With an atheist group filing a second list of complaints for alleged separation of church and state violations, the Cullman County Board of Education sought legal counsel Tuesday and officially clarified the prayer meeting at the center of this firestorm is not sponsored by the school board.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter to Superintendent Billy Coleman last week demanding he cancel a “prayer caravan” set for Saturday, Aug.10, which would hold a 15-20 minute prayer session at each Cullman County campus before the start of the school year.
The prayer caravan has become the focal point of the case, and Coleman said the event will go on as planned because he believes it is unsponsored and voluntary. The board passed a resolution in an attempt to make that point clear after more than four hours in executive session Tuesday afternoon.
“My participation has caused some confusion, and I take full responsibility for that,” Coleman said. “This event was never sponsored by the school system. I absolutely appreciate the board for doing what they needed to do to clear the air and protect our school system. Now, the prayer caravan can move forward as what it was intended to be from the beginning, supported by communities and local churches.”
Citing media reports that Coleman hasn’t canceled the prayer meeting, FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel called the superintendent’s reasoning wishful thinking on Tuesday.
“Wishing or stating that ‘the school system doesn't sponsor’ the event does not make it so,” he wrote in a second letter released to the media. “This event was organized by the Superintendent, who used his official power to post the event on the official district website, to post the event on the official district Facebook page, and the event bears the title ‘Cullman County Schools Prayer Caravan.’”
The FFRF sent a new, more-detailed complaint to the school system Tuesday, alleging several more breaches of federal laws put in place to separate church and state. The complaints are reportedly based on information provided by approximately seven local families that have contacted the foundation.
The new letter alleges county schools have teacher-led prayer before lunch, at graduation ceremonies and according to one student “every school event... starts with a prayer.”
Coleman said he and the board are looking into every allegation, and will review them all to ensure the district is following state and federal law.
“We will meet on each of those situations and check them out, and act accordingly,” he said.
Board president Kenny Brockman said he and the board will try to move forward with whatever approach will best serve the students of Cullman County.
“We’re going to do what’s best for the kids,” he said. “I firmly believe in freedom of speech, and we’re going to do what’s right for our system.”
The atheist group also found fault with the system’s habit of scheduling events, such as the teacher institute day and school Foundation dinner, at local churches. Coleman said those scheduling decisions are not faith-based, but done because the system doesn’t have a facility large enough to host these gatherings.
“We don’t want to ask our teachers to go out and spend the day outside on a hot football field for institute day, because that’d really be about our only other option,” he said.
The group also cited a complaint from a family saying preachers are brought in every Tuesday to proselytize at West Point Elementary School, claiming teachers tell students they “would be disappointed” if students opted-out of the assemblies.
Coleman’s wife Shireen, principal at West Point Elementary, said the allegations of “proselytizing” are completely baseless. For several years, the school has hosted a community-led devotion at 7:35 a.m. before school starts on Tuesdays. Shireen said the event lasts approximately 10 minutes in the gymnasium, and is led by a parent volunteer. Teachers are not allowed to lead the devotional, though a faculty member is present per board policy requiring a certified employee oversee the event.
“It’s been going on for several years and I can’t even remember when it was started,” Shireen said. “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.”
Shireen noted any other group would have the same opportunity to schedule a meeting under the same parameters.
* Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.