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School district and secularists settle school prayer lawsuit
A Georgia school district agreed to train staff and pay legal fees after being sued for allegedly violating First Amendment rights. - photo by Massarah Mikati
A federal lawsuit filed against a school district in Georgia for allegedly violating First Amendment rights by allowing football coaches to lead students in prayers and include Bible passages in team materials has been settled.

The American Humanist Association, an atheist advocacy group, sued the Hall County School District in Gainesville, Georgia, in December, according to The Atlanta-Journal Constitution. Representing three anonymous plaintiffs, AHA sought a permanent injunction prohibiting the staff and administration from leading or participating in prayers with students during school-sponsored activities.

The complaint detailed instances of football coaches leading student players in prayers along with player workout logs and game-day banners inscribed with Bible passages.

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs two of whom were a parent and her child student said they pay taxes to the school district and are "aggrieved by the acts and practices complained of herein because the School District affiliates itself with, prefers, promotes and endorses religion." The parent plaintiff said she does not want her child exposed to "the promotion of religion."

The lawsuit was settled Monday in an out-of-court agreement, according to the Gainesville Times, under which the school district agreed to train staff on First Amendment rights and pay AHA legal fees of $22,500 through insurance carriers.

"The Hall County School District admits to no violations of state or federal laws," Superintendent William Schofield wrote in a news release. "All parties agree it is paramount that the Constitution of the (U.S.) is protected and upheld. Furthermore ... we agree that routine professional training for staff should include the legal rights and responsibilities of individuals regarding issues related to religion in the public school setting."

In a news release, the AHA said it was pleased with the district's steps toward Constitutional compliance.

"This is a victory for the separation of church and state," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of AHA. When public schools remain secular, they uphold the rights of all students to learn, free from unnecessary religious intrusion.

Religion in high school athletics is fertile ground for First Amendment legal battles and debates.

The Rankin County School District in Mississippi was fined $7,500 by a district court and barred from including prayers and religious sermons in school activities, according to Christian Today. The case stemmed from a 16-year-old student's complaints about "Christian Assemblies" held during school hours, for which she believed her attendance was mandatory.

Although the school district denied the student's attendance was mandatory, U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves objected to the practice.

"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 honouring her and other students for their academic excellence," he wrote.

In June, heated debates ensued among high school athletics programs in Oklahoma over prayer at football games, The Item reported. The Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association has a policy that prohibits student-led prayers at high school football games.

Oklahoma legislators have condemned that policy, saying past court decisions have allowed exceptions to reciting prayers in the public sphere, such as the student body choosing a student to say a prayer.

Ed Sheakley, executive director of OSSAA, disagreed.

"Never, ever were we not going to allow students to pray," he told The Item. "But we are going to adhere to the Supreme Court and respect others."
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