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This school event is held at a church, but a public prayer still drew complaints

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McKinney ISD Superintendent Rick McDaniel is facing complaints for his public prayer at a back-to-school event last month. (Image source: YouTube screenshot)

Rick McDaniel, the superintendent at McKinney Independent School District in North Texas, knew he was going to rub some attendees the wrong way when he decided to pray at a back-to-school convocation last month.

But he wasn't going to let that stop him. After all, the event was in a church — Prestonwood Baptist Church, which hosts convocations and graduations for several surrounding school districts.

"I realize that some of you, now you may not feel comfortable. And I'm all  right with that. I understand," McDaniel said to the assembled crowd. "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."

He proceeded to lead a minute-long prayer over the microphone. Fittingly, he was standing at a pulpit with a cross on it.

Still, at least one district employee in attendance filed a formal complaint, according to The Dallas Morning News.

The complaint

That district employee, along with two other unidentified people, filed a complaint with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit organization.

The organization then sent a letter to McKinney ISD, stating that the district violated "its obligation to remain neutral on matters of religion" with the public prayer led by a district official at a required event.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation targets instances of public prayer in school settings, such as this situation in Kansas regarding prayer by players and coaches after games.

The district's response

The district has met privately to discuss this matter, including any potential disciplinary action against McDaniel for the prayer. But the school board wouldn't make any definitive statements about the incident, except to acknowledge their understanding of McDaniel's position.

"I think that's something Dr. McDaniel feels strongly about," said board president Curtis Rippee, who also said the board didn't have an "official position" on the situation, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Legal implications

Dale Carpenter, a constitutional law professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said that a prayer in that setting by a superintendent does raise some issues under the First Amendment, but he's not sure that necessarily means the school district would lose a potential lawsuit.

"...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 said.

This writer's perspective

Even if the event was required, the prayer itself was clearly and explicitly voluntary, and does not fall under the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The superintendent clearly didn't intend to establish or mandate an official religion on behalf of the public school district.

Additionally, the name of the opposing organization (the Freedom From Religion Foundation) itself derives from a common overextension of the constitutional principle "freedom of religion," which grants citizens the freedom to express the religion of their choice.

That principle does not grant the freedom from religion, which some people think means they never have to find themselves within earshot of a prayer in public.

A public school employee praying over a microphone does not constitute  "an establishment of religion," but calls for disciplinary action for teachers, coaches and administrators who would dare pray in the presence of others certainly feels like an attempt to prohibit "the free exercise thereof."

Here's a video of the convocation. The prayer section begins at approximately 3:30.

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