SC school board urged to allow prayer at meetings despite atheist group's complaint

Summerville-based Dorchester School District Two executive session, Aug. 14, 2023.
Summerville-based Dorchester School District Two executive session, Aug. 14, 2023. | Screengrab:

A Christian conservative legal group is encouraging a South Carolina school board to continue allowing members to open meetings with prayer after a secular legal organization demanded that the tradition be halted earlier this month. 

The First Liberty Institute, a legal nonprofit that has successfully argued First Amendment cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, sent a letter on Tuesday to the Dorchester School District Two of Summerville's school board to offer pro-bono legal assistance. A copy of of the letter was emailed to The Christian Post.

The First Liberty letter comes in response to an Aug. 3 complaint letter the school board received from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization that advocates for a strict separation of church and state. FFRF objected to the school board allowing members to open meetings with prayer.

Addressed to Christy Graham, counsel for Dorchester School District Two, the letter from First Liberty Institute Senior Counsel Roger Byron championed "the lawfulness of legislative prayer."

He cited the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, in which the high court ruled 6-3 that a public school football coach could kneel in prayer on the field after games.

"In Kennedy, the Supreme Court upheld a public high school football coach's right to offer private, personal prayer on the field after games. And, critically, the Court clarified the law that controls Establishment Clause matters under the First Amendment," wrote Byron.

"[T]he Court ruled that courts should examine government acknowledgment of religion through the lens of the history and tradition of our country, which regularly integrated religion into public life."

Byron noted that "the lawfulness of invocations to open meetings of deliberative public bodies was based on the nation's history and tradition." He cited Town of Greece v. Galloway, the 2014 Supreme Court 5-4 decision which concluded that a New York town could open official meetings with Christian prayers.

"My firm and I encourage the school board not to allow the complaint letter it received to intimidate it in any way. We also encourage the board to seek full and thorough legal counsel regarding its invocation policy or practice before making any decisions," Byron continued.

In his Aug. 3 letter, FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line told Graham that the school board's prayer policy is unconstitutional because it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits governments from making any law "respecting an establishment of religion."

"We ask that the Board immediately cease imposing prayer upon students, staff, and community members in order to comply with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and to respect the rights of every member of the community," wrote Line.

"Board members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. However, the Board ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion or coerce attendees into participating in religious exercise."

The FFRF previously sent a complaint letter to Dorchester school district officials regarding prayer at a meeting in March 2021. While the organization had been told that the invocation issue had been resolved, it recently reported hearing from a local resident that the invocation practice had returned.

In July 2018, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a per curiam opinion in favor of FFRF when they sued a California school district that allowed board members to give prayers at meetings.

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