School board tables prayer motion

By Greg Oliver
Courtesy The Journal

PICKENS — The issue of prayer at Pickens County School Board meetings has been discussed and debated a number of times in recent years, and that continued again during its Aug. 22 regular monthly meeting.

Recently, trustee Alex Saitta said he disagrees with the school board’s prayer policy, as well as the opinion rendered by the school board attorney.

9-7 Page 1A.indd“The school board’s prayer policy says prayers given by board members must be non-sectarian, such as God, Father and Lord, and cannot be sectarian, such as to Jesus or Moses or whomever, and the district’s lawyer stands by the policy,” Saitta said. “But I have argued since the Supreme Court ruling in Galloway vs. Greece, N.Y., the non-sectarian requirement of the board policy is unconstitutional.

“The Supreme Court said in its opinion, over and over, that the government doesn’t have the right to judge or edit prayers. That’s exactly what the school board policy requires, though. That is, the collective board requires the individual board member whose turn it is to give the prayers, his prayer must be non-sectarian. I believe that violates the free exercise clause in the First Amendment.”

Saitta said because most board members heed the advice of school board attorney Bic Halligan “without question,” the sentiment for striking the non-sectarian requirement from the policy “is lacking.”

For a number of years, the school board meetings were led in prayer by students. However, after receiving a letter in 2012 from the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation threatening legal action, the board ended that practice.

In March 2015, the board deadlocked 3-3 on a motion made by 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.

The prayer is now led before each meeting by various board members, from the chaplain’s prayer book used for the South Carolina General Assembly.

The public is still allowed to and has participated in offering prayers that are Christian during the public comment portion of the meeting.

But Saitta continues to say that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in May 2014 to uphold the practice of public prayer before local government meetings was “a game changer.” In addition, Saitta said the state senate modified the state prayer law, and Gov. Nikki Haley signed it into law in June.

“It is siding with my interpretation — that is, the law clearly states government bodies can’t require prayers to be non-sectarian,” Saitta said.

As a result, Saitta said he is renewing efforts to strike the nonsectarian requirement from the school board’s public prayer policy.

Trustee Henry Wilson said he chooses not to participate in board prayers rather than adhere to the nonsectarian requirement.

“I will pray the way I want to,” Wilson said. “If you decide you want to fight the law, that’s your own personal decision. I don’t think we have to have a fistfight over this.”

Board chairperson Judy Edwards said the board has given the chair the right to contact an attorney and spend the money involved in dealing with the issue. But Halligan has requested to wait until after the November general election to advise the board.

The board voted 4-1 to table Saitta’s motion to take up the issue at its Sept. 26 meeting and will instead await advice from Halligan regarding the issue.