Finally getting around to putting this March 2015 vote and all the details in the archive.
As late as February 2013 the school board asked a student to lead a prayer at the start of its regular meetings. We didn’t realize it as the time, but later heard from the State Attorney General, both our lawyers and Christian defense groups it was illegal for a government body or government official to ask a student to pray at school board meetings, in the classroom or at school sponsored events.
One of our attorneys recommended the board switch to a moment of silence. The majority of board members thought that was too cautious. The US Supreme Court in Marsh vs. Chambers (1983) ruled at the opening of a government meeting, prayers are allowed when given by a government official or by an invited/ hired clergy. Pickens County is in the 4th federal circuit court of appeals. In a 2011 case (Joyner v. Forsyth County, NC), the 4th circuit ruled opening prayers had to be non-sectarian. That is, the prayers couldn’t call on one God over another and the prayers had to be generic, to God, Father or Lord.
When our school board dropped the student prayer, we skipped over the moment of silence option, and in-line with that 4th circuit ruling the board adopted a non-sectarian prayer given by board members. We have been starting meetings with a non-sectarian prayer for about two years now. Below is an example of such a prayer.
Holy God, we know that the greatest wisdom always comes to those who choose to follow, serve, and honor you. Be with each board member as he or she exercises wisdom today. May these leaders honor you through their debates and votes, and may the results of their decisions truly benefit the people of our community. Indeed, O God, bless our troops around the globe and stateside. Help every one of us to serve wisely and faithfully. In your loving name we pray, dear Lord. Amen.
Residents Not Satisfied:
The non-sectarian prayer never satisfied the residents of Pickens County because it conflicted with two of their fundamental beliefs.
First, when a person gives a prayer, the government must let that person pray to whomever he wants and how he wants without restrictions. This is a First Amendment right, specifically a person’s right to freely express his religious beliefs without government interference.
Second, when that fundamental right is threatened by groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the residents expect their government leaders to clearly and unambiguously demonstrate they support the right of freedom of religious expression. First and foremost a school board, like a county council or even a fire board, is a government entity. One of the primary principles all governments in our nation stand on is the freedom of religious expression. Hence, when that issue happens to come up, no matter the purpose of that government entity, the people expect their government to strongly uphold and demonstrate that principle in belief, written policy and practice.
Both go hand in hand. There will be no freedom of religious expression, if we all don’t concern ourselves with attempts to restrict how an individual can pray and our government leaders do not strongly support that right under the law.
A year after the school board switched to the non-sectarian prayer, the US Supreme Court settled the issue. In May 2014 the Court, in the case of Greece, NY vs Susan Galloway struck down the 4th circuit ruling requiring the opening prayers to be non-sectarian. The Court ruled if a clergy was invited to give the prayer, the clergy had the right to pray to God according to the dictates of his own conscience, beit to Jesus, Allah, Jehovah or whomever.
In the wake of this ruling, county residents restated their opposition to the school board’s non-sectarian prayer policy, their support for this Court ruling, and urged the board to revamp its policy. Specifically, residents wanted the board to switch to the Greece, NY method, and demonstrate that by writing a new policy, thereby showing the board supported the right of freedom of religious expression.
Looking at it another way, the line of the law is here. Way back here is the moment of silence. In-between is the non-sectarian prayer. Right up against the legal line, is the Greece, NY/ clergy given prayer. That is where residents wanted their school board to be on the issue.
Board Acted Initially, Anyway:
In July 2014 the board sent the non-sectarian prayer policy to the policy committee for a re-write.
Over the next two months the committee and the board’s attorney re-wrote the policy, relying on a State Attorney General opinion that highlighted the points which needed to be in the new policy.
The new policy was put to its first reading in September 2014, and passed 6 to 0.
This is what I said at that September 2014 meeting.
In October, in a 4 to 2 vote, the board tabled the policy for further information. (Judy Edwards, Brian Swords, Jim Shelton and Herb Cooper voted to table the policy, and Jimmy Gillespie and Alex Saitta voted not to.) The majority wanted the attorney general to review the final policy. I argued to approve the final reading, saying by that time many attorneys reviewed the policy and the State Attorney General already gave us a tailor-made opinion. He wasn’t going to rewrite our policy -- he was not our personal attorney.
My comments at the October 2014 meeting.
Six weeks later the attorney general reviewed the policy wrote us an email saying: “Prayer policy is good.”
Yet, the policy was not put back on the agenda for second reading in December, January or February. I tried to work through the process to get the policy back on the agenda for its final up or down vote, but was unsuccessful. In February 2014 I made a motion to add the second reading of the policy to March agenda. My motion passed and the policy was scheduled for a simple up or down vote at the March 2015 meeting.
The policy to invite in a local clergy to give the invocation at the start of the meeting, according to the dictates of his own conscious – the Greece, NY method, failed in a 3 to 3 vote. Brian Swords, Judy Edwards and Herb Cooper voted against. Phil Bowers, Henry Wilson and Alex Saitta voted for the new policy.
Comments at the March 2015 meeting
I supported the new policy for a variety of reasons:
I personally believe when a person says a prayer to Jesus, He hears the words, and bestows a blessing on the board members. I think adding blessings by whomever gives the invocation is positive.
Here an example of clergy prayers the Town of Greece, NY was sued over, but the Court then ruled were legal.
Lord, God of all creation, we give you thanks and praise for your presence and action in the world. We look with anticipation to the celebration of Holy Week and Easter. It is in the solemn events of next week that we find the very heart and center of our Christian faith. We acknowledge the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. We draw strength, vitality, and confidence from his resurrection at Easter. . . . We pray for peace in the world, an end to terrorism, violence, conflict, and war. We pray for stability, democracy, and good government in those countries in which our armed forces are now serving, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. . . . Praise and glory be yours, O Lord, Jesus, now and forever more. Amen.
I think that prayer is heard and it is an improvement over the non-sectarian prayer given at board meetings now.
Does Not Discriminate:
The policy is inclusive and does not discriminate. All faiths and beliefs are welcome to give the prayer. Even non-believers are eligible to give a short message of hope or inspiration or just call for a moment of silence. There is no expectation anyone would be compelled to join the expression of the prayer giver or approve of the content of any message given. I think most who are firm in their own beliefs could tolerate and even appreciate a prayer delivered by a person of a different faith.
I’m not Jewish, for instance, but I do appreciate their devotion to God and how they show it in their prayers and their life. If a Rabbi gave a prayer for the board, I would find value in it. If a non-believer gave an invocation recognizing the value in self-government, the brotherhood of man, and asked all of us to unite to the problems at hand, I would appreciate that too.
If anyone was worried about being offended, that possibility exists no matter the method. We had a person give an invocation during the public input section early in the year. The next citizen that got up said that wasn’t a prayer, but more like a political attack on the conservatives. He wasn’t happy with what was said in the prayer, yet, none of us wilted and died from it. We listened and moved on.
Good leaders know when they are faced with a situation of great importance. They see the breath and gravity of the decision and they act accordingly. We faced that with this decision. For decades now a small minority of non-believers in this country have been using the federal courts to sanitize the public square of religion against the wishes of the majority of believers.
This was one battle in this nationwide cultural war. FFRF has made South Carolina, lying at the center of the Bible belt, a primary target in their war effort, and our school board was dragged into this. Sometimes issues drop on the board room table that are bigger than we signed up for. Either we rise to them or we don’t.
Myself, I saw the breath and gravity of the issue – this wasn’t only about prayer or our school board or the here and now. It was so much large than that, so I supported taking the strongest stance we could under the law – adopting the Greece, NY method of opening prayer.
Starting meetings with a prayer is an American tradition that is as old as America itself. I think we need to be a strong link in that chain of tradition, not a weak or broken one.
Personally believing in God and praying silently wasn’t seen as enough by the Founding Fathers. They saw it essential the governing body of their new country, purposefully and quite publicly ask for God’s guidance, protection and His favor. For this reason, in June 1787 Benjamin Franklin officially made a motion to the Continental Congress to begin its sessions with an opening prayer given by the town clergy. This is what Franklin said, and it was basically the Greece, NY method.
In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarcely able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we had once thought of humbly applying to the Father for the light to illuminate our understandings?
In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of the danger we faced, we had daily prayer in this room for His divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of divine providence in our favor.
To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our nation’s future. Have we now forgotten our powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance?
God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?
I therefore move that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City officiate in that Service.
I can’t think of an issue that has more support in my district. The residents want the school board to start their meetings with an invocation where the person giving the prayer is free to pray without government restriction. The residents wanted their school board to pass this policy because it would have showed it purposely and officially supported the constitutional right of freedom of religious expression.
And having a public input section where someone may or may not sign up to exercise his right to freely pray, left it to chance that right would be exercised, and that wasn’t good enough for the residents either.
Each meeting has a public input section where a citizen can get up and say what he wants to the board. Usually, the citizens have a complaint about their school or ask the board a question, but once in a while a resident will give a prayer for the board. He can pray the way he wants and to whom he wants. This satisfied some of the board members, but not me.
I argued the residents of our county want the board to start every meetings with an invocation where the board officially calls up a clergy and that clergy then freely prays without government restriction. The residents wanted the board to pass this policy because it would have made a clear statement their government (the county school board) purposely and officially supported the constitutional right of freedom of religious expression, which so many feel is under attack in our country.
The residents also resent that board members like myself (who are Christian) cannot give the invocation in Jesus’ name.
Finally, all elected leaders should strive to give the public what it wants, but as trustees of the public we also have to insure the public is not exposed to undue risk. We did that with this new policy too.
Just because something is legal doesn’t mean there is no chance you’ll be sued. The is always going to be some legal risk with groups like FFRF out there, but that doesn't mean you shouldn’t move forward.
I own and drive a car. There is a risk I drive off the road and damage someone’s property or in the rain I slide and hit someone and get sued. However, I still drive a car because the benefit way out-weighs the risk. I just buy liability insurance to cover that risk. If the board was to be sued, and lost (unlikely), the board has liability insurance that would have covered our legal fees and any damages.
The new policy was backed by two US Supreme Court rulings. Marsh vs. Chambers in 1983 states a deliberative or legislative body can start its meetings with a prayer. Greece, NY v. Galloway in 2014 states a local clergy can give the invocation according to the dictates of his own conscience without any interference or editing from government.
This policy is backed by the state law 6-1-160 which says a deliberative public body like a school board can adopt a policy to have a public invocation before each meeting. An invocation speaker is selected on rotating basis from among a wide pool of the religious leaders serving in the local community.
We also contacted the attorney general. He wrote an opinion specifically for us that was very supportive. The attorney general wrote:
In summary, we believe the Town of Greece decision provides a road map for a local deliberative body, such as a school board, to use in order to uphold as constitutional its prayer policy. Thus, we recommend to any local deliberative body such as the Pickens County School board, that the Town of Greece decision be closely followed and adhered to.
The state law also says, the attorney general shall defend any deliberative public body against a facial challenge to the constitutionality of this law. The new policy follows the law, so if we would have been sued, the attorney general would have stood with us in court.
Just to be sure, we asked the attorney general to review the policy and he wrote our new prayer policy looked good.
I also contacted the Alliance Defending Freedom organization. I spoke with the attorney who helped defend Greece, NY. He read the first draft of the policy. He suggested changes, which our attorney reviewed and added to the policy's second reading.
The attorney for our liability insurance company said the policy was legal and if we were sued, our liability insurance policy would cover our legal costs and damages.
Finally, this method of prayer at government meetings is being implemented by councils and boards across the country. The City of Liberty is already doing this.
All bases were covered. Personally, I thought the benefit of such a policy outweighed the risk, and the board should have adopted the new policy with the Greece, NY method of opening prayers.
The US Supreme Court handed believers a rare victory. Think of this like a football game where the referee has stepped in and said, time out. You on the left, you move back 20 yards. Now you on the right, here is the ball. Run your play. Time in.
There were two issues for me here. One is I supported the change. Two, I thought the policy deserved a simple up or down vote. It got the latter, and but not the former as a majority did not support changing the policy. I was disappointed, but heartened that the democratic process was followed to the end. I'm hopeful in the long run.