New Legal Successes
A Texas school district has made important policy changes in response to FFRF's concerns with the McKinney Independent School District on several issues.
District employees were displaying crosses in a number of rooms at local high schools. A religious poster at a middle school read: "As Believers You Are Saved Forever by Grace through Faith" and continued with other religious description including "Baptized into Christ Jesus" and "Soldiers of Christ."
Additionally, a faculty member at McKinney Boyd High School solicited participation of students to read prayers, recite scripture and sing hymns at an upcoming baccalaureate service. And each year, the graduation ceremony the high school has taken place at in the church sanctuary at the Prestonwood Baptist Church decorated with traditional Baptist Christian symbols.
The School District promised to explore alternatives to the church for McKinney High School's graduation ceremony, and it assured FFRF it would keep the church's religious iconography covered as long as the building was used. The district will no longer organize, sponsor or promote baccalaureate services.
After hearing from FFRF, schools in the Gunter Independent School District in Texas won't be participating in future National Day of Prayer ceremonies
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the district after receiving a report that Gunter High School students participated in a National Day of Prayer event that included prayer and scriptural readings, performing a hymn. The National Day of Prayer is a Christian event originally organized by Billy Graham to "mobiliz[e] the Christian community to intercede for America and its leadership."
In a May 23 response, the superintendent assured FFRF that Gunter ISD would no longer take student groups to perform at the ceremonies.
A Texas school district has assured FFRF that it will stop publicizing private religion-infused baccalaureate ceremonies.
FFRF had contacted the Friendswood Independent School District with its concern that a baccalaureate service in Friendswood High School on May 22 has been advertised on the district's website and in a handout sent home with seniors.
The school district admitted that it had made a mistake in publicizing the event and said it has taken swift measures to rectify the blunder.
"In order to remedy any confusion, Friendswood High School Principal Mark Griffon has sent a memorandum to all senior students indicating that the prior notice was sent in error and that the event is not school-sponsored," the school district's attorney replied.
"Friendswood High School has also removed all references to the event from its calendar."
Spearman High School in Spearman, Texas, is no longer including prayer over the loudspeaker at athletic events. The move follows a Dec. 1 letter sent by FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover.
"The Supreme Court has specifically struck down invocations given over the loudspeaker at public school athletic events," said Grover, referring to the 2000 Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe case.
A lawyer for the school district replied to FFRF on May 19, saying the district "will instruct those individuals providing announcements during football games, and other school sporting events, to refrain from reciting any prayer, Christian or otherwise," and promised corrective action if the instructions were disregarded.
The Denny's restaurant in Hawthorne, Calif., no longer privileges churchgoers with a church bulletin discount after FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell contacted the restaurant on Dec. 18 to complain about the civil rights violation.
Cavell informed the restaurant that the discount, 20% off for bringing in a church bulletin, violated federal and state laws providing that places of public accommodation cannot discriminate on the basis of religion.
A restaurant worker phoned Cavell on May 17 to report that the restaurant would no longer offer the discount.
A West Virginia school district changed its policies after FFRF objected to a Christian revival meeting held at one of its schools.
Evangelist Matt Hartley sermonized to students at Mingo Central High School in Williamson, W.Va., preaching to them about Jesus, mulling about whether being gay was a choice, and asserting that "God never made a mistake" in choosing a person's gender.
FFRF contacted the school district after receiving a complaint and the district quickly informed FFRF that it was revamping its policies governing such events.
"Steps have already been taken by the superintendent to ensure that such events will not occur in the future and that all staff are educated regarding the legal obligations of school systems when such issues arise," Denise Spatafore, legal counsel for Mingo County Schools, wrote back to FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott.
An employee at the Eau Claire district attorney's office in Wisconsin has removed an inappropriate religious message from the signature line of her official email address, thanks to FFRF. The signature read, in part, "Joyful, Prayerful, and Thankful – Thessalonians 5:16-17."
"It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district attorney's office or its agents to promote a religious message because doing so conveys government preference for religion over nonreligion," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in a May 10 letter.
The next day, the office's manager replied that the matter had been resolved.
Following an FFRF complaint, the Modesto City Schools in California will exercise more care in choosing music for students to perform.
One section of a Winter Concert held at La Loma Junior High School was overwhelmingly religious. Most of the songs were devotional Christian songs.
In a May 9 response to FFRF, a school official said that the La Loma chorus director had “agreed to be more careful in the songs he chooses for future concerts. He will ensure there is more variety in the music performed at each concert.”
The Genoa Area Local Schools in Genoa, Ohio, have removed a sign reading "Follow Christ" from Genoa High School, after receiving a letter from FFRF.
"It is unconstitutional for Genoa Area Local Schools to encourage its students to 'Follow Christ,' in effect encouraging non-Christian students to convert," said FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne on April 25.
The superintendent replied on May 5 saying the sign had been removed.
After FFRF lodged a complaint, the Palm Beach County School District in Florida is no longer partnering with a religious sports day camp, SportsTyme.
The group claims that it creates a sports environment that "leaves God in," including bible lessons. Previously, the district permitted SportsTyme to advertise on school grounds and reportedly helped sign up students for the religious camps.
On May 4, the district notified FFRF that SportsTyme updated its website to delete PBCSD schools from their list of "partners" and added a disclaimer noting that it was not affiliated with or endorsed by the school district.
A Tennessee school district is taking steps to ensure that state/church violations do not recur after hearing from FFRF about the violations.
A second-grade teacher at Highland Rim Elementary in Fayetteville, Tenn., helped students construct crosses as a class craft project. She also marked student assignments with a stamp that stated, "God Made You Special."
"Public schools have a duty to ensure that 'subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion' or use their positions of authority to promote a particular religious viewpoint, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Bill Heath, director of Lincoln County Schools.
Lincoln County Schools replied with a letter detailing a five-point action plan that the district is implementing.
A Nevada public school is no longer holding its graduation ceremonies inside a church, following an FFRF complaint.
For at least the past three years, Coral Academy of Science's eighth-grade promotion and senior graduation ceremonies had been performed in The Church at South Las Vegas, and it was scheduled to be the host again this year.
Coral Academy "will endeavor not to hold graduation ceremonies at that facility in the future, and has recently changed the site of its 2016 ceremonies from there to a secular venue on the UNLV campus," said Mark Gardberg, legal counsel for the school.
A Kentucky town will stop displaying an overtly religious nativity scene in response to an FFRF objection.
FFRF had notified the city of Walton a number of times that a Christmas nativity panorama on the City Hall lawn was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
After the December letter and a follow-up in April, FFRF has finally gotten an assurance that the town would take heed of the Constitution.
"I have discussed the legal issues raised in your correspondence dated Dec. 23, 2015, with Mayor Mark Carnahan and advised him accordingly," Walton City Attorney Timothy Noyes wrote back to FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne. "Based on that advice, the mayor indicated that future Christmas displays on city property, if any, will give due deference to existing law concerning separation of church and state."
FFRF has resolved yet another issue in Florida's Orange County Public Schools. The district, the 11th-largest in the country, is FFRF's most-contacted school district.
This time, the district is ensuring that JROTC ceremonies at East River High School will not include prayer. The 2016 JROTC Awards and Change of Command Ceremony included an invocation listed on the agenda. Attendees were asked to bow their heads, although ROTC students were told in advance that a prayer would be given and if they did not believe in "God or Jesus" that they "just need to stand there and be silent."
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to the district's two attorneys, pointing out that even in the context of a state military college with older students, a federal court "held that school officials may not compel students to participate in a religious activity."
OCPS General Counsel and frequent FFRF correspondent Diego "Woody" Rodriguez responded on April 26, confirming that the prayer occurred and that there would be none at future programs.
A West Aurora High School teacher has taken down religious ads she posted around her classroom after FFRF sent a letter of complaint.
One poster advertised "See You At The Pole," a Christian prayer event, that included bible quotes. Another poster advertised the school's student prayer club.
On April 25, the district superintendent informed FFRF that the postings had been removed after hearing from FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne.
The Silver Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees no longer prays at its meetings, thanks to action taken by FFRF.
On April 25, attorneys for the school district “decided to voluntarily discontinue its prior practice” of including invocations, after hearing from FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler.
An Oklahoma school district has assured FFRF that its students will not be attending a moralistic sermon.
The "Spring Tea" is a highly religious annual event in Muskogee. In March, hundreds of middle school girls were preached to on such issues as abstinence, teen pregnancy, sexting and sexually transmitted diseases. Among those attending were students from two public magnet schools in the Muskogee school district.
Last year, FFRF had sent a notice to the district asking them not to have any involvement with the occasion or face legal action. Officials had assured FFRF that the district would abstain, but the organization recently learned that this wasn't the case.
The school district responded that this was all due to a misunderstanding. Drummond explained that the main middle school had explicitly been instructed not to take part, but that the school district had neglected to notify the two public magnet schools. This oversight has now been rectified.
The Christian movie "Facing the Giants" will no longer be shown in South Dearborn Community Schools, thanks to a complaint lodged by FFRF.
The film follows a struggling high school football coach who inspires his team to believe in the Christian God and to use faith to win football games. South Dearborn Middle School reportedly had students watch it as a reward for finishing a test. When FFRF's complainants contacted the school, they were repeatedly told next time students would be allowed to opt out of watching such movies.
"The district may not require students to opt out of a movie screening, intended as a class reward, in order to avoid a school-sponsored religious message," wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne.
The school principal replied promptly, assuring FFRF that the film will not be shown again, and the school would "make sure that any film shown remains neutral toward religion."
FFRF has had an ex-con proselytizer barred from a Florida school district.
Hillsborough County Public Schools had allowed a Fellowship of Christian Athletes representative, David Gaskill, who has a criminal record, to interact and proselytize with its students without restriction. Gaskill had been involved with the district’s sports programs since at least 2014 and appeared to be the schools’ sports chaplain.
FFRF had asked that Gaskill be immediately disallowed from Hillsborough schools. There are serious privacy issues when schools let outside adults pose for “selfies” and pictures with students, including with their arms draped around shirtless students, FFRF contended. The schools also permitted Gaskill to meet with students in “intimate locker room” settings with no other adults present.
Students at David Crockett High School in Jonesborough, Tenn., will no longer be compelled to perform "contemporary Christian concerts" as a part of their public school music instruction after hearing from FFRF.
FFRF received a report that music teacher Kelly Sams conducted blatantly Christian concerts, frequently performed in a church. The concerts consisted mainly of contemporary Christian music.
"These songs have devotional messages that would be appropriate in a church setting, but not in a public school," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a letter to the Washington County Schools.
The county attorney replied to FFRF on April 20, reporting that the superintendent and school principal had met with Sams, advising her that "holding a 'contemporary Christian concert' which contained solely religious songs was not consistent with" school policy.
The Indian River County School District in Florida has instituted changes after FFRF contacted the district with reports of several constitutional violations.
The Vero Beach High School football and baseball teams reportedly employed a chaplain, pastor Joe Moore, who was also the director of the Indian River County Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Football players and cheerleaders participated in prayer breakfasts at First Baptist Church alongside their coaches. The breakfasts frequently involved ministers preaching to students.
In an April 19 response to FFRF, the district's lawyer stated that "the superintendent discovered a few employees who did not understand their duties and obligations regarding student prayer at school, and has corrected those misunderstandings. The superintendent has also reminded all principals at all schools regarding public employee duties and obligations involving student prayer at school."
FFRF recently complained to the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District about the nearly $600,000 in grants it gave in 2013-14 to Ecclesia College in Springdale, Ark., an overtly religious institution.
Of the seven majors the college offers, five are theologically based; of its 14 emphases, nine are Christian. Students are promised they will be taught everything from a "biblical perspective" in a "biblical-based classroom."
FFRF sought assurance that the district would not allocate money in the future to Ecclesia College or other religious outfits. Joe Willis, executive director of the agency, promised in his reply to "make certain" that all future grants "will not be used to advance a religious purpose or cause."
A Wisconsin elementary school principal has been instructed to stop imposing his religious beliefs on staff, students and parents.
The principal of Elm Lawn Elementary School in Middleton, Wis., reportedly prayed in front of teachers, students and parents while addressing disciplinary issues, and gave a devotional book to at least one parent during a student consultation.
FFRF lodged a complaint with the Middleton-Cross Plains School District on Jan. 11.
"It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for district administrators to distribute religious literature or to handle disciplinary issues by praying in front of students," Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne told the superintendent.
On April 14, the superintendent told FFRF that "the principal in question was informed of [the district's] expectations."
Tri County Area School District in Sand Lake, Mich., is making changes to a religious club that was previously run unconstitutionally.
Tri County High School's First Priority club, a Christian club, was often attended by a music teacher and a local pastor, in violation of the Equal Access Act. The music teacher also promoted the club in her classroom, even reportedly distributing fliers to students at lunch and telling them to take a flier because they "need Jesus."
An attorney for the school district wrote back on April 11, telling FFRF that it would ensure staff members would only participate as monitors in student-led religious clubs, and outside persons would not attend the clubs.
A Texas public school district will stop preachers sermonizing during compulsory employee events, following a complaint by FFRF.
The Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District held a mandatory district-wide convocation at First Baptist Church of Euless on Aug. 14. During the event, Scott Sheppard, executive director of 6 Stones Ministries, led the assembled employees in a prayer. Sheppard reportedly admitted that he wasn't supposed to pray in his speech, but said that because "y'all are in my house," he was going to pray anyway.
The district's attorney, Deron Robinson, replied last month to assure FFRF that "the district administration has taken appropriate measures" to make certain future speakers are reminded of the district's policy and practice to not promote a specific religion."
FFRF has stopped a Garrettsville, Ohio, public school teacher from promoting creationism in his classroom.
In January, Garfield High School biology teacher Gregory Walker taught a lesson on creationism/intelligent design as a precursor to a unit on evolution. Walker had four crosses on display during the lesson.
"As a matter of fact, there has never been evidence of macroevolution," he said in a statement. "You can look at any fossil you want. There is no correlation, no go-between, from any organism to another. Ask any scientist."
"Teaching creationism or any of its offshoots, such as intelligent design, in a public school, is unlawful, because creationism is not based on fact," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in a letter last month to Ted Lysiak, superintendent of the James A. Garfield School District.
"It's agreed that Walker will no longer teach intelligent design and the science involved in it," Lysiak writes.
Thanks to persistent action by FFRF, the Kings Canyon Unified School District Governing Board in Reedley, Calif., will no longer pray at its meetings.
FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler first objected to the practice in November 2015.
Superintendent Juan Garza replied on Feb. 24, informing FFRF that the board had passed a new invocation policy. The policy attempted to set up a system like that approved by the Supreme Court for local government bodies in its Greece v. Galloway case, and contained inclusive language, but still allowed for prayer at school board meetings.
"School-sanctioned prayer, even in the new, slightly more removed context, is unconstitutional," wrote Ziegler in a second letter on April 7. "Federal courts ruling on the matter have agreed that school boards fall within the school context, not in the realm of other government meetings."
On May 3, Garza informed FFRF that "the district has decided to discontinue its practice of invocation."
Gideons will now be forced to abide by the same literature distribution rules as all other groups in Georgia's Whitfield County Schools following an FFRF complaint.
A district parent said representatives of the men's ministry handed out bibles to Westside Elementary School students on Nov. 10, 2015.
FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote a letter to the district on March 28, informing the district of the unconstitutionality of the Gideons handing out bibles.
In an April 1 email, Superintendent Judy Gilreath informed FFRF that principals are told each year that they cannot allow Gideons on campus to distribute bibles, but may place a table in their schools where, without discrimination, people and organizations can place literature, unattended, for students to pick up.
After hearing from FFRF, the Conroe Independent School District in Conroe, Texas, has instructed the principal of Vogel Intermediate School to stop proselytizing to her employees.
An employee reported that the principal regularly sent emails with religious content, and even placed notes in each employee's personal mailbox with the message, "Jesus died for you."
On March 29, the district responded, denying all allegations, but stating that the principal had been provided with a guide to religion in the public schools to use during teacher in-service training at the beginning of the next school year, and would reinforce with the staff their obligation to remain neutral toward religion.
FFRF persuaded the central library in Madison, Wis., to serve patrons on Easter Sunday.
FFRF had contacted Madison library staff last year to emphasize that Easter Sunday was neither a federal nor a Wisconsin holiday, and that the library was open otherwise on Sundays.
"It is unconstitutional and inappropriate for city libraries to close on this Christian holy day," FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Library Director Greg Mickells last May.
The library was open on Easter, where it did heavy business, and will remain open in future years.
FFRF has made an Ohio public school teacher stop sermonizing to her students.
Green Middle School teacher Kelli Hunka was assigning religious projects to her students every month. In January, for instance, she had students "write and illustrate a prayer for the new year," while recently she asked students to "illustrate Isaiah 11:6."
"These assignments are not part of a study of comparative religion or the history of religion, but rather provide lessons in Christianity," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in early March.
Hunka "has been instructed not to use any materials containing the religious references mentioned in your letter," Mary Jo Shannon Slick, legal counsel for the schools, recently replied, adding that Hunka had assured Green Local Schools Supervisor Jeff Miller she would abide by the directive.
The Portage Area Regional Transportation Authority in Ohio has agreed to FFRF's request that it cease weekly sponsorship of a religious advertisement in a local paper.
The ad, printed each Saturday in the Record-Courier with text promoting Christianity and a "Scripture Reading" selected by the American Bible Society, listed PARTA as a sponsor. "It is unconstitutional for PARTA to pay for a religious advertisement, or to endorse religion," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in a letter to the organization.
On March 15, PARTA notified FFRF that it had directed the newspaper to ensure that PARTA ads no longer appeared in religion-themed sections.
An inspector from North Carolina's License & Theft Bureau will no longer use a biblical verse as her email signature after FFRF contacted the department.
Her email signature included, "For the one in authority is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. Romans 13:4."
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott called the department's attention to the signature in a letter dated Sept. 18, 2015. The department's human resources director responded March 8, informing FFRF that the employee removed the quote from her email signature.
Shelby County School District in Alabama is taking steps to ensure no further inappropriate religious assemblies occur in its schools.
Presenters from Word of Life Redemption were permitted to hold assemblies at Montevallo High School and Montevallo Middle School on Feb. 12. The group lists its mission as "to influence students in schools and youth groups throughout the nation and to 'make a difference' in today's youth culture through music, drama, and worship that glorifies God and brings people to the cross."
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the district on March 2, and on March 8, Superintendent Randy Fuller responded, noting that the district considered the incident a serious matter and was already addressing it with administrators.
Faith Memorial Church in Lancaster, Ohio, participated in bible study groups in a number of local public schools. The church listed such groups in eight public schools in its vicinity, including four high schools. Most of the clubs met during the schools' lunch breaks and were run by adults, according to the church's webpage (since taken down).
The courts have clearly decided over the years that public schools cannot advance, prefer or promote religion.
FFRF recently received a response from legal counsel for the four districts where the public schools are located. In its reply, the firm told FFRF that in the future any bible study clubs would conform to the law. "Principals are making sure that students leading bible study clubs are conducting those groups within the parameters of the Equal Access Act," the March 2 letter stated.
FFRF has ensured that members of the Interfaith Club at Bob Jones High School will be permitted to hold meetings on any topic of their choosing, after Madison City Schools Assistant Superintendent Robby Parker prohibited discussion of Satanism, the planned topic at one of the club's meetings.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover contacted the district's attorney on Feb. 17, noting that it's unlawful for a school to deny students the right to meet based on the "religious, political philosophical or other content of the speech at such meetings."
The district's attorney responded March 2, saying that administrators and other employees "will take all necessary steps to ensure that schools in the city of Madison comply with the statute."
The Jacksonville City Schools in Alabama has assured FFRF that the district's automated phone system will not again be used to inform parents of religious events.
Last summer, community members reportedly received calls and text messages from the school system to inform them of and invite them to prayer walks being held at the district.
"Future use of this phone system will be appropriate and within the guidelines of the law," Superintendent Mark Peterson wrote in response.
At the Cleveland County School District in Rison, Ark., the district superintendent confirmed to FFRF that the Gideons would no longer distribute bibles to students in classrooms at Rison Elementary School, and that the Gideon representatives would no longer be allowed to speak with students about their mission.
"Courts have uniformly held that the distribution of bibles to students at school is prohibited because it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott. "When a school distributes religious literature to its students, or permits evangelists to do so, it entangles itself with a religious message."
The Plano Independent School District Board of Trustees has dropped Christian invocations from its meetings in favor of "nonsectarian inspirational messages" after hearing from FFRF.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover first wrote on Dec. 7, 2015, informing the board, "It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings."
When an attorney for the school district replied that the district did not intend to change its practices, Grover sent a rebuttal letter on Jan. 22. He pointed out that several courts have held that prayers at school board meetings differ from the legislative prayers that the U.S. Supreme Court has approved of, and that even in the legislative context, legislators themselves are not permitted to lead the prayers as the trustees were doing here.
In a Feb. 26 response, the Plano Board of Trustees attorney maintained his disagreement, but wrote, "Notwithstanding our disagreement, going forward the Plano ISD School Board intends on opening its meetings with nonsectarian inspirational messages delivered by board members."
Shelby County, Ohio, is no longer displaying an Appeal to Heaven flag in a county building after hearing from FFRF.
Members of the Appeal to Heaven movement "honor the Lord by networking elected officials who are believers in Jesus Christ, who regularly attend and display a commitment to an evangelical, Gospel-centered church and who will commit to live and govern based on biblical . . . principles."
"This mission is clearly sectarian, and displaying the flag is a tacit endorsement of evangelical Christianity," wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in a letter to the county.
On Feb. 25, the Shelby County Commissioners notified FFRF that the flag had been removed.
The coach of the Cannon County High School football team in Woodbury, Tenn., will no longer be permitted to conduct religious activities with his students.
The coach previously had taken his team to attend area churches for "team building," and also brought in a speaker to give the team a devotional with "faith-based life lessons" the day before every game.
FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter of complaint to the Cannon County School District on Nov. 24, 2015. The district "cannot allow a nonschool adult access to the children in its charge, and it certainly cannot grant that access to a religious speaker seeking to organize prayer for the students," Markert wrote.
On Feb. 25, Director of Schools Barbara N. Parker responded saying the issues have been resolved.
The Sylvan-Unified School District 299 in Sylvan Grove, Kan., will no longer permit the teaching of creationism.
A student contacted FFRF to relate that a science teacher at Sylvan-Lucas Junior/Senior High School had long been teaching creationism and presenting her biology students with "evidence" against evolution. The teacher's lesson plans listed "Arguements [sic] against Evolution notes" for two class periods, and she showed a video called "Unlocking the Mystery of Life," which claims that the universe "can only be explained by intelligent design."
"Teaching creationism or any of its offshoots, such as intelligent design, in a public school is unlawful, because creationism is not based in fact. Courts have routinely found that such teachings are religious, despite many new and imaginative labels given to the alternatives," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a Feb. 9 letter to the district superintendent.
On Feb. 22, FFRF received a response from the district. Superintendent Jude Stecklein said the district investigated the situation and informed the teacher that she can no longer teach creationism.
The Columbia Borough School District in Columbia, Pa., will not hold events in church any longer.
Last year, Columbia High School required graduating students to attend a graduation practice in a Christian church to receive caps and gowns, as well as information about the ceremony. FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler objected to the constitutional violation in a July 22, 2015, letter.
After FFRF followed up with the district twice, an acting superintendent for the district informed FFRF that the previous superintendent had recently resigned, and he had only just seen FFRF's letters. He apologized for the district's lack of response, confirmed that the situation had happened as FFRF described, and stated that he immediately directed the high school principal to cease the practice of distributing important graduation information in a church.
FFRF made a Pennsylvania public school discontinue graduation practice inside a church.
Columbia High School last year required its students to receive their graduation caps and gowns and ceremony information within a church.
School districts that have used churches for school functions have had the practice struck down by courts.
"A school's use of a church for school functions is problematic because it sends a message of approval of the church to impressionable students," FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote in a letter last July to Carol Powell, then-superintendent of the Columbia Borough School District.
On receiving no reply, Ziegler followed up with two more letters in November and last month. Finally, FFRF got a response a few weeks ago from Acting Superintendent Ken Klawitter, who took over in December. Klawitter told the organization that he first became aware of the issue through its February letter and acted swiftly.
"I immediately directed the high school principal to cease the practice," he wrote. "In the future, caps and gowns, as well as important graduation information, will be distributed in a secular setting."
Kettle Falls Middle School in Washington has taken down a picture reading "In God We Trust" over the backdrop of an American flag, after FFRF complained.
FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to the Kettle Falls School District on Nov. 23, 2015. "This posting falsely equates patriotism with piety," she contended. "Young, impressionable students are apt to believe that the school endorses the religious message of the poster."
On Feb. 18, the district superintendent informed FFRF that the picture had been removed.
In California, Lake Elsinore Unified School District's "Student of the Month" luncheons with the local Chamber of Commerce will no longer be religious events, and a praying coach has been taken to task.
The monthly lunches that honored students for their academic achievements took place on school property and were attended by school staff and government officials. They also typically included a Christian prayer, and, one year, Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ was given to the honorees.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the school district on July 23, 2015, asking the district to "discontinue prayer and the distribution of religious literature at future school-sponsored activities."
The district replied on Aug. 20, claiming that the Student of the Month events were not sponsored by the district. Seidel rebutted the letter on Sept. 15, pointing out that district employees were "volunteer administrators" and the district was thanked in the programs as a sponsor.
On Feb. 12, the district informed FFRF that changes had been made to the Student of the Month ceremonies. The district is no longer a sponsor, it vowed not to mandate or encourage student participation in prayers, and the chamber agreed to implement a "secular inspirational message" in lieu of prayer.
The district also noted that it had directed the Elsinore High School football coach to refrain from requiring prayer and participating in student prayers.
The La Mesa-Spring Valley School District will no longer include prayers at graduation ceremonies.
FFRF objected to the practice in a Jan. 14 letter. "The Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations," Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the district.
On Feb. 10, the district said that "steps have been taken to ensure that prayers or prayer-like speeches are not held at school-sponsored activities in the future."
FFRF has again ensured that staff at Akron Public Schools in Ohio will not be permitted to wear "Jesus Is My Hero" T-shirts in school. FFRF first dealt with the shirts in 2013, which promoted the Buchtel Community Learning Center's athletic program.
The district notified all staff in October of 2013 that wearing the donated shirts was a violation of policy. "Unfortunately," said Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a letter to the district's attorney, "I'm writing again because our complainant informs us that these T-shirts have made appearances once again, worn by coaches at football practices."
On Feb. 9, the district's attorney told Markert that the district's athletic director and the school principal were notified, and told staff "that, while acting in their official capacity as school officials, they are prohibited from engaging in actions that could be seen as an endorsement of religion, in violation of board policy."
The Morgan County Schools in Alabama have reminded a coach and a band director to keep state and church separate after FFRF stepped in with a written complaint.
A Danville High School student informed FFRF that, after the end of football games, the team's coaches gathered the players together at the center of the field and led both teams in a Christian prayer. In addition, the drum major, on the instruction of the band director, led prayers at the halftime of each game and at practices.
"It is, of course, unconstitutional for public school athletic coaches or band directors to lead students in prayer, participate in student-led prayer, or instruct students to lead prayers," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover in a letter to the district.
An attorney for the school district informed Grover by email on Feb. 8 that the coaches and band director had "been told of their obligations to remain neutral, including that they should not organize or direct students in prayer."
After receiving a complaint from FFRF, the River View Local School District in Warsaw, Ohio, also will no longer permit the Gideons to distribute bibles.
Students were reportedly separated into groups who wanted and did not want to receive bibles. The children who elected not to take one were instructed to wait in a separate line until the Gideons were finished distributing bibles to other students.
"Public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion and to protect the rights of conscience of young and impressionable students," wrote Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a letter originally sent June 5, 2015.
The district finally informed FFRF on Feb. 8 that it would not permit the distribution of bibles on school property.
The public library system in Madison, Wis. decided in February not to close its central downtown branch for a March private event for the Dalai Lama. FFRF, whose office is located across the street from the library, was one of the community voices objecting to the planned event.
"We write to express concerns that granting this proposal would raise the appearance of government-religion entanglement, and also would be a disservice to the local community," said FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in a letter to the library's board of directors.
The board unanimously voted the proposal down on Feb. 4.
FFRF had warned the Duval County School Board in Florida in January that the Seacoast Charter Academy seemed like a thinly disguised religious establishment.
The institution, which was run as part of a private Christian school for almost 20 years, became a kindergarten to fifth-grade charter entity in 2011 for financial reasons.
Also, Seacoast hosted a Veterans Day program inside the academy's auditorium, which features a large Latin cross at center stage and lots of religious iconography. It is also used for Seacoast's chapel services, so it serves the same role as a church.
"We're pleased the school district investigated and issued the default," said FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. "Both the district and FFRF will continue to monitor these schools."
The Holy Land Experience, located in Orlando, painted a mural on a retaining wall that turns the corner from Interstate 4 in the direction of the religious amusement park. This interchange and retaining wall are government property that the Florida Department of Transportation maintains, and Holy Land sought no permits or permission to put up the mural.
The mural featured religious imagery, showing two angels unrolling a scroll that signifies humankind. The message conveyed was that God created us all — an inescapably religious notion, says FFRF.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Florida public officials last November when FFRF was alerted to the mural by its local chapter, the Central Florida Freethought Community.
FFRF has learned that the Holy Land Experience has finally painted over the mural in a neutral tan color.
The superintendent of Dalton Local Schools in Ohio will no longer post religious messages on his official school Twitter feed, after FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote the school district's attorney a letter on Jan. 25, 2016. The tweets called for prayer, encouraged belief in God, and promoted Christian church events. "Anyone viewing this school-sponsored Twitter feed would understand that the superintendent is endorsing his personal religion over all others," said Jayne.
Attorney Susan C. Hastings responded on Feb. 2 informing FFRF that the superintendent would establish a separate Twitter account for personal communications.
The Johnson City Police Department in Tennessee is taking steps to ensure it is abiding by the Constitution regarding its "Adopt-a-Cop" program.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter on Dec. 8 objecting to the program, in which community members "adopt" a police officer, and includes praying for the officer every day.
In a Feb. 2 response, an attorney for the department acknowledged that the department could have done more "to dispel the public's perception that the department itself was operating and 'pushing' this program," and assured FFRF that the department recognized its obligation to separate church and state.
Officials in Itawamba County, Miss., removed a courthouse display of the Ten Commandments in response to a recent letter from FFRF.
"The Ten Commandments display violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution," FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott stated in the Jan. 27 letter. "The religious message of the Ten Commandments is obvious. By placing this display directly inside the county's governmental offices, the county is unmistakably sending the message that it gives the display its stamp of approval."
Elliott added that the government's biblical display was striking a blow against religious liberty, forcing taxpayers of all faiths—and of no faith—to support a particular expression of worship.
On Feb. 1, county supervisors agreed to modify the presentation, according to news reports.
FFRF appreciates the supervisors' decision to get rid of the Ten Commandments, but voiced concerns about the substitution.
"We're pleased that the county's unconstitutional Ten Commandments display will be removed from the courthouse," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "But it's regrettable that the county supervisors sought out another religious statement to replace the Ten Commandments. Elected officials should not use their government position and government buildings as a place for promoting their religious views."
A Michigan public school softball coach will no longer lead team members in prayer.
In May 2015, FFRF sent a letter to North Branch Area Schools Superintendent Thomas English alerting him that high school softball coach Willie Deshetsky was leading his team members in prayer. FFRF sent English photos of Deshetsky's team prayerfully holding hands with him.
"It is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their team in prayer," FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote.
FFRF finally received a response in February informing the organization that the coach had been asked to desist.
"Coach Willie Deshetsky was officially informed he cannot organize, advocate or lead the softball team in prayer," North Branch Athletic Director James Fish said in his reply.
And at West Orange-Stark Elementary School in Orange, Texas, FFRF got involved when it had heard from parents that bibles were being handed out to students.
"There is no excuse or justification for this practice. It is unnecessary, offensive and illegal," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote in a Jan. 6 letter to West Orange-Cove School District Superintendent Rickie Harris.
In a response dated Feb. 1, lawyers for the school district said that they had counseled the school about the rules governing such issues. "We anticipate no further issues in the future," the legal firm stated.
Seniors at the Easton Area Lifestyle Campus in Easton, Pa., will no longer be subjected to prayers by center staff. Previously, staff recited prayers, asked people to join in an "amen" chorus accompanied by piano, and sung Christian hymns.
"Federal regulations prohibit senior centers receiving federal funding to engage in religious activities at government-sponsored functions such as senior lunches," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel on Jan. 12 in a letter to the center.
On Jan. 29, FFRF received a response from the Northampton County Department of Human Services, noting that it had distributed a policy memo to the county's senior centers. The memo said that "all senior centers operated by the county of Northampton, or funded even partially by funds from the [Area Agency on Aging] are, effective immediately, precluded from offering prayers."
FFRF recently got a Kentucky school district to stop a public high school football coach from leading his team in prayer.
Last September, FFRF had sent a letter to the Bowling Green City Schools asking that Coach Kevin Wallace cease from having his team worship before games. The complaint included a photo of Wallace with his students in a prayer circle, as well as his quote in the local paper acknowledging that he was engaged in the practice.
In a follow-up letter last month, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert expressed concern that the school district had failed to take any action.
Finally, FFRF received a response in March from Bowling Green Independent Schools Superintendent Gary Fields acknowledging the receipt of the two letters. "I have addressed the concerns contained in your letters and consider the matter to be resolved," Fields replied.
In response to an FFRF complaint, North Township, Mich., will be careful to avoid all religion in future events it sponsors with religious entities.
On Sept. 11, 2015, the Northfield Township Police Department sent an e-mail to local residents promoting a Kids' Day event. A local church that co-sponsored the event wrote the content of the e-mail, which included religious sentiments like "Christ wishes to save all of us."
"The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits government sponsorship of religious messages," wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in the letter. "The government violates this principle of neutrality."
The township manager responded on Jan. 27, saying that he typically tells the church that co-sponsored events must be free from religion, and would speak with the police chief to make sure it would not happen again.
FFRF has ensured that Gideons will not be allowed to distribute bibles to West Side Elementary School students in Woodbury, Tenn.
In response to a parent’s complaint that a teacher invited the Gideons to distribute bibles and speak to students about the book, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to the Cannon County School District on June 8, 2015. “When a school distributes religious literature to its students, or permits evangelists to distribute religious literature to its students, it entangles itself with that religious message,” said Markert.
FFRF followed up with the district in September, but did not receive a response until Jan. 27, when the director of schools e-mailed a reply saying, “The Gideon bible distribution complaint has been addressed. I am sure there will be no further concerns with this issue.”
The Lee County Sheriff's Office in Alabama will no longer be part of the sponsors page of a Christian memorial book titled "Lift Up Thine Eyes," thanks to FFRF.
The book, which a funeral home provides for the grieving, features colored illustrations of iconic bible stories. "We write to ensure that the Sheriff's Office ceases its sponsorship of this Christian book, which creates the appearance that the office endorses Christianity over all minority faiths and over nonreligion," said FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover in a letter to the Opelika, Ala., law enforcement agency.
Sheriff Jay Jones phoned FFRF on Jan. 26, informing Grover that the wording in the book had been changed to reflect that the sponsorship was made by him personally, and not by the department.
FFRF was able to stop an employee of Meals on Wheels from proselytizing, which then prompted a permanent policy of non-proselytization for California's Contra Costa County division of the group.
FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to the organization's CEO on Jan. 19 to report a Meals on Wheels employee who "aggressively promotes religion while in [a] recipient's home, despite being repeatedly asked to stop because the recipient is not religious."
Jayne pointed out that Meals on Wheels receives federal funding, which means it is subject to regulations prohibiting "inherently religious activities, such as . . . proselytization." Jayne also pointed out that program recipients "are in a vulnerable position and should not be forced to endure religious proselytizing in order to receive benefits."
Meals on Wheels CEO Elaine Clark called FFRF on Jan. 26 and said she was supportive of FFRF's concerns and that proselytizing is very much against the group's policy. Clark placed a disciplinary note in the employee's file, and pledged to fire her if she continued to proselytize. In addition, after noticing that the handbook given to drivers doesn't specifically address proselytizing, Clark said she would update it right away.
After FFRF complained, Wichita Public Schools is taking steps to ensure no further inappropriate bible distributions will happen on its grounds.
On Nov. 1, 2015, several members of the Gideons, a Christian men's group, handed out bibles to East High School students as they got off their buses. "The district may not allow Gideons, or any other religious groups, to enter school property to distribute religious literature," wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a Dec. 3 letter. "In allowing Gideons to distribute bibles to students, the district is impermissibly endorsing religion by placing its 'stamp of approval' on the religious messages contained in the bible."
Seidel acknowledged that the district may have had no prior knowledge of the distribution because Gideons "operate by deliberately avoiding superintendents and school boards. They advise their members to seek permission at the lowest level of authority." In a response on Jan. 22, the district's attorney said that this was the case, and acknowledged that "neutrality commands that the Gideons not be permitted to distribute bibles on school property."
After FFRF stepped in, Alabama's Blount County Schools has stopped having students read a bible verse over the PA each morning.
"A daily bible reading, even by a student, violates the Constitution," said FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in his Jan. 7 letter to the school district's attorney.
In addition, religious messages were regularly posted on the school walls. In response, some freethinking students put up posters saying "God's not real," which were torn down and replaced with further religious posters. "Given the law, and the acrimony caused by this poster battle, the prudent course is to remove all religious and irreligious posters from the school," wrote Seidel.
FFRF's complainant reported on Jan. 13 that the bible readings had stopped and all religious posters were removed. In addition, after students proposed a secular club, the school took the drastic move of banning all non-curricular clubs. In response, students started a science club.
FFRF has gotten the Ten Commandments and other religious displays removed from the walls of Mansfield High School in Mansfield, Ark.
In addition to the decalogue, pictures with bible quotes lined classrooms and hallways. "Courts have continually held that school districts may not display religious messages or iconography in public schools," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott on Jan. 13.
The Mansfield School District's attorney wrote back the next day, saying simply, "The objects you identified have been removed."
Sunset Elementary School in Anadarko, Okla., has taken down a framed picture titled "The First Prayer in Congress" from the school office after receiving a letter from FFRF. The portrait showed members of the Continental Congress with heads bowed in prayer during a September 1774 session.
"This picture depicts an obscure historical event, which makes it seem likely that it was chosen for display because of its religious significance and not its historical significance," wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. "This is especially true if one understands the actual history: that the preacher, Jacob Duché, was a traitor to the revolution who fled to England after slandering the Congress he led in prayer."
Seidel pointed out that the prayer was opposed by the first two chief justices of the Supreme Court because, as John Adams said, "We were so divided in religious sentiments." By Adams' admission, the prayer was approved for its political value, Seidel wrote. In addition, Duché was opposed to American independence, vilifying the Continental Congress and calling soldiers cowards. "Is this really a man to be venerated in a public school or ought he to rank with the other traitor of that era, Benedict Arnold?" Seidel asked.
An Anadarko School District representative informed FFRF on Jan. 12 that the district decided to remove the print.
The Albany High School football team in Minnesota will no longer be subjected to prayers led by their coaches, following a complaint lodged by FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott.
Elliott wrote to Albany Area Schools on Dec. 21, 2015. Citing a litany of cases, Elliott noted that the Supreme Court had repeatedly "struck down school-sponsored prayer because it constitutes a government advancement and endorsement of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment."
Superintendent Greg Johnson responded promptly to notify FFRF he was looking into the matter. On Jan. 11, Johnson thanked Elliot for the letter and assured FFRF that the school district had investigated and "taken appropriate steps to ensure that any coach involvement with prayer activities will not occur."
After FFRF objected to a Vermont board's proposal to give a grant to a church, the church has rescinded its request. The Waitsfield Select Board had voted to place an item on the Town Meeting ballot in March 2016 to give $1,500 to the Waitsfield United Church of Christ.
"The government may not fund projects for religious worship," wrote Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne on Dec. 8. Jayne also pointed out that the Vermont Constitution prohibits funding of places of worship.
A Valley Reporter article published Dec. 24 said that to avoid controversy, the church representatives withdrew their request at the board's Dec. 21 meeting — though not before castigating FFRF's complainant for inviting "this crackpot Midwestern group into the discussion."
In Pennsylvania, the York County prison system's website featured a direct link to the website of Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, a Christian organization, despite the fact that several other organizations operate in the prison. However, the county stopped promoting the group on its website after FFRF got involved.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover contended that posting the link solely to one organization "creates the impression that the county impermissibly favors the ministry's religious message, which violates the Establishment Clause."
FFRF's complainant reported on Dec. 20 that the county had removed the link.
After FFRF sent a complaint, Barnum Public Schools in Minnesota will no longer allow evangelists access to students at school.
Adults affiliated with the evangelical Christian group Campus Life had been permitted to come into the lunchroom weekly to recruit students to come to church events, a Barnum High School student told FFRF. The group states is purpose as to “minister in the name of Jesus.”
“The presence of Campus Life ministers in the school supports their mission of proselytizing,” said Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott in a Dec. 16 letter. “No religious organization should have direct access to students at school. This predatory conduct should raise red flags, especially since these adults are conversing with students without parental knowledge.”
Superintendent David J. Bottem responded promptly on Dec. 18, informing FFRF that the district had severed its relationship with Campus Life, “effective immediately.”
Next holiday season, the city of Belle Plaine, Minn., will not allow a longstanding nativity scene on public land as it previously had. A local church will display it instead.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott and Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne sent the city a letter of complaint on Dec. 15 to protest the nativity display, which the city allowed the Rotary Club to place on the lawn of the police department for at least 60 years. In addition to pointing out the legal issues with the nativity, FFRF requested to put up its own banner if the nativity was not removed. The request was granted, although FFRF's banner was later stolen.
FFRF's local complainant reported on Dec. 17 that the Rotary had been told it would have to move the nativity from 2016 onward.
Teacher-led prayers are no longer part of the lunch hour at Alpha Charter School in Garland, Texas, thanks to action taken by the FFRF.
A parent reported their child's second-grade teacher to FFRF for leading her students in prayer every day before lunch. The school principal had not taken action despite being made aware of the situation.
Public schools "must not promote decidedly religious messages to a captive student audience, thereby isolating and excluding those students who are non-Christian or nonreligious," Staff Attorney Sam Grover told the school. Grover also pointed to FFRF's recent successful lawsuit against praying teachers in Emanuel County, Ga., declaring, "FFRF is committed to defending the rights of students in public schools. Given how young and impressionable these students are, this violation of the law is particularly egregious."
The school responded on Dec. 17, saying that they had investigated the situation and met with the teacher in question, who now "understands her responsibility in regards to separation of church and state."
The Appleton Area School District in Wisconsin is taking steps to ensure that a Christian club is truly student-run.
FFRF learned that Appleton East High School circulated a flyer for a religious student club, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but listed a teacher's school email and cell phone number as the contact. "We are writing to ensure that the FCA is entirely student-initiated and student-run, as required by federal law," wrote Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in a Dec. 7 letter to the school district. "In our experience, adults often organize and participate in FCA events. If the FCA club is not student-initiated and student-run, AEHS should dissolve it."
"School and district administration have met with the FCA supervisor and reviewed FCA meeting practices for club operations," wrote Superintendent Lee Allinger in an emailed reply on Dec. 17. "We also took this opportunity to reinforce legal and district requirements."
Allinger also stated that the objectionable flyers had been removed and future flyers would not contain supervisor contact information, and thanked FFRF for sharing its concerns.
Good News Club meetings will no longer take place during the school day in the Lincoln County School District in Newport, Ore., after FFRF got involved in December 2015.
The Good News Club, an evangelical Christian children's ministry, was previously allowed to meet at several elementary schools during lunch. FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler informed the superintendent, "It is illegal for the district to allow the Good News Club to meet at schools during the school day."
Ziegler pointed to the McCollum Supreme Court case holding that bible classes in public school were unconstitutional, in which the court said, "Here not only are the state's tax-supported public school buildings used for the dissemination of religious doctrines. The state also affords sectarian groups an invaluable aid in that it helps to provide pupils for their religious classes though use of the state's compulsory public school machinery. This is not separation of Church and State."
On Dec. 15, Superintendent Steve Boynton told Ziegler the School Board had revised its rules on community use of school district facilities, and would restrict access to schools by non-school groups during school hours. FFRF's parent complainant confirmed that Boynton presented the changes at the January School Board meeting.
A painted nativity display was removed and replaced with a secular display in the window of the Rupert Post Office in Idaho after FFRF lodged a complaint.
Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler protested the display, which also included the words "Christmas begins with Christ," in a Dec. 4 letter to the postmaster. "United States postal regulations prohibit the display of religious materials, other than stamp art, on postal property," Ziegler wrote. Furthermore, "by displaying a nativity scene and religious statement on its grounds, the Rupert Post Office is illegally demonstrating a preference for religion over nonreligion, and Christianity over all other faiths."
On Dec. 14, FFRF's complainant reported that the religious scene had been removed, and had been repainted with a display reading "Peace on earth, good will toward men." (Maybe next year they'll include women!)
The Alden Post Office in Michigan has removed religious propaganda from the counter in the lobby following a complaint from FFRF. Proselytizing materials subtitled "Evidence for God's Existence and Identity" had been regularly available in the lobby.
Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to Postmaster Lynnette Derror on Nov. 23, quoting postal regulations providing that no literature other than official postal materials could be deposited anywhere on postal premises, and regulations prohibiting the display of religious materials.
On Dec. 3, Derror said she had posted Post Office regulations and "will take steps to insure that there is no literature on the counter daily."
After persuading the Frisco Independent School District in Texas to remove a sign reading "Pray more, worry less" from the Roach Middle School front office in September, FFRF has prompted the district to remove further unconstitutional religious displays from district property.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a complaint to the district on Nov. 19 to object to religious displays in the school district's Student Opportunity Center. One sign read, "The will of God will never take you where the Grace of God will not protect you," while another proclaimed that "Prayer does not change God – it changes me." The office also contained two crosses with scriptural quotes on them. "All students deserve to learn in an environment free from religious proselytization and endorsement," Grover wrote.
The district's attorney informed Grover on Dec. 2 that the displays had been removed, and that all staff had been reminded to ensure there were no religious displays on school grounds.
After years of prayers "in Jesus' name" at Missouri's Montgomery County R-II School District faculty meetings, FFRF has ensured that future meetings will be secular.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott called the prayers "unnecessary and divisive," pointing out that they alienate non-Christian and nonbelieving employees. "Their participation in these mandatory meetings is adversely affected by these types of prayers, which turn them into outsiders in their own community and workplace," he wrote.
An attorney for the school district wrote on Dec. 2, saying the district had taken measures to comply with the law regarding religious endorsement at district events.
A Colorado county clerk has removed an overtly religious poster from the office where citizens, including same-sex couples, get their marriage licenses, following a complaint by FFRF.
The poster was removed the day after FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel asked Elbert County Clerk Dallas Schroeder to put him in touch with his attorney.
"We're glad that the poster, which was meant to intimidate LGBT citizens and promote Schroeder's personal religion, has been removed from government property," Seidel said. "The government must remain neutral on matters of religion and quoting the bible is hardly neutral."
In an email exchange between several county clerks discussing how to handle same-sex marriage licenses, Schroeder wrote on Aug. 9: "It is a picture of a bride standing on a hill with the groom walking up the hill to meet her. On the bottom I have a portion of the verse in I Corinthians where Paul says, 'Each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.' And cite the verse."
But after being sent several letters from Seidel and asking to speak with his lawyer, Schroeder apparently relented and removed the poster, at least from the sight of county constituents.
After receiving a letter from FFRF, Unified School District #436 in Caney Valley, Kan., will ensure that religious material is no longer printed in its yearbooks or newspapers.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter of complaint after a student forwarded a picture of the 2014-15 Caney Valley High School yearbook with a single large Christian cross on its cover. FFRF also complained about a section from the school's newspaper quoting two students and a faculty member selecting their favorite bible verses and recommending Matthew 28:18-20, which is a command to convert "all people in the world" to Christianity.
"School publications, including yearbooks and school newspapers, must remain neutral toward religion," wrote Seidel. The yearbook cross and newspaper section dedicated to bible verses both create "the appearance that the district prefers religion over nonreligion and Christianity over all other religions."
New superintendent Blake A. Vargas thanked FFRF for "bringing to light practices that could be considered a violation of the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause," and assured FFRF that he would review current practices and ensure that the school would be neutral on religion in the future.
The Carver, Mass., post office has removed a religious poster from its bulletin board after FFRF pointed out the sign's illegality.
The poster was titled "The Pledges," and in addition to the Pledge of Allegiance, printed a "Pledge to the Bible" and a "Pledge to the Christian Flag." FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler lodged a complaint with the office on July 22, 2015, pointing out that in addition to being unconstitutional, "United States postal regulations prohibit the display of religious materials, other than stamp art, on postal property."
On Nov. 30, FFRF received word from an interim postmaster that the postmaster to whom the letter was addressed had retired, and the poster on the bulletin board had been removed.
Coleman High School in Coleman, Wis., will not include prayers in future Memorial Day and Veterans Day assemblies after FFRF sent a letter to the superintendent. Ceremonies for the last two years at least have reportedly included religious prayers and videos.
"We ask that you take action to ensure that future assemblies do not include prayer and otherwise remain neutral toward religion," wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in a Nov. 19 letter to Superintendent Douglas P. Polomis.
"We will make every effort to ensure that future assemblies do not include prayer and remain neutral toward religion," Polomis responded on Nov. 30.
Missouri's Iberia Elementary School previously planned on including a recitation of the "biblical meaning" of verses in "The Twelve Days of Christmas" at its Christmas program. However, after receiving a letter from Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott, the school changed the script prior to the concert.
The religious script claimed religious meanings for each of the verses in the popular, secular holiday song, including claims that Jesus is the "true love" referenced in the first day, the two turtle doves represent the Old and New Testaments, and the six geese a-laying are "the six days of creation."
Elliott's Nov. 10 letter informed the Iberia R-V School District that "having young elementary school students recite the purported 'biblical meaning' to a gathering of elementary school students, teachers and parents gives the appearance that the school endorses the religious message." Moreover, "the content of the script is demonstrably false," and thus, "if music instruction in the District is meant to educate, the Christmas program script is doing a disservice by spreading false and unsubstantiated claims."
FFRF's local complainant reported on Nov. 24 that the program's script had been changed to a secular version.
New Lebanon Local Schools in Ohio will no longer fundraise for the Samaritan's Purse, a religious organization headed by Franklin Graham.
FFRF learned that Dixie Elementary School in New Lebanon has asked its students to participate in a donation drive for "Operation Christmas Child," a project of Samaritan's Purse, for at least three years. The school sent home pamphlets to children explaining, "Operation Christmas Child partners with churches worldwide to reach boys and girls with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. After receiving shoebox gifts, many children are discipled through our Bible study course, The Greatest Journey, where they learn to become faithful followers of Christ and share their faith with others." The pamphlet also instructs readers to, "most importantly," pray for the gift recipient.
"While it is laudable for a public school to encourage young students to become active and involved in their community by volunteering and donating to charitable organizations, the school cannot use that goal as an avenue to fund a religious organization with a religious mission," wrote Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a Nov. 19 letter to the school district.
On Nov. 24, Superintendent Greg Williams notified Markert that the school district's attorney "has led district administration to conclude that it is not appropriate to continue with this project."
Thanks to a series of letters from FFRF, tax-funded senior centers in Maryland have been reminded of their duties to not require prayer for the seniors in their care.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent letters to three Maryland senior centers about reports of unconstitutional prayers at mealtimes, typically over a PA system. FFRF's complainant reported feeling as though "kitchen staffers hold our tax-subsidized lunches hostage" until a prayer was said. Seidel also sent letters to the two counties where the three facilities are located, writing to the Baltimore County Department on Aging and the Anne Arundel County Department of Aging and Disabilities. The Maryland Department of Aging also received a letter from FFRF objecting to prayers.
"Government-run or -funded facilities should not host, organize, or facilitate prayers," wrote Seidel. "Not only does scheduling or permitting public prayer to be imposed on all diners at these meals raise concern that the government is endorsing religion, it also violates citizens' rights to be free from religious proselytizing."
FFRF's complainant confirmed that the pre-meal prayers had stopped.
After a complaint by FFRF, Louisville High School in Ohio will no longer include invocations at its annual marching band competition. The 2015 event reportedly began with a minister leading attendees from seven different Ohio public schools in prayer.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to the Louisville School District on Oct. 21. "Federal courts consistently strike down school-sponsored prayer in public schools because it constitutes a government endorsement of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and interferes with the personal conscience of students," Markert wrote.
An attorney for the school district informed FFRF on Nov. 24 that the superintendent had reminded "the appropriate parties" of the law on school invocations.
Pursuant to a Freedom From Religion Foundation complaint, Decatur City Schools in Alabama will ensure that students are not required to recite prayers in the future.
During a grandparents' day event on Sept. 11 at Walter Jackson Elementary, a kindergarten teacher led students in the prayer, "Thank You for the World So Sweet," in front of their assembled guests. The students had been taught the prayer with hand movements to accompany each line.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote Superintendent Ed Nichols on Oct. 29, pointing out that not only have the courts struck down prayers in school, but one court even specifically struck down "Thank You for the World So Sweet" even after the school removed the words "God" and "Amen" from the prayer.
William E. Shinn, Jr., attorney for the school district, admitted that FFRF's account of the prayer was "substantially correct." Shinn said the district would "start by providing principals additional education on constitutional restrictions relating to school prayer," and that the principals would be directed to make a similar presentation to staff members.
A long legal challenge by FFRF Life Member Carole Beaton paid off in November as the City Council in Eureka, Calif., voted unanimously to eliminate prayers to start its meetings as of Jan. 1. Attorney Peter Martin filed a lawsuit in January 2013 on Beaton's behalf to get the council to stop praying and to stop Mayor Frank Jager from using his position and city resources to promote his annual Mayor's Prayer Breakfast.
City officials wouldn't say if the change was due to the suit. "I don't think the city wants to give us the satisfaction of having been right on this one," Martin told the Eureka Times-Standard on Nov. 20.
The city agreed to a September 2014 settlement that barred use of its resources, city seal and the title of mayor to promote or support prayer breakfasts and paid the plaintiff $16,500 for attorney's fees.
Students at Mansfield High School in Mansfield, La., are no longer being subjected to prayer each day at mandatory morning assemblies.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the Desoto Parish School System in August 2015 objecting to the school's practice of selecting a student to lead the prayer, which was projected to all students in the room. Students were also reportedly required to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
"The Supreme Court has continually and consistently struck down prayers offered at school-sponsored events, even when led by students," Grover said. A public school "must not organize a means for students to promote a decidedly religious message to a captive student audience, thereby isolating and excluding those students who are non-Christian or nonreligious."
On Nov. 19, FFRF's complainant confirmed that a moment of silence had replaced the prayers, and no students were being forced to stand for the pledge.
Dallas County Schools in Selma, Ala., took action to end prayers over the loudspeaker before football games after hearing from FFRF.
FFRF sent the district a letter on Sept. 30. "The Supreme Court has specifically struck down invocations given over the loudspeaker at public school athletic events, even when student-led," wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover, citing the 2000 case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe. "Like the prayer practices in Santa Fe, the prayers at Dallas County High School football games are also inappropriate and unconstitutional."
Christmas Y. Green-Williams, Dallas County Schools attorney, wrote a response on Nov. 17, noting that the school had updated its policies to reflect the state of the law. "We appreciate any individual or organization that makes us aware of an alleged violation" of the law, Green-Williams said.
Prosper (Texas) High School Principal Greg Wright will no longer participate in See You At The Pole, an annual Christian student prayer event, after hearing about the issue from FFRF. Wright's involvement in a religious student club is also ending, and a cross and plaque about God displayed by an assistant principal have been removed.
FFRF notified Prosper Independent School District Superintendent Drew Watkins of these constitutional violations in a letter on Sept. 28. "It is important that PISD staff members understand that, as government officers and state actors, their personal rights of free exercise and free speech are not unlimited," said Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. He pointed out that even See You At The Pole's official website acknowledges that it is illegal for adults to lead the gatherings.
In addition, damning admissions on Facebook that Wright was founding a First Priority Club for students meant any claim that the club was student-led as required by law was "disingenuous," said Seidel. Also, "Public schools may not display religious messages or iconography," the letter stated.
On Oct. 14, an attorney for the school district informed FFRF that all complaints had been resolved. Principal Wright will not speak at future See You At The Pole events or form the First Priority Club, and school officials will no longer display religious materials in the school. (See student activist on page 8.)
Geary County Schools in Kansas will no longer allow Gideons to distribute bibles following an FFRF complaint. FFRF first dealt with this issue in 2012, but it resurfaced this year. FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a request for records on distribution policies on Nov. 6. Prompted by the records request, parent action, and an additional complaint from the American Humanist Association, the school district’s attorney sent written assurance on Nov. 13 that the district would “no longer facilitate the Gideons in distributing bibles in our school district.”
The Greece (N.Y.) Central School District Board voted 5-4 against a proposal Nov. 10 to consolidate polling sites from 11 elementary schools to two churches and a fire station. The proposed church sites were at Our Mother of Sorrows Catholic Parish and Hope Lutheran Church.
Linda Stephens, FFRF Life Member and co-plaintiff in Town of Greece v. Galloway, alerted FFRF to the proposal Nov. 10 and spoke against it at the public hearing that night. Four residents spoke against the plan. No one spoke in favor.
A school district release said: "Some were concerned consolidation could make it more difficult for voters to get to the polls; others feared voting at non-school sites could influence the vote."
Stephens commented to FFRF legal staff after the meeting: "Maybe speaking out at public hearings does work sometimes?"
FFRF took no action due to late notice about the proposal and because the board voted it down but will continue to monitor the situation.
Teachers within Plaquemines Parish Schools in Louisiana will no longer force students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance after FFRF wrote two complaints on behalf of a Belle Chasse High School student.
Previously, students who refused to stand had been informed they were required to stand, taken out of class, and punished. In addition, prayers at football games, Veterans Day events, and other school events will not occur in the future.
"Students must not be singled out or punished in any way for choosing not to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance," wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover in a letter on Oct. 1. "The Supreme Court ruled over seventy years ago that compelling a student to recite the Pledge and salute the flag infringed upon a student's First Amendment rights."
Superintendent Denis Rousselle called Grover on Oct. 7 and said that he "took care of the situation" immediately after receiving FFRF's letter. Rousselle said he would not tolerate students being punished for exercising their free speech rights, even though he doesn't agree with the decision.
Grover wrote about the unconstitutional prayers on Nov. 6. "While it is laudable for Belle Chasse High to organize an assembly to honor veterans, it is unconstitutional to allow any religious message or prayer to be part of a school-sponsored event," he said.
Rousselle responded by email on Nov. 9, telling Grover that the district would no longer include prayers at school events.
The Windsor Board of Education in Illinois will no longer pray at its meetings after getting a complaint from FFRF. Local clergy typically led the Christian prayers.
"It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings," wrote Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in a Nov. 2 letter. "Federal courts have struck down school board practices that include this religious ritual."
Superintendent Gavin Sronce told FFRF on Nov. 6 that the school board would not include prayer at its next meeting, and said that although the board had not yet discussed the topic at a meeting, he anticipates the board would permanently cease the practice.
Religious posts from school come down
Facebook posts and pictures promoting a See You At The Pole event at Kings Manor Elementary School in New Caney, Texas, have been removed after FFRF complained in a letter.
One post invited readers to join "us" for See You at the Pole, describing it as a time to "pray with our children." A photo of the event showed adults holding students' hands in a group prayer.
"Any religious events in any of the district's schools must be entirely student-initiated and student-run," Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote in a letter to the New Caney Independent School District. "When a school district promotes religious events to its students, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message."
An attorney for the school district responded on Nov. 9, informing FFRF that the posts had been removed.
Seniors at the city of Chandler Senior Center in Chandler, Ariz., will no longer be subjected to prayers at meals after FFRF got involved. A senior center employee had led the prayers in the past, and later started selecting a member of the audience to do so. “Federal regulations prohibit senior centers receiving federal funding to engage in religious activities at government-sponsored functions such as senior meals,” wrote Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne. “The center cannot engage ‘in inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction, or proselytization.’ ”
FFRF’s complainant reported on Oct. 29 that the center had replaced the prayer with a moment of silence.
A third Prattville Primary School teacher has been stopped from praying with students after FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover ensured that two praying teachers at the school were educated on the Constitution in February. FFRF’s local complainant reported in September that a third teacher was also praying with students before lunch.
“Needless to say, we are concerned about how quickly Prattville Primary has had this same issue resurface,” Grover wrote to the Autauga County School District’s attorney. “Given the district’s earlier representation that Prattville Primary administrators had addressed this issue, we would expect all school employees to be aware of their obligation to remain neutral on matters of religion.”
Attorney James R. Seale wrote back to FFRF on Oct. 26. The principal “addressed your concerns with the staff at Prattville Primary School,” wrote Seale. “I trust that your concerns will have been resolved and I do not anticipate you will receive any additional complaints.”
The McConnellsburg, Pa., school district has banned the Gideons from repeating the unconstitutional distributions of bibles in the future after FFRF alerted the Central Fulton School District of the illegal act.
Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote a letter on Oct. 15 objecting to Gideons roaming the halls at McConnellsburg Elementary with a cart of bibles and Principal Alicia Mellott's statement to students that anyone interested could take a bible.
Superintendent Dixie M. Paruch wrote to Cavell on Oct. 21 saying that the Gideons would not be distributing bibles in the school district in the future.