Friday, September 7, 2012
When the Georgetown County School Board meets for its monthly workshop Sept. 18, the session will begin with a moment of silence rather than a Christian invocation.
The board has traditionally begun its meetings with a prayer but actions taken by the American Civil Liberties Union in districts across the state has caused that practice to cease, said School Board Chairman Jim Dumm.
Board meetings are not the only events that will be without prayer. District-sanctioned sporting events and graduation ceremonies will also have the practice discontinued, Dumm said.
David Duff, the attorney for the Georgetown County School District, met with the school board this week to offer guidance on how the district should respond to an in-depth Freedom of Information Act request from the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU is investigating the religious activities that are permitted in every school district in the state.
The request is for documentation about board meetings, graduations, sports events, curriculum and other activities.
“It’s a comprehensive and detailed request,” Duff said.
New ACLU campaign
The ACLU joined forces with the ACLU of South Carolina last month to launch a “Religious Freedom Goes to School” campaign to encourage freedom from religion in South Carolina’s public schools.
The organization, in a letter to school districts, says its campaign is being conducted to protect “time-honored First Amendment rights.”
The ACLU’s statewide inquest began after an incident last year in Chesterfield County in which a Christian rock artist known as B-Shoc and youth evangelist, Christian Chapman, were allowed to hold a concert during the school day at New Heights Middle School in Jefferson.
Duff explained to the school board the First Amendment — while known mostly as the freedom of speech act — does contain clauses that prohibit government entities from promoting or fostering religion.
Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, said in a press release students need to know school is a “place where they will be welcome no matter what they believe.”
Duff said the ACLU is looking at the districts to see if there are constitutional violations taking place such as teacher-led class prayers, Bible distribution or prayer at school sponsored events and meetings.
The ACLU says it will work with school districts to make sure they are in constitutional compliance and litigation is a “last resort.”
Prayer in the local district
The district’s board meeting agenda lists “invocation” at the start of each meeting.
At the board’s regular monthly meeting, a pastor from an area church says the prayer.
The district has a rotating list of pastors who are called to say the prayer.
At the board’s monthly workshop, a board member or staff member is asked to pray.
“Despite how important religion is in our personal lives, we must abide by what the courts have said,” Duff said, adding “the safest way to start any meeting is with a moment of silence.”
Ironically, there were two prayers to start Tuesday’s meeting.
Rev. S.K. Davis — pastor of the Christian Life Center in Myrtle Beach — who was supposed to lead the prayer was late so the opening prayer was given by District Superintendent Dr. Randy Dozier who used the term “heavenly father” in his invocation but never used the name Jesus.
Davis, after he arrived, was allowed to pray. He used terms such as “father” and asked for a “touch of God” for the district in the prayer he ended with the phrase “in the mighty name of Jesus Christ.”
Prayer had already stopped at some of the county’s football games.
Carvers Bay area resident Al Dennis spoke during the public comment period, expressing his disapproval that there was not a prayer at Friday’s Carvers Bay game.
“What if the government says you can’t read your Bible any more, would you obey that?” Dennis asked. “I want to know what my rights are as a human.”
Duff said prayers at football games, even if they are led by students, have already been ruled unconstitutional by some courts and so far the Supreme Court has declined to review the matter.
Duff, during his presentation, said it’s easy for people to say “bring it on” to the ACLU when you are not a government official or an employee and would not be named as a defendant in a lawsuit. He said if a board member knowingly allows things to take place that have been determined to be unconstitutional, they can be named as an individual in a lawsuit.
It was mentioned that the Christian lawyers organization Liberty Counsel often takes on the ACLU in such cases at no cost.
However, Duff said, the Liberty Counsel does not pay the court costs and attorney’s fees for the ACLU if that organization prevails in the case.
“This is what they don’t tell you,” Duff said, meaning the district and others named as defendants would be required to pay those costs.
State Superintendent responds
South Carolina Superintendent Dr. Mick Zais said he supports the rights of students and adults to pray or not to pray in schools.
“This misinformation campaign by the ACLU isn't about religious freedom. It's an attempt to discourage religious expression in the public arena by issuing threats of lawsuits and suggesting it is unlawful to pray in school," said Zais.
He continues, "The Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion, not the freedom from religion. To those who choose to pray in school, I encourage them to keep praying."
Dumm: We have no choice
Dumm said because board members can be sued individually and because schools could lose federal funding if laws are being broken, the district — at least for now — is not fighting the ACLU on the issue.
“Based on what we have been told, I don’t see how we can pray anymore,” Dumm said Thursday.
He said the laws are “pretty clear” on what is and is not allowed by law, according to the presentation made by Duff.
He said not only could each board member be sued, others such as principals and other district officials could also be named as defendants which would cost the district and those named a lot of money.
Plus, Dumm said, if it is proven the district willfully violated the law, federal funds could be withheld that would hurt all schools, especially the county’s Title One schools.
What is allowed
Students are allowed to pray alone or in groups on school campuses “as long as such prayers are not disruptive and do not infringe on the rights of others,” the ACLU says.
However, this right to “engage in voluntary prayer does not include the right to have a captive audience listen or to compel other students to participate.”
Duff said it is OK for students to share their religious beliefs with other students. But no such talk can be initiated by any school employees.
“Students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals and pray before tests,” the ACLU literature states, adding students are free to pray and share their faith in “informal settings such as cafeterias and hallways.”
Student-led prayers, such as the annual See You at the Pole, is permitted, Duff said.
By Scott Harper