CULLMAN, Ala. — A nationally-recognized atheist activist organization has leveled new accusations against an Alabama School District that has been in the headlines over a prayer event scheduled for this week.
As previously reported, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) had sent a letter to to Cullman County School District Superintendent Billy Coleman last month, urging him to scrub a “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.”
“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 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.”
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 would still 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.”
However, now FFRF has sent a second letter, which not only reiterates its demands that Coleman cancel the prayer event, but introduces new accusations of activities that allegedly violate the Constitution.
“Since its initial July 22 letter, FFRF has received reports from at least seven local families about additional violations in area schools, mostly regarding unconstitutional prayers,” the organization explained in a recent news release.
It says that school events and meetings are often held in churches, that prayer often precedes the lunch period and is a part of the graduation ceremonies, and that every Tuesday, a preacher visits West Point Elementary School to share the Gospel with the support of teachers.
“This is a serious breach of the Constitution and wildly inappropriate,” FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel stated. “Public school teachers may not pressure students regarding matters of religion. Cullman County Schools has a lot of work to do to conform to the First Amendment of United States Constitution.”
However, Coleman’s wife, Shireen, the principal of West Point Elementary School, explained to the Cullman Times that the event on Tuesdays is actually a voluntary community devotional that is held before school hours.
“It’s been going on for several years and I can’t even remember when it was started,” she outlined. “A parent volunteer leads it, not a preacher, and it takes place before school for any students who choose to attend. In all the several years it has been going, I’ve never had a complaint about it, and it’s definitely not something that has been pushed on people.”
Coleman also outlined that the events that are held at churches are due to space constraints. He, along with Board President Kenny Brockman, said that they would investigate the complaints nonetheless with the assistance of an attorney.
“We’re going to do what’s best for the kids,” Brockman said. “I firmly believe in freedom of speech, and we’re going to do what’s right for our system.”