"Heavenly father, we just want to thank you for this beautiful day."
A man wearing a suit and tie stood at a pulpit adorned with a Christian cross as he said those words.
But the speaker wasn't a preacher or other church leader — at least that wasn't his function on this particular day.
Instead, the person leading the prayer was the superintendent of a suburban school district north of Dallas — and the setting was a mandatory employee assembly.
Anybody see the potential for a church-state clash?
That leads us to this story from the Dallas Morning News:
MCKINNEY — A nonprofit organization advocating for the separation of church and state believes McKinney ISD crossed the line this year during its back-to-school convocation, which included a prayer led by the district's superintendent.
Three people — including one district employee — filed complaints with the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation after the district's mandatory employee assembly in August. The assembly took place at Prestonwood Baptist Church, where it has been held for more than a decade.
"I realize that some of you, now you may not feel comfortable. And I'm alright with that. I understand," Superintendent Rick McDaniel says in a video of the event before saying the prayer.
"For those of you who feel comfortable praying with me that's fine. At a minimum, we're going to have a moment of silence."
The video shows McDaniel — head bowed, eyes closed — leading a nearly one-minute prayer over a microphone behind a pulpit marked with a cross.
In a letter to McKinney ISD from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the organization said the district "violates its obligation to remain neutral on matters of religion" with this prayer.
The Dallas newspaper does a nice job of reporting the facts in a fair, evenhanded way.
I was particularly pleased to see the paper seek expert analysis from a constitutional law professor:
Government, including public schools, cannot endorse — or even appear to endorse — religion under the establishment clause of the First Amendment, said Dale Carpenter, a law professor at Southern Methodist University.
Carpenter, who is the Judge William Hawley Atwell Chair of Constitutional Law at SMU, said there isn't an issue with people praying on their own in public school and government settings.
"But when someone in an official capacity takes that role at the beginning of a required event, that does raise potential issues under the establishment clause," Carpenter said after viewing a video of the McKinney ISD convocation.
"I'm not saying they would lose. I'm just saying there is something here."
What's missing? I wish the story had provided details on McDaniel's specific religious background. Does he have a home congregation? Any chance that it's Prestonwood Baptist, where the assembly was held? (Granted, the piece reports that McDaniel declined to comment on his prayer, so maybe the paper was unable to obtain such information.)
I also wish the paper had referenced a bit of the prayer and what McDaniel actually said in it (such as praying for terrorism victims in Barcelona and asking God to "put a blanket of protection around us that only you can provide.") It seems to me that the specific content of the prayer is relevant to the story, even beyond the web version linking to the video embedded above.
"We ask all these things in your holy and precious name. Amen."