With Four July Victories, No Summer Lull for AHA’s Legal Team

July tends to be a slow month in the legal field, but not this year for the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center (AHLC). There’s been no summer lull at the AHLC, where the litigation docket has seen a string of July successes.

The first came from Florida, where a federal magistrate issued an opinion refusing to dismiss the AHLC’s lawsuit against the City of Ocala and its mayor and police chief. The AHLC filed suit because the city had helped organize and promote a prayer vigil in September 2014, with the police chief even issuing a letter to the community saying that prayer was “necessary” to reverse a crime wave. The mayor and police chief both attended the prayer vigil and allowed uniformed police personnel to lead prayers and proselytize from the stage. The AHLC and several citizens complained about the city’s role in promoting the event before it took place, but city officials ignored the objections. The lawsuit was filed soon thereafter. Assuming the court follows the magistrate’s recommendations, the litigation will continue and the AHLC will seek a judgment declaring the city’s actions to be a constitutional violation.

Not long after the Ocala decision, we received a favorable federal court ruling on a contempt motion against the Rankin County School District in Mississippi. The court, at the AHLC’s request, found the school district in contempt for violating a consent decree that the AHLC had obtained in the fall of 2013. The AHLC filed the original lawsuit on behalf of a student after the school district held a mandatory assembly that included Christian prayers in 2013. Despite the decree that required the school to stop such prayer activity, the district again held another assembly with prayers in 2014, with the same student in attendance.

Because of the new violation the AHLC filed a contempt motion, which the school district opposed aggressively. After a lengthy battle, the AHLC emerged victorious with the court ruling that the district was indeed in contempt. The court order requires the school district to pay $7,500 to the student involved and also declares that any future violations will be fined at $10,000 each. The district must also pay the AHA’s legal fees, the final amount of which has not yet been determined.

In more activity from the Bible Belt this month, the AHLC announced that it has settled its lawsuit against a school district in Hall County, Georgia. The AHLC had filed suit last fall after the district ignored its protests that coaches were leading the high school football players in prayer. The AHLC’s protest letters were met with fierce public backlash in Hall County, as many from the community defiantly insisted that they would not allow religion to be removed from public school athletics. Nevertheless, three brave Hall County citizens were willing to serve as anonymous plaintiffs in the case, thus allowing the AHLC to pursue the matter in court.

Once litigation was filed, Hall County school officials were much less defiant than many of their constituents. The AHLC settled the case with an agreement that all school district principals and all staff dealing with extracurricular activities would be educated about parameters of the Establishment Clause. If there are future violations, school officials know we will be watching and will not hesitate to return to court. The agreement also requires the school district to cover the AHLC’s legal fees.

In yet more July activity, the legal center just announced a settlement agreement with the federal government in a case involving an inmate in a federal prison in Oregon who was not allowed to form a humanist group. The prisoner’s requests to form a group were repeatedly denied and treated dismissively by the prison’s administration and chaplain, but he persisted with help from AHA members and, eventually, the AHA itself. The AHLC filed suit in 2014 on the prisoner’s behalf in Oregon federal court, and eventually the settlement was reached. Not only is this prisoner now allowed to form a humanist group, but under the settlement agreement inmates in other federal prisons will be allowed to do so as well. “Humanism” will be added to the federal Bureau of Prisons Manuel of Inmate Beliefs and Practices, and Darwin Day will be recognized as an authorized observance for humanist inmates in the Oregon federal prison. The federal Bureau of Prisons agrees to consider requests for religious accommodations from humanist inmates in the same manner it considers other groups.

As you can see, July was no vacation month at the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. With one legal victory after another, the American Humanist Association is fighting and winning on behalf of church-state separation and equal rights for atheists and humanists.