FFRF stops prayer rallies, religious memorials at South Carolina middle school (Oct. 12, 2011)

Several flagrant legal violations at New Heights Middle School in Jefferson, S.C., were documented in FFRF’s Sept. 19 letter of complaint [http://ffrf.org/uploads/legal/newheights_letter.pdf] to Superintendent John Williams of the Chesterfield County School District. FFRF had received reports from multiple local complainants about religious activities at the school, and the district has agreed some were illegal and will monitor them in the future.

The violations included a Sept. 1 school assembly featuring Christian Chapman, a preacher and evangelist, and Christian rap artist B-SHOC (real name Bryan Edmonds), who says in a video on his YouTube channel that “324 students got saved” at the assembly.

FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert noted that the assembly was promoted and described as a “worship rally” on the public school’s website.

Evidently, Principal Larry Stinson was aware of the questionable legality of holding a “worship rally” like this one during the school day, but he chose to schedule it anyway. He allegedly told Chapman that “I want these kids to know eternal life is real and I don’t care what happens to me, they’re gonna hear it today.” 

“Our complainants inform us that various pamphlets, cards and other written materials were handed out to the students,” Markert noted. “In particular, fake money with proselytizing language was distributed by the assembly organizers to the students.” A “million-dollar bill” asks, “THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION: WILL YOU GO TO HEAVEN WHEN YOU DIE? HERE’S A QUICK TEST. HAVE YOU EVER TOLD A LIE, STOLEN ANYTHING, OR USED GOD’S NAME IN VAIN?”

The school’s website also said “Connect with Christian Chapman and B-SHOC” and links to their religious sites.

FFRF’s letter also noted the Christian crosses erected on the school lawn for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The photo was taken by a complainant Sept. 14.

While it’s laudable and appropriate for school officials and students to remember the victims of 9/11, it is wholly inappropriate for them to do so by erecting Christian religious symbols, Markert wrote, noting that the nearly 3,000 victims included “an international community of persons of diverse beliefs and nonbeliefs, or whose views on religion will never be known.” 

A See You at the Pole prayer event on school grounds Sept. 28 should not have been promoted on the school’s website, FFRF asserted in the letter. (Apparently, the school removed it as a calendar event after receiving an email from Markert.) The announcement said, “Join us for See You At The Pole on Wednesday, September 28, at 7:30 am. We will meet at the rear entrance of the building. Everyone welcome!”
There was no indication of the actual sponsor of SYATP on the posting on the school’s website. New Heights Middle School also created an “event” on the school’s Facebook page for the prayer rally.

On Oct. 12, David Duff, school district attorney, responded to FFRF. Regarding the 9/11 crosses display, Duff wrote, “All administrators will be instructed regarding display of religious messages or iconography in the public schools, emphasizing the point that the Latin cross is a principal symbol of Christianity around the world, and further that display of crosses on public property is considered an unconstitutional endorsement of religion and a particular religious faith.”

The board and administrators take what happened at the B-SHOC assembly “very seriously. We have counseled with Mr. Stinson about such matters,” Duff wrote. The district is committed to “following the dictates of the First Amendment in regard to all matters pertaining to religion in the schools. We will endeavor proactively to educate the school community about such matters and to monitor and appropriately control all related events and activities.”

However, Duff noted, the district is allowing B-SHOC to put on programs at two high schools Oct. 28-29 during noninstructional time. Several churches are sponsoring the events, which Duff alleged are permitted under board policy and for which applications have been made.

The district has since responded to an FFRF open records request for the lease agreement and fee schedule for B-SHOC’s performance at McBee High School on Oct. 28, a staff development, no-student day. The school leased the gym, canteen and restrooms for $210 ($15 an hour), from noon to 2 a.m.

Freedom From Religion Foundation