A federal judge this week awarded an atheist group more than $450,000 in attorney's fees and expenses after the organization successfully fought against high school graduation prayer as part of a 2013 lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge Bruce Hendricks awarded the American Humanist Association $446,466 in attorney's fees and $9,776 in expenses, less than a year after she ruled against Greenville (S.C.) County Schools in a much-watched prayer case.
The school district indicated it may appeal.
“Throughout this case, the School District has argued that students, like other citizens, have the right to free speech, including that of a religious nature,” the school district said in a statement. “... The School District will discuss the path forward with the insurance carrier covering the defense of this case, but anticipates appealing both the fee award and the decision upon which it was based to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.”
The case dates back to 2013, when the American Humanist Association sued the school on behalf of parents of a student who objected to students leading prayers at a graduation. The organization also objected to the graduations being held in off-site chapels.
Hendricks ruled for the group and said in a 2019 decision that “the district shall not include a prayer – whether referred to as a prayer, blessing, invocation, benediction, inspirational reading, or otherwise – as part of the official program for a graduation ceremony.”
Students, she ruled, can pray only without the knowledge of school officials.
“If school officials review, revise, or edit a student’s remarks in any way prior to the graduation ceremony, then school officials shall ensure that the student’s remarks do not include prayer,” Hendricks ruled. “If school officials do not review, revise, or edit a student’s remarks in any way prior to the graduation ceremony, then a student’s remarks may include prayer, provided that no other persons may be asked to participate or join in the prayer, for example, by being asked to stand or bow one’s head.”
The American Humanist Association calls itself an advocate “on behalf of humanists, atheists, agnostics and freethinkers.”
The school district this week said the court had upheld the district’s “consistent position on the central issue of protecting student speech and supported the district’s belief that students should be allowed to speak from a religious or secular perspective at a graduation,” according to Fox Carolina.
“The School District has and will continue to remain committed to protecting students’ rights to free speech, while remaining neutral to religion,” the district said.
Hendricks was nominated by President Obama.
Photo courtesy: Jane Carmona/Unsplash
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, The Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.