CULLMAN, Ala. – A school district superintendent in Alabama plans to defy demands from a nationally-recognized atheist activist organization to cancel a prayer event slated for next month.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) had sent a letter to to Cullman County School District Superintendent Billy Coleman earlier this week, urging him to scrub a scheduled “Prayer Caravan,” set for August 10th.
The caravan is a multi-site prayer gathering where various Christians from the community travel to every school in the district the Saturday before teachers arrive for the new academic year, and then pray on campus for approximately 10-15 minutes. It is described as “a time to lift up [Cullman County's] schools to God and ask His blessings for the upcoming school year.”
FFRF explained to Coleman that it had been “contacted by several residents” who complained about the planned event, but did not provide the names of the complainants.
“The ‘Prayer Caravan’ event is an especially egregious violation [of the Constitution's Establishment Clause],” the letter stated. “The event is school-sponsored and school promoted. Indeed you, as superintendent, are promoting the religious ritual. It does not matter that this event occurs outside normal school hours…”
However, Coleman told local television station WIAT that while he did post information about the upcoming caravan on the Cullman County School District website, the event is not sponsored by the district and is therefore lawful.
“This is not something the board voted on,” he advised. “It is just something I started.”
Coleman states that the event, which he organized independently from the district, has been conducted for three years without any complaints or issues.
“I announced our times of where we would be on our website, [but] we took them off out of respect for concerns,” Coleman told the outlet. “So, I guess that led them to believe [that I sponsored the gathering].”
In its letter to the superintendent, FFRF also accused the district of having students recite the Lord’s Prayer every morning, praying along as it is read over the loudspeaker. However, Coleman also denied the claim, stating that there is only a moment of silence at the start of each school day.
“By allowing the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer as part of the school day, Cullman County schools flouts established law,” the letter from FFRF stated. “The availability of the students to opt out of the prayer is irrelevant.”
While Coleman was willing to remove the event information from the district website in an effort to appease the organization, he said that the prayer caravan will go forward as planned.
“The school system doesn’t sponsor it, so they’re not going to cancel it. There’s nothing to cancel from their standpoint,” he told television station WAFF. “I initiated it, [but] I am not going to cancel it.”
It is not known whether Coleman has yet supplied official notice to FFRF.