Atheist group demands “formal discipline” after Texas school superintendent prays during convocation

Atheist group demands “formal discipline” after Texas school superintendent prays during convocation

By Emmanuella Ellis

A leading secularist group is asking for a Texas school board to punish a superintendent who crossed the line by praying this year during its back-to-school convocation held at a Texas megachurch.

Three people, including one district employee, filed complaints with the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation after the district’s mandatory employee assembly which took place in the Prestonwood Baptist Church, Plano, in August. The foundation which has over 1,200 members in Texas advocates for a strict separation of state and church. It often targets instances of public prayer in school settings, such as a situation in Kansas regarding prayer by players and coaches.

In a letter to McKinney ISD from the Foundation after the assembly, the organization said the district “violates its obligation to remain neutral on matters of religion” with this prayer. It is therefore demanding that the McKinney ISD formally disciplines Superintendent Rick McDaniel for praying at the beginning-of-the-school-year staff convocation, Dallas Morning News reported.

A YouTube video of the convocation shows McDaniel, head bowed, eyes closed, leading a nearly one-minute prayer over a microphone behind a pulpit marked with a cross. This was after he addressed the audience at the podium and was joined by three school employees.

"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,” Superintendent Rick McDaniel says in a video of the event before saying the prayer.

“For those of you who feel comfortable praying with me that’s fine. At a minimum, we’re going to have a moment of silence.”

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.

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.

Dale Carpenter, who is a constitutional law professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said there isn’t an issue with people praying on their own in public school and government settings. Government, including public schools, cannot endorse, or even appear to endorse, religion under the establishment clause of the First Amendment. But when someone in an official capacity takes that role at the beginning of a required event, that does raise potential issues under the establishment clause,” Carpenter stated after viewing a video of the McKinney ISD convocation. “I’m not saying they would lose. I’m just saying there is something here,” he added.

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." The foundation 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.

Foundation attorney Sam Grover said school officials agreed last year to change the assembly’s location. “We’re looking for clear-cut actions by the district this time around,” he said. If not, the foundation will consult with the employee who filed the complaint and consider legal options, including filing a lawsuit.

Photo: Dr. Rick McDaniel, McKinney ISD Superintendent of Schools Photoi courtesy: http://www.mckinneyisd.net

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