FFRF calls out South Carolina school district

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is placing the blame for a string of problematic religious violations in Pickens County Schools, Pickens, S.C., on its prayerful Board of Education.

Valedictorian Roy Costner IV’s open defiance of a nonprayer policy at his June 3 graduation at Liberty High School, in which he ripped up his preapproved speech and led the crowd in the Lord’s Prayer, has focused attention on the religious fervor in the district.

FFRF started corresponding with the school board late last year after receiving complaints it was opening meetings with students leading Christian prayers. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent letters to the board on Nov. 26 and Feb. 25.

The board responded by adopting a policy March 13 to continue prayer but keep it “nondenominational” and have it led by an adult. FFRF said that’s not good enough and doesn’t comply with Supreme Court rulings.

Elliott also wrote an April 4 complaint letter after three 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.

One violation involved EHS Athletic Director Chris Carter’s comments on the decision to hire Grayson Howell for head football coach. The Easley Patch 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 more quality people we can surround our children with, the better chance they have.’ ”

Elliott 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 a second-grade classroom. “The songs are not part of a secular music program, nor are they songs with educational merit,” Elliott said. “Rather, they are adaptations 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.’ ”

“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.

Freedom From Religion Foundation