A weekend interview with the Rev. Matthew Cotten of OK2Pray
Back in January, a federal judge ordered Santa Rosa schools to stop permitting prayer at school-related activities. The school district accepted the order. But the Rev. Matthew Cotten of Pine Terrace Baptist Church in Milton did not. Instead, he began prayer rallies and started the group and Web site OK2Pray. Cotten spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about his initiative. (Photo from Pensacola News-Journal profile)
I was interested in you telling me what are your concerns that led to your decision to act?
Well, I'll tell you. I am a lifelong educator. ... And I believe that not only kids need an education, but adults too. The fact of the matter is, I see that lack of freedom is what has caused education to shut down all over the world. And there's a lot of places all over the world where people don't have education because they don't have freedom. They don't have the financial freedom to get the education they need. They don't have the freedom to travel to get the education they need. And they don't have even the resources, they're not allowed to have that education. Well, that's not the case in America. It's not supposed to be. And yet now I see a trend that it just upsetting and unsettling that we're sacrificing freedoms for security.
Now, I'm a Christian minister and I'm from the Bible Belt. ... Because of that we have this reputation that there is going to be a conservative push in our politics, there's going to be a conservative push in our churches, and there is going to be a religiosity here. And that's true. But I am sort of unique and I'm catching flak for it on both sides, both the political side and the religious side. ... The fact of the matter is, we (Americans) don't understand one another, we don't know what the other side believes. ... So one of the things I promote is an open dialogue. Well, that open dialogue cannot occur. Where's the best place to get that? Well, work is one place. ... The other place is at school. And the workplace and school have case law now, precedent is a better word ... deciding that the workplace and school are not a good place to talk about religion.
Now, when the court said that, the school district seemed to accept that. But you didn't.
Yeah. And that's one of the problems we have here. And one of the reasons they accepted it was because of fear. ... They don't know what the truth is because the truth has been distorted. ... It's been distorted over time and over many different variations of method. I think the church is responsible for some of that distortion. I think that the ACLU is responsible for some of that distortion. I think radical legislative judges are responsible for some of that distortion. And I think individuals not being educated about what their First Amendment rights are, and that includes me. I went for years just getting a paycheck, going home and not paying attention to any of this stuff. ... It's affecting all of us now, and we can't have a dialogue about religion.
Now, the students' rights are fairly intact after this consent decree that the School Board signed. ... That's a great thing and I am excited about that and we are touting that at our rallies. When we have an OK2Pray rally we say it's okay for a student to pray. It's okay for a student to believe whatever it is they believe and to pray whatever that belief or worship or whatever it is they have to do.
Tell me about the rallies that you're holding. What do you do at them? What is the message that you bring besides that it's okay to pray. Or, is that the whole message?
It's pretty simple. It's okay to pray. Honestly, the people that I have gotten to pray are primarily Christian because they have a mandate to pray. ... When Jesus instructed us to pray he instructed us to pray with 'our father.' ... If he meant for it to be just private, he would have said, 'my father.' ...
What our message is, is let's talk about the real issue here. Let's talk about what is really going on. Two students said that their religious rights were infringed by teachers and students who by some way, shape, form or method at graduations, football games and other sporting events and other school-sponsored events, in the classroom and other daily events, put undue pressure ... on them to believe like they believe. Well, that's what was stipulated. And the School Board said, yeah, that's what you're doing. ... I understand what they did. I read it. ... And like I said, it keeps the students' rights intact. But it does not defend the rights of the teachers, administrators, faculty, staff, ancillary employees and volunteers.
So you're saying the schools don't allow them the right to pray in school?
Just for example, let me tell you, I have a very dear friend of mine who is a teacher in the Santa Rosa school system. And she teaches at the school where her daughter attends. And her daughter comes to her during the day, and it has been their practice to pray over their meal together. It has also been their practice where, if she is having a rough day, which preteen adolescent girls have a rough day ... she goes to her mom and says, 'Hey mom, can you pray for me.' Now they're scared to death to do that.
Wouldn't that be a private thing? Why would anybody stop them?
Exactly. In fact, they should not be stopped doing that. But they're afraid. They're also afraid for their livelihood, for their job, for being pointed out. My daughter, for instance, she spoke out at one of our rallies as a student. She said that during lunchtime she prayed over her lunch and several students said, 'Hey, you can't do that! You can't pray at school anymore!' It's become somewhat of a joke. But it's not a joke. It's serious. And it's sad that we've come to a place in society where people are afraid to be what they are. And I don't think this is exclusive to Christians. Maybe there are non-Christians who have been experiencing this type of fear for years. If that's true, I want to talk with them. I want to meet with them and get that out in the open. Because that's the only way we can come together, through communication.
Where are you headed with your efforts?
No. 1, educate people about the rights they currently have. No. 2, educate people about the rights they have given up because of ignorance, because of intimidation, whatever the case may be. ... Usually rights are given up because of security. Benjamin Franklin had a quote about that. He said any liberty that you sacrifice for any bit of security, those people deserve neither liberty nor security. ... I agree with him. ... Liberty is not safe. And it is not safe for me to do what I have been doing. All I did was stand up and say, 'It's okay to pray,' and I've been eviscerated on the blogs and unofficial news sources online and in person. I've had fingers pointed at me and people saying, 'You're that guy that's trying to make everybody pray.'
You're not asking the school district pray for people. You're saying that people should be allowed to pray, right?
Yes. People should be allowed to not pray to their not-God. I say that on my Web site. I don't know exactly how you accomplish that. If an atheist has a problem. ... I have a good friend who is an agnostic and another who is an atheist. They talk with me very civilly about this. They don't have a problem with my Christianity. They don't have a problem with the fact that I pray for them and I pray in front of them. I've prayed with them at the dinner table. And they didn't stop me and say, 'Hey, am I going to get to read from a science book before we eat?' They didn't stop me with that. It's ridiculous. They didn't feel like their rights were infringed by me doing that. It's just understanding one another. And that comes from communication and knowledge. ...
It sounds like what you're talking about now is that people respect one another in the schools and in the public forum.
Right. I've got something, and this is a real core part of my message, and it's something that is deeply misunderstood in our society. I don't know where this ideal came from, but this is an ideal that has been passed down for probably the past 30 years. ... This is the thought process. And it's flawed. The thought process is that you have to respect other peoples' beliefs. The fallacy of the logic is, I believe in my belief system and in all the other belief systems that I have seen that have been successful over the centuries, is you have to respect people and you then try to understand their belief systems. But you do not have to respect somebody's belief systems. What if a person believes the color orange is evil and must be burned everywhere you see it? What if that is their belief? Do you respect that? Absolutely not. ...
Somebody is going to say, 'That's the same thing you do. You believe things just because you believe it.' No. That's not true. There is logic behind peoples' beliefs. We have a document called the Bible, which existed before a document called the Constitution, which existed before the institution known as public schools, which tells us that the people who wrote the Constitution didn't necessarily forecast that this was going to be played out in public schools this way. ...