A nationwide secular group is asking the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) to cease opening public meetings with prayer after an employee complained about a lengthy invocation given at a mandatory event for staff members.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that styles itself as a defender of “the separation of state and church,” wrote administrators at MCPSS last week regarding a Teacher Institute event held at the University of South Alabama’s Mitchell Center Aug. 2.

The institute featured many speakers, including MCPSS Superintendent Chresal Threadgill, but FFRF contends the nearly four-minute invocation given by Pastor Vint Norris from Orchard Assembly of God Church in Semmes was more of “a sermon” than an opening prayer.

“Prayer at government-sponsored events is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive,” the letter to MCPSS reads. “While individuals are certainly free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way, calling upon MCPSS employees to participate in prayer is coercive and beyond the scope of a secular employer.”

Norris, who is the Christian education director for the Alabama District of the Assembly of God, was one of the first speakers at the event. However, FFRF characterized his statements as a “fire and brimstone” prayer.

One portion of the invocation did seem to reference Satan, when Norris said “may every plan of the evil one be clearly seen and thrown aside.” The majority of Norris’ prayer focused on the role teachers play in the lives of their students, though he did frame those ideas around Christian beliefs.

“Help us to see the heart of what’s causing trouble and to reach the lost and the perishing. To reach down deep down in their hearts, dear God, and pull out who you created them to be,” Norris said, his arms raised in prayer. “I pray that you use every person in this room as an instrument to pour out the anointing of the word of the living God to every student, father God.”

A larger excerpt from Norris’ prayer can be read below.

The event was attended by more than 6,000 administrators, teachers and support staff, and while it was mandatory, many in attendance appeared to enjoy the event, including Norris’ prayer. He received a lengthy standing ovation once he finished speaking.

On social media, several staff members also singled out Norris’ comments as a personal highlight of the event. One teacher, who did not respond to Lagniappe’s request seeking comment, wrote on Facebook that Norris’ invocation was “powerful.”

“If you didn’t feel something, then you don’t have a pulse. Every employee in MCPSS was prayed over today. Every student in MCPSS was prayed over today,” she wrote. “We had church today, people, and I have never been more excited about a school year.”

Rena Phillips, an MCPSS spokeswoman, said the Teacher Institute and its theme, “Stand up for MCPSS,” were meant to “get teachers and other employees excited about the upcoming year.”

She also said Norris’ comments only took up three minutes of the three-hour event.

“Mr. Threadgill has received more than 600 emails from employees who thanked him for the event and who said it was wonderful, and I have heard from probably 100 employees who thought it was a great and positive way to start the school year,” Philips said. “If the prayer offended anyone, we apologize. In Alabama, many public meetings begin with a prayer, including school board, city council and county commission meetings.”

It’s unclear how, or if, MCPSS will address the concerns raised by FFRF, a group that has contacted MCPSS three times since October 2017 over what it alleges to be unconstitutional violations of the separation clause in the First Amendment.

Just last week, the foundation received a response from MCPSS related to its concerns over “unconstitutional religious promotion” in the Davidson High School football program.

That issue, outlined in a letter to school officials in May, stemmed from comments made in defense of embattled Davidson coach Fred Riley. Riley was placed on administrative leave last week amid a lawsuit accusing him of allowing a violent culture among his players.

While it now involves three families, the lawsuit began with the April 27 assault of former Davidson quarterback Rodney Kim Jr., who sustained a broken arm after nearly a dozen of his teammates punched, kicked and jumped on him in a locker room brawl captured on video.

Dennis Hayford, area director of the Southern Alabama Fellowship of Christian Athletes, wrote a lengthy op-ed in defense of Riley in May, claiming he’d served as Davidson’s chaplain under Riley’s leadership and was given “unrestricted access to practices, team meetings, coaches’ meetings and travel to and from games.”

That was a concern for FFRF, which contended that MCPSS “cannot allow non-school adults access to the children in its charge, and it certainly cannot grant that access to ministers seeking to grow and target their religious ministries using students.”

The FFRF letter suggested that and other efforts Riley made to spread his religious views were “a violation of both students’ and parents’ rights” and “grounds for dismissal.” While it’s assumed Riley was suspended in connection to the assault some of his players have already pleaded guilty to, MCPSS has yet to give any official reason for his leave of absence.

According to Chris Line, a legal fellow with FFRF, an MCPSS attorney responded to the foundation’s complaints about Riley’s promotion of religion the day after he was placed on leave, writing: “Please be advised that the administration has addressed this issue.”

“He didn’t elaborate on what actions the administration has taken to address the matter, but we are aware Riley was recently put on administrative leave,” Line told Lagniappe. “We’re hopeful the new coach will not use his position to advance and promote his religious views to players.”

Last October, FFRF also called on MCPSS to stop broadcasting prayers over the loudspeaker before football games and, according to Line, that matter has since been “resolved.”

Transcription of Norris’ prayer:
“I’m praying over this school system — in the name of Jesus Christ — from every worker, employee, every person in administration, every person from the cafeteria to the playground…in the classroom, God. Dear Lamb of God, in the name of Jesus Christ the son of God, I pray for a covering of your spirit over this entire county and pray for it prosper and favor. In the name of Jesus, I pray the anointing of the Lord will rest upon every classroom. May we rescue the perishing, may we not see a child as who they are immediately but who they can become in the name of the Lord and that you have a plan and a hope for the future for every child that comes into the classroom, and for every parent. Dear God, help us to see beyond the Junk. Help us to see beyond the confusion and the arguing and the bickering. Help us to see the heart of what’s causing trouble and to reach the lost and the perishing. To reach down deep down in their hearts, dear God, and pull out who you created them to be, oh God. I pray that you use every person in this room as an instrument to pour out the anointing of the word of the living God to every student, father God. We were reminded yesterday in this country that we have a freedom to call on the greatest name that’s ever been said — his name is Jesus Christ *inaudible because of clapping* We exalt you in this place, oh God… You said a people that would exalt righteousness, dear God, you would bless! And so I pray blessings as a pastor. I pray blessing and favor over this school district, dear God and this entire county, God, from the very head, dear God, to the least. I pray your favor and blessing and protection, dear God. May every plan of the evil one be clearly seen and thrown aside, dear God. May every grade level increase, dear God, may you give favor, may you give wisdom and understanding to every teacher, to every principal and every administrator, dear God. I pray over every individual here, dear God. You know what they’re going through on a personal level. Life’s not easy, we go through so much. We go through debt, separation and hurt and pain, and I pray for healing the name of Jesus Christ. Heal every heart and every life. And we give you the praise. Bless this family, this family that touches the next generation. And the church said, (AMEN).”