The superintendent of an Alabama school district made it clear on Tuesday that he is not afraid to stand up against the demands of a Wisconsin-based atheists group wanting to stop a prayer caravan this Saturday before school starts next week.
"We live in a time when certain groups hide behind the human rights of some to destroy the human rights of others," said Cullman County Schools Superintendent Billy Coleman who helped organize the caravan. The third annual prayer caravan includes stopping at each of the district's 29 schools and praying for students, teachers, and staff.
"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," said Coleman at the press conference he organized.
Coleman made it clear at the conference that he was speaking as a private citizen who was also not representing the school district when he made the prayer caravan announcement a few weeks ago. He said the caravan on Saturday is totally voluntary and not endorsed by the district.
"I know 'fear' can be a very strong deterrent to doing what is right," he said. "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."
Coleman was recently contacted by a lawyer from the Freedom From Religion Foundation with a letter which stated that the prayer caravan should be canceled. The atheist and "free thinkers" group is also asking the district to stop daily recitation of the Lord's Prayer over the schools' loudspeaker during the mornings. The group labels both actions as unconstitutional.
Coleman told The Christian Post after the press conference on Tuesday that he hopes that he and the surrounding controversy has not become a distraction for the event.
"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?"
Coleman told CP that he has received some legal advice that "basically says that I do have some freedoms to express my faith as a private citizen."
He concluded his talk at the press conference by saying, "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."
He closed his statement by quoting the first prayer given at the Continental Congress in 1774.
The controversy has received nationwide attention, in part, because of supporters of the prayer caravan using Facebook to spread their message. The Facebook page, Stand With Cullman on Prayer for Schools, has more than 5,500 "Likes."