School board OKs prayer policy change

By Greg Oliver
Courtesy The Journal

COUNTY — A decision by a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court and consultation with their attorney Bic Halligan led to the Pickens County School Board’s unanimous vote Friday to allow board members to offer prayers according to their faith.

The vote followed a presentation by Halligan, who said the judges’ 2-1 decision Monday, which ruled in favor of the board of commissioners in Rowan County, N.C., allows the school board to not be bound by the non-sectarian prayer used in recent years.

“The majority said an elected board could offer a more specific prayer, such as Christian, without violating the constitution,” Halligan said. “When a panel makes a decision, the whole Fourth Circuit (Court of Appeals) will be asked to hear it even though it’s not obligated to do so. So I would say to you right now is that it is permissible for members of this board to pray under their faith. But that might not be the law in two to three months.”

Board members also accepted Halligan’s recommendations that student recognitions be moved up in the agenda ahead of public input. The board invocation will remain in its current place on the agenda.

“Presentations often involve students and public input can include prayer or other comments from community members that may be uncomfortable or even inappropriate for students,” school district spokesman John Eby said. “This change allows us to do student recognitions before moving on to the more controversial portions of the meeting.”

The other recommended policy amendment is to acknowledge that the Pickens County School Board “is a deliberative body” and can offer a public invocation on a voluntary basis by a member of the board at the 10 regularly scheduled meetings. However, invocations will not be offered at work sessions or other types of special meetings.

Prayers at Pickens County School Board meetings were led by students for a number of years. However, a 2012 letter threatening legal action from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation forced the school board to end that practice. A board policy implemented in 2013 allowed board members to offer prayers prior to each meeting, but those prayers had to be non-sectarian, and the chaplain’s prayer book used for the South Carolina General Assembly served as the guide.

In March 2015, the board deadlocked 3-3 on a motion made by trustee Alex Saitta that would have allowed religious congregations in the county to give sectarian prayers — with the tie vote being basically the same as a “no” vote as far as passage is concerned.

Saitta argued in August that the Supreme Court ruling in Galloway vs. Greece, N.Y., rendered the non-sectarian requirement of the board policy as “unconstitutional” and said the Supreme Court’s opinion stated that government “doesn’t have the right to judge or edit prayers.” But Saitta said that was exactly what the school district’s policy, in effect, was doing.

Board chairperson Judy Edwards said she wanted to first consult with Halligan before any policy change was made. Halligan commended the board for exercising caution in the matter.

“It has been my understanding throughout to have a board prayer to the maximum extent possible under the law, but you didn’t want it to be a legal battleground,” Halligan said. “There are pressure groups well funded on both sides, and these cases can be difficult and long. You’re talking four, five, six years of legal problems and turmoil.

“Every choice you make has some risk to it — there’s always risk except for no prayer or a moment of silence, and you don’t want to do that.”

Saitta said he is pleased with the vote, adding the Greece, N.Y., case in 2014 provided a blanket statement that “government cannot censor prayers, no matter who says it.”

“That is why I brought it up (before the board) in June, and I’m not surprised with what happened this week,” Saitta said. “I asked for legal advice and requested the board strike the non-sectarian requirement three months ago, but was denied. The policy will now be changed, and I credit the board leadership for that.

“I’ve been praying in Jesus’ name given the Supreme Court ruling of 2014 and the state law change in June, so it is nice the policy will be in line now, too.”

Trustee Phillip Bowers said one of his goals upon joining the school board in 2014 was to find a solution to the prayer issue. Bowers feels that has finally been achieved through the board’s action Friday.

“Today’s action fits perfectly with my view that board members are free to offer prayer in accordance with our individual faith and long standing community tradition,” Bowers said. “I am very satisfied with the changes to policies that supports individual board members’ First Amendment right to free speech.

“The Rowan County verdict was a happy day for me, and I’m glad we are able to do this and am happy to support it.”

While the North Carolina ruling is one Halligan said provides board members with additional freedom, he said the board must remain on guard.

“You’ve got to pay attention, because it’s not final,” Halligan said.

Although Halligan was referring to the possibility that the Fourth Circuit court could choose to overturn the three-judge panel’s decision, Saitta said that could take years.

“Even if they agree to look at it, it’s going to take a long time, and the law is on our side,” Saitta said.

Second and final reading of the policy revisions were expected to take place at the school board’s regular monthly meeting Monday night. | (864) 973-6687

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