Judge orders Greenville Co. Schools not to include prayers in official program for graduations

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GREENVILLE, S.C. (WSPA)- A federal judge has banned school-sponsored prayers at graduations for Greenville County Schools.

The suit was first brought by The American Humanist Association in conjunction with the family of a student at Mountain View Elementary School in Taylors, S.C. in 2013.

According to a lawsuit, the graduation for Mountain View Elementary was held in a chapel and included prayers. A family there contacted non-profit AHA to take up the case.

“They were humanists,” said Monica Miller, who is the lead attorney on the case for the AHA. “They don’t believe in any god or gods.”

Miller said the plaintiffs’ daughter was placed in a uncomfortable position, compelled to participate in a religion she wasn’t a part of.

“It would be as though a Christian family had to watch their child who they raised as a Christian do an Islamic prayer at their own graduation,” Miller said.

They went to court. The AHA challenged the district’s practices of holding elementary school ceremonies in a chapel and including prayers and hymns in ceremonies across the district.

After that 2013 ceremony, the district changed its policy to allow students to deliver prayers at graduations only if they were the ones who initiated it.

Parents told 7News they liked having prayers at school ceremonies.

“I think just a general prayer is fine and is good,” said Sharon Pichai, whose children graduated from Greenville County Schools. “I like that.”

Now, a court has ruled the school district’s policy still wasn’t effectively separating church and state.

In documents filed Thursday, a judge ordered stricter guidelines. He ordered Greenville County Schools not to include prayers or hymns as part of the official program for graduations. If school officials see a student’s prepared remarks for a graduation ceremony, they have to make sure it does not include prayer, according to the order. The court also said a student can include a prayer while speaking at a graduation as long as a school official did not review them first and as long as they don’t ask anyone else to join in.

Friday, Greenville County Schools District spokesperson Beth Brotherton released the following statement:

“On Thursday, the South Carolina District Court issued a ruling in the almost six-year old case between Greenville County Schools and The American Humanist Association (AHA) involving student-led prayer.  The ruling included a permanent injunction requiring the school district to continue many of its existing practices to avoid religious entanglement, such as ensuring student speakers are selected on religiously-neutral criteria like class rank or leadership roles.  

It also gave further direction and guidance to the district related to the first amendment’s establishment clause in the selection of music and the role of employees in reviewing student comments prior to events such as graduation ceremonies.

“We are pleased that the Court has upheld the fundamental issue of the case and supported our position that students selected to speak at graduations based upon religiously neutral criteria, have the right to share their personal stories, even if those include a religious message.  We are also pleased that the Court refused to grant AHA’s request to prevent all remotely religious messaging or prayer at School District events. As a district, we have made every effort to consistently comply with the constitution and protect the rights of all students.”

The ruling also directs the district to include a disclaimer in graduation programs that the views and opinions of students are their own and not that of the district.

As a district, we have made every effort to consistently comply with the constitution and protect the rights of all students. We will continue to review the court order to evaluate whether clarification of this decision or a potential appeal may be warranted. “

The school has the option to appeal.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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