***Update***: The vote was 3 for, 3 against, and 1 abstention… so the prayer policy will *not* change. That is to say meetings will not open with sectarian invocations. Hallelujah!
I thought this issue had been put to rest already… but I guess not.
Last September, the Pickens County Board of Trustees in South Carolina decided to allow sectarian invocations at their meetings. They figured they were 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 sounded all well and good… but there were 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 said they were open to speakers of any faith and no faith… but look at how their policy actually worked:
“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 wasn’t the first time Pickens County has run afoul of the First Amendment. In 2013, FFRF contacted the Board of Trustees after they had students delivering Christian prayers to open their meetings.
4) This was also the same school district where, in 2013, the valedictorian ripped up his pre-approved speech and said the Lord’s Prayer instead:
So this was a district that already had a religion problem, and this new board policy was just another way to inject Christianity at board meetings.
Perhaps taking some of this into account, the school board tabled this discussion last year. But they’re bringing it back up for a vote tonight:
If this new policy passes Monday, the changes would be implemented as soon as August.
[School Board Member Alex] Saitta believes they now have enough legal backing from the State Attorney General and their liability insurance company, to move forward.
If the new policy is approved, the district will be required to send an invitation to religious congregations in Pickens County to pray.
In other words, Jesus Jesus Jesus all day long because it’s not like Pickens County is full of mosques and synagogues.
It’s like they’ve given up on helping students and are focused on fighting a legal battle to preserve their Christian privilege.
(Thanks to Brian for the link. Large portions of this article were published earlier)