FFRF seeks summary judgment in Carolina prayer case

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a motion Aug. 7 for summary judgment in its suit against a South Carolina school district for sanctioning graduation prayers and for opening school board meetings with prayer.

The original focus of the lawsuit was on graduation prayers. 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.

Two other Irmo High students joined the suit June 11, 2012. FFRF and the students, represented by local counsel Aaron Kozloski, asked the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, Columbia Division, to declare the district’s policy null and void, enjoin it from further school-sponsored graduation prayers and to award damages, costs and attorney fees.

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The district and the plaintiffs subsequently settled the graduation prayer issue after the district rescinded its prayer policy in August 2013 and paid the plaintiffs’ attorney fees. The new policy allows “student-led messages” that are not sponsored or approved by the district, in accordance with the state’s Student-led Messages Act. There was no graduation prayer in 2013.

The court will decide whether to also end prayers at school board meetings. The plaintiffs’ summary judgment motion and memorandum says that because there are no material disputes of fact in the case, the law entitles them to judgment on the grounds that the board’s opening prayers violate the Establishment Clause. FFRF contends that “the legislative prayer exception set forth in Marsh v. Chambers is inapplicable to school board prayers.”

“A school board is not the same as a state legislature or a city council,” the motion 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.”

The plaintiffs argue that the standards set by Lemon v. Kurtzman and numerous school cases should apply. 

“More than half a century of strong rulings by the Supreme Court prohibit proselytizing and devotionals in our public schools,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

“School board members should be setting a tone of respect for the law and the rights of conscience of students,” she said.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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