Greenville County Schools will challenge a court requiring the district to further distance itself from student-led prayer.
The decision comes about a month after a South Carolina district court issued an injunction requiring the school district take measures ensuring its practices are more “neutral toward religion” regarding prayer.
Lynda Leventis-Wells, chairperson of Greenville County Schools board, said some wording of the injunction was confusing and caused concern that it might infringe on free speech.
“Based on a review by our legal counsel, portions of the injuction also shift the district away from its practices of neutrality and instead infringes on student speech by requiring the district to disfavor religious speech as compared to secular speech,” Leventis-Wells said.
The court order is the latest development in a six-year saga stemming from a Mountain View Elementary School graduation in 2013 where two students were selected by school officials to deliver prayers. A lawsuit filed by the American Humanist Association on behalf of the parents of a student at the school said the prayers were listed on the school’s official program for the ceremony.
In 2015, the district court agreed with the plaintiffs, saying the graduation ceremony constituted “school-sponsored prayer,” was unconstitutional and “should no longer be allowed.”
But the court declined to prohibit all prayer from school events and ultimately sided with the district once it made policy changes that still allowed prayer at graduations but required it be initiated by a student who was chosen to speak based on neutral criteria, such as academic merit or class rank.
In 2017, the court also ruled the district could not have its graduation ceremonies at churches or chapels, but it wanted more information regarding prayer at schools.
On July 18, United States District Judge Bruce Hendricks amended the court’s opinion from 2015 and issued an injunction requiring Greenville County Schools limit its involvement with student prayer, saying the district still had graduation ceremonies with student-led prayer where audience members were asked to participate by standing or bowing their heads.
The court order said that by asking the audience to participate in the prayer, the district has not fully distanced itself from the “longstanding practice” of including prayer at graduation ceremonies.
Hendricks also wrote that because district officials regularly review student remarks beforehand, they have control over the message.
“Thus, it is clear that school officials do have some measure of control over the content of student messages, despite the district’s assertion otherwise,” the order said.
The order doesn’t ban student-led prayer at events, but district officials will not be allowed to review student remarks and cannot refer to it in official programs or fliers. If officials do review student remarks, they are required to make sure the remarks do not include prayer. The district also won’t be allowed to feature religious music at graduations.
If a district event does include student remarks, the court order says programs and materials for the event must include the following disclaimer: “The views or opinions expressed by students during this program are their own and do not reflect the policy or position of the school district.”
“This was a long fight for justice for students who do not wish to encounter government-sponsored religion at their own graduation ceremonies,” Monica Miller, AHA senior counsel and lead attorney in the case, said in a released statement.
Leventis-Wells said Greenville County Schools will file its concerns with the district court by the end of the week.