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Schools: ACLU scrutinizes role of religion in disrtict

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Despite conducting two prayers at the start of its meeting this week, the Georgetown County Board of Education is concerned about a request from the ACLU for documents that will show whether the school district adheres to the constitutional separation of church and state.

The district is among 83 in the state that received requests under the Freedom of Information Act at the start of the school year. The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says it wants to makes sure districts comply with a consent decree that resulted from a suit in Chesterfield County.

“The district truly had no defense for 99.9 percent of what was going on,” said David Duff, attorney for the Georgetown County district who was involved in the Chesterfield suit.

The ACLU asked districts around the state for policies, programs, schedules, agendas, minutes, newsletters and other material since 2009 that refer to religion or prayer. The agenda for this week’s board meeting included an invocation from the Rev. S.K. Davis, pastor of the Christian Life Center in Myrtle Beach and father of a Waccamaw Intermediate School student. He hadn’t arrived by the start of the meeting so Chairman Jim Dumm called on Superintendent Randy Dozier to lead a prayer.

“Dear heavenly father, thank you for the opportunity to gather here today,” Dozier began.

Davis arrived a few minutes later and was invited to give another prayer. His son, Colson, led the Pledge of Allegiance.

“Direct our kids in the right path. We ask it in the mighty name of Jesus Christ. Amen,” Davis concluded.

Those prayers probably aren’t constitutional, Duff told the board. A ruling in a North Carolina case by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said prayer by a town commission violated the First Amendment.

“The safest way to start any meeting is with a moment of silence,” Duff said.

The issue is more difficult for school boards because there are usually students present and prayer at meetings creates the impression that government is endorsing religion to its most impressionable constituents, he explained.

In Chesterfield, the complaint to the ACLU was sparked by a middle school rally that involved a Christian rapper who asked students to pledge themselves to Jesus. Even though students could opt out of the meeting, it violated the separation clause of the First Amendment, Duff said.

The rally led the ACLU to ask about other religious activities in the district. Duff said the consent decree reached in federal District Court was a reasonable solution.

It led the group to launch a program this fall, Religious Freedom Goes to School, to “ensure that schools do not impose or promote religion,” Victoria Middleton, the state ACLU executive director explained in a letter to the district. That letter was accompanied by a request for documents.

Board Member Pat DeLeone said the request started her looking at other court rulings. Even though prayer at board meetings is voluntary, she said courts have ruled it isn’t allowed.

Board Member Arthur Lance wondered if the board could pray before the meeting convenes.

DeLeone asked if the district should have a policy on prayer.

Duff pointed out state law requires school district employees to receive training in the establishment clause of the First Amendment and its meaning.

And he noted that there are few restrictions on student prayer or discussion of religious topics. “Students can do a lot of things as long as it’s not school or district initiated,” he said.

Evidence of prayer and religious activity at school and district functions is likely to prompt further inquiries from the ACLU, Duff said.

He recommends the district not fight the group.

One parent, Al Dennis of Carvers Bay, told the board he objected to the ban on public prayer at football games.

“I really admire what went on here tonight. We prayed twice. That’s more than some Christians pray in a week,” he said.

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