Judge Sides With Humanists Challenging Prayer at Graduation, Ceremony at Chapel

GREENVILLE, S.C. — A federal judge in South Carolina says that a school district’s continuing practice of including invocations and religious speech at public school graduations is a “cultural residue” left over from historical practices, and that its allowances are wrongly “continuing to color and confuse the application” of its recently revised policies intended to establish neutrality toward religion.

“As the court remarked in its prior order, ‘because of the historical inclusion of prayer and religious speech at graduations, in this school district and State, it is conceivable that the cultural residue of prior practices might continue to color and confuse the application of, even now, constitutionally neutral practices,'” wrote U.S. District Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks, appointed to the bench by then-President Barack Obama, on Dec. 12.

“Based on the evidence submitted by AHA, it appears that the historical practices of the school district are, in fact, continuing to color and confuse the application of what appears to be a constitutionally neutral prayer policy, but what, in practice, may not be,” she wrote.

As previously reported, the parents of a fifth grader contacted the American Humanist Association (AHA) in 2013 to complain that Mountain View Elementary School had held its graduation ceremony at the chapel on the campus of North Greenville University, a Christian institution in Traveler’s Rest. They also cited that prayers had been presented at the event by two students.

The prayers, according to reports, had been written by the children and were reviewed by school officials before being presented.

In response to the complaint, AHA wrote to the Greenville School District, demanding that it change the location for future events and that it discontinue the presentation of prayers at school ceremonies. The district responded by slightly adjusting its policies to ensure that any religious venue was “devoid of religious iconography,” and that any prayer was student-led and initiated.

“Prohibiting such independent student speech would go beyond showing neutrality toward religion but instead demonstrate an impermissible hostility toward religion,” it wrote. “If a student is selected to speak based upon genuinely neutral criteria such as class rank or academic merit, that student should have the same ability to decide to deliver a religious message or prayer as another student has the ability to decide to speak about an inspirational secular book or role model.”

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Being dissatisfied with the response, AHA filed a lawsuit in federal court, requesting an injunction in an attempt to force an end to the practices via court order.

U.S. District Court Judge George Ross Anderson first heard the case, and reportedly scoffed at AHA’s request for an injunction against the Greenville School District, stating that it was “making a mountain out of a molehill.” The chapel aspect of the lawsuit was later dismissed, but the matter of graduation prayer remained before the court.

In 2015, the aforementioned Judge Hendricks ruled partly in favor of AHA, but did not ban Christian prayers at graduation altogether. While Hendricks opined that school-sponsored prayers are unconstitutional, she stated that “spontaneous” student prayer is allowable in that it does not “improperly tangle the State with religion.”

She also found AHA’s contentions about the venue utilized to be moot since the family who complained had moved, and the schools that their children now attended did not use Christian sites for graduation ceremonies.

The matter then was deliberated by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which largely agreed with Hendricks, but also sent the case back to the lower court for further deliberation on some of the claims and to determine whether AHA still had standing to complain about the revised prayer policy since the previous complainants had moved. AHA consequently submitted affidavits from other humanist members who lived in the district.

On Dec. 12, Hendricks ruled that the district’s past use of Turner Chapel for graduation ceremonies violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“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,” she outlined.

However, Hendricks also noted that “this ruling is limited to the specific facts of this case and should not be construed as a bright line rule regarding a school district’s use of a church-owned facility.”

She additionally found that AHA had standing, and expressed “grave concerns about the constitutionality of the actual practices of the school district and the revised policy as implemented, as the record now contains evidence tending to show that the school district continues to endorse certain religious activity.”

Hendricks stated that it appeared that schools within the district continue to include invocations at graduation ceremonies, and that, according to one parent, the song “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” was sung by the Wade Hampton High School Choir during both the 2015 and 2016 ceremonies.

She asked the parties to take the next 60 days to attempt to mediate the situation between themselves, considering any further policy changes that could amend the situation. If mediation is not successful, the matter will be judged by the court.

Read the ruling in full here.

AHA has expressed satisfaction with the outcome, writing in a press release, “We are very pleased with the court’s ruling, as it properly recognizes that the government’s use of a pervasively Christian, proselytizing environment unconstitutionally exacts religious conformity from a student as the price of attending his or her own graduation ceremony. This was a flagrant violation of students’ First Amendment right to be free from religious coercion by the state.”

The district told The Greenville News in a statement that it believes that its policies “are consistent with our stance of neutrality.”

“We remain confident of our position in maintaining a legal and respectful educational environment for students from all backgrounds and beliefs,” it said.


As previously reported, throughout early America, textbooks such as Noah Webster’s “Blue Backed Speller” and Benjamin Harris’ “New England Primer” contained numerous references to Christianity, and those such as Webster were strong advocates for teaching children the ways of the Lord.

“Practical truths in religion, in morals, and all civil and social concerns, ought to be among the first and most prominent objects of instruction,” he wrote in 1839. “Without a competent knowledge of legal and social rights and duties, persons are often liable to suffer in property or reputation, by neglect or mistakes. Without religious and moral principles deeply impressed on the mind, and controlling the whole conduct, science and literature will not make men what the laws of God require them to be; and without both kinds of knowledge, citizens can not enjoy the blessings which they seek, and which a strict conformity to roles of duty will enable them to obtain.”

In 1830, Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote:

“[T]he benefits of an early and general acquaintance with the Bible were not confined to the Jewish nation; they have appeared in many countries in Europe since the Reformation. The industry and habits of order which distinguish many of the German nations are derived from their early instruction in the principles of Christianity by means of the Bible. In Scotland and in parts of New England, where the Bible has been long used as a schoolbook, the inhabitants are among the most enlightened in religions and science, the most strict in morals, and the most intelligent in human affairs of any people whose history has come to my knowledge upon the surface of the globe.”

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  • Vince

    Same old same old.

    • NCOriolesFan

      Religious Bigotry b.s

  • Jeff Kelly

    The school district needs to appeal. We must fight.

    • JNWesner

      Fight for what, the right to impose your beliefs on free citizens who do not hold such beliefs? In what way is that a Christian behavior?

  • TruthvLIes

    What a crock of sh*t these sad and sorry atheists are. They are as miserable as sin which is not surprising so they don’t want anyone else to be happy.

    So they believe going into a religious building will make you a christian? They don’t seem to have much faith in their faith if that is what they are afraid of.

    Christianity has had atheism and all other sorts of isms thrown at it down through the years and guess what, it is still standing and thriving.

    These atheists need to get some backbone and argue the benefits of their faith with intelligent dialogue, instead of poking their noses in other people’s business to try and stop them believing what they believe and doing what they do.

    As for giving the OK for a student to pray is contravening the First Amendment, give me a break. It says that “Congress shall not…”Since when has a school been the Congress of the United States of America?

    I think these atheists would be better off concentrating on their knitting.

  • byronmullet

    The judge is a residue left over from the anti-christian Obama the Balkinator Administration proving by his decision and liberal logic that neither he nor Obama could ever have invented America. Only Protestant Christians inspired by their God and “clutching to their guns and Bibles” and Faith could have tamed the West and framed a constitution that would secure the blessings of liberty.

    • DrIndica

      Anderson was nominated by Jimmy Carter, not President Obama. Carter professed to be a Christian. Get your facts straight prior to making ridiculous claims.

      • Bobby Caruana

        Jimmy Carter just as evil as that liberal judge

        • DrIndica

          In what way? You are the judge of evilness?

      • byronmullet

        “As the court remarked in its prior order, ‘because of the historical inclusion of prayer and religious speech at graduations, in this school district and State, it is conceivable that the cultural residue of prior practices might continue to color and confuse the application of, even now, constitutionally neutral practices,’” wrote U.S. District Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks, appointed to the bench by then-President Barack Obama, on Dec. 12.”

        • DrIndica

          Perhaps the defendants should proceed to a higher court.

    • Bobby Caruana

      If Christians don’t stand up for our Lord than Satan will use his voices of liberals.

      • DrIndica

        Maybe learn the meaning of the word “liberal” before you spout your kooky talk.

        • byronmullet

          Liberal: open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values.

          • DrIndica

            Try again. Ala, Adam Smith, Fredrick Hayek or Herbert Spencer. The root of liberal is liber as in free… free from State restrictions and regulations. Hitler was the first to use “liberal” in a pejorative sense, to demonize non-conformity from the status quo. Reading a book without lots of pictures is, many times, a great idea.

          • byronmullet

            Yes words do change their meanings aka gay used to be word that meant something beside pervert. Oh that’s right the word pervert has been determined by the new liberals the ones you’re running interference for as hate speech.

            May I suggest a book without pictures for you: 1100 pages of The Christian Life and Character of the Civil institutions of the United States by Benjamin Franklin Morris?

          • DrIndica

            Read that as an undergrad…not impressed.

          • byronmullet

            Not impressed with deep Christian faith and statesmanship? Hmm, what does that say about you? I was humbled when I read it. I began to look for just one of our founding fathers that didn’t rise to the Statesman level and I could not find one even among those lesser-known. Tell me of just one politician from your perspective, presently in office that qualifies to be a Statesman?

          • DrIndica

            It is the deep christian faith that bored me. Religion and the State do not and should not mix. Morris is/was also, not considered a founder as he was born in 1810. He simply cherry picked from original documents to try to support an ideology. Regardless of any ideas from > 200 years ago, the US has moved out of the Dark Ages of religion and the State. Unfortunately, in the US, people that trend toward a theocracy seem to have a loud voice. Fortunately, I live in a secular State, and am not impacted by religious dogma.

          • byronmullet

            Do you approve of America at any point in our history?

          • DrIndica

            Sure, America was and has been a bastion for a democratic republic, but also seems to be a good example of Plato’s “mob rule” or Tocqueville’s “tyranny of the majority” Although I’m pretty sure you have a different perspective, but your comments indicate you may also be of a similar sentiment.

          • JNWesner

            You must not consider Tom Paine a Founder. While Jefferson and Franklin are considered deists, Paine was an out-and-out atheist — and without his writings we might still be under English rule.

  • Lark.62

    Most christians would be extremely upset if there was a Hindu prayer at their child’s graduation ceremony.

    Most christians would be extremely upset if adults used their child’s graduation ceremony to encourage children to abandon their religion.

    Why can’t christians extend to others the same courtesy they expect and take for granted? A graduation ceremony is for all of the kids. All.
    Christian and non christian. Christians should not have to listen to prayers to someone else’s deity at their own graduation. Non christians should not have to listen to prayers to someone else’s deity at their own graduation.

    Why is that so hard?

    • TruthvLIes

      Methinks you doth protest too much.

      • Lark.62

        Really? You think expecting christians to act with compassion and empathy is “protesting too much”? You think expecting christians to do unto others as they would have others do unto them is “protesting too much”?

        Personally, I think most christians are fully capable of compassion and empathy just like everyone else. Why do you expect so little of christians?

        • TruthvLIes

          Nice try but I am not fooled by red herrings.

    • Bobby Caruana

      This is America not India. Which people like you are the cause of more crime and hate then any message from God

      • DrIndica

        Message from god? Which one, Thor?

        • byronmullet

          . “May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian Oppressors planted them in the promised land—whose Providential Agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent Nation—still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.” George Washington

      • Lark.62

        News flash: Hindus live in America and attend public schools. Likewise muslims, buddhists, jains, sikhs, taoists, people observing inuits, native American, and native Hawaiian religions, atheists and members of many other religions.

        And their kids, like your kids, get to attend their own graduation without being led in prayer to someone else’s deity.

        • byronmullet

          Another news flash to you: when any other of the religions you mentioned besides Christianity dominate any culture does it look anything like America? Answer: no It is very clear from reading history that only Protestant Christians could have. Each of them uniquely deny certain rights we’ve grown accustomed to having. Catholicism couldn’t have invented America because they put people on the racks for diverging from their Dogma this is why the Reformation happened why people came to America to escape them. If you take true Christianity out of America it ceases to exist.

    • byronmullet

      Why do you so carelessly flippantly move the Creator aside to make way for false gods, gods that can neither create nor save? Why would you send your children to a public school that steals his glory for creation by insulting his genius by assigning it to evolutionary processes of random chance and time?