Group sues over SC public school event at chapel

The Associated PressSeptember 12, 2013 

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A lawsuit filed Wednesday by a humanist group seeks to stop a Greenville County public school from holding its fifth-grade graduation ceremonies at a Christian university.

In the complaint, filed in federal court in Greenville, the American Humanist Association seeks to stop Mountain View Elementary School from holding future ceremonies in a chapel on the campus of North Greenville University, which is affiliated with the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

The suit against the Greenville County School District, its superintendent and the elementary school’s principal also seeks to stop school-sponsored prayers at future events.

A student known only as “Jill Doe” was “offended, affronted and distressed by the actions of the Elementary School in affiliating itself with and endorsing Christianity” during her graduation this past spring, according to the lawsuit.

The girl’s parents, who are also part of the lawsuit, say they felt their daughter was being pressured to believe in God and “coerced into participating in the school-sponsored religious activity.”

“Jill wants to attend another graduation at a school in the School District as she progresses through the grades but does not want it to be held in a church (or similar religious venue) and/or to include prayer as part of the ceremony,” the lawsuit says.

In the complaint, the association says the school could hold its ceremonies in a variety of non-religious locations, including a gymnasium, cafeteria or community center. The lawsuit also seeks unspecified punitive damages for alleged disregard of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.

The group wrote to school officials in June after parents complained about a May 30 ceremony at the university’s chapel in Tigerville. At that time, district spokesman Oby Lyles was quoted by The Greenville News as saying that school principals receive training and information on the First Amendment and the need to make sure that school activities do not promote religion.

Lyles said in an email that the district hasn’t been served with the lawsuit, but had responded to the association’s concerned in two letters by offering a chance to discuss the district’s position with the district’s legal counsel. Lyles said the district hasn’t heard from the association since June 17.

“We disagree with the organization on a number of legal points and those are outlined in our responses,” Lyles said. “One issue is that their position would require the district to demonstrate a hostility, not neutrality, toward religion, which in of itself is in violation of the First Amendment.

Court records listed no attorney for the school district.

According to the lawsuit, the American Humanist Association has more than 175 chapters and affiliates across the country, with more than 20,000 members.

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