McMaster executive order bolsters religious freedom

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A judge awarded American Humanist Association (AHA) nominal damages in a legal battle with Greenville County Schools that has been ongoing since 2013.

AHA filed a lawsuit against the district in September 2013 after receiving a complaint for a parent regarding a Mountain View Elementary School graduation ceremony being held in the Turner Chapel at North Greenville University.

AHA also said the schedule for events for the ceremony called prayers on two separate occasions, arguing the practices violated separate of church and state.

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After receiving a letter from AHA, Greenville County Schools announced changes to its policies regarding school programs. First, the district said for any future events held in a religious venue, it would "ensure that the space is... devoid of religious iconography that would lead a reasonable observer to believe the District is endorsing religion."

The district also said it revised its prayer policy, allowing prayer to only take place if it was student-led and initiated.

"Prohibiting such independent student speech would go beyond showing neutrality toward religion but instead demonstrate an impermissible hostility toward religion," the district stated.

AHA, however, argued the revised policies were unconstitutional and requested a permanent injunction banning all prayer at school events and barring the use of any religious venues.

After consideration, the judge has awarded AHA $1 in nominal damages, stating the district's past prayer practices at school events were unconstitutional.

A previous judge denied the motion for an injunction stopping all prayer at Greenville County Schools, but court now says it has "grave concerns" about how the policy is being implemented in Greenville County Schools based on further evidence submitted by AHA.

"Based on the evidence submitted by AHA, it appears that the historical practices of the school district are, in fact, continuing to color and confuse the application of what appears to be a constitutionally neutral prayer policy, but what, in practice, may not be," the judge wrote.

The judge has ordered AHA and Greenville County Schools to submit a mediation plan within 60 days. If mediation is not successful, the judge said briefs will be submitted on the issue of whether or not the court should amend its prior judgement on student-led prayer.

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