Mississippi High School Forced Students to Attend Religious Assemblies

Northwest Rankin High SchoolNorthwest Rankin High School in Flowood, Mississippi is facing a nationally-publicized lawsuit after allegedly forcing students to attend several mandatory assemblies which featured videos with messages about Jesus Christ, prayer, and local-church-lead proselytizing. In their lawsuit against the school, The American Humanist Association argues that the school mandated the assemblies and refused to let students leave each assembly once they realized what the content involved:

On April 9, 2013, Principal Frazier sent an e-mail message to all faculty members at 8:04 a.m. instructing them to send students to a mandatory assembly in the Performing Arts Building (“PAB”) [snip]

The School did not inform the students what the presentation at the Senior Assembly would be about or who would be making it. The students were only told that attendance at the assembly was required

Later in the complaint, after describing the extensive lengths the church (Pinelake Baptist Church) went to in order to hold a school-sanctioned sermon, an interesting fact is noted that demonstrates the school’s First Amendment culpability: “…faculty and parents stood near the exit door, preventing students from leaving.”

To bolster their case against the school, one student even recorded one of the assemblies. Many of the comments and quotations from the complaint originate from the video and will inevitably be used should the lawsuit actually make it to trial.

Though the school has already denied the allegations against them, the facts surrounding the assemblies don’t seem to support their story. In their statement, the school said “Our students have the freedom to organize student-led and planned meetings and the assembly in question was student led and organized. The meetings were not mandatory.” The only problem with their statement is the organized emails from staff coordinating the events, the use of auditorium space and herding of students into those spaces during school hours, and the refusal by staff to allow the students to leave once they discovered what the content of the assemblies was.William Burgess, legal coordinator of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, agreed when he said “It is clear that these assemblies are put on by the school itself. They were staged in a school room, during the school day and the school sent an email to teachers telling them that students were required to attend. As the Supreme Court has made clear, when a school sponsors an event, the religious speech of speakers, including students or other private parties, is attributable to the school and therefore subject to the Establishment Clause.”

While I fully support a student’s right to organize on campus religious associations, incidents like this where a school forces one religion on all students can’t be allowed. Based on the facts as they stand in addition to the fact that video of one of the assemblies exists, I doubt this will ever actually make it to court (as it will most likely be settled well before then).

Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.


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