Where is public prayer allowed?

Staff photo by Maayan Schechter
Audience participants bowed their heads for prayer during the Aiken City Counil public meeting on Monday.
Staff photo by Maayan Schechter Audience participants bowed their heads for prayer during the Aiken City Counil public meeting on Monday.

Soon the U.S. Supreme Court will hear and decide several controversial cases, one of which is public prayer at government meetings.

The Town of Greece v. Galloway case revolves around whether public prayers before a government meeting violate the First Amendment guarantee of separation of church and state. Oral arguments are scheduled for Nov. 6, according to Reuters, and the outcome of the case could very well change how various councils and boards around the U.S. begin their public meetings.

The Aiken Standard took a look at prayers conducted before County, City and school public meetings.

City Council

After an Aiken resident became concerned with City Council praying before public meetings, a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation was sent to Council. The foundation is a national nonprofit group based in Madison, Wis., focusing on violations of separation of church and state. Established in 1976, it was co-founded by Anne Laurie Gaylor who originally started the group so an organization could be behind her and her mother went they went before Madison's City Council.

While no lawsuit was ever threatened, the Foundation made clear that using prayers predominantly for one religion was violating the South Carolina Public Invocation Act that allows public prayer, but which states, “A public invocation must not be exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other faith or belief.”

City Attorney Gary Smith said within the current state of the law, Council is allowed to have prayer before a meeting, it just needs to be secular.

“You cannot end a prayer by saying, 'In the name of Jesus Christ,' just as it would be inappropriate to have any other form that may favor some other particular religion whether it be from the Jewish religion or Muslim religion,” Smith said. “Simply having the prayer and ending it with 'amen,' I believe under current law, is appropriate and allowed.”

After a case in Great Falls where council members refused to use secular prayers at their meetings, Smith said it changed many legal ideas about what an individual could do during a prayer. The case revolved around a resident, Wiccan High Priestess Darla Kaye Wynne, after she testified in federal court that she was publicly humiliated when a council member called her out for not participating in a prayer.

“You'll notice at the beginning of meetings, Mayor Cavanaugh says we are going to have a Council prayer and then say the Pledge of Allegiance,” Smith said. “It used to be everyone joined in on the prayer and pledge, but that's why there is a difference in saying Council is now going to pray. The law says it is OK.”

However, while Council revised its prayer structure, Gaylor said the change does not mean it is right.

“Even nonsectarian prayer excludes nonbelievers,” Gaylor said. “It excludes those from Hindus or those who believe in multiple gods. I think it's unnecessary, divisive and inappropriate for government to prayer before meetings. We say get off our knees, and get to work. Pray through your own endeavors. You can hold successful meetings without invoking a supernatural being many of us object.”

County Council

In his 23 years of giving the Council prayer, Aiken County Councilman Willar Hightower doesn't recollect any complaints or concerns regarding the way the invocation has been handled over the past two decades.

“Aiken County Council tries to give non-denominational prayers,” Hightower, who is also an ordained minister, wrote in an email. “Often, I am asked to do the invocation. When I do, I do not intend to mention 'Jesus' nor 'Christ.' Since I give many prayers where denominational prayers are expected, I slip-up and say, 'In Christ Name,' at the close of my invocation.”

According to County Administrator Clay Killian, Wynne v. Town of Great Falls changed the way many public bodies across the state handled prayer during public meetings. He said that the case advised all public bodies that it's permissible to open with prayer but a specific belief or religion should not be singled out or disparaged.

Killian said he feels County Council has done well upholding that ruling.

Aiken County Council Clerk Tammy Sullivan added that if there's a minister in the audience, Council Chairman Ronnie Young will ask if they would like to give the invocation. Killian said that having someone other than Hightower open the meeting with prayer doesn't happen often but he believes that most local ministers are aware of the ruling and try to offer a non-denominational invocation.

School Boards

The issue of prayer in school districts, among them Aiken County, is perhaps more complicated that those in city and county governments.

The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has recognized that governing bodies – legislatures and city and county councils – have the ability to say a prayer in certain ways, said Scott Price, the S.C. School Boards Association's attorney. They can make references to a higher authority, but not through proselytizing.

The question, Price said, is where school boards fit in. The Fourth Circuit Court says such boards are not considered legislative bodies and it's not clear what they can do.

“We struggle with that,” Price said, “but the safest things we tell districts what they can do is a moment of silence – as the schools do every day.”

A year ago, Florence School District board members agreed to that approach. However, one board member has continued to pray aloud during the moment of silence, which could encourage lawsuits.

Bill Burkhalter, the Aiken School Board attorney, said that children attend many Aiken meetings during the school year, where a rotating group of board members and administrators open meetings with varying forms devotionals. That could be a concern, but a counter argument is that children attend voluntarily, Burkhalter said.

Burkhalter acknowledged that constitutional issues always can be raised. The devotionals at the Aiken Board meetings rarely include a reference to Jesus, but they do happen, as recently as a meeting last week.

“If every meeting was opened with a Christian prayer,” Burkhalter said,. “we could be on a pretty thin limb. But I don't think we could be challenged successfully now, because it's not a pattern.”

Some speakers don't do a prayer, instead delivering short talks about value of education and similar messages. Almost all others offer non-sectarian prayers, Burkhalter said. However, “Part of my responsibility is to make Board members aware of the cases that come down on this,” he said.

Again, in terms of school boards and prayers, the topic remains “a little fuzzy,” more so that the other government entities, Price said.

“But there are ways to steps they can take to fall within the requirements of the Constitution and the laws,” he said.

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