Charleston County Schools are heading in the wrong direction and newly elected School Board member Arthur Ravenel is calling in a higher power to clean things up.

“If any political entity in the county needs help, it’s the Charleston County School District,” Ravenel says. “Certainly an appeal to God could not hurt us.”

Well, apparently an appeal to God doesn’t hurt, but with contentious battles over the division of church and state bubbling up all over the nation, and the Lowcountry’s past experience with public endorsements of religion, it’s a thin line the school board is walking after deciding last week to replace the board’s moment of silence at the beginning of meetings with an invocation, or prayer.

Already embroiled in public prayer concerns, South Carolina communities have pressed the debate beyond whether to pray, with arguments now centered on who to pray to. A Great Falls woman sued the town after prayers that recognized Jesus made her feel ostracized during town meetings. The town, with the support of the state, took the case up the judicial ladder until the Supreme Court refused to consider the case and let the 4th Circuit Court decision stand, prohibiting the recognition of a particular religion or idol, like Jesus.

“In view of our nation’s long and ‘unique history,’ a legislative body generally may … invoke divine guidance for itself before engaging in its public business,” the circuit court decision states. But “a legislative body cannot … ‘exploit’ this prayer opportunity to ‘affiliate’ the government with one specific faith or belief in preference to others.”

That means avoiding Jesus, and this time of year, that’s hard to do. A low-key movie was just released about his birth, following the 2004 major motion picture that chronicled his death. Just two days before the Charleston County School Board decided to invoke God, the American Civil Liberties Union threatened suit in Oconee County over continued prayers by the County Council in Jesus’ name, according to the Greenville News. The ACLU also threatened legal action against other public bodies that defied the court limitations for prayer.

Charleston City Council member Jimmy Gallant recently avoided mentioning Jesus by name during a committee invocation, but thanked God for “the prince of peace.”

The South Carolina School Boards Association warns councils to avoid invocations, instead endorsing secular inspirational messages or moments of silence like what the local school board had been doing.

“We advise boards to steer clear of prayer prior to board meetings,” says Scott Price, the association’s general counsel. “Particularly prayer that tries to advance a certain religion.”

Charleston County School Board Vice Chair Hillery Douglas, the lone opponent to the invocations, noted he was more comfortable with a moment of silence.

“I prefer not to pray publicly. I could say my prayer and you could say your prayer or do nothing,” he says.

Though Price says he hasn’t seen any exodus of boards returning to invocations from moments of silence, the Beaufort County School Board decided last year to return to invocations and has found creative alternatives to prayer.

“We didn’t want to have a straight (religious) type of invocation,” says Vice Chairman Richard Tritchler. “We wanted to make sure everybody had an opportunity.”

Recent meetings have begun with an eighth grader reciting a poem entitled “The Child’s Appeal,” a high school junior reading an essay called “Remember Me? I’m the Same Old Flag!,” and a high school choral group singing a traditional hymn and a song by John Lennon. Tritchler says community liaisons book the invocations that have also included a string trio and do occasionally include prayers.

“A couple of them have been a little close, but they haven’t stepped over the line,” he says of the messages.

Just shy of 10 years ago, Charleston County Council member Tim Scott hammered a plaque bearing the Ten Commandments outside of council chambers. After two years and lots of legal fees, the county was forced to pull down the commandments after a circuit court judge ruled the display unconstitutional. It seems there’s a Constitutional amendment about freedom of religion that is in sharp contrast to “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.”

Statehouse legislation that would allow the placement of the commandments along with other historically significant documents in public buildings was approved by the House in 2005 but failed to come to a final vote in the Senate.

The Charleston County School Board has also debated religion before. In 2002, then-member Ted Lewis led an invocation at the Burke High School ground breaking that upset some teachers because of its strong Christian context. At the time, the board would rotate invocations among board members but soon after, abandoned the practice for the moment of silence.

The school board’s planned invocations will now go to a policy committee to iron out what can and can’t be said.

“On this kind of issue, I don’t want to fail the test,” says School Board Chair Nancy Cook.

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