A Mississippi school district is in hot water after it invited a Christian pastor to deliver a prayer at a school function, in violation of a court order. But the best (worst) part of this story is the district’s excuse for the violation: its administrators are incapable of understanding the First Amendment.

Sadly, this is not a joke. In April 2014, Northwest Rankin High School held a school-sponsored awards ceremony for students who achieved high scores on the ACT (American College Testing) college entrance exam. Students were instructed to “please dress in church attire” and a Christian pastor offered a prayer at the event. During his invocation, the minister asked students to bow their heads, referred to God several times and alluded to Jesus. (Thanks to the Friendly Atheist for all of the background on this case).

Of course such coercive prayer is a constitutional no-no on its own, but in this case the school’s behavior was doubly bad because it violated a November 2013 judgement against Northwest Rankin High. In April 2013, at a mandatory assembly, members of the local Pinelake Baptist Church told students that they need to accept Jesus. The presentation included a video about two young men who supposedly abandoned their wicked ways after becoming Christians.  

Not everyone was a fan of that assembly. Magdalene “Gracie" Bedi, then a student at Northwest Rankin, filed suit against the school with the help of the American Humanist Association’s (AHA) Appignani Humanist Legal Center. A judge ruled in her favor, finding that the school had violated the First Amendment principle of church-state separation. The court ordered the school district not to hold any coercive religious assemblies and to pay $15,000 in attorney’s fees.

Bedi, who received Americans United’s David Norr Youth Activist Award in November for her courage in standing up for true religious freedom, said following the win that: “I’m grateful for the school’s maturity throughout this ordeal and I look forward to graduating with them on a positive note. No one should have to question their rights in a public school and I think Northwest [Rankin High School] realizes this now.”

Of course that victory was short lived, as Northwest Rankin High violated the court’s judgement less than one year later. Ironically, the 2014 violation also occurred with Bedi in attendance, so the AHA went back to court and asked for the district to be held in contempt.

This week, a federal judge did just that. U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves said the district owes Bedi $2,500 and must also pay a $5,000 fine for another incident at a district elementary school in October 2014 in which members of the Gideons International were allowed to hand out Bibles to students during the school day. Reeves also said any future violations will result in a $10,000 fine.

And just in case the district is not clear on the severity of its actions, Reeves set them straight.

“In the Court’s view, the District has not made any cognizable efforts to comply with the Establishment Clause or its own Religion Policy. On the contrary, it has acted in clear defiance of the law,” Reeves wrote.

As for the district, it mounted a pathetic defense – including their claim that the First Amendment is just too complex for school officials to understand.

“Secondly, the District contends that any liability arising from a First Amendment violation should be excused since school officials are ill-equipped to understand the complexities of constitutional law…,” according to court documents.

While it’s not clear if school officials are simply ignoring the First Amendment or if they are actually unable to understand its provisions, it is disturbing to think that administrators at an institution charged with educating students on important matters like the U.S. Constitution have such a poor understanding of that document. Perhaps they need to attend some of their own district’s classes to clear things up.

The bottom line is that Northwest Rankin High and other schools in the district need to stop violating the Constitution with coercive prayer. Bedi has since moved onto college, so it will be up to someone else to monitor the situation there. Clearly this group of administrators needs to be watched closely.

Beyond that, ignorance is never an acceptable defense for violating the law. If district officials are genuinely incapable of understanding their responsibilities to students, they should start looking for a new line of work.