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FFRF calls out Miss. school district for promoting religion

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has taken issue with the George County School District in Lucedale, Miss., after receiving a report of multiple First Amendment violations.

The state/church watchdog has been informed that last spring’s George County High School graduation ceremony included both a preplanned invocation and benediction. The prayers were reportedly student-led and overtly Christian, with the prayer-givers asking the audience to bow their heads to participate in each prayer. The 2022 graduation ceremony also included a student-led invocation and benediction where the audience was also asked to bow their heads in prayer.

And on Aug. 6, the official George County High School football team Facebook page posted a photo thanking a pastor from Refuge Church for delivering a devotional sermon to the football team.

Additionally, the Ten Commandments are reportedly displayed in classrooms and other locations throughout numerous district schools, including the George County High School, George County Middle School, Benndale Elementary School, L.C. Hatcher Elementary School and Rocky Creek Elementary School. The bible verse, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men. Colossians 3:23,” is also displayed above the gymnasium doors at the George County High School.

“The district should strive to ensure that all of its events, activities, and buildings are welcoming and inclusive of all students and community members,” FFRF Anne Nicol Gaylor Legal Fellow Sammi Lawrence admonishes the school district.

Students have the First Amendment right to be free from religious indoctrination in their public schools. The district’s actions show a clear custom and a practice of official district favoritism toward religion over nonreligion — and Christianity over all other faiths. Plus, the inclusion of prayers and proselytizing at official school-sponsored events and activities, such as graduation ceremonies and athletic team events, unconstitutionally coerces students to participate in and observe religious exercises.

The Supreme Court has continually struck down prayer at school-sponsored events, including graduations. The Christian invocations and benedictions delivered at both the 2023 and 2022 George County High School graduation ceremonies directly contravene Supreme Court precedent and infringed the First Amendment rights of students.

Moreover, a public school’s athletics coach may not constitutionally direct or encourage student athletes to pray, including by inviting a clergy member to lead students in a sermon. The district also violates the Constitution when it allows its schools to display religious messages or symbols, including biblical scripture and the Ten Commandments, which breach the First Amendment by signaling that the district prefers religion over nonreligion and Christianity over all other faiths.

By scheduling overtly Christian prayers at graduations, proselytizing student athletes and displaying biblical scripture and the biblical Ten Commandments, the district is unconstitutionally proselytizing students and promoting religion. Such unconstitutional actions also needlessly alienate students and families who are non-Christians, including those students who are part of the 49 percent of Generation Z that is religiously unaffiliated.

FFRF instructs the George County School District to protect the First Amendment rights of students and investigate these incidents to ensure that the district will comply with the Constitution from now on by protecting student rights of conscience.

“These are egregious violations of the First Amendment, which the district has the duty to uphold,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Under the Constitution, every student has a right to an education free from religious indoctrination.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 40,000 members across the country, including members in Mississippi. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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