Pew: Board’s invocation vote not a prayer ban

Dr. Kelly Pew

School District of Pickens Co.

Recently, the School District of Pickens County board of trustees passed first reading of a policy that provides for board members to deliver an invocation in the form of a non-sectarian legislative prayer at the start of their own meeting. Prior board practice has been to invite students to deliver the invocation.

The proposed policy is extremely limited. It applies only to the official invocation at the beginning of 10 board meetings each year. The board will be guided by the invocations of the chaplains of the South Carolina Senate and the House of Representatives. In order to maintain an invocation at board meetings, I support the board’s adoption of the policy.

Every policy and practice of our district must comply with the law. Great effort has been made to study this situation and the guiding legal principles, including consulting the views of the South Carolina Attorney General’s office and our board’s attorneys. South Carolina law and the First Amendment protect religious liberty of the individual from government interference, and in so doing they guard against the use of government to promote specific versions of religion. The same rules apply to the meetings of city and county councils.

Non-sectarian invocations before the meetings of deliberative government bodies is a tradition that extends to the very first meeting of the U.S. Congress — the same Congress that passed the First Amendment. I am in favor of maintaining that tradition, which has been upheld in court. But the tradition has only been upheld in cases of non-sectarian prayer ― prayers addressed to God but not favoring or disfavoring any one faith or belief. The basis for the change in board practice, solely at its own meetings, is therefore simple, and the solution is a prudent adherence to honored traditions of many governing bodies in American history.

What I find unfortunate are the mistaken and false representations that the board or the district want to “ban” prayer from our schools. The difference between the board taking unto itself an invocation that previously was given by invitation, and some sort of wholesale anti-religious campaign, is vast.

While we can never pressure students into religious expression, we also have a solemn duty to protect their freedom to practice their faiths. Our students can pray, in the language of their own faith, alone or in groups, before school, lunch or tests, or not pray. After-school religious programs such as the Good News Club have a presence in many of our schools, as well as non-religious after-school programs.

One speaker at the last board meeting shared an anecdote of a student being tapped on the shoulder and asked to stop praying over his lunch. Whether that story is true or not, it is not district policy and I hope it would never be witnessed in Pickens County.

We cannot pressure our students into expressions of faith, but we are, and will continue to be, guardians of our students’ religious rights.



Dr. Kelly Pew is superintendent of the School District of Pickens County.