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July 31, 2013

Atheist group demands Ala. schools cancel 'prayer caravan'

CULLMAN, Ala. — An atheist rights group is demanding that the superintendent of a northern Alabama school district cancel a "prayer caravan" set for early August, or face a potential lawsuit claiming the system is forcing religion on students.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Cullman County School Superintendent Billy Coleman this week. It asks that Coleman, who was a Christian pastor before becoming superintendent three years ago, cancel the Aug. 10 event, which would hold a 15-20 minute prayer session at each Cullman County campus before the start of the school year.

The group called the event an "especially egregious violation" of the separation of church and state, and claims the system is breaking the law by endorsing a religious event.

"It was organized in his power as superintendent, and was posted on the official school web site, so there's no doubt it was school-sponsored," FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel said. "The fact that it's happening on a Saturday, or that it's being called voluntary, is irrelevant. The fact is he organized it as superintendent, and he has to cancel it as superintendent."

Despite the threat, Coleman said the day of prayer will go on as planned. Coleman contends the prayer caravan is an unsponsored, voluntary event, comparable to the frequent prayers at the flagpole held at campuses nationwide.

"We're not going to cancel it," Coleman said. "We're not praying for our schools to make a point. We're praying for our schools because we want to thank God for the blessings he gives us, and pray for our students and communities."

The prayer caravan was started by Coleman when he took office, and it's now in its third year.

"I've always been outspoken about my faith and I'm not ashamed of that, but we'd never try to cram anything down anybody's throat,” Coleman said. “I believe the best thing we, as Christians, can do is just live our faith everyday."

The foundation specifically criticized the school system for using the district website and social media accounts to promote the event. Those posts have since been taken down.

Coleman said he was drafting a letter to the foundation to explain that the prayer caravan is not an official school system event.

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