A Look Back at AHA Legal Work

Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

As the American Humanist Association (AHA) celebrates its 80th Anniversary this month, we reflect on some of our legal center milestones. In 2006, Louis Appignani founded the Appignani Humanist Legal Center—AHA’s legal arm—to defend the fundamental principle of our democracy: the separation of church and state. Since its creation, AHA’s Legal Center has litigated dozens of cases across the nation and in front of the Supreme Court protecting the First Amendment. The Legal Center has made significant strides in all aspects of American government, from public schools to federal prisons, local city and police departments to the U.S. Air Force. This article highlights a few of our more notable victories. Please visit our website to view all of the AHA’s legal center wins and litigation activity.

The Supreme Court

The AHA made history when it presented its first, and most well-known, case before the U.S. Supreme Court, American Legion v. American Humanist Association. AHA’s Legal Director and Senior Counsel, Monica Miller, argued the case after turning 33, making her one of the youngest lawyers to argue before the Supreme Court.

The AHA argued against the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, American Legion, and the United States Government. Likewise, this was the first case of its kind heard by Justice Brett Kavanaugh after he joined the Supreme Court. On its face, the case concerned a 40-foot-tall Christian cross owned and maintained by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission. However, this case placed years of fundamental Establishment Clause precedence on the brink of being overturned in the post-Kennedy court.

The cross was permitted to stand due to its longevity and connection to World War I. Nevertheless, Miller preserved both national precedent forbidding government-sponsored religious symbols and the paramount Lemon test through her diligent and tireless work. Notably, PBS named the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent in our case as one of the top 5 opinions Justice Ginsburg had authored.

Federal Government

Starting in 2014, the Legal Center achieved several groundbreaking victories at the federal level:

U.S. Air Force

In August 2014, the AHA sent a letter to the United States Air Force on behalf of a service member at the Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada, who had been denied reenlistment for omitting the phrase “so help me God” from their contract. The matter was brought to the AHA’s attention by the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF), an organization that builds community for the thousands of nontheist service members contending every day with overt religiosity in the military.

Following the letter sent by the AHA, Maj. Stewart L. Rountree responded that all graduates will be informed of the option to take a secular oath, ensuring the constitutional rights of all service members are protected.

Federal Bureau of Prisons

In April 2014, the AHA filed a lawsuit in the District Court of Oregon against the Federal Bureau of Prisons seeking equal rights for humanist inmates. The case, American Humanist Association v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, resulted in a settlement whereby the Federal Bureau of Prisons agreed to acknowledge humanism as a worldview that deserves the same recognition as theistic religious beliefs. The Bureau altered the Manual on Inmate Beliefs and Practices to include a section on humanism, allowing inmates to identify as humanists for official assignment purposes. This victory resulted in a myriad of similar victories in State prisons that now recognize humanism, including North Carolina, Texas, Nevada, California, Wyoming, and Kansas.

Immigration and Naturalization Service

The AHA has also protected the rights of secular conscientious objectors in their naturalization applications. In 2013, the AHA represented Margaret Doughty, whose application for citizenship was met with a demand that she provide proof from a church to justify her request to opt-out of the requirement that she “bear arms” in defense of the United States. The AHA defended Doughty’s constitutional right to assert a secular moral basis for her conscientious objector status. In response to a letter AHA sent on behalf of Doughty, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reversed course and withdrew its demand for evidence from a church.

In 2014, the AHA represented Adriana Ramirez, who was subject to the same demand as Doughty. Following another letter sent by the AHA, the USCIS again reversed course and withdrew the requirement.

Public Schools

In 2013, the AHA successfully ended a school’s practice of including Christian sermons and prayers in student assemblies in AHA v. Rankin County School District before the Southern District Court of Mississippi. At the assemblies church representatives both discussed and presented videos on “finding hope in Jesus Christ.” In 2014, the school district and AHA entered into a consent decree prohibiting the school district from violating the Establishment Clause. However, the AHA became aware of the school district’s separate practice of inviting a Christian reverend to deliver invocations at ACT award ceremonies, which continued in 2014 after signing the consent decree. Likewise, in 2014, the school district promoted the distribution of Gideon Bibles to students.

The Legal Center filed a motion to hold the school in contempt for its willful violation of the consent decree and Establishment Clause. The court agreed, awarding damages plus additional penalties for any future infraction, and permanently enjoined the school district from “including prayer or religious sermons in any school-sponsored event.”

In 2014, the AHA filed a lawsuit on behalf of parents objecting to a Colorado school district’s promotion of a church-sponsored service trip to Guatemala involving students. The case, American Humanist Association v. Douglas County School District, began with AHA appealing an initial dismissal by the district court. The AHA argued before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in November 2016, which reversed the lower court’s decision and sent the case back on remand. Then, in 2018, the District Court of Colorado ruled the school district violated the Establishment Clause by sending flyers and emails asking parents to make donations to the trip, and by hosting a supply drive for the trip at a school.

In 2015, the AHA filed a lawsuit in the Western District of Missouri against Joplin Schools Public School District on behalf of a local non-Christian woman and her children. The school district regularly sent students on field trips to Victory Ministry and Sports Complex, a Christian ministry that prominently featured religious messages and images throughout its facility. Some of these field trips required parents to sign waivers demanding that they allow Victory Ministry staff to proselytize to their children. It was subsequently revealed the school was using the Victory facility for numerous activities, including sending children there for so-called abstinence-only sex education without the knowledge of parents.

In 2017, the district court ruled in favor of the AHA, granting a summary judgement motion and finding the field trips and sex education program were impermissible under the Establishment Clause.

Most recently, the Legal Center secured a victory against Greenville County School District’s practice of permitting prayers at an elementary graduation and holding the graduation at a religious venue in South Carolina. The seven-year case, American Humanist Association v. Greenville County School District, began with AHA securing an early victory in 2015 where the District Court of South Carolina ruled the graduations prior to 2013 included unconstitutional school-sanctioned prayer. In 2017, the District Court ruled the district could not use religious venues for graduations. In 2019, the AHA secured a permanent injunction against the district’s use of prayers after District Court found the school district had not adequately distanced itself from school prayer.

Town Meetings

In one of the AHA’s first cases filed and won before a Republican-appointed judge, American Humanist Association v. Carroll County, the AHA challenged the Board of Commissioners of Carroll County for its members giving sectarian prayers to open their meetings. The prayers made references to “Jesus,” “Lord,” and “Savior,” and were directed to the public.

During the litigation, the Supreme Court decided Town of Greece v. Galloway, which changed the precedent on legislative prayers and permitted religious leaders and citizens from all faiths to participate in legislative prayers. Yet, regardless of this change in law, the AHA  succeeded in its challenge. The case ended in a settlement whereby the Commissioners agreed to end their practice of delivering sectarian prayers.

Throughout the years, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center has aided the AHA in its fight to maintain the separation of church and state and the religious freedoms that this country was built on. The Legal Center continues to push against proselytization, indoctrination, and the denial of rights to humanists, nontheists, and minority religions. We look forward to the many years to come.