Prayer at school board meetings: Not a black and white issue

Compiled by Nicole Daughhetee, Staff Reporter

Compiled by Nicole Daughhetee, Staff Reporter

For the second time in two months, a standing-room-only crowd packed the School District of Pickens County’s administration building on Monday night to speak out on the district board of trustees’ actions surrounding student-led prayer at board meetings.

We’ve put this page together to present the viewpoints of Pickens County residents and school district trustees, as well as the proposed amendment to district policy which received first-reading approval at Monday night’s meeting and sample alternative prayers provided by SDPC lawyer Bick Halligan.

Also included in its entirety is the original letter that the district received from Freedom From Religion Foundation staff attorney Patrick Elliot, which sparked the controversial conversation and the board’s actions over the last two months.

FFRF Letter

This is the full text of the original letter sent to former SDPC board chair Alex Saitta by Freedom From Religion Foundation attorney Patrick Elliot.

To: Alex Saitta, SDPC Board Chair

I am writing on behalf of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (“FFRF”) to alert you to a serious constitutional violation by the School District of Pickens County Board of Trustees. FFRF is a national non-profit organization with more than 19,000 members, including more than 150 members in South Carolina. Our purpose is to protect the constitutional principal of separation between state and church.

It is our information and understanding that the SDPC Board of Trustees (Board) begins its monthly meetings with an invocation. These meetings are open to the public and students from district schools are often in attendance. In fact, a SDPC student typically leads the invocation. These prayers have included references to the “Holy Spirit” and often end with “in Jesus’ name we pray,” or other reference to Jesus. We further understand that official SDPC policy states that an invocation will be included in the board meetings addenda. See Policy BEDB “Agenda.”

It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule prayer as part of its scheduled meetings. Federal courts have struck down school board practices that include this religious ritual. See Doe v. Indian River School District (holding that prayer at school board meetings conveys message favoring religion); Coles v. Cleveland Bd. of Educ. (finding that a school board’s practice of opening its meetings with prayers violated the Establishment Clauses); Doe v. Tanglpahoa Parish Sch. Bd. (finding a school boards practice of opening meetings with sectarian prayer unconstitutional); Bacus v. Palo Verde Unified Sch. Dist. (finding that a school board violated the Establishment Clause in allowing prayers “in the name of Jesus”).

The Supreme Court has continually and consistently struck down school-sponsored prayers . . . . the federal courts have struck down prayer in the public school context because it constitutes a governmental endorsement of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

In Doe v. Indian River School District the court emphasized that school board prayer is analogous to other school prayer cases when it comes to protecting children from the coercion of school-sponsored prayer, which is heightened in the context of public schools. In that case, the court also held that the school board meetings are “an atmosphere that contains many of the same indicia of coercion and involuntariness that the Supreme Court has recognized elsewhere in its school prayer jurisprudence.” In Indian River School District, the court’s “decision [was] premised on careful consideration of the role of students at school boards, the purpose of the school board, and the principles underlying the Supreme Court’s school prayer case law. The final conclusion was that the school board prayer policy “[rose] above the level of interaction between church and state that the Establishment Clause permits.”

It makes no difference that the prayers are offered by students rather than board members. Student led prayers that are scheduled and directed by schools are still unconstitutional …. In fact, this practice is more egregious since it gives the impression that the Board favors religious students over non-religious students.

Certainly, a public school board is an essential part of the public school system. Public school boards exist to set policies, procedures and standards for education within a community.

The issues discussed and decisions made at Board meetings are wholly school-related, affecting the daily lives of district students and parents. In striking down the board’s prayers in Coles, the Sixth Circuit found prayers at school board meetings to be squarely within the context of school prayer cases. The court noted, “although meetings of the school board might be of a ‘different variety’ than other school-related activities, the fact remains that they are part of the same ‘class’ as those other activities in that they take place on school property and are inextricably intertwined with the public school system.” Therefore, prayer at public school board meetings is no different than a prayer given at other school district events and is unconstitutional. In FFRF’s ongoing lawsuit against one South Carolina school district (Nielson v. School District Five of Lexington & Richland Counties), we recently amended our complaint to challenge nearly identical invocations at school board meetings there.

Prayer at public school board meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive. Calling upon board members, as well as parents and students of the school, to pray is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of our secular school system. Board members are free to pray privately or worship on their own time in their own way. The school board, however, ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion, amounting to a governmental endorsement of religion that excludes the 19% of American adults that do not have a religious affiliation.

We ask that you take immediate action and refrain from scheduling prayers as part of future Board of Trustee meeting. We further ask that you revise SDPC policies to comport with the U.S. Constitution. Please respond in writing with the steps you are taking to remedy this constitutional violation.


Patrick Elliott, Staff Attorney


This is the amendment to school board policy BE presented by attorney Bick Halligan for the SDPC and passed by trustees on Monday night.

Public Invocation: The board is a deliberate public body and will open its regular public meetings with a public invocation complying with Section 6-1-160 of the Code of Laws of South Carolina. The board will not begin meetings for student maters with a public invocation.

The public invocation will be non-sectarian and will not proselytize for or advance any one, or disparage any other, faith or belief. 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 purposes of the public invocation are to express thankfulness for the right of self-government, solemnize the board’s legislative tasks, dignify and confirm the seriousness of board meetings, encourage respect and appreciation for all board members, seek to unite and not divide the board, and contribute to the wisdom and soundness of decisions by the board.

The public invocation will be offered on a voluntary basis by a member of the board, rotating from meeting to meeting, in alphabetical order, or other objective method of rotation, among all members of the board. A board member may offer a moment of silence for silent prayer or reflection in addition to or in lieu of the public invocation.

The public invocation will be based on the invocations offered by the chaplains of the South Carolina Senate and House of Representatives, conformed to the board.

Sample Prayers

Recommended by SDPC attorney Bick Halligan, these are examples of non-sectarian prayers offered prior to South Carolina State Senate Meetings.

Join me as we unite our hearts in prayer:

Holy God, we know that the greatest wisdom always comes to those who choose to follow, serve and honor you. Be with each board member as he or she exercises wisdom today. May these leaders honor you through their debates, votes, and may the results of their decisions truly benefit the people of our community. Indeed, O God, bless our troops around the globe and stateside. Help every one of us to serve wisely and faithfully. In your loving name we pray, dear Lord. Amen

Let’s join our hearts in this time of prayer:

Holy God, one of our great traditions is the sharing of perspectives and ideas, the challenge of debate, the discovery of new directions. We sincerely thank you, Lord, for the wisdom each member of this board brings to our meetings. Continue to enrich us by the gifts brought by each of these leaders. We celebrate their dedication and the collective concern of each individual. Bless them all, and use their gifts in meaningful fashion. In our Lord’s name we pray. Amen.

Let us pray:

Holy God, we pause to give you thanks today for the dedication and determination of all your servants who strive to honor you here in this company. Allow each of these board members to demonstrate the power of statesmanship and decorum, to be inspiring examples of caring, positive leadership for every child, woman and man in this community. May this board always be the beacon of hope and promise and wisdom that leads in the ways you should have us go. In your loving name we pray, O Lord. Amen.

Recommended by SDPC attorney Bick Halligan, these are examples of non-sectarian prayers offered prior to South Carolina State Senate Meetings.

Public Input

Many local residents spoke out in favor of keeping student-led prayer as a part of School District of Pickens County board meetings during Monday night’s meeting. Below are excerpts from several of those residents.

“Luke 18 says ‘suffer the little children, come unto me and prevent them not for such is the kingdom of God.’ It seems that you will not allow our students to pray anymore. What kind of message is this sending to our students? For some of you the name of The Lord Jesus Christ is not a name above all names anymore; it’s just not politically correct. What is this telling God? What a great attempt to write a faithless prayer, but God does not honor faithless prayers. How do we justify praying at God and not praying to the God of Heaven?” — Reverend James Anthony, Jr.

“I’m reading from the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States — ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the freedom to exercise thereof.’ Congress has made no law. You gentlemen and ladies have made no law. The children who volunteer to pray to Christ, who bled and died for them, who bled and died that I might have life and each one of you might have life. People are using the so-called separation of church and state to justify removing Christ from the governing school system and it doesn’t exist. There is no separation of church and state. I would exhort all of you that you not fear man, but that you fear the God that bought your lives.” — Juliette Kozak

“Mrs. Edwards, you and I attended the same meeting at First Baptist Church last week. In that meeting you made a statement that I had a hard time with. You said, ‘If we lose this lawsuit, what choice, what programs will we have to cut?’ I dare say I’m more afraid of what God will take away from us. The people of this county will support you, and you don’t have to worry about your personal property. But if we do not, I fear that God will turn against us and that we will lose our good teachers because they will go to other places, our buildings will fall into disrepair, and our budgets will dry up.” — Kevin D. Dennis

“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. 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 to dictate to Pickens County, which I think is wrong.” — Rev. Wayne Dickard

“According to your handbook, this board prohibits acts of harassment, intimidation, or bullying of a student by students. As a school board you should be an example before the students and not let somebody bully you.” — Shem Durham

“Our God is big enough. I don’t believe there is a dollar sign that our God is concerned with. I challenge you as a board to take this moment to rise to the occasion. If not, we are going to pay the consequence. I consider that caving in. I’ve seen a lot of violence because of people taking prayer out of schools. Take this time to rise to the occasion and not to cower under the influence of the ACLU.” — Dave Bradberry

“The people who founded this nation — almost all of them had a relationship with Jesus Christ. Congress had Bibles published and handed them out to our schools. The Ten Commandments are still in the Supreme Court. I believe its time to do the right thing. I believe this country is losing its hedge of protection. I believe Pickens County is one of the last regions that acknowledge public prayer. It’s the way this country was started, and I think Pickens County can lead this country to change the way it was founded.” — Art Maco

“I come tonight on behalf of about 4,000 signatures from Pickens County who signed a petition asking that you continue student-led prayer before your board meetings. I understand this is a unique place that you’re in. This is a free country, and I ask that you will stand with us in maintaining that freedom.” — Paul Turner

“I can tell you that Winter Solstice is a pagan religious holiday. It is also found on the website from the Freedom of Religion Foundation. They are a pagan worship organization. Therefore, to act on what they are saying is a violation of the Establishment Clause, it is a violation of the separation of church and state. It’s not a question of whether or not you are going to establish a religion; it is question of whether or not you are going to allow them to establish a religion in Pickens County. Our founding fathers were willing to fight and die themselves for our Lord Jesus. Are you going to have the courage to do the same?” — Dan Trouten 

“You all are all public officials. I’m a registered voter. I helped put you all up there. You all are all accountable to we the people. You are supposed to be doing what our will is, not what you think is right and not what some lawyer says. Our God is bigger than a lawyer, bigger than courts and bigger than all of these corrupt influences. If we are going to give ground now, that opens the door to so much other ground that can be taken away from us. Are we going to stand firm for our faith, or are we just going to let it fall by the wayside? It makes no sense to me how people can go to church on Sunday and then come out here a little less than 24 hours later and not even stand for the same faith they claim to believe. I urge all of you to stay strong. If you open up that door now, there is no telling what this world will look like 20 years from now. We have a right to pray. Don’t forget it.” — Brett Harris

Resident Intends to Sue

Pickens resident Daniel Holtel presented Pickens County school board trustees with a letter on Monday informing them of his intent to sue each of them “for not allowing prayer before public board meetings.” The text of his letter is printed in its entirety below.

25 February 2013

To: Pickens County School Board: Mrs. Judy Edwards, Herbert P. Cooper, Mr. Jimmy Gillespie, Mr. Alex Saitta, Mr. Ben Trotter, Mr. Jim Shelton

From: Daniel Holtel

Reference: Intent to Sue over removal of prayer at public board meetings

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my intention to sue the Pickens County School Board and the above Listed members for not allowing prayer before public board meetings.

As it is recognized by the Federal Government of the United States of America that there is in fact a God by virtue of currency printed with the words, “In God We Trust,” I contend and have sought legal counsel in this matter. It is of the opinion of the counsel and the majority of the citizens in this county that prayer should remain UNCHANGED in the meetings.

Our laws are based on the “Reasonable Man” theory and that is how we judge guilt or innocence. A reasonable man would say that being forced to depart from the norm of society by a minority by using intimidation and threats constitutes at the least coercion.

As our children’s representatives I for one expect better and have taken action to ensure that does not happen.

I live here and have nothing but time on my side. I will not let this rest until the Court system determines the verdict.


Daniel Holtel (Citizen)

SDPC Trustee Reactions

School district trustees voted 3-2 to pass the first reading of an amended policy concerning prayer at future board meetings. Voting in favor were board chair Judy Edwards, Dr. Herbert Cooper and Alex Saitta. Ben Trotter and Jim Shelton voted in opposition, while Jimmy Gillespie abstained from the vote. Comments from Saitta, Trotter and Gillespie are below.

Jimmy Gillespie

“What you’re saying in layman’s terms would be that I can’t support any denomination or type of faith nor can I oppose that as a government official in an elected body. I can’t say somebody got it right and everybody else got it wrong. So when people say sectarian prayer is constitutional, it really isn’t, is it? It goes all the way back to our forefathers who came from countries that were oppressive as far as religion — the governments had a state sponsored religion and we can’t do that in this country.

“I believe that it is unconstitutional for the government to stick its nose — the government being us — to have true religious freedom you have to allow everyone to seek their God. So I couldn’t vote for the way we were doing things.”

Alex Saitta

“What made this such a difficult vote is the clear legal case. When you are threatened with a lawsuit and are likely to end up in court, you must look at the legal precedent, because the trial court has to follow that precedent set by the higher courts, being 4th circuit appeals court and the Supreme Court. As the lawyer repeated many times, the legal precedent is well established that sectarian prayers by a government body are unconstitutional. The state attorney general has told us the same thing. If taken to court, we’ll lose and be hit with all sorts of costs, may get sued personally and could be held in contempt of court (go to jail) if we later ignore federal court orders as some urged us to do.

“On the other hand 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. 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. Walking into court to face such a legal shotgun blast is unwise.

“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. 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.”

Ben Trotter

“What if we get ready to pray and we say ‘We’re fixing to pray, and if that offends any of you, you better leave for about two minutes?’

“I’m not going to vote for this policy and when it comes time to rotation for the prayer, take my name off the list. If I can’t pray the way that I think I ought to, then I don’t want to pray.”