JACKSON, Miss. — A nationally-recognized humanist organization has threatened to sue a Mississippi school district after a pastor delivered a sermon and prayer at a convocation for teachers earlier this month.
The American Humanist Association’s (AHA) Appignani Humanist Legal Center sent a letter to the superintendent of the Jackson Public School District on Monday stating that it had received a complaint from a teacher who attended the event. The organization claims that the convocation was mandatory.
Among the speakers at the convocation was Pastor Roy Maine, who also works as an electrician in the district. He had been invited to deliver the opening prayer, and included words of exhortation during his invocation.
“This is the time to stand for God,” Maine told those gathered, according to video footage of the event. “We get run over and run over, and we get up …We’re gonna keep getting up for God, amen?”
He also led attendees in the 23rd Psalm, which he asked those present to recite with him, and made other Scriptural references.
But AHA says that Maine was not their only concern.
“Nearly every speaker at this three-hour event engaged in some form of religious preaching, recitation of Bible verses, and invocation to ‘Lord’ and ‘God.’ The event was best described by our client as ‘one long church service.'” the letter, written by staff attorney Monica Miller, stated.
AHA argued that the religious content of the convocation was a violation of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause in the First Amendment, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
“Given the clarity of the jurisprudence, it shocks the conscience that the school district included a prayer, by a Christian pastor, at a formal, and indeed mandatory, school-sponsored event,” Miller wrote.
She then ordered that the district bar the use of religious speech in future events under threat of a lawsuit.
“[T]he School District may be sued … for damages, an injunction and attorneys’ fees,” Miller asserted. “This letter serves as an official notice of the unconstitutional activity and demands that the school district terminate this and any similar illegal activity immediately. To avoid legal action, we kindly ask that you notify us in writing within two weeks of receipt of this letter setting forth the steps you will take to rectify this constitutional infringement.”
The school district issued a statement following receipt of the letter, but did not state its position one way or the other.
“The Jackson Public School District acknowledges receiving a letter from the Appignani Humanist Legal Center regarding events taking place during the 2014 Convocation ceremony. The JPS Legal Department is reviewing the letter and will respond appropriately as needed,” it wrote. “The annual Convocation program is a celebratory event intended to invigorate employees with enthusiasm, pride, and excitement for the beginning of a new school year.”
As previously reported, AHA has also threatened to sue a school district in Gainesville, Georgia after athletic coaches allegedly participated in or led prayers at Chestatee High School. Over 200 students and parents rallied in support of the coaches earlier this month during a pre-school prayer gathering on the field.