Battle over religion in public schools waged in one of America’s fastest-growing cities

By Bobby Ross Jr. | For Religion News Service

McKINNEY, Texas — Public school officials in one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities are being accused of violating the separation of church and state.

The controversy has been simmering in this once-tiny cotton-farming community, about 30 miles north of Dallas, since last summer when Rick McDaniel, superintendent of the McKinney Independent School District, prayed at a pulpit adorned with a Christian cross — during a mandatory school employee meeting at a church.

Last month, under pressure from concerned parents, the 24,500-student school district decided to end a decade-plus practice of conducting high school commencement ceremonies at the same church, Prestonwood Baptist, a Southern Baptist megachurch in nearby Plano.

The change outraged Prestonwood Pastor Jack Graham, one of President Trump’s evangelical advisers and a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“It appears religious freedom is under attack at the McKinney Public Schools,” Graham said in a Twitter post. “It was our refusal to remove the cross from view that created this cowardly decision.”

In a follow-up post, Graham added, “Just wondering on what planet a church,synagogue, or mosque would be expected to cover its religious symbols to host a public school graduation.”

And in another tweet, the pastor alleged that school administrators had “yielded to the pressure of atheist groups and their supporters.”

McDaniel’s prayer drew the ire of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which demanded that the school “temporarily cover iconography” to keep graduation ceremonies secular.

Its co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, said in a statement after the school district’s decision: “We are pleased that the school has moved its graduation to a secular location rather than attempt to modify a house of worship into a place that appears secular. The district’s decision to change its tradition to protect its students’ rights of conscience is anything but cowardly.”

Across the nation, church-state clashes like the one in McKinney “are happening more and more,” said Charles Haynes, founding director of the Newseum Institute’s Religious Freedom Center in Washington, D.C.

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Religion News Service is a national wire service with more than 100 secular and religious media subscribers, including USA Today, the Washington Post and NPR. The Houston Chronicle was among newspapers that published this story.