The superintendent of an Alabama school district says a prayer event he played a key role in organizing will continue as planned despite a letter of complaint from a national atheist organization.
Billy Coleman, superintendent of Cullman County Schools, told The Christian Post he won't be calling off an upcoming "prayer caravan" event, in which members of the community gather at the district's campuses to pray.
"It's not a school-sponsored event," said Coleman. "I helped initiate it...Our school board didn't sponsor it, so it's kind of hard for them to call it off."
An attorney for the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter of complaint to Coleman on July 22, stating the upcoming prayer caravan is school-sponsored and is therefore an illegal government endorsement of religion.
Coleman, who is a Christian, acknowledges his role in the creation of the annual prayer event but denies another allegation in the letter that says the Lord's Prayer is recited daily over the loudspeakers at each of the schools in the district. While moments of silence have been observed and the Pledge of Allegiance has been said, Coleman says he has never heard the Lord's Prayer spoken over the loudspeakers at any schools in the Cullman County district.
He has also never heard a parent complain about the prayer event, which was first held two years ago, he says. While the first two events were "modest," he says, with an estimated 400 to 500 people total participating across all of the district's campuses, he expects this year's event to be much larger because of the media attention it is getting.
"I know we don't want to force our faith on anybody else. I mean, we don't. We work hard not to do that," said Coleman. "But it just seems to me that going to the school voluntarily on a Saturday and praying for the kids and the teachers by people who think that prayer makes a difference, they're exercising their right to assemble and their right to free expression."
The event is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 10, from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. CT, when 14 schools are to be visited by the caravan throughout the day. Information about the event was initially posted to the school district's website, but it has been removed since the complaint was made.
When asked how he would respond if FFRF were to file a lawsuit, Coleman said he wouldn't back down, though he would submit to those who are in authority over him.
"I am a person under authority: there's the school board, there's the state board of education in Alabama, there's the court system. If people that I am under authority say that I did something wrong, then I'll take full responsibility for it and act accordingly," he said. "But we are not under authority to the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Wisconsin. We respect them and we respect their concerns, but they don't make the decisions of our school system."
Coleman says he has spoken at many of the churches in Cullman County. He calls his work as superintendant a "ministry," though he made it clear his goal is not to force his faith on anyone.
"Everybody wants to make a difference in someone else's life, and for me being a Christian's the way you act; I mean, it's easy to talk," he said. "So I look at my job as an opportunity to help others, to live the principles of Christianity out in everything that I do."