South Carolina district sued over elementary school graduation at Christian college chapel

Greenville Online.com reports that the American Humanist Association (AHA) has filed suit in federal court against Greenville County School District (GCSD) alleging that the school district’s policy/practice of allowing one of its elementary schools to hold graduation ceremonies at a nearby Christian college violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.  Mountain View Elementary held its graduation May 30 at North Greenville University, which is affiliated with the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

GCSD spokesman Oby Lyles said, “We have not been served with the lawsuit and learned about it through the local media.  Previously, the school district responded to the organization’s concerns in two letters, noting that our legal counsel would discuss them further if they had questions about our position.”

Monica Miller, an attorney and legal consultant with AHA’s legal center, said, “The federal courts have been clear that events like these violate the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.”

The suit claims that the official written program for the elementary school graduation provides for prayers on two occasions as part of the ceremony, which took place in North Greenville’s Turner Chapel.  The suit also claims that  the university’s chapel auditorium includes a Christian cross on the podium and stained glass that depicts religious imagery.  Two student speakers were asked to write a prayer for the ceremony which was reviewed by a school staff member, the suit alleges.

The suit seeks to stop school-sponsored prayers at future events.  It also asks for an unspecified award, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees.

GCSD General Counsel Douglas Webb wrote Miller on June 25, 2013, advising AHA that GCSD officials, if they decide to use the university’s chapel in the future, “will ensure that the space used by Mountain View is devoid of religious iconography that would lead a reasonable observer to believe that the district is endorsing religion.”

Webb’s letter added, “As it pertains to the use of prayer of students, the district is committed to not endorsing the use of such prayer by students, and therefore, any prayer given by a student at a school-sponsored event, including an awards program for Mountain View Elementary, will be under different circumstances than that of the May 30, 2013 program.”  However, he emphasized that GCSD “will not create a policy that prohibits student-initiated and led prayers at future events as you [AHA] requested.”

Source: Greenville Online.com, 9/12/13, By David Dykes

[Editor's Note: AHA's press release announcing the suit states:

The suit reveals that prayers given by students during the 2013 graduation ceremony were solicited and approved by school administrators and were explicitly Christian.  The suit also makes clear that other non-sectarian venues are available for future ceremonies, including the elementary school itself, as well as other nearby public schools and community centers.

AHA's Legal complaint states:

The Defendants’ policy and practice of permitting, sponsoring, staging, promoting, endorsing, affiliating itself with, and presenting prayers at school-sponsored events, including graduation ceremonies, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The Defendants’ policy and practice of holding public school events, including elementary school graduations, in sectarian venues, such as the Christian Chapel, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In February 2013, Legal Clips summarized a decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (NY, VT, CT) in A.M. v. Taconic Hills Ctr. Sch. Dist., ruling that a school district did not violate a middle school student’s First Amendment free speech rights when school officials prohibited a student, a class officer scheduled to speak during a “Moving-Up Ceremony,” from including religious references in her speech. The panel concluded that because the speech was scheduled to occur at a school-sponsored activity, school officials could “exercise editorial control over student speech ‘so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.’"]

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