Student plaintiffs join FFRF prayer suit

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed an amended complaint today in its lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Columbia, S.C., against School District Five of Lexington and Richland Counties over a district policy that sanctions graduation prayer.

Joining FFRF’s co-plaintiff Matthew Nielson, who graduated May 30 from Irmo High School, are two new plaintiffs, Jacob Zupon and Dakota McMillan, who will graduate respectively from Irmo High School in 2013 and 2014. Zupon and McMillan “reasonably anticipate constitutional injury” similar to Nielson’s due to prayer at their upcoming graduations.

In its original complaint May 30, Nielson, 18, and state-church watchdog FFRF allege the school district’s written policy violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The plaintiffs, represented by South Carolina counsel Aaron Kozloski, ask the court to declare the district’s policy null and void and to enjoin the district from further school-sponsored prayers.

A district policy titled “School Ceremonies and Observations” sets 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.”

Nielson, who is religiously unaffiliated, observed during the school year that a student vote on whether to have 2012 graduation prayer was organized by teachers and other staff. He met with Principal Rob Weinkle and Superintendent Steve Hefner to express constitutional concerns. FFRF formally objected in a letter of complaint. The district refused to remove the scheduled prayer and FFRF filed suit.

Nielson (pictured above) has received a $1,000 Catherine Fahringer Memorial Student Activist Award from FFRF.

Dan Barker, FFRF co-president, said the students and FFRF should not have to sue over long-settled law. “The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled for more than 50 years that school prayer is inappropriate and specifically found unconstitutional class votes on whether to pray.

“School graduations should be secular and inclusive,” Barker said.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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