PICKENS COUNTY—Amidst the debate on invocations at the beginning of Pickens County School Board meetings are two board members with very different opinions.
The board voted Monday to do away with its old student-led invocation policy and adopt a non-sectarian prayer that will kick off each monthly meeting.
Board Member Jim Shelton said this decision is a direct contradiction of what the people have asked for.
“All our public has asked us to do is to fight and to push back,” Shelton said. “As far as I’m concerned, we’ve abandoned our constituents in that.”
Board Member Jimmy Gillespie said he was highly criticized after abstaining from the vote. Monday night he sounded off.
“Everybody says ‘where’s your backbone?’ Well, where’s yours?” Gillespie said. “You tell me that God won’t let us lose, but he let Chesterfield County lose.”
Gillespie said he has not seen any real support from the community on the topic.
“You tell me that I have the support of the community, but all I’ve heard is empty words and sarcasm and what kind of person I am,” Gillespie said. “I don’t think anybody has called our attorney and said ‘I’m going to put my house and all my property up (to support).’”
Shelton said the board should have done what the public asked them to do.
“I’m fully aware of the risk. I realize the odds that are out there,” Shelton said. “The odds aren’t necessarily in our favor, but folks have asked us to fight and that’s not happening. There’s two things that can happen in a fight. You can win or you can lose. If you quit, there’s only one option. You’ve lost.”
“This board has sold your soul to protect themselves,” Shelton said.
Gillespie said sticking with the old student-led prayer would be unconstitutional.
“The constitution does guarantee that the government will neither support, suppress, nor try to influence any citizen in the practice of their religion,” Gillespie said. “Four thousand signatures won’t change that and 40 million won’t change that.”
“It is the mandate of the school district to educate all children in this county in academics,” Gillespie continued. “It’s not the mandate of the school district to teach students morals, ethics or religion. That responsibility falls on parents.”
Shelton said the board was afraid to take a risk and lacked courage.
“Those brave Americans in Boston tossed the tea over and what did they risk? They risked their lives and their liberty. They risked their treasure to form this county and they certainly had a lot more courage than this board seems to have,” Shelton said.
Gillespie said he would rather not have his child be influenced by any religion in a government setting.
“I don’t really want a teacher telling my child what’s right. I don’t want a teacher teaching my child religion because it may not be what I believe,” Gillespie said. “I don’t want a district person leading my child in prayer or teaching them what they think is right. That’s my responsibility with my child, and I did it.”
Shelton said that attitude is exactly what is harming the culture in America.
“I read over the weekend that anyone who objectively examines the health of our culture will see how the abandoning of traditional norms—abandoning student led prayer at start of school board meeting—is harming our culture and our children, and this does not bode well for the future,” Shelton said. “I think there’s some power in that, and that’s exactly what we’ve done. We’ve abandoned that.”