FLOWOOD, Miss. — A federal judge in Mississippi has ordered a school district in the Bible Belt to stop promoting Christianity during school events and fined officials $7500 for being in “contempt” by continuing to do so in spite of an agreement reached two years ago with a humanist organization.
As previously reported, the American Humanist Association (AHA) first took issue with the Northwest Rankin High School in Flowood, Mississippi after a representative of Pinelake Baptist Church participated in a student-organized assembly that included a video dealing with teen problems, such as premarital sex, drugs, cutting, suicide and other issues.
The two individuals featured in the film explained that they were able to overcome their struggles through the power of Jesus Christ. The presenter also spoke to students about the hope that is found in Christ, and led students in prayer.
AHA sent a letter to district officials demanding under threat of lawsuit that such events be discontinued.
“It has hard to imagine a more blatant violation of the Establishment Clause than the one complained of herein,” it stated. “The law prohibiting this type of endorsement and coercion is well-settled. As such, not only will the school, in its official capacity, be liable for this constitutional infringement pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983, but the school officials responsible for the event will be personally liable too, in their individual capacities.”
While AHA contended that the assembly was mandatory for all students, the district stated that the event was rather organized and hosted by students who desired to offer the presentation to their classmates.
AHA moved forwarded with filing the suit on behalf of a student who attends Northwest Rankin High School, and the district agreed to settle with AHA, signing a consent decree not promote any religion during school events.
However, the same student, who has not been identified, reported to AHA that last year, an awards ceremony was opened with prayer at Brandon High School and that Fifth Grade teachers were advised by their principal to walk children past Gideon International’s Bible distribution in the lobby at Northwest Rankin Elementary School.
AHA then filed a motion of contempt with the court, but the district said that the prayer was involuntary and that the principal didn’t know anything was improper about her directions regarding the Gideon distribution. Therefore, the incidents, they said, could not be considered a violation of the agreement.
This week, a federal judge appointed to the bench by Barack Obama disagreed and found the district in contempt of court.
“Under the Agreed Judgment, M.B. (plaintiff) acquiesced not to pursue her lawsuit with the pledge that the district, in turn, would ensure future compliance with the provisions of its newly adopted policy on religion,” the order, issued by U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, reads. “Defendant failed to honor its end of the agreement. The district’s breach did not take very long and it occurred in a very bold way.”
He placed a permanent injunction against the district from offering prayers or sermons at any of its events and fined the district $7,500 plus attorneys fees for contempt. Any further promotion of Christianity will cost the district $10,000 per incident.
The district said that it will comply.
“As long as there is testing in schools, we believe that teachers, principals and students will continue to pray,” Superintendent Lynn Weathersby said in a statement. “That being said, the school district will certainly abide by the order of any court to the best of its ability and will take whatever action necessary to make sure that all principals and teachers are updated on the current status of the law and that order.”