A federal judge has partially upheld prayer at graduation ceremonies in Greenville County schools after the American Humanist Association filed a lawsuit saying the practice was violating a local fifth-grade student’s constitutional rights.
The decision, handed down Monday in the U.S. District Court of South Carolina, was in response to a Sept. 2013 complaint filed on behalf of the student, who attended Mountain View Elementary in Taylors.
The lawsuit claims the student‘s parents are non-theists who felt “alienated and stigmatized” by the school’s endorsement of Christianity during their daughter’s graduation held at the chapel of North Greenville University.
Numerous crosses, stained glass windows and statues were on display inside the chapel, located on the campus of a university with the logo, “Christ Makes the Difference,” according to the suit.
The suit alleges such “excessive entanglement with religion” is in violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause and seeks a permanent injunction to enjoin prayer at any future school-sponsored event, including graduation ceremonies.
In her ruling Monday, U.S. District Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks partially favored the American Humanist Association by granting the injunction to enjoin school-sponsored student prayers, which were held as a formal part of graduations in the school district from 1951 to 2013.
The Greenville County School District in court filings said that official prayer is unconstitutional and should no longer be allowed.
The district has since taken steps to prevent official, school-sponsored prayers but said it would not prohibit prayer at graduations so long as it is student-led and initiated and doesn’t create a disturbance.
“Prohibiting such independent student speech would go beyond showing neutrality toward religion but instead demonstrate an impermissible hostility toward religion,” the school district said in court filings.
Hendricks agreed to allow spontaneous prayer, calling it the “cultural residue” left over from the historical inclusion of religious speech at graduations.
“It may be awkward. It may be uncomfortable. It may be ill advised…it is not unconstitutional,” Hendricks said.
The American Humanist Association on Tuesday said it intends to appeal the federal ruling.
“It’s a sad day when the courts allow students to be subjected to Christian prayers during what should be a secular graduation ceremony,” said Roy Speckhardt, the group’s executive director.
In a statement issued in response to the federal ruling, the Greenville County School District said:
“We remain confident of our position in maintaining an educational environment, including an awards program, in which individuals are treated with equal dignity and respect regardless of religion or faith.”
SOURCE: Greenville (S.C.) News – Anna Lee