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."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has put an end to locker room prayer at Bowie High School in El Paso, Texas.
Before FFRF intervened, Bowie High School's pre-football game tradition consisted of group prayer. Abuses included a local pastor joining the team before games and calling all members to bow their heads and kneel in prayer, with coaches participating. FFRF was informed that these unlawful events had most likely been taking place since at least 2010. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Interim Superintendent of El Paso Independent Schools on Jan. 5, noting that "it is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor, and lead prayers at public school events."
After receiving FFRF's letter, Bowie High School Principal Jesus Chavez held a meeting with school district personnel. A school district attorney sent a Feb. 2 response: "Dr. Chavez directed all personnel to refrain from facilitating any and all prayers which are led by clergy members and/or school officials."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has wrapped up a seven year old case to remove an illegal angel statue from public property.
The statue was placed outside of the Interpretive Center in Genesee County Park in Batavia, N.Y., by the Women's Republican Club in memory of a Republican activist. FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor initially wrote to the County Park over the unlawful statue in 2005: "We continue to believe the angel statue itself, not just the 'guardian angel' reference, makes the garden look like a religious cemetery. Whether a religious intent was conscious or not, the presence of a large, white statue of an angel or seraphim (precisely of the type which is sold to be placed in religious cemeteries) injects a symbol of Christianity into a secular, publicly-maintained center."
FFRF suggested the Women's Republican Club move the memorial to private land. According to a local news story the statue was schedule to be moved in August 2005.
Six years later, FFRF learned that the statue still stood in the county park. Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote a series of follow up letters to the County Attorney, requiring that FFRF be informed as to "what steps have been or will be taken to move the statue to a more suitable private location."
County Attorney Charles Zambito responded to FFRF on Feb. 1: ". . . the Angel Statue that was located in front of the Interpretive Center at the Genesee County Park has been removed from the premises."
The Kiel Area School District Board of Education (Wis.) has “decided to make no changes to the curriculum,” said School Board President Cynthia Schmahl in a recent email to Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott and Constitutional Consultant Andrew Seidel.
After being warned by local members, Elliott sent a letter to the Board on Dec. 8, 2011, instructing them on the illegality of a proposal to teach “alternative theories of the origins of man within the science curriculum.” The proposal, brought by Board member Randy Kubetz, was “patently unconstitutional,” FFRF charged.
Pursuant to an open records request, FFRF received an email Kubetz forwarded to all Board members that included the outdated “Intelligent Design in Public School Science Curricula: A Legal Guidebook.” As Elliott pointed out in a subsequent letter, “Creationism supporters wrote the guidebook and its legal claims were tested and summarily debunked in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.”
Persistence and reason prevailed and science, not religion, will be taught in public schools in Kiel.
Kindergartners will no longer be exposed to Christian evangelism during Bel Air Elementary School (Athens, Texas) field trips.
During three school trips to a pumpkin patch at Brand Cowboy Church in Athens, between Oct. 26-28, 2011, first-grade and kindergarten students had to listen to sectarian stories. One such story included a direct reference to Christianity: "God made each pumpkin different, just like he made each child different." Students also received a Christian-themed pamphlet, entitled "Bag of Jokes." This take-home pamphlet told students they were all sinners and instructed them to pray to God to ask for forgiveness. FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote an Oct. 27 letter to the Athens Independent School District Superintendent in an attempt to intervene before the third field trip took place.
This flagrant constitutional violation was not resolved until Jan. 31. An Attorney representing the school district wrote, "To this end, it appears as if any such endorsement was done without knowledge or approval of the school district . . . The school district is confident that any Establishment Clause/Free-Exercise concerns have been addressed."
Bellview Elementary School has learned a valuable lesson. It will no longer allow Gideons International to distribute bibles in its hallways.
After receiving several complaints from concerned Arkansas parents and citizens, FFRF wrote to Rogers Public Schools Superintendent Janie Darr on Oct. 27, 2011. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott pointed out that the practice of allowing Gideons International or other evangelizing Christian organizations to hand out bibles in public schools is a violation of the Constitution. This case was especially egregious as the proselytizing occurred inside an elementary school, during the school day.
FFRF did not receive a response until an additional letter was sent to the school district. On Jan. 27, an attorney representing the district notified FFRF that the matter had been settled. "Based upon Dr. Darr's recommendation, the Rogers School District has informed the Gideon organization that it will no longer allow the distribution of Bibles on school property."
Greenwood Community School Corporation in Indiana has promised to refrain from allowing staff members to display overtly religious messages after receiving a letter of complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Last December, cafeteria servers at Greenwood Community High School wore red shirts that stated “Christmas without Christ? I don’t think so.” They also offered candy canes to students which contained the proselytizing and macabre false story on the supposed Christian origins of the candy cane. A student reported that other religious messages remained on display in the cafeteria after Christmas, including a statement about prayer in school.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott, sent a letter to Greenwood Community School District superintendent David Edds on behalf of Indiana FFRF members on Jan. 19. Elliott requested that Superintendent Edds investigate the matter. Elliott wrote that the actions of the staff members gave “the appearance of District endorsement of religion over nonreligion” and that distributing the erroneous candy cane story was “incorrect and misleading” and amounted to “proselytizing of students.”
In a Jan. 23 response, Edds assured FFRF that the district is “taking measures to make sure there are not overt religious messages in our schools that are in violation to any federal court decisions.” The student complainant confirmed that the religious items had been removed from the cafeteria.
Likely prompting Edds’ quick reply was the fact that Greenwood Community School Corporation was recently on the losing end of litigation challenging district prayer at graduation. Eric Workman, then a graduating senior at Greenwood High School, sued the school district and successfully won a preliminary injunction halting school-condoned prayer at his graduation ceremony in 2010. Eric went on to receive FFRF’s Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award and spoke at its 2010 national convention.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has ended the Asuka Hibachi and Buffet's (Smyrna, Tenn.) unlawful practice of giving a discount only to church-goers.
Asuka Hibachi and Buffet promoted a $1 discount to customers who brought in a church bulletin on Sundays. The restaurant displayed the offer on a hand-written sign as a "family special." In a Jan. 18 letter to Asuka Hibachi, Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt informed the owners of their serious violation of both the federal Civil Rights Act and Tennessee Civil Rights Laws, as "All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal employment of goods."
Schmitt received a satisfactory response on Jan. 21 from Ricky Chan, owner of Asuka Hibachi: "I had addressed this issue to my staff, and have taken the sign down. I do apologize for any issues, this may have caused."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation educated a Texas High School on the unconstitutionality of a school official sending religiously themed school emails.
"Count on God instead of yourself," was the statement Klein Forest High School Assistant Principal Rene Milanizadeh included in an email to teachers on Nov. 18, 2011. She sent out a poem entitled "How to Observe Thanksgiving," with the aforementioned sectarian sentence in the last line. FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to Milanizadeh on Dec. 20, pointing out the constitutional flaws with the overtly Christian email. Schmitt stated, "It is well settled that public schools may not advance or endorse religion."
Ellen Spalding, the school district's legal representative, responded to FFRF's letter on Jan. 18: "Ms. Milanizadeh has expressed understanding of her duties and obligations with regard to this issue. Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention. . . KISD believes the matter to be resolved."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has put an end to Chick-fil-A's biased, unconstitutional church bulletin promotion.
A Chick-fil-A restaurant in Jacksonville, Fla. offered a promotion to patrons who brought in a church bulletin on the Monday after the service. Church-going customers received a free eight nugget or Chick-fil-A sandwich with the purchase of a side and drink. FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote an Oct. 5, 2011, letter to Chick-fil-A owner Jeff Wier, advising him to put a stop to his discriminatory discounts. Schmitt pointed out that Florida's Civil Rights Act strictly warns against public discrimination based on religion.
Wier wrote to Schmitt on Jan. 18: "Stephanie, we are discontinuing the promotion effective 1-31-12."
A Canton Career Center Principal will no longer be promoting his Christian beliefs at work, thanks to FFRF.
FFRF received reports that the Principal repeatedly promoted his Christian beliefs at Canton Career Center. He preached, led prayers, read from the bible and called teachers to pray. On many occasions he proselytized to staff members during faulty meetings. FFRF wrote two letters to the Chairman of the Canton School Board urging him to "remedy these serious First Amendment concerns."
FFRF received a response from the school district's attorney on Jan. 17. The attorney assured FFRF that all of the illegal activities "were to cease immediately."
FFRF has won the game against athletic prayer in Inez, Ky., for the second time. The first time FFRF declared victory at Sheldon Clark High School (SCHS) was this fall during football season. SCHS delivered illegal prayers over the public address system before both football and basketball games.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert first wrote to the School District on Sept. 6, 2011 advising the school to end the unconstitutional prayers taking place prior to football games. Two weeks later FFRF received a response from School District Attorney John Triplett claiming an end to the prayers. A few weeks later, local complainants again took issue with pre-game prayers, only this time before basketball games. The prayers were student-initated and broadcast over the intercom system. Markert wrote a Dec. 21 letter asking SCHS again to end school-sponsored prayer at all school and sports events.
In a Jan. 10 letter of reply, Triplett wrote: " ... [I] was assured that the principal understood the correct procedure 'no school supported prayer at school events' and was assured that this would not happen in the future at either or any other events at the school."
The Sandburg Elementary School (Wheaton, Ill.) winter concert will no longer feature a Christian song.
Prior to FFRF's involvement, Sandburg Elementary School hosted a musical program in November 2011. During the program children performed the Christian tune, "There was a Little Baby." School District parents were concerned that sectarian songs were being taught in a public school by a public school teacher. FFRF wrote to Superintendent Brian Harris on Dec. 2, calling attention to the constitutional violation.
In a Dec. 27 response Harris wrote: "Please know that the song in question was pulled from the program before the performance and replaced with a secular song choice. This piece of music will not be used again."
In south Texas, a teacher put a nativity scene is his public school classroom. According to FFRF’s complainant, the teacher erected the nativity for “people of my faith, fellow Christians.” Also according to FFRF’s complainant, the teacher put up a Grinch Who Stole Christmas display for “every other religion, people who aren’t Christians.”
Acting quickly, FFRF wrote a Dec. 14, 2011, letter to the superintendent of the district: “It should go without saying that, if the allegations are founded, it is highly inappropriate for a public school teacher to demean a student’s religious beliefs or lack of belief by likening them to a cartoon villain. [The teacher]’s alleged statements and these displays exceed not only the bounds of courtesy, but also the bounds of the First Amendment.”
After pointing out the legal precedent that nativity scenes in schools violate, the letter called the teacher's statements “rude, divisive, and wildly inappropriate for a public school teacher. The school environment should welcome all students, not just those who adhere to his faith. If the statements were made, [the teacher] deliberately alienated young students.”
Two days later FFRF received a letter from the school district’s attorney, advising that “the referenced displays have been removed from the classroom and appropriate directives have been conveyed that protect religious freedoms.” Furthermore, “[w]hile the outcome of the investigation is confidential” the district was investigating the allegations against the teacher. A solid victory for the Constitution.
Clifdale Elementary School (Glendale, S.C.) will no longer schedule prayer during assemblies.
District residents and taxpayers complained after learning that a young child was asked by school officials to lead the school in a prayer during a Nov. 11 Veteran's Day ceremony. The Freedom From Religion Foundation responded to this gross violation of the First Amendment and exploitation of an elementary school-aged student in a Nov. 17 letter to Clifdale Superintendent Jim Ray. FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt called attention to the illegal nature of religious messages during school-sponsored events.
The school district's legal counsel sent a letter of reply to FFRF on Dec. 8: "Dr. Ray is aware of the prohibitions on such prayers at school-sponsored events, and has met with the Principal of Clifdale to make certain that there is no misunderstanding about proper protocol in the future, such as having a student offer a moment of silence."
Zachary Community School District in Louisiana has promised to refrain from prayer before any district events after receiving a letter of complaint from FFRF. On Oct. 17, 2011, Zachary High School held a district-wide assembly to celebrate its recent ranking in the state’s accountability plan. Before the start of the assembly, the parents and students in attendance were asked to bow their heads in prayer as an invocation was given over the PA system.
Patrick Elliott, an FFRF staff attorney, sent a letter to Zachary Community School District Superintendent Warren Drake on behalf of a concerned district parent. Elliott requested that Superintendent Drake commence an immediate investigation into the illegal prayer and informed him that prayer offered at school-sponsored events would “lead anyone participating or in attendance to believe that Zachary Community School District is endorsing religion.” Furthermore, Elliott pointed out that prayer at a school-sponsored event violated the District’s own policy, which states that “no student attending the school shall be required to participate in any religious activity at school.”
In a Dec. 2 response, Superintendent Drake ensured FFRF that he apologized “if anyone was offended as this was not our intent and [we] will refrain from saying a prayer at any such event in the future.”
The Senior Center at Euless Family Life Center in Texas no longer hosts a religious display, thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The religious display in question included a Latin cross with patriotic symbols and a U.S. flag under a sign that read, “When you can’t see God’s hand, trust his heart.” The Family Life Center is a public facility. On behalf of several local complainants, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote a Nov. 22 letter to Recreation Center Supervisor Heidi Taylor. In her letter, Schmitt noted the religious display, “is particularly offensive to veterans and other seniors who do not believe in the Christian god.”
Seven days after Schmitt wrote to Taylor, Mike Davenport, recreation superintendent, confirmed that the display has been removed.
On Nov. 4, 2011, members of Gideons International were permitted to enter Liberty Eylau Middle School in Texarkana, Texas to distribute bibles to fifth grade students during the lunch period.
After being contacted by a concerned parent, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote a Nov. 11 letter to Superintendent Nick Blain, informing him that allowing Gideons International to distribute bibles inside of a public school is a violation of the Constitution.
In a Nov. 22 letter of response, Liberty-Eylau Independent School District’s attorney told FFRF that the district had already stopped the distribution of “unauthorized materials on its school campuses.” The attorney also told FFRF, “If you receive information that there have been some unauthorized distribution of bibles at any of the Liberty-Eylau school campuses please contact me immediately.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has put an end to sectarian prayer over the intercom at Phil Campbell High School football games.
Concerned district parents, taxpayers and Alabama FFRF members alerted FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt to the illegal midfield and loudspeaker prayers occurring at Franklin County Schools. Not only were prayers delivered over the intercom, junior varsity football team members were asked to huddle in the field to pray before the start of each game. Schmitt sent a Sept. 23 letter to Superintendent Gary Williams notifying him of the First Amendment violation.
It wasn’t until Schmitt sent a second letter on Nov. 7 that FFRF received an encouraging response. “We will instruct our school personnel that we cannot lead or allow prayer to be held over the intercoms at school events as long as the current laws are in place,” wrote Williams in a Nov. 21 reply to Schmitt.
The North Lamar Independent School District in Paris, Texas promised to end school-sponsored religious messages at school assemblies after receiving a letter of objection from FFRF.
At an assembly in October 2011, North Lamar High School Principal Paul Allen discussed drug abuse by high school students. Allen recited passages and teachings from the bible, informing students that “Christ died for the just and the unjust.” Allen also implied that “people that don’t have god in their life, and people that don’t believe in something more” are manufacturing or selling addictive substances.
On Nov. 16, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote a letter to North Lamar ISD Superintendent James Dawson, informing him that, “It is coercive and inappropriate for a school official at a school function to promote religion to a captive group of impressionable students in attendance.”
In his Nov. 21 response, Superintendent Dawson informed FFRF that, “Since the assembly, I have had discussions with administrative staff on the topic and offer assurance that there will be no more school sponsored religious messages at school assemblies in the North Lamar Independent School District.”
Marathon School District in Marathon, Wis., has changed its policy regarding school assemblies after receiving a letter of objection from FFRF.
On Nov. 11, 2011, American Legion Post 469 held a Veterans Day ceremony at Marathon Area Elementary School that included an invocation and closing prayer. These prayers were sectarian and were offered “in Jesus’ name.” The event occurred during the school day, and students were expected to attend.
After receiving a complaint from a concerned parent, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote District Administrator Richard Parks, informing him that, “While it is laudable for schools in your District to organize, sponsor and host a Veterans Day assembly, it is unconstitutional to allow Christian or other religious messages to be part of school-sponsored activities such as student assemblies.”
Elliott reminded the District Administrator that the religious nature of the event “Defeated the purpose of schools by misleading instead of educating children. Many ‘atheists in foxholes’ have served our country with distinction. Veterans of whatever religion or no religion should be equally honored.”
District Administrator Parks responded on Nov. 17, informing FFRF that the issue has prompted a change in District policy: “I have already contacted our school district principals to inform them that they will need to review all programs provided by outside groups to assure that we do not have a situation similar to this occur in the future when student attendance is expected.”
FFRF received a complaint in August 2011 regarding a faculty orientation program at Minnesota State University that has been held in a local church for the past few years. In an Aug. 15 letter of complaint, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt asked the president of Minnesota State University, Richard Davenport, to cease the practice of holding official university meetings in religious locations. After a Nov. 7 follow-up, Davenport’s office responded that “appropriate arrangements will be made by the faculty member who organizes and plans the program . . . to hold the program on campus or in a commercial conference facility in subsequent years.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has modified a Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) oath-taking practice to permit secular affirmations.
DHS offices throughout Michigan were making employees retake their oaths of office. The complainant informed FFRF that when the oath was administered to the employees, the phrase “so help me God” was included. Employees were not given the option to either swear or affirm. On Oct. 25, 2011, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to DHS Director Maura Corrigan, alerting her to the constitutional violation this posed.
On Nov. 1, FFRF received assurance from Corrigan that this protocol would be altered. Her letter noted, “… to better meet the needs of all DHS employees, I have changed my practice to ask staff to affirm or swear. Further, I also now advise staff that they are welcome to omit the words ‘so help me God.’ That language is now entirely optional.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has saved Madison (Wis.) Metropolitan School District (MMSD) employees from taking part in a non-secular staff meeting.
A MMSD staff member, as well as area taxpayers and residents, were shocked to find out that school staff meetings were to take place in local churches. A series of meetings were scheduled in late October, at a time when students would not be present in the school buildings, allowing for ample space and no need to seek refuge in churches. FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a letter of complaint to MMSD Superintendent Daniel Nerad on Sept. 22, 2011.
Although FFRF received a response from the School District’s legal counsel that “…the District intends to move forward with the scheduled staff meetings,” Oct. 31 a complainant notified FFRF that both meetings had been moved to a room in the middle school.
FFRF received a complaint in September 2011, from a concerned resident of Lauderdale County, Ala., about Christian prayers over the loudspeaker at Brooks High School in Killen before home football games. In a Sept. 15 letter of complaint, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt asked Superintendent William Valentine to “take immediate action to ensure that prayers are not scheduled at any school-sponsored events. After a follow-up letter sent Oct. 17, the district brought a halt to their illegal practice.
In an Oct. 31 response, the district enclosed an Oct. 27 memo sent by Valentine to district administrators and employees saying, “Effective immediately, football games are not to be opened with a prayer that is in anyway led, directed, organized or encouraged by Lauderdale County Board of Education employees.” Valentine added, “Additionally, no student, parent, volunteer, or anyone else may use the public address system of the stadium to lead, direct, organize, or encourage prayer.”
For more information on the violation, see FFRF’s Oct. 24 press release.
The Chesterfield County (S.C.) School District canceled a student assembly featuring a presentation by a faith-based drug rehabilitation center after a Freedom From Religion Foundation letter Oct. 17 on behalf of a local complainant.The assembly was set for Oct. 27 at New Heights Middle School in Jefferson, where FFRF successfully contested further appearances during the school day by Christian rapper B-SHOC and the planting of Christian crosses on the lawn. The Oct. 27 assembly was to have featured speakers from the Bethel Colony of Mercy rehabilitation facility, self-described on its website as "missionaries to the addicted" offering "a 65-day residential program that teaches victory over sin through Jesus Christ and the Bible." FFRF received information that a permission slip to attend the assembly, with a warning that "there is a possibility of a guest making faith-based statements," was sent home with students.
FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt's letter to David Duff, school attorney, noted that the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against school-sponsored religious exercise cannot be overcome by claiming such activities are “voluntary.” While FFRF understands the importance of drug and alcohol education, Schmitt said, "It is extremely disturbing that the school district would select this facility. There are several other government-run organizations, such as police departments, that are secular in nature and are well-qualified to present anti-drug awareness. "Given the overt Christian nature of Bethel Colony of Mercy, we are extremely concerned that their religious focus will bleed into the message presented at the school assembly. Therefore, we ask that the district immediately cancel the presentation to be given by Bethel Colony of Mercy."
Duff responded Oct. 25 to say the "Bethel Colony appearance as a school-sponsored event during the school day, involving students, has been canceled." Duff added that it's his understanding that the group "is to appear and present information following a PTO meeting in the evening on Nov. 17, 2011.
FFRF brought an end to a church bulletin discount at Bethlehem Brew Works in Bethlehem, Pa.
A concerned local resident sent FFRF a copy of a menu for “‘Show Your Spirit’ Brunch!” reading “Bring in the current weeks bulletin from your local congregation and everyone at your table will receive $2 off any of the following brunch menu items!” FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a letter of complaint to the Brew Works on October 17, 2011: “Offering this discount violates the federal Civil Rights Act in addition to provisions of state civil rights statutes.”
On Oct. 24, the Brew Works contacted FFRF via email saying, “I write to inform you that the Sunday brunch discount at the Bethlehem Brew Works . . . has been discontinued.”
Several flagrant legal violations at New Heights Middle School in Jefferson, S.C., were documented in FFRF’s Sept. 19 letter of complaint [http://ffrf.org/uploads/legal/newheights_letter.pdf] to Superintendent John Williams of the Chesterfield County School District. FFRF had received reports from multiple local complainants about religious activities at the school, and the district has agreed some were illegal and will monitor them in the future.
The violations included a Sept. 1 school assembly featuring Christian Chapman, a preacher and evangelist, and Christian rap artist B-SHOC (real name Bryan Edmonds), who says in a video on his YouTube channel that “324 students got saved” at the assembly.
FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert noted that the assembly was promoted and described as a “worship rally” on the public school’s website.
Evidently, Principal Larry Stinson was aware of the questionable legality of holding a “worship rally” like this one during the school day, but he chose to schedule it anyway. He allegedly told Chapman that “I want these kids to know eternal life is real and I don’t care what happens to me, they’re gonna hear it today.” (At 3:56 in the B-SHOC video).
“Our complainants inform us that various pamphlets, cards and other written materials were handed out to the students,” Markert noted. “In particular, fake money with proselytizing language was distributed by the assembly organizers to the students.” A “million-dollar bill” asks, “THE MILLION DOLLAR QUESTION: WILL YOU GO TO HEAVEN WHEN YOU DIE? HERE’S A QUICK TEST. HAVE YOU EVER TOLD A LIE, STOLEN ANYTHING, OR USED GOD’S NAME IN VAIN?”
The school’s website also said “Connect with Christian Chapman and B-SHOC” and links to their religious sites.
FFRF’s letter also noted the Christian crosses erected on the school lawn for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The photo was taken by a complainant Sept. 14.
While it’s laudable and appropriate for school officials and students to remember the victims of 9/11, it is wholly inappropriate for them to do so by erecting Christian religious symbols, Markert wrote, noting that the nearly 3,000 victims included “an international community of persons of diverse beliefs and nonbeliefs, or whose views on religion will never be known.”
A See You at the Pole prayer event on school grounds Sept. 28 should not have been promoted on the school’s website, FFRF asserted in the letter. (Apparently, the school removed it as a calendar event after receiving an email from Markert.) The announcement said, “Join us for See You At The Pole on Wednesday, September 28, at 7:30 am. We will meet at the rear entrance of the building. Everyone welcome!”
There was no indication of the actual sponsor of SYATP on the posting on the school’s website. New Heights Middle School also created an “event” on the school’s Facebook page for the prayer rally.
On Oct. 12, David Duff, school district attorney, responded to FFRF. Regarding the 9/11 crosses display, Duff wrote, “All administrators will be instructed regarding display of religious messages or iconography in the public schools, emphasizing the point that the Latin cross is a principal symbol of Christianity around the world, and further that display of crosses on public property is considered an unconstitutional endorsement of religion and a particular religious faith.”
The board and administrators take what happened at the B-SHOC assembly “very seriously. We have counseled with Mr. Stinson about such matters,” Duff wrote. The district is committed to “following the dictates of the First Amendment in regard to all matters pertaining to religion in the schools. We will endeavor proactively to educate the school community about such matters and to monitor and appropriately control all related events and activities.”
However, Duff noted, the district is allowing B-SHOC to put on programs at two high schools Oct. 28-29 during noninstructional time. Several churches are sponsoring the events, which Duff alleged are permitted under board policy and for which applications have been made.
The district has since responded to an FFRF open records request for the lease agreement and fee schedule for B-SHOC's performance at McBee High School on Oct. 28, a staff development, no-student day. The school leased the gym, canteen and restrooms for $210 ($15 an hour), from noon to 2 a.m.
For more information, see FFRF’s earlier press release: FFRF contests flagrant violations at South Carolina school (Sept. 20, 2011)
A concerned Georgia parent alerted FFRF in September 2011 to bible distribution by Gideons International inside Chatsworth Elementary School. According to the parents, their child came home with a bible and told them that their teacher walked them down a hallway to a table to receive a New Testament bible. In a Sept. 27 letter of complaint, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott told Murray County Schools Superintendent Vickie Reed, “The District cannot legally allow its campuses to be utilized by overreaching proselytizers.” In an Oct. 12 response, the district told FFRF, “We have been advised by the Gideons that their organization will no longer be making bibles available at information tables in our schools.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent educational memos to all the public school superintendents (396) in Mississippi, Louisiana and Kentucky reminding them that official prayer at school-sponsored events is illegal and urging districts to monitor for violations. There has been immediate cessation of school–initiated prayer in at least one school district in Mississippi.
North Pike school in Pike County (Miss.) announced before its football game on Fri., Oct. 7, 2011, that prayer over the loudspeaker was now prohibited. Before receiving FFRF's memo Christian prayers were routinely broadcast over the intercom.
For more information, see FFRF's earlier press release, Southern superintendents put on notice re: illegal prayer (10-11-11)
Muhlenberg County Schools in Kentucky will end the distribution of bibles by Gideons International after receiving a letter of complaint from FFRF.
On Sept. 28, a group of men was allowed to enter fifth-grade classrooms at Longest Elementary School in Greenville and distribute New Testament bibles during instructional time. After the distribution, the Gideons instructed the students to “read and learn from the bible.”
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter Sept. 29 to Superintendent R. Dale Todd on behalf of a district parent to request an immediate investigation into the distribution. “The district is placing its ‘stamp of approval’ on the religious messages contained in the Gideon bible,” Elliott wrote.
In an Oct. 5 letter, Todd responded: “The principal was at a conference that day and not present at the school. I have instructed all schools to not allow members of the Gideons International organization to come into the school and distribute Bibles on school property.”
After receiving a complaint from an area member about a school board routinely hosting prayers at meetings, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter on June 29, 2011 to the Ilion Central School District, asking them to halt this "unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive" practice.
After a Sept. 28 follow-up letter, Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra responded by phone. He informed Markert that as of August 2011, the board was no longer starting meetings with prayer. He had informed the board that the prayerful practice was inappropriate.
FFRF was alerted by a Fort Collins parent concerned about conduct by the Gideon Society in September 2011, at a pubic school. When handing out bibles after school outside of Webber Middle School, they may have trespassed on school grounds, allegedly blocked the sidewalk and handed bibles to children who did not want them. In a Sept. 27 letter of complaint, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott asked Superintendent of Poudre School District Jerry Wilson to “make sure the Gideons’ actions fall within the confines of the law.”
In an Oct. 4 response, an attorney for the district responded, “In light of the problems on September 12, 2011, the School District is considering various options to protect students’ rights as they travel home from school on public streets and sidewalks if and when the Gideons return to distribute bibles and other literature. These options include a request for law enforcement personnel to monitor the Gideons’ distribution.”
The law requires that Gideons may not go onto school property. They may go on city sidewalks.