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Apr 25 2008
S.C. could provide template for public prayer

S.C. could provide template for public prayer

Senate approves bill to set guidelines for religious displays, invocations

By Yvonne Wenger

The Post and Courier

Friday, April 25, 2008

House bill 3159

Senate bill 638

State legislation would give local governments guidance on including religious texts and prayer in public buildings constitutionally.

The full Senate approved a bill Thursday that would lay out the ground rules for prayer at public meetings. Meanwhile, a panel of senators debated a bill that would allow references to God, a deity or a higher power to be displayed alongside historic documents in public monuments.

Supporters say the bills part of movement that started in the South several years ago meet constitutional muster while critics argue that the templates would give hometown councils and school boards a false sense of security.

"Religion and faith are such an important part of the lives of many people," said Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau. "To say you aren't allowed to display it almost says there's something wrong with your belief."

The concern, though, is government favoring one religion over another, or diminishing the value of non-believers, said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"It makes some people feel like second- class citizens, and the Constitution does not permit that," Lynn said of the legislation and similar efforts across the country.

In general, he said, the bills give local governments too broad of latitude to pray and put up religious monuments.

"This does not insulate them from legal challenges," Lynn said. "In fact, it may have the opposite effect."

If state legislators think otherwise, Lynn said they are "whistling in the dark."

The legislation that would allow religious displays passed the House in March 2007. It's purpose, as listed in the bill, is to educate the public by establishing the so-called Foundations of American Law and Government displays.

Each display would need to include 12 items, in the same size, including copies of the Ten Commandments, portions of the Constitution, the national motto "In God We Trust" and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

The Senate subcommittee that reviewed the bill Thursday postponed its approval while the constitutionality is reviewed further, said Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms.

"It's not really about religious displays, it's about historical documents instrumental to our government," Campsen said. "It will give schools and governments a template they can use that's already been vetted for constitutional muster."

The key, Campsen said, is for the display to have a secular purpose, according to a June 2005 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that determined a public display of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas Capitol building was constitutional because the monument honored the nation's legal system, not its religious orientation.

Campsen authored the bill that sets out guidelines for prayer, or invocation, at public meetings. To satisfy the legal thresholds, he said public bodies must either elect a chaplain, allow officials to give the invocation in a rotating order or send out invitations to religious leaders in the community to come and provide the prayer.

If the government wants to pray to a specific deity, Campsen said they would need to consult independent legal counsel because case law is a little less settled in that area. It is clear that the invocation cannot be used to proselytize or disparage another religion.

The Senate gave the bill final approval Thursday and sent it to the House.

Oran P. Smith, president of the Palmetto Family Council, a faith-based public policy research foundation, said the bills have been thoroughly vetted and that he is confident they would withstand any legal challenges.

The Legislature's approach in both cases is "right down the middle," Smith said. He sees the bills as encouragement for those who feel that their faith might have been somehow diminished by government actions over the years.

"We maybe went too far, and this can get back more to the middle," Smith said.

Reach Yvonne Wenger at or 803-799-9051.

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