Facing ACLU scrutiny, South Carolina district eliminates prayer from all board meetings and district events and activities

According to the Georgetown Times, on the advice of David Duff, attorney for the Georgetown County School District (GCSD), the Georgetown County School Board has ceased the practice of opening board meetings with a prayer and replaced it with a moment of silence. In addition, the board has ceased the practice of prayer at GCSD-sanctioned sports events and graduation ceremonies. Duff’s advice was provided during a meeting with the board to offer guidance on how the district should respond to an in-depth Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The ACLU is investigating the religious activities that are permitted in every school district in the state. The request is for documentation about board meetings, graduations, sports events, curriculum, and other activities. The ACLU’s statewide inquest began after an incident last year in Chesterfield County in which a Christian rock artist, known as B-Shoc, and a youth evangelist, Christian Chapman, were allowed to hold a concert during the school day at New Heights Middle School in Jefferson.

Duff explained to the board that the First Amendment, while known mostly as the freedom of speech act, does contain clauses that prohibit government entities from promoting or fostering religion. Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, said students need to know school is a “place where they will be welcome no matter what they believe.”

Duff said the ACLU is looking at the districts to see if there are constitutional violations taking place such as teacher-led class prayers, Bible distribution or prayer at school sponsored events and meetings. “Despite how important religion is in our personal lives, we must abide by what the courts have said,” Duff said, adding “the safest way to start any meeting is with a moment of silence.”

Duff said prayers at football games, even if they are led by students, have already been ruled unconstitutional by some courts and so far the Supreme Court has declined to review the matter.

During his presentation, Duff said it is easy for people to say “bring it on” to the ACLU when you are not a government official or an employee and would not be named as a defendant in a lawsuit. He said if a board member knowingly allows things to take place that have been determined to be unconstitutional, they can be named as an individual in a lawsuit.

It was mentioned that the Christian lawyers’ organization, Liberty Counsel, often takes on the ACLU in such cases at no cost. However, Duff said, the Liberty Counsel does not pay the court costs and attorney’s fees for the ACLU if that organization prevails in the case. “This is what they don’t tell you,” Duff said, meaning the district and others named as defendants would be required to pay those costs.

South Carolina Superintendent Dr. Mick Zais said he supports the rights of students and adults to pray or not to pray in schools. “This misinformation campaign by the ACLU isn’t about religious freedom. It’s an attempt to discourage religious expression in the public arena by issuing threats of lawsuits and suggesting it is unlawful to pray in school,” said Zais. He continues, “The Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion, not the freedom from religion. To those who choose to pray in school, I encourage them to keep praying.”

GCSD School Board Chairman Jim Dumm said because board members can be sued individually and because schools could lose federal funding if laws are being broken, the district, at least for now, is not fighting the ACLU on the issue. “Based on what we have been told, I don’t see how we can pray anymore,” Dumm said. He said the laws are “pretty clear” on what is and is not allowed by law, according to the presentation made by Duff.

The ACLU acknowledges that students are allowed to pray alone or in groups on school campuses “as long as such prayers are not disruptive and do not infringe on the rights of others.” However, it emphasizes that this right to “engage in voluntary prayer does not include the right to have a captive audience listen or to compel other students to participate.”

Duff said it is okay for students to share their religious beliefs with other students. But no such talk can be initiated by any school employees. “Students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals and pray before tests,” the ACLU literature states, adding students are free to pray and share their faith in “informal settings such as cafeterias and hallways.” Student-led prayers, such as the annual See You at the Pole, is permitted, Duff said.

Source:  Georgetown Times, 9/7/12, By Scott Harper

[Editor's Note: Mr. Duff is a member of COSA. The letter accompanying the ACLU FOIA request, which was sent to the superintendent of each school district in South Carolina, states that the responses to the attached FOIA request will be used to provide school districts with guidance as needed and requested. It points out that if there are complaints regarding individual districts, the ACLU will contact district officials and attempt to resolve them. It stressed that litigation would be a last resort.

As referred to in the Georgetown Times article, in January 2012, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Cheraw Chronicle, which reported that the Chesterfield County School Board had voted to accept a proposed settlement offered by the ACLU in a suit it brought against the Chesterfield County School system. The settlement placed limits on school officials’ abilities to promote prayer and religious beliefs while acting as employees and representatives of the school district. It did not prohibit students from praying on their own or together, and it did not prohibit teachers from religious exercise when not acting in their capacities as government officials.]

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