Residents voice opposition to board’s decision

By Nicole Daughhetee
Courier Staff

COUNTY — Pickens County residents came out in droves to vocalize their support for student-led invocations at the start of SDPC board meetings at Monday’s meeting, urging board members to take a stand against the Wisconsin-based Freedom of Religion Foundation, which has suggested possible litigation if the board does not comply with the request.

Hundreds of people occupied the board room and packed into the hallways at the SDPC administrative building during Monday’s meeting in anticipation of the board’s action in response to the FFRF’s request. Thirty local residents spoke out during the time allotted for citizen input.

First to speak and address the Pickens County school board was former trustee Oscar Thorsland.

“It is unbelievable that you are being charged with an unconstitutional activity in opening the school board meetings with prayer. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “It is sad that an atheistic freedom from religion foundation is not only totally wrong, but their stand is absurd.”

Randy Mulligan, another Pickens County resident, said “I urge you to get council from other Christian organizations that will help fund litigation.”

One of many pastors who spoke to the board, Dr. Wayne Dickard of Siloam Baptist Church — a former president of the S.C. Baptist Convention — asked SDPC trustees to “represent well the citizens of Pickens County and continue the student-led prayer practice that has been in place for many years.”

Each speaker to address the board received loud applause and shouts of “Amen” from audience members.

“At the heels of the tragedy of Newtown and memory of Columbine and similar disasters, I wonder how anyone in these United States could think of forbidding one of the greatest protections we have in life, which is prayer,” questioned Martha Bagby. “Prayer analyzed is a shield — a protective shield from harm. Our students should not be deprived of the protective shield of prayer. Don’t allow a dangerous few to rob us of our God-given rights.”

Travis Spivey, quoting former U.S. President Ronald Regan said: “If we ever forget we are one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.”

Mr. Dave Duff of Duff, White, Turner, LLC, one of the law firms from which the SDPC has received legal counsel, was present to address both board members and the public in an attempt to clarify the issue with which the board is dealing.

“I am addressing the law as compared with all of the very heart-felt and certainly sincere feelings and beliefs of all those who have spoken. Regardless of my personal views, my job is to attempt to guide the board in matters of the law as it related to school board prayer,” said Duff. “You sit here as elected officials — not as citizens of the community — who have taken an oath to uphold the laws of South Carolina and the United States. You are, in terms of the establishment clause of the first amendment, a branch of the government, and consequently you are constrained or regulated by the establishment of religion clause.”

It was abundantly clear that the vast majority of residents in Pickens County do not want to see the tradition of student-led prayer eliminated from school board meetings. Several people expressed concern that if prayer is eliminated from these meetings, nothing will stop other groups from taking away religious freedom altogether.

“It is very clear from the Constitution that students have every right under the First Amendment to pray at school. They can pray individually. They can pray in small groups. They can pray before a test, before a meal,” Duff said. “So long as it does not interfere with instruction, students can pray individually or in groups.
“By the same token, teachers can pray at school. They are not supposed to pray in front of students or lead their students in prayer, but during their free time teachers and other staff are permitted to pray as well. What we’re talking about here tonight is school board prayer. And for better or worse, you school board members are the government; therefore you are limited by the establishment clause of the First Amendment.”

SDPC board members Ben Trotter and Jim Shelton both share the opinion that the board should fight, if necessary, to maintain student-led prayer at the board meetings despite the legal advice of Duff and others.

At Monday night’s meeting, they were not alone.

“I am very strongly in favor of continued prayer of students at the start of your meetings. We the citizens and leaders of Pickens County owe it to our youth to model the desired behaviors — assertive but non-aggressive leadership strategies,” said regular SDPC board meeting attendee Mary Kelly. “We need to show them how we can take a stand and defend what is right without trampling the rights of others.”