Cullman County Schools Superintendent Billy Coleman is seen at West Point Elementary School library in October 2012.

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 lawsuit claiming the system is forcing religion upon its students.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Cullman County School Superintendent Billy Coleman asking that he cancel the Aug. 10 event, which would feature a 15 to 20 minute prayer session at each campus before the start of the school year. Coleman, a Christian pastor before becoming superintendent, started the prayer caravan when he took office three years ago.

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 website, so there's no doubt it was school-sponsored," said  Andrew Seidel, an attorney for the group. "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. He 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," he 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."

Though outspoken about his faith, Coleman said, "we'd never try to cram anything down anybody's throat. I believe the best thing we, as Christians, can do is just live our faith everyday."

The group 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.


Trent Moore writes for the Cullman, Ala., Times.