Judge Rules South Carolina School District May Not Formally Present Prayers, Religious Music at Graduation

Photo Credit: Zelman Menash

GREENVILLE, S.C. — A federal judge appointed to the bench by then-President Barack Obama has ruled that a South Carolina school district may not formally present student prayers during graduation ceremonies, nor may it use religious music for the event.

“The district shall not include a prayer – whether referred to as a prayer, blessing, invocation, benediction, inspirational reading, or otherwise – as part of the official program for a graduation ceremony,” wrote U.S. District Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks on Thursday. “The district also shall not include an obviously religious piece of music as part of the official program for a graduation ceremony.”

“If school officials review, revise, or edit a student’s remarks in any way prior to the graduation ceremony, then school officials shall ensure that the student’s remarks do not include prayer,” she ordered.

However, if a student’s remarks are not pre-screened by district officials, they may pray of their own volition, but “no other persons may be asked to participate or join in the prayer, for example, by being asked to stand or bow one’s head,” and “no school officials shall join in or otherwise participate in the prayer.”

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.

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“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.”

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.

In 2017, 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.

Hendricks also noted that it appeared that schools within the district were continuing 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 60 days to attempt to mediate the situation between themselves, considering any further policy changes that could amend the situation. However, as mediation was not successful, the matter was then judged by the court.

On Thursday, although acknowledging that the district had adjusted its policies to be neutral toward religion, Hendricks still found the prayer practices in the district to be problematic. Hendricks also concluded that AHA and its complainants had standing in the case due to its showing that parents who are members of the organization have children that attend school in the district.

“The district … states that ‘of the four schools that included prayer in 2017, only Greer High School and J.L. Mann High School had student speakers include prayers in their remarks in 2018.’ While the inclusion of these prayers, by itself, may not indicate a lack of neutrality, the court finds that the inclusion of these prayers in light of the surrounding circumstances does indicate a lack of neutrality,” she wrote.

Hendricks also found that “certain of the graduation programs have continued to ask the audience to stand for student remarks despite the fact that the district’s own guidance provides that ‘[p]rograms or fliers should not direct the audience or participants to stand for any student message.'”

Even though the “please stand” asterisk in the printed graduation program was deemed by the district to be an oversight or simply for matters of convenience and consistency, she said that “asking a captive audience to stand while a student delivers a prayer indicates that the district’s revised policy as implemented has not effectively ameliorated the district’s longstanding practice of including formal or official prayers at graduation ceremonies.”

Hendricks additionally determined that while the district advised that any prayers were student-initiated and the district provided no input on them, planned prayers were still submitted by students to the district for review, including two prayers in 2017 that generically ended with “in Your name” and “in God’s name.”

“[T]he court agrees with Plaintiff that the district’s practices have resulted in excessive entanglement with religion, as outlined in this order and in the court’s prior orders,” she wrote.

“Accordingly, although the court declines to broaden this case to the extent suggested by Plaintiff and declines to enjoin all remotely religious messaging or prayer occurring at any school event in the district, the court hereby amends its prior decision as to Plaintiff’s prospective prayer claim and provides a more specific set of guidelines regarding the inclusion of prayer at graduation ceremonies occurring in the district.”

Read the ruling in full here.

The American Humanist Association cheered the ruling, with its lead attorney, Monica Miller remarking, “We are thrilled that the court is finally putting an end to flagrant school-sponsored prayers and Christian hymns at public school graduation ceremonies. This was a long fight for justice for students who do not wish to encounter government-sponsored religion at their own graduation ceremonies.”

However, Greenville County Schools said that it was also happy with the ruling, in the sense that students could still pray of their own volition as long as the district had no involvement in, or prior knowledge of, their remarks.

“We are pleased that the court has upheld the fundamental issue of the case and supported our position that students selected to speak at graduations based upon religiously neutral criteria have the right to share their personal stories, even if those include a religious message,” spokeswoman Beth Brotherton said in a statement to The Greenville News. “We are also pleased that the court refused to grant AHA’s request to prevent all remotely religious messaging or prayer at school district events.”

She said that the district would further review the ruling to see whether or not clarification or an appeal is desired.

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