S.C. Attorney General Backs Sectarian Council Prayers

South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster has said he will fight attempts to stop sectarian prayers at city council meetings.

In October, the Piedmont Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union wrote to the Oconee County Council and city councils in Anderson and Seneca urging their officials to stop including sectarian prayer in their public meetings.

The civil liberties group noted in its letters that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2004 that sectarian prayer before South Carolina town council meetings violates the separation of church and state. The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently refused to review the Wynne v. Town of Great Falls ruling.

McMaster weighed in with a letter to the local ACLU group arguing in favor of sectarian prayer before government meetings.

“There is no federal or state law which tells people that they must pray or not pray in any particular way, as this would be in direct conflict with the express words of the United States and South Carolina constitutions guaranteeing the free exercise of religion,” wrote McMaster

Mike Cubelo, the president of the Piedmont ACLU, said the attorney general is confused.

“This dispute,” Cubelo wrote in a letter he provided to Church & State, “has never been about an individual’s right to pray as he chooses. The ACLU supports this right wholeheartedly and has often fought for this right throughout the South against government officials. Our dispute, however, is about government prayer which favors one religion or denomination over others.”    

In his letter to McMaster, Cubelo urged him “not to repeat the same pattern you followed with the City of Great Falls that is now struggling to pay its legal bills. As you know, each official swore an oath to follow the law.”

The Rev. Bill Rinehart, who delivers prayers “in the name of Jesus” at Oconee County Council meetings, was defiant, telling reporters, “The attorney general has come forward and issued a real strong rebuke and we have won this round.”