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.”
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.
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.”