(Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Bachman)
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley said that a Wisconsin-based atheists group opposed to a Cullman County school district-wide prayer caravan prior to the fall semester is misinterpreting the First Amendment. Plans for the caravan beginning Saturday morning and a rally later in the day at a county fairgrounds are still on track.
"I personally believe that one of the problems we have in this country is taking God out of, not only our lives, but out of government. But, we can't force that on someone. That's what the Constitution says. We cannot force that on people. But, people have the right to express their opinions on their beliefs. And I do it all the time. Nobody's put me in jail yet," Bentley told WAFF 48 News in Huntsville.
The controversy began when the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group focused on wiping out expressions of religion from the public square in the U.S., attempted to stop Cullman County Schools from conducting the prayer caravan that includes school officials, teachers, and parents who volunteered to stop to pray at each school with a letter from its lawyer.
Saturday will mark the third time the annual prayer caravan will have been conducted, which includes stopping at each of the district's 29 schools and praying for students, teachers, and staff.
Superintendent Billy Coleman, who helped organize the caravan, received the complaint from the FFRF for his participation in the event a few weeks ago. His sponsorship, which he and his lawyer say is his right as a private citizen, previously included an announcement on the district's website, which has since been taken down.
Coleman held a press conference on Tuesday in which he said, "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."
He told The Christian Post after his statement on Tuesday that he hopes that he has not become a distraction for the event and the controversy does not deter from the intent of the prayer caravan.
"It's sad because this was about free citizens on their own time on a Saturday going in front of the schools and praying voluntarily and it wasn't meant to be this big of a deal," he said. "[The past two times] it was modestly attended and it's not going to be modestly attended Saturday. There's going to be 30 or 40 times more people involved in it.
"In my heart is the hope is that the prayer event is just a prayer event, not anything other than that. This is about lifting up our schools to God."
He added, "Our board made it clear that this is not a school event. Nobody has to come. Someone asked the question, exactly who is being offended here?"
Cullman County resident Cindy Navarro, who plans to attend the caravan and rally, told CP that Christians in Alabama may need to be reminded about the true purpose of the event.
"We are a stubborn people. The Alabama state motto is 'We Dare Defend Our Rights!' So, people do need to be reminded, even me sometimes, that this is about praising God and asking Him to protect our kids and school employees," Navarro said. "I do love that many are now calling the [Cullman County] Fairgrounds (prayer rally location) the Prayergrounds."
She added, "Strangely, I have felt for many months that Cullman was about to be targeted due to something like this, so I have been praying. I am expecting God to use this in amazing ways. We have become complacent and too many are becoming cultural Christians. Let revival begin, and we need to reach out to a lost and hurting world with the love of Jesus."