New Prayer Policy Approved by SC School District, Giving Students Control of Decision Whether to Pray at Events

A school district in South Carolina has decided to modify its policy regarding prayers being a part of invocations and benedictions, especially at graduation ceremonies, in order to avoid a looming legal battle with the Freedom From Religion Foundation this fall.

School District 5, which encompasses the Lexington and Richland areas of South Carolina, recently voted during a board meeting to approve a new policy that allows student-led talks at sporting and graduation events.

During their talk, students may choose to say a prayer, give words of encouragement to their fellow classmates, or simply hold a moment of silence.

This new proposal differs from the school's previous policy that allowed students to decide on whether to have a prayer at school functions based on a majority vote on behalf of the graduating class, with counsel from the school principal.

In their legal complaint, filed May 2012, the FFRF argued that this method of determining prayer at school functions violated the Constitution's Establishment Clause because it put too much power into the hands of the school's faculty, including the principal, to determine whether a prayer would be said.

Specifically, the FFRF's complaint that represented three students from the local Irmo High School, argued that the district's previous prayer policy violated a Supreme Court ruling for a Santa Fe, New Mexico school district, which determined that school-hosted prayer violated the U.S. constitution's Establishment Clause.

The new policy puts the decision of saying a prayer firmly in the hands of the student speaking at the event, and looks to ensure that the school remains uninvolved with religious expression on campus.

Robert Gantt, chairman of School District 5, previously confirmed that the board was seeking to avoid going to court with the FFRF in the fall by amending its prayer policy.

"Our goal is not to have an issue," Gantt reportedly told the board, as reported by "The State" in South Carolina.

Additionally, "The State" reports that school spokesman Mark Bounds told the board that the newly approved district policy was the "the very best way we could keep prayer" possible at athletic and graduation events.

The topic of prayer at graduation ceremonies has attracted the attention of national media in recent months. In June at Liberty High School in Pickens County, S.C., valedictorian Roy Costner IV ripped up his pre-approved graduation speech and recited the Lord's Prayer instead in protest of the school's recent ban on prayer at school functions, especially graduation ceremonies.

After receiving complaints from the FFRF and the American Civil Liberties Union regarding prayer in board meetings, Pickens County board members voted to replace invocations at school events with moments of silence, which is what FFRF attorneys also encouraged the Lexington school district to do.

Lincoln County High School, located in Stanford, Ky., also held a policy in which students were allowed to vote each year on whether to have a prayer at its graduation ceremony.

Earlier this year, because six non-religious students voted against the prayer, the Lincoln County High School decided not to have an invocation at the graduation ceremony, although some students argued it was breaking tradition.

"It's a way of celebrating an important event in our life with a prayer to something that has helped us and guided us through a major part of our life," senior class president Jonathan Hardwick told the local news station WKYT in May.

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