New Legal Successes
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.
FFRF stopped prayer and religion at mandatory employee in-service at a Tennessee correctional facility.
An alarmed employee and FFRF members in Tennessee notified FFRF that the Tennessee Correction Academy was engaging in religious practices at employee in-service. FFRF was told there were bibles in employees’ rooms and prayer while employees were in formation. It was also FFRF’s understanding that there were religious postings in the gym. FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a Sept. 16, 2011, letter to Tennessee Correction Academy Superintendent Sam DiNicola advising him to end illegal employee in-services.
In DiNicola’s Oct. 12 reply he wrote, “Please be advised that as of Oct. 2, 2011, a presentation which informs or reminds trainees of the separation between church and state has been added to all academy orientation sessions presented to trainees shortly after their arrival.” All religious postings in the gym have been removed, as well as the practice of furnishing bibles to dormitory rooms.
The Social Security Administration, following complaints by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has halted a mandatory baptismal question previously asked of all applicants seeking benefits.
In 2008, FFRF received a complaint from one of its members who had applied for benefits at his local Social Security Administration office. Despite the fact that he had produced a birth certificate as proof of age, he was next asked the following question: “Was a religious record of your birth made before you were age 5?” When he and his wife objected to answering this invasive question, they were told the application process could not continue until they answered it. Regulation 404.716 of the Social Security Act asks for documents proving a person’s age based on date of birth.
Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert renewed FFRF’s complaint this June. On Sept. 28, 2011, an official with the Social Security Administration responded in writing:
“In light of your concerns, we agree that if an applicant has furnished an acceptable public record of birth, it is not necessary to ask whether he or she also has a religious record of age established before age five. Therefore, we will change our policy instructions so interviewers do not ask for a religious record of age in these situations.”
For more information on this victory, visit: http://ffrf.org/news/releases/ffrf-halts-social-security-pro-baptism-practice/.
After a parent in the Arab City School District alerted FFRF to illegal prayer over the stadium public address system before football games, Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote a letter of complaint Sept. 15 to Superintendent John Mullins in Arab, Ala. (It’s pronounced A-rab.)
While the school didn’t immediately respond to FFRF, WHNT News in Huntsville reported [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kuyEExTIS0] Sept. 20 that Mullins told a reporter he was reversing the loudspeaker prayer policy he started a decade ago and substituting a moment of silence for prayer. “It’s clear, what we’ve been doing is not in compliance with the Constitution. We’re going to cease doing what we’ve been doing,” Mullins said.
After other media reports indicated Mullins regretted having to stop prayer, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote a follow-up letter Sept. 23 to urge him “to rise to the occasion by taking a leadership role in reeducating your community about the meaning and purpose of the Establishment Clause.”
Maze appeared to have his mind made up by Sept. 28, according to an Arab Tribune story [http://www.thearabtribune.com/articles/2011/09/28/news/news2.txt]. The issue, he told the paper, is not that students are being told they can’t pray, but “whether or not a student can or can’t lead a prayer on the public address system at an Arab High School football game.” He told the paper the school “must not, in my opinion, make available the forum — the P.A. system — to Christian prayer.”
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote a Sept. 22, 2011 letter of complaint to the Superintendent of the Norwood School District in Norwood, Mo., protesting bible distribution by members of Gideons International at a table directly outside the school entrance during school hours. In a Sept. 28 response, Superintendent John Eaton replied, “I will write the local Gideons a letter making sure they understand that they cannot be on school property nor can they try to distribute religious literature during school hours.”
FFRF sent a speedy letter of complaint Sept. 26 after Pennsylvania Nonbelievers alerted national atheist groups about a See You at the Pole prayer event scheduled for Sept. 28 during school hours at East Hanover Elementary in the Northern Lebanon School District (Pa.).
An attorney for the school, Robert Frankhouser Jr., responded Sept. 27 that the time of the event would be changed to 8:40 a.m. (school starts at 8:50).
The Harrisburg Patriot-News reported Sept. 28 that Superintendent Don Bell said the flier had gone out without his approval and that the event cannot be held during the school day.
The Martin County School District in Inez, Ky., has agreed to stop pregame prayers at athletic events at Sheldon Clark High School after receiving a FFRF letter of complaint on behalf of a district resident. Not only were the prayers staff-led, they were almost always sectarian and often referenced Jesus Christ.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert noted in her Sept. 6 letter to Superintendent Mark Blackburn that the crowd was asked to join in prayer, and that school officials seemingly organized and scheduled it. “It is our understanding that SCHS Principal Robbie Fletcher delivered this pregame prayer at the home game on Aug. 26.”
In a response Sept. 26, school attorney John Triplett said he had interviewed the principal. “Principal Fletcher indicated to me that his actions were a continuation of the practice he had observed as a student at Sheldon Clark High School many years ago and were taken without consultation with the board or other personnel.”
A decision by Christ Cathedral Church, 3350 Allegheny Ave., Columbus, Ohio to remove a Freedom From Religion Foundation billboard has had expensive consequences for the church.
Shortly after Columbus atheist Dylan Galos' "Coming Out of the Closet" billboard, stating "I can be good without God," went up in late June, Rev. Waymon Malone Jr. of Christ Cathedral Church said it had to go, and it was moved to a new location. The church owns the property the billboard company was leasing near its parking lot.
After finding no record the Church paid property taxes for this commercial use of the property, FFRF sent a letter July 7 asking Franklin County Auditor Clarence Mingo II to investigate. FFRF further inquired in an Aug. 1 letter to Mingo about the church-owned property at 407 Stelzer Road that is directly behind the billboard. It was purchased in 2006 for $550,000 and is receiving a tax exemption. Several private businesses are leasing most of the building. Teach & Learn Child Care, AMC Realty and AMC Transport, all with listed addresses at 407 Stelzer Road, are headed by Anthony Malone. FFRF does not know how Pastor Malone and Anthony Malone are related.
On Sept. 22, FFRF received confirmation that the property will now be fully taxed in 2011. After assessing the property value for 2011, the Franklin County Auditor determined the property to be for commercial use and valued at $735,300. In 2010, the property was assessed at $673,700, nearly all of it tax exempt, as it was listed as "a place of worship." The Church failed to pay about $1,645 due for 2010 (for a small portion then considered commercial), and now owes $1,900 including penalties. Commercial property taxes are expected to be more than $18,000. To date, the church has not submitted a new application for exemption and would need to provide evidence of exempt use.
For more information on this story, see FFRF's earlier news releases:
Did Ohio church abuse tax exemption? (7-18-11)
Columbus Church must "render unto Caesar" (9-29-11)
FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a letter of complaint Aug. 29 to Superintendent Thomas Lockamy Jr. of Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools, Savannah, Ga., after a local complainant alerted FFRF to constitutional violations.
Before games, soccer team members from Savannah Arts Academy, a public school with a performing and visual arts emphasis, joined hands in a circle to pray, with referees often participating. In addition, the annual soccer awards banquet is held at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. A parent who is also a pastor led a prayer before the meal, with the principal standing beside him.
The law is clear, Schmitt wrote: “Public high school events must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students. A public school cannot allow students and officials to join in prayer before athletic events. Nor can a public school invite a minister to deliver a prayer at awards banquets.”
Lockamy responded Sept. 13 by letter and by phone Sept. 21 to give his reassurance that the district will uphold its “legal and constitutional obligations.”
FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a Sept. 13 letter of complaint on behalf of a parent in the Huntington Independent School District in Huntington, Texas, to object to school officials coordinating with Salem Missionary Baptist Church to send home fliers for a Christian “youth rally” Aug. 27.
The flier asked, “Do you want God to set a fire in your soul?” The event included “Bible Study, Praise & Worship. Bible & change of clothes are only things needed!” The fliers were distributed by at least one teacher at Huntington Intermediate School, who apparently received the fliers and distribution instructions from the principal.
Superintendent Eric Wright responded Sept. 16, “it was an oversight as our policy clearly does not allow for the distribution of materials from unassociated third parties. I appreciate your concern and will ensure that our faculty and staff follow the attached policy in the future.”
Several schools in the Highlands County School District in Sebring, Fla., had religious assemblies scheduled for Oct. 5 until FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt put a stop to it with a Sept. 7 letter of complaint to Superintendent Wally Cox.
The assemblies were to be put on by Team Impact, self-described on its website as a ministry of “seasoned evangelists preach[ing] the message of salvation by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ.” The website’s “Reach Your Schools” page says: “With a Team Impact event, your church has the ability to impact your schools with this powerful message. Very rarely do we not couple these effective school outreaches with our local church events.”
John McClure, an attorney for the school, responded Sept. 15. “Following receipt of your letter and review of the circumstances, the ‘Team Impact’ event scheduled for Oct. 5, 2011, has been canceled.” McClure later told Schmitt that the district has scheduled an assembly by Chad Varga that is “100% secular.”
A Texas public school superintendent called a math teacher’s religious school supply list “a harmless error” after receiving an FFRF letter of objection. FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a letter Aug. 30 on behalf of a district parent to Superintendent Stan Surratt of the Lindale Independent School District and to Principal Vicki Thrasher at Lindale Junior High School in Lindale, Texas.
The parent alerted FFRF about math teacher Amy Priddy’s inappropriate supply list for eighth-grade algebra students. Included under “Classroom Expectations” was “Listen: to the Spirit of the Lord, to all instructions. . .” Another “expectation” was to prepare “your supplies (notebook, textbook, Bible, pencils, graph paper, spiral notebook, red pen, homework, etc.)”
The list imposes the teacher’s religious sentiments on her students, and thus violates the U.S. Constitution, Schmitt noted. “Mrs. Priddy’s decision to include ‘Listen: to the Spirit of the Lord’ and a bible as classroom expectations distributed to parents and students crosses the line because she is endorsing and promoting religion while acting in her official capacity as a school district employee.” (This apparently was the teacher’s personal list because the district’s supply list online was different.)
On Sept. 6, FFRF recieved a letter from the Lindale superintendent, Stan Surratt, quoting Priddy as saying, "I used a previous supply list [from a private school]."
KYTX, the CBS affiliate in nearby Tyler, reported Sept. 2 that the school takes the complaint “very seriously,” according to Surratt. “We’re very aware of the law. It was just a simple mistake.”
On May 16, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to the postmaster in Juneau, Alaska, about a religious posting on the customer counter. Under the counter glass was a copy of the entire text of Psalm 23. Markert noted that “by displaying the biblical verse, the Juneau, Alaska, post office branch is illegally demonstrating a preference for religion, specifically Christianity.”
After two follow-up letters, the branch manager responded Aug. 23 to say that the bible verse had been removed and had been placed there by an unknown postal patron.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has put an end to several forms of unlawful school prayer in DeSoto County, Miss., after the school board voted to reaffirm and follow its eight-year-old written policy against such prayer.
FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote an Aug. 10 letter to Superintendent Milton Kuykendall, strongly advising him to end the illegal prayers taking place before sporting events, school lunches and commencement ceremonies. All of the prayers were Christian-based and some were broadcast over the school's loudspeaker.
"Our current policy is not to have prayers in football games and we're going to abide by that which we believe the law to be," said Keith Treadway, school board attorney. "We will not have prayer over the PA. The principals have all expressed they are aware of the law and intend to abide by it,” Treadway stated in an interview the DeSoto Times Tribune.
The Springboro, Ohio School Board will no longer pursue a proposal by board members to teach creationism along with evolution. FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter Aug. 2 to board President Don Miller to object to the plan. “It is wildly inappropriate for the religious beliefs of a few board members to be pushed on a captive audience of public school students,” Markert wrote. “Such a practice alienates those teachers and students who practice other religious faiths, those who are nonreligious, and those who believe that science and religion are compatible.”
The Dayton Daily News had reported earlier comments by board member Kelly Kohls saying that “Creationism is a significant part of the history of this country. It is an absolutely valid theory, and to omit it means we are omitting part of the history of this country.” Kohls, who heads the Warren County Tea Party, was backed by Jo Ellen Myers, who like Kohls belongs to Educate Ohio, a statewide group of conservative school board members. “If they’re teaching the one, why not [both]?” Myers said. She said she believes in creationism but not evolution, because evolution is “based on a theory that can’t even be proven.”
The Daily News reported Aug. 21 that Kohls had changed her mind and was dropping her proposal. Along with FFRF, ACLU of Ohio had also objected.
“Every inch of school was blessed that evening as Rev. Jaison Mangalath of Holy Ghost Catholic Church led two dozen people around the school for their annual prayer rally.” That’s from an Aug. 11 story in the Opelousas [La.] Daily World. The priest and a church group called the Blood Covenant Women of God were led through the public Opelousas High School by Principal Rodney Johnson prior to the start of the school year. “Mangalath blessed classrooms, hallways, offices and meeting areas, sprinkling holy water throughout the school as the group followed behind and recited the Hail Mary,” the paper reported. Other prayers were also said.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, on behalf of Louisiana members, sent a letter of objection Aug. 12 to Superintendent Michael Nassif and the St. Landry Parish School Board. The Daily World reported Aug. 16 that the church group had asked Nassif for permission to hold the rally and had been denied. Unbeknownst to Nassif, however, Johnson had already approved the rally. Johnson claimed not to know about Nassif’s denial. Johnson could be disciplined, Nassif said, adding that principals will be reminded of separation of church and state rules at an upcoming monthly meeting.
New Braunfels Independent School District (ISD) in New Braunfels, Texas holds a required annual convocation for staff at the beginning and end of each school year at the Tree of Life Church. This July, a local complainant alerted FFRF that the church’s pastor was invited to give a prayer at this meeting. FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a letter of complaint to Superintendent Randy Moczygemba on Aug. 10, 2011, demanding that the District “immediately end the practice of prayer at its annual convocation, or any other events, and stop scheduling employee assemblies in places of worship.”
Moczygemba responded to FFRF on Aug. 15, saying that they would be unable to change the venue as it is the only facility in New Braunfels that has both the indoor seating and parking capacity to accommodate all their employees. However, the District did assure FFRF that they did not schedule a prayer at the August 2011 Employee Convocation.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation alerted a school district in Brandenburg, KY to a serious offense on June 7, 2011. The Green River Co-op policy allowed Gideons to distribute bibles to 5th grade elementary school students.
Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, wrote to the Superintendent asking that the school district not allow any religious group to distribute materials in the district schools. She also informed the district that they "need not create an open public forum whereby any private organization may take advantage of school resources and a captive student audience to further its personal goals." The school district attorney wrote to FFRF on August 5, 2011, "...the District has not been historically opposed to permitting the voluntary disposition of Bibles to those students who wish to receive a Bible. Nevertheless, in light of your above mentioned correspondence and having reviewed the applicable legal authority, the District agrees to preclude the distribution of Bibles by the Gideons as requested by your correspondence."
FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote a letter July 20 to Superintendent Xavier De La Torre of the Socorro Independent School District in El Paso, Texas, after complaints were received about teacher-led prayer and creationism instruction. Schmitt reported allegations that Laura Varela, Montwood Middle School science teacher and girls soccer coach, promoted creationism in her classroom. “We further understand that on several occasions, Ms. Varela has led her team in prayer prior to the start of a game.” According to a parent complainant, while exploring the “big bang” scientific theory, the teacher allegedly told students that “really, God created the world.”
On Aug. 9, Larry Baskind, school attorney, responded that Varela had resigned effective June 30. “Accordingly, there should be no concern regarding actions by her in the future.” Baskind said the school “has been unable to confirm” that the questionable activities occurred, adding that the district “has in place appropriate policies to assure that teachers and other staff comply with applicable law.”
The state of Wisconsin removed a link to a religious anti-abortion group from its website after receiving FFRF’s July 14 letter of objection. FFRF wrote Gov. Scott Walker to point out that the state shouldn’t be directing residents to Care Net “pregnancy centers” while offering no links to information about legitimate, legal abortion providers. Care Net’s vision statement says: “Our vision is a culture where lives are transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and every woman chooses life for herself and her unborn child.”
Clicking on “Health & Safety” at wisconsin.gov, the online portal to Wisconsin government, led to (under “Family and Consumer Services”) “Family Services Links - NEW!” Clicking that brought up “Care Net Pregnancy Centers” under the “Family” subheading. The link was removed on Aug. 8, said Chris Schoenherr, state Department of Administration spokesman. “In general, the policy for the Wisconsin.gov website is to provide links to .gov and .edu websites only.”
Humble High School's (Humble, Texas) May 2011 graduation ceremony included an invocation and benediction. The invocation began with “Dear Heavenly Father” and the benediction ended with “In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.”
On June 22, 2011, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt reminded the District that it has a legal duty to remain neutral toward religion and asked that the School Board take steps to “ensure that the district high schools are not scheduling religious practices as part of their graduation ceremonies or any other school-sponsored events.”
On August 4, 2011, the District wrote back stating that it will now require all schools in the District to use the terms “opening remarks” and “closing remarks” as opposed to the terms “invocation” and “benediction.” Stephanie Schmitt sent a similar complaint to Deer Park Independent School District in Deer Park, Texas on June 22, 2011. Per their their August 25th, 2011 response, the Deer Park Independent School District will be requiring an identical change in their graduation ceremonies.
A North Carolina school district now has a policy prohibiting religious speech at commencement after the Freedom From Religion Foundation expressed serious concerns about a graduation speaker. Graduating seniors from Nantahala School in Nantahala, N.C. (part of Macon County Schools), invited Rev. Daniel "Cowboy" Stewart, a controversial, outspoken religious leader. The pastor's sermon included placing a volunteer from the audience in ropes and putting a bag over their head.Stewart was quoted in The Andrews Journal as saying, "The devil is out to destroy you, to tie you up."
Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, wrote a letter on June 29, 2011 to Dan Brigman, Superintendent of Macon County Schools, that Stewart "obviously abused his speaking opportunity to proselytize a captive audience." Brigman replied to FFRF on August 4, saying while Stewart was not invited for the purpose of delivering a sermon, they will "ensure that future graduation speakers refrain from religious speech."
See FFRF's original news release for more information.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation alerted a post office in McHenry, Ms., to a serious violation of postal regulations and the U.S. Constitution. Religious fliers, clearly visible to all passersby, were posted in the post office lobby in July 2011. The flyer advertised a local vacation bible school's New York City-themed event.
On behalf of a local postal client, FFRF Senior Staff attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to the Postmaster on July 21, 2011, citing postal regulations and asking that the flier be removed from postal property immediately. Postmaster Relief Jeanette L. Walker replied on July 27, 2011, that the poster in question and all other posters "have been removed and no further ones will be allowed to be posted."
Something’s constitutionally amiss when the city of Blue Island, Ill., requires vehicle owners to advertise the 150th anniversary of a Catholic parish. So said a July 6 FFRF letter of complaint
to city officials.
Blue Island, a south Chicago suburb of about 23,000, levies a municipal vehicle tax and issues stickers that must be displayed inside the windshield. “The [2011-12] stickers give the impression to observers that the city approves of and wishes to celebrate St. Benedict Roman Catholic Church,” FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote. “The stickers say ‘Blue Island’ and ‘St. Benedict’ in large lettering and depict city buildings on an official, and required, vehicle sticker.” Underneath in large letters is “150 years.” Federal courts have consistently struck down symbolism that ties cities to religion, Elliott said. “Secular organizations certainly could have been honored, as there is no First Amendment problem with honoring the Blue Island Fire Department.” The city claimed the sticker acknowledges a special anniversary for St. Benedict. To that, Elliott rejoined, “Can you imagine the outcry if the city ‘acknowledged’ the opening of a Muslim mosque or the founding of an atheist group in Blue Island?”
About two weeks after FFRF’s letter went out, the Blue Island city attorney called Elliott and said that Mayor Donald Peloquin had instructed police not
to cite residents who chose to cover up the religious part of the stickers. The city is working on a policy to avoid the issue in the future.
On August 25, 2010, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote a letter of complaint on behalf of a teacher to the New Jersey Department of Education to object to the following “Oath of Allegiance/Verification of Accuracy” on its teacher licensure form: “I, ______, do solemnly swear, (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New Jersey, and that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same and to the governments established in the United States and in this State, under the authority of the people, so help me God.”
Elliott noted that the oath doesn’t allow an appropriate alternative for teachers with no belief in a god or teachers who adhere to religions such as Jehovah’s Witness. FFRF got a response on July 11, 2011 from Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, confirming that the department has added a nonreligious affirmation, which omits “so help me God,” to its form.
After receiving complaints from FFRF and local parents, Gideons International will no longer be able to distribute bibles in the public schools in Conway, Ark.
In June 2011, FFRF received a complaint from concerned parents in Conway who informed FFRF that their sixth-grade child had told them that Gideons were distributing bibles after an assembly at Ruth Doyle Intermediate School. The "Chicken Dance" assembly, raising money for charity, was mandatory and took place during instructional time. After the assembly, Gideons were located in the hallway outside the cafeteria exit, where all students would have to walk past them. The complainant also informed FFRF that the same type of bible distribution had occurred during previous school years.
On July 7, 2011, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliot sent a letter to Conway Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Greg Murry, informing him that bible distribution on school grounds is illegal and asking for an end to this practice. Elliott explained, "When a school distributes religious literature to its students, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message, in this case a Christian message."
Later that same day, Superintendent Murry replied to Elliott via email, informing FFRF that he had recently met with other concerned parents and that the district would "discontinue the distribution of Gideon Bibles." He also state that the Gideons had been informed of this decision.
A Columbus, Ohio resident informed FFRF that several religious mottos were clearly displayed in the local Bureau of Motor Vehicles, including a bumper sticker reading, "If my people would pray and humble themselves," and a poster quoting Jesus saying, "Do unto others as you'd have done to you."
On February 15th, 2011, FFRF Staff Attorney, Patrick Elliott, informed the Bureau, "The display of religiously themed materials in the Columbus BMV branch cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny, as the purpose for the display is religious in nature and the display constitutes government endorsement of religion."
The BMV did not officially respond to the letter, but the complainant confirmed that they had since visited the branch and the religious-themed displays had been removed.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote a letter of complaint July 7 to Superintendent Greg Murry, Conway, Ark. Public Schools, about illegal Gideon bible distributions at Ruth Doyle Intermediate School. According to FFRF’s complainant, the Gideons were positioned outside the cafeteria/auditorium exit where a mandatory assembly was being held. The complainant said several families complained to Assistant Superintendent Carroll Bishop about the Gideons’ presence, and said the response they received was the district “[is] looking into this for the future.”
Murry emailed back to FFRF within hours to say that the district, in response to an earlier complaint, “would discontinue the distribution of Gideon bibles in our district. I have also informed the Gideons of this decision as well.” Elliott noted, “Although it appears that the Conway Public School District reached the decision to bar Gideon bible distribution before receiving FFRF’s letter. This incident demonstrates that concerned families and citizens can effectively, and should, petition school officials to end these unconstitutional practices in their schools.”
In response to a letter of complaint from FFRF, a religious sign will be removed from the grounds of a Cayuga, Ind. school. In May 2011, FFRF was informed that a religious sign was posted on the grounds at North Vermillion Junior/Senior High School in Cayuga. The sign was affixed to the entrance gate of the athletic fields, which is located between the school and the fields. The sign contained two bible quotes, one from Ecclesiastes 12:1 and one from 2 Timothy 2:5. The sign read:
Remember your Creator in the days of your youth
An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules
This is the will of God...........
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote a letter of complaint to North Vermillion Community Schools Superintendent Mike Turner, informing him that the sign was unconstitutional. Elliott wrote, "North Vermillion Schools may not display Christian or other religious messages on school grounds. It is unconstitutional for the school to send a biblical message to students that it is 'the will of God' to 'remember your creator.' This is precisely the type of message that public schools are not allowed to endorse."
On June 22, 2011, Superintendent Turner responded, "An acceptable replacement sign is being designed and will be made to replace the challenged signage. My timeline is to have the replacement sign in place before school starts for the 2011-2012 school year."
The Garfield Heights City School District in Ohio settled a lawsuit filed against it by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group based in Arizona. The suit, brought by ADF on behalf of a mother’s group, alleged that the group’s free-speech rights were violated when Maple Leaf Intermediate School declined to distribute fliers and permission slips promoting after-school Christian programs. In previous years, the school was the subject of several FFRF complaints about staff unconstitutionally sponsoring a “field trip” to a nearby church during the school day. Superintendent Linda Reid canceled the field trip last year after an FFRF complaint. Reid drew the ire of the mother’s group this year when she also declined to distribute fliers for their after-school bible themed events.
In a May 2011 letter, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor suggested a solution to the lawsuit. Gaylor noted that problems arise when teachers distribute religious fliers: “I encourage you to consider amending the district’s policies so that only district-sponsored announcements are sent home with students. This avoids the difficult First Amendment issues that arise when the school becomes involved in distributing materials for other groups.” The district, taking that advice, agreed in the settlement with ADF to amend school policy so that outside groups won’t be able to send fliers home with students. Groups can place limited quantities of fliers in the school office. The district also agreed to pay $3,000 to ADF attorneys to settle the suit, which was dismissed June 21.
In May 2011, FFRF was alerted by a Pulaski, Tenn. resident that "kindergarten graduation" at Pulaski Elementary featured a two-minute prayer by a local Church of Christ minister "in Jesus' name." This is the second complaint FFRF has received in a year about violations at Pulaski Elementary. In December, FFRF complained about kindergartners being instructed to sing the religious song "Johnny Appleseed Grace" by their teachers as a prayer.
On May 26, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to Tee Jackson, Director of Schools in Giles County, requesting an end to prayer at all graduations in the school district in the future.
Markert said, "The graduating kindergarten children, as young as 5, who have previously been taught prayer by their teachers and are again subjected to religious ritual on their big graduation day cannot possibly be able to discern that the school district does not endorse the religious messages embodied in the graduation prayer." Markert noted that the principal was present during the prayer.
On June 6, Jackson responded, "We do not expect this circumstance in the future."
At the Grand Prairie Ninth Grade Center annual awards ceremony, a school board member issued a Christian prayer ending with “In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.” The invocation was followed by the song, “We are Marching in the Light of God.”
On May 25, 2011, Stephanie Schmitt of FFRF sent a letter to Grand Prairie Independent School District in Grand Prairie, Texas to alert it to the fact that it “is unlawful for any school-sponsored event, such as a banquet recognizing academic achievement, to present a prayer” and to demand that the District take the necessary steps to “ensure that Grand Prairie School students are not being forced—directly or indirectly—to sing songs of religious worship.” The District responded on June 2, 2011 assuring FFRF that the prayer was an isolated event that was not consistent with District Policy. The District also said that it would share the alternative secular version of the song, titled “We are Standing in the Light of Peace,” with the choral directors.
In May 2011, FFRF was alerted that Gideon bibles were being distributed to fifth-grade students at McCormick's Creek Elementary School in Spencer, Ind. On May 23, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote a letter of complaint to Spencer-Owen Community Schools Superintendent Greg Linton, informing him that teacher distribution of bibles is unconstitutional. Elliott said, "Public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion. When a school distributes religious literature to its students, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message, in this case a Christian message."
Elliott added, "Whether or not a bible is forced on a student, this practice is still an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. . . . This matter is especially concerning given the young and impressionable age of elementary school students."
On June 2, the school district's attorney, Jack R. Woodruff, responded that students had been escorted by their teachers off school property during recess to receive Gideon bibles. Woodruff said that he believed that this practice was unconstitutional, and that Superintendent Linton had "communicated in writing to his entire administrative team, that the facilitation of Bible distribution to school students on school grounds is strictly forbidden."
Woodruff continued, "In addition, Mr. Linton has taken it upon himself to make contact with the local director of Gideons International to advise him that their Bible distribution to public school students is in violation of the law and that Spencer-Owen Community Schools will not be complicit in their distribution."
After receiving three letters of complaint from Freedom from Religion Foundation senior staff attorney Rebecca Markert, the Laurens County School District 55 in Laurens, S.C. halted its longstanding practice of voting to hold illegal, student-led prayers at graduation. FFRF's complainant, Harrison Hopkins, a graduating senior, spoke out publicly against the vote on whether to pray and against the rumored plans of valedictorians to pray during their speeches.
See FFRF's earlier press release, announcing that Harrison had been awarded FFRF's $1,000 student activist award.
See Harrison's interview on local television for more information (5/18/2011).
In April 2011, FFRF received a complaint regarding about two religious displays in Glendale Union High School classrooms from a Glendale, Ariz. resident. A history teacher had displayed a timeline of world history which started with Adam and Eve and read, "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth." In the same school, a picture of Jesus and the Ten Commandments hung on the wall of an art classroom, where the teacher kept a bible on his desk.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote a letter of complaint to Superintendent Jennifer Johnson, reminding her that "Courts have continually held that school districts may not display religious messages or iconography on the walls of public schools." Elliott added that these teachers' displays were "inappropriate and a violation of the Establishment Clause. Students taking their classes should not have to view materials promoting Christian messages. There is no educational or academic component or motive for such displays; their presence is proselytizing a captive audience."
After FFRF followed up on May 25, Superintendent Johnson responded, saying that the displays had been taken down. In her letter dated May 31, Johnson said she had directed the Glendale Union High School principal to "have a conversation with the two teachers involved and directing them to remove the questionable materials," and that, to her knowledge, no further church-state violations were occurring in the high schools.
After FFRF complained last December about Prineville, Ore.'s yearly nativity scene, the city council voted on May 24 to end city sponsorship of the display.
FFRF received a complaint from a Prineville member in December 2010 about the nativity scene that was traditionally set up at the entrance of the Prineville City Hall. FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a letter on Dec. 13 asking that the display not be put up, saying, "When the government displays this manger scene, which depicts the legendary birth of Jesus Christ, it places the imprimatur of the city government behind the Christian religious doctrine. This excludes citizens who are not Christian—Jews, Native American religion practitioners, animists, etc., as well as the significant and growing proportion of the U.S. population that is not religious at all."
Despite FFRF's protest, the nativity scene was displayed in 2010. (Local news coverage from the Central Oregonian, including a close-up picture of the generic plastic creche figures, can be found here and here.)
This May, our original complainant informed us that the city council had decided to transfer the creche into private hands. According to an article in the Central Oregonian, the city council voted to no longer display the creche on city property, while encouraging local residents to come up with their own holiday displays.
Prineville Mayor Betty Roppe stated the city's decision was intended to avoid lawsuits or further legal complaints, saying, "It is time to accept our obligations to the citizens of Prineville—they want the nativity scene. But we also have a fiduciary responsibility to our citizens to not waste taxpayers’ money on lawsuits."
A religious label was removed from a tree in Whitnall Park in Milwaukee County, Wis., after FFRF sent a letter of complaint. An area member contacted FFRF with photos of the label, which read: “Richard A. Kietzmann, Regional Manager. Only god can create a tree.” FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to the Milwaukee County Parks Administration on November 9, 2010, saying, “It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that the government cannot in any way promote, advance or otherwise endorse religion. Therefore, it is very inappropriate to have a religious message nailed to a tree.” On May 18, 2011, the Parks Administration responded, saying, “The plaque has now been removed.”
After receiving a complaint from a concerned high school student, FFRF stopped illegal prayer in an algebra classroom in Lenoir City, Tenn. In April 2011, a student at Lenoir City High School told FFRF that he had been made aware that his former Algebra II teacher was leading students in prayer before their final exams. On April 20, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a letter to the Superintendent of Lenoir City Schools, informing him of this violation, saying, "As you know, it is well settled that a public school teacher may not lead, direct or ask her students to engage in prayer." Markert also reminded the district that voting, or a lack of objection, did not make classroom prayer more legal.
On May 5, Superintendent Wayne Miller responded that this teacher had been informed of the law against classroom prayer, that she had apologized in writing, and that he had taken steps to inform all district principals and teachers of the illegality of classroom prayer.
The city of Grandville, Mich., removed religious language from its official city website after receiving a complaint from FFRF. The website included a list of community values adopted in June of 2000, including "Faith, being guided by a strong religious heritage."
"Incorporating a proclamation of shared religious belief into the values of a municipality is inappropriate," wrote Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in her letter of March 11, 2011. "It is also inappropriate to display this value on the city's website. By implying that belonging to the Grandville community requires adherence to 'religious heritage' and valuing 'faith,' Grandville is compromising the First Amendment rights of its citizens."
Mayor James R. Buck responded on May 4, "As of the date of this letter the City of Grandville has complied with your request and the City's website no longer contains a page listing the community values including one referencing faith." — Eleanor Wroblewski
The County Board in Eau Claire, Wis., voted 23-4 on May 3 to start meetings with a “moment of reflection” instead of an invocation. FFRF formally objected Feb. 25, 2011, to the prayer practice that’s long been in place, including regular invocations given by eight current board members. “Government prayer is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive,” wrote FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Calling upon board members and citizens to rise and pray (even silently) is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of secular city government. Board 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.” In April, a board committee recommended replacing the prayer with the county’s mission statement. That became a moment of reflection in the measure approved May 3, 2011. The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram reported that Supervisor Paul Lokken was sorry that the committee “knuckled under” to pressure from FFRF and local prayer opponents. “It’s time to say, ‘We’re going to do it our way,’ ” Lokken said. Supervisor Sue Miller, one of those previously offering “nonreligious” invocations, recalled being asked once why her remarks didn’t mention God or Jesus. “Whose god should I represent?” Miller said she responded. — Bill Dunn
After FFRF's complaint, the football team at West High School in Knoxville, Tenn. will no longer have a volunteer chaplain. In December of 2010, FFRF was alerted by a concerned area member that Graham Schulyer, a priest at Apostles Anglican Church, was serving as the volunteer chaplain of the football team. The complainant sent FFRF a copy of a local news article about the football team's religious inclinations.
On March 14 of 2011, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert contacted the Knox County Schools Superintendent and the West High School principal, letting them know that "The appointment of a team chaplain, formal or de facto, for a public high school athletic team . . . violates the Constitution. A public high school football team should not employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team, or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain." (Letter here.)
On May 3, 2011, the Knox County Law Director's Office responded to FFRF: "West High School football team will not have a volunteer chaplain in the future. By policy, Knox County Schools neither advances nor inhibits religion."
In December 2010, FFRF was alerted by Cliff Hillington, a Nevada FFRF member, of a constitutional violation that had taken place during the administration of his oath to become a Notary Public. On May 27, 2010, Mr. Hillington had been told by a Deputy Clerk of Clark County, Nev. that he could not omit the phrase "so help me god" in his oath as a notary. As a non-believer, he was made very uncomfortable by this and felt he could not in good conscience perform his duties as a notary.
On February 11, 2011, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert contacted the Nevada Secretary of State about this violation, and followed up on April 12 with the Clark County Clerk. In her letter, she pointed out that the Nevada Constitution specifically allows for secular affirmations as well as religious oaths, saying, "No person applying to be a notary public should be required to take a religious oath. Not providing a secular alternative violates Nevada law." She also cited Torcaso V. Watkins, a U.S. Supreme Court decision explicitly calling it unconstitutional to force a notary to take a religious oath.
The Clark County Clerk's office sent a response to FFRF and Mr. Hillington on May 2. The County Clerk, Diana Alba, apologized for the "misunderstanding between my staff and Mr. Hillington regarding his option to solemnly affirm under the pains and penalties of perjury." Alba went on to say that all employees in her office, including the deputy clerk who swore Hillington in, had been reminded that those being sworn in "are allowed to take the oath in accordance with their personal preferences as defined in Nevada law." In addition, Hillington was offered the option to re-take his oath in a secular manner.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation alerted a post office in Lothian, Md., to a serious violation of postal regulations and the U.S. Constitution. Religious fliers, printed on blue 8 1/2 x 14 inch paper and clearly visible to all passersby, were stacked in the post office lobby in early April, 2011. The headline read: "God Gives Another Infallible Proof that Assures the Rapture Will Occur May 21, 2011."
Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, wrote the Lothian Postmaster on April 4, 2011: "United States postal regulations prohibit the display of fliers on postal property. [Postal regulations] state that no fliers may be deposited on counters or other interior public areas on postal premises. The section goes on to state that private business and nonprofit organizations may not post or display advertisement in post office lobbies or other posting space.
"Furthermore, displaying this flier containing a religious message violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution," Markert remarked. "By displaying this flier on its counters, the Lothian Maryland post office branch is illegally demonstrating a preference for religion, specifically Christianity." She asked that the fliers be removed from postal property immediately.
"I want to personally apologize on behalf of the Postal Service," responded Postmaster Derma Maldon on April 28, 2011. "We regret this experience, which does not reflect our high standards of service. We do not condone and are not impartial to any fliers being placed in the lobby of our post offices. The policy in the [Postal Operations Manual] is clearly written and enforced. . . . These particular fliers could have been left after a check was completed. However, they were noticed later that afternoon and disposed of." — Bonnie Gutsch
A worship service was removed from the official schedule of a state-sponsored Civil War Commemoration Kickoff Weekend, after FFRF fired off an urgent 3-page letter. Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) as one of the event's organizers had invited a Christian pastor from Asylum Hill Congregational Church to lead the worship service, planned for April 17, 2011. Other sponsors of the commemoration included the City of New Britain, Connecticut Civil War Commemoration Committee, and Commission, government-affiliated entities. FFRF's letter, sent by Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, was sent April 4 to Dr. Matthew Warshauer, a CCSU history professor and the Civil War Commemoration Coordinator and Dr. Jack Miller, the president of CCSU. "While it may be acceptable to teach about religion's impact on the war from a scholarly perspective, the Establishment Clause prohibits the state from sponsoring a religious worship service, thus promoting religion over nonreligion," commented Markert. "When multiple public institutions offer a worship service at a secular commemoration, the government itself expresses an establishment of religion and shows favoritism for the Christian religion." Markert further noted: "Sponsorship of a Christian worship service by public institutions also raises concerns under the Connecticut Constitution. The state constitution ensures that '[n]o preference shall be given by law to any religious society or denomination in the state' Art. 7." FFRF received a response April 14 from CCSU: "Thank you for alerting us to the issue regarding the inclusion of a worship service in the agenda for the Civil War Commemoration which is scheduled for this coming weekend. Dr. Warshauer has removed the service from the agenda. Please note that the service will be held in a privately owned church on private property and is not being sponsored by Central Connecticut State University." — Bonnie Gutsch
An FFRF letter launched a successful investigation involving county employees returning atheist books sent to an inmate at the David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center [Tulsa, Okla.]. FFRF's complainant attempted to send two atheist books to an inmate at the Justice Center via distributor Amazon.com. The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality was 'returned to sender' on February 14. A paperback copy of The Atheist's Way was returned on February 17. The Justice Center's policy allowed inmates to receive paperback copies of books that were religious in nature and sent directly from a distributor. The Justice Center's chaplain was in charge of determining which books met policy requirements. Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, wrote to Sheriff Stanley Glanz on March 23: "A policy that allows for the acceptance of religious books while rejecting all others demonstrates an endorsement and preference for religion over nonreligion. In addition, allowing the chaplain to determine if books are of a religious nature also carries with it the risk that the Justice Center will endorse a preference for one religion over another, or religion over non-religion." Sheriff Glanz acknowledged on April 11 that the books were never signed for by front desk employees, as they should have been. "I do not promote discrimination, of any kind, within this organization and investigate all allegations thoroughly. . . . After speaking with the employees I am comfortable stating that they misinterpreted the policy and in no way were they acting in a malicious, discriminatory manner. . . . Finding this error, we have made the appropriate changes to our policy and have ensured that all employees stationed at the front desk are made aware of the updated changes to our acceptance policy of inmate packages sent to the facility. . . . [W]hile I sincerely apologize for the inadvertent offense to your claimant, these actions were not meant as interpreted." — Bonnie Gutsch
Minford Local School District (Minford, Ohio) has ended the scheduling of prayers at high school assemblies and graduations after FFRF notified the superintendent of the illegal practices. Prayer was scheduled and delivered by a student during the February 2011 National Honor Society (NHS) assembly at Minford High School, and prayer had been scheduled for high school graduations in previous years. The assembly prayer had been approved by the NHS advisor and the principal. Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, wrote in her Feb. 25, 2011 letter: "Even if student-initated, 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-sponsored event. . . . The Supreme Court has settled this matter — high school assemblies and graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students."
An attorney for the school district responded April 6, 2011: "With respect to the assembly held to induct students into the National Honors Society, please be advised that the high school principal and NHS advisor have been advised that there should be no scheduled prayer in the future, in accordance with existing Board policy. "With respect to the graduation, we have been informed that there was no scheduled prayer at the District graduation ceremony in 2010, nor is the Board aware that a prayer is scheduled as part of the program for this year's graduation ceremony." — Bonnie Gutsch
FFRF ended a serious state/church violation at Cedar Cliff High School (Camp Hill, Pa.) involving staff planning and hosting a religious baccalaureate service. On June 3, 2010, the school hosted the baccalaureate service under the direction of two teachers. The service included an invocation, religious message and benediction by Pastor Jeff Davidson and a performance of the religious "Anthem Dedication" by student members of the Chamber Singers. Several days later, Red Land High School (in the same school district) held a similar baccalaureate service in which students sang "A Closing Prayer" and "The Lord Bless You and Keep You." Cedar Cliff scheduled and transported students to an official baccalaureate practice after senior exams on June 3. Both services contained the district seal and both were held on district property.
Rebecca Markert, senior staff attorney for FFRF, sent a stern letter July 1, 2010, to Superintendent Jamry Small: "As an inherently religious event, a baccalaureate service may not be held or financially supported by a public school. . . . School sponsorship, or even the appearance of sponsorship, of baccalaureate services is unconstitutional and any endorsement, participation, planning or promotion of the services must cease immediately.
"End-of-the-year celebrations mean a lot not only to Christian students but also to students practicing non-Christian religions and the 15% of your student population who are nonreligious," she added. "A secular, school-sponsored awards night may benefit from full school endorsement and has the added advantage of being entirely inclusive of students and families from all types of religious or nonreligious backgrounds."
While the district has not officially responded to FFRF's concerns, the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported April 6, 2011, that "Cedar Cliff High School no longer will host a baccalaureate service before graduation. According to a notice sent to parents and students, the West Shore School District received a complaint last summer that the program could cross constitutional boundaries separating church and state. . . . The note says most schools in Pennsylvania stopped hosting the service years ago because of constitutional questions regarding the separation of church and state, and 'we are now doing similarly.' " — Bonnie Gutsch
The Foundation has been assured by the Washington County [Wis.] Clerk of Circuit Court that they will now, after receipt of an FFRF letter of complaint, "inform the jury of the option of a secular affirmation or oath." A resident of Washington County complained to FFRF after being summoned for jury duty that the jury panel was sworn in with an oath that ended with "so help me God," and was not offered the option of a secular affirmation. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that "neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person to 'profess a belief or disbelief in any religion,' " wrote Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, in her Feb. 11 letter. The language in Wisconsin state law regarding oaths also provides for a secular affirmation option. "No juror should be made to take a religious oath. Not providing a secular alternative violates Wisconsin law," noted Markert. The Washington County Clerk of Circuit Court wrote the Foundation on March 14, 2011, that the Court agreed with Markert's analysis, and now offers the secular affirmation option for all Washington County jurors. — Bonnie Gutsch
FFRF successfully stopped a school district from requesting its teachers wear a ribbon that contained an image of a Christian cross and the name of a ministry, supposedly in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Teachers in the Beloit Turner School District [Beloit, Wis.] received this request by email from Dr. William L. Beckley, director of Curriculum/Staff Development, on Jan. 14, 2011: "All Staff, In honor of the National holiday on Monday, we will be delivering the Dr. King ribbons this A.M. All staff are asked to wear the ribbons today and on Monday. . . . " In addition to the cross, the ribbon said at the bottom, "Beloit Community Ministers Fellowship."
"While honoring Dr. King is laudable and a worthy cause . . . the Latin cross is universally understood to represent Christianity," wrote Patrick Elliott, FFRF staff attorney, in his March 10 letter. "Non-Christians and nonbelievers do not wish to display this Christian symbol on their person."
"Students may perceive the ribbons as an endorsement of Christianity and the Beloit Community Ministers Fellowship," Elliott pointed out. "Government actors must be especially careful to remain neutral on matters of religion in the public school context." The district superintendent, Dr. Dennis McCarthy, emailed Elliott on March 14, 2011: "At times the good intentions of individuals may cause unintended consequences for others. It will not be an issue in the future." — Bonnie Gutsch
A letter from FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert successfully ended an illegal "church bulletin discount" at Freddy's Frozen Custard and Steakburgers in Oklahoma City. The custard shop offered a discount to customers who showed a church bulletin from worship services. A sign outside the shop read "10% off with Church Bulletin." Markert pointed out in her Feb. 24 letter that Freddy's discount violates the federal Civil Rights Act, Oklahoma state law and Oklahoma City Municipal Code, all of which guarantee that places of public accommodation cannot discriminate on religious grounds. "Freddy's restrictive promotional practice favors religious customers and denies customers who do not attend church, and nonbelievers the right to 'full and equal' enjoyment of Freddy's Frozen Custard and Steakburgers," wrote Markert. "Any promotions should be available to all customers regardless of religious preference or practice on a nondiscriminatory basis." Sharol Rasberry, VP of Freddy's franchise, responded graciously on March 7: "We have immediately ended this promotion. Thank you for bringing this to our attention." — Bonnie Gutsch
FFRF halted the "Lord's Prayer" from daily recitations at Cheboygan Center, a senior center serving around 110 seniors a day, five days a week, in Cheboygan, Mich. The Christian prayer was delivered via microphone by a Cheboygan Center employee before meals each day. FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote the director of the center (Feb. 23, 2011): "Federal regulations prohibit senior centers receiving federal funding to engage in religious activities at government-sponsored functions such as senior lunches. . . . Allowing, promoting or encouraging prayer at these government-subsidized meals places your agency in direct violation of the federal mandate." Markert pointed out that the center's "support of public prayer during these meals ignored the rights of other seniors who may not wish to participate in the religious activities because they disagree with a particular faith publicly exercised, they prefer to be private in their worship, or they do not believe at all." The complainant informed FFRF March 3 that an attorney for the senior center had agreed with FFRF's concerns, and the center has since discontinued the prayers. — Bonnie Gutsch
Owasso Public Schools [Okla.] removed an 8-inch wooden cross prominently displayed in a public school bus three days after receiving a stern letter from FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott. The letter, sent Feb. 25, 2011, said, "courts have continually held that school districts may not display religious messages or iconography on the walls (or ceilings) of public schools." Elliott noted that the buses were under the control of the public schools and thus were subject to the same treatment under the Establishment Clause as school classrooms. Superintendent Clark Ogilvie replied by e-mail Feb. 28: "The cross has been removed from the bus."
FFRF halted an egregious public school violation involving a kindergarten teacher leading students in prayer every day before lunch in Edgecombe Public Schools [Tarboro, N.C.]. The violation was first discovered when the complainant's five-year-old child came home from school singing the following (to the tune of "Frere Jacques"):
"God, our father,
God, our father,
We will ask a blessing,
We will ask a blessing,
Rebecca Market, FFRF senior staff attorney, wrote a strong letter requesting the superintendent "commence an immediate investigation into this allegation and take prompt action to halt prayers occurring at public schools in your district. . . . Your school district should make certain that its teachers are not unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters. While acting in their official role as public school teachers, and while they are present in classroom or public school, teachers may not pray with students. Courts have upheld the termination of teachers who do." Markert also pointed out that this practice violates the district's own policy, which states clearly, "The school system and its employees shall not conduct, sponsor, or endorse any form of religious indoctrination or exercise, including prayer, at school functions."
The parent complainant notified FFRF that in November, the prayer song practice had ended. FFRF followed up with letters in December and February, and finally received a response from the Stocks Elementary School principal in February, which was a letter he had apparently directed to the superintendent in October. The forwarded letter noted that FFRF's letter had been shared with the school's seven Kindergarten teachers. The teachers reviewed and discussed relevant case law and board policies on Oct. 12, 2010, and "were directed to stop all prayer immediately in the Kindergarten classrooms at Stocks Elementary School. . . . All teachers will be reminded to immediately refrain from any expression of religious viewpoints and prayer in the classroom." — Bonnie Gutsch
FFRF contacted the Wayne County Community College District, a publicly-funded college with campuses in and around Detroit, requesting that it end its Ministerial Leadership Academy Studies Certificate program. Patrick Elliott, FFRF staff attorney, wrote on Jan. 27, 2011: "It is inappropriate for a public community college to offer a course that is religiously devotional in nature." Classes in the program included Introduction to Christian Education, which taught students "to become a strong Christian witness." A class titled Personal Relationship and the Word was described as helping students "develop stronger Bible based relationships with God." Class descriptions identified preaching as a “Gospel proclamation” and “a decree of the Holy Spirit.” FFRF objected to the program as a violation of the Establishment Clause and the Michigan Constitution (Art. I, Sec. 4), which says, in part, that no taxes can support teachers of religion or be used for the benefit of theological or religious seminaries. FFRF received a response from the vice chancellor (Feb. 9, 2011): "After review of the Establishment Clause it was found the essence of the clause is to ensure 'a wall of separation between church and state.' As a result, the program is being discontinued. Students currently enrolled will be allowed to complete their certificates, but no new students will be accepted as of this coming semester."
A teacher at Chadbourn Elementary School [Columbus County Schools, Tabor City, N.C.] has been ordered to "cease and desist from any prayer time or references to prayer" after the district received a stern letter of complaint from FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert. Markert warned the district against "unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters." Third grade teacher Becky McCleney had instructed students to say this prayer prior to eating lunch:
"Thank you for the world so sweet,
Thank you for the food we eat,
Thank you for the birds that sing,
Thank you God for everything."
Dan Strickland, superintendent, had been notified of the violation before FFRF complained, but the pre-meal prayers continued. "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," noted Markert, in her Jan. 28 letter. "This is particularly true (and more egregious) when the prayer is delivered and taught to a captive group of impressionable school children as young as eight." An attorney for the school district responded on Feb. 8, 2011: "[W]e are well aware that it is violative of the US Constitution and the various Court cases that have been brought under the principle of Separation of Church and State." He wrote that each year the district's teachers are instructed in the issue, "but being in the 'Bible Belt' it is oftentimes forgotten. We have taken the appropriate measures to address it and will monitor the situation to be sure that it does not occur again." — Bonnie Gutsch
FFRF stopped the practice of broadcasting prayers over loudspeakers during athletic events and hosting student-led prayers at graduation ceremonies in a Tennessee school district. (The Foundation previously had a strong victory late last year ending loudspeaker prayers at high school athletic events in Soddy Daisy, Tenn.) The Foundation complained twice (first in November and again in December) in letters to the director of schools for the McNairy County School district, located in Selmer, Tenn. In her first letter, Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, warned the district that "it is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor, and lead prayers at public high school athletic events . . . because it constitutes a government-endorsement of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment." She noted that the Supreme Court has struck down prayer at public high school graduations, and that "it is no defense that graduations are events at which participation or attendance is voluntary. Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation." FFRF received a reply [Jan. 27, 2011] from the director of McNairy County Schools: "I have addressed the issues raised in your letter with the appropriate personnel at Adamsville Junior/Senior High School and instructed such personnel that school-sponsored prayer is prohibited at school events, including athletic events and graduation ceremonies." — Bonnie Gutsch
FFRF has halted in-class prayers and devotionals by a Texas choir director. On behalf of a Texas complainant, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott objected [in a Jan. 14, 2011 letter] to an Amarillo School District choir director leading students in prayer at Tascosa High School. “Our complainant informs us that [the choir director] is known to have in-class prayers. It is our information and understanding that each Friday, [his] students sing ‘The Lord Bless You and Keep You.’ We are told that it is often sung with students holding hands and heads bowed. We also understand that prior to competitions, [the choir director] asks the students to bow their heads and then leads them in prayer.” The director is also alleged to have held a Sunday worship service at a Holiday Inn in Dallas for students who attended a choir competition in March 2010. The district responded that the teachers were instructed that they "may not, while acting in their official capacity, encourage or discourage prayer, or actively participate in such activity with students" (Jan. 24, 2011).
FFRF halted a 13-year state/church violation involving high school baseball teammates (Loudon County, Va.) who were led in prayer by coaches before each game, including in the 2010 season. A picture of the coaches praying with the players appeared on the school's website and in a school yearbook, along with a quote from a student: "Before each game, we go to left field, take a knee, take our hats off, and the team prays." FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a letter (Sept. 23, 2010) objecting to this unconstitutional tradition. Federal law "dictates government employees should refrain from actively participating in religious activities while acting within their governmental role to avoid any perception of government endorsement of religion and/or excessive entanglement with religion." An attorney for the district responded (Jan. 20, 2011): "We have taken steps to insure that administrators and coaches are aware of the current status of the law and strictly adhere to those parameters in the future."
An FFRF letter stopped a special needs school (Gastonia, N.C.) from hosting religious-based assemblies, after one of its assemblies featured Elements of Dance, a Christian dance company, on Dec. 7, 2010. Students ranging from ages 5 to 20 were in attendance, and an attorney for the district confirmed that Christian music had been played. The school planned to bring the dance company back for another assembly in the spring of 2011. Elements of Dance describes its mission as "a school of dance where students learn technical skill in ballet, modern, tap, and hip hop while worshipping the Lord. 'For Him we live and move and have our being. Acts 17:28.' " On Jan. 18, 2011, the school district's attorney spoke with Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney who wrote the letter of complaint. FFRF was informed that the principal has agreed that no future performance may include religious content, and that all assemblies must be secular in nature. — Bonnie Gutsch
An FFRF letter swiftly resolved a violation in which Salvation Army bell ringers were soliciting funds on U.S. Post Office property in Elgin, Ill. The Foundation's letter (Dec. 23, 2010), which included photographs of a bell ringer at the postal entrance, asked the Postmaster of the Elgin main branch to direct the Salvation Army to relocate its solicitation off government property. Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, wrote: "The Post Office cannot allow a Salvation Army bell ringer to solicit donations on postal property. [Postal regulations] state specifically that 'soliciting alms and contributions... or impeding access to or egress from Post Offices are prohibited.' Furthermore, 'no tables, chairs, freestanding signs or posters, structures, or furniture of any type may be placed in postal lobbies or on postal walkways, steps, plazas, lawns or landscaped areas, driveways, parking lots, or other exterior spaces.' "
The Postmaster first phoned the Foundation to say she was not aware of those postal regulations or that the Salvation Army was a religious organization. The Salvation Army is not just a religious organization; it is a Christian church denomination. The Postmaster agreed that it would not matter if the Salvation Army was religious or not, since it was a violation of postal regulations. She followed up with a letter on Jan. 14: "I have contacted the Salvation Army and informed them that they would not be allowed to stand in front of Postal Property while ringing their bell. This will not be an issue in the future in Elgin." — Bonnie Gutsch
The Foundation alerted the superintendent of Alexander Central School District [Alexander, N.Y.] to the unconstitutional repercussions of an upcoming 10th grade field trip to Washington, D.C., including a stop at the Catholic Seton Shrine in Maryland. FFRF sent its letter on Nov. 26, 2010, requesting that the field trip, scheduled for April 2011, drop the religious stop from its itinerary. "Including a stop at a Catholic Shrine, whose mission is for 'visitors to [enrich] spiritually through their pilgrimage to the site where [Seton] taught, worked, prayed and died' during a public school trip, appears to be an impermissible school endorsement and furthering of Catholic doctrine," wrote Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney. "The school district's decision to include a Catholic shrine in the itinerary gives the message to Catholic participants that they are a favored group in the public school setting," Markert noted. "The Constitution's prohibition against school-sponsored religious activities cannot be overcome by claiming such activities are 'voluntary.' " The district superintendent responded [Jan. 4, 2011] that the school "removed a stop at Seton Shrine from the itinerary." — Bonnie Gutsch
A high school in Gilmer County, W.V., held its annual graduation ceremony (May 28, 2010) without an "inspiration," after receiving numerous letters from FFRF, beginning in August 2009. The school's graduation ceremony in 2009 had included an "inspiration," which was actually a Christian invocation, and FFRF had concerns that the 2010 graduation would again schedule unconstitutional prayers. After four follow-up letters and calls between the district superintendent and FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, the principal of the high school finally responded on Dec. 19, 2010: "I have attached a copy of the program from Graduation Ceremonies held May 28, 2010 which indicates that no invocation, prayer, or inspiration was scheduled." — Bonnie Gutsch
Faculty and staff at Clay County Schools [Green Cove Springs, Fla.] were instructed to refrain from participation in student-initiated religious activities, and prohibited from promoting religion in their official capacities after the district received a letter from FFRF on Oct. 26, 2010. Foundation Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote the district, on behalf of area members, about serious state/church violations occurring in the district. A varsity soccer coach for the high school regularly encouraged her players to attend meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), and her team participated in an FCA-sponsored Christian "team bonding retreat." The coach ended one e-mail to her team: "Discover and grow strong in the word of God." The previous year, the coach led the soccer team in prayer before each game.
Markert pointed out in her 6-page letter that the coach's constant encouragement for student involvement in " 'student-led' FCA is constitutionally problematic. Prayer before athletic events in your district is illegal and inappropriate and must cease immediately." An attorney for the district agreed with Markert's analysis and responded that the coach and principal were instructed that "there should be no school employee participation in activities such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes and 'Meet Me At the Pole' or any other religious extracurricular clubs, organizations, or groups. . . . Additionally, there are to be no e-mails with personal testimony, no encouraging students to get involved with FCA, and no encouragement of any kind by the coach or any other school employee to get involved in any religious activity" (Dec. 17, 2010). — Bonnie Gutsch
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Mayor Rick Meehan [Ocean City, Md.] urging the city to discontinue the use of city resources and taxpayer funds to "plan, organize and promote" a Mayor's Prayer Breakfast, scheduled for Dec. 10, 2010. Tickets for the event were available for purchase at city hall (as they were in the previous year). The Ocean City Mayor's Prayer Breakfast was started to "bring the word of God back to the Ocean City and Worcester County community . . . " (Ocean City Today, Nov. 27, 2009). The 2010 organizer was quoted saying "This country was founded upon Biblical values, and we've really turned away from it. That's not because of the people, but because of the government shutting God out of everything" (Ocean City Today, Nov. 26, 2010).
FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert noted that the city's involvement in this event "sends the message that the City not only prefers religion over non-religion, but also Christianity over all other religions. It alienates nonbelievers in Ocean City by turning them into political outsiders in their own community," thereby violating of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, "which requires government neutrality toward religion." A city attorney responded that tickets will no longer be available for purchase at city hall (Dec. 6, 2010). — Bonnie Gutsch
FFRF protested fliers advertising a religious "See You at the Pole" event (scheduled for Sept. 22, 2010), which were posted throughout Wilbur Cross High School (New Haven Public Schools, Conn.). FFRF wrote the district noting that the fliers did not contain a disclaimer of any kind or any information indicating the sponsor of the event. The flier in part stated: "Take your place in history with millions of other students on this Global Day of Student Prayer. See You at the Pole can provide a powerful connection between you and the other Christian students on your campus to pray and reach out all year long. Be bold! Be unashamed! And stand in prayer with other Christian Youth for your Generation to be changed."
"The school district should not approve fliers or posters for distribution or display unless an appropriate disclaimer is included to disassociate the school district from the religious organization or event. Without such a disclaimer, students are apt to believe that the school is endorsing the prayer engaged in during the 'See You at the Pole' event," wrote Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney. Future fliers advertising religious groups' events at the school "should contain language to remove any perception of government endorsement," she added. The district responded (Dec. 2, 2010): "New Haven Public Schools does not approve flyers or posters for display and/or distribution unless an appropriate disclaimer is included. Wilbur Cross has a newly appointed principal and I have met with the leadership team stressing the aforementioned concern. We are mindful of the religion/state concerns and have taken the necessary steps to avoid additional situations." — Bonnie Gutsch
A parent contacted FFRF after all K-12 students in Pillager Public Schools (Minn.) attended a Veterans Day program that included an invocation from a local Baptist minister. The prayer said in part, "[W]e also acknowledge today that we are here because you provided that freedom to us. We know that that freedom is available only through Jesus Christ. So Lord, we lift you up today." The parent also said that prayers were a regular practice at graduation ceremonies. FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to the school district on Nov. 19, saying, "It is unlawful for any school-sponsored event, such as a school-sponsored Veteran's Day assembly, to open with prayer." FFRF's letter cited a number of Supreme Court cases that found prayers at school events unconstitutional. An attorney representing Pillager Public Schools responded [Nov. 29, 2010] claiming that the district's practices were legal but assured, "in the future, school-sponsored events, including graduation ceremonies and Veteran's Day programs, will no longer include prayer led by religious figures."
FFRF sent a letter to the Board of Education of the West Bend Joint School District [West Bend, Wis.] in opposition to a proposal to form the Crossroads Academy charter school. The Crossroads Academy, proposed by a pastor of a Baptist church, would be based on the "Hillsdale Academy Model," which offers "instruction based upon traditional, nondenominational biblical beliefs." The curriculum contained materials from A Beka Book publications, which describes itself as "unashamedly Christian and traditional." A curriculum consultant for the school also said that "intelligent design" would be taught in the school.
"If the Board approves the charter for the Crossroads Academy, which appears to be a thinly veiled Christian school, the District will violate the most basic principles of Establishment Clause jurisprudence," noted Patrick Elliott, FFRF staff attorney. "A public school system cannot financially or otherwise provide direct aid to schools performing religious instruction." Elliott also said that Wisconsin law requires charter schools to be nonsectarian in all programs and operations.
The Foundation sent the letter and e-mailed an action alert to its members in the area on Nov. 19. A person with intimate knowledge of the school district told FFRF that the letter likely would make an impact on the Board's vote. The Board of Education voted down the proposal in a 4-3 vote on Nov. 22.