Federal judge finds Rankin County school district in contempt over continued school prayer



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JACKSON, Mississippi — A federal judge has found the Rankin County school district in contempt of court for continuing to promote Christianity during school hours after it agreed to stop.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves ordered the district Friday to pay $7,500 to the plaintiff as punishment for violating a 2013 order and again ordered it to stop sponsoring prayers at graduations, assemblies, athletic competitions and other school events.

The district first got into trouble when a Northwest Rankin High School student represented by the American Humanist Association sued over having to attend a school assembly that promoted Christianity. The district settled the suit in 2013, agreeing that activities during school hours would not advance, endorse or inhibit any religion.

But six months later, the same student attended a districtwide honors assembly at Brandon High School. The program, honoring students who scored above 22 on the ACT college test, was opened with a prayer by the Rev. Rob Gill, pastor of St. Mark's United Methodist Church.

Reeves rejected arguments that he shouldn't sanction the school district because the ceremony was voluntary and that school officials should be excused because the law was hard to understand.

"The district's breach did not take very long and it occurred in a very bold way," Reeves wrote. "Its conduct displays that the district did not make any effort to adhere to the agreed judgment."

Reeves also fined the district for allowing Gideons International to distribute Bibles to fifth-graders at Northwest Rankin Elementary School in October 2014. Reeves said previous court decisions found in-school Bible distributions unconstitutional encouragement of a particular religion. Rankin County argued that because school employees didn't hand out the Bibles and taking one was voluntary, it hadn't broken any laws or the settlement. Reeves again disagreed.

"It deliberately went out of its way to entangle Christian indoctrination in the education process," the judge wrote of the district.

Reeves warned the district that it would owe the plaintiff $10,000 per future violation.

District lawyer Fred Harrell told The Clarion-Ledger that he plans to meet with the school board to ensure all teachers and principals know and follow district policy and the court order.

"As long as there is testing in schools, we believe that teachers, principals and students will continue to pray," Superintendent Lynn Weathersby said in a statement. "That being said, the school district will certainly abide by the order of any court to the best of its ability."

The association wrote in January that M.B., raised by a Methodist mother and a Sikh father, does not consider herself an atheist or anti-Christian but wants to develop religious beliefs free of government coercion. She graduated from Northwest Rankin High in 2014 and now attends American University in Washington, D.C.

"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," said Monica Miller, an attorney with the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.


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