New Legal Successes
The assistant superintendent of the Page Unified School District (Page, Ariz.) held a mandatory "professional development inservice" on Aug. 17 in a Mormon church. About 50 district teachers were in attendance. One of the teachers notified FFRF that he and several other teachers were offended and uncomfortable with the requirement to attend a government meeting in a religious place of worship. Foundation attorney Patrick Elliott informed the district superintendent (Aug. 24, 2010) that the district should have held the meeting in a secular place, such as one of the many schools within the district. "A church is not an appropriate place to conduct required training for government employees. The district must take immediate steps to ensure that no individual is required to attend meetings in a church," the letter said. The district responded on Sept. 7: "Although the district believes that the convocation of the meeting at that particular site complied with the requirements of the law, the administration and Governing Board of course are sensitive to concerns of all their constituents. . . . Accordingly, in the future, the district will endeavor to hold employee meetings and other meetings related to district business in facilities not associated with particular religious institutions."
Principals of two schools in a public school district in Allen Parish, La., authorized a local newspaper editor to use Kinder Elementary and Kinder Middle School as sponsors of an ad promoting local National Day of Prayer events. The two schools paid the local newspaper to have its name and image included in this National Day of Prayer advertisement, along with biblical verses (Jeremiah 33:3 and Philippians 4:6). Rebecca Markert, FFRF staff attorney, wrote the district: "The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits public schools from advancing, supporting or promoting religion. Because the National Day of Prayer is a religious event, it is a violation of the Establishment Clause for a public school to sponsor or endorse an observance of it. It is a further violation for a school to spend taxpayer money to advertise a religious event. . . . From all appearances, these ads signal to the reasonable district student, parent, or community resident that the Schools endorse the religious — namely Christian — message of the National Day of Prayer," the letter said.
The district superintendent wrote the Foundation [August 13, 2010] that the two principals had agreed to contribute to the cost of the ad "and they agreed in hindsight, the ads should not have been placed as it could be construed as advocating religious beliefs. They also agreed that no such advertisement will be sponsored in the future. . . . It is the policy and position of the Allen Parish School Board to take a neutral stance regarding religion but to also be respectful of the religious beliefs of our students and staff or lack thereof." — Bonnie Gutsch
In the public school district of Owatonna, Minn., "Youth leaders" from Young Life, a Christian youth ministry, were permitted to host events free of charge on school property, distribute religious literature during school hours, and received special opportunities to promote itself and evangelize to students during school hours. Young Life hosted a yearly fundraiser at the high school, and auctioned off to the highest bidder a special parking space at the school (see photo). The district is adapting and creating policies that will put an end to these practices in response to an FFRF letter of complaint and open records request sent in March, and a follow-up request in August to stop unconstitutional promotion of religion in the district.
According to its Web site, "Young Life brings the good news of Jesus Christ into the lives of adolescents with an approach that is respectful of who kids are and hopeful about who they can be." It envisions that "every adolescent will have the opportunity to meet Jesus Christ and follow Him." The group originated when a local minister invited the group's founder "to consider the neighborhood high school as his parish and develop ways of contacting kids who had no interest in church." The Young Life "history" webpage states: "Young Life's mission remains the same — to introduce adolescents to Jesus Christ and to help them grow in their faith. This happens when caring adults build genuine friendships and earn the right to be heard with their young friends."
Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert's letter addressed the many state/church entanglements between the district and Young Life. "The support given to a Christian organization demonstrates your school district's unlawful preference not only for religion over non-religion, but also Christianity over other faiths," the letter said. "No religious organization should have special access to proselytize during the school day at Owatonna High. . . . In fact, no outside adults should be provided carte blanche access to minors — a captive audience — in a public school. This predatory conduct is inappropriate and should raise many red flags. . . . Owatonna High's repeated and excessive allowance of Young Life to proselytize during school hours is a violation of the Establishment Clause. Courts have granted injunctions against schools for their complacency in similar situations."
While Young Life representatives were previously not required to register to visit students during school hours, the district wrote that it will now adopt a more formal visitors policy, which includes requiring all visitors to sign in and out, obtain administrator permission to be in the building and to wear identification while in the building, among other restrictions. Regardless of the access, "visits by anyone shall not be utilized for the purpose of distributing religious or other nonschool-related materials or promoting religious organizations or activities." The district agrees with the Foundation that Young Life should have been charged for use of school facilities and equipment, and "The School District intends to correct this practice with all future facility and equipment users, including, but not limited to, Young Life."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation responded to several serious state/church concerns which had occurred at Fayetteville County Schools (Fayetteville, WV), including: The district had allowed a ministry run by a group of local pastors to operate during school hours the non-curricular group, CREW (Christians Reaching Every Where), offer special food sales to student CREW members and distribute bibles and other religious literature to students. It was also the Foundation's impression that the school district had coordinated with the ministry to take CREW students on a field trip, chaperoned by a mixture of public school employees and ministers from local churches. Permission slips were sent home with all students to attend the event. CREW's mission is "to worship and honor the Lord Jesus Christ."
Foundation Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert addressed these concerns in a letter to the district (June 17, 2010): "Under the Equal Access Act, supervision and participation by local pastors, who are not affiliated with the school, of a student group is illegal." The letter pointed out, "Courts uniformly have held the distribution of bibles to students at public schools during instructional time is prohibited. . . . In allowing CREW pastors to distribute bibles to impressionable young students — who courts have also noted will feel immense social pressure to accept the bible — Fayette County Schools is placing its 'stamp of approval' on the religious messages contained in the bible. This is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, and specifically Christianity, by a public school." The letter noted that further endorsement of Christianity was apparent when the high school offered pizza and soda for sale during cafeteria hours exclusively to CREW students. Regarding the field trip, Markert wrote: "It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that a public school may not advance, prefer or promote religion. . . . A public school cannot authorize, organize or otherwise coordinate a year-end activity for a Christian ministry."
The district responded promptly with a letter [July 22, 2010] assuring the following changes to school policy/operations: "Area ministers shall not oversee nor direct any club meetings . . . CREW shall not have any direct connection with or oversight by the Fayetteville Ministerial Association. No employees of Fayette County Schools will lead any form of religious activity during CREW meetings. CREW has not been given and will not be given any more or less access to the facilities and services of Fayette County Schools than any other student group. CREW is not permitted to serve or offer pizza or other food incentives in connection with its meetings where the same would violate either the Equal Access Act or the relevant student nutritional guidelines. No Bibles are to be distributed by any organization on the campus of Fayetteville High School. . . . No religious officials from the community will be permitted to initiate or oversee the organization of any CREW activities." — Bonnie Gutsch
Following a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (Jan. 5, 2010), a high school teacher in a Texas school district was instructed to no longer include religious quotes and references in his district e-mail signature line. The signature line had varied biblical verses, and at one time read: "We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin. Romans 6:6." The teacher had regularly sent e-mails to students and parents with biblical passages and citations. FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote the district that it was "grossly inappropriate" for this teacher to use his public district e-mail account to promote his personal religious views, especially to students. On July 21, 2010, the McKinney Independent School District assured the Foundation that the teacher had been warned verbally and in writing over the issue. Amidst other concerns, the letter stated that the teacher will not return for the 2010-2011 school year. Additionally, the district adopted an e-mail signature-line policy restricting all district electronic communication signatures to name, title and contact information.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation successfully stopped Missoula County (Mont.) from offering free admission to the Western Montana Fair for those attending a pre-fair onsite church service sponsored by the Missoula Christian Network, a coalition of about 50 local churches and ministries.
The Missoula Christian Network had planned, as it had in 2009, to hold a church service on the fairgrounds before the fair gates opened and Missoula County unlawfully planned to offer free fair admission to those in attendance at the service, just as it had in 2009. The Foundation wrote the Missoula Board of County Commissioners first in April 2010 over the previous year's violation of the federal Civil Rights Act (and Montana State law) by subsidizing and promoting free admission to the fair for Christians. The County did not respond until it received a follow-up letter from the Foundation in July, at which time FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert reminded the county to follow state and federal law at the August 2010 County Fair.
"As a place of 'public accommodation,' it is illegal for the County Fair to discriminate, or show favoritism, on the basis of religion," wrote Markert. "The County Fair's restrictive admission practice favors religious customers and denies customers who do not attend church, and nonbelievers the right to 'full and equal' enjoyment of the County Fair."
The County responded in a letter [July 8, 2010]: "Missoula County acknowledges that religious organizations should not be given any special benefit over other members of the public. . . . Missoula County will proceed by treating religious groups in the same manner as other non-religious groups (i.e., same-space rental rates, and no preferential privileges)." Subsequently, the scheduled church service was moved to a private baseball park and deleted from this year's fair schedule.
After the Freedom From Religion Foundation successfully stopped illegal prayer at a June 4 high school graduation in Exeter, Calif., it received a complaint that a middle school in the same district held an unlawful invocation as part of its graduation program on June 3. The prayer ended "in Jesus' name." Foundation Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Superintendent Renee Whitson: "It is deeply troubling that despite the effort to bring the graduation ceremony at Exeter Union High School into conformance with the law, the school district would allow Wilson Middle School to ignore it." A district attorney responded on July 1: "The Governing Board of the Exeter Union School District discussed the concerns raised in your letter and has decided that no District-sponsored invocations will be a part of the program for any future District graduation ceremonies."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, on June 18, wrote the University Place School District (University Place, Wash.) objecting that Drum Intermediate School sent home fliers to its young students advertising an evangelical Christian summer event. The Mount Cross Evangelical Lutheran Church coordinated with the school to send the fliers home in students' homework, and there was no indication which organization (or if the school itself) was the sponsor. The advertisement called for children ages 4 through 5th grade to "trek through SonQuest Rainforest." It promised "great times . . . lively songs, hilarious skits, creative crafts, exciting games, stories and tasty snacks," but made no mention of the proselytizing purpose of the event. Foundation Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote the superintendent (June 18, 2010) that without a proper disclaimer disassociating the school district from the religious event, "students and parents are apt to believe that the school is endorsing SonQuest Rainforest Camp and its religious message." Even with a disclaimer, however, teachers are still forced to distribute religious promotional literature, which "sends a divisive message of community exclusion of those who hold minority religious views or who choose not to believe." To avoid this divisiveness, Markert advised the district to amend its take-home flier policy to restrict third-parties and allow only school-sponsored events and organizations to make use of the service. The deputy superintendent responded (June 29, 2010): "As the individual responsible for this decision, I must apologize for my mistake. . . . Indeed, it does appear that we, as a district were endorsing this flyer and event. . . . We are in the process of reviewing the entire policy and procedures. Your letter has assisted in pushing this effort forward. . . . I can assure you that we will take the necessary steps that will stop potential entanglement between religion and our school district."
A parent in the Highland Local School District (Medina, Ohio) alerted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to three church/state concerns at Highland High School. The school's annual choir event included Christian prayer; the school's top choir performed at a church service late last year; finally, the Sharon Ministerial Association in May organized a Christian baccalaureate service for graduating seniors with school support. FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert tackled all three issues in a four-page letter to the superintendent. The prayer at last year's choir banquet — illegal prayers have taken place at these events at least for the last three years — ended, "In the name of Lord, Jesus Christ." Prayer at choir banquets, Markert asserted, "turns any non-Christian and nonreligious Highland High School choir student into an outsider," and student participation in this event "should not be predicated upon being subjected to Christian based prayers." The school's top choir performed, as it does annually, at the St. Paul Lutheran Church (the choir director's church) and this year the program included all Christian carols. "This practice forces students and their parents, who may be of varying faiths or none at all, to enter a Christian house of worship," Markert stated. The Christian baccalaureate service for seniors was held on school property, and the choir director helped promote and participate, which "signals the school district's endorsement of the event." The superintendent replied: "I do believe, in light of the First Amendment and court cases that have interpreted its requirements as to religion and public schools, that offering prayer at the annual choir banquet and having the choir perform as part of a local church's worship services are problematic, and I am taking appropriate steps to alter these practices. . . . I am sensitive to the need to avoid actual or an appearance of school sponsorship and endorsement in this area and am also taking steps to ensure that appropriate distance is maintained." The superintendent said she "will continue to discuss appropriate parameters with our choir director to assure compliance with all legal requirements."
The Madison County Board of Commissioners (Florida) received an urgent letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation on the day of its June 15 meeting asking commissioners to vote down a proposal to display a large Ten Commandments monument on public property. The Madison County Ministerial Association offered to donate and erect this permanent religious monument on the lawn of the Madison County Courthouse. Rebecca Markert, Foundation staff attorney, warned that displaying the Ten Commandments in a prominent location on county property "would violate not only basic constitutional principles prohibiting the government from advancing, promoting or endorsing religion over nonreligion, but also the freedom of conscience of residents in your community who do not adhere to this religious dogma." She recommended placing the monument more appropriately on private property. According to the Madison County Carrier, one pastor who spoke on behalf of the Madison County Ministerial Association stated that the Ten Commandments were the basis for our laws. The board correctly voted down the proposal 3-to-2.
FFRF letter (June 15, 2010)
An elementary school in Ohio canceled a field trip for 4th graders to attend a church after receiving a stern letter from Foundation Attorney Patrick Elliott on May 20, 2010. The Foundation had written Garfield Heights City School District's previous superintendent in 2007, 2008 and 2009 over the same issue with no action taken by the district. The Church of the Nazarene has a definite Christian mission, describing itself as "a Great Commission church. . . . 'To make Christlike disciples in the nations' is the new seven-word statement of mission." The "field trip" to this church had been taking place at least for four consecutive years and, like the previous unconstitutional excursions, the upcoming trip would have included proselytizing and students would be asked to accept Jesus Christ as their savior. Elliott's letter warned: "Besides the fundamental legal problems with sending public school students on a field trip to receive religious instruction, there are many good policy reasons to oppose the practice. Parents should control the manner in which their children receive religious instruction on religious subjects. It is an egregious abuse of government power to proselytize a captive audience of young school children in this manner." He also pointed out how troubling the school's endorsement of Christianity is for students who are not Christian. Upon receipt of the letter, the school's principal reacted by rescheduling the event to after-school hours.
An Alabama fourth-grade teacher has been ordered to stop giving bibles to her students after the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote a letter of complaint on behalf of a parent. In December 2009, the parent reported, the teacher gave bibles stuffed inside Christmas stockings as gifts to all her students at Forest Hills Elementary in Florence. Two previous complaints were unacknowledged by the school, the parent said. In a June 4 letter of complaint to Superintendent Kendy Behrends, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert noted that federal courts have uniformly ruled that bible distributions to students at public schools during instructional time is prohibited: When that occurs, elementary schoolchildren are given the "impression that the school endorse[s] a particular religious belief: Christianity." Behrends responded in writing (June 6, 2010): The teacher "will be notified this week of her wrongdoing. It will be requested in writing that she cease and desist the distribution of any religious materials or any discussion of religion unless it abides by the State of Alabama approved courses of study that cover religion. She will also be given professional literature to read that is designed for educators, whereby her responsibilities are made clear regarding the separation of church and state."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation successfully influenced a public elementary school in Baldwin, Wis., to remove an "In God We Trust" poster displayed in the school near the high-traffic cafeteria area. In a letter to the principal of Greenfield Elementary, Foundation attorney Patrick Elliott summarized the history of the motto "In God We Trust," explaining that it serves no secular purpose. "For those students and parents who don't believe in a god or have beliefs contrary to a monotheistic faith, an 'In God We Trust' poster in their school is offensive. . . . This message alienates nonbelievers and turns them into outsiders of their community," Elliott noted. He reminded the principal that public school districts are prohibited from displaying religious messages and iconography on the walls of public schools. "It is important to note that courts are vigilant in protecting public school children from religious influence by school authorities. Even messages that may be displayed in other public settings might be unconstitutional when displayed in a public elementary school because young children are impressionable and their attendance at school is required," the letter said. The complainant, a parent of a student at the school, reported two weeks later that the poster had been removed.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation joined other secular groups in successfully stopping illegal prayer at a scheduled graduation at Exeter Union High School in California. A moment of silence replaced prayer at the June 4 commencement. High school district trustees voted 3-0 on June 1 to eliminate student-led prayer. After FFRF was contacted by an Exeter Union senior who objected to a religious commencement, Rebecca Markert, staff attorney, wrote Superintendent Renee Whitson on May 27 to remind her that "the Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations. Even if student-initiated, school officials may not invite a student, teacher, faculty member, or clergy to give any type of prayer, invocation, or benediction at a public high school graduation." Trustees had voted earlier to cancel the prayer but then decided to ask the 221 seniors to illegally "vote" on the constitutional matter. Why the school decided to let students vote is puzzling, Markert said. "The Supreme Court has settled this matter — high school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students." The superintendent reported that seniors voted but the votes were never counted and were destroyed.
Read the Foundation's letter (May 27, 2010)
See Visalia-Delta Times story (June 2, 2010)
See Foundation press release (June 2, 2010)
The Freedom From Religion Foundation complained on behalf of a student at Nash Central High School (Nashville, N.C.) about a coach leading student athletes in prayers and reading from the bible during school-sponsored athletic banquets (every fall, winter and spring). The coach reportedly read from the bible at the recent winter banquet, and told student athletes to follow the message of the bible. Foundation Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to the district superintendent: "The annual awards banquet is a time for student athletes — of all faiths or no faith — to celebrate their success in athletics during the previous athletic season. A student's choice in attending this event should not be predicated upon being subjected to Christian based prayers and bible readings." Further, "Prayer and bible readings at these banquets turns any non-Christian and nonreligious Nash Central High School student athlete into an outsider." The district responded that "the superintendent handled the issue with the principal," and FFRF's complainant said there was no prayer or bible reading at the next banquet on May 20, 2010.
Read the Foundation's letter (April 12, 2010)
The Freedom From Religion Foundation objected to a proposal by Anton Konev of the Common Council of Albany, N.Y., to open city council meetings with prayer. The Foundation urged the council to vote down the proposal and to continue its current practice of a moment of silence, which "already accommodates private prayer, and does not exclude or offend anyone." In the letter (Feb. 3, 2010) to Albany's mayor and common council, Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor imparted: "Council members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. They do not need to worship on taxpayers' time." Council President Carolyn McLaughlin, who voted for a losing prayer resolution in 1999, told the Albany Times Union that although she is devoutly religious and believes strongly in the power of prayer, "Just as strongly as I believe in what I believe in, I respect another person's right not to share that same belief. I think that when we made this compromise (moment of silence) years ago that this was in the best interests of everybody." Councilwoman Jackie Jenkins-Cox, who voted present, said she appreciated Konev's passion but added, "I like to keep my prayer between me and God." Council members voted against the proposal 12 to 2.
After receiving a letter of complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Terra Community College (a public college in Fremont, Ohio) removed a special tab on its home page for Terra Christian Fellowship. The only other group that received its own tab was the honor society Phi Theta Kappa. The Christian group's page said: "In addition to weekly meetings, special events include staff-sponsored Bible studies, concerts, coffee houses and other activities." It also contained a passage from Psalm 118: "The LORD is my song and my strength; He has become my victory." Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert reminded the school that "staff-sponsored Bible studies" violate the First Amendment, which requires that government employees refrain from actively participating in religious activities while performing their official duties. While not responding officially, the college removed the tab, and listed it on the student clubs page. Reference to staff participation in religious activities and the biblical quotation were also taken down.
Read the Foundation's letter (March 19, 2010)
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, responding to the concerns of a district parent, alerted a public school district to a serious state/church violation occurring at one of its schools in Fishers, Ind. Teachers at Sand Creek Intermediate School organized a fundraiser called "Jar Wars," between fifth- and sixth-grade homeroom classrooms, with proceeds designated for the Nicaragua Resource Network (NRN). The school advertised NRN as "a non-profit organization that is trying to improve education in Nicaragua." FFRF's complainant, however, discovered with one search of NRN's Web site that its real mission is: "To fulfill (obey) Jesus' command to love God and to 'love your neighbor as yourself' by giving of our time, talents, and resources to address the spiritual, physical and educational needs of impoverished children and families in Nicaragua." In her Feb. 19 letter, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert pointed out: "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." She cited concerns over the flier misleading parents and students, and suggested that, to comply with constitutional mandates, "Jar Wars" should benefit a secular charity. The district responded by distributing an e-mail to staff declaring the new recipient of the "Jar Wars" donations would be the nonreligious Hope for Haiti through the American Red Cross. The e-mail said, "Staff and students will continue to support humanitarian efforts . . . through [not-for-profit] nonsectarian organizations."
On behalf of members in Roswell, Ga., Foundation Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to the City Council, strenuously opposing a proposal to introduce prayers at official city meetings. One council member had said, "I hope that through starting our meetings with an invocation, perhaps it could set the overall tone to one of reconciliation and better relations." In her Feb. 18 letter, Markert asked Roswell's mayor and City Council to revere our godless and secular Constitution by "observing a strict separation of church and state [that] offends nobody, and honors the First Amendment." On March 3, the Roswell Neighbor reported that the council had rejected the prayer proposal. Some council members reported that residents largely objected to government prayer, and of the council's six members, five ultimately voiced their reservations about the proposal. One council member reported that, "Probably 80 percent of the people are saying to me no, don't do it. I would have a difficult time supporting this because I'm not seeing the support from our community to do it."
On behalf of an area taxpayer, Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor sent a letter to the police chief of the police department in Gulfport, Miss., urging him to immediately disassociate from the "Go Haiti" Baptist ministry project, which it publicly endorsed on its Web site. The mission of "Go Haiti" is to raise at least $20,000 to rebuild a Baptist church in Haiti (a country where a vast majority of residents identify as Roman Catholic). Gaylor noted that while the ministry "is free to choose to fundraise to rebuild a church in the face of this national disaster, a disaster leaving millions of people starving, exposed and homeless, the Gulfport Police Department absolutely is forbidden to raise funds for or otherwise publicize fundraising for this Baptist church project, or for any other Christian ministry to Haiti." The Foundation called the police department's public endorsement irresponsible and inappropriate. The same day he received Gaylor's complaint, the chief of police phoned the Foundation to report he removed the "Go Haiti" links from the police department's Web site.
An FFRF member alerted the Foundation to a violation involving a public high school football coach in Farrell, Pa., regularly gathering players for prayers before each game. FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca S. Markert wrote a letter (Jan. 26, 2010) to the Farrell Area School District superintendent pointing out that "the federal courts have struck down prayer in public schools because it constitutes a government endorsement of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment." Prayers at football games "would lead anyone participating on the team or in attendance to believe that the Farrell Area School District is endorsing religion, and specifically, in this case, Christianity," the letter said, and requested a full investigation. The district superintendent responded with a letter (Feb. 2), stating: "In reviewing this issue, it appears that these coaches crossed the line with regard to state/church behaviors." The superintendent met with the high school principal and athletic director, advising them and circulating a memo among the school's staff, regarding appropriate and acceptable behaviors with state/church issues. The letter thanked FFRF for bringing the issue to the district's attention and agreed to "stay alert with regard to behaviors which might be deemed to be violations of state/church relations."
A district parent and taxpayer alerted the Foundation to a praying coach at Maconaquah Middle School in Bunker Hill, Ind. According to the parent, the 7th grade boys basketball coach regularly prayed with the players. FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert (then Kratz) sent a letter to the Maconaquah School Corporation asking it to immediately investigate and end this unconstitutional practice. "The Supreme Court has continually struck down formal and teacher—or school-led prayer in public schools. The prayers before the Maconaquah Middle School's basketball games and practices constitute an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion," the letter said. The coach's conduct, the letter added, "crosses the line because he endorses and promotes his religion when acting in his official capacity as a school district employee." The Superintendent distributed directives to all coaches and other extracurricular staff forbidding them "from leading prayer at any school function as directed by the Supreme Court of the United States of America."
On behalf of two families with young children in the school district, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca S. Markert (then Kratz) wrote a letter of complaint in August 2009 to Lake Local School District in Uniontown, Ohio, pointing out its mission statement, which included valuing belief in God, was unconstitutional. The mission statement, which appeared on district publications and the district's website, violated the First Amendment because it imposed religious sentiments on students and their parents within the school district, FFRF charged. Markert noted: "This value clearly demonstrates that the school not only prefers religion over non-religion but also religious students over non-religious students. This character trait also offends the fifteen percent of the U.S. population that is non-religious. The School District's promotion of religion over non-religion impermissibly turns any non-believing Lake Local School student, parent, teacher, or staff member into an outsider." The School Board unanimously approved a revised "mission statement" on Dec. 14, which deleted the inappropriate reference. According to a local paper, The Canton Repository, "legal precedent clearly was against the mission statement in its unchanged form. Board members and the superintendent said their legal advisers told them there is no way the district could win a lawsuit allowing the reference to God in the mission statement."
Read FFRF's letter (Aug. 26)
Read the Aug. 26, 2009 press release and action alert
Read the Dec. 14, 2009 Canton Repository article
Read Dec. 18, 2009 press release
FFRF wrote a letter to the Petoskey School District in Michigan urging it to reconsider a proposal to change its "Winter Break" session to "Christmas Break." FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Kratz, in her letter to the district, wrote: "Changing the wording to Christmas break so that Petoskey school children know that 'we are a Christian nation' violates the most basic and fundamental principles of Establishment Clause jurisprudence. The proposal originated from an inflammatory e-mail to the district from school board treasurer, Jack Waldvogel. Either make the change voluntarily, Waldvogel said, "or I will make a motion to change it at the NEXT Board meeting, and raise such a stink, and bring out every redneck Christian Conservative north of Clare, to compel the District to do so." The e-mail also said: "Our children need to know we are a Christian nation and taking all reference to a higher being out of our educational vocabulary is wrong." The Foundation's letter to the district noted that the board's action illegally advances religion over nonreligion and Christianity over all other faiths: "The previous wording reflected an enlightened respect and viewpoint for the community's diverse population and the District should restore its original wording on the school calendar." After the Foundation's urging, the school board voted to not move forward with the change.
On behalf of an area taxpayer and district resident, Foundation Staff Attorney Rebecca S. Markert (then Kratz) wrote a letter and open records request to the superintendent of the Indianapolis Public School District challenging its distribution of fliers promoting "Safe Summer Youth Fest," sponsored by East 91st Christian Church, and inviting students and their families to sign up for Vacation Bible School. Markert's letter said the distribution of religious fliers by public schools, in addition to violating federal law, is "entanglement between religion and government officials" and therefore "unseemly and inappropriate." Legal counsel for the district responded with a Dec. 4 letter, stating that IPS flier distribution policy requires materials which are non-secular to involve positive student opportunities and undergo an approval process. The letter affirmed that the "Youth Fest" fliers underwent this procedure, but agreed that it should have been rejected in the screening process.
Read FFRF's Aug. 7, 2009 letter
Read the IPS Dec. 4, 2009 response
An employee of Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) sent a mass e-mail on May 7, 2009, via the statewide e-mail system to invite government employees to attend a National Day of Prayer observance—specifically to "pray for our state and our country"—at the DEQ headquarters. The e-mail included a "God bless you," and stated that DEQ administration cooperated in hosting the event at the DEQ building. FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca S. Markert (then Kratz) wrote a letter to DEQ Secretary Harold Leggett, who authorized the prayer event, pointing out that it was "grossly illegal and inappropriate for DEQ to be hosting, organizing, supporting or otherwise promoting a patently religious event." Markert cited Establishment Clause concerns and noted that the misuse of the government e-mail system violated DEQ's own Computer System Usage Policy, which requires the computer "be used primarily for official business purposes in furtherance of the DEQ agency mission." The Office of the Secretary responded with a letter, which noted, "The Department has warned its employees against the unauthorized use of state equipment or facilities for private purposes. . . . We appreciate the opportunity to respond to this important issue of public concern."
A longtime FFRF member from Greensboro, N.C., alerted the Foundation to a state/church violation at Poblano's Mexican Grill, a popular restaurant in the member's city. The restaurant was offering a 15% discount to patrons that presented a "church bulletin" when dining. FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Kratz called the restaurant's owner to inform him that the discount violated the federal Civil Rights Act and a Greensboro City Ordinance, both of which prohibit discrimination based on religion. He agreed to discontinue what Kratz, in a follow-up letter, called, "Poblano's restrictive promotional practice [that] favors religious customers and denies customers who do not attend church, and nonbelievers the right to 'full and equal' enjoyment of Poblano's" (June 11, 2009).
A student alerted FFRF, in May 2009, that churches in New Glarus, Wis., sent invitations to area high school seniors for a church-sponsored graduation celebration. The invitations were distributed through the high school and students were asked to RSVP to the New Glarus High School main office. The Foundation wrote to New Glarus’ Superintendent requesting the school be omitted from the invitation and planning process of the church-sponsored party. School and district officials complied by discontinuing any coordination and promotion of the event, in writing and practice. Students were additionally notified that the event was voluntary and not school-sponsored.
An FFRF member was dismayed at the displaying of religious materials at a public rest area in Portage, Wis. One publication entitled "The Law of Liberty" discussed "God's law," the Ten Commandments and biblical verses. In a letter of complaint to the state Secretary of the Department of Transportation, the Foundation wrote: "The availability of Christian literature alongside maps and other publications provided by the government, could lead a reasonable observer to conclude that the government is endorsing religion. To avoid further confusion, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation should remove any and all religious literature displayed and set out for taking in publicly owned and operated rest areas" (April 21, 2009). The Director of the Bureau of Highway Operations wrote in response: "The literature you described has not been approved for distribution in the location where it was available and has been removed . . . Please be assured that the literature does not reflect any official position of the State of Wisconsin and appears to have been inappropriately placed in the facility by a third party" (May 1, 2009).
Read FFRF letter (April 21, 2009) (pdf)
See excerpt from "The Law of Liberty," Example A (pdf)
See excerpt from "The Law of Liberty," Example B (pdf)
See excerpt from "The Law of Liberty," Example C (pdf)
Read the DOT's response (pdf)
An area resident and taxpayer alerted FFRF that reading materials promoting Christianity permeated both the staff and inmate areas of the state-run Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility in Nashville, Tenn. This prompted the Foundation to write a letter of complaint to the Nashville facility. FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Kratz wrote to the facility's warden: "The undoubtedly Christian atmosphere created by these overwhelming displays . . . inexplicably leads a reasonable observer to perceive the State of Tennessee is not only endorsing religion over non-religion but also Christianity over all other faiths. This atmosphere also tends to create an environment hostile to non-Christians and non-believers" (March 12, 2009). In response, a Tennessee Department of Correction investigation confirmed the existence of inappropriate religious materials placed throughout the Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility. A Commissioner informed FFRF that all religious materials were removed as of April 2009, and staff was reminded to keep private any religious resources.
Student complaints to FFRF in March 2008, helped prevent prayer from opening an academic banquet, as was the practice of previous years, at a public high school in Fulton, Mo. FFRF formally requested, on the day of the banquet, that Fulton’s Superintendent take action to ensure a prayer would not take place at the banquet. FFRF’s complaint stated: "[B]anquets are school-sponsored events, which occur on school property. It does not matter that this event occurs after-school hours because prayers at other traditional after-school events such as football games and graduations have been found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court." The Superintendent promptly responded, confirming that no invocation was delivered or would be in the future.
On Election Day 2008, in Tobyhanna, Pa. (Monroe County), employees and volunteers of the Shawnee Tabernacle, a voting site, distributed bags of religious literature to voters, and displayed religious materials in the registration area and between polling booths. In a letter of complaint, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Kratz wrote: "We are sure there are many secular options—perhaps public schools, firehouses, public libraries, or even private businesses—which could accommodate voters and be relied on not to abuse voter trust" (Jan. 8, 2009). Following the complaint from FFRF, the Monroe County Director of Elections indicated they would not likely use the Shawnee Tabernacle as a polling location in the future.
FFRF received a complaint from a taxpayer and parent with a child enrolled at Live Oak Elementary School, in Valencia, Calif., which allowed the Good News Club to religiously indoctrinate children during school hours. The Good News Club is an Evangelical group that encourages children to "hear the Gospel and learn Truth from God's Word." Further, the school sent students home with Good News Club flyers stating children will "learn that 'Character Counts' through Bible stories" and there will be "inspiring and amazing Bible memory verses and songs." In Oct. 2008, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Kratz wrote to the school district's Superintendent: "By allowing this group to hold meeting during instructional hours at this public school, you are in effect endorsing a particular religion, which is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution." As a result of FFRF's complaint, the Good News Club moved their meetings to after school hours, as of Jan. 2009.
In Dec. 2008, a resident placed a massive nativity scene at a prominent intersection on county property in Warren, Mich., Macomb County. Following a complaint from a Macomb County resident, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Kratz wrote the Macomb County Road Commission: "Once the government enters into the religion business, conferring endorsement and preference for one religion over others, it strikes a blow at religious liberty, forcing taxpayers of all faiths and of no religion to support a particular expression of worship" (Dec. 10, 2008). The Commissioners discovered a permit had not been granted for the display and ordered immediate removal of the nativity scene.
A U.S. Army non-commissioned officer in the 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command stationed in Iraq, notified the Foundation that, as part of a twice-daily shift-change briefing, soldiers were required to attend Christian prayers and bible readings. The Freedom From Religion Foundation responded to the claims citing violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Kratz, in a 4-page letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, wrote: "The potential for government coercion is strong in this case. Given that the chain of command, particularly in foreign military operations, presents an inherently coercive atmosphere, daily prayer at shift change briefings is unconstitutional. [Soldiers] should not be compelled to participate in or listen quietly to government-sponsored prayer before reporting for duty, nor when they are 'on the clock'" (Nov. 5 2008). The Staff Judge Advocate Office determined, based on FFRF's complaint, the current practice of prayers should cease. The Chief of Chaplains promised to end the shift-change prayers as of November 2008.
Federal funds of $435,000 earmarked for Alaska Christian College, as well as remaining funds from a previous federal grant, were suspended on Oct. 7, 2005, by the U.S. Department of Education, as a result of a federal lawsuit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The Foundation challenge of public funding of the unaccredited bible college, with only 31 students and run by the Evangelical Covenant Church of Alaska, was filed on April 21, 2005, in U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin. The "Christ-centered" school offers no academic classes. Students receive a bible certificate at the end of the year. After investigating, the Department of Education agreed to suspend the grant, thus saving taxpayers nearly half a million dollars.
In 1976, the Foundation ended an arrangement whereby public schools in Madison, Wisconsin, were financially sponsoring an annual nativity pageant using public school students at the state Capitol. A Foundation complaint that public school teachers were still organizing and recruiting for the Christian event resulted in firm guidelines adopted by the Madison schools and some surrounding areas in 2004. View Article...
Foundation complaints downed a large Christian cross from Terry Andrae State Park, Wisconsin (complained 1979, removed February 1980).
In April 2003, Oklahoma City officials removed a permanent cross from city fairground property, following a complaint by a Foundation member backed up by the national Foundation.
Following several years of negotiation, the Milwaukee City Council agreed to remove a Ten Commandments monument from city property in July 2001. The move came in May 2002. The action was significant because Milwaukee was the first city to be given a Ten Commandments monument by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. Yul Brenner even attended the dedication ceremony. View Article...
In April 2002, the city of Monroe, Wisconsin, followed suit, removing a Ten Commandments monument which the Foundation had originally asked it to move in 1983! View Article...
In December 2003, officials in Casper, Wyoming, removed a Ten Commandments monument from a public park following a Foundation complaint. View Article...
The city of Bolingbrook, Illinois, agreed to remove religious playground equipment from a public park in 2001. Religious playground equipment was removed from Lily Cache Greenway, shortly after the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote a letter of complaint on behalf of a Foundation member. One piece of equipment with a biblical Noah's Ark theme was covered with text paraphrasing the entire bible tale, and informing children that Noah "was 950 years old when he died." The Foundation received a prompt response from a city official thanking it for letting the city know about the presence of the religious equipment, and assuring the Foundation it would be removed. View Article...
The Denver chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, represented by attorney Robert R. Tiernan, in 1999 protested the low rent (sometimes no rent) charged to the area ministerial association to hold an annual Easter Service at the public amphitheatre. Denver officials agreed that year to discontinue the reduced rate for the Easter Sunrise Service.
Protracted legal letters halted a religious discount at a grocery store in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1998, where the Catholic owner gave out "free milk" coupons to anyone showing a Catholic church bulletin to prove they had attended mass. The Foundation has ended similar violations of the Equal Rights Act, forbidding discrimination on the basis of religion by places of public accommodation, around the country.
After tenacious complaints and requests for public documents, the Foundation persuaded the University of Wisconsin-Madison to end a de facto Catholic chaplaincy for the University of Wisconsin Badgers (1994). (The free airfare and expenses for the priest to accompany the Badgers was ended.) Foundation complaints later ended prayer and religious ritual at a basketball camp for young girls led by a UW coach in 1996.
After learning that the school board of Madison, Wisconsin, was not charging Boy Scouts rent to meet in public classrooms, while all other kids' groups were charged rent, the Foundation successfully complained in 1994. The Foundation has also monitored public schools in Wisconsin which do not comply with wording in the State Constitution requiring that outside religious groups meeting in schools must pay rent.
A complaint to the U.S. Secretary of Labor halted subsidy of "Our Lady of the Rockies" by the federal Job Corps in Montana. Job Corps recipients were being ordered to help build the Catholic shrine, violating Job Corps' own prohibitions (1994).
First complaining (successfully) about religious artifacts on display at the Post Office in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin (a community entirely made up of nuns), the Foundation got the U.S. Post Office to delete a job description requiring the Postmaster to be a nun in 1993.
The Foundation was the first group to formally call for an ethics probe into an Alabama governor and his state-financed preaching (1991). Probable cause was found in the ethics probe. Scrutiny of the governor's record brought legal indictment.
A complaint by the Foundation expelled a preacher from the state docks in Mobile, Alabama, who was hired as a contractor using underage teenagers under his care at a Christian home as unpaid labor, in conditions that violated federal law (1989). The investigations started by the Foundation protest eventually closed down Bethel School in Mississippi (1990).
Foundation complaints have ended "grace" at public schools in Janesville, Wisconsin (1977); at the publicly-financed Independent Living, Madison, Wisconsin (1977); at Conway, Arkansas schools (1978). The Foundation halted paid prayers for at least one session in the Wisconsin Senate (1985). The Foundation has also ended school sponsorship of religious baccalaureates in several public school districts, such as in Monroe, Wisconsin (1989). The Foundation has widely circulated "The Case Against School Prayer" to many school districts around the nation. It has ended unlawful distribution of Gideon bibles in public schools.
In the "war of the bus ads," the Foundation began protesting "Keep Christ in Christmas" posters which were displayed free of charge on city buses in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1982. The free ads came down. In 1983 and 1984, the Foundation launched its own signs on Madison buses, reading: "The Bible: A Grim Fairy Tale" and a tongue-in-cheek cartoon showing Mary announcing, "It's a girl!"
In 1976, a complaint by co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor, then a college student, ended a 122-year violation of prayers (invocations and benedictions) at University of Wisconsin-Madison graduation commencement ceremonies. (They haven't been missed!)