Mississippi school district fined $7,500 for opening assembly with prayer

According to a Pew Research Center survey, non-Christians and those unaffiliated with any religion are on the rise. Are we helping children learn the importance of interfaith dialogue? 

Christopher Aluka Berry/Reuters
Tempie Williams (L), 12, Dallin Cogbill, 13, and Kade Harkness, 13, bow their heads in prayer during a vigil for Marine Lance Cpl. Squire K. "Skip" Wells, one of the five military servicemen slain last week in Chattanooga in a domestic terror attack, at Sprayberry High School in Marietta, Georgia July 21, 2015.

The opening of a Mississippi school assembly honoring students who scored above 22 on their ACT college admissions has resulted in a $7,500 fine for the school district.

A US District Court fined the the Rankin, Miss. school district for inviting the assembly's attendees to join in an opening prayer led by a Methodist minister after a student sued on First Amendment grounds.

As Fox News reported, this is not the first time this school district has been found to run afoul of the Constitution. In 2013, a court settlement ordered the district to stop “proselytizing Christianity.” The decision came after the same student took the school district and the school’s then-principal to court for forcing her to attend a series of assemblies that promoted Christianity.

This time, US District Judge Carlton Reeves said the assembly violated his prior ruling. He rejected arguments that he shouldn’t sanction the school district because the ceremony was voluntary:

“The district’s breach did not take very long and it occurred in a very bold way,” Mr. Reeves wrote in his judgment. “Its conduct displays that the district did not make any effort to adhere to the agreed judgment,” as the Associated Press reported.

The report also notes that the student who sued in both cases was raised by a Methodist mother and a Sikh father and does not consider herself an atheist or an anti-Christian. She says that she wants to develop religious beliefs free of government coercion.

More and more across the United States, universal adherence to Christianity can no longer be taken for granted. According to a Religious Landscape Study done by the Pew Research Center, 70.7 percent of Americans identify as Christian. In the South, 76 percent say they are Christian – the highest percentage in the US. But a May 2015 survey found that both non-Christian faiths and those who considered themselves unaffiliated with any religion had increased between 2007 and 2014, while the proportion of Christians has declined.

Part of this decline can be attributed to the rise of interfaith marriages. As the Monitor’s Stephanie Hanes reported, some parents in these marriages are identifying their children as members of both parents' faiths. Parents in these unions are increasingly turning to interfaith organizations for support, as Brian and Jean Saucier – a Catholic and a Jew – did when they began attending meetings at the Jewish-Catholic Dialogue Group.

And religious dialogue starts at a young age. The Interfaith Youth Core is an organization that brings American college students together to celebrate what they call “religious pluralism.” This includes respect for people’s diverse religious and non-religious identities, mutually inspiring relationships between people of different backgrounds, and common action for common good.

Kids4Peace is an international organization based in Jerusalem that hosts activities for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim youth in Palestine, Israel, and North America. They offer programs for all ages that promote interfaith dialogue, community building, leadership development, and nonviolent action.

Peggy Stevens, the founder of the Boston chapter of Kids4Peace, told the Monitor, “I think the thread that has gone through my life is helping kids reach their potential and understand the potential of everyone around them. To train them as leaders, and as an educator, to train them to be good thinkers.” 

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