PICKENS COUNTY—Prayer will continue at Pickens County School Board meetings, but not as many local residents had hoped.
The board voted in favor of the first reading of a motion to establish a non-sectarian invocation at the beginning of monthly meetings. Those meetings had previously been opened with a student-led prayer, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance.
The motion was approved 3-2 with one (Jimmy Gillespie) abstaining. Jim Shelton and Ben Trotter voted against the decision.
“We don’t want a non-sectarian prayer. There’s no point to that,” Pickens County resident Laurel Maco said. “We’re willing to stand up for what we believe in Pickens County. We’ve already taken prayer out of the school, and this used to be a wonderful opportunity for students to stand up and pray. Everyone wanted it to remain a student-led prayer.”
The motion comes after a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) asked the board to cease its current prayer practice in January. The school board then voted to draft a non-sectarian prayer at the following meeting.
Maco’s sentiments were joined by 21 other residents, who used the public forum Monday night to let the board know how they feel about the issue.
“I’m a pastor today and I’m a product of child prayer,” Pickens County resident Steven Kelly said. “I can’t understand at all why we would even have to have a meeting like this. There’s no question in my mind that prayer must stay in school.”
Bick Halligan, an attorney for the school board, said the invocation needed to be changed.
“I’m not aware of any legal authority that allows you to have a sectarian prayer,” Halligan said. “The Constitution is very clear about this.”
Board members Alex Saitta, Judy Edwards and Herbert Cooper also said it was wise to go with a non-sectarian prayer, voting to pass the action item.
“I am encouraged the board voted to follow the state attorney general’s advice to go with non-sectarian prayer (to the Lord, Our Father, God Almighty) because that is within the law, and it will protect the tradition of prayer at our school board meeting,” Board Member Alex Saitta said. “The FFRF wants us to end all prayer, so we could still be sued. However, in this case the state of South Carolina, led by the state attorney general, will defend us. If we win that case at the district, circuit and Supreme Court levels, prayer at school board meetings will then be protected nationwide.”
Halligan read the new policy Monday night, and frustration from the crowd began to grow as the board neared a decision.
“The public invocation will be non-sectarian and will not proselytize for, advance any one or discourage any other faith or belief,” the policy reads. “The public invocation is for the benefit of the board, but no member of the board or any other person attending the meeting will be required to participate in the public invocation.”
“The policy that we have drafted takes everything into account,” Halligan said.
Many residents still maintained the board should have voted the policy down.
“To my knowledge there has been no lawsuit that has been filed,” Pickens County Resident Wayne Dickard said. “If a suit comes, you have to deal with it then, but we’re letting an outside entity dictate what goes on in Pickens County, which I think is wrong.”
Saitta said he agrees with the resident’s concerns, but believes it would be a losing battle to keep the invocation the way it is currently established.
“Many want the board to continue the student sectarian prayers. I understand how they feel. I don’t agree with many of the court rulings over the last 50 years myself,” Saitta said. “I don’t like how outsiders are using the Constitution and federal courts to jam all sorts of stuff down our throats.
“However, no one can just ignore federal case law which has the might of constitutional law and enforcement behind them,” he continued. “Walking into court to face such a legal shotgun blast is unwise.”
A second reading for the policy will take place at the March school board meeting.