Grooms to school board: You have a right to pray 50 lawmakers sign letter addressing Berkeley district’s dilemma

Sen. Larry Grooms

A Berkeley County lawmaker is weighing in on the school board’s recent decision to abandon its practice of reciting a Christian prayer at meetings, even drafting other legislators from the far corners of the state to get involved.

Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, sent a letter to school board members Thursday — signed by 50 legislators — urging the board to reconsider its decision last month to stop reciting the Lord’s Prayer, as it has done for years.

Other Republican Berkeley County legislators who signed the letter are Rep. Samuel Rivers, Sen. Paul Campbell and Rep. Joe Daning, all of Goose Creek; Rep. Sylleste Davis of Moncks Corner; and Rep. Bill Crosby of North Charleston.

“We are disappointed by the Berkeley County School Board’s announcement that it will end its tradition of offering a public prayer before official meetings,” reads the July 7 note.

“For hundreds of years, Americans have incorporated prayer into public meetings to ask for God’s wisdom for their deliberative bodies. Case law and state law affirm their right to do so.”

Board member Mac McQuillin, a lawyer, differed from the lawmakers’ characterization, saying the board did not vote to eliminate prayer.

“We are going to continue praying,” he said. “But we hit ‘pause,’ and are going to take our time to come up with a constitutionally permissible way to pray. I think we should be careful to dot our i’s and cross our t’s.”

As long as the district follows the law, it is entitled to free legal protection from the state Attorney General’s Office, McQuillin said.

The lawmakers’ letter cites a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Town of Greece v. Galloway, which reaffirmed the right to pray at public meetings. Also, the state amended the Public Prayer and Invocation Act, signed by Gov. Nikki Haley on June 3. The act includes a school board as being as a “deliberative body” that has the right to open meetings with an invocation.

“The type of prayer Berkeley is doing is completely legal and constitutional,” Grooms said.

He is also chair of the state Legislative Prayer Caucus that was formed in January. Its goal is to stress “the importance of prayer for our state, the need for legislators to pray for one another, and for all of us to renew our commitment to religious liberty in South Carolina,” he said.

The Berkeley board’s June decision to switch to a moment of silence as the opening to its bi-monthly meetings was in response to a letter earlier that month from Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The note alerted board members that their tradition of reciting the prayer in unison before every meeting violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In response, board Chairman Jim Hayes outlined five options: continue to recite the Lord’s Prayer; observe a moment of silence; remove the invocation from future board agendas entirely; invite various religious and secular groups to present the invocation; or to read a nonsectarian prayer.

Each board member weighed in on a preference. Hayes and board member Kathy Schwalbe both said they would be OK with a moment of silence, which McQuillin called “a moment of censorship.” The remaining board members, except for Kent Murray who was absent, all said they preferred prayer.

“For so many of us from all types of backgrounds and faith traditions, our faith is what defines us, unites us and motivates us to serve,” McQuillin said Thursday. “Our voluntary prayers lend gravity to the important decisions we make as a board for our children and teachers.”

The board will discuss the options at its upcoming retreat, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

This is the second instance in recent times that Grooms has gotten involved in issues affecting the county school board. In May, after the school district said it would allow transgender students to use the restroom with which they identify, Grooms introduced local legislation in the Senate to reverse the decision in Berkeley County for the coming school year. The bill died after a lobbying blitz by top state education and economic officials worried the measure would hurt the state financially.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 843-937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.