Don’t begin school board meetings with a prayer, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has written to the Charleston County School Board in an open letter.
A concerned member of the school district reported that the board recently decided to open meetings with a prayer. Initially, prayers were not to invoke Jesus Christ, but this rule was removed after the board was accused of discriminating against Christians. In an attempt to be inclusive, prayers are now only allowed to have blanket references, including “God” or “the Almighty.”
“It is clear from these requirements that the board intends for these prayers to be inclusive and nonexclusionary, but it fails to recognize that not imposing any prayers on those gathered to address school business is the most inclusive practice of all,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to the Board of Trustee Chair Pamela McKinney.
FFRF is advising that the prayer no longer be said before meetings. Better options to open these meetings exist, such as a moment of silence. Including a board-sponsored prayer is in direct violation of the Establishment Clause, as well as the constitutional rights of students and parents, FFRF underlines.
The Establishment Clause forbids any government-sponsored organization from endorsing religion in any form, FFRF reminds the school board. By putting prayer before each school board meeting as a board-sponsored event, the Charleston County School Board needlessly excludes nonreligious members of the district. This sends a message to the nearly 30 percent of Americans who are nonreligious that religious views are preferred and favored over those of nonreligious community members.
Students and parents have the right—and often reason—to participate in school board meetings, FFRF adds. It is coercive, insensitive and intimidating to force nonreligious citizens to show obeisance to a religion in which they disbelieve, or to “out” themselves as nonbelievers by not participating in prayer, the state/church watchdog notes.
FFRF has received a response from the Charleston County School Board's attorney indicating that the board believes the proposed practice is constitutionally permissible.
The most recent case against school board prayer comes from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in FFRF v. Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education. The losing school district had to pay FFRF more than $200,000 in costs and attorneys fees.
To avoid these issues all together, the Charleston County School Board must remove prayer from the beginning of their meetings, FFRF urges.
“Board members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “However, the board ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion or coerce attendees into participating in religious exercise.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 39,000 members across the country, including hundreds of members in South Carolina. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.