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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 jsolochek@tampabay.com.

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]
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