By Trent Moore
The Cullman Times
An atheist rights group is demanding Cullman County Board of Education Superintendent Billy Coleman cancel a prayer caravan set for early August, or face a potential lawsuit claiming the system is forcing religion on students.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter to Coleman on July 22, asking he cancel the prayer caravan set for Saturday, August 10, which would hold a 15-20 minute prayer session at each Cullman County campus before the start of the school year.
The group called the event an “especially egregious violation” of the separation of church and state, and claims the system is breaking the law by endorsing a religious event.
“It was organized in his power as superintendent, and was posted on the official school web site, so there’s no doubt it was school sponsored,” FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel told The Times. “The fact that it’s happening on a Saturday, or that it’s being called voluntary, is irrelevant. The fact is he organized it as superintendent, and he has to cancel it as superintendent.”
In a statement about the threatened lawsuit, a Foundation representative said the group is working to “derail” the prayer meetings before the event takes place next month.
Despite the threat, Coleman said the day of prayer will go on as planned. Coleman contends the prayer caravan is an unsponsored voluntary event, comparable to the frequent prayers at the flagpole held at campuses nationwide.
“We’re not going to cancel it. We’re not praying for our schools to make a point, we’re praying for our schools because we want to thank God for the blessings he gives us, and pray for our students and communities,” he said. “I think the problem is they assume our school system is sponsoring it, and it is not. It’s called the Cullman County Schools Prayer Caravan because it goes to all the county schools. We just want to give folks the voluntary opportunity to come out and pray on a Saturday.”
Coleman is currently drafting a letter to send back to the FFRF explaining his opinion that the event is not directly associated with the school system.
The prayer caravan was started by Coleman, a long-time Christian pastor before being elected as superintendent, shortly after he took office about three years ago.
“The communities and many local churches have embraced it. I take full responsibility, personally, for being active in this cause,” Coleman said. “In no part do I want the school system to suffer as a result of it. I’ve always been outspoken about my faith and I’m not ashamed of that, but we’d never try to cram anything down anybody’s throat. I believe the best thing we, as Christians, can do is just live our faith everyday.”
The Foundation specifically called out the system for using the district website (http://www.ccboe.org) and social media accounts to promote the event. The promotional posts have since been removed from the website and Facebook page.
Coleman confirmed the caravan schedule was posted for “informational purposes,” but was removed once the Foundation formally complained. In the two years they have held the prayer caravan, Coleman said they’ve never received a complaint until this point.
“We had put it up there, but we respected that concern, so we took it off,” he said. “I understand that concern.”
The group also told Coleman to immediately end alleged daily morning prayers made over the intercom at county schools when the 2013-2014 school year begins, calling the practice illegal.
“We are also informed that schools in the Cullman County system recite the Lord’s Prayer over the loudspeaker each morning,” Seidel wrote in his letter to Coleman. “We understand that an attempt to mask this illegal practice is made by giving students ‘the option’ to participate. Both the ‘Prayer Caravan’ and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer are illegal.”
Coleman said he is not aware of any organized effort to recite the Lord’s Prayer, and has never heard it done over the intercom in his three years as superintendent. Every school handles morning announcements differently, Coleman said, with some holding a moment of silence.
“I go visit the schools all the time, and many times I’m at school when school starts,” he said. “I can say that many times I’ve heard the moment of silence, and the Pledge of Allegiance. Regardless, we as a system always want to do what’s right, and if anyone is being forced to do anything they don’t agree with we’ll certainly act accordingly.”
The Foundation also complained about the way Coleman signed off a note that has since been removed from the county schools’ website announcing the event. Coleman had ended the letter by writing “In Christ, Billy Coleman.”
“It is inappropriate for a public school superintendent, a government employee, to inject their personal religion into an official school district website,” Seidel wrote in his letter to Coleman. “By signing ‘In Christ,’ you appear to endorse religion over non-religion, and Christianity over all other religions ... Promotion of religious belief over non-religion by a Cullman County Schools official impermissibly turns any non-religious and non-believing community member into an outsider.”
Coleman said he frequently signs letters in this manner when they reference a religious matter, but inisists the sign-off was not meant to alienate or pressure anyone.
“My philosophy of my faith is, I should never try to force anything on somebody,” he said. “But, for me to say I regret signing a letter ‘In Christ’? I certainly do not. There was no intent other than wanting to get some information out.”
Assuming Coleman goes forward with the prayer caravan as scheduled, Seidel said the FFRF will continue to reach out to him in an effort to educate local officials about the implementation of laws regarding religion in school.
“Our preference is that we always prefer to work with school districts, which often times don’t understand the appropriate boundaries, or why what they’re doing is incorrect,” he said. “If the superintendent moves forward and clearly doesn’t understand the law, then our goal is to help him understand so he can abide by it.”
The FFRF has members across the country, and its stated goal is to “promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.”
‰ Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.