A decision by the Greenville (South Carolina) County Schools board last month to fight a court order illustrates why it is critical that supporters of church-state separation remain vigilant and active.
Opponents are arguing from another planet.
The board is appealing a recent ruling in the U.S. District Court for South Carolina that enjoins the county’s schools to make any prayers at graduation ceremonies more “neutral,” by barring student speakers or others from encouraging attendees to join in prayer, or school officials from officially accommodating such religious expression.
Federal district Judge Bruce Hendricks’ July 18 decision was the latest maneuver in six years of legal wrangling over the issue. Plaintiff in the most recent appeal was the American Humanist Association (AHA), in support of Greenville parents opposing what they felt were coercive and isolating graduation prayers.
“The court order said that by asking the audience to participate in the prayer, the district has not fully distanced itself from the ‘longstanding practice’ of including prayer at graduation ceremonies,” the Greenville Journal reported.
The Journal report stressed that the court order doesn’t ban student-led prayer at events, but that district officials must, if given prior review of student graduation remarks, not authorize them. Religious music at future graduations is also prohibited by the court order. In addition, official graduation programs or fliers cannot reference upcoming recitation of prayers at those events.
In 2015, another court ruled that Greenville School District graduation ceremonies constituted unconstitutional “school-sponsored prayer” and “should not longer be allowed,” the Journal noted. But the court also did not issue a blanket prohibition of all prayer at school events and ultimately ratified district policy changes “that still allowed prayer at graduations but required it be initiated by a student who was chosen to speak based on neutral criteria, such as academic merit or class rank.”
Then, in 2017 the court prohibited the school district from staging graduation ceremonies at churches or chapels, although it wanted a renewed review of the district’s official policies on school prayers. The latest decision tightened those prayer rules.
“This was a long fight for justice for students who do not wish to encounter government-sponsored religion at their own graduation ceremonies,” Monica Miller, AHA’s senior counsel and lead attorney in the latest case, said in a media statement.
The extended legal battle began in 2013 with a June 10 letter from AHA to Greenville schools Superintendent W. Burke Royster advising him that,
“The parents of a student at Mountain View Elementary School (“MVS”) recently informed us that her child’s fifth grade graduation ceremony took place in a church and included prayers as part of the ceremony. The school’s actions were clearly unconstitutional.”
School district officials, in yet again appealing the latest ruling, contend that it sows “confusion.”
“Based on a review by our legal counsel,” said board chairwoman Lynda Leventis-Wells after the body voted to appeal, “portions of the injunction also shift the district away from its practices of neutrality and instead infringes on student speech by requiring the district to disfavor religious speech as compared to secular speech.”
This kind of muddled, prejudicial thinking is what creates dangers for church-state separation if courts buy into it — as the U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly has bent over backwards to accommodate religious practices in official government settings.
But this latest appeal of a federal court decision fails to comprehend the spirit of ruling’s intent. The decision does not block student’s free speech. Graduates are still allowed religious language, even prayer, in their baccalaureate addresses; they just can’t (nor can school officials approve) their encouragement of attendees to participate (e.g., bow their heads, stand).
The intent is to not have students or school officials encouraging prayer, which is excluding and stigmatizing to nonbelievers in the audience. It’s also unconstitutional for school officials to officially promote or encourage any religious activities, prayers or other. That’s what separation of church and state is fundamentally about.
Just because a school’s students, administration and faculty may be majority Christian (or another religion, or atheist) does not give them the constitutional right to enforce their religious views on everyone. That’s what public encouragement to pray is: tribal, coercing everyone to display allegiance to a particular idea. America is about diversity and inclusivity.
“Students should not be made to feel like outsiders at their own public school, let alone at such a momentous occasion, as the courts have now repeatedly recognized in sound decisions,” AHA spokesman Sarah Henry told the Greeville News after the latest decision. “We will continue to defend the wall of separation between church and state and the rights of students to have a graduation ceremony that is inclusive of all, religious and nonreligious alike.”
Imagine, if you will, a school district with, say, a majority of Orthodox Jewish students (or of another non-Christian faith), where a student graduation speaker encourages audience members to rise, bow their heads and join in the recitation of a Hasidic prayer.
Imagine further how devout Christians might react.