Apr 26, 2013

The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that public schools may not impose religion on students, but some school administrators apparently don’t care.

Earlier this week, the Rankin County (Miss.) School District was sued in federal court for sanctioning evangelism during three mandatory assemblies at Northwest Rankin High School in Flowood. Attorneys with the American Humanist Association (AHA) charge that Principal Charles Frazier and other school officials coerced students to attend events that featured a fundamentalist Christian video, proselytizing and prayer.  

School officials are now claiming the events were student-sponsored, student-led and voluntary, but the facts seem to tell a different story.

According to the legal complaint, Frazier sent an email to all faculty on April 9 ordering them to send all members of the senior class to a school hall for the religious event.

Said the principal’s message: “Sorry for the late notice. All seniors will need to report to the [Performing Arts Building] during Cougar Connection. They should report directly from the 5th block. Thanks.”

Hmmm. Doesn’t sound too voluntary to me.

Even worse, students were not told the subject of the assembly. When some realized it was an inappropriate proselytizing event, they tried to leave but were prevented from doing so by a school truancy officer, as well as teachers and parents who were present for the preaching.

The message was hard-sell fundamentalist evangelism. The video featured four young men who struggled with personal problems but found a solution in conversion to Christianity.

When the video concluded, a student affiliated with the Pinelake Baptist Church told the assembled students that they must turn to Jesus Christ to find hope.

“We are here today to tell you where we find our hope,” the student said. “We find our hope in Jesus Christ…. Before Jesus came, innocent blood had to be shed for our sins. There had to be an animal that was sacrificed to atone for our sin. There had to be innocent blood. So Jesus came, and he was the innocent blood because he lived a perfect life.”

The student concluded with a prayer professing that salvation comes from calling on Jesus and that “we have redemption through his blood.”

The following day a similar assembly took place, and members of the junior class were required to go. Some students reportedly asked to read in the library instead, but they were forced by the truant officer to attend the religious event.

Even though AHA attorneys protested the activity on constitutional grounds, a third assembly was held April 22, and sophomores were required to attend.

School officials are now trying to depict their conduct as perfectly innocent.  But attorneys say the conduct was far outside constitutional boundaries.

In a press statement, William Burgess, legal coordinator of the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, said, “It is clear that these assemblies are put on by the school itself. They were staged in a school room, during the school day and the school sent an email to teachers telling them that students were required to attend.

“As the Supreme Court has made clear,” Burgess continued, “when a school sponsors an event, the religious speech of speakers, including students or other private parties, is attributable to the school and therefore subject to the Establishment Clause.”

Public schools are supposed to serve all children in the community. They come from families with many different viewpoints about religion, so it is imperative that school officials refrain from pushing a religious agenda.

Rankin County school officials appear to have failed their responsibilities in this case, and litigation is appropriate to set things right. Public schools are not revival tents, and if it takes a federal court case to make that clear, so be it.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and the legislature recently enacted a law intended to promote just the sort of conduct we see in Rankin County. A federal judge needs to send all of these elected officials and school administrators a stern message, and the M.B. v. Rankin County School District and Charles Frazier case is a good opportunity to do it.

The U.S. Constitution – including its church-state separation provision – still applies throughout our nation, even in the Magnolia State.