Supreme Court decision on meeting prayers could affect local suit

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A recent decision by the United States Supreme Court regarding prayer at public meetings could have an effect on a similar suit involving a Midlands school district.

Monday the Supreme Court ruled that a prayer said before a council meetings in the Town of Greece, New York, is allowable under the United States Constitution. The court ruled by a 5-4 decision that prayers are in line with long national traditions. The decision said as long as the prayers do not attempt to convert people, their content is not significant.

A similar case is awaiting a ruling from U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie in Columbia. A student and the Freedom From Religion Foundation are suing Lexington-Richland School District 5 over prayers said at school board meetings.

While the Supreme Court's decision does not address all of the issues in the local case, attorney Andrea White, who represents the school district, says it's a start.

"We believe that the Town of Greece decision supports the District's position in our case-- that a deliberative public body (including a local governmental body) may open its meetings with a prayer without violating the Establishment Clause of the Constitution," said White. "The Town of Greece decision in fact expands the Supreme Court's prior Marsh v. Chambers decision by holding that such prayers may be sectarian in nature, so long as they do not proselytize nor disparage other faiths."

The attorney representing the other side disagrees.

"The Town of Greece opinion has no impact on our case," said Aaron Kozloski. "That opinion does not impact our case."

"The issue left to be decided by the court in the Lex-Rich 5 case is whether a school board has the same right as a city or county council to open its meetings with a prayer and, if so, whether that prayer has to be non-sectarian or may be sectarian," said White.

Judge Cameron Currie, who has the case, has asked attorneys for both sides to file supplemental briefs stating their arguments based on the outcome of the Town of Greece decision by the Supreme Court. Those documents are due at the end of June. Once she receives them, Currie could request oral arguments before she issues her ruling.

Attorneys for the Freedom From Religion Foundation claim that because students are present at school board meetings, school boards do not have the same right to prayer as city or county councils.

"That's the major difference between that case and our case," Kosloski said. "Not only are children present, they're the focus. The difference with the school board is that they are charged with administering a specific program."

"The district contends that, like city or county councils, school boards have the same right to open their meetings with a prayer, even if students might be in attendance, so long as the prayer is ceremonial and not offered during the substantive part of the meeting, and students, as well as adults, are not required to participate in the prayer," said White. "In light of the Town of Greece ruling, the district also will argue that school boards may offer a sectarian prayer to open their meetings."

"We continue to believe that the existing legal authorities that have distinguished school boards from other public entities remain intact," said Kozloski.

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