PICKENS COUNTY—A recent decision to establish a non-sectarian prayer at Pickens County School Board meetings may not be enough to avoid a lawsuit.
Patrick Elliott, a staff attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) , said Tuesday a non-sectarian prayer does not address all the legal issues.
“I don’t think it goes far enough,” Elliott said “Ultimately it still excludes those students and families who are non-religious or just don’t want the school board of trustees telling them how to pray or what religion to have.”
Prayer at school board meetings had been previously led by students who volunteered for the invocation. The FFRF sent a letter in January asking the board to cease its current practice. Board members later voted to draft a non-sectarian prayer, resembling invocations that might be practiced at city and county meetings.
Elliott said the board’s decision Monday night does not solve the constitutional dilemma.
“We don’t think it resolves the constitutional problem,”Elliott said. “The school board is treated more like a school setting rather than a city council setting. The idea that a school board can disclaim itself from the school system and act like it’s a city council or county commission is not an idea that is going to work.”
The FFRF Attorney said he has been in contact with the school board’s attorney.
“I’ve been in contact with their attorney and we have made it clear that the two most recent Court of Appeals’ decisions on this have treated school board meetings like a school setting and their prayers violated the constitution,” Elliott said. “The route they have gone is based on a hope that it would not be treated like a school setting.”
“I don’t think, legally, it will make any difference,” Elliott continued. “That’s really the issue here. They’re trying to act more like a legislative body rather than a policy making body for a school system.”
Elliott said a lawsuit against the county could still happen.
“It’s something that we would consider,” Elliott said. “We don’t have any immediate plans to file a suit. We have current suits very similar to this in Richland County and Lexington County. When the plaintiffs prevail in that case, maybe it will send a strong signal (to Pickens County) that what they’re doing won’t suffice.”
Elliott said he believes a neutral attorney would agree with his premise.
“A neutral attorney looking at the case law would say these prayers are impermissible whether they are sectarian or non-sectarian,” Elliott said. “I have reviewed the opinion from the Attorney General and it actually cautions on the practice.”
The decision to go with a non-sectarian prayer has yet to be finalized. The action item requires one more reading that will occur at the March gathering. In the meantime, Elliott said the board has made slight improvements to its old policy.
“I think there are some slight improvements,” Elliott said. “They are no longer having students invited for the purpose of delivering prayer, and I think there is also some sense that removing sectarian references would at least be a little more welcoming to some people.”