Taking a stand

Local preachers continue fight

against SDPC policy

By Nicole Daughhetee

Courier Staff

As a Miami expat who moved ironically north into the Bible Belt of South Carolina, I freely confess and admit that I have, at times, had some narrow-minded views of the religious community in which I found myself living.

I grew up attending First Baptist Church of Miami Shores, part of the Southern Baptist convention for the decades I was a member there, but my experience in church there was vastly different from my experiences in Pickens County as I searched for a church I could call home.

It has taken me the better part of 10 years to find a church where my spirit of being “home” felt genuine; my family has finally found that home at Marathon. As much as my personal faith has grown over the last year of profound changes in my life, I still managed to approach the issue of prayer before school board meetings with a degree of cynicism and skepticism.

I rely on an ever-analytical mind to maintain my integrity and objectivity as a reporter, and I am diligently mindful that it is my duty to report the news — to extrapolate fact from fiction — and responsibly disseminate that information to that percentage of the public that relies on this newspaper for information.

To this end, I will say this: I acknowledge that there are multiple sides to every story, and The Courier does not discriminate or give preference to one side over another. I was contacted by several local pastors, with a vested interest in the Pickens County community, who wanted the opportunity to voice their thoughts and opinions on the matter of the SDPC Board’s policy regarding prayer and invocation prior to their meetings. What follows here is in their words.

Presumed Ignorance

On Monday morning I had the opportunity to sit down with and listen to the concerns of several local Pastors from Pickens County churches: Jimmy Burrell, Pastor of Gilead Baptist Church in Pickens, James Anthony, Pastor of Prayer Baptist Church in Norris, Gary Gwinn, Pastor of Welcome Missionary Baptist Church in Easley, Roger Todd, Pastor of Wayside Baptist Church in Easley, and Shem Durham, Pastor of Cannon Mountain Baptist Church in Pickens.

Their collective purpose for wanting to meet with a reporter is quite simple: they wanted time, an allotment of which they understand is not possible during the citizen input section of the public SDPC meetings, to share the information they have researched and compiled.

Sixty seconds, they all agree, is just not enough time to share their perspectives with board trustees or those members of the Pickens County community who are also deeply invested in the issue involving prayer at the school board meetings.

One point these five men wish to make is that while they might not be lawyers, they are capable of researching, reading and understanding case law, and they have the wherewithal to seek legal counsel in this matter because they believe that prayer is a cause worthy of a legal and spiritual fight.

“These people think we’re a bunch of dummies, and we’re not dummies. We might not be lawyers but we know the Law; we have case point,” Todd said as he lifted his well-worn preaching Bible into his hands. “I know these people have a big responsibility, but they have a choice and a chance to stand for what’s right.

“Pickens County, South Carolina, has been known to stand for our people, and our people are ready to stand financially and spiritually because our future — the futures of our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — is at stake. If they deny them this right to pray in the name of Jesus, they are violating our civil and constitutional rights as Christians.”

Burrell spoke in agreement: “It seems like the people from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) and the people on our own school board are operating through fear and the presumed ignorance of the people in Pickens.

“They think they can tell us that we don’t have a chance to win, and we’ll just be ignorant enough to not find out, that we don’t have the capacity to find out,” said Burrell. “All of this information is out there [in front of Burrell are copies of a letter to SDPC Board Trustees from the S.C. Attorney General, letters from Gibbs Law Firm, from whom the pastors sought legal counsel, and a copy of the prayer policy adopted, based on citations of constitutional case law, in Transylvania, N.C.]. We found it for free. We did our own research. We talked to attorneys.”

The primary issue concerning the pastors is that the majority of the people on the board will not listen to them or conduct a deliberate and thorough investigation before voting on a policy that will have a profound and lasting impact on the people in Pickens County.

“(Board trustee Alex) Saitta has closed his mind,” Burrell said. “One of the times we met with him, (Jimmy) Gillespie and (Ben) Trotter, they crossed their arms and looked down. Gillespie said he wasn’t willing to lose his house, and Saitta just wanted to argue about it. He didn’t accept what I was saying was valid, despite the fact that he said in January ‘if you can show me one time that prayer has been held up, that it has won, I will fight.’

“But they refuse to listen. It’s like there is this bulldozer mentality where they are just going to steamroll over us and intimidate us, but that isn’t going to happen.”

Gwinn added, “Their minds are shut. They just want the issue out of their way so they can move onto something else.”

Anthony voiced the collective thought that the board made up their minds on the prayer policy before they even entered executive session on the night of the January 28 meeting.

“I ran across Jimmy Gillespie in the parking lot and he said to me, before the meeting ever started, ‘You’re not going to like what is going to happen tonight,’” Anthony said.

The group feels like trustees Shelton and Trotter are the only two allies they have on the board, or that they are, at the very least, the only ones who are willing to take into consideration all the information the group has found.

Legal and Policy Issues

In the American judicial system, prayer is not a black and white issue. There is a lot of gray area, and Durham, Burrell, Gwinn, Todd and Anthony fully understand and acknowledge these gray areas exist.

In reading the letter written by the S.C. Attorney General in reference to prayer or invocation before school board meetings, Durham points out that “the Attorney General actually says several times there’s never been a case like the one put before court. So why are we trying to change something when the decision has never been made on that particular area?”

Burrell said “we spent several hours going over this, and there are four times where the Attorney General says that the 4th Circuit or the Supreme Court has never ruled on an invocation policy like this.  No judicial precedent has been set in our Circuit, so there’s no reason why we should be changing now.  I don’t think that we have to settle for second rate. We have options that reflect our beliefs.”

“I feel like the policy should stay like it is until a lawsuit is filed,” Durham said. “And if a lawsuit is filed, we’ll change it. Or if a judge says we need to change it, then we’ll change it.”

The men are all concerned that board members reacted, in a rather knee-jerk sort of way, rather than responding to the threat of the FFRF.

In the letter addressed to Burrell from the Gibbs Law Firm in Seminole, Fla., their counsel writes: “it should be clear that a letter from a legal organization like the FFRF carries absolutely no legal weight. The legal opinion offered in the FFRF letter is just that — an ‘opinion.’ No court in South Carolina or in the 4th Circuit has ever issued a judicial opinion on this particular issue.”

All five pastors maintain that they are not asking the board to violate any laws, because there does not yet exist a law to violate. No lawsuit has been filed against the district. They are concerned, however, that acting out of fear, the board has already made several decisions that go against their own policy, and that these decisions are going to hurt the SDPC in the long run.

Burrell pointed out that “(School board chair Judy Edwards), in fact, altered the original policy during the January meeting when she led the invocation rather than having a student lead it (per current SDPC policy). Notice that no student has led a prayer since January, and that’s the first time this was brought up.”

“And there is no reason why they couldn’t lead the prayer,” added Gwinn. “Nothing’s been won. We don’t even have a lawsuit filed against us.”

“Here’s the thing about her starting to pray herself,” said Durham. “They changed the policy and it was never sent to policy committee, and the board never voted for her to pray. So they broke their own rules by not allowing a student to keep praying before the new amended policy was even put to a vote.”

“(Edwards) bypassed the rules and procedures,” said Burrell.

“In the letter we got from legal counsel, it says that if they go forward with the second hearing on this policy and the nonsectarian prayer passes, the FFRF can go back and see if the board followed procedure,” Durham said. “If they have not, and they have not according to our lawyer, then it’s not official policy because the proper procedures were not upheld.”

The preachers have done their homework. They presented a copy of Transylvania County’s Resolution 46-07 Policy regarding opening invocations prior to meetings of the board of commissioners, defined as a “deliberative public body” no different from the “deliberative public body” of elected trustees that comprise the board of the School District of Pickens County.

SC Code 6-1-160 legally defines a “deliberative public body” as a state board or commission, the governing body of a county or municipal government, a school district, a branch or division of a county or municipal government, or a special purpose or public service district.”

Grounded in numerous citations from case law affirming the constitutionality of the practice, the Transylvania County, N.C., Board of Commissioners adopted a policy to allow for an invocation or prayer to be offered before its meetings for the benefit of the board.

The county cites Marsh v. Chambers, a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the Nebraska Legislature’s practice of opening each day of its sessions with a prayer, specifically concluding “the opening sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country. From colonial times through the founding of the Republic and ever since, the practice of legislative prayer has coexisted with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.”

In the letter from the S.C. Attorney General, Burrell read aloud “If a school board can be characterized as a legislative or deliberative body, it can, under Marsh, open its meetings with an invocation.”

Furthermore, citing the case of Bacus v. Palo Verde Unified School District Board of Education, the attorney general’s letter concluded that “members of a school board are elected public officials, not schoolchildren. The main purpose of a school board meeting is to conduct the business of the public schools. It is our opinion that a court would likely conclude that a school board in South Carolina, such as the Pickens County School Board, is entitled to be deemed a ‘deliberative body’ and thus could begin each meeting with a prayer or invocation.”

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor of the U.S. Supreme Court wrote “(There) can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society. To invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not an establishment of religion or a step toward the establishment of religion.”

The Voice of Pickens County

Another common theme during my interview with the pastors was not only the concern that the majority of the board will not listen to them, but also the board’s gross misrepresentation of the people who elected them to the seats of power in which they sit.

“We were founded on taxation without representation,” said Durham. “America was being taxed without any representation in Britain. In my opinion, that’s what we have on the school board. They take our property taxes and spend that money however they see fit for the school district. The majority of people on the school board are not listening to the people they get taxes from, and as far as I know, the FFRF doesn’t pay a dime of taxes in this county.”

The men are gravely concerned that the board has merely reacted to threats from the FFRF without taking into consideration the voices of the community whose interests they are sworn to protect.

“The board is not listening to anything,” Anthony said. “They are settled on what their legal counsel has to say. Period. It isn’t just this group here; there are other churches and people in the community who have asked them to take counsel from other lawyers, to get a real second opinion. They don’t want to listen,.

“That’s where I get frustrated. The people that we have tried to get them in touch with have represented people just like us. They just won’t listen.”

“We have no idea how many letters, emails and phone calls from Pickens County residents have gone to school board members, yet those are being ignored,” said Burrell. “It seems like we are being ignored even in many of the local papers and on the news. They have interviewed a few pastors, but mainly they show a pan over of the crowd and then play phone interviews with (FFRF attorney) Patrick Elliot. That is a big issue.”

Pickens County residents attended the January and February meetings en masse. A petition containing more than 4,000 signatures was collected and presented to the board.

“There hasn’t been much mentioned about the 4,000 signatures either. 4,000 people signed this in less than three weeks, and it was submitted to the school board at the last meeting, and there has been no acknowledgement of that.  It has been totally ignored,” said Todd. “Why don’t they take the time to do this right — to do something that represents and reflects the community they serve?”

Burrell and the others feel that the FFRF and their out-of-state followers have carried more weight with the SDPC board than the voices of their own constituents.

“Does this new policy not violate the rights and freedoms of those people who want to pray and want to have prayer before the meetings? The FFRF letter says that 19 percent of people nationwide don’t affiliate with any religion, but what about the other 81 percent of the people who do?” asked Burrell. “In Pickens County those numbers are higher. In Pickens County it is going to be upwards of 90 percent and of those 80 percent are most likely Christian. Our board doesn’t make national policy. It makes local policy. We elected them to represent us.”

“I have a copy of the original policy before they ever voted on the amendment,” Durham said. “It says the purposes of 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, to seek to unite and not divide the board and the community, and contribute to the wisdom and soundness of decisions by the board. In the new policy the words to unite the community are left out. The community is being left out and divided. Those three little words make a big difference.”

All five men remarked about the outpouring of local residents who are adamant about keeping things the way they are.

“Not one single person has stood up and said that prayer is offensive and they want the policy changed,” said Todd. “The school board members are the only ones who want to change the policy.”

Separation of Church and State

The school board’s public invocation policy has been in effect for roughly 50 years. Gwinn, Durham, Burrell, Todd and Anthony believe it is a policy worthy of a fighting effort. They understand the legal concerns that exist, and they have no intention of violating the law — be it man’s or God’s.

They freely agree that many of the past prayers have been spoken “in Jesus’ name” but they feel strongly that the prayers have not been coerced.

“It is up to the students to pray in whatever manner they see fit,” Durham said. “They are not coerced or instructed in any way in what to say or how to say it. The policy even says that the board doesn’t read the prayers before the student prays, and that the student has every right to turn down the prayer. If a student is asked to lead the prayer and doesn’t want to, they are not forced to do so. The students have a choice. They are there voluntarily.”

“For the last 40 or 50 years, students have been randomly selected to pray,” Burrell said. “If a Jewish student were selected, we don’t have a problem with that. That was part of Saitta’s argument. He said ‘Do you want kids getting up there and praying in Satan’s name?’ Obviously that is not our belief system, but that is what freedom is all about. I think he thought that statement would intimidate us and make us change our opinion, but we told him that the same laws that protect us protect them. They have a right to pray the way they want to, but we also have a right to pray the way that we want to.”

“We’re in a Christian county, and our Christian faith is being kicked out. These six people sitting on this board have more power than people realize. We can’t appeal it, we can’t go any further with it,” said Anthony. “At least when a case goes to court, it goes to court and there is an opportunity to be heard, to appeal, to try to change. When it comes to them, they drop the gavel on it and that’s it.”

“Yes, the majority of kids who have been asked to pray are from a Christian background, but the majority of people living in Pickens County are practicing Christians. The prayers reflect our predominantly Christian community,” said Burrell. “But we believe that prayer should be open to people of all religious backgrounds. If there are students who pray in the name of Muhammad, we don’t have a problem with that. We don’t feel that every prayer has to be in Jesus’ name. That is freedom. Freedom of religion. Freedom of speech. That is fair.”

In the meetings the men attended, they said the board was really only given three options pertaining to prayer: 1. Leave the policy as it is. 2. Go to a nonsectarian prayer. 3. Go to a moment of silence. However, the pastors say that there are a plethora of other options that have been ruled legal in the court system and would be more representative of the beliefs of the community as a whole.

“We did submit this to Mr. Shelton, and he is looking at it. There are other options that would reflect the beliefs of the community in a better way than the new policy,” said Burrell.

“Basically they got this letter, there was a knee-jerk reaction, and they just started changing things without a lawsuit forcing them to, without public support and without taking into consideration other options that would be more pleasing and representative of the wishes of the people in this county,” said Gwinn. “If they would just take the time to listen to some other input, but they won’t listen.”

A Leap of Faith

Durham, Burrell, Anthony, Gwinn and Todd said all they have asked of the board is that they not simply give in and kowtow to the demands of the FFRF.

“If it is going to go to court, then let’s go to court. We might not even have to take it to court, but for 46 cents they’ve changed their policy,” said Burrell. “I was thinking the other day, a battle that’s not fought is already lost. That’s where we are. (Saitta) has said he won’t fight a battle he’s not going to win. How do you know you are going to lose if you don’t even try? You fight with the hope that you will hold on to whatever you’ve got. The only people that fight battles that they know they’re going to win are bullies.”

“It is easy for us to stand outside the ring while they’re in the ring. We understand this,” said Anthony. “They’re the ones being pushed around. They’re the ones feeling the pressure, but we are the ones paying all the tickets. We are all behind them. There are Christian attorneys and people who would help for free, but the SDPC won’t even entertain the idea.”

“It is my understanding that our school board has earmarked $200,000 for a lawsuit against Clemson. There is no guarantee that they are going to win that case, but they are willing to spend money on lawyers for that,” said Burrell. “They are willing to spend money to get money, but they are not willing to spend money to defend their faith.”

The majority of board members, they feel, are willing to choose money over morals.

In the FFRF letter, there is a sentence that reads: “The Supreme Court has continually and consistently struck down school-sponsored prayers.” Burrell says this is a blatant lie meant to intimidate and scare the board.

“I don’t want Pickens County’s name to be on the next letter that the FFRF sends to someone else in an attempt to bully them,” Burrell said.

“This is the school board’s time in history to stand up, and they’ve folded. There will be a judgment,” said Todd. “And when they face God, they will be held accountable. Our faith is being denied. It is time for us to stand, and we will stand and we will fight.”

“Prayer is an exercise of faith. As far as I know, all six board members claim to be people of faith,” said Burrell. “What good is a prayer by them if they don’t have enough faith to believe that the God they are praying to will protect them in a lawsuit? Where is the faith behind the prayer they are praying?”

“The reason we do not like the policy now is because they want to go to a non-sectarian prayer. We feel and the Bible teaches us that when we pray, we are to pray in Jesus’ name,” said Todd. “If you go to non-sectarian prayer then we’re not praying the way the Bible has taught us to pray. The lawyer from the school district can quote case law from his law books, but we can quote law from our law book [he points]: This is my preaching Bible.”

“Two things drive you: fear or faith. We want the nation to know that our people, that our school board fought for this even if we don’t win. If you genuinely have faith in God and believe that God can do anything, you have to let go and let God,” said Durham. “The board has all these people that are willing to support them. They have to have faith that if God has brought them to this, God will lead them through this.

“We just want to live by faith. That is what we are trying to do. This is the example we want to set,” said Burrell. “Even if we lose, those that come after us will know that the people before them fought for this. If I thought God wasn’t God enough to win, what would be the point of preaching or praying or anything?”

The next hearing on the Public Invocation Policy will be held on March 25. Pastors Shem Durham, Jimmy Burrell, Roger Todd, Gary Gwinn and James Anthony (among others who were unable to be present during our interview) would be more than happy to answer any questions and would certainly appreciate support from any community members or churches wishing to show their support. They can be contacted through their local churches, all of which have been previously mentioned in this article.