October 2016 Church & State - October 2016

S.C. County School Board May Reinstate Vocal Prayer After Pressure From Lawmakers

  AU admin

A South Carolina county school board has reversed course and will again open its meetings with a prayer, even though it had previously dropped its exclusionary prayer policy following a complaint by Americans United.

The Berkeley County School Board had a longstanding practice of opening all of its meetings with the Lord’s Prayer, a Christian invocation with roots in the New Testament.

After receiving a complaint about this matter, Americans United in June wrote to the board asking it to drop the policy.

“[T]he Board’s practice exploits the prayer opportunity to advance the Christian faith,” AU attorneys informed the board.

The letter also explained that some notable U.S. Supreme Court decisions are not on the board’s side. In Marsh v. Chambers and Greece v. Galloway, the high court allowed government bodies to open their meetings with prayers under certain conditions – even if the majority of the invocations are Christian.

But these rulings don’t apply to school boards, in part because students sometimes attend those meetings, AU pointed out.

“Because students are impressionable, and because their attendance at schools is involuntary, courts are ‘particularly vigilant in monitoring compliance with the [First Amendment] in elementary and secondary schools,’” the letter stated.

In June, the board opened its proceedings by offering a moment of silence for the first time. The Charles­ton Post and Courier reported that all nine members bowed their heads in a ceremony before the meeting.

But the board voted in August to reinstate the opening invocation, and the reversal may have come thanks to outside interference. The Post and Courier reported in July that state Sen. Larry Grooms (R-Charles­ton) pressured the board to return to vocal prayer.

Grooms and 50 state lawmakers sent a letter to the board expressing disappointment over the change and claiming that American history supports the previous prayer practice.

“We are disappointed by the Berkeley County School Board’s announcement that it will end its tradition of offering a public prayer before official meetings,” read the letter. “For hundreds of years, Americans have incorporated prayer into public meetings to ask for God’s wisdom for their deliberative bodies. Case law and state law affirm their right to do so.” 

The board had planned to offer “non-sectarian and non-denominational” prayers but in September delayed implementation of the new policy. The Post and Courier reported that board members said they want to gather more information before proceeding.

Attorneys at Americans United are continuing to monitor the situation.

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