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August 2, 2013

County schools attorney responds to prayer caravan controversy

CULLMAN — The Cullman County Board of Education’s legal counsel has chimed in on the debate over a prayer caravan originally organized by Superintendent Billy Coleman, and he officially advised the board to “disentangle” itself from the event.

Following a four-hour work session earlier this week, board attorney Donald B. Sweeney, Jr. composed a written recommendation for the board, meant to clear up confusion surrounding the system’s potential involvement in a community prayer event set for Saturday, August 10.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is demanding Superintendent Billy Coleman cancel the event, citing the fact that he used the school website to promote it, saying it represents a violation of laws separating church and state. The group is also upset with his general involvement, since he holds office within the district.

Sweeney recommended, and the board approved, the following resolution: “[Be it resolved] that the Prayer Caravan scheduled for August 10, 2013 is not a Cullman County Board of Education event. To the extent the event is associated with or attributed to the Cullman County Board of Education that assertion should be clarified. The Prayer Caravan is not school board sponsored and no one has the authority to assert that this is a school sponsored event ... If the Prayer Caravan goes forward on August 10, 2013, it goes forward without the endorsement of the Cullman County Board of Education.”

In a letter to the board, Sweeney advised members that if the event goes forward without clarification, the board will likely be sued by the FFRF. Without taking any action to disassociate the system, he went on to note a “court is likely to rule” that the board allowed an event to violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

When contacted by The Times on Thursday, FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel said he was pleased the board was taking steps to distance itself from the event — but said the resolution did not go far enough to remedy the alleged impropriety.

“We think it’s a great step in the right direction, but unfortunately the superintendent is so aligned with the school district and involved with the event, that this simply isn’t enough to undo the damage the superintendent has caused,” he said. “We understand he still plans to attend the event, and believe he is still using his title to promote the event, and the board itself wasn’t willing to cancel the event. There are still some steps we’d like to see be taken. We are in contact with Cullman County schools’ counsel about these issues, and we hope we can come to an amicable conclusion.”

Seidel went on to note that if the event does go forward, the group will be sending members to attend and take notes of exactly how the event is managed to look for potential breaches in state and national law.

“We will most likely send observers to document any violations that may occur,” he said.

 * Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at trentm@cullmantimes.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.

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