Legal Victory! Mississippi High School Ends Evangelical Assemblies, Pays AHA Attorney Fees

On November 26, 2013, a judgment was entered by a federal court in a case brought by the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center on behalf of a student at a Rankin County, Mississippi high school challenging the proselytizing religious assemblies it staged for students earlier this year. The lawsuit was filed April 24, 2013 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi against administrators of Northwest Rankin High School in Flowood, MS and the county school district.

A copy of the complaint filed in the suit can be found here. Documents concerning the judgment can be found here and here.

The judgment includes an admission of liability by the defendants that they violated the Establishment Clause, the provision of the Constitution that requires separation of church and state. It also requires the school district to comply with a new policy that prohibits future such violations and orders the defendants to pay the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees.

“A lot has been accomplished and I’m pleased with the outcome of the suit,” said Magdalene “Gracie” Bedi, the student plaintiff in the case. “I’m grateful for the school’s maturity throughout this ordeal and I look forward to graduating with them on a positive note. No one should have to question their rights in a public school and I think Northwest [Rankin High School] realizes this now.”

Bedi published a personal essay in the May 15, 2013, issue of Humanist Network News explaining the details of the assembly and why she decided to move forward with the lawsuit.

Before filing suit, a letter was sent asking school officials to stop the practice, where a student representative of the Pinelake Baptist Church spoke of finding “hope” in “Jesus Christ,” but the assemblies continued with school administrators insisting the assemblies were “student-led and organized.” According to students present, however, those who attempted to leave were prevented from doing so. At the end of the presentation, the speakers led the students in a Christian prayer. Videos captured by students can be found here and here.

“We are pleased that the school’s administrators have admitted that they violated the Constitution and agreed to continuing court oversight to prevent future violations,” said William Burgess, legal coordinator of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. “There was clear evidence that these Christian assemblies were endorsed and organized by the school. To continue to deny a constitutional violation had taken place was untenable.”