FFRF offers Spartanburg council prayer-free alternative

As the Spartanburg [S.C.] County Council readied to vote Aug. 16 on a formal policy to authorize sectarian prayers at government meetings, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has offered the council a policy that meets, instead of violates, the U.S. Constitution and case law.

According to a story Monday in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, four of the seven council members have already approved a policy.

Spartanburg County has and will continue to rely on Chaplain Jerry Clevenger, the newspaper reported. In Clevenger's absence, the prayer at will rotate among council members. The proposed policy says the council will elected a chaplain "once a year or from time to time," as determined by the council chairperson.

FFRF had originally complained July 13 on behalf of its members to council prayers. In its Aug. 16 letter, FFRF Attorney Patrick Elliott reiterated the points the earlier letter made and directly addressed the proposed policy. "If implemented, the policy will violate the Establishment Clause because it will advance one faith or belief," Elliott said.

"The proposed policy allows the council to elect a chaplain by popular vote and fails to provide assurances that the chaplain’s prayers will be free of sectarian references," Elliott wrote. "Repeated sectarian references by an elected chaplain cannot withstand judicial scrutiny in the Fourth Circuit. . . . Regardless of the legal questions on the policy, electing a religious leader as the official prayer-officiant for the Council is absurd. Religious belief and ritual should not be subject to majority rule."

The Foundation proposed a 15-point alternative policy. Some of the points made:

  • Removing official prayers from government meetings is the only way to ensure the council is in compliance with the Constitution.
  • The county should avoid the risk of protracted litigation in which it may have to pay costs and attorneys fees for any party challenging its prayer practice.
  • The council should respect its duty to citizens and taxpayers by focusing on county matters and not divine matters.
  • Prayers at meetings are divisive, and the council should represent all citizens, regardless of belief or nonbelief.
  • Members remain free to pray and worship in ways they find appropriate outside of conducting their official government business.

The policy ends: NOW THEREFORE, it will be the policy of the Spartanburg County Council to open its meetings with a call to order. The council will take no official position on matters of religion and will refrain from hosting official prayers during or before times of government business.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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