Lexington-Richland 5 schools took the first step Monday toward revising high school graduation prayer guidelines under legal attack.
School Board members gave initial approval to a plan for student-led messages at graduation and athletics games that could be a prayer, pep talk, moment of silence or commentary.
The only restriction is that remarks cannot be obscene or profane.
The new approach is “the very best way we could keep prayer” possible at those events, school spokesman Mark Bounds told the board.
Graduation invocations at Chapin, Dutch Fork and Irmo high schools are in limbo since a legal effort began last year to stop the practice.
Matthew “Max” Nielson, an Irmo High alumnus, is challenging a school-sponsored ballot that enabled student prayer at the ceremonies.
Joined by other students later, Nielson is seeking to ban that arrangement as a violation of separation of church and state.
It’s uncertain if the change made by the board can head off a showdown in U.S. District Court looming this fall.
“Our goal is not to have an issue,” board chairman Robert Gantt said.
The proposal seems “a move in the right direction” but it’s too soon to say if it is acceptable, said Aaron Kozloski, attorney for those challenging the practice.
Allowing an invocation to occur in any fashion “is still problematic,” he said. “There’s still inherent difficulty in allowing an individual student to commandeer a graduation with a captive audience.”
Nielson prefers a moment of silence – something done in classrooms daily – to allow individual prayer or reflection.
His challenge is assisted by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group for which Kozloski is the local attorney.
The change by school leaders was developed with advice from the Liberty Institute, a Dallas-based think tank that specializes in supporting student prayer.
It can withstand scrutiny since the new standards allow students “speech of their choosing,” institute lawyer Hiram Sesser told the board.
Former board member Kim Murphy complained the change is inadequate to protect prayer since its use isn’t spelled out as permissible.
“You must be sure to cross your Ts and do your Is,” she said.
The board also is overhauling its prayers at meetings as well, saying the invocation must be “nonsectarian” and not promote a specific religious view
Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.