Court Upholds Prayer At South Carolina Graduation If It Is Student-Led

| by Alexander Rubinstein

Following a lawsuit filed by the American Humanist Association (AHA) over an alleged violation of a local fifth-grade student’s constitutional rights, a federal judge ruled to partially uphold prayer at graduation ceremonies in Greenville County, South Carolina.

The decision came in response to a September 2013 complaint on behalf of a student. The lawsuit claims that the parents of the student are nontheists, and felt “alienated and stigmatized” by the school’s endorsement of Christian prayer at their daughter’s graduation ceremony, which was held inside a local chapel.

The suit alleges that “excessive entanglement with religion” is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that establishes a separation of church and state. Holding the ceremony in a chapel was also an issue in the suit, but was later dismissed.

The children wrote the prayers, which were later reviewed by school officials before they were presented at the graduation ceremony.

In the ruling, U.S. District Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks favored the AHA by disallowing school-sponsored student prayer. The district has said it will not prohibit prayer at graduations as long as the prayer is led and initiated by students, and does not create a disturbance.

"Prohibiting such independent student speech would go beyond showing neutrality toward religion but instead demonstrate an impermissible hostility toward religion," the school district said in court filings.

"The position of the defendant has no religious purpose or effect and does not improperly entangle the state with religion," Hendricks said, reported Christian News. "Indeed, the new position gets the defendant out of that business entirely. And, yet it preserves the constitutional edicts of speech and free exercise for individual students."

Hendricks chose to allow spontaneous prayer, saying: “It may be awkward. It may be uncomfortable. It may be ill-advised ... it is not unconstitutional.”

The AHA plans to appeal the ruling. “It's a sad day when the courts allow students to be subjected to Christian prayers during what should be a secular graduation ceremony,” said AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt, according to USA Today.

Sources: Christian News, USA Today

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