Atheist Group Seeks Punishment After Texas Superintendent Prayed During Convocation Held at Megachurch

McKinney Independent School District Superintendent prayers with school district employees during a convocation held in late August 2017 at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas,
McKinney Independent School District Superintendent prayers with school district employees during a convocation held in late August 2017 at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, | (Screenshot: YouTube / McKinney ISD Media)

The nation's leading secularist group is asking for a Texas school board to punish a superintendent who prayed during a mandatory staff convocation held at a Texas megachurch.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based legal organization that advocates for a strict separation of church and state, is asking the McKinney Independent School District to discipline Superintendent Rick McDaniel for praying at the beginning-of-the-school-year staff convocation that was held in August at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Dallas Morning News reported.

A YouTube video of the convocation shows McDaniel addressing the audience at the podium and then being joined by three school employees.

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"These guys behind me are up here this year because they came up and asked and they said, 'Are you going to pray this year?'" McDaniel told the crowd. "Yes, I am."

McDaniel's 'Yes' statement was followed by an applause from the crowd.

"I realize that some of you, now you may not feel comfortable. And I'm alright with that. I understand," he said.

In his prayer, McDaniel asked for God's protection over the school employees and the over 25,000 students they are entrusted to protect. He also prayed for God to guide him in leadership of the district. Additionally, he prayed for the lives of those that have been lost due to senseless terror that has spread across the world, especially those killed in the August attack in Barcelona, Spain.

McDaniel's prayer begins at about the 4:20 mark in the video below.

After McDaniel's prayer, FFRF was contacted by three concerned school employees who voiced their disapproval with the prayer during the required school-sponsored event. FFRF, which has over 1,200 members in Texas, sent a letter to the school board arguing that the prayer "violates its obligation to remain neutral on matters of religion," according to the Dallas Morning News.

The FFRF letter asks the school board to "formally discipline" McDaniel.

School board trustees met for a closed session on Tuesday. Board President Curtis Rippee told the Dallas Morning News that he could not comment on the any discipline that the board is or isn't considering for McDaniel. Rippee stated that the school board has no "official position" on McDaniel's act of praying at school-sponsored events.

"I think that's something Dr. McDaniel feels strongly about," Rippee was quoted as saying.

FFRF and other secular legal groups such as the American Humanist Association have long argued that staff-led prayer at school events are a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits the act of "respecting an establishment of religion."

Dale Carpenter, a law professor at Southern Methodist University, told the Dallas Morning News that public school officials are not allowed to appear as endorsing any religion.

Although school officials have the right to pray on their own, Carpenter states that problems arise when "someone in an official capacity takes that role at the beginning of a required event."

Earlier this year, the Ninth Circuit Court of the United States even ruled that a high school football coach was not entitled to a First Amendment right to kneel in prayer at midfield after games on the grounds he is coaching "as a public employee, not as a private citizen."

FFRF has also voiced concern over "unconstitutional prayers" that were held in Texas' White Settlement Independent School District. In a letter sent to Superintendent Frank Molinar, FFRF voiced disapproval over the fact that a school official led assembled teachers in prayer at an in-school training day on Aug 10. On Aug. 14, the group claims that school employees were led in prayer during its staff convocation.

"We write to ensure that no prayer is scheduled or endorsed at future district-sponsored events," the letter explains.

FFRF has previously voiced concerns about McKinney ISD's use of Prestonwood Baptist Church, which is pastored by former Southern Baptist Convention President Jack Graham, for its convocation and graduation ceremonies because of the fact that it is a Christian church.

School district spokesman Cody Cunningham told the Dallas Morning News that the school district does not have a space large enough to fit its roughly 3,000 employees.

However, McDaniel stated during Tuesday night's school board meeting that the district has been planning to hold next year's convocation at its new $70-million event center and stadium.

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