Will Children be Banned From Praying at Their Graduation?

If angry atheists have their way, that’s exactly what will happen.

The American Humanist Association, an angry atheist group that peruses the country for a small town to attack in its attempt to eviscerate faith from public life, has sued a Greenville, South Carolina school over a 5th Grade graduation ceremony.


The ridiculous lawsuit challenges two aspects of this graduation: the location itself and what students are allowed to say.

I recently appeared on The Blaze TV’s Real News program to discuss this case and the broader affront to religion in public life.

In this case the school ran out of room in their crowded cafeteria to hold the graduation and allow grandparents and others to attend the event, so they decided to rent out a larger space.  Just so happens the larger, more comfortable space available to them was a private Christian college facility.

To this group of angry atheists, the building itself is somehow a violation of the Establishment Clause, as if the religiosity of the location were toxic to the children.

While state Supreme Courts and federal appeals courts are all over the map on this issue, the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to weigh in.  It fact, it is currently decided whether to take a case on this issue, Elmbrook School District v. Doe, with that decision expected any day.  What the Supreme Court has said is that if the purpose and effect of the government’s decision doesn’t advance religion, it’s not a violation of the Constitution.

It hard to imaging that using a facility in order to gain more space, have comfortable seating, and better viewing of the actual ceremony could possible be considered as anything but a secular purpose by a reasonable observer.  And as in this case, all religious materials, Bibles, tracks and the like, were removed.  The fact of the matter remains that the building itself can’t proselytize anyone.  The very claim that use of the building could be a violation of the Constitution is the inverse of an argument that has been repeatedly shut down.  The Supreme Court has long held that a church renting a school is not a violation of the Constitution.  Why would the reverse, a school renting a church building, be any different?


Unfortunately, if angry atheists have their way, it could be a violation of the Constitution for a public school basketball team to play an away game against a Christian school in their gymnasium.  That’s the absurdity of this argument.

The second attack made by this angry atheist group belies their true intentions.  They are literally asking the school to institute a policy censoring students’ speeches to ensure that no student utters a prayer.

In this case the school allows students who receive various academic and civic awards an opportunity to speak to their classmates.  The school says that it does not and will not censor those speeches.  Thus, if a student wishes to use his or her speaking time to pray, they can, just as they could read a poem if they wished.

This is exactly the right policy.  The Supreme Court has long held that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”  If a student wishes to thank their teacher, they are free to do so, and if they wish to thank God for their teacher, they are just as free to do that as well.

In this case, the federal district court judge agreed on both issues shooting down the American Humanist Association’s attempt to block future graduations from proceeding as planned.  However, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the judge didn’t provide sufficient legal reasoning for that decision and sent the case back down to the trial court for a rehearing.  In fact, it made the unusual move of stripping the case away from the original judge and reassigning it.  The result amounts to a legal do-over, as a different judge will be forced to decide the case as it moves forward.


The lesson to be learned here is not to back down.  In fact, one week before the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway recognizing the constitutionality of legislative prayer, even in “Jesus” name, an angry atheist group successfully bullied a small locality in Pismo Beach, California into banning all future legislative prayer.  The town settled the case one week before the Supreme Court shot down the angry atheists entire legal theory.

Thankfully, the school district in this case continues to stand up to these bullying techniques.  But it just goes to show the importance of taking a stand in these cases.

This article is crossposted at the ACLJ’s Docket Blog.


Matthew Clark is Associate Counsel for Government Affairs and Media Advocacy with the ACLJ. A lifelong citizen of the Commonwealth of Virginia, he lives with his wife and three boys in Northern Virginia. Follow Matthew Clark: @_MatthewClark.


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