After Town of Greece Supreme Court Decision, School Board Mulling Sectarian Prayer Policy

Valedictorian Roy Costner of Liberty High School in Pickens County, South Carolina tears up his pre-approved graduation speech and recites the Lord's Prayer at his graduation ceremony on June 1, 2013. | (Photo: Screenshot/Brian Dismuke's YouTube video)

A South Carolina school board is considering a return to a prayer policy similar to Town of Greece, New York after the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of sectarian prayers at public meetings.

Pickens County School Board's policy committee met last week to discuss a change back from the non-sectarian prayer policy to one mirroring Greece's.

Alex Saitta, chairman of the School Board of Pickens County, told The Christian Post that the Town of Greece decision directly influenced their consideration.

"In 2011 the 4th circuit court in Joyner v. Forsyth County, NC ruled the prayers at the start of such meetings had to be non-sectarian. Forsyth County petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their appeal, and the Court denied their petition in the spring of 2013," said Saitta.

"At that point, we switched to non-sectarian prayer given on a rotational basis by one of the sitting school board trustees. We have been starting our meetings with a non-sectarian prayer since 2013. The Greece, NY case is prompting us to change the method."

Saitta explained to CP that the policy committee recommended a change to the Greece prayer policy, which involves choosing "a clergy from the community to start our meetings with a prayer as that clergy deems fit and within the broad guidelines laid out by the Greece, N.Y. opinion."

"We also are asking the SC state attorney general for guidance on how the clergy selection should be conducted," added Saitta.

In May, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that Town of Greece could have sectarian prayers before their monthly public meetings.

Known as Town of Greece v. Galloway, the case centered around a lawsuit brought by a couple residents who took issue with the prayers offered by clergy, arguing that they constituted an unlawful government endorsement of religion.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy invoked the 1983 Supreme Court case Marsh vs. Chambers as the source of why the Court ruled in favor of Greece.

"In Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U. S. 783, the Court found no First Amendment violation in the Nebraska legislature's practice of opening its sessions with a prayer delivered by a chaplain paid from state funds," wrote Kennedy.

"The decision concluded that legislative prayer, while religious in nature, has long been understood as compatible with the Establishment Clause. As practiced by Congress since the framing of the Constitution, legislative prayer lends gravity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose, and expresses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society."

The plaintiffs were represented by the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Gregory M. Lipper, senior litigation counsel with Americans United, told CP that Pickens School Board was not properly applying the Greece decision.

"Town of Greece applies to the 'limited context' of prayers before meetings of local legislatures; the Court did not uphold prayers before meetings of school boards," said Lipper.

"In upholding prayer before legislative meetings, the Supreme Court relied on practices dating back to the Framers and the first Congress; public schools, on the other hand, did not exist at the time of the founding, and so there is no historical justification for prayers at school board meetings."

Lipper also told CP that Pickens "is skating on extremely thin ice by sponsoring prayers before school board meetings."

"Both federal appeals courts to consider the question have concluded that the First Amendment prohibits school boards from opening their meetings with prayers – whether or not those prayers are sectarian," said Lipper.

"These courts have explained that school board meetings are directly linked with students and the overall educational process, and the Supreme Court has consistently prohibited school districts from sponsoring prayers at school events."

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