January 2014 Church & State | People & Events

A federal judge won’t put an end to a South Carolina school district’s practice of allowing student-initiated prayers or holding official school events in churches.

Senior U.S. District Judge G. Ross An­derson Jr. said at a hearing in December that the American Humanist Association’s (AHA) complaint against the Greenville County school district made “a mountain out of a mole hill,” the Greenville News reported. He also said the AHA lacked proof to show that church-state separation was at risk of being violated by the district. Anderson went so far as to call the allegations in the case “disturbing” and to carp that he had never heard of the AHA.

The American Humanist Association v. Greenville County School District lawsuit was filed by two parents who didn’t want Mountain View Elementary’s fifth-grade graduation ceremony to be held in a chapel at North Greenville University, a local Christian college. According to court records, the chapel designated for the event contains a Christian cross on the podium and stained-glass windows with religious images. The official program for the May ceremony also lists two prayers to be recited. They were written by students and approved by school staff. 

The couple who filed suit said that they don’t want to encounter “unconstitutional school-affiliated prayers” or be required to attend a graduation “in a sectarian venue,” the News said. The couple said if the ceremony is not changed, they will have the “sense that the school chooses to affiliate itself with Christianity, leaving us as outsiders in our own public schools.”

Although North Greenville was not a defendant in the lawsuit, it issued a statement suggesting that state lawmakers need to pass more laws to protect Christians.

“We at North Greenville University are very pleased with the judges’ decision and it is very appropriate for this situation,” university president Jimmy Epting said. “It allows our university to continue our efforts to meet the needs of our community and schools. We believe that it’s time that our legislators and others take a stand in South Carolina against those that are trying to take away our constitutional rights.”

In other news about religion in public schools:

• A Mississippi school has agreed to stop hosting religious assemblies. Officials at Northwest Rankin High School in Rankin County admitted in November that its assemblies, which included a member of the Pinelake Baptist Church talking about finding “hope” in Jesus, violated the First Amendment. School administrators initially claimed these assemblies were student-led and organized, but speakers were caught on video leading the assembled crowd in Christian prayers.

The American Humanist Association challenged the practice.