Chesterfield County School District and the American Civil Liberties Union said Friday they have agreed on settling a federal lawsuit claiming county public schools unconstitutionally promoted religion with a middle school assembly featuring a Christian rapper and youth evangelist.
District spokesman Ken Buck said the school board voted 6-3 on Thursday to approve a consent decree and order that must be approved by a federal judge.
"Following legal advice that various practices and events in the schools related to religion needed to stop occurring, based on court decisions interpreting the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the board majority approved the consent decree and order," said a statement released by the district.
The lawsuit was filed last month on behalf of a middle school student and his father who are atheists. The suit was over an event last year at New Heights Middle School in Chesterfield County, located north of Florence on the North Carolina state line.
The suit alleged "the district has a longstanding custom, policy, and practice of coercing and encouraging religious activities, as well as conveying religious messages throughout district schools, including at New Heights Middle."
"I'm relieved that the school is taking the appropriate measures to make sure that my child -- and any child -- will feel comfortable and welcome no matter what he believes," said Jonathan Anderson, the father of the boy who attends New Heights.
Buck said the board was advised that defending the suit would mean thousands of dollars in court costs, only to have a court-imposed order.
"The board wishes to make it clear that it intends to abide by the constitutional principle of separation of church and state while also recognizing and allowing the permissible exercise of religion by its staff and students and all citizens," the statement said.
The lawsuit alleged Anderson's son was given a choice of attending the September rally with the rapper or reporting to the in-school suspension room.
The student felt pressured because being sent to the suspension room "was basically intended to punish them for refusing to go to the religious event," the suit alleged.
On his way to the concert, the student's teacher said, "Isn't this going to be fun?"
When the student said he was an atheist, he was told by the teacher, "I wouldn't brag about that," the lawsuit added.
Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU in South Carolina, said the organization has had reports of similar activities in rural districts in the state.
"The hope would be that this acknowledges school authorities have the responsibility to respect everybody's views and beliefs and not cross the line," she said. "The hope would be that it's a reminder."
Middleton said that while deeply held Christian views are part of the culture of the Bible Belt in areas of the Upstate, religious toleration has deep roots in South Carolina, dating to the founding of Charleston in 1670.
"We have historically been a diverse state since the earliest pre-Revolutionary War days when there have been a number of different kinds of faiths," she said. "We thrived because we tolerated different beliefs."