District Five prayer clash continues in federal court

IRMO, SC (WIS) - Lexington-Richland School District Five officials believe they have lawfully corrected the way public prayer is handled at its high school graduation ceremonies and board meetings. However, the legal wrangling over the subject may just be getting started.

It appears the district and Freedom From Religion, Inc. have come to an agreement to settle a portion of a June 2012 suit involving three Irmo High School students and the district's school-sanctioned prayer at graduation.

In a federal court filing, the district outlines revisions made to graduation policy that now allow for a "student-led" message at graduation. The old policy allowed students to vote on whether or not their ceremony would include a prayer. "Neither the board nor any employee of the district will recommend, review, monitor or censor the student-led message," the new policy states.

That leaves the door open for the selected student to include a message of prayer in his or her message, which must be two minutes or less and not contain obscene, profane or vulgar language.

That policy change and a $500 payment plus attorney fees and allowable costs was offered to the Freedom From Religion Foundation on August 21 as a settlement to the suit.

"The school district is just trying to follow the law," said Hiram Sasser, Director of Litigation with the Liberty Institute. He says the 4th Circuit law covering sectarian prayer has been ruled on previously in a case in North Carolina.

Last week, an attorney for the foundation partially accepted the district's Offer for Judgment related to graduation prayer, writing, "Facially, the policy change appears innocuous; in its application, we shall see. We remain suspicious of its questionable political parentage."

The foundation declined further insistence from the district that non-sectarian public invocations at its board meetings comply with South Carolina law.

"We implore you to reconsider and offer to unconditionally cease any Board activity at promoting religion and religious prayer at official Board meetings," wrote attorney Aaron Kozloski.

District officials will now wait to see if U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie will approve the plan for both board meetings and graduation. A response from the plaintiffs is due by September 26th before the case is given to Currie to decide.

If not, it appears both sides will continue to hash out this passionate issue in court.

An invocation is on the agenda for the school district's board of trustees meeting scheduled for tonight. The superintendent will also update the board on the status of the case at the meeting.

A similar case regarding legislative prayer is scheduled to go before the United States Supreme Court.

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