CULLMAN, Ala. — Several hundred to a thousand Cullman, Alabama-area residents turned out on Saturday to participate in a prayer event that has been under fire from a nationally-recognized atheist group over assertions that the gathering would violate the United States Constitution.
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” that he both organized and advertised.
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 from FFRF 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, while Coleman was willing to remove information about the event from the school district website, he refused to cancel the gathering. The matter soon made headlines as Coleman was determined to stand his ground over the matter.
According to reports, three years ago, only 10-15 community members attended the event, and last year, there were just a few dozen present. However, following the attention brought to the prayer caravan due to atheist objections, several hundred to a thousand area residents turned out this year to show their support.
“All denominations are here, and this has caused everyone to pull together more than ever before,” Jack Collins, director of missions for the Cullman Baptist Association, told the Associated Press.
It is estimated that approximately 300 people packed the lawn of Garden City Elementary School to pray for the upcoming school year, and the crowd continued to grow throughout the day as the caravan moved from location to location and ended with a rally Saturday evening.
“Before I got there, I felt the spirit of the Lord all over that place, and it was the strongest presence of God that I’ve ever felt in my life besides being saved,” said rally organizer Brent McDonald. “Everyone was very eager to pray and very eager to express their concerns about our freedoms.”
Pastor Tim Kenney of Abundant Grace Church told local television station WHNT that the opposition from FFRF turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“I’m actually thankful for what they did,” he said. “We’ve prayed for the body of Christ to come together, churches to unite, people to come together to pray. In the last [few] years, there’s hardly been any attendance at these kinds of events, and so I am thankful that they’ve–so to speak–kicked a sleeping dog.”
“What a day. My goodness, what a day,” Superintendent Billy Coleman declared at the evening rally. “It’s been an unbelievable day like I have never seen in my life. But thanks to Jesus Christ, who died for our sins so that we could be one with God.”