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August 6, 2013

‘We are not afraid’: Coleman responds to prayer caravan legal threat (UPDATED: With full video)

(Continued)

CULLMAN —

“I believe, constitutionally, that he’s in the right,” she said. “It’s important that each believer stand up for their rights. These are trying times.” 

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

 

The following is a transcript of Billy Coleman’s statement from Tuesday’s press conference:

“I want to welcome everyone here today. Welcome to Cullman County. It has been a pleasure to get to know many of you this last week and a half, and I appreciate the courtesy you have extended me and the professional way you conduct your jobs.

I have taken annual leave for this press conference, so I am speaking on my own time and as a private citizen rather than Superintendent. Since I am making these statements on my own time, I will address the allegations surrounding the Prayer Caravan, as that is the only item for which I am responsible in my private capacity as citizen. There will only be an incidental discussion of other matters involving my official capacity as Superintendent. I will set the stage of where we are today, take a moment to talk about what motivates me as a private individual, discuss the Prayer Caravan, and briefly address certain other allegations raised by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The short explanation is that the Prayer Caravan is a private event that I sponsored in my private capacity as a concerned citizen and resident of Cullman County. Because it was something of interest to the community, I requested that it be posted to our school system’s website. Like other private events that have been posted or advertised on the website, it did not carry the endorsement of the District. According to legal advice I have received, the fact that I am the main sponsor is not an issue. Public officials do not completely surrender their constitutional rights upon taking public office.

On Monday, July 22, 2013, the Superintendent’s office received written allegations from the FFRF — the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is a group based out of Madison, Wisconsin, concerning the Prayer Caravan scheduled to take place on August 10, 2013 and some other allegations. This group demanded the immediate cancellation of the Prayer Caravan event. The District was given an August 2 deadline to answer these allegations, which would have been this past Friday. On Thursday, July 25, this group issued a press release stating the allegations and events that have followed, which leads us up to this press conference today.

First, regarding my private motivations and public activities outside of my office as Superintendent: I have endeavored to serve Christ all of my life and certainly the highest calling in a Christian’s life is living those principles out. Talk is cheap and like everyone else, I fail many times. During my thirty-three and a half years in education, I have participated in many Christian activities in my private life. I am a certified volunteer and speaker for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I have supervised FCA huddles at every school where I have been employed. I have organized and sponsored youth rallies, prayer events, and started a Christian Youth Center in Alexander City, Alabama. I have taken busloads of athletes to FCA camps in North Carolina, written devotionals in the FCA Coach’s Bible and led the National Coaches Bible Study. I have led FCA coaches’ Bible studies in Cullman County, which take place before school in the mornings and on a voluntary basis.

I have spoken to churches and civic organizations since I was sixteen years old, have spoken to most of the churches in Cullman County, and probably spoken at all the civic organizations. I do not put these facts out there to tout myself, but simply to explain that thousands of people in and around Cullman County knew where I stood well before I was elected Superintendent of Cullman County Schools. There are many people in Cullman County who are deeply rooted in the Christian Faith, and they certainly do not need the local school system to sponsor prayer events. I am the same way I have always been, and I am highly involved in the Christian community in Cullman County and beyond. The Prayer Caravan is just one of many events I have been involved with as a private citizen and which occur outside of my official duties as Superintendent.

My greatest concern is that I may have become a distraction for an event that simply is about prayer for our schools, by individuals gathered together for an act of corporate worship. It was never intended to be a grand public event. My favorite scripture is John 3:30: ‘I must decrease and Christ must increase.’ My hope is this prayer event be what it was intended to be — a prayer event — conducted simply by free individuals who want to pray for our schools. I will participate in our Prayer Caravan the best I can, but I will not be a distraction to its purpose.

With the above backdrop regarding my sponsorship of faith-based events in my private capacity as a citizen of Cullman County, I will give the backdrop to the Prayer Caravan, and address other allegations briefly. Through the years, a number of people have inquired about an opportunity to have a prayer event where citizens could voluntarily come and pray for our county schools on a day before school starts in the Fall. There are 29 schools in the school system, but in a few instances, several schools are on the same campus. A schedule was made staging with Garden City School at 8 a.m. and ending with Cold Springs Schools at 5 p.m. The schedule was made where if someone wanted to go to all the schools, they could, hence the name “Caravan.” The name Cullman County Schools was used because those were the schools where the prayers were taking place. Basically what happened at each site was people would voluntarily meet on the first Saturday before school started. Those in attendance would join hands in a circle and pray for about 15 minutes. This would occur in front of the schools, not inside the school’s building, and the doors would be locked. Crowds were modest — some sites had less than ten people — others had around 50. The first year was probably better attended than last year. A few would travel to more than one site, less to all the sites. It was just that simple, and as a sponsor, I certainly took an active role in the event.

This year, the event was set as in past years, but having had several citizens inquire about the times and places, I requested that the event be placed on our school system’s website for community information purposes. I followed the same procedure that all other groups must follow to get private activities of interest to students and parents of the County advertised on the website. When I received the concerns from the Wisconsin group, the information was removed from the website until the District could determine whether the demands were warranted by the law.

The FFRF’s main allegation concerning the Prayer Caravan is that it is sponsored by our school system due to my involvement, and due to notice being posted on the District’s announcement section of the website. Last Tuesday, the school board passed a resolution in an effort to clarify the situation. The resolution stated that the Prayer Caravan is not a school-sponsored event and “if the Prayer Caravan moves forward, it does so without the endorsement of the Cullman County School System.”

I totally support the effort of the board to set the record straight. I am certainly a man under authority and that authority includes the Cullman County Board of Education, the State Department of Education, and the courts of the great state of Alabama and the United States of America. If those authorities determine that acting in my capacity as Superintendent of Education, I have made a mistake in carrying out my official duties, then I fully accept the consequences. Nevertheless, I do not recognize a private organization from Wisconsin as one of those authorities to which I am subject. Moreover, I have received legal advice that despite my official position as superintendent, I have the right to organize private events in my private capacity as a citizen of Cullman County, and to have announcements posted, even about religious events, on the announcement section of the District’s website, on the same basis as non-religious, privately sponsored events are also posted. Like other private events that have been posted in that section (and others that may come in the future), the posting of my announcement did not carry the endorsement of the District. The overall context and tone of the announcement — not the least of which was my signature ‘In Christ, Billy Coleman’ — should have made that clear, as I am not in the habit of signing (nor have I ever signed) official District correspondence with that signature.

The best news I have heard in the last week is the possibility the group from Wisconsin will send visitors down to monitor the Prayer Caravan. I think that is a great idea to have someone from their organization to see for themselves what the Prayer Caravan is all about — private citizens exercising their constitutional rights — and that it is not run by school officials acting in their official capacity.

As far as the other allegations that FFRF has made, again, speaking as a private individual who has knowledge acquired in his official capacity as Superintendent, The FFRF is mistaken as to the facts of what actually goes on in the Cullman County Schools. The allegations about prayer over the intercom; the church auditorium used for the teacher’s institute; baccalaureate ceremonies; prayers at graduation; and other miscellaneous allegations are all based on incorrect information, and will receive an official response from the District in due time. I can say with certainty for now that I know the Cullman County Schools System strongly believes in protecting the rights and beliefs of students and employees, and respecting its obligations under the Constitution as interpreted by the federal courts.

In conclusion, we live in a time when certain groups hide behind the human rights of some to destroy the human rights of others. The government agencies of Cullman County and Alabama respect the rights of people to believe what they choose and to freely express those beliefs. However, I also believe that we who are Christians have the same rights as anyone else to publicly express our beliefs on our own time, and to be afforded the same access to announcement channels as anyone else. The Prayer Caravan is held on a Saturday, is totally voluntary, and does not carry the endorsement of the District. I know ‘fear’ can be a very strong deterrent to doing what is right. We have and will continue to respond respectfully, but it would be a mistake to take our ‘kindred spirit’ for fear. We are not afraid, and we are not alone. We have the support of millions in America who are ready to take a stand with those of us in Cullman County.

There has been a lot of debate on what was inside the heads of our founding fathers when this country was established. Why did they write what they wrote? What was the meaning of the First Amendment and public free exercise of religious belief? There is a host of documentation as to their original intent, including that found in the 1789 Northwest Ordinance, adopted after the First Amendment was ratified: ‘Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.’ Thus, we know that the first public schools were established to teach children how to read the Bible and the New England Primer, which was one of the first textbooks in America and certainly made reference to the Bible. Now we have come to this, an activist organization located halfway across the country attempting to eliminate private expressions of faith and worship by public school officials and employees acting on their private time and in their private capacity as citizens of Cullman County. We strongly feel this goes well beyond what even modern Supreme Court decisions require, regarding the scope of the First Amendment.

In conclusion, I want to thank all those who have offered so much support for our Prayer Caravan and for the citizens of Cullman County’s decision to take a stand. I would like to finally close with the first and last lines of the first prayer given at the Continental Congress on September 7, 1774.

‘O Lord our Heavenly Father, high and mighty King of kings,

and Lord of lords, who dost from thy throne behold all the

dwellers on earth and reignest with power supreme and

uncontrolled over all the Kingdoms, Empires and Governments; look down in mercy, we beseech Thee, on these our American States, who have fled to Thee form the rod of the oppressor and thrown themselves on Thy gracious protection, desiring to be henceforth dependent only on Thee...

All this we ask in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, Thy Son and our Savior. Amen’

God bless you all, and God bless America.” — Billy Coleman.

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