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Groups urge S.C. councils not to invoke Jesus in opening prayers

By The Associated Press

ROCK HILL, S.C. — At least two groups are urging local councils and boards in South Carolina to stop using Jesus Christ's name during prayers at public meetings.

But state Attorney General Henry McMaster said on Oct. 3 he would not tell South Carolina governments what to do despite the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to hear a town's appeal after a lower court told it to stop using Jesus' name. (The case turned away by the Supreme Court is Great Falls v. Wynne.)

Wiccan priestess Darla Wynne sued the town of Great Falls and won on the issue, but still is fighting to get the town to pay her legal fees.

The American Civil Liberties Union asked McMaster to issue guidelines to cities about what invocations are legal, but McMaster, who sided with the town of Great Falls in the case, said the issue is best handled "within the purview of the municipalities themselves."

"We're not going to do that. All of these counties and county councils have attorneys that give them advice," McMaster said. "We're not going to do that. It's not necessary to do that."

A constitutional argument over free speech and what constitutes a prayer meeting are potential legal issues that could be raised by dissenting public bodies who disagree with the federal court rulings, said Eldon Wedlock, a constitutional law professor at the University of South Carolina.

The ACLU recently sent a letter to cities in Oconee, Seneca and Anderson counties, asking them to stop mentioning Jesus in prayers or lawsuits may follow.

The South Carolina Municipal Association advised members recently that councils cannot refer to a specific deity in prayers at the meetings. "This is the law of the land and cities should obey the law," said Howard Duvall, the association's executive director.

But the issue is "very emotional" for cities and council members, Duvall said. "We do tell them that their greatest liability would be legal fees for something the courts have said is illegal," he said.

The ACLU's Upstate chapter is not attending school board or other meetings looking for violators, but will field complaint calls, said president Mike Cubelo.

"We don't go looking for trouble," Cubelo said. "It could be Allah or any god that would be specified. We are not picking on Jesus Christ."

However, councils, especially in the South, could think federal courts are overstepping boundaries and bring Jesus' name into prayer, Wedlock said.

"This could be an issue of civil disobedience," Wedlock said. "Religion is a fierce motivator. Cities could be pushed by people who have a popular resentment."

Wedlock says there are three options for South Carolina councils, school boards and other public bodies: Nonsectarian prayers, a moment of silence or defiance of the rulings.

The Rock Hill City Council, for example, has asked its attorney, Paul Dillingham, for advice about prayers. Council member Jim Reno told The Herald after Great Falls lost the lawsuit that he wouldn't comply with the federal court decision.

Reno has not led a prayer since the decision — the council rotates prayers among members — but said last week he must follow his convictions.

"I will only offer a prayer in Jesus' name," Reno said.

He said he had received only positive feedback from constituents. "Not one has been negative," Reno said.

4th Circuit: Council prayers unconstitutionally advance Christianity
Unanimous three-judge panel sides with Wiccan high priestess who challenged practice of Great Falls, S.C., Town Council. 07.23.04


Ruling limiting prayers at public meetings causes stir in Bible Belt

4th Circuit's decision has snuffed traditional prayers in some towns, ushered in nondenominational prayers or moments of silence in others, and left many officials confused over what is allowed. 11.22.04

4th Circuit rejects Wiccan's bid to lead prayer at county meetings
Judges say Virginia board of supervisors has included leaders from a variety of religions and therefore hasn't advanced any one faith. 04.15.05

High court won't hear appeal from Wiccan priestess
Cynthia Simpson had sought to lead opening prayers at Virginia county government meetings. 10.11.05

Federal judge: Ind. legislative prayers can't favor 1 religion
Court issues permanent injunction barring House Speaker Brian Bosma from permitting sectarian prayer as part of official business. 12.02.05

Court: Prayers at government meetings can be directed to Jesus
But federal judge takes issue with how Georgia county commissioners choose clergy, saying it is clear 'certain faiths were categorically excluded from the list.' 09.12.06

Legislative prayer

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