Federal judge refuses to block school prayers in Greenville County case

A federal judge Tuesday denied a humanist association’s motion for a preliminary injunction that would have blocked Greenville County school events from being held in churches and other places of worship and student-initiated prayer during school events.

Senior U.S. District Judge G. Ross Anderson Jr., at a court hearing, said the American Humanist Association’s allegations against the Greenville County school district lacked proof and were “making a mountain out of a mole hill.”

The judge also told an attorney for the association that “with all due respect and apologies” he had never heard of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, founded in 1941.

Anderson called the association’s charges against the school district bold “and disturbing.”

Thomas Barlow, a Columbia attorney representing the school district, said in court there was no basis for the injunction.

Aaron Kozloski, a South Carolina attorney representing the humanist association, had no comment after the judge’s ruling.

Oby Lyles, a Greenville County Schools spokesman, said district officials were “very pleased” with the court’s ruling.

“We have no further comment since the lawsuit is still pending,” Lyles said.

Kozloski reiterated in court what the group alleged against the school district in its federal lawsuit and related court filings — that school officials’ policies of holding a public elementary school graduation in North Greenville University’s chapel and including school-approved prayers violate the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

The association filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to prohibit the school district from allowing prayers to be delivered as part of any school-sponsored event, including graduation ceremonies, and from holding school-sponsored events in churches, chapels and other places of worship, according to federal court records.

The injunction request was part of the association’s lawsuit to prevent Mountain View Elementary School from holding its fifth-grade graduation ceremonies at North Greenville, a Christian college, according to court records.

In support of the motion, attorneys for the association included in a court filing a declaration of other plaintiffs, identified as “John and Jane Doe.”

The couple said in the filing they have children who attend Mountain View Elementary.

The couple said in the filing that, if called, they would testify their family doesn’t want to encounter “unconstitutional school-affiliated prayers” included as part of the school’s graduation ceremony or be forced to attend a ceremony held “in a sectarian venue” such as a church or chapel.

Doing so would heighten “our sense that the school chooses to affiliate itself with Christianity, leaving us as outsiders in our own public schools,” the couple said in the filing.

The official written program for the elementary school graduation in May called for prayers on two occasions as part of the ceremony, which took place in North Greenville’s Turner Chapel, according to the association’s suit.

The chapel’s auditorium included a Christian cross on the podium and stained glass that depicts religious imagery, according to the suit.

Two student speakers were asked to write a prayer, and each prayer was reviewed by a teacher or other school employee before the graduation, according to the suit.

North Greenville wasn’t named a defendant in the association’s suit.

In a statement Tuesday, North Greenville President Jimmy Epting said, “We at North Greenville University are very pleased with the judges’ decision and it is very appropriate for this situation. It allows our university to continue our efforts to meet the needs of our community and schools.”

Epting also said, “We believe that it’s time that our legislators and others take a stand in South Carolina against those that are trying to take away our constitutional rights.”