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American Humanist Association v. South Carolina Department of Education

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

May 18, 2015

American Humanist Association, John Doe and Joe Doe as parents and next friends of their minor child, and Jill Doe, Plaintiff,
South Carolina Department of Education and Greenville County School District, Defendants.



This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment, on February 4, 2015, (ECF No. 84) and the Defendant Greenville County School District filed its cross-motion, on March 13, 2015 (ECF No. 89). Both parties responded. (ECF Nos. 92, 93.)

The plaintiffs have challenged two practices of the defendant school district related to its graduation practices, as unconstitutional, and seek to enjoin their continued implementation. First, the plaintiffs contest the defendant's practice, relating to the inclusion of prayer or other religious statement at its graduation ceremonies, as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Second, the plaintiffs contend that the choice of certain schools within the district to use a religious chapel on the campus of North Greenville University is also unconstitutional. The Court has already dismissed the chapel claim by way of separate order. (ECF No. 96.)


Jill Doe is the daughter of Jane and John Doe ("Doe Parents"). Jill was a fifth grade student at Mountain View Elementary School ("MVES"), during the 2012-13 school year. (Verified Compl. ¶ 6.)[1] The Does are professing humanists and non-theists and members of Plaintiff American Humanist Association. Id. ¶¶ 8, 9. The plaintiffs filed this action against the Greenville County School District to vindicate their rights under the Establishment Clause, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief and damages pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The plaintiffs challenge the constitutionality of the defendants' long-held practice of including prayers at public school graduation ceremonies.

Since 1951, Christian prayers have been included at graduation ceremonies for elementary school children in the school district. (Def. Ans. Interrog. Nos. 3, 4.) All prayers have been delivered by school-selected fifth graders, normally age 10 or 11. Id. No. 5. Two prayers are included each ceremony. (See John Doe Decl. Ex. A.) The first is offered after opening remarks by the principal and the second is offered at the ceremony's conclusion. Id. It does not appear that any have been non-Christian prayers. (See Def. Ans. American Humanist Association (AHA) Interrog. Nos. 8.) It has been the school district's practice to have school officials, typically fifth grade teachers, select the students to deliver the prayers. Id. No. 9. Students are selected based in part on their "ability to speak in front of a group." Id. It has also been the school district's practice to have school officials review and approve the content of the prayers prior to their delivery. Id. No. 10. Each prayer is designated as "Prayer" on the official graduation programs, which are distributed to attendees, such as the Does. (John Doe Decl. Ex. A.)

On May 30, 2013, the school district conducted its annual MVES graduation and included two Christian prayers as part of the ceremony. (Gibson HFF. ¶ 11; Jill Doe Decl. ¶ 3; John Doe Decl. ¶ 5.) Jill participated in the event, and her parents attended. Id. At the 2013 ceremony, the first prayer directly followed the "Welcome" by "Ms. Gibson." (John Doe Decl. Ex. A.) Prior to the ceremony, a school official asked one student to write and deliver the first prayer and another to write and deliver the closing prayer. (Verified Compl. ¶ 44.) Each prayer was then reviewed by, and approved by, a teacher. Id. ¶ 52-54. During the ceremony, Jill Doe saw her peers bowing their heads during the prayers. (Jill Doe Decl. ¶ 3.) Although praying is against Jill's sincerely held convictions, Jill bowed her head too. Id. She was afraid she would be in trouble if she did not participate in the prayer and also did not want to stand out amongst her peers. Id. The Doe Parents witnessed most, if not everyone, bowing their head for the prayers, including their daughter. (John Doe Decl. ¶ 5; Jane Doe Decl. ¶ 6.) The Doe Parents raised Jill as a non-theist and felt their daughter was coerced into participating in the prayer. Id.

Other schools in the district, including elementary schools, have a policy and practice of including prayers in graduation ceremonies. (John Doe Decl. Ex B at 1-8; Def. Ans. Req. Admit at 1.) It is undisputed that in the vast majority of these schools, the prayer-givers are selected by the school, as with MVES, often based on ability to publicly speak, class rank, or class office. (See generally Def. Ans. Doe Intercoms.) It is further undisputed that in most of these schools, the "prayer" (or "invocation" and "benediction") has been listed on the official graduation program handed out to attendees and that, in many of these programs, the audience and graduates are expressly instructed to stand for the prayer. Id. In several schools, men are even required to remove their caps. Id.

The defendant, however, has now amended its position on prayer and religious content at graduation:

As it pertains to the use of prayer by students, the District is committed to not endorsing the use of such prayer by students, and therefore, any prayer given by a student at a school-sponsored event, including an awards program for Mountain View Elementary, will be under different circumstances than the May 30, 2013 program.... With regard to a student delivering a prayer or providing a religious message during a school sponsored event, the District will not prohibit this practice as long as the prayer or message is student led and initiated and does not create a disturbance to the event. Prohibiting such independent student speech would go beyond showing neutrality toward religion but instead demonstrate an impermissible hostility toward religion. If a student is selected to speak based upon genuinely neutral criteria such as class rank or academic merit, that student should have the same ability to decide to deliver a religious message or prayer as another student has the ability to decide to speak about an inspirational secular book or role model.

(Compl. Ex. 6.) The plaintiffs challenge both the prior practice, and the new amended one, as unconstitutional.


To the undersigned there is no more sacred liberty than an individual's personal view of his or her cosmological origin - divine or chance, intentional or naturally selective. And, cultures have developed various names for the posture we assume in the direction of our creative source, most notably, prayer. But, also meditation and pilgrimage. Namaste. Surfing. Fly fishing. Science. The citizens of this country have the privilege of electing between the innumerable alternatives in religious practice. Our constitution has established but one caveat: "The First Amendment's Religion Clauses mean that religious beliefs and religious expression are too precious to be either proscribed or prescribed by the State." Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 589 (1992) (emphasis added). The Court's obligation is in law. The United States Supreme Court has interpreted the protections and liberties of the United States Constitution. And, the Court's job, here, is to make accurate application of them and no more. The Court would not want its editorializing to ever confuse that truth. But, at the same time, the Court would emphasize that its crunching of the clinical legal numbers, so to speak, is at base a very human enterprise to guard the individual freedom of all - to worship and not.

The Christian community, in certain parts, feels besieged. This sense has two sources. The first is the view that people of faith cannot practice their religion and its tenets as they wish. The second is a genuine compassion for this country - that it know a redeeming faith. To certain parts of Western Christianity, the lack of prayer in the public sector is not only a symptom of declining religiosity and moralism but is, in part, the cause itself.

In contrast, those of different faith or no religious faith at all are exhausted of this historical conflation of judeo-christianism and public ceremony persistent even to now and our exceedingly modern and pluralistic times. Those that oppose religious practice in schools are exasperated.

The Court has sympathy for both views, indeed, relates. But, the undersigned's most overwhelming rhetorical reaction to all of this is how in 2015 is there still any debate or legal nuance to hash over prayers at graduation? One side insists on securing every slight remaining loophole of religious demonstration in school and the other is chasing to the ends of the earth the last pitiful vestiges of these practices that have been essentially neutered of all possible eternal meaning and effect. This case, of course, is serious and its prosecution and defense justified. But, litigation is expensive in dollars and time and the fruit of ceaseless advocacy has apparently not been peace. The two sides find themselves here again and again. That, of course, is their right. It is conceivable, however, that, in this war over the private conscious made public, the better strategy is arms laid down in recognition of the human psychology that we are always made more in our submission than our entitlement.

This case will not be the last of its kind. But, it is the one most immediately important to the people of our community and school system on the issue of prayer at ...

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