State/Church FAQ

Church Violations

A church is being used as a polling location. Is that legal?

It is a basic principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that the government is prohibited from promoting a specific religious belief. Furthermore, the government cannot compel a citizen to enter a house of worship or profess a particular religious view. Unfortunately, during election seasons many Americans of varying faiths or no faith at all are required to enter a house of worship in order to fulfill the most basic civic duties of all-to vote.

A church is participatiing in political lobbying. What can I do about it?

Every election year, the Foundation receives complaints and questions by its members and members of the public about churches involved in political activity

Tax exemption of churches — Is it constitutional?

As much as one quarter or one-half of a typical U.S. city may be made up of tax-exempt property, much of that churches or church schools. FFRF receives many queries by disgruntled taxpayers over this involuntary form of subsidy.

CIVIL VIOLATIONS

A court has ordered that my ex-spouse has the right to take my son/daughter to a church, religious school or other religious event with which I disagree. What are my rights?

Family law, custody battles, etc., are beyond the purview of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its purposes.

While we are very sympathetic to the plight of a nonreligious parent who sees a child being indoctrinated with religion, or resents having to pay for religious schooling, our staff has no background or expertise in family law matters. The Foundation cannot represent you, advise you or refer you to secular family law attorneys. Please seek this important advice from the attorney who is representing you in your divorce, custody battle, etc.

A store is offering a discount or promotion for bringing in a church bulletin. Is that legal?

Often FFRF will receive complaints from members that a private-owned business in their area is offering a discount to customers who present a church bulletin. These “church bulletin discounts” show up as promotions at a variety of businesses including restaurants or grocery stores for anyone demonstrating their status as a believer or church attendee.

I am tired of stores and restaurants playing gospel music. I feel this violates my right to 'freedom of religion.' Is there anything that can be done about it?

This is a consumer complaint, not a state/church violation. As a consumer, you have power. Indicate you have spent money in this store and are a good patron, but are made to feel uncomfortable and like an outsider by the music and will not return if they continue to make you pay to be proselytized!

My state/town has a law restricting the sale of certain items on Sundays. Is this legal?

Many states and local governments have established a variety of laws restricting the sale of certain goods on Sundays. An example of a law of this kind, which collectively have become known as “blue laws,” would be a law declaring that it shall be illegal to sell alcohol on Sundays. These laws may also include mandatory store closings on Sunday.

Religion in the workplace — Is it legal?

The Freedom From Religion Foundation specializes in cases concerning the separation of religion and government. Private employment disputes fall outside the purview of FFRF and its purpose. If your complaint concerns a state or federal agency, please read through our FAQ and then contact us with your specific concern. FFRF staff attorneys cannot represent you in private employment disputes.

COURT-ORDERED PARTICIPATION IN A.A.

Can a court, prison, or probation officer sentence me to attend A.A., which is a religious program?

The trend of current case law shows that forcing a prisoner or probationer to attend A.A. or N.A. or other religiously centered rehabilitation program is increasingly seen as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

GOVERNMENT VIOLATIONS

Blasphemy laws violate the First Amendment.  They promote religion, specifically Christianity, over nonreligion in violation of the Establishment Clause.  They prohibit speech in violation of the Free Speech Clause.  They violate the guarantees of religious free exercise and free press.  In general, blasphemy laws assault the First Amendment’s protection of the freedom of conscience.  

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Critics of the Christian bible occasionally can score a point or two in discussion with the religious community by noting the many teachings in both the Old and New Testaments that encourage the bible believer to hate and to kill, biblical lessons that history proves Christians have taken most seriously. Nonetheless the bible defendant is apt to offer as an indisputable parting shot, “But don’t forget the ten commandments. They are the basic bible teaching. Study the ten commandments.”

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The U.S. Constitution is a secular document. It begins, “We the people,” and contains no mention of “God” or “Christianity.” Its only references to religion are exclusionary, such as, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust” (Art. VI), and “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (First Amendment). The presidential oath of office, the only oath detailed in the Constitution, does not contain the phrase “so help me God” or any requirement to swear on a bible (Art. II, Sec. 7). If we are a Christian nation, why doesn't our Constitution say so? In 1797 America made a treaty with Tripoli, declaring that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” This reassurance to Islam was written under Washington’s presidency, and approved by the Senate under John Adams.

For an overwhelming part of U.S. history, America's motto was purely secular, "E Pluribus Unum" (From many [come] one). E Pluribus Unum was chosen by a committee of Jefferson, Adams and Franklin. Many Americans mistakenly assume our founders chose "In God We Trust" as the motto, but nothing could be further from the truth. Our founders were committed to a secular government. For most of U.S. history, our money was likewise free of religion.

I live in a HUD-subsidized housing. What are my rights to avoid religious activities and decorations?

A typical complaint involves the exhibition of religious holiday decorations in common areas (lobbies, recreation facilities, laundry rooms) of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) subsidized housing. Such religious holiday decorations often include angels, crèche displays, biblical scripture, menorahs, Stars of David, etc. Federal funding is distributed by HUD to support low income housing, as well as housing for senior citizens and the disabled, according to the stipulations enumerated in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). The CFR is explicit and unequivocal in its prohibition on religious activities as part of any program funded through the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Are religious holiday displays a violation of the First Amendment?

The most frequent complaint that FFRF receives during November and December concerns religious displays on public property. The majority involve a crèche, or nativity scene, being displayed at a public park, or outside or inside a government building. FFRF has even received complaints about a nativity scene prominently displayed on the front lawn of public schools! We also receive complaints about other religious symbols being displayed on public property, such as menorahs or crosses. Members of the public are shocked to find these displays authorized, supported, and erected by their local, state or federal government entities.

They make us listen to prayer before we eat lunch at public-funded senior centers. Help!

An unfortunately common state/church violation concerns prayer imposed on a captive audience of senior citizens before lunch at public-funded senior centers. This is illegal!

Why do some states require a religious test for public office? Isn't that unconstitutional?

The Supreme Court ruled in 1961 that States cannot impose a religious test for public office, in conformity with Art. VI of the U.S. Constitution.

Is it legal for government offices and public schools to close for Good Friday?

FFRF often receives complaints from the public about government offices and public schools closing for Good Friday.

Is an Establishment Clause violation occurring at government meetings?

One of the most frequent complaints to the Freedom From Religion Foundation from the public over state/church violations concerns government officials opening government meetings with prayer.

A religious group is holding meetings in a public library. What can I do about it?

Like most government property, public libraries are not automatically open for individuals and private groups to exercise free speech. Once a government body chooses to open up library space for use by private groups, either through action (renting out facilities) or through a “library use policy,” there are a number of steps to take to determine if it is inappropriate for a religious group to be using the facilities.

MILITARY VIOLATIONS

Do flag-folding ceremonies have a Christian meaning? No.

OATHS

I want to become a U.S. citizen, but am not religious and don’t want to take a religious oath. What are my rights?

The Freedom From Religion Foundation doesn’t want you to be forced to take a religious oath, either! In fact, our country is in need of more people like you, who understand better than many native-born citizens how vital it is to separate religion from government. The U.S. Constitution is entirely godless, so it is dismaying that a religious oath would be imposed on new citizens.

I've been called for jury duty. Or, I need to testify at a trial. Am I going to have to take a religious oath or place my hand on a bible?

Unfortunately, most state statutes routinely provide for religious oaths to swear in jurors or testifiers. Fortunately, most also permit alternative affirmations. Affirmation is for anyone who has conscientious scruples against swearing an oath to a deity. (This can include not only unbelievers but some form of Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc.)

When we went to apply for our marriage license, the county clerk told us we had to state an oath to "God." What can we do?

Although most state statutes routinely provide for religious oaths, they also usually provide for alternative affirmations. Usually, statutes pertaining to applications for marriage licenses, certificates and solemnizations designate a religious oath. However, elsewhere in your state statutes, there is probably a provision for affirmations (which, by definition, means you are not swearing to a deity, but affirm you are telling the truth). An affirmation is for anyone who has conscientious scruples against swearing an oath to a deity. (This can include some form of Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses as well as nonbelievers.)

PUBLIC SCHOOL VIOLATIONS

The school board at my child's school is praying before school board meetings. Is that legal?

No. Public school boards are an integral part of the public school system and must not advance or endorse religion. School boards cannot schedule prayer as a part of their meetings, invite local clergy to give invocations, or engage in religious ritual at any time during school-sponsored board meetings.

Evolution is the scientific theory that explains Earth's wide variety of species and their striking similarities. Evolution explains how species descended from a common ancestor and were modified by natural selection during that descent. Essentially, parents pass traits on to offspring and different individuals have different traits that give them a competitive edge in passing on those traits to offspring.

Can Gideons pass out bibles at my child's public school?

Every school year, the Freedom From Religion Foundation receives countless complaints from parents about The Gideon Society or other similar groups who are distributing bibles to their children at public schools.

A church is meeting in a public school. What can I do about it?

The Freedom From Religion Foundation often receives queries from shocked members of the public who receive flyers at their home inviting them to attend “church” at their local public school. Or citizens notice prominent signs at public school entrances on Sundays advertising church meetings. “Public schools can’t host church meetings, can they?” we are asked.

The “See You at the Pole” movement started in Texas in 1990, as an ostensibly “student-initiated” and “student-led” religious expression. Students meet at their school’s outdoor flagpole to pray before classes begin on the fourth Wednesday of September.

Can Public School Graduations Include Prayers?

No. The Supreme Court has continually struck down school-led prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations.  High school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students.

 

Do I (or my child) have to participate in the religious Pledge of Allegiance in my public school?

No. You (or your child) have a constitutional right not to be forced to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance. Nor should a student be singled out, rebuked, told they must stand, or otherwise be penalized for following their freedom of conscience. Nor should students who participate in the pledge, or who volunteer to lead the class in the pledge or to recite it over the intercom, be rewarded or favored over students who don’t participate.

What is the law about prayers in public schools?

Public schools exist to educate, not to proselytize. Children in public schools are a captive audience. Making prayer an official part of the school day is coercive and invasive.

Can public schools offer early release times for students wishing to participate in religious activities?

Public schools may release students during school hours to participate in private religious activities with parental consent. In McCollum v. Board of Education, the Court found a release time program that was supported by public funds, held during school hours, and on school grounds violated the First Amendment

My child's choir is singing religious music. Is that legal?

In its more than three decades of activism, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has taken more complaints over promotion of religion in public school music classes and team sports than any other type of complaint!

A teacher is sending my child home with religious literature. Can I stop it?

Parents frequently contact the Freedom From Religion Foundation with complaints about religious fliers being sent home with their school children—sometimes as young as five years old. Typically, these fliers are from outside religious organizations, such as the Good News Club, inviting students to participate in proselytizing after-school clubs and activities.

Is it lawful to hold a “See You at the Pole” prayer gathering at my public school?

The “See You at the Pole” movement started in Texas in 1990, as an ostensibly “student-initiated” and “student-led” religious expression. Students meet at their school’s outdoor flagpole to pray before classes begin on the fourth Wednesday of September.

A public high school is holding a religious baccalaureate service. Is that legal?

It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that a public school may not advance, prefer or promote religion. Because it is generally understood that a baccalaureate service is a religious event, a public school may not be involved in the organization or execution of a baccalaureate in any way that would make an objective observer believe that the school is endorsing the event

LEGAL DISCLAIMER

The information and materials on this website are intended for informational purposes only and are not intended to be treated as legal advice.

The information is general in nature, pertains to laws and policy which may become quickly dated, and may not apply to particular factual or legal circumstances.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation assumes no responsibility for errors or omissions on this website. The Foundation shall not be liable for any consequential, incidental, special, direct or indirect damages, including lost revenues, that might conceivably result from use of this site.

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