The practice in some Southern communities of starting school board meetings with Christian prayers may have to be halted, following a ruling by a federal appeals court prohibiting a South Carolina municipal council from continuing to offer such invocations.
In a legal challenge brought by a practitioner of Wicca, a contemporary form of pagan nature worship, the town of Great Falls, S.C., lost its bid to keep offering prayers with references to Jesus before its monthly council meetings.
The state of South Carolina, which supported the town in its legal fight, has taken the position that last month’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., does not apply to any policymaking bodies other than the Great Falls town council.
But the South Carolina School Boards Association is advising its members to heed the ruling’s admonition against any prayers that “advance” one particular religion over another.
“The bottom line is it does apply to school boards and school board meetings,” said Scott Price, the group’s general counsel.
In addition to South Carolina, the 4th Circuit includes Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. Representatives of school boards’ associations in those other states said last week that they were not yet familiar with the ruling, but they would analyze its impact on school boards and make their members aware of it.
“I know many boards in the state of West Virginia do begin their meetings with prayers, and many of them invite clergy to give them,” said Howard O’Cull, the executive director of the West Virginia School Boards Association. “Some of them would be nondenominational, and some of them would not be.”
In its July 22 decision upholding a lower-court ruling, a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit court unanimously held that Great Falls’ prayers violate the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of government-established religion because they “contain explicit references to a deity in whose divinity only those of one faith believe.”
The panel dismissed the town’s argument that its prayers were acceptable under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1983 decision in Marsh v. Chambers, which upheld the Nebraska legislature’s practice of opening with clergy-led “nonsectarian” invocations.
Marsh and other Supreme Court precedents make clear that a legislative body may “invoke divine guidance for itself before engaging in public business,” the appellate panel held. But those precedents also say that legislative bodies cannot “exploit this prayer opportunity to affiliate the government with one specific faith or belief in preference to others,” the opinion said.
In 1999, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled that the Cleveland school board’s practice of having a minister open board meetings with a prayer violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against government-established religion.
The town of Great Falls last week asked the full 4th Circuit court to rehear its case. A spokesman for the South Carolina attorney general said the state would again file a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the town.
In the 6,200- student Chester County, S.C., school district, which includes Great Falls, Superintendent Barry Campbell said board meetings start with prayers, usually offered by school board members who “are pretty familiar with the legal aspect of this.”
“They’re all aware of this whole notion of nonsectarian prayer,” he said.
Meanwhile, other South Carolina school boards that routinely start meetings with overtly Christian prayers plan to keep doing so.
“I don’t anticipate any changes,” said Mendel H. Stewart, the superintendent of the 16,000-student Pickens County district. He said that students give most of his board’s invocations, and that “we don’t tell them how to pray.”
Mr. Stewart said the board has never gotten a complaint about Christian references in its prayers. “We’ve been doing it for many, many years in the school district, and it bothers me that we may have to discontinue it if somebody complains,” he said.
Shirley Jones, a member of the Pickens County school board, said she viewed the ruling as unduly infringing the right to free speech.
“We’re thick in the Bible Belt, and people feel very strongly about their faith,” she said. “We should be able to pray the way we want.”
In the Great Falls case, a local resident, Darla Kaye Wynne, sued in 2001 after unsuccessfully requesting that the town council offer nonsectarian invocations, or at least allow non-Christians to occasionally offer prayers.
Townspeople responded to her requests with a petition urging the council to “not stop praying to our God in heaven,” and some church congregations passed resolutions denouncing Ms. Wynne as a witch and urging the council to keep giving Christian prayers, according to court papers.
Ms. Wynne has “had people threaten to burn her out,” and has had vandalism done to her home and car, said her lawyer, Herbert E. Buhl III.
“The problem with this part of the country is everybody assumes everybody is Christian, and there’s not a lot of room for other faiths or beliefs,” he said.