Civil Liberties Group Launches Probe into School Districts’ Use of Prayer

It is no secret that the Fairfield County School Board of Trustees opens their meetings with a prayer, but a January ruling against a S.C. school district in U.S. District Court and new efforts by the American Civil Liberties Union may spell the end of that practice.

Bolstered by their legal victory earlier this year over the Chesterfield County School District, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has launched the Religious Freedom Goes to School campaign, aimed, they say, at strengthening religious freedom in South Carolina’s public schools. As part of that campaign, the ACLU sent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to school districts statewide in an effort to determine if policies are in place to preserve the First Amendment rights of all of their students.

Since their victory in the Chesterfield case, Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, said the ACLU has received a number of complaints from across the state. Two weeks ago, the Fairfield County School District received that FOIA request from Susan Dunn, legal director for the ACLU of South Carolina.

“(This program) is an effort to get an idea of what the policies are at the districts,” Middleton said, “if they do have policies, and the way they can comply with the First Amendment in regard to freedom of religion.”

In addition to policies, the FOIA request seeks records of all programs, schedules, itineraries, calendars, agendas, minutes or news publications referring to, relating to or reflecting the inclusion of prayer, invocations, benedictions, blessings, proselytizing or other religious remarks or exercises in any school-sponsored event, including (but not limited to) graduation exercises, athletic events, school board meetings, ceremonies and banquets, baccalaureate services, school event calendars, daily announcements and school newsletters.

This latest campaign by the ACLU is not an effort to prevent individuals from freely and publicly expressing their faith, Middleton said, but an effort to prevent the government – which includes public schools – from imposing faith upon anyone. The government cannot impede, prevent or promote or impose religious exercises, she said.

“We have children of all faiths, and children of no faith, in our schools,” she said. “A child can pray at school. The ACLU has defended the rights of children to pray in schools. But public schools are not Sunday schools.”

Middleton would not comment specifically on whether or not the practices of the Fairfield County School Board constitute a violation of the First Amendment, but said opening meetings with a prayer could pose a problem.

“We’re trying to get the information into us in a systematic way, look at their policies and look at their practices,” she said. “Yes, opening board meetings with a prayer can be problematic, without making a judgment on a particular case.”

Reached for comment on their policies Friday morning, the Fairfield County School District issued the following statement:

“The FOIA allows 15 business days within which to respond. The district is still within the time line. A reply is being prepared by Childs and Halligan (attorneys for the district).”

A phone call to the offices of Childs and Halligan was not returned at press time.

In Chesterfield, Middleton said, a middle school student was the victim of religious coercion. Teachers were praying over him, she said, and he was being sent to detention for not attending an evangelical pep rally.

“It’s hard for a 12-year-old to stand up for their rights on their own,” she said.

In December 2011, that student’s parent sued the Chesterfield County School District, and in January of this year, U.S. District Court judge R. Bryan Harwell ruled in favor of the parent. As a result, Chesterfield was issued a permanent injunction against prayer at school events, and school officials were enjoined from promoting their religious beliefs to students. The Chesterfield School District was also stuck with the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees.