Mississippi court bars inclusion of prayers, religious sermons in all school activities

A judge has fined a school district in Mississippi for distributing Gideon bibles to students.(Facebook/Gideons International)

A district court has fined a school district in Mississippi $7,500 and barred it from including prayers and religious sermons in all school activities.

US District Judge Carlton Reeves found the Rankin County School District in Brandon and principal Charles Frazier of Northwest Rankin High School guilty of violating a 2013 agreement that prohibited them from including Christian sermons and prayers in school assemblies.

"Defendants are permanently enjoined from including prayer or religious sermons in any school-sponsored event including but not limited to assemblies, graduations, awards ceremonies, athletic events and any other school event subject to the limitations set out in the Equal Access Act," Reeves wrote in his decision dated July 10, adding that the defendants should comply with the Consent Decree signed in 2013.

The case stemmed from a complaint filed by 16-year-old M.B., who was then a student at Rankin school, against a series of "Christian Assemblies" held during school hours on April 10, 2013 in which she believed that her attendance was made mandatory, according to court papers.

In response to the complaint, the school district adopted a "religion in public schools policy."

The following school term in November 2013, a court ruling incorporated the religion policy among school policies and ordered the school district to follow it.

The case filed by M.B. was dismissed with prejudice. But in May 2014, the same student filed a motion to enforce the consent decree and motion for civil contempt when an assembly was held at Brandon High School on April 17, 2014 wherein school officials invited a Christian preacher to deliver a prayer at a ceremony where the complainant was one of the honourees.

The school district denied that the student's attendance at the ceremony was made mandatory.

But M.B. said the event violated the consent decree by including the Christian preacher in the program.

She said in October last year, after she graduated—with the motion for contempt still pending—the school district assisted the Gideons in the distribution of bibles at one elementary school.

In his decision, Reeves said whether the ceremony cited in the case was mandatory or not is immaterial.

"The event was still coercive as it unnecessarily required Plaintiff to make the difficult decision between being exposed to a religious ritual she found objectionable or not attend an event honouring her and other students for their academic excellence," the judge wrote.

About the bible distribution, Greeves said, "Even absent the connection of any particular religious group, Bible distribution at public schools is intrinsically unconstitutional because it 'interfere[s] with the rights of parents to raise their children according to family religious traditions.'"

Reeves ordered the school district to pay M.B. $2,500 for deprivation of her constitutional rights and $5,000 for the distribution of bibles.

"Defendant School District shall pay a fine of $10,000 per infraction to the Plaintiff for any future violations of the Consent Decree," the judge ordered.