PICKENS COUNTY— A recent request to cut out invocations at School District of Pickens County board meetings may be the source of change of the practice of praying at the governmental meeting
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin, recently sent a letter to the board asking them to cease all prayers, which are usually led by students from the district.
Patrick Elliott, staff attorney with FFRF, says the organization was contacted by local sources.
“Our purposes are to ensure the separation of state and church and to educate about non-theism,” Elliott said. “We were contacted locally by someone about a prayer in school context. We just sent a letter to the school board about the law on the issue and asked them to address it.”
Elliott said the organization then reviewed the claims.
“We reviewed the prayers and certainly thought there were some problems,” Elliott said. “That’s when we contacted the board.”
Pickens County Superintendent Kelly Pew said the board is considering the letter.
“The School District’s administration and board of trustees are obtaining advice from our legal counsel prior to making a final decision,” Pew said. “One responsibility of the superintendent is to ensure that the district follows all state and federal laws and to keep the district from costly litigation.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national non-profit organization with members in South Carolina. Elliott said prayers offered at school functions are considered unconstitutional.
“Repeated Christian prayers do affiliate the government with one religion, so those are unconstitutional,” Elliott said. “A prayer can’t be (said) at a school board meeting or school events. I don’t think there is any way for someone to craft a prayer that would work for a school situation.”
Similar prayers are offered at city council, county council and other meetings around the county, but Elliott says schools are different.
“It’s different with schools,” Elliott said. “City councils, county commissioners and those types of groups, they are given a little more leeway in terms of prayer. In the case of the schools, it doesn’t matter if it’s a general prayer or non-denominational prayer, those would still be unconstitutional given the impressionable nature of the school environment and the kids.”
Currently, another South Carolina county is being sued for similar actions.
“We have a lawsuit right now in South Carolina against District Five in Lexington County,” Elliott said. “That suit involves prayer at graduations. We had asked the school system to not offer a prayer in graduation prior to 2012 because we had been working with a student there. The school district decided not to do so. They also have prayer at their school board meetings. That lawsuit is currently pending in the district court.”
Elliott said a lawsuit is a possibility in Pickens County.
“A lawsuit is a possibility,” Elliott said. “I’ve gotten the impression, at least initially, from the attorney for the Pickens County School Board that the board was considering making changes to their prayer practices.
Pew said, whatever may happen, religion will be treated with fairness.
“Religion and religious conviction will be treated with fairness and respect,” Pew said. “Currently, our understanding is that we may have a moment of silence or a non-sectarian, legislative prayer.”
Elliott said he realizes people in the district may appreciate the prayers, but says it underlines the problem with religion in school functions.
“People really want the prayers to continue, and I think it really demonstrates the problem when schools get involved with religion,” Elliott said. “You have people that are really passionate about it and want their religion to be a part of school business, and you’re going to have other people who may be a minority, but say they don’t want that in their child’s school environment.”
Pew said a decision may come soon.
“The administration and Board of Trustees will be making a decision as to how to move forward in the near future,” Pew said.