Northwest Rankin High School (NWRHS) in Mississippi is coming under fire, as it was revealed this week that students were forced to attend school assemblies in which local church members spoke about Christian values and led the students in Christian prayers. The American Humanist Association (AHA) filed a lawsuit against the school on Wednesday, citing not only the polarizing content in the presentations but also the fact that non-Christian students were not allowed to opt out of the assemblies. This is a gross overstepping of the boundary between church and state, and the guilty parties must apologize for their actions.
Students were given no advance notice of the assemblies, and as they filed into the auditorium they were told they were mandatory and they could not leave. When a member of the Pinelake Baptist Church opened the initial presentation by talking about finding hope in Jesus Christ, several students attempted to leave. According to the lawsuit, the school's truancy officer harassed these students and made them sit back down and pay attention to the presentation. The officer also found some students in the library who had been tipped off about the nature of the presentation and tried not to attend, but were forced to do so anyway.
Despite these allegations, the Rankin County School District continues to assert that the assemblies were not put on by the school and were not mandatory. While certain intelligence suggests the presentation was student-led and organized, the AHA still believes the school was involved in such a manner that would render the presentations unconstitutional on several levels.
"This practice is unquestionably a serious violation of the separation of church and state required by the Constitution," said a letter from the Appignani Humanist Legal Center in Washington, D.C.. "Pursuant to Supreme Court precedent, the school's sponsoring of and affiliation with, as well as endorsement of, Christianity through this event was unconstitutional."
According to the 1962 Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale, school-led prayer is unconstitutional, even if it is nondenominational and students who do not wish to participate are allowed to abstain. The event at NWRHS clearly infringed upon the rights of these students at a school that does not have a religious affiliation.
"It is sufficient that the presentation was school-sponsored and held on school grounds during class-time," the lawsuit stated. "The fact that this event was mandatory, and was promoted by the school principal only compounded the Establishment Clause violation."
The presentations also warned students about the dangers of homosexuality, premarital sex, and pornography. Each speaker discussed the "problems" of their pasts and how they were saved by Jesus Christ and the church, and encouraged students to embrace Christianity in order to save their lives.
While practicing religion on one's own time is perfectly fine, the students and school officials who thought these assemblies would be a good idea at a public school need a serious reality check. The content of these presentations were vastly inappropriate for a non-religious setting, and this lawsuit should serve to show NWRHS faithful that there is a clear line between preaching religious ideals and educating students in a public school.