GREENVILLE COUNTY, SC (FOX Carolina) - Greenville County Schools says a South Carolina court has ruled in a nearly six-year old case involving student-led prayer at graduation ceremonies filed by the American Humanist Association.
According to a press release by GCS, the ruling from the South Carolina District Court included a permanent injunction requiring the district to continue current practices to avoid religious entanglement. Some of the practices include ensuring student speakers are selected on religiously-neutral criteria, like class rank or leadership roles.
GCS says the ruling also gave further guidance to the district on the First Amendment's establishment clause in the selection of music and the role of employees in reviewing student comments prior to events like graduation ceremonies.
“We are pleased that the Court has upheld the fundamental issue of the case and supported our position that students selected to speak at graduations based upon religiously neutral criteria, have the right to share their personal stories, even if those include a religious message," the district elaborated. "We are also pleased that the Court refused to grant AHA’s request to prevent all remotely religious messaging or prayer at School District events. As a district, we have made every effort to consistently comply with the constitution and protect the rights of all students.”
The court's ruling also requires GCS to include a disclaimer in graduation programs that the views and opinions of students are their own, and not that of the district.
"As a district, we have made every effort to consistently comply with the constitution and protect the rights of all students," the statement continued. "We will continue to review the court order to evaluate whether clarification of this decision or a potential appeal may be warranted."
The AHA responded to the ruling as well, saying they were granted a victory.
“We are thrilled that the court is finally putting an end to flagrant school-sponsored prayers and Christian hymns at public school graduation ceremonies,” said Monica Miller, AHA senior counsel. “This was a long fight for justice for students who do not wish to encounter government-sponsored religion at their own graduation ceremonies.”
According to the ruling handed down by judge Bruce Hendricks, the original lawsuit unfolded when the parents of a student filed it in September 2013, alleging GCS violated the Establisment Clause of the First Amendment by including two different student prayers during a graduation ceremony at Mountain View Elementary School in May of the same year. A 2015 ruling initially quashed the original claim, but the parents appealed and the court found the parents' original concerns had a foundation, even though their child no longer attended the school.
The permanent injunction includes the following conditions:
- GCS will not include a prayer as part of the official program for a graduation ceremony, nor an obviously religious piece of music as part of the ceremony
- GCS will not encourage, promote, advance, endorse, or participate in causing prayers during ceremonies
- Students will be chosen to make remarks at ceremonies based on religiously-neutral criteria in compliance with written policy
- GCS will not provide copies of prior student remarks to students selected for such upcoming ceremonies
- Portions of ceremonies devoted to student remarks shall be referred to using non-religious terms (i.e. "student remarks" or "student speech"), and will not direct attendees to stand for such remarks
- School officials who review student remarks prior to the ceremony will ensure they do not include prayer
- However, if school officials do not review the remarks, a student can include prayer as long as they do not ask others to join in, and as long as no school officials join in themselves.
- Programs for graduations must include the aforementioned disclaimer
- Officials must provide guidelines to students chosen to make remarks at ceremonies
The AHA also said the original suit in 2013 challenged a GCS practice of holding two elementary school graduation ceremonies at a Christian chapel. They also say the original judge who first ruled on the case held bias against the AHA.