The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking a South Carolina school district to stop its unconstitutional practice of opening school board and other meetings with prayer.
The Dorchester School District Two opens its school board meetings and many other school-sponsored events with prayer, a concerned parent has informed the national state/church watchdog. The Board of Trustees’ agendas confirm that each meeting begins with an “invocation” led by members of the board and, according to the parent, these are always Christian prayers. The parent also reported that on March 15, Assistant Principal William Hodges led a prayer to open an academic awards ceremony at an area high school. This is seemingly a common practice, with prayer opening up most school-sponsored events.
“It is unlawful for any school-sponsored event to include prayer,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Board of Trustees’ Chair Gail Hughes. “The Supreme Court has continually struck down formal and school-led prayer in public schools.”
All school events must remain neutral toward religion, FFRF emphasizes. It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings, since this practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
“It is important to note that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, permitting sectarian prayers at legislative meetings, has no applicability to the constitutionality of prayers at public school board meetings,” writes Line, referring to a case that FFRF won a couple of years ago. “In Chino Valley, decided after Town of Greece v. Galloway, the [9th Appeals Circuit] court distinguished the Chino Valley School Board from the deliberative legislative bodies considered in Marsh and Galloway and held that the board’s prayer practice must be analyzed as a school prayer case.”
Students and parents have the right — and often have reason — to participate in school board meetings, FFRF stresses. It is coercive, embarrassing and intimidating for nonreligious citizens to be required to make a public showing of their nonbelief (by not rising or praying) or else to display deference toward a religious sentiment in which they do not believe, but which their school board members clearly do. The school board ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion, amounting to a governmental endorsement of religion that excludes the 24 percent of Americans who are nonreligious, including 38 percent of Americans born after 1987. Calling upon board members, parents, students, and members of the public to pray is unconstitutional.
FFRF is insisting that the Dorchester School District Two immediately refrain from scheduling prayers as part of future school board meetings and other school-sponsored events to uphold the rights of conscience embodied in our First Amendment.
“There is more than 70 years of firm Supreme Court precedent that protects freedom of conscience by barring religious devotions and rituals in our public schools,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Official school bodies should strive to be inclusive, instead of indulging in exclusionary practices.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members across the country, including hundreds of members in South Carolina. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.