S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson is hoping the Supreme Court will protect local governments’ right to open public meetings with a prayer.
Wilson has signed South Carolina up to fight a federal case that has challenged a North Carolina county’s practice of opening meetings with a sectarian prayer. South Carolina is one of 21 states supporting the county’s right to do so.
A federal appellate court ruled in July that Rowan County’s prayers are “coercing public participation in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion.”
The same federal court ruling would apply to public bodies in South Carolina if lawsuits successfully challenge the prayers that open local government meetings. Wilson hopes the nation’s highest court will stop any potential legal challenges.
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“Our founding fathers strongly supported legislative prayer by public bodies and deeply believed in divine guidance to support these bodies,” Wilson said in a statement. “Nothing in the Constitution prevents a respectful prayer led by a lawmaker for help in making the right decision.”
Three Rowan County residents, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued to stop county commissioners from reciting prayers specific to Christianity.
In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled explicitly that sectarian prayers offered by clergy before town meetings in Greece, NY, were constitutional. The court found the town could not police the religious speech of the citizens offering the prayers.
A South Carolina town also has had a dust up over prayer in public meetings. In 2001, a follower of Wicca successfully sued the town of Great Falls for invoking the name of Jesus Christ in town meetings.
Prayers from members of S.C. public bodies, common at most local government meetings in South Carolina, must meet certain limits.
In 2016, the S.C. Legislature made changes to the state’s public invocation law in line with the Supreme Court’s Greece decision, finding that bodies must not “seek to be exploited to proselytize or advance any one (religion), or to disparage any other faith or belief.” The law also requires that members of the public not feel “coerced” into a participating in a prayer.