Public prayer bill moves up in Senate

COLUMBIA - Legislation meant to guide local governments on how to legally pray before meetings was advanced Thursday by a Senate panel.

The proposal is meant to clear up confusion over what kind of public prayer is considered constitutional, as per rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court, said its sponsor, Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms.

"The content of the prayer is not important as long as it's not used to proselytize," said Mike Johnson, an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, a national group that aims to defend the First Amendment. "Don't come to the podium and make an altar call."

In a 1983 decision, the nation's high court said praying before public government meetings and legislative sessions is "deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country."

It's about elected officials asking for divine guidance in their decisions, not advocating a particular religion to the public, Mr. Johnson said.

The legislation now headed to the Senate Judiciary Committee gives local governments three possibilities for legal prayer: Elect a chaplain, let each member of the board pray on a rotating basis, or invite local religious leaders to put their name on a list to pray and schedule them on a first-come, first-served basis.

Joyce Cheeks, interim director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, opposed the measure as the state government sanctioning and supporting prayers before public meetings.