Board votes to replace student-led invocations

School district looking into non-sectarian prayer as alternative

By Nicole Daughhetee
Courier Staff

COUNTY — More than 300 Pickens County residents congregated around the American Flag outside of the Curtis A. Sidden Administration building prior to Monday night’s school board meeting, singing “Amazing Grace” and sharing a word of prayer.

The issue drawing the gigantic crowd of attendees: whether or not the School District of Pickens County’s board of trustees would vote on the removal of student-led prayer from its scheduled meeting agendas.

A standing-room-only assembly of citizens — a number so large that it would exceed any suggested occupancy standards — listened as board members ultimately voted 4-2 to have legal counsel develop a policy allowing for non-sectarian prayer to replace the student-led invocations which have been a tradition in Pickens County for decades.

Board members Jim Shelton and Ben Trotter were the only two members supportive of allowing student-led invocation to remain on SDPC board meeting agendas and pursuing legal action, if necessary, to defend this action.

“I think there was God before there was a Constitution. I’ve heard the attorneys but I still think we ought to pray the way we’ve always prayed,” Trotter said. “This is my opinion and not the board’s, but you get to the Father through the Son, and leaving Jesus Christ out of your prayer is like whistling in the wind. I’m voting no and I wish others would vote with me.”

SDPC spokesman John Eby said the district had received advice from many sources concerning the legality of school board prayer and recognized that the constitutionality of a religious prayer or invocation at school board meetings is an issue not clearly settled by American courts.

“Nevertheless, the board has decided that it wishes to take the steps to allow a non-sectarian prayer to be given at its meetings,” Eby said in a press release.

“We have been advised by the State Attorney General’s Office that, by adopting the appropriate policy, a non-sectarian prayer or invocation is likely to be found constitutional, and further that the Attorney General’s Office would defend the Board and the District in a lawsuit challenging that policy.”

Trustee Alex Saitta, a former school board chairman, said he believes that while starting school board or county council meetings with an invocation should continue, he also doesn’t want to pursue a court battle that the SDPC board could lose.

“This school board is not afraid to go to court, and we’re not afraid to fight,” said Saitta. “The issue is, can you create a legal defense you can win with? That’s the goal. I don’t fight to lose. I create strategies to win.”

Creating a policy that allows the school board to open its meetings with a non-sectarian prayer will, in Saitta’s opinion, withstand a legal challenge.

Commending Trotter for his eloquence of speech, Shelton also spoke out against the motion.

“I will not support this motion,” Shelton said. “We’re dealing with a policy that is 40 years old, and during that time I can’t remember a single complaint or fatality or any problem that’s occurred because 10 times a year a student stands in the well and offers their own prayer.

“That prayer is part of the culture, heritage and tradition of this community. My position quite simply is that — that we stand and fight.”

Board chair Judy Edwards, along with members Dr. Herbert Cooper, Jimmy Gillespie and Saitta voted to request SDPC legal counsel draft a policy for a prayer at the school board meetings that will be similar to the prayers offered at city and county council meetings.

There is not currently a date scheduled for the review of the policy on prayer to be drafted, but SDPC board trustees will have an opportunity to review the policy and either approve it or vote it down.

Whether or not student led invocations will be allowed until the issue is sorted out is left at the discretion of the current school board chair.