US judge questions South Carolina school district's prayers
Dec. 15, 2017
GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — A federal judge is questioning how a South Carolina school district is enforcing policies on prayer at school-related events.
U.S. District Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks has asked the Greenville County School District and the American Humanist Association to come up with a compromise on how she might change a previous order on school prayer, The Greenville News reported.
Hendricks says she worries the school district is allowing violations of the constitutional right to freedom of religion.
The district and the American Humanist Association have been fighting over prayer, especially at graduation ceremonies, for four years.
Hendricks ruled two years ago that the district could allow prayers if they are initiated and led by students.
Howe wrote that the school district policy is legal.
The court, she wrote, "has grave concerns about the constitutionality of the actual practices of the school district and the revised policy as implemented, as the record now contains evidence tending to show that the school district continues to endorse certain religious activity."
The school district said Thursday it stands by its policies and will submit more information to show that its practices "are consistent with our policy of neutrality."
The humanists association represents people who identify as secular humanists and regularly object to any endorsement of religion in public schools.
Howe wrote, "the programs for certain schools' graduation ceremonies ask the audience to stand for particular portions of the ceremonies, which the school district has captioned innocuously as a 'welcome,' 'opening remarks,' or "closing remarks,' but which merely continue the school district's decades-long practice of including Christian prayers."
Howe says one school's graduation program included an invocation in 2015, which is in violation of the school district policy.
At both the 2015 and 2016 graduation ceremonies for Wade Hampton High School, a former teacher said in an affidavit that the choir performed "The Lord Bless You and Keep You" and that school officials "make it clear to students that prayer is allowed."
The association was happy with this week's ruling.
"We are very pleased with the court's ruling, as it properly recognizes that the government's use of a pervasively Christian, proselytizing environment unconstitutionally exacts religious conformity from a student as the price of attending his or her own graduation ceremony," AHA senior counsel Monica Miller said.
The school district and the humanist association have 60 days to enter mediation before coming back to the court for a final ruling.
Information from: The Greenville News, http://www.greenvillenews.com