Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Pasco superintendent struggles with backlash over school prayer memo

LAND O'LAKES — Kurt Browning faced a dilemma last week as he prepared a memo reminding Pasco County high school football coaches not to lead prayer with their players.

His Christian faith drives everything he does. It is part and parcel of who he is.

"That being said, obviously very parallel to that, I am superintendent of schools," he said. "I took an oath that I was going to support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, the laws of the United States and the laws of Florida. Oftentimes, those laws and personal beliefs are in conflict."

So Browning sent the memo, confident it had to be done after learning that some coaches had been actively organizing prayer while in their official roles.

He got blistered in social media. Even after decades as a public official, the criticisms cut to Browning's core.

He sat at his computer late Tuesday to check Facebook for new photos of his grandchildren. He was greeted by "this very offensive picture," a poster featuring his photo that read, "Pasco coaches and players: Pray when the Lord leads. Not when this man 'allows' it."

"I will tell you, my heart sank when I saw that," Browning said.

But Dade City mom Annie Baker, who put up the poster along with a comment calling Browning a disappointment to his mother, was fired up.

A Christian and self-described constitutionalist, Baker was frustrated with the superintendent's stance that coaches could not participate with players in prayer — direction that came from federal guidelines.

"That is what made the hair stand up on the back of my neck," said Baker, whose wall posts collected like-minded comments from other school prayer supporters.

"I say KURT LEAVE OUR KIDS ALONE!!!" wrote Christy Cook. "Prayer is a GOOD Thing on the Field, at home, anywhere & everywhere!!!!"

District policy doesn't specifically prohibit school employees from praying, Baker said, and Browning's memo seemed intimidating to those who might wish to pray. She acknowledged that her personal remarks about Browning probably went out of bounds, adding that she wasn't questioning his spiritual walk.

"He's a Christian, but he's also an elected official," she said. "It is my right to hold you responsible for what you say and do, and this is something that is big for me."

Browning didn't plan to respond to the Facebook barbs.

The longer he looked at the attack poster, though, the more he knew he had to say something. The people in his community deserved to hear from him.

He wrote up a few lines and posted them, reiterating his tough choice and his strong beliefs. He repeated the need to follow the law. He concluded:

"I have never said, nor will I, that prayer has to stop at football games or any other school activity. It must be student led," Browning wrote. "If there has ever been a time that we need to pray for our kids, it's now! I do everyday!"

He returned to scrolling through his Facebook feed. The lower left corner, where "likes" and comments get announced, "lit up like a Christmas tree." Hundreds of friends and supporters chimed in, supporting Browning's stance with a chorus of amens and urging him to keep the faith.

"Your decision is the sign of a strong leader who follows the law and his heart even when it is not popular," wrote teachers union president Lynne Webb, an ardent Democrat and sometimes foe.

Added House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who favors more permissive guidelines on public school prayer, "I know Kurt Browning and he is a man of faith and a great friend. This is not his fault."

Browning, a Republican, said he was overwhelmed and surprised at the positive reaction to a decision he said he would make again if he had to. Students can pray, he said. Coaches can join in silently from the side, and need not retreat to the locker room. But they must not lead, he stressed.

That's the law, he said, and it's what's right for the school system and its students.

"Just because we don't like it doesn't mean it doesn't have to be enforced," Browning said. "I say that in response to the folks who posted on Facebook. They want prayer in public school. … You can. … It just can't be staff led."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at

Storm of Facebook comments

"I've been told by two Pasco County education employees that they are NO longer allowed to say- God bless you when a child sneezes! It is now simply, Bless you!!"

"Kurt. Wish all politicians would be as honest as you are about your faith. Thanks and keep up the good faith!"

"I'm so tired of the school system saying its bad to pray. Why can't they tell the individuals that do not want to participate not too!!!!"

"Kurt, You're a better man then I am, Thank God. You're a leader that has lead by example, not by mouth. Thank You!"

"Our County is very blessed to have you. Now if only more people everywhere would believe in the power of prayer. We need Godly leadership. Thank you for not being afraid to stand up. I agree it is time for the law to change."

Pasco superintendent struggles with backlash over school prayer memo 10/02/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 2, 2013 11:46pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Remember him? Numbers prove Ben Zobrist is one of greatest Rays of all time

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — The first foray back to the Trop by the best manager the Rays have had obscured the second return visit by arguably the second-best player in franchise history.


    Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Blake Snell (4) takes the field to start the game between the Chicago Cubs and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.
  2. GOP's new repeal bill would likely leave millions more uninsured, analyses suggest


    WASHINGTON — The latest Republican bid to roll back the Affordable Care Act would likely leave millions of currently insured Americans without health coverage in the coming decades, and strip benefits and protections from millions more, a growing number of independent studies suggest.

    Vice President Mike Pence listens as President Donald Trump talks to reporters about the Graham-Cassidy health care bill during a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi at the Palace Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, in New York. [Evan Vucci | Associated Press]
  3. Mueller casts broad net in requesting extensive records from Trump White House


    WASHINGTON — The special counsel investigating Russian election meddling has requested extensive records and email correspondence from the White House, covering the president's private discussions about firing his FBI director and his response to news that the then-national security adviser was under …

    In a photograph provided by the Russian foreign ministry, President Donald Trump meets with Sergei Lavrov, left, the Russian foreign minister, and Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, May 10, 2017. Special counsel Robert Mueller is interested in this meeting, where Trump said dismissing FBI Director James Comey had relieved "great pressure" on him, the New York Times reported on Sept. 20. [Russian Foreign Ministry via  New York Times]
  4. 'We will find our island destroyed': Hurricane Maria demolishes Puerto Rico


    SAN JUAN — Sleepless Puerto Ricans awoke Wednesday knowing to expect a thrashing from the most ferocious storm to strike the island in at least 85 years. They met nightfall confronting the ruin Hurricane Maria left behind: engorged rivers, blown-out windows, sheared roofs, toppled trees and an obliterated electric …

    Rescue vehicles from the Emergency Management Agency stand trapped under an awning during the impact of Hurricane Maria, after the storm  hit the eastern region of the island, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. The U.S. National Hurricane Center says Maria has lost its major hurricane status, after raking Puerto Rico. But forecasters say some strengthening is in the forecast and Maria could again become a major hurricane by Thursday. [Carlos Giusti | Associated Press]
  5. Obamacare repeal bill offers flexibility and uncertainty


    The latest Republican proposal to undo the Affordable Care Act would grant states much greater flexibility and all but guarantee much greater uncertainty for tens of millions of people.