A bill that would clarify how local government bodies in South Carolina could open their meetings with prayers took its first step at the Statehouse Thursday. A Senate subcommittee passed the bill unanimously, so it now goes to a full committee. The bill says groups like city and county councils and local school boards could start meetings with invocations as long as one religion was not advanced and no one was coerced into participating.
Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, is the main sponsor of the bill and chaired the subcommittee meeting. He says the bill would put into state law a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows local government groups to begin their meetings with invocations. “It doesn’t require anyone to do any of this but it lays out a formula, or a format, if you will, that if they want to do it, if you do it this way, it’s going to be Constitutional,” he says.
Dr. Oran Smith, president and CEO of Palmetto Family, says it’s been a problem in the past. “Spartanburg County, the city of Woodruff, … the city of Aiken, and the Savannah River Site all were having prayer and received hot letters that said they couldn’t have prayer anymore. But since then they’ve adopted policies that are right down the line with this new statute,” he says.
Sen. Campsen says he hasn’t heard any opposition to the bill yet, since it follows what the Supreme Court has already said in the Town of Greece v. Galloway case. But the national Freedom From Religion Foundation says it is against the bill. Staff attorney Sam Grover says, “It is not a bill trying to codify Town of Greece v. Galloway. Such a bill is not needed because it’s already binding law. Instead, it attempts to expand the ruling in Greece and go beyond it, and in doing so will embolden public bodies to violate the law.”
Specifically, he says the bill treats local school boards like governmental bodies, when in fact they’re treated in the law like school districts, so they should not be included. “So it would be foolish for South Carolina to tell school boards they’re on safe ground based on Town of Greece v. Galloway,” he says.
And he says the bill would allow members of the governmental bodies to give the prayers, but there are no Supreme Court rulings that say that’s acceptable.