GREENVILLE, S.C. — A school district in South Carolina has reached a settlement with the American Humanist Association (AHA), ending a seven-year legal battle that began when the parents of a fifth grader complained about the religious aspects of an elementary school graduation ceremony.
According to the Greenville Post and Courier, the Greenville County School Board voted 8-3 to settle with AHA instead of continuing to battle the matter in court.
The compromise agreement means that the district will pay AHA $187,000 in attorneys’ fees (the district was originally ordered in court to pay $450,00), while also allowing students to include religious speech and prayers at graduation ceremonies, as long as their actions are not sponsored, scheduled or pre-approved by the school district.
As previously reported, the parents of a fifth grader contacted the 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 County 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.”
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, U.S. District Judge Bruce Howe 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.”
AHA initially wanted to end student prayer and religious speech altogether.
As the case continued, 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 officially 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.
In 2019, she again ruled that the 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,” Hendricks wrote. “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.”
Hendricks found that “certain of the graduation programs 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.
Hendricks issued an injunction against the practice in March of this year.
Instead of continuing to fight the matter, the Greenville County School Board decided earlier this month to enter a settlement with AHA, paying in part for attorney’s fees and agreeing to not be involved with any prayers or religious speech by students.
According to the Greenville Post and Courier, the payment to AHA will come from the district’s insurance policy with Liberty Mutual. The district’s own attorney’s fees are also covered by that policy.
The outlet reports that the three board members who voted against the settlement — Lynda Leventis-Wells, Charles Saylors and Carolyn Styles — wanted to continue to fight and not fold.
Saylors, a Christian, said that his Sunday school class prayed for him, and it had a great impact on him.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever been in church and had 40 people pray on you, but it’s powerful,” he told the outlet. “I’ve promised them — kids, parents and taxpayers — that I would not vote for anything that came across that we were caving in.”