Board OKs 1st reading of prayer amendment

Nicole Daughhetee/Courier Local resident Juliette Kozak addresses the school board at Monday night’s meeting regarding student-led prayer. More than 20 people spoke at Monday’s meeting.

Nicole Daughhetee/Courier
Local resident Juliette Kozak addresses the school board at Monday night’s meeting regarding student-led prayer. More than 20 people spoke at Monday’s meeting.

By Nicole Daughhetee

Courier Staff

COUNTY — Once again the School District of Pickens County’s Curtis A. Sidden Administrative building was packed with a standing-room-only crowd of concerned Pickens County residents, the majority of whom disapprove of the SDPC board removing student-led sectarian invocations from the start of board meetings.

Despite more than 20 public speakers, comprised of local ministers, parents, students and members of the Pickens County community, the amendment to the current policy, which supports non-sectarian, board member-led invocations, passed a first reading in a 3-2 vote Monday night.

Alex Saitta, Herbert Cooper and current SDPC board chair Judy Edwards voted in favor of the policy amendment. Ben Trotter and Jim Shelton voted against the policy changes, while Jimmy Gillespie abstained from the vote.

“So many people have urged me to keep fighting like this is Judge Judy,” Saitta said. “At some point the federal courts start to enforce their court orders, and they do it against you personally. They can throw you in jail. And the insurance companies have already warned us that such cases are indefensible and that they wouldn’t provide liability coverage.”

The amended policy comes on the heels of a letter the SDPC received from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a non-profit organization based out of Madison, Wis.

In the letter, attorney for the FFRF Patrick Elliot said that the student-led invocation, which has been part of the SDPC agenda for decades, is “unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive.” Additionally, and of greatest concern, is that by allowing student-led sectarian prayer, the SDPC is in violation of state and federal law — not to mention the U.S. Constitution.

Bick Halligan, the attorney representing the SDPC at Monday night’s meeting, explained why the amended policy was necessary and in the district’s best interest to adopt.

“There are definite boundaries that govern prayer in governmental settings. It’s not something that you and I or the public can ignore,” said Halligan. “We have to deal with our Constitution and the First Amendment, as that has been interpreted by many decisions of the United States Supreme Court and our Federal circuit courts. A sectarian prayer, in practice, violates the constitution.”

The vast majority of Pickens County residents at the meeting urged SDPC board members to take a stand for the students and God, even if that means having to defend themselves in the event of a lawsuit.

“To my knowledge there has been no lawsuit filed, and to my knowledge there is no decision that has been reached regarding this issue in the United States,” said Rev. Wayne Dickard. “What I’m asking you is to stand strong and allow the practice of school-led prayer here to continue. And if a lawsuit comes, deal with it then. But we’re allowing an outside entity dictate to Pickens County, which I think is wrong.”

Paul Turner, another local resident, presented board members with a three-ring binder that contained approximately 4,000 signatures of community members who signed a petition asking that the board continue student-led prayer before its board meetings.

“I understand this is a unique place that you’re in,” said Turner. “This is a free country, and I ask that you will stand with us in maintaining that freedom.”

Although she did not offer a lengthy statement, SDPC Superintendent Dr. Kelly Pew told board trustees that the district administration supported the amended policy that eliminates student led sectarian prayer from the meetings.

“There is a misunderstanding that the district is caving to the FFRF, but this isn’t the case,” SDPC spokesman John Eby said. “The FFRF wants the district to eliminate prayer altogether, and the board isn’t doing that. The purpose of the policy change is not to avoid a lawsuit. It is to comply with the law — both state and federal.”

Eby wants the community to understand that the policy does not impact student prayer in school. Students are allowed to gather in prayer or to pray alone. As long as they do not disrupt instructional time, they can pray before a test or a meal. A student having the freedom to pray is not the issue.

The amended policy concerning student-led sectarian prayer must pass a second reading, which should take place sometime in March, to officially be adopted by SDPC board trustees.

As people left Monday night’s meeting, one member of the crowd of citizens shouted out “this isn’t the end.” Many people in the Pickens County community hope that the board will reconsider the removal of student-led prayer from their meeting agendas.