Federal Court Rules in Favor of Humanist Group on South Carolina Religious Graduation Ceremonies

American Humanist Association's picture

For Immediate Release

Contact: Amy Couch, 202-238-9088, acouch@americanhumanist.org

Monica Miller, 202-238-9088, mmiller@americanhumanist.org

(Greenville, SC, December 13, 2017)—The American Humanist Association (AHA) won a major victory yesterday afternoon in their longstanding lawsuit against Greenville County School District, S.C., challenging the public school’s use of a Christian chapel for elementary school graduations. The U.S. District Court of South Carolina ruled in AHA’s favor, concluding that “the school district’s use of Turner Chapel for Mountain View Elementary School’s 2013 graduation violated the Establishment Clause.”

In 2013, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center filed a lawsuit against the Greenville school district for subjecting a captive audience of children to Christian prayers at school-sponsored events and holding the elementary events in a Christian chapel within a Baptist university.

In May of 2016, the U.S. District Court for South Carolina ruled partially in favor of the AHA, holding that the school district’s past practice of deliberately including Christian prayers in graduation ceremonies violated the Establishment Clause, but upheld the school district’s newly-adopted written practice that permitted but does not require prayers to be delivered. The court ignored the separate chapel claim. AHA appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In 2016, Monica Miller, AHA’s senior counsel, argued before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals asserting that the school district’s practices of both permitting prayers at graduations and holding elementary school ceremonies in a Christian chapel violated the Establishment Clause. Miller also argued that the District Court erred in completely ignoring the chapel issuing its first ruling.

The Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of the AHA and remanded the case to the District Court, ordering it to issue a decision on the Christian chapel issue and to determine whether the AHA still had standing to challenge the prayer practice, and if so, to reconsider the court’s prior decision on the prayer policy.

After acknowledging that it previously “failed to specifically address Plaintiffs’ separate claims for damages based on the school district’s past use of sectarian venues like Turner Chapel for graduation ceremonies,” the District Court has now concluded that there “can be no doubt that the setting in which the ceremony occurred conveyed a message of religious endorsement and created a likelihood that the school-aged children would perceive a link between church and state.”

“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,” said Miller. “This was a flagrant violation of students’ First Amendment right to be free from religious coercion by the state.”

In addition to siding with AHA on the chapel issue, the District Court also concluded that the AHA maintained standing to challenge the prayer practice and then voiced its “grave concerns” regarding the practice. “The Court has 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.” However, the court is giving the parties an opportunity to mediate the issue before making a final determination on whether the prayers are unconstitutional.

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Founded in 1941 and headquartered in Washington, DC, the American Humanist Association (AHA) works to protect the rights of humanists, atheists, and other nontheistic Americans. The AHA advances the ethical and life-affirming philosophy of humanism, which without beliefs in any gods or other supernatural forces—encourages individuals to live informed and meaningful lives that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

Special thanks to the Louis J. Appignani Foundation for their support of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

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