PICKENS COUNTY—Hundreds of Pickens County residents flocked to the Pickens County school board meeting Monday night with one message for board members.
“Take a stand.”
That was the phrase that many uttered while discussing what to do about student-led invocations at the start of monthly meetings.
The board was recently told by an attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) that their current practice was unconstitutional. A letter sent to the board asked for student-led prayer to be ceased.
Monday night, the board voted 4-2 (Ben Trotter and Jim Shelton opposed) to draft a “non-sectarian” prayer that would continue at school board meetings.
“No matter how we might feel about it and how much we might want do it this way, the current student led prayer (practice) is not sustainable under the Constitution,” School Board Attorney Dave Duff said.
Board member and Pickens representative Alex Saitta said the vote is aimed to keep prayer in board meetings.
“The board has asked its attorney to craft a policy that will allow us to continue to start its meetings with a prayer,” Saitta said. “The aim is to continue the innovation at the start of meetings, like the councils and county council do, and we believe such a policy will withstand a legal challenge.”
“Under federal case law, the US Congress, state legislatures, county and city councils can start their meeting with non-sectarian prayer,” Saitta continued. “Whether a school board can do that is still not decided, however, we have an opinion in hand from the State Attorney General such a practice is constitutional. The American government is obligated to defend us if we craft an innovation policy in line with state law, and we asked our attorney to craft such a policy.”
Trotter and Shelton disagreed, saying the board should put its foot down.
“I’m going to vote against this and I think we should stand and fight,” Shelton said
Shelton’s sentiments were echoed by 23 speakers who gave their thoughts during the “citizens input” section of the meeting. Each speaker asked the board not to do away with the student-led invocation and was answered with a chorus of “amens” and affirmation from an excitable crowd of hundreds.
“Do you want to make a point and lose, or do you want to adjust what you’re doing a little bit and win?” Saitta asked the group. “Starting meetings of a deliberative body like the school board or county council with an invocation goes back more than 200 years to the first US Congress, and it is tradition we aim to continue.”
Duff indicated the board sought out legal advice from five different entities.
The crowd gathered around the flag pole to pray an hour before Monday night’s meeting. The short gathering offered a chance for citizens to voice prayers over a loud speaker, and ended with the group signing “Amazing Grace.”
Chairman Judy Edwards said a drafted non-sectarian prayer will be discussed at the monthly board meeting in February.