School board tables prayer

By Ben Robinson
Staff Reporter

EASLEY — After passing first reading of a new policy allowing school board meetings to feature an opening prayer last month, the Pickens County School Board reversed course Monday night, tabling the matter for the foreseeable future.

The board voted 4-2 — with chairman Alex Saitta and Jimmy Gillespie opposed — to table the motion until more information on the action’s legal status is available.

Board member Brian Swords suggested the motion be tabled based on legal advice.

“They cited they wanted to hear more from the attorney general, and while our attorney said our policy was legal, our attorney said why change what you are doing (a non-sectarian prayer) which has no risk?” Saitta said after the meeting.

Saitta had motioned to add a request to superintendent Dr. Danny Merck to go ahead and invite clergy members to school board meetings so the new policy could begin in January.

When Swords motioned to table the policy, he immediately received support from board member Judy Edwards.

“I agree with Dr. Swords,” Edwards said. “I don’t believe we should go with this policy. I think we should table it.”

Saitta said the district’s attorney had reviewed the policy and said it was legal but advised board members not to pass it, because he preferred that the board have no risk at all. But there is a small risk.

“You have to make a choice whether you’re going to take a small risk of this policy over the benefits of this policy,” Saitta said. “There is no issue with the legality of this policy.”

Edwards said the attorney said the policy would put the district in great risk.

“We are not here to put our children at risk,” Edwards said.

Edwards added she thinks the policy has been driven by one person on the board, “and only one person on the board.”

Councilman Jim Shelton said tabling the motion would just give the board time to study its legality, and would not necessarily make it go away.

Saitta said the board cannot serve effectively without taking legal risks.

“Whenever you do anything more than a moment of silence, there is legal risk,” Saitta said. “There are some out there who believe there should be no prayer at school board meetings. In my opinion, some in the school board majority are just fearful of taking any risk. I believe others feel it is not an education issue, so why go through the trouble of a possible lawsuit?

“We are elected to deal with and lead on all issues that come before us, academic or otherwise. We have started our meetings with prayer as long as anyone can remember. This is a school board issue that has to do with the cultural fight that has been raging in this country the past 50 years, in particular how a minority of non-believers have utilized the federal court system to wring religion out of the public square against the wishes of the majority. We can choose to ignore this which is sitting on our lap and not lead, but I think we would be shirking our pledge to lead on issues that come before us.”

During the public input session, local pastors encouraged board members. Shem Durham said the new policy “represents me as a Christian.”

“According to the word of God, I am supposed to pray to Jesus,” Durham said.

The Rev. Jimmy Burrell said modern society is pushing anyone who has Christian values to “stay in the closet, stay silent and not be a part of society.”

Burrell said the policy would be approved by members of churches in Pickens County, which he numbered as more than 400.

“And those churches represent thousand, literally tens of thousands, of people,” Burrell said.