For the past two years hundreds of people in Cullman, Ala. have voluntarily gathered on the weekend before the start of the new school year to pray on every school campus. But now a Wisconsin-based group is demanding the school system end the practice, claiming the district is forcing religion on students.
The caravan was promoted as a “time to lift our schools up to God and ask His blessings for the upcoming school year.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Billy Coleman, the superintendent of the Cullman County Board of Education, warning him to either cancel the prayer caravan or face a possible lawsuit.
“The ‘Prayer Caravan’ is an especially egregious violation,” FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel wrote, calling the event a violation of the Constitution. “It does not matter that this event occurs outside normal school hours because prayers at other after-school events such as football games and graduations have been found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Coleman told Fox News the event is not officially sponsored by the school district and he’s not cancelling anything.
“We’re not going to call it off,” he said. “The community has really rallied around this. It’s a way for people that believe in prayer to lift our kids up.”
Coleman, who was a pastor before being elected superintendent, said the prayer caravan will be held Aug. 10 – the Saturday before the start of the school year. He said parents, grandparents and community members gather in front of a school for about 15 minutes of prayer before getting in their cars and traveling to another campus.
“We pray outside the school,” he said. “The building is never opened. We pray out on the campus – much like they do at the annual ‘See You at the Pole’ rallies.”
Seidel said the voluntary nature of the event doesn’t matter.
“Cullman County has a duty to remain neutral toward religion,” he wrote. “By scheduling a prayer event, the school district has breached that duty.”
Coleman told Fox News the community has deep roots in the Christian faith.
“But we also have a great respect for others that don’t believe,” he said. “We would never force our faith on others.”
And until now, he said there’s never been a complaint about the prayer caravan.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation was also upset after Coleman signed a letter promoting the caravan with the words, “In Christ.”
“By signing ‘In Christ,’ you appear to endorse religion over non-religion and Christianity over all other religions,” Seidel wrote.
Coleman acknowledged he used the words in a letter to pastors that was reposted on the school district’s website.
“I know that I’m the superintendent, but I also know that I’m a private citizen and just because I’m superintendent, I haven’t lost my rights as an individual to express my faith,” he said.
The FFRF also accused the school district of reciting the Lord’s Prayer at school-sponsored events – something the superintendent denied.
“We don’t do that,” he said.
With reporting from Associated Press