M.B. v. Rankin Cnty. Sch. Dist., No. 13-00241 (S.D.Miss. Jul. 10, 2015)
Abstract: A federal district court in Mississippi has found a school district in contempt for violating the terms of an agreed judgment where the school district promised to stop practices that resulted in the advancing and endorsing of the Christian religion and coercing students to participate in religious activity. It concluded that the school district had continued to engage in the very practices that led to the lawsuit. Specifically, although the school district was under a court approved consent decree that required its compliance with a “Religion in Public Schools Policy” (Religion Policy), which outlines standards for ensuring that its schools conformed with the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, the court found that the district held a honors convocation at which a Christian minister offered Christian prayer and the district allowed the distribution of Bibles in school.
Facts/Issues: M.B. was a student at Northwest Rankin High School (NRHS). In April 2013, she filed suit against Rankin County School District (RCSD) and NRHS Principal Charles Frazier. The suit challenged the constitutionality of RCSD’s practice of including Christian sermons and prayers in student assemblies.
Specifically, NRHS held a series of “Christian Assemblies” conducted during school hours on April 10, 2013, which proselytized Christianity. “Church Representatives” spoke and a video presentation was shown to students on the topic of “finding hope in Jesus Christ.” M.B. believed that attendance was mandatory.
RCSD eventually admitted to violating M.B.’s First Amendment rights. It adopted a “Religion in Public Schools Policy” (Religion Policy) outlining standards for ensuring that its schools conformed with the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
The district court entered an agreed judgment incorporating the Religion Policy and ordered the District to comply with that policy. The policy was adopted “to make clear and demonstrate that its policy is to fully comply with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
In May 2014, M.B. filed a Motion to Enforce Consent Decree and Motion for Civil Contempt. The action was triggered by a school assembly held within the District on April 17, 2014, wherein school officials “invited a Christian Reverend to deliver a prayer at a school-sponsored event.” Specifically, RCSD organized and sponsored a district-wide awards ceremony (ACT Ceremony) honoring those students who scored above 22 on their ACT tests. M.B. was one of the honorees. The program was held at Brandon High School during regular school hours. M.B. argued that the District violated the “Consent Decree” by including a Christian minister to offer a prayer as part of the program.
She alleges that RCSD’s actions violated the Establishment Clause and the core elements of the school district’s Religion Policy which mandate that: “school activities conducted during instructional hours should neither advance, endorse or inhibit any religion; should be primarily for secular purposes and should not obligate or coerce any person into participation in a religious activity.”
M.B. also alleged that after she had graduated but while the motion for contempt was still pending, DCSD assisted the Gideons in distributing Bibles at one of its elementary schools.
RCSD contended that the court lacked jurisdiction to entertain the motion to enforce the consent decree and the motion for contempt on the ground that the court had entered final judgment when it approved the agreed judgement. As a result, RCSD argued that M.B. would have to initiate a new suit raising the ACT ceremony and the Bible distribution as original claims.
In regard to the ACT ceremony claim, RCSD argued: (1) Because the attendance at the ceremony was not mandatory there was no First Amendment violation; (2) any liability arising from a First Amendment violation should be excused since school officials are ill-equipped to understand the complexities of constitutional law; and (3) the principal of NRHS is protected from liability because his mere participation in the ACT Ceremony did not constitute a violation of the agreed judgment.
Responding to the Bible distribution claim, RCSD maintained that disclaimers were placed on the tables from which the Bibles were disseminated.
Ruling/Rationale: The district court rejected RCSD’s argument that “M.B. had to start from scratch and institute a new civil action.” It concluded that “the instant motion is ‘not an institution of an independent proceeding but is part of the original cause.’” It stated: “A consent order, while founded on the agreement of the parties, is nevertheless a judicial act, enforceable by sanctions including a citation for contempt.” The court, therefore, interpreted “the Agreed Judgment as a consent decree and retains subject matter jurisdiction for enforcement purposes.”
The district court next turned to a discussion of the ACT Ceremony claim. It pointed out that M.B. had submitted evidence demonstrating that the “challenged practice is routine within [RCSD], and that the 2014 ceremony was basically business as usual, following a similar format from prior years. The court rejected RCSD’s contention that M.B.’s evidence was irrelevant. Instead, it determined that the prior years’ ceremonies were relevant. The court found that despite having adopted the Religion Policy and entering into the agreed judgment, RCSD “did not alter the program or its behavior.”
The district court stressed that the 2014 ACT ceremony violated that policy and RCSD had conceded so without attempting to refute M.B.’s claim. It found unavailing RCSD’s argument that there was no constitutional violation because attendance at the ceremony was not mandatory. The court said, “It is well-settled, however, that the voluntary nature of a school-sponsored unconstitutional event does not cure it from being coercive and in violation of the Establishment Clause.” It concluded that the fact that attendance was optional was immaterial to a finding of an Establishment Clause violation because:
The event was still coercive as it unnecessarily required Plaintiff to make the difficult decision between being exposed to a religious ritual she found objectionable or not attend an event honoring her and other students for their academic excellence.
According to the court, “M.B. was pressured into participating in a religious exercise which may or may not have corresponded with her personal beliefs.”
The district court also rejected RCSD’s argument that any liability arising from a First Amendment violation should be excused since school officials are ill-equipped to understand the complexities of constitutional law. The court emphasized that RCSD’s Religion Policy is stated in unambiguous and easily discernable terms. It found no merit to RCSD’s contention that ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway, 134 S. Ct. 1811 (2014), was the source of confusion regarding the parameters of the Establishment Clause.
The district court likewise found RCSD’s assertions of school officials’ ignorance about what practices were unconstitutional disingenuous because under the terms of the agreed judgment RCSD “is responsible for properly instructing school personnel and guaranteeing that activities comply with District policy.” It concluded that “school officials’ good faith belief that it was permissible to invite a Christian reverend to perform the opening prayer of a school sponsored event cannot absolve the District from a finding that it violated the terms of the Agreed Judgment” because “the only relevant inquiry here is whether the alleged contemnor complied with the court’s order.”
The district court next addressed the Bible distribution claim. It found RCSD’s arguments that the distribution of Gideon Bibles did not violate its Religion Policy or the First Amendment unpersuasive and in disregard of well-settled law. It pointed out that the Fifth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over federal district courts in Mississippi, “has long held that it is unconstitutional for public schools to allow Gideons to distribute Bibles to students on school property during school hours.” The court also noted that “coercion test” established in Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992), “[a]ssisting with the distribution of Bibles to students at school, during school hours, is unconstitutionally coercive.”
The district court found that “the fact that the Bibles were distributed by Gideons and not by teachers is an inconsequential distinction because, through the eyes of a child, activities conducted at school are naturally viewed as school-sanctioned events.” It said, “Even if none of the teachers with the District actually handed a Bible to a child or instructed that the child pick one up from the tables, being led with their classmates to the area where the Gideons awaited their arrival was suggestive enough by itself to exhibit coercion.” It concluded that the argument that disclaimers were present was “patently misguided as the disclaimers were not enough to deflect the perception that the school endorsed the Gideons’ belief.” It, therefore, held:
In order to protect the sanctity of its decree, the legal process and the children attending the Rankin County School District, the Court finds that Defendant is in contempt of court for allowing the Gideons to distribute the Bibles on campus during school hours and by forcing the students to march through the area where the Gideons were stationed.
M.B. v. Rankin Cnty. Sch. Dist., No. 13-00241 (S.D.Miss. Jul. 10, 2015)
[Editor’s Note: In May 2015, Legal Clips summarized a decision by a federal district court in South Carolina in American Humanist Ass’n v. South Carolina Dep’t of Educ. holding that a school district’s prior policy of official and school-sponsored student prayers at school events, such as graduations, violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. As a result, it granted the plaintiffs’ motion to permanently enjoin the school district from officially promoting prayers at school sponsored events. However, the court concluded that the school district’s revised policy of allowing student led and initiated prayer at school events absent school district supervision and control did not violate the Establishment Clause. Applying the three-prong test set forth in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), it determined that the revised policy passed constitutional muster. The court pointed out that the speech being sanctioned by the revised policy is private speech, which even if it endorses religion is protected by the First Amendment’s free speech and free exercise of religion clauses.]