School board will remain silent in spite of Supreme Court ruling

  • Wednesday, May 7, 2014

In spite of Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling, at least for now, the Georgetown County School Board will continue the practice of holding moments of silence, rather than a prayer, according to School Board Chairman Jim Dumm Monday.

However at its Tuesday meeting, Dumm told the board although it would not “officially” pray, if a member felt so moved, they could. And they did.

The court ruled Monday that prayers that open government meetings do not violate the Constitution even if they routinely stress Christianity.

The court said in 5-4 decision that the content of the prayers is not significant as long as officials make a good-faith effort at inclusion.

The ruling was in a case filed by the town of Greece, N.Y., outside of Rochester.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said the prayers are ceremonial and in keeping with the nation’s traditions.

“The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers,” Kennedy said.

In 1983, the court upheld an opening prayer in the Nebraska legislature and said that prayer is part of the nation’s fabric, not a violation of the First Amendment. Monday’s ruling was consistent with the earlier one.

Justice Elena Kagan, in a dissent for the court’s four liberal justices, said the case differs significantly from the 1983 decision because “Greece’s town meetings involve participation by ordinary citizens, and the invocations given — directly to those citizens — were predominantly sectarian in content.”

The high court ruling overturns a New York federal appeals court decision that said Greece violated the Constitution by opening nearly every meeting over an 11-year span with prayers that stressed Christianity.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson says the ruling “provides much-needed clarity for public officials, and upholds a fundamental principle of the Constitution – which is one’s freedom to seek higher counsel when debating policies at the local, state and federal levels of government.”

Moment of silence

Since Sept. 2012, the Georgetown County School Board has opened its meetings with a moment of silence. Before then, various ministers from the area were asked to lead the prayer.

On Monday, Dumm said he will have to see how the ruling is written before making any possible changes to how meetings are conducted.

“I would have to get advise from our attorneys. There seems to be a different mindset when kids are involved. They think we are preaching to or proselytizing them,” Dumm said.

“I can tell you I will not be too quick to change anything. Our attorneys will have to look at it carefully.”

In 1992, Justice Kennedy authored an opinion that a Christian prayer delivered at a high school graduation did violate the Constitution.

He said Monday there are differences between the two situations, including the age of the audience and the fact that attendees at the council meeting may step out of the room if they do not like the prayer.

Dumm said he is unsure what impact the rulings have on school boards.

Both Georgetown City and County Council begins meetings with a prayer.

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