Content Regulation / Censorship, Religious Expression
Otto-Preminger-Institut v. Austria
Closed Expands Expression
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After assenting to an Agreed Judgment in a similar suit the previous year, the Rankin County School District was sued by one of its student. The student sued after a school assembly included Christian prayers and sermon, which was a violation of the agreement. The court found against the District, which also allowed for the distribution of Bibles at a school, and the District was required to pay fines and agree to abstain from these activities in the future.
In early 2013, Northwest Rankin High School had student assemblies during school hours that included Christian prayers and sermon. M.B., a junior at this high school sued the Rankin County School District and the high school’s principal, Charles Franzier. In her 2013 suit, the District admitted it violated M.B.’s rights under the First Amendment, and it adopted a “Religion in Public Schools Policy” (Religion Policy), which states, “‘school activities conducted during instructional hours should neither advance, endorse or [sic] inhibit any religion.’” The Religion Policy was incorporated into the court’s Agreed Judgment, and the case was dismissed with prejudice.
In April 2014, one of the District’s schools hosted an assembly for student scoring high on the ACT, which included M.B. The school’s officials “‘invited a Christian Reverend to deliver a prayer at a school-sponsored event.’“ In response to this assembly, M.B. filed a Motion for Civil Contempt and Motion to Enforce Consent Decree in May 2014.
M.B. argued that the April 2014 assembly was a violation of the “Consent Decree,” because the school invited a Christian Reverend to say a prayer. In addition to some procedural arguments, the District argued that M.B. was not required to attend this event, school officials should be exempt from handling complex constitutional law, and the district should not be liable when its personnel act in good faith.
M.B. discussed the “coercive effect of the invocation and surrounding activities.”  For example, invitees were told to “‘dress in church attire,’” and M.B. stated she felt pressured to bow her head during prayer.  Cumulatively, the court found that M.B. was compelled to participate in religious activities. The District argued that, per Town of Greece v. Galloway, 134 S. Ct. 1811 (2014), “‘a lay person is not equipped to undertake the study and interpretation that a lawyer brings to a question of law.’”  However, the court pointed to the District’s comparable constitutional violations less than six months before. Therefore, the court deemed that the District was informed, given that it had the Religion Policy in place. The principal, however, who had no control over the activities, was not personally liable in this case. Under Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), the District is required to instruct school personnel on the District’s policy and how to comply with it. Thus, the court rejected the District’s argument that it is free from immunity because its personnel acted in good faith, which is not a defense.
The remaining issue before the court was “‘whether the alleged contemnor complied with the court’s order,’” under which the District must have a secular purpose for its activity and not require individuals to participate in religious activities.  The District blatantly defied these obligations when it failed to act in a neutral way, and, therefore, the District has violated the Agreed Judgment and is in contempt. Additionally, in October 2014, the principal of a school in the District had his students walk through a hall where member of Gideons International, a Christian association, was handing out Bibles, which the Fifth Circuit had previously held to be unconstitutional. Applying the “coercion test” from Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992), the court found that this District’s action of allowing Bibles to be distributed was unconstitutionally coercive, especially given the children’s age and susceptibility to persuasion, despite the District’s argument that its participation was passive. Thus, the District’s principal, who expressly allowed for this activity, violated the Agreed Judgment.
The court ruled that the School District had violated the Court’s Consent Decree entered in November 2013, and the court granted, in part, the plaintiff’s motion. The court ordered that that District pay M.B. $2,500 for infringing upon her rights and $5,000 for the District’s violation of the agreement when it allowed for the distribution on bibles. The District must also pay $10,000 for any future violations of the Consent Decree and pay for Plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees. The Defendants must comply with the Consent Decree’s and are “permanently enjoined from including prayer or religious sermons in any school-sponsored event…”. 
 Pg. 10 of the order, http://americanhumanist.org/system/storage/2/41/2/5654/RankinMotionforContemptORDER7-10-15.pdf.
 Pg. 11 of the order, id.
 Pg. 14 of the order, id.
 Pg. 21 of the order, id.
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This decision expands freedom of expression by up holding M.B.’s First Amendment rights to freedom of religion.
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