New Legal Successes
Gideons International representatives will no longer distribute bibles in the hallways of the Vocational-Technical Education Building of Warren High School in Warren, Arkansas, thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
During the 2011-2012 school year, at least two members of Gideon International were passing out bibles in halls of Warren High School. This clear violation of the Establishment Clause occurred during school hours. Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a March 5 letter of complaint to Superintendent Andrew Tolbert. "The Warren School District cannot legally allow its schools to be utilized by overreaching proselytizers. By permitting the distribution of bibles on school grounds the District is placing its 'stamp of approval' on the religious messages contained in the gideon bible," wrote Schmitt.
FFRF claimed victory over this issue on March 6. Assistant Superintendent Marilyn Johnson affirmed, "Our principals and the director of our technical school have been notified to discontinue the practice of Gideon Bible distribution."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has made secularism, not Christianity the "first priority" at West End High School in Gadsen, Ala. The Christian youth organization, First Priority, will no longer be allowed on campus during school hours.
Until FFRF's involvement, West End High School permitted First Priority adult representatives on campus during the school day. First Priority is "On Your Campuses to Reach and Disciple a Generation With the Love and Message of Jesus Christ." First Priority describes itself as "the people of God uniting together to make a positive impact in the lives of this generation." FFRF's complainants noted that the group addressed students on school grounds. West End High School promoted the group to students through its website.
FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to Superintendent Alan Cosby on Feb. 27: "No religious organization should have special access to proselytize during the school day at Etowah County Schools. It does not matter whether students have invited the First Priority ministers; students cannot be allowed to circumvent school policies simply because they desire Christian ministry during their lunch hour."
The School District responded to FFRF's complaint in a March 2 letter: ". . . all activities connected and concerned with the First Priority non-curricular student led group which may have taken place during the hours of school will no longer be allowed to take place during those hours."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has put an end to pre-game school football prayers in Lake Charles, La. No longer will a clergy member be asked to give a prayer over the loudspeaker at Sam Houston High School (SHHS) football games.
FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent an initial letter of complaint to Superintendent Wayne Savoy on Sept. 9, 2011. Schmitt pointed out that public high school events must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students. Since the prayers are announced via the loudspeaker and all in attendance are asked to join, a reasonable Sam Houston High School student would certainly perceive the prayer as school sanctioned.
After receiving an additional letter of complaint on Feb. 9, an attorney for the school district replied on Feb. 29. All school principals were told that they should not sponsor prayers at public high school football games. He also added, "we are confident that any of the situations that gave rise to your concern have been addressed. . ."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has prevented future Trinity High School (Bedford, Texas) classrooms from screening blatantly religious films.
During the month of January several classes viewed the film "Fireproof." It is FFRF's understanding that at least one student objected to the Christian content of the movie before it was shown. "Fireproof" chronicles the life of a Christian man who is forced to save his marriage by showing his wife the love of Christ. Within the movie the protagonist "recommits his life to God and uses God's helping hand to discover what it means to love his wife." In a Feb. 7 advisory letter, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt pointed out the "serious constitutional concerns" associated with the screening of this film to a captive audience of high school students.
FFRF further discovered that "Fireproof" is a product of Sherwood Pictures, the "moviemaking ministry." This production company is run by the Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., and is known for producing "Christian propaganda."
On Feb. 27, FFRF was notified by the school district's superintendent that the teacher was directed not to show the movie again. The superintendent added, "You can be assured that the movie is not part of any district curriculum."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has put a stop to overtly religious assemblies at Greenbriar Public Schools in Greenbriar, Ark.
In early February, Greenbriar High School condoned a Christian-themed assembly featuring speakers from a local rehabilitation facility, Renewal Ranch. FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Superintendent Scott Spainhour on Feb. 8, advising him to "immediately cancel any other scheduled Renewal Ranch assemblies and avoid inviting them into public schools in the future." Renewal Ranch identifies as a Christian organization dedicated to "restoring broken lives through Christ where men with addictions can develop a personal love relationship with Jesus and God will be glorified!"
Through its complainants, FFRF learned that five members of the Renewal Ranch were present at the assembly. The members blatantly used the event as a means to proselytize, making statements such as, "the road to salvation" and "Jesus Christ is the only way."
FFRF received a positive reply from Spainhour on Feb. 17: "In order to insure that the incident is not repeated, the building principal will require that in the future all speakers making presentations to the student body are directed to the school's policy regarding religion and instructed to follow the same."
The San Antonio Independent School District firewall provider, Fortinet, prevented students from accessing atheist and freethought websites on school computers, while allowing students to access religious websites. A student contacted FFRF after attempting to view blocked atheist sites. In a Dec. 9, 2011 letter, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote that this practice amounted to “viewpoint discrimination under the First Amendment because the filter treats information differently precisely because it relates to agnostic and atheistic viewpoints. The Supreme Court ruled school districts may not ban information based on ‘dislike of the ideas.’ ”
The District's Chief Information Officer responded on Feb. 16, in a memo stating, "Fortinet has taken steps to remove atheist websites from the classification of ‘occult’ to other religious or belief classifications." The District says that atheist and agnostic websites are now accessible to all students. It is not known what other sites Fortinet blocks for being categorized as "occult."
Southside High School in Elmira, N.Y., will no longer play religious holiday music during the month of December.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote to Southside Superintendent Joseph Hochreiter on Dec. 19, 2011, warning him of the serious Establishment Clause violation occurring at Southside High School. During the month of December, the high school would play intrusive religious holiday music non-stop in the halls. This practice took place everyday for the entire month. This overtly sectarian program was justified to "lift morale, especially for those underprivileged kids who don't get much of a celebration at home." Even the school's morning news program included carols.
Songs included, "Oh Holy Night, O Come Emmanuel and From a Distance." Even with classroom doors closed, the unlawful Christian music could still be heard from the hallway, and FFRF received complaints from those at the school.
FFRF requested that the practice of "blaring Christmas music in the halls of a public school" not recur in the future.
Hochreiter responded to FFRF's request on Feb. 13, confirming that religious songs would no longer be broadcast over the loudspeaker in December.
Pancho's Mexican Buffet in Euless, Texas, will no longer offer a special discount to patrons who bring in a church bulletin.
Before FFRF issued a complaint, Pancho's was in the habit of offering a 10 percent discount to church-goers. Customers were faced with both a counter and online advertisement of the promotion. Several secular customers were denied the discount without a copy of a bulletin in hand. Stephanie Schmitt, FFRF staff attorney, wrote to Pancho's on Nov. 10, 2011. Schmitt directly referenced the Civil Rights Act: "As a place of 'public accommodation' it is illegal for Pancho's to discriminate, or show favoritism, on the basis of religion."
After sending an additional letter of complaint, FFRF received word on Feb. 13 that the religious promotion signs were removed.
After receiving a series of complaints from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in Fort Myers will no longer deny witnesses their right to be sworn in with a secular oath.
During a March 2011 trial, a FFRF complainant was denied access to a secular affirmation. The witness had previously requested a secular affirmation be given, even though though this option was never offered. After several misunderstandings the witness was asked to "drop the issue" by his attorney for fear of biasing with his testimony. FFRF first took issue with this blatant state/church offense on June 20, 2011, in a letter to Judge Anne Conway. "The U.S. Supreme Court held that 'neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion,'" wrote Stephanie Schmitt, FFRF staff attorney.
Any attempt to force a witness to take a religious affirmation is in direct violation of the Free Exercise Clause.
FFRF wrote two letters following its initial complaint in June. On Feb. 13, Conway replied: "Regarding the issue addressed in your letter, I have reminded the judges of the Middle District of Florida of the provisions of Fed. R. Evid. 603 and the Advisory Committee Notes concerning that rule."
Cedar Falls, Iowa, will no longer be making religious recommendations in its city newsletter, Currents, thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The Winter 2012 edition of Currents featured several religious suggestions for improving communities. Within the article "The Blues Zone Project – Help Us Win," the City proposed "9 Traits of Thriving Communities." The "thriving traits" included meditating and praying and an effort to "connect to a faith based community." The City appeared to directly endorse prayer and church, as "The City of Cedar Falls" was displayed prominently at the top of the article.
FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote a Feb. 6 letter of complaint to Mayor Jon Crews: ". . . including such overtly religious messages in a City-published newsletter constitutes blatant state endorsement of religion and alienates those Cedar Falls residents who are nonreligious."
An attorney for the city replied to FFRF on Feb. 10: "The City will follow-up with employees drafting such documents and emphasize a thorough review of future city publications to prevent the printing of language with references to religion."
Weatherford Independent School District in Weatherford, Texas, will no longer allow Church groups to proselytize to elementary school children through an unlawful "Backpack Ministry" program.
Crockett Elementary school students received a permission slip to attend a church sponsored event on Jan. 19. First Baptist Church sponsored a food program and attempted to gather young students to help with the event. FFRF intervened through a Jan. 27 letter: "We are especially concerned about this, given the name of the program and the 'optional' portion at the bottom of the permission slip facilitating contact between First Baptist Church and participating familes." The optional portion of the permission slip included an appeal to students and parents: "If you would like someone from FBC to contact you or your family you may leave your contact information here."
"We believe this permission slip crosses the line by having the school serve as a conduit for church recruitment., and that the 'optional' should section should never have been included," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt.
FFRF received notice on Feb. 9 that the school district will not include "the optional language at the bottom of the permission slip" in any future correspondence.
Brush College Elementary School in Salem, Ore., will no longer provide take home advertising for bible club meetings, thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The Child Evangelism Fellowship, Inc., petitioned Brush College Elementary School to allow all students to take home overtly religious fliers to promote its Good News Club meetings. The Good News Club is a Christian bible club that meets at the school. According to the filer, students would gain "moral and spiritual training" through "rich bible lessons." In an Oct. 31 letter to Salem-Keizer School District Superintendent Sandy Husk, FFRF drew attention to the objectionable practice of religious flier distribution in public schools: "Many enlightened school districts across the country have sought to avoid this entanglement by prohibiting third parties from using the take home fliers system all together."
In a Feb. 8 response letter, the Salem Keizer School District agreed to "monitor the separation of church and State and work closely with our legal counsel in order to stay within the appropriate boundaries established by both State and Federal legislation."
Wayne County Community College District in Detroit, Mich., will no longer allow instructors to promote their personal religious beliefs through email.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation received complaints over an instructor's improper use of email. A Wayne County professor sent a "welcome" note to students, which happened to include an invitation to attend a specific church in the Detroit area. In a Feb. 1 letter to Chancellor Dr. Curtis Ivery, FFRF wrote of the obvious form of endorsement a school-sponsored email can take. FFRF pointed out that the instructor's statements referencing personal religious beliefs and encouragement to visit a particular church "constitute an official endorsement and advancement of religion over nonreligion, and specifically Christianity over all other faiths."
A member of the college's legal counsel replied to FFRF's initial complaint on Feb. 6. In his letter he confirmed that the college had requested the instructor refrain from making comments referencing religion while acting on behalf of the institution.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has put an end to illegal bible distribution in the Oakfield-Alabama Central School District in New York.
Gideons International was given permission to hand out bibles during the school day to fifth-grade students at Oakfield-Alabama Elementary School. Concerned parents brought this blatant First Amendment violation to FFRF's attention. In a Dec. 8, 2011, letter to Superintendent Christoper Todd, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt warned against this unlawful event, " . . . it is unconstitutional for public school districts to allow the distribution of bibles on school grounds to a captive audience of students. Courts have held that the distribution of bibles to students at public schools is prohibited."
Todd addressed FFRF's constitutional concerns with the school district. He promised bible distribution "will no longer be practiced in our school district."