By Trent Moore
The Cullman Times
GARDEN CITY —
Standing in front of Garden City Elementary School, flanked by two local churches that bookend the campus, Hanceville resident Brenda Carter looked out at a sea of people early Saturday morning.
A crowd estimated at approximately 300 attendees packed in front of the small county school to kick off the annual prayer caravan, which has come under fire in recent weeks after an atheist group claimed the event violates laws separating church and state due to the involvement of superintendent Billy Coleman.
As she nodded along to Christian music drifting in from a church across the street, Carter said she’s trying to look past all the attention and focus on what the event was started three years ago to promote — a simple moment of prayer for students, and school leaders, before the fall term begins.
“As a Christian, I think we need to stand up for this,” she said. “The schools need prayer, the teachers need prayer, the students need prayer and the nation needs prayer. The Bible says to ‘pray without ceasing,’ and that’s what we’re here to do. That’s what we always try to do.”
The caravan visits every campus for a short prayer before the start of the school year, typically attracting between 10-50 people at each stop. But, after the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) contacted Coleman last month demanding the event be canceled, the caravan became a call to arms for local churches when he refused to call it off.
The superintendent maintains that he started the caravan as a private citizen, outside of his school responsibilities. The board has since passed a resolution absolving itself from all involvement, though FFRF officials say they might still file suit.
The FFRF has since made several more allegations, ranging from illegal teacher-led prayers during the school day to illegal prayer before school events, though the caravan has become the lightning rod for the debate.
Prayers were led by community volunteers, with several local pastors stepping in to provide initial greetings and prayers focused on lifting up teachers, administrators and students.
“We’re here to pray for our schools and our leaders, not to fight a political battle,” Garden City First Baptist pastor Scott Arnold said.
West Cullman Baptist Association missions director Jack Collins added: “All denominations are here, and this has caused everyone to pull together more than ever before.”
Standing in the crowd on the second stop of the caravan outside Hanceville High, Coleman said he was encouraged by the turnout and community support that has swelled in recent weeks.
“I just feel blessed to be a participant and a part of something so uplifting,” he said.
Hanceville native Mark Cornelius, who has attended the past two prayer caravans, said he got involved to help lift up the teachers charged with leading his two young children in the school system.
“I just wanted to support and pray for our schools,” he said. “This year it has just grown so tremendously.”
John Hudson, of Cullman, followed the caravan through at least its first few stops and said he came out to show his support for local students.
“We’re praying for our children’s safety, and for all these students,” he said. “Having this is just great, and there’s so much support. This is really going to hit home.”