In South Carolina’s General Assembly, it’s usually the Republican-driven legislation that draws courtroom challenges and cries of “unconstitutional.” But in the past week, seven Democratic sponsors of a bill calling for classroom prayer in public schools have attracted that judging glare of mainstream America more often directed at their colleagues across the aisle.
A bill introduced last February by state legislators called for teachers to lead class prayers — in blatant violation of the separation between church and state as interpreted by the Supreme Court. So the seven Democrats and their three Republican co-sponsors appear to have adopted a so-called compromise that might bring H.3526 into line with Supreme Court rulings on school prayer. It also might render their legislation merely symbolic and redundant.
As Rep. Wendell Gilliard (D-Charleston) explained it to WCIV’s News 4, the bill will be amended to replace teacher-led morning prayer with a moment of silence for prayer or reflection.
“The compromise would be to have the students to pray to whomever they want to,” Gilliard says. “If they want to do away with teachers conducting the prayer, that would be fine with us. The essential part of the bill, the important part, is putting prayer back in school.”
South Carolina public schools have had state-mandated moments of silence in lieu of prayer since 1995, so the amended bill would appear to offer nothing new.
Gilliard could not be reached for comment, but his co-sponsor Rep. Joseph Jefferson (D-Berkeley) said Monday that the purpose of H.3526 was “merely revisiting the issue to reassure people that everybody should be given the opportunity to pray.”
“Even the atheists, it gives them the option of praying or not praying without anybody interfering,” he added.
Meanwhile, Rep. Robert Williams (D-Darlington) and Rep. Robert Ridgeway III (D-Clarendon) said their push for school prayer stemmed from the will of their constituents.
“I represent District 64 and most of the constituents I’ve spoken to in District 64 are not opposed to prayer in school,” Ridgeway says. “I have to vote the way my constituents want me to vote whether I’m Democrat or Republican.”
Williams went a step further, saying some of his constituents hope prayers at the beginning of each school day might curb the frequency of school shootings and other unhappy occurrences.
“Some of the folks say they never saw where prayer killed anyone in school but they saw what weapons did,” Williams says.
He says the fact that Palmetto State Democrats are pushing for school prayer should surprise no one.
“We’re big on religious principles here,” Williams says, adding, “We pray in the General Assembly. We do it every session. What makes the General Assembly different from the school?”
As is to be expected, the American Civil Liberties Union’s South Carolina chapter is keeping an eye on the bill, arguing that, as South Carolina grows and diversifies, it must ensure that all students, regardless of faith or belief, feel welcome to participate fully in its schools.
“South Carolina has never been ‘monolithically Protestant’ as many other Southern states have been perceived, and South Carolina has never been as religiously diverse as it is now,” says Victoria Middleton, executive director for ACLU of South Carolina.
“As South Carolina continues to recruit foreign investment in the state and to welcome newcomers from all over, this diversity will only increase,” Middleton says. “The rights of non-believers and minority faith observers must also be defended under our system and our constitution, if our state is to thrive in the 21st century as it did at its founding.”
As for the South Carolina Democratic Party, its leadership isn’t touching this one.
“The bill was introduced by some of our members in the state Legislature,” says Amanda Loveday, SCDP executive director. “The effort has not been directly addressed by the SCDP or our executive committee, so the party itself does not have a position. We’re a big tent party centered around the idea that we’re all in this together, and South Carolinians deserve a government that works and leadership that is accountable.”
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