JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi high school forced students to attend on-campus programs where fellow students urged them to turn to Jesus for hope and eternal life, according to an atheist group that has sued.
The district has denied that assemblies were mandatory and says they were legal.
A lawsuit filed by the American Humanist Association asks a federal judge to bar the Rankin County School District from having religious assemblies. The suit also seeks to hold Northwest Rankin High School Principal Charles Frazier personally liable. Humanist Association attorney Bill Burgess said Frazier should have known better than to allow the gathering.
The district has yet to respond to the lawsuit filed April 24 in U.S. District Court in Jackson, and administrators could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
It's the latest in a series of school prayer struggles in Mississippi. But while many of the cases have occurred in small towns, this one centers on a 1,600-student school in fast-growing suburban area that includes visible religious minorities including a Hindu temple. The Humanist Association, based in Washington, D.C., says some students there have no religious faith.
The suit was brought on behalf of a 16-year-old Northwest Rankin junior named only as M.B. in the complaint.
Rankin County Assistant Superintendent Richard Morrison, appointed by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant to the state Board of Education last year, told The Associated Press last month that the assembly at Northwest Rankin High School wasn't explicitly religious.
"It was not based on any church or any religion," said Morrison, who was principal at Northwest Rankin before being promoted to assistant superintendent.
But a cellphone video taken by a student and provided to AP by the atheist group shows otherwise. A group of students, described by Morrison as senior boys, discuss their history of personal problems. About seven minutes into the program, when talking about how they turned their lives around, one says "We find our hope in Jesus Christ."
One of program leaders also tells students: "We know it is not cool for us to stand up here and tell you that we follow Jesus. But that's OK. Because we care about you so much that there is no way that we could graduate from high school and have a hope that we believe is for eternity and not share it with you guys."
The lawsuit describes the students as representatives of Pinelake Church, the largest Southern Baptist church in Mississippi. The church's main campus is near the school.
The church's communications director, Kim Shirley, said last month no Pinelake representatives took part. "It wasn't something we put on," she said. Shirley declined to say if the students attend the 9,000-member church.
"Everyone seemed to know they at least attend the church," Burgess said, but indicated there was no evidence of official church involvement.
In this case, Morrison said students approached Frazier about holding the assemblies. He indicated they were legal in part because they were student-led.
"They're some courageous guys that want to make a difference in kids' lives," Morrison said. "We respect our state and federal guidelines. We know that our limits are. But we also know that students are leaders in our school."
Morrison said attendance was not mandatory, and students could have stayed in classrooms if they wanted.
The lawsuit claims otherwise, citing an email Frazier sent to teachers before the senior class assembly on April 9. It also says students were prevented by a school security officer from leaving.
Burgess said that after the humanist group sent the district a letter complaining about the assemblies, officials may have allowed sophomores and freshmen to skip programs held later in April. But he said even a voluntary assembly was still an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion, because it took place on school property during school hours.
Morrison said he understood Frazier had prescreened the program, which could undercut claims that administrators didn't endorse its religious content.
"He's chose this program," Burgess said of Frazier's actions. "That's fair to say."
The suit names Frazier personally and seeks punitive damages from him.