The Freedom From Religion Foundation is placing the blame for a string of problematic religious violations in Pickens County schools, Pickens S.C., upon its prayerful Board of Education.
A valedictorian's open defiance of a non-prayer policy at his June 3 graduation ceremony at Liberty High School, in which he ripped up his pre-approved speech and led the crowd in the Lord's Prayer, has focused attention on the religious ambience in the Pickens County School District.
FFRF, a Madison, Wis.-based state/church watchdog, began corresponding with the school board late last year after receiving complaints that the Pickens County Board of Trustees was scheduling students to lead Christian prayers to open its monthly meetings.
FFRF staff Attorney Patrick Elliot sent letters to the board on Nov. 26 and Feb. 25 objecting to the unconstitutional prayer practice. He pointed out, "The Supreme Court has continually and consistently struck down school-sponsored prayers," and that two appeals courts have barred prayer by school boards.
"The valedictorian who so insensitively inflicted Christian prayer on a captive audience at a secular graduation ceremony is a product of a school district which itself has set an unconstitutional example by hosting school board prayer," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.
The school board responded to FFRF's complaint by adopting a policy on March 13 to continue prayer, but keep it "nondenominational" and have it led by an adult. FFRF says that's not good enough. The district, it says, has systemic problems that must be resolved through serious changes in programming, training and administrative oversight.
FFRF has received other complaints from District parents and students. Elliott, on behalf of FFRF, also wrote an April 4 complaint expressing concern after three separate individuals contacted FFRF about other religious violations. Complaints allege discriminatory hiring at Easley High School, religious promotion through posters, and praise music sung in classrooms at West End Elementary School. Elliott told the district that such behavior is a flagrant violation of the separation between state and church required under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
One violation involved EHS Athletic Director Christ Carter's comments on the decision to hire Grayson Howell for head football coach. The Easley Patch, from Easley, S.C., reported:
"There were certain characteristics about Howell that were obvious when Carter spoke to him. 'Number one, our coach is a Christian,' Carter said. 'To me, that's the most important quality, simply because the devil's after our children and the ore quality people we can surround our children with, the better chance they have.' "
Elliot commented: "It is well settled that treating an employee or job applicant favorably or with disfavor because of his/her race, color, religion, sex or national origin is illegal. Discriminatory hiring practices violate not only federal law, but also state law and Board of Trustees policies. Were Carter to have referenced the race or sex of an applicant, the District very likely would have received an immediate employment discrimination lawsuit."
Another complaint involves a West End Elementary teacher using Christian praise music in the classroom of exceptionally young and impressionable second-graders. Elliot states, "The songs are not part of a secular music program nor are they songs with educational merit. Rather, they are adaptions of popular music altered to be all about Jesus. One of the songs is called 'Party Praise Anthem.' The adapted songs include such lyrics as, "'Jesus Christ you are my Savior' and 'Jesus Jesus Jesus.' "
It appears that valedictorian Roy Costner IV, 18, was protesting a decision by the district to stop scheduling invocations and benedictions at graduations, possibly as a result of FFRF's complaints.
FFRF will continue to monitor the situation.