Beaufort News

Hilton Head halts prayer at fire officer meetings

The Town of Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue Division's senior staff will no longer begin monthly officer meetings with a prayer, a tradition started after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The town's human resources department learned of the prayers in August and asked staff attorney Brian Hulbert for an opinion, Hulbert said. He determined the prayers are not protected by the First Amendment.

"There wasn't a complaint made, but HR became aware of it and wasn't sure that having a prayer at the start of a workplace meeting was OK," Hulbert said. "Historically, the Supreme Court has said it's OK to have an opening prayer before a legislative session, but that doesn't extend to everything -- for example, a workplace meeting."

That protection would, however, extend to Town Council meetings, which often start with a prayer, he said.

Hulbert said the fire division's practice was inappropriate because employees might feel obligated to participate.

"The problem becomes, if your boss is leading and participating in the prayer, will you feel comfortable doing that or feel pressured to participate?" he said. "The practice had to stop."

The prayers stopped in August, division Deputy Chief Brad Tadlock said.

The monthly meetings, which include senior staff but are open to all division employees, typically include updates and presentations from committees and commanders on ongoing projects, Tadlock said.

Fire Chief Lavarn Lucas also acknowledges employees who have been promoted or recognized by the community, Tadlock said.

Town manager Steve Riley said the tradition began after officers wanted to honor those who had died in the terrorist attacks. Staff members would take turns leading the prayer, he said.

Riley said no other town-employee meetings start with a prayer, except the annual staff holiday lunch.

"In making the decision, we couldn't find any other meetings that started -- besides the lunch -- with a prayer," he said.

Tadlock said Wednesday he hadn't received complaints from employees about the prayers or about them being halted.

"On this type of issue, I understand there'll be people on both sides," he said.

Follow reporter Cassie Foss at twitter.com/LcBlotter.

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