The Freedom From Religion Foundation and one of its South Carolina members filed a lawsuit today in U.S. District Court in Columbia, S.C., against School District Five of Lexington and Richland Counties over a district policy that sanctions graduation prayer. Plaintiff Matthew Nielson graduated with his Irmo High School classmates today.
Nielson, 18, and state-church watchdog FFRF allege the district's written policy violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The plaintiffs, represented by South Carolina counsel Aaron Kozloski, ask the court to declare the district's policy null and void.
A district policy titled "School Ceremonies and Observations" sets guidelines for benedictions and invocations at graduations and athletic events: Use of prayer "will be determined by a majority vote of the graduating senior class with the advice and counsel of the principal." The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a similar vote on whether to host prayer at school events violated the Establishment Clause in the case Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe.
Nielson, who is religiously unaffiliated, observed during the school year that a student vote on whether to have 2012 graduation prayer was organized by teachers and other staff. He met with Principal Rob Weinkle and Superintendent Steve Hefner to express constitutional concerns. FFRF formally objected in a letter of complaint. The District refused to remove the scheduled prayer and FFRF filed suit.
The legal complaint states:
"The clear purpose of the policy is promote religion; it hardly lacks a secular legislative purpose; and it cultivates, fosters and fertilizes a most excessive governmental entanglement with religion. The mere passage by the District of this policy evidences a purpose and perception of government establishment of religion. The policy's text and the circumstances surrounding its enactment reveal that it has such a purpose. The District's implementation of an electoral process that subjects the issue of prayer to a majoritarian vote has established a governmental mechanism that turns the school into a forum for religious debate and empowers the student body majority to subject students of minority views to constitutionally improper messages. The award of that power alone is constitutionally repugnant."
The graduation ceremony today contained a prayer as planned. The case will be assigned to a judge and will proceed in the District Court of South Carolina.
FFRF, based in Madison, Wis., is a national nonprofit with over 18,000 members across the country, including over 130 in South Carolina.