Lexington-Richland 5 board seeks to preserve prayer at meetings

tflach@thestate.comSeptember 13, 2013 

The battle over public prayer in Lexington-Richland 5 is shifting from high school graduation to school board meetings.

Board members are under pressure to end a tradition of invocations at its meetings in the district overseeing education of 16,000 students in Chapin, Dutch Fork, Harbison, Irmo and St. Andrews.

The demand came from the Freedom From Religion Foundation as it moves to accept a plan for messages chosen by students – including prayer – at high schools graduations, as long as remarks are not obscene or profane.

School officials are sticking with a new approach that invocations at their meeting be nonsectarian, and not phrases identified with any specific religious denomination. A substitution of a moment of silence is allowed.

“We do intend to go in that direction,” school lawyer Andrea White said Thursday.

It’s the latest skirmish in a battle under way in federal court.

Prayer is suitable at some public meetings but not those in education, foundation lawyer Aaron Kozloski said.

School leaders’ authority over students makes prayer in any setting “inherently problematic,” he said.

Lexington-Richland 5 officials are asking U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie to OK the prayer plan both for graduation and board meetings. “We believe there is nothing left to fight about,” White said.

Board members adopted the new approach on public prayer with the advice of a think tank that specializes in supporting such expression.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is willing to put its challenge on graduation ceremonies on hold, telling the court the plan for a student messages appears tolerable.

For now, the foundation will watch how often prayers dominate graduation messages before deciding whether to renew its challenge, Kozloski said.

School officials insist the foundation accept both changes – or none.

“It’s an all-or-nothing proposition,” White said.

The foundation brought the challenges on behalf of two graduates of Lexington-Richland 5 schools and one current student.

Other Midlands school boards may be affected by the outcome of the court battle.

Five of the seven start meetings with invocations, records show. Lexington 4 switched from prayer to a moment of silence a year ago after questions were raised on prayer, while Richland 2 has an “inspirational moment.”

For now, the focus solely is on the practices in Lexington-Richland 5 and not on trying to force change elsewhere, Kozloski said.

“I’m not on any crusade,” he said.

Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.

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