Here’s what happened in Rankin County, Mississippi that resulted in the district being held in contempt of court.

A student (identified in the case as M.B.) sued the district during her junior year of high school, alleging that the district had a practice of including Christian sermons and prayers in student assemblies.  The district admitted that it had been violating the Constitution, adopted a new Religion in Public Schools Policy and settled the lawsuit by entering into an Agreed Judgment, approved by the federal court.

Six months later, the district held an assembly to honor students who scored high on the ACT.  M.B. was one of the honorees.  The printed program for the event included an Invocation by a local Methodist preacher.  The Reverend asked the students to stand and bow their heads.  He delivered the invocation, concluding with: “in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

M.B. filed a Motion, asking the court to find the district in contempt of court for violating the Agreed Judgment.  The district admitted that the prayer at the ceremony was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  However, the district argued that there were two reasons why it should not be held in contempt of court.

But Your Honor: She Didn’t Have to Be There!

First, the district pointed out that the ceremony was voluntary: M.B. did not have to be there.  The court said that this was “immaterial.”  The event was voluntary, but the inclusion of the prayer made it “coercive.” The court: “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 honoring her and other students for their academic excellence.”

But Your Honor: This Stuff is Complicated!

Second, the district argued that First Amendment law is so complicated that its administrators, who are not lawyers, should not be held in contempt for running afoul of its complexities.  The court described this, without irony, as “a Hail Mary pass.”  The court pointed out that the issue was not the ins and outs of the First Amendment: it was whether the district had violated an Agreed Judgment that it voluntarily entered into.  Indeed, in a previous court filing, the district had stated that its “Religion Policy” was “stated in terms which are clear and easily understood by teachers, administrators, other school officials, and any groups seeking to make use of the school facilities.”

But Your Honor: We Acted in Good Faith! The PR Director Didn’t Understand!

It did not help the district to assert that the PR Director who organized the ceremony acted in good faith and did not understand that the preacher’s prayer was a mistake.  The court pointed out that the district was responsible for making sure that all of its employees understood the Religion Policy.

And What About Those Gideon Bibles?

By filing the suit, the student uncovered other practices in the school.  In particular, the court addressed the principal of an elementary school directing all 5th grade teachers to lead their classes to an area in the hallway where Gideons would be distributing Bibles.  This happened after the Agreed Judgment was entered into.  The court found this to be further evidence of the district’s “egregious” violation of the Agreed Judgment.

The court ordered the district to pay the Plaintiff $7,500.  The district will have to pay a fine of $10,000 for any future violation.  The district will have to pay M.B.’s attorneys’ fees and costs of court.  And the district is now 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.”

The case is M.B. v. Rankin County School District, decided by the federal court for the Southern District of Mississippi on July 10, 2015.  It is cited at 2015 WL 5023115.