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Humanist group sues Hall school district over prayers
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A lawsuit has been filed against the Hall County School District for promoting prayer and Christianity.

The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center filed a complaint Monday against the school system, Superintendent Will Schofield and Chestatee High School Principal Suzanne Jarrard.

In August, the group first accused coaches at Chestatee High of illegally leading students in prayer at football games and practices. It also voiced concerns regarding school pamphlets and paraphernalia with biblical references or quotes.

The complaint filed Monday states:

“This action challenges Defendants’ policy, practice, and custom of authorizing faculty, coaches and other school officials to lead and participate in prayer with students during school-sponsored activities, and their policy, practice, and custom of inserting biblical references into official football team documents and banners, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as applied to Georgia by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The complainants, listed anonymously as Jane Doe, Jane Roe and Jane Coe, are all members of the American Humanist Association. The plaintiffs filed a motion to proceed anonymously, claiming “identification poses a risk of retaliatory physical or mental harm to the requesting party or even more critically, to innocent non-parties.”

Doe is a parent of a Hall County School District student who, once old enough, will attend Chestatee High School, where the complaint originated.

Doe claims her child has been “exposed to the promotion of religion.”

Roe and Coe are residents in the school district who are “aggrieved by the acts and practices complained of,” according to the complaint.

Schofield said he was made aware of the lawsuit through an emailed media release. He said the complaint will not change the district’s focus on education.

“We will continue to focus on our boys and girls and working with the Hall County community to make sure we’re providing the education they desire for their children,” Schofield said. “We’ll just move forward at a deliberate pace and continue to do things ethically, legally and in a manner this community expects.”

Following the filing of the suit, a letter was sent from the U.S. District Court’s Northern District of Georgia to Monica Miller with the American Humanist Association, regarding her role as counsel in the case.

As an out-of-state attorney, Miller must apply for pro hac vice admission, a $150 fee, or give notice of substitution of counsel.

After 30 days and no response from Miller, the case status would be brought to the attention of the assigned judge.

The humanist group sent and published a letter to the school system Aug. 12 regarding the actions of football coaches at the school.

The law office Harben, Hartley and Hawkins LLP, representing the district, responded in a letter dated Aug. 26. The letter stated Schofield’s commitment to ensuring the rights of students, staff and residents are protected under both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

The group’s legal center replied with a letter Aug. 27, claiming the actions were still occurring and the prior letter was not a resolution to the problem.

“We approached the school district back in August about several church-state violations that were brought to our attention,” said David Niose, legal director of the center.

“Their response was rather dismissive and they don’t seem to think there’s any problem. We tried very hard to get them to have a dialogue with us about what’s going on, but unfortunately they showed no interest whatsoever and left us with no choice but litigation.”

Schofield said in a statement released Tuesday the district investigated the claims made earlier this year and “responded appropriately.”

He encouraged all district employees and students to focus on the system’s mission of education.

“Attempts to distract our district from our mission into supporting the efforts of special interest groups will always be discouraged,” he said. “This district, along with others in our nation, must focus our limited time and resources on matters that prepare and enable our students to be the productive citizens of tomorrow, which includes respecting all rights guaranteed by our Constitution.”

The lawsuit seeks confirmation the district’s actions violate the Establishment Clause and an injunction prohibiting such actions in the future.

Specifically, the suit asks the court to prohibit “school district faculty, coaches and other school officials from leading, initiating or participating in prayers with students at school sponsored activities and specifically at athletic games and practices and marching band practices and performances.”

The suit also requests awarding nominal damages, attorney’s fees and any costs incurred in prosecuting the action to the plaintiffs.