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Mississippi school district held in contempt for infringing on students' religious freedom

Mississippi school district held in contempt for infringing on students' religious freedom

Judge says the Rankin County district continued to allow religious activities at schools after it agreed in a court settlement to stop. 

A judge has issued a contempt citation against the Rankin County (Miss.) School District for “blatantly” violating a court settlement by endorsing and forcing students to take part in religious activities.

U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves ruled that the school system failed to abide by a 2013 agreement to stop endorsing religious activities when it allowed a minister to deliver a Christian prayer at a school-sponsored event in April 2014.

“The district’s breach did not take very long and it occurred in a very bold way,” Judge Reeves concluded. “Its conduct displays that the district did not make any effort to adhere to the agreed judgment.”

The judge ordered the district to pay the student who filed the 2013 lawsuit $7,500 for violating her constitutional rights, as well as any attorney fees. The district also will have to pay a $10,000 fine per infraction for any future violations of the court settlement.

The Rankin County district is “permanently enjoined from including prayer or religious sermons in any school-sponsored event, including but not limited to assemblies, graduations, awards ceremonies, athletic events and any other school event,” Judge Reeves ordered.

The case was back before the judge because the student who filed the 2013 suit complained that Rankin County school officials, despite agreeing in a consent decree to adopt a policy regarding religion in schools that conformed with the First Amendment, were continuing to support religious activities.

“The district was responsible for guaranteeing that school activities had a secular purpose and did not require or coerce any person’s participation in a religious activity,” Judge Reeves wrote. The invocation at the April 2014 event “blatantly violated these mandates. The preacher-led prayer at this event was an affront to [the plaintiff] and any of the other students who may not have shared the same beliefs.”

The judge also ruled that the Rankin County district violated the consent decree a second time when the principal of Northwest Rankin Elementary School directed fifth-grade teachers in October 2014 to walk their students through a hallway where members of Gideons International were distributing bibles.

“The students suffered undue and unconstitutional coercion as they did what was expected of them daily—obey the instructions of teachers,” the judge said.

“The express order from their principal directing the teachers to march their students through the area exclusively manned by the Gideons, coupled with the age of children, not only proves that the district ignored [its] religion policy, but that it deliberately went out of its way to entangle Christian indoctrination in the education process,” the judge concluded. “Those actions were egregious and in violation of the agreed judgment.”

The American Humanist Association, which filed the initial lawsuit on behalf of the aggrieved student, praised the judge’s ruling.

“The court’s order vindicates our client’s First Amendment freedoms and seeks to ensure that the school district will comply with the constitution and cease its egregious practices of endorsing prayers, sermons and other religious activities in the future,” says Monica Miller, an attorney with the association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

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