FFRF lawsuit ends grad prayer in S.C. school district

A federal lawsuit first filed in June 2012 by the Freedom From Religion Foundation on behalf of graduating seniors subjected to graduation prayer — who were forced to vote on whether to hold such prayer— is coming to a close in Lexington-Richland Five School District.

Irmo High School graduating senior Max Nielson approached FFRF about the violation, and became lead plaintiff, recruiting underclass students to join the suit so the challenge could continue. In August 2013, the district in Columbia, S.C., had agreed to stop officially scheduling a moment of prayer at commencement ceremonies. The district offered FFRF attorney fees and allowable costs.

FFRF amended the initial lawsuit in Nov. 2012 after becoming aware that the school board was also regularly scheduling Christian prayer. 

Senior U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie dismissed the remainder of the case on Dec. 1, ruling the students and FFRF didn’t have legal standing to challenge prayers at board meetings because the plaintiffs hadn’t attended recent meetings. The case was dismissed without prejudice, meaning FFRF could re-open the case if currently enrolled students or their parents come forward with complaints. The parties have 60 days to resolve settlement issues.

The school’s new policy doesn’t explicitly forbid students selected for other speeches from injecting prayer, in accord with a South Carolina law. “Neither the board nor any employee of the district will recommend, review, monitor or censor the student-led message,” the new policy states.

Aaron Kozloski, primary litigation attorney in the case, commented about the graduation policy: “Facially, the policy change appears innocuous; in its application, we shall see. We remain suspicious of its questionable political parentage.”

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. Max has gone on to form a secular student club at his college, and has interned with national secular groups.

“School boards shouldn’t be praying — they should be setting an example for students and the community to honor the First Amendment, student freedom of conscience and more than 50 years of firm Supreme Court precedent against official prayers in public schools,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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