Greenville County Schools in South Carolina has agreed to pay $187,000 in a settlement to the American Humanist Association (AHA) in order to protect the religious liberty of students and employees.
In 2013, the atheist organization sued the school district on behalf of an unnamed family whose child’s fifth grade graduation ceremony was held in a chapel and included “sectarian Christian prayers as part of the official graduation ceremonies.” AHA accused the district of violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and endorsing Christianity.
Doug Webb, the school district’s lawyer, informed AHA that the graduation ceremony was held in the chapel “to provide adequate capacity to ensure student and spectator safety” and that the prayers were student-led, not initiated by the school.
But in 2019, a judge filed a permanent injunction that barred the district from ever having a prayer “as part of the official program for a graduation ceremony.” This past April, the judge also ordered the district to pay $450,000 to AHA for attorney fees and other expenses.
The district had been appealing the decision, but on Dec. 15, the school board voted 8-3 to agree to a $187,000 settlement with AHA.
According to Greenville News, the agreed-upon settlement states that students can make their own religious statements as long as the school district clarifies that it does not endorse them.
The agreement also states that the schools cannot edit or write remarks for speakers. In addition, teachers cannot force students to stop having prayer groups or stifle religious expressions during training sessions.
The school district responded in a statement saying, “Throughout this case, the school district has argued that students, like other citizens, have the right to free speech, including that of a religious nature. On this main point, Greenville County Schools successfully convinced the court to uphold its consistent position on the central issue of protecting student speech and supported the district’s belief that students should be allowed to speak from a religious or secular perspective at a graduation.”
“This is all contingent on court approval,” Webb said. But if approved, Webb explained that the district’s former insurance company would pay the fees and that it would not cost the school district.
“This agreement would protect and secure the free-exercise rights, the freedom-of-speech rights of students and employees,” Webb said.