FFRF, students, end graduation prayers (December 1, 2014)

FFRF and one of its South Carolina members filed suit on May 30, 2012, against School District Five of Lexington and Richland Counties challenging a district graduation prayer policy. The policy allowed prayer by a vote of the graduating class. Matthew Nielson, an Irmo High School senior at the time, was the lead plaintiff.

A district policy titled “School Ceremonies and Observations” set 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 school facilitated a vote by students and the graduation ceremony on May 30, 2012, contained a prayer.

Two other Irmo High students joined the suit June 11, 2012, which was before Judge Cameron McGowan Currie in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina. On Nov. 16, 2012, the plaintiffs amended the suit to also challenge prayers before Board of Trustees meetings.

The District and the plaintiffs subsequently settled the graduation prayer issue once the District rescinded its prayer policy in August of 2013 and paid the plaintiffs’ attorney fees.

On August 7, 2014, the plaintiffs filed for summary judgment on the issue of prayer at school board meetings. “A school board is not the same as a state legislature or a city council,” the brief states. “Rather, it is by design and activity created solely for the governance and operation of a public school system. As such, school board prayers are scrutinized for constitutionality under tradition Establishment Clause jurisprudence.” Judge Currie dismissed the remainder of the case on Dec. 1, 2014, ruling the students and FFRF didn’t have legal standing to challenge prayers at board meetings because the plaintiffs hadn’t attended recent meetings under a new prayer policy. The case was dismissed without prejudice, meaning FFRF could re-open the case if currently enrolled students or their parents come forward with complaints.

FFRF singled out the three students for their courage in standing up to a fundamentalist community to defend the Constitution. All three plaintiffs — Max Nielson, Dakota McMillan and Jacob Zupon — have received student activist awards from FFRF.

Freedom From Religion Foundation