A federal district court has prohibited a South Carolina school district from including official student-led prayer and religious music in future graduations following a lawsuit from an atheist group.
The decision from U.S. District Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks on Thursday prevents Greenville County Schools from knowingly allowing prayer from a student during a graduation. It also prohibits the school system from listing a prayer in the printed graduation program.
Previously, the school system screened student’s printed remarks and reviewed student-submitted prayers. During graduations, some schools also asked the audience to stand or bow, Greenville News reported.
“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,” Hendricks, who was nominated by President Obama, wrote, according to the American Humanist. “The district also shall not include an obviously religious piece of music as part of the official program for a graduation ceremony.
“The district and/or school officials shall not encourage, promote, advance, endorse, or participate in causing prayers during any graduation ceremony,” Hendricks added.
If school officials “review, revise, or edit a student’s remarks in any way prior to the graduation ceremony,” then they “shall ensure that the student’s remarks do not include prayer,” Hendricks ruled.
Hendricks left the door open for student-led prayer, as long as the school has no role.
“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,” she wrote. “Moreover, in the event that a student’s remarks contain prayer, no school officials shall join in or otherwise participate in the prayer.”
The American Humanist Association brought the suit against the district on behalf of parents of a student. The atheist group claimed victory.
“We are thrilled that the court is finally putting an end to flagrant school-sponsored prayers and Christian hymns at public school graduation ceremonies,” said Monica Miller, American Humanist Association’s senior counsel and lead attorney in the case. “This was a long fight for justice for students who do not wish to encounter government-sponsored religion at their own graduation ceremonies.”
The district, though, said the judge’s ruling had some good news for the school system.
“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,” Beth Brotherton, Greenville County Schools spokeswoman, told Greenville News. “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.”
She added, “We will continue to review the court order to evaluate whether clarification of this decision or a potential appeal may be warranted.”
Michael Foust is a freelance writer. Visit his blog, MichaelFoust.com.
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.