Atheist group slams Mississippi school district's disregard of school prayer court order

The American Humanist Association filed a motion of contempt on Wednesday against Mississippi's Rankin County School District for its failure to adhere to a federal judge's order banning Christian prayers at public school assemblies.

According to the Associated Press, the student who filed the original complaint against the school reported that the school has carried on with public prayers in spite of the ruling, which was handed down in November of 2013.

In an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Jackson, the student, a senior at Northwest Rankin High School, said that a countywide honors program on April 17 featured an opening prayer by St. Mark's United Methodist Church pastor Rev. Rob Gill.

"The prayer was Christian in nature and made a specific reference to the resurrection of Jesus Christ," said a statement released by the AHA. "Students were asked to stand and then bow their heads for the prayer. Students were also told to wear 'church attire' to the event, which was held days before Easter Sunday. The American Humanist Association contends that the public school district’s actions unconstitutionally endorsed religion and coerced students into participating in a religious observance."

"As a result of the defendants' actions surrounding the prayer at the awards ceremony, I felt incredibly embarrassed, humiliated and frustrated," said the student, known as "M.B." in the affidavit.

AHA maintains that the school district willfully violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the establishment of a state religion in the U.S., be it Christianity or any other faith.

“Precedent set by both the U.S. Supreme Court and numerous federal courts clearly affirms that prayer in public schools violates the constitutional requirement of separation of church and state and infringes upon the religious liberty of non-adherents,” said AHA attorney Monica Miller. “It’s shocking that the school would so blatantly violate the Establishment Clause and the rights of its students.”

“Public schools are not in the business of prayer. Specifically making time for prayer in assemblies and award ceremonies threatens our nation’s constitutional principles and disregards the rights of our children,” said AHA's executive director Roy Speckhardt.

AHA filed suit a year ago on behalf of students in the Rankin County School District to stop schools from forcing students to attend events where they were proselytized by evangelical Christians.

Mississippi state legislators attempted to go around the Constitution in 2013 by passing a law allowing students to lead prayers at school events. Because the invocation at the honors student ceremony was led by a pastor, however, that rule does not apply.

AHA is asking that the district be forced to pay civil contempt fines of $1,000 each for the school district and Northwest Rankin Principal Charles Frazier. The affidavit also asked the court to impose a $20,000 fine on all future violations of the November court order.

[image of praying child via]