- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 15, 2014

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - An atheist group says it objects to a Mississippi principal telling fifth-grade teachers to take students through a public school lobby where Gideons were handing out Bibles.

The American Humanist Association sent a letter of complaint Tuesday to Kara Killough, principal of Northwest Rankin Elementary School in Rankin County, just outside Jackson; and other Rankin County School District officials, including Superintendent Lynn Weathersby.

The Washington-based association said the school violated the First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion by making it easy for Gideons to hand out Bibles on campus last Friday.

A Northwest Rankin School District spokeswoman did not immediately return calls Tuesday.

The American Humanist Association sued the Rankin County School District in 2013 over religious assemblies at Northwest Rankin High School. The association said in its letter Tuesday that allowing Gideons to hand out Bibles violates the terms of the consent decree that settled the lawsuit.

In the letter to school district officials, association attorney Monica Miller quoted from an Oct. 7 email sent from Killough’s account to a Northwest Rankin Elementary mailing list. Among the list of events, the principal’s email said that on Friday, Oct. 10: “Gideons will set up in the lobby of the fifth grade building at 7:35. Fifth grade teachers - please walk your class through the lobby at that time.”

The association said several courts - including the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles cases from Mississippi - have ruled that government entities have violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by helping Gideons or other groups hand out Bibles. At Northwest Rankin Elementary, “the teachers were not merely passive observers but were expressly instructed to assist the Gideons by making the children walk through the lobby where the Bibles were distributed,” Miller wrote.

“We are troubled by the school district’s complete disregard for the Establishment Clause and the rights of religious minorities in the district,” Miller wrote. “The school’s recent actions also demonstrate a complete disregard for the Consent Decree, or worse, an intentional unwillingness to comply with its terms.”

This is not the first time the American Humanist Association has said Rankin County schools violated the consent decree in the lawsuit over religious practices. The group supported a Northwest Rankin High School student who said she felt pressured, during an academic honors assembly in April, to participate in a prayer she perceived had a reference to Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The student said Weathersby and other officials took part.

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