Atheist group renews suit regarding school prayer in Rankin County schools

14886755-smallJACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A student supported by an atheist group says the Rankin County school district is still violating a ban on school prayer.

The senior at Northwest Rankin High School, represented by the American Humanist Association, filed a contempt motion Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Jackson. The student says an April 17 districtwide honors program violated the district’s November settlement of a lawsuit over Christian-themed assemblies at the school.

A district spokeswoman and a lawyer didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In an affidavit, the student said the Rev. Rob Gill, pastor of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, gave an invocation at the honors program, meant to recognize all students in the district who scored above 22 on the ACT test.

The student said she felt pressured to participate in a prayer that she perceived as a reference to Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The student said Rankin County Superintendent Lynn Weathersby and other officials took part.

“As a result of the defendants’ actions surrounding the prayer at the awards ceremony, I felt incredibly embarrassed, humiliated and frustrated,” states the 17-year-old student, identified only as M.B. in the complaint.

The student said she was also forced to attend the original assembly at Northwest Rankin that sparked the lawsuit.

The association says the district agreed to bar official prayer during the school day, citing a policy Rankin County adopted in July 2013 that states in part that “school activities conducted during instructional hours should neither advance, endorse or inhibit any religion; should be primarily for secular purposes and should not obligate or coerce any person into participation in a religious activity.”

Monica Miller, a lawyer for the association, said the assembly took place during school hours and is covered by the consent decree. Miller said the association contends that any official prayer at a student activity is an unconstitutional promotion of religion, citing U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

That same high court ruled last week that organized prayer before government meetings was permissible.

A 2013 state law tried to create a way for Mississippi public school students to pray at football games, graduations and other school functions. But because the prayer in question wasn’t delivered by a student, the law doesn’t appear to apply.

The association asks U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves to issue civil contempt fines of $1,000 apiece against the district and Northwest Rankin Principal Charles Frazier, giving the money to the student, and to threaten the district with a $20,000 fine for any future violation. The student also asked that Reeves make the district pay attorney fees. The association was awarded $15,000 in fees in the initial settlement.