The Pickens County Board of Trustees in South Carolina just decided to allow sectarian invocations at their meetings. And they think they’re above the law on this one despite the advice of their attorney:
The policy doesn’t run afoul of the First Amendment’s restriction against governmental endorsement of religion because it gives the same opportunity to all religions and is in line with a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Town of Greece, N.Y., vs Galloway.
The board added language to the new policy recommended by its attorney that says, a religious leader may offer an invocation “according to the dictates of his own conscience,” but that the board “requests that the public invocation opportunity not be exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other faith or belief, denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion.”
It also specifies that the invocation is to be offered “for the benefit of the board” and that no one will be required to participate.
That sounds all well and good… but there are a few problems:
1) School boards are not the same as city councils. There are children present at many school board meetings (sometimes, they’re required to be there), making religious prayers in that venue more coercive than at a local government meeting. The law isn’t clear on whether or not this is legal, but the Freedom From Religion Foundation says the Greece ruling doesn’t apply to school boards; prayer at school board meetings is similar to prayer in schools. Just as teachers can’t pray in the classroom with a captive audience, neither can school board members.
2) The school board says they’re open to speakers of any faith and no faith… but look at how their policy actually works:
“This policy is not intended, and will not be implemented or construed in any way, to affiliate the board with, or express the board’s preference for or against, any faith or religious denomination,” it says.
It calls for the district administration to compile a list of religious congregations in Pickens County, updated annually, and for invitations to be mailed to each congregation inviting them to request to be allowed to deliver the invocation at one of the board’s 10 monthly meetings each year.
So everyone is allowed to speak, but only religious groups will be invited. How exactly is that fair…? And do the board members not understand that their policy would shut out smaller religious groups (that may not have a building in the area) as well as non-religious groups?
That, to me, is a far greater violation than the presence of children at the meetings.
3) This isn’t the first time Pickens County has run afoul of the First Amendment. Last year FFRF contacted the Board of Trustees after they had students delivering Christian prayers to open their meetings.
4) This is also the same school district where, last year, the valedictorian ripped up his pre-approved speech and said the Lord’s Prayer instead:
This is a district that already has a religion problem. They can’t get past the idea that people may not accept Jesus as their savior. This new board policy is just another way to inject Christianity at board meetings, but it still doesn’t look like it passes muster.
It also means Satanists and Pagans and atheists better act quickly if they want to speak at these meetings. You can contact the board members right here to request an upcoming date.
(Thanks to Brian for the link)