The court postponed ruling on the prayer issue pending further briefing. Today’s memorandum is the final filing before the court delivers its ruling.
Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, affirmed, “Bringing faith and religious service into a celebration of students’ accomplishments is not only unconstitutional, it takes away from what should be a celebrated momentous occasion. We are optimistic the District Court will recognize this and protect students and their families from unwanted religious intrusion.”
Read the AHA’s Fourth Circuit opening and reply briefs here and here, respectively.
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.
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