New Legal Successes
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.
The mayor of Cape Coral [Fla.] proposed to display the Ten Commandments inside a government building as a "reminder" for citizens to "straighten up." Freedom From Religion Foundation Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott, on behalf of area residents and taxpayers, wrote a Nov. 12 letter to the mayor and City Council expressing constitutional concerns about the proposed display and related inappropriate remarks by the mayor. Mayor John Sullivan told the Fort Myers News-Press: "I don’t want to do this in a haphazard way or open up a can of worms, but I think it is a good idea. I don’t see this as separation of church and state. Our laws were built on the Ten Commandments. It’s getting back to our core values."
"It is a violation of the Establishment Clause for the City of Cape Coral to post the Ten Commandments in the City Hall or any other government buildings," wrote Elliott in the letter to the city. "Mayor Sullivan supports the display based on an impermissible non-secular purpose. Placing the Ten Commandments on public property for the purpose of teaching the community 'good morals,' will not withstand court scrutiny." On Nov. 16, the Lehigh Acres Citizen reported that Cape Coral City Council members spoke out against displaying the Ten Commandments on government property. — Bonnie Gutsch
Staff members at Chino High School had participated in an annual "See You at the Pole" event, where students meet at their school’s outdoor flagpole to pray before classes begin on the fourth Wednesday of September. The “See You at the Pole” movement started in Texas in 1990, as ostensibly “student-initiated” and “student-led” religious expression. Far from being a yearly spontaneous eruption of religiosity by devout public school students, the event has been carefully nurtured and orchestrated by youth pastors, churches and national religious associations.
Rebecca Markert, FFRF staff attorney, noted in a letter to the district [Oct. 1, 2010]: "It is grossly inappropriate for teachers, other public school employees or outside adults to actively participate in or promote these student-run religious organizations." Markert pointed out that the Supreme Court has "stated that public employees, including teachers and principals, 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."
The district responded that its investigation confirmed FFRF's complaint, and undertook the following steps to correct the problem: "Principals were directed to enforce the Establishment Clause to ensure that staff members are not involved in student-run prayer groups. . . . staff members [were instructed to] not promote, lead or participate in such activities, [the violation of which] could result in disciplinary action by the district." Additionally, the district confirmed it was reviewing and updating its Board policies regarding "religious diversity/religious freedom at school" (Nov. 16, 2010). — Bonnie Gutsch
Clinton Public Schools [Clinton, Miss.] included as part of its mission and vision statements a "Goals and Beliefs" statement, which contained religious language. The statement in relevant part read: "We believe . . . Faith in God is the cornerstone of our community." At least one of the schools in the district showcased this statement of belief on its website, naming "Faith in God" first out of a list of 12 other values.
Rebecca Markert, FFRF staff attorney, said in a letter to the district [July 8, 2010]: "It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion. . . . Listing 'Faith in God' as an important value violates the First Amendment because it imposes religious sentiments upon students and their parents within the school district. . . . This statement clearly demonstrates that the school not only prefers religion over non-religion but also religious students over non-religious students." Markert noted that the district's "promotion of religion over nonreligion impermissibly turns any non-believing Clinton Public School student, parent, teacher or staff member into an outsider."
FFRF received a response from the district superintendent [Nov. 15, 2010]: "The Clinton Board of Trustees voted to delete our 'belief' statements from our strategic plan and to remove it totally from our mission and vision statements. . . . It has been pulled from our district and local websites, our boardroom, and I am currently reviewing all documents to make sure that the belief statements are not posted in any official document." — Bonnie Gutsch
Hamilton Southeastern School District [Fishers, Ind.] received a letter from attorney Robert Tiernan, on behalf of FFRF and an FFRF complainant, objecting that one of its mentor programs included in its curriculum the promotion of a "religious community" and "spiritual development." The mentor program was established at Fishers Junior High "to target students who have trouble fitting in or who could benefit from meeting with a mentor on a weekly basis." Included in this program is the curriculum called "40 Developmental Assets," and asset 19 states: "Religious Community — Young person spends one or more hours per week in activities in a religious institution." Tiernan represented the Foundation in FFRF v. Cherry Creek School District, which resulted in the revising of Asset 19 to more secular language. "The point of the revised language is to eliminate the favoritism given to religion over non-religion by the original version of Asset 19," wrote Tiernan in the letter to the Hamilton Southeastern School District. The district responded [Nov. 11, 2010] that Asset 19 has been modified to read: "Intergenerational Activities — Young person spends one or more hours per week in activities with civic, social, governmental, scientific, educational, charitable, faith based or secular (non-religious) organizations." — Bonnie Gutsch
Indianapolis Public Schools received considerable criticism in 2009 when its Internet filtering policy was made public and when complainants sent a copy to both FFRF and the ACLU. The policy improperly censored websites that provided information about "alternative spirituality/belief," including atheistic views, as well as gay rights websites. The policy banned websites "that promote and provide information on religions such as Wicca, Witchcraft or Satanism. Occult practices, atheistic views, voodoo rituals or any other form of mysticism are represented here. Includes sites that endorse or offer methods of, means of instruction, or other resources to affect or influence real events through the use of spells, incantations, curses and magic powers. This category includes sites which discuss or deal with paranormal or unexplained events."
"This section of the filtering policy is unlawful because it blocks harmless websites about various religious beliefs, or nonbelief, which are protected speech under the First Amendment," FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote in a Nov. 11 letter to the superintendent. Markert pointed out that "the filtering policy of Indianapolis School District is unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination under the First Amendment. . . . The policy blocking access to 'atheist views' prefers religion over nonreligion, which the government cannot do." After several follow-up letters, the district responded in October that its Internet filtering policy had been amended on Feb. 24, 2010. The new policy includes anti-discrimination language and excludes the formerly discriminatory filtering policy language. — Bonnie Gutsch
Foundation Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter Oct. 19 to the superintendent of Perkins-Tryon Public Schools [Perkins, Okla.] alerting the district that representatives of Gideons International distributed bibles during instructional time to students at Perkins-Tryon Intermediate School. "It is unconstitutional for public school districts to allow the Gideons to distribute bibles during the school day," wrote Elliott. "Courts uniformly have held the distribution of bibles to students at public schools during instructional time is prohibited. Public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion," the letter continued. "When a school distributes religious literature to its students, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message, in this case, a Christian message. Such a practice alienates those non-Christian students, teachers and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted by the school."
"In accordance with Perkins-Tryon [district] policies, the Gideon bibles may be prohibited from distribution because the Gideons violated the district's rules," Elliott said. He recommended the district "take immediate action to ensure Gideons International is not allowed in the future to proselytize a captive audience of children by distributing Christian literature in Perkins-Tryon Public Schools." An attorney for the school district responded on Oct. 25 that the distribution of bibles "was inconsistent with District's policy regarding the same." She noted the district's policy "comports with constitutional requirements," and that the district "will ensure that future distributions of materials comply with the established policy." "While the policy is not ideal," remarked Elliott, "it will prevent the Gideons from distributing bibles to most students and will stop them from forcefully pushing the bibles. I'm sure the district would reconsider the policy should other people or groups start to utilize the policy. If a 'there is no god' flier was distributed, I would bet the school would start to see the problem with using part of the school as a 'limited open forum.' " — Bonnie Gutsch
A Tennessee school district has agreed to stop broadcasting prayers over loudspeakers at school athletic events after a letter of complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Jim Scales told principals that the prayers are unconstitutional, according to news stories. Rebecca Markert, FFRF staff attorney, noted in the letter written on behalf of a local complainant that courts "have struck down prayer in public schools because it constitutes government endorsement of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment." Chattanoogan.com reported Oct. 20 that Scales e-mailed school principals that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it's unconstitutional to pray over a loudspeaker at a school-sponsored athletic event. "It is important to comply with this ruling." John Maynard, Soddy-Daisy principal, told Chattanoogan.com: "I will comply with the superintendent's directive." The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that Maynard said because the superintendent told him to stop the prayers, "I will follow his orders.” Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, said, "It's settled law by the Supreme Court that there may not be prayer in public schools — at graduation, in classrooms or during sports events. We're pleased that this appears to be resolved, but we will monitor the situation."
FFRF letter (Oct. 12)
Polk County Public Schools [Bartow, Fla.] removed a "God Bless America" outdoor banner near the entrance to one of its elementary schools after receiving a letter from FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert on July 27, 2010, and a follow-up letter in October. "The phrase 'God Bless America,' uttered by a public school, amounts to a declaration of orthodoxy in religion," FFRF's letter noted. "It is a phrase that falsely unites patriotism with piety. . . . When a public school posts 'God Bless America,' it sends a message to its students that the school is endorsing and compelling belief in God. Courts have observed that young students are particularly prone to believing that a religious message is school endorsed." The Foundation received a response from the district on Oct. 12, 2010: "Please be advised that the referenced sign at Inwood Elementary School was removed contemporaneously with receipt of your 27 July letter." — Bonnie Gutsch
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter (June 28, 2010) to the superintendent of Hillsborough County School District (Tampa, Fla.) over "grave federal and state constitutional concerns" occurring at its Bartels Middle School. The school distributed fliers to students soliciting contributions to a school in Namibia, but failed to mention that it is a Christian academy. The flier was further misleading because it failed to include a disclaimer distancing Bartels Middle School from official sponsorship or endorsement of the Christian school, and it failed to explicitly name the actual sponsor of the flier: the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The flier said that checks made out to Bartels Middle School would be accepted. In an attempt to remedy the violation after complaints, the school redistributed the flier, still without a disclaimer, asking for donations to a Christian school. "The new flier did nothing to disassociate the school from the religious organization, but rather seemed to further amplify the school's endorsement of the Christian academy," wrote Rebecca Markert, FFRF staff attorney.
Markert pointed out how the school's involvement in soliciting funds for a Christian school (and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes) violates the Establishment Clause and the Florida Constitution. "By promoting this fundraiser as a 'school-wide event,' asking 'EVERY student and family' to participate, and involving teachers and staff to collect donations, Bartels Middle School lent its support and aid to a sectarian institution." The district must "refrain from sponsoring, promoting, or endorsing fundraisers or other profitable events for religious organizations in the future," the letter stated. An attorney for the district responded Oct. 11, 2010: "The events which occurred at Bartels Middle School violated several School Board policies, including the prohibition of student fundraising without the express approval of the Superintendent. . . . The appeal should not have been conducted through the school because of the just-cited policy. . . . What occurred at Bartels School was neither sanctioned by the School Board nor allowed by its policies." — Bonnie Gutsch
The Bible/Library Club that was a homeroom activity at Bellwood-Antis Middle School in Bellwood, Pa., has been dropped by the public school district after a complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation on behalf of a parent. FFRF sent a letter Sept. 13 about an Aug. 30 flier that was sent home with students listing the club as one of four that students could participate in during the first-semester homeroom activity period. The other three are chorus, band and cartooning. The description for the Bible/Library Club, supervised by a librarian, says: "Students will assist in the various library activities of organizing and returning books to the shelves and creating bulletin boards. Students may participate in various 'Christ' centered activities such as devotional readings, Bible study, prayer and games."
FFRF received a letter from the school's principal dated Sept. 14: "The club name has been changed. The new name of the club is Library Club. There is no reference to the Bible and there will not by an 'Christ' centered activities, devotionals, prayer or Bible study." That letter was followed up by one dated Sept. 15 from a school district attorney. "The superintendent was not aware that this club was being conducted during the school day." Andrews said the district "has taken immediate steps" to discontinue it during the school day and will not allow it to be led or supervised by a teacher. "The district will permit the Bible/Library Club to meet before or after school as a student-run organization," Andrews said.
Until receiving a letter from FFRF in July 2010, the Atascadero [Calif.] High School library had contained 10 Christian-themed books, including five or six bibles, which were prominently displayed in the nonfiction section, but lacked other religious or freethought texts. "Public schools must remain neutral with regard to religion," wrote Rebecca Markert, Foundation staff attorney. "This applies to the types of religious texts supplied by the public school library. . . . The practice of supplying public school students with the bible while not providing access to other religious and nonreligious alternatives violates the spirit of California law," and leads a reasonable observer to assume "that the school is endorsing Christianity over other faiths and non-faith." Markert noted that such a practice also conflicts with the American Library Association's "Library Bill of Rights," which states that "[l]ibrarians have an obligation . . . to select and support the acquisition of materials on all subjects that meet, as closely as possible, the needs and interest of all persons in the community which the library serves."
A district educational committee assessed the library's collection and determined it would add other religious texts, including the Quran, the Torah the Buddhist Dharma and freethought texts, placing these books on the shelves at the same level as Christian-oriented books. "The committee welcomed the opportunity to meet, review and discuss the balance and resources of the library," wrote the district. "The members believe that the committee's recommendations are valid and will ensure our high school students access to balanced information."
The assistant superintendent of the Page Unified School District (Page, Ariz.) held a mandatory "professional development inservice" on Aug. 17 in a Mormon church. About 50 district teachers were in attendance. One of the teachers notified FFRF that he and several other teachers were offended and uncomfortable with the requirement to attend a government meeting in a religious place of worship. Foundation attorney Patrick Elliott informed the district superintendent (Aug. 24, 2010) that the district should have held the meeting in a secular place, such as one of the many schools within the district. "A church is not an appropriate place to conduct required training for government employees. The district must take immediate steps to ensure that no individual is required to attend meetings in a church," the letter said. The district responded on Sept. 7: "Although the district believes that the convocation of the meeting at that particular site complied with the requirements of the law, the administration and Governing Board of course are sensitive to concerns of all their constituents. . . . Accordingly, in the future, the district will endeavor to hold employee meetings and other meetings related to district business in facilities not associated with particular religious institutions."
Principals of two schools in a public school district in Allen Parish, La., authorized a local newspaper editor to use Kinder Elementary and Kinder Middle School as sponsors of an ad promoting local National Day of Prayer events. The two schools paid the local newspaper to have its name and image included in this National Day of Prayer advertisement, along with biblical verses (Jeremiah 33:3 and Philippians 4:6). Rebecca Markert, FFRF staff attorney, wrote the district: "The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits public schools from advancing, supporting or promoting religion. Because the National Day of Prayer is a religious event, it is a violation of the Establishment Clause for a public school to sponsor or endorse an observance of it. It is a further violation for a school to spend taxpayer money to advertise a religious event. . . . From all appearances, these ads signal to the reasonable district student, parent, or community resident that the Schools endorse the religious — namely Christian — message of the National Day of Prayer," the letter said.
The district superintendent wrote the Foundation [August 13, 2010] that the two principals had agreed to contribute to the cost of the ad "and they agreed in hindsight, the ads should not have been placed as it could be construed as advocating religious beliefs. They also agreed that no such advertisement will be sponsored in the future. . . . It is the policy and position of the Allen Parish School Board to take a neutral stance regarding religion but to also be respectful of the religious beliefs of our students and staff or lack thereof." — Bonnie Gutsch
In the public school district of Owatonna, Minn., "Youth leaders" from Young Life, a Christian youth ministry, were permitted to host events free of charge on school property, distribute religious literature during school hours, and received special opportunities to promote itself and evangelize to students during school hours. Young Life hosted a yearly fundraiser at the high school, and auctioned off to the highest bidder a special parking space at the school (see photo). The district is adapting and creating policies that will put an end to these practices in response to an FFRF letter of complaint and open records request sent in March, and a follow-up request in August to stop unconstitutional promotion of religion in the district.
According to its Web site, "Young Life brings the good news of Jesus Christ into the lives of adolescents with an approach that is respectful of who kids are and hopeful about who they can be." It envisions that "every adolescent will have the opportunity to meet Jesus Christ and follow Him." The group originated when a local minister invited the group's founder "to consider the neighborhood high school as his parish and develop ways of contacting kids who had no interest in church." The Young Life "history" webpage states: "Young Life's mission remains the same — to introduce adolescents to Jesus Christ and to help them grow in their faith. This happens when caring adults build genuine friendships and earn the right to be heard with their young friends."
Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert's letter addressed the many state/church entanglements between the district and Young Life. "The support given to a Christian organization demonstrates your school district's unlawful preference not only for religion over non-religion, but also Christianity over other faiths," the letter said. "No religious organization should have special access to proselytize during the school day at Owatonna High. . . . In fact, no outside adults should be provided carte blanche access to minors — a captive audience — in a public school. This predatory conduct is inappropriate and should raise many red flags. . . . Owatonna High's repeated and excessive allowance of Young Life to proselytize during school hours is a violation of the Establishment Clause. Courts have granted injunctions against schools for their complacency in similar situations."
While Young Life representatives were previously not required to register to visit students during school hours, the district wrote that it will now adopt a more formal visitors policy, which includes requiring all visitors to sign in and out, obtain administrator permission to be in the building and to wear identification while in the building, among other restrictions. Regardless of the access, "visits by anyone shall not be utilized for the purpose of distributing religious or other nonschool-related materials or promoting religious organizations or activities." The district agrees with the Foundation that Young Life should have been charged for use of school facilities and equipment, and "The School District intends to correct this practice with all future facility and equipment users, including, but not limited to, Young Life."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation responded to several serious state/church concerns which had occurred at Fayetteville County Schools (Fayetteville, WV), including: The district had allowed a ministry run by a group of local pastors to operate during school hours the non-curricular group, CREW (Christians Reaching Every Where), offer special food sales to student CREW members and distribute bibles and other religious literature to students. It was also the Foundation's impression that the school district had coordinated with the ministry to take CREW students on a field trip, chaperoned by a mixture of public school employees and ministers from local churches. Permission slips were sent home with all students to attend the event. CREW's mission is "to worship and honor the Lord Jesus Christ."
Foundation Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert addressed these concerns in a letter to the district (June 17, 2010): "Under the Equal Access Act, supervision and participation by local pastors, who are not affiliated with the school, of a student group is illegal." The letter pointed out, "Courts uniformly have held the distribution of bibles to students at public schools during instructional time is prohibited. . . . In allowing CREW pastors to distribute bibles to impressionable young students — who courts have also noted will feel immense social pressure to accept the bible — Fayette County Schools is placing its 'stamp of approval' on the religious messages contained in the bible. This is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, and specifically Christianity, by a public school." The letter noted that further endorsement of Christianity was apparent when the high school offered pizza and soda for sale during cafeteria hours exclusively to CREW students. Regarding the field trip, Markert wrote: "It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that a public school may not advance, prefer or promote religion. . . . A public school cannot authorize, organize or otherwise coordinate a year-end activity for a Christian ministry."
The district responded promptly with a letter [July 22, 2010] assuring the following changes to school policy/operations: "Area ministers shall not oversee nor direct any club meetings . . . CREW shall not have any direct connection with or oversight by the Fayetteville Ministerial Association. No employees of Fayette County Schools will lead any form of religious activity during CREW meetings. CREW has not been given and will not be given any more or less access to the facilities and services of Fayette County Schools than any other student group. CREW is not permitted to serve or offer pizza or other food incentives in connection with its meetings where the same would violate either the Equal Access Act or the relevant student nutritional guidelines. No Bibles are to be distributed by any organization on the campus of Fayetteville High School. . . . No religious officials from the community will be permitted to initiate or oversee the organization of any CREW activities." — Bonnie Gutsch
Following a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (Jan. 5, 2010), a high school teacher in a Texas school district was instructed to no longer include religious quotes and references in his district e-mail signature line. The signature line had varied biblical verses, and at one time read: "We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin. Romans 6:6." The teacher had regularly sent e-mails to students and parents with biblical passages and citations. FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote the district that it was "grossly inappropriate" for this teacher to use his public district e-mail account to promote his personal religious views, especially to students. On July 21, 2010, the McKinney Independent School District assured the Foundation that the teacher had been warned verbally and in writing over the issue. Amidst other concerns, the letter stated that the teacher will not return for the 2010-2011 school year. Additionally, the district adopted an e-mail signature-line policy restricting all district electronic communication signatures to name, title and contact information.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation successfully stopped Missoula County (Mont.) from offering free admission to the Western Montana Fair for those attending a pre-fair onsite church service sponsored by the Missoula Christian Network, a coalition of about 50 local churches and ministries.
The Missoula Christian Network had planned, as it had in 2009, to hold a church service on the fairgrounds before the fair gates opened and Missoula County unlawfully planned to offer free fair admission to those in attendance at the service, just as it had in 2009. The Foundation wrote the Missoula Board of County Commissioners first in April 2010 over the previous year's violation of the federal Civil Rights Act (and Montana State law) by subsidizing and promoting free admission to the fair for Christians. The County did not respond until it received a follow-up letter from the Foundation in July, at which time FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert reminded the county to follow state and federal law at the August 2010 County Fair.
"As a place of 'public accommodation,' it is illegal for the County Fair to discriminate, or show favoritism, on the basis of religion," wrote Markert. "The County Fair's restrictive admission practice favors religious customers and denies customers who do not attend church, and nonbelievers the right to 'full and equal' enjoyment of the County Fair."
The County responded in a letter [July 8, 2010]: "Missoula County acknowledges that religious organizations should not be given any special benefit over other members of the public. . . . Missoula County will proceed by treating religious groups in the same manner as other non-religious groups (i.e., same-space rental rates, and no preferential privileges)." Subsequently, the scheduled church service was moved to a private baseball park and deleted from this year's fair schedule.
After the Freedom From Religion Foundation successfully stopped illegal prayer at a June 4 high school graduation in Exeter, Calif., it received a complaint that a middle school in the same district held an unlawful invocation as part of its graduation program on June 3. The prayer ended "in Jesus' name." Foundation Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Superintendent Renee Whitson: "It is deeply troubling that despite the effort to bring the graduation ceremony at Exeter Union High School into conformance with the law, the school district would allow Wilson Middle School to ignore it." A district attorney responded on July 1: "The Governing Board of the Exeter Union School District discussed the concerns raised in your letter and has decided that no District-sponsored invocations will be a part of the program for any future District graduation ceremonies."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, on June 18, wrote the University Place School District (University Place, Wash.) objecting that Drum Intermediate School sent home fliers to its young students advertising an evangelical Christian summer event. The Mount Cross Evangelical Lutheran Church coordinated with the school to send the fliers home in students' homework, and there was no indication which organization (or if the school itself) was the sponsor. The advertisement called for children ages 4 through 5th grade to "trek through SonQuest Rainforest." It promised "great times . . . lively songs, hilarious skits, creative crafts, exciting games, stories and tasty snacks," but made no mention of the proselytizing purpose of the event. Foundation Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote the superintendent (June 18, 2010) that without a proper disclaimer disassociating the school district from the religious event, "students and parents are apt to believe that the school is endorsing SonQuest Rainforest Camp and its religious message." Even with a disclaimer, however, teachers are still forced to distribute religious promotional literature, which "sends a divisive message of community exclusion of those who hold minority religious views or who choose not to believe." To avoid this divisiveness, Markert advised the district to amend its take-home flier policy to restrict third-parties and allow only school-sponsored events and organizations to make use of the service. The deputy superintendent responded (June 29, 2010): "As the individual responsible for this decision, I must apologize for my mistake. . . . Indeed, it does appear that we, as a district were endorsing this flyer and event. . . . We are in the process of reviewing the entire policy and procedures. Your letter has assisted in pushing this effort forward. . . . I can assure you that we will take the necessary steps that will stop potential entanglement between religion and our school district."
A parent in the Highland Local School District (Medina, Ohio) alerted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to three church/state concerns at Highland High School. The school's annual choir event included Christian prayer; the school's top choir performed at a church service late last year; finally, the Sharon Ministerial Association in May organized a Christian baccalaureate service for graduating seniors with school support. FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert tackled all three issues in a four-page letter to the superintendent. The prayer at last year's choir banquet — illegal prayers have taken place at these events at least for the last three years — ended, "In the name of Lord, Jesus Christ." Prayer at choir banquets, Markert asserted, "turns any non-Christian and nonreligious Highland High School choir student into an outsider," and student participation in this event "should not be predicated upon being subjected to Christian based prayers." The school's top choir performed, as it does annually, at the St. Paul Lutheran Church (the choir director's church) and this year the program included all Christian carols. "This practice forces students and their parents, who may be of varying faiths or none at all, to enter a Christian house of worship," Markert stated. The Christian baccalaureate service for seniors was held on school property, and the choir director helped promote and participate, which "signals the school district's endorsement of the event." The superintendent replied: "I do believe, in light of the First Amendment and court cases that have interpreted its requirements as to religion and public schools, that offering prayer at the annual choir banquet and having the choir perform as part of a local church's worship services are problematic, and I am taking appropriate steps to alter these practices. . . . I am sensitive to the need to avoid actual or an appearance of school sponsorship and endorsement in this area and am also taking steps to ensure that appropriate distance is maintained." The superintendent said she "will continue to discuss appropriate parameters with our choir director to assure compliance with all legal requirements."
The Madison County Board of Commissioners (Florida) received an urgent letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation on the day of its June 15 meeting asking commissioners to vote down a proposal to display a large Ten Commandments monument on public property. The Madison County Ministerial Association offered to donate and erect this permanent religious monument on the lawn of the Madison County Courthouse. Rebecca Markert, Foundation staff attorney, warned that displaying the Ten Commandments in a prominent location on county property "would violate not only basic constitutional principles prohibiting the government from advancing, promoting or endorsing religion over nonreligion, but also the freedom of conscience of residents in your community who do not adhere to this religious dogma." She recommended placing the monument more appropriately on private property. According to the Madison County Carrier, one pastor who spoke on behalf of the Madison County Ministerial Association stated that the Ten Commandments were the basis for our laws. The board correctly voted down the proposal 3-to-2.
FFRF letter (June 15, 2010)
An elementary school in Ohio canceled a field trip for 4th graders to attend a church after receiving a stern letter from Foundation Attorney Patrick Elliott on May 20, 2010. The Foundation had written Garfield Heights City School District's previous superintendent in 2007, 2008 and 2009 over the same issue with no action taken by the district. The Church of the Nazarene has a definite Christian mission, describing itself as "a Great Commission church. . . . 'To make Christlike disciples in the nations' is the new seven-word statement of mission." The "field trip" to this church had been taking place at least for four consecutive years and, like the previous unconstitutional excursions, the upcoming trip would have included proselytizing and students would be asked to accept Jesus Christ as their savior. Elliott's letter warned: "Besides the fundamental legal problems with sending public school students on a field trip to receive religious instruction, there are many good policy reasons to oppose the practice. Parents should control the manner in which their children receive religious instruction on religious subjects. It is an egregious abuse of government power to proselytize a captive audience of young school children in this manner." He also pointed out how troubling the school's endorsement of Christianity is for students who are not Christian. Upon receipt of the letter, the school's principal reacted by rescheduling the event to after-school hours.
An Alabama fourth-grade teacher has been ordered to stop giving bibles to her students after the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote a letter of complaint on behalf of a parent. In December 2009, the parent reported, the teacher gave bibles stuffed inside Christmas stockings as gifts to all her students at Forest Hills Elementary in Florence. Two previous complaints were unacknowledged by the school, the parent said. In a June 4 letter of complaint to Superintendent Kendy Behrends, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert noted that federal courts have uniformly ruled that bible distributions to students at public schools during instructional time is prohibited: When that occurs, elementary schoolchildren are given the "impression that the school endorse[s] a particular religious belief: Christianity." Behrends responded in writing (June 6, 2010): The teacher "will be notified this week of her wrongdoing. It will be requested in writing that she cease and desist the distribution of any religious materials or any discussion of religion unless it abides by the State of Alabama approved courses of study that cover religion. She will also be given professional literature to read that is designed for educators, whereby her responsibilities are made clear regarding the separation of church and state."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation successfully influenced a public elementary school in Baldwin, Wis., to remove an "In God We Trust" poster displayed in the school near the high-traffic cafeteria area. In a letter to the principal of Greenfield Elementary, Foundation attorney Patrick Elliott summarized the history of the motto "In God We Trust," explaining that it serves no secular purpose. "For those students and parents who don't believe in a god or have beliefs contrary to a monotheistic faith, an 'In God We Trust' poster in their school is offensive. . . . This message alienates nonbelievers and turns them into outsiders of their community," Elliott noted. He reminded the principal that public school districts are prohibited from displaying religious messages and iconography on the walls of public schools. "It is important to note that courts are vigilant in protecting public school children from religious influence by school authorities. Even messages that may be displayed in other public settings might be unconstitutional when displayed in a public elementary school because young children are impressionable and their attendance at school is required," the letter said. The complainant, a parent of a student at the school, reported two weeks later that the poster had been removed.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation joined other secular groups in successfully stopping illegal prayer at a scheduled graduation at Exeter Union High School in California. A moment of silence replaced prayer at the June 4 commencement. High school district trustees voted 3-0 on June 1 to eliminate student-led prayer. After FFRF was contacted by an Exeter Union senior who objected to a religious commencement, Rebecca Markert, staff attorney, wrote Superintendent Renee Whitson on May 27 to remind her that "the Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations. Even if student-initiated, school officials may not invite a student, teacher, faculty member, or clergy to give any type of prayer, invocation, or benediction at a public high school graduation." Trustees had voted earlier to cancel the prayer but then decided to ask the 221 seniors to illegally "vote" on the constitutional matter. Why the school decided to let students vote is puzzling, Markert said. "The Supreme Court has settled this matter — high school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students." The superintendent reported that seniors voted but the votes were never counted and were destroyed.
Read the Foundation's letter (May 27, 2010)
See Visalia-Delta Times story (June 2, 2010)
See Foundation press release (June 2, 2010)
The Freedom From Religion Foundation complained on behalf of a student at Nash Central High School (Nashville, N.C.) about a coach leading student athletes in prayers and reading from the bible during school-sponsored athletic banquets (every fall, winter and spring). The coach reportedly read from the bible at the recent winter banquet, and told student athletes to follow the message of the bible. Foundation Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to the district superintendent: "The annual awards banquet is a time for student athletes — of all faiths or no faith — to celebrate their success in athletics during the previous athletic season. A student's choice in attending this event should not be predicated upon being subjected to Christian based prayers and bible readings." Further, "Prayer and bible readings at these banquets turns any non-Christian and nonreligious Nash Central High School student athlete into an outsider." The district responded that "the superintendent handled the issue with the principal," and FFRF's complainant said there was no prayer or bible reading at the next banquet on May 20, 2010.
Read the Foundation's letter (April 12, 2010)
The Freedom From Religion Foundation objected to a proposal by Anton Konev of the Common Council of Albany, N.Y., to open city council meetings with prayer. The Foundation urged the council to vote down the proposal and to continue its current practice of a moment of silence, which "already accommodates private prayer, and does not exclude or offend anyone." In the letter (Feb. 3, 2010) to Albany's mayor and common council, Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor imparted: "Council members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. They do not need to worship on taxpayers' time." Council President Carolyn McLaughlin, who voted for a losing prayer resolution in 1999, told the Albany Times Union that although she is devoutly religious and believes strongly in the power of prayer, "Just as strongly as I believe in what I believe in, I respect another person's right not to share that same belief. I think that when we made this compromise (moment of silence) years ago that this was in the best interests of everybody." Councilwoman Jackie Jenkins-Cox, who voted present, said she appreciated Konev's passion but added, "I like to keep my prayer between me and God." Council members voted against the proposal 12 to 2.
After receiving a letter of complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Terra Community College (a public college in Fremont, Ohio) removed a special tab on its home page for Terra Christian Fellowship. The only other group that received its own tab was the honor society Phi Theta Kappa. The Christian group's page said: "In addition to weekly meetings, special events include staff-sponsored Bible studies, concerts, coffee houses and other activities." It also contained a passage from Psalm 118: "The LORD is my song and my strength; He has become my victory." Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert reminded the school that "staff-sponsored Bible studies" violate the First Amendment, which requires that government employees refrain from actively participating in religious activities while performing their official duties. While not responding officially, the college removed the tab, and listed it on the student clubs page. Reference to staff participation in religious activities and the biblical quotation were also taken down.
Read the Foundation's letter (March 19, 2010)
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, responding to the concerns of a district parent, alerted a public school district to a serious state/church violation occurring at one of its schools in Fishers, Ind. Teachers at Sand Creek Intermediate School organized a fundraiser called "Jar Wars," between fifth- and sixth-grade homeroom classrooms, with proceeds designated for the Nicaragua Resource Network (NRN). The school advertised NRN as "a non-profit organization that is trying to improve education in Nicaragua." FFRF's complainant, however, discovered with one search of NRN's Web site that its real mission is: "To fulfill (obey) Jesus' command to love God and to 'love your neighbor as yourself' by giving of our time, talents, and resources to address the spiritual, physical and educational needs of impoverished children and families in Nicaragua." In her Feb. 19 letter, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert pointed out: "While it is laudable for a public school to encourage young students to become active and involved in their community by volunteering and donating to charitable organizations, the school cannot use that goal as an avenue to fund a religious organization with a religious mission." She cited concerns over the flier misleading parents and students, and suggested that, to comply with constitutional mandates, "Jar Wars" should benefit a secular charity. The district responded by distributing an e-mail to staff declaring the new recipient of the "Jar Wars" donations would be the nonreligious Hope for Haiti through the American Red Cross. The e-mail said, "Staff and students will continue to support humanitarian efforts . . . through [not-for-profit] nonsectarian organizations."
On behalf of members in Roswell, Ga., Foundation Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to the City Council, strenuously opposing a proposal to introduce prayers at official city meetings. One council member had said, "I hope that through starting our meetings with an invocation, perhaps it could set the overall tone to one of reconciliation and better relations." In her Feb. 18 letter, Markert asked Roswell's mayor and City Council to revere our godless and secular Constitution by "observing a strict separation of church and state [that] offends nobody, and honors the First Amendment." On March 3, the Roswell Neighbor reported that the council had rejected the prayer proposal. Some council members reported that residents largely objected to government prayer, and of the council's six members, five ultimately voiced their reservations about the proposal. One council member reported that, "Probably 80 percent of the people are saying to me no, don't do it. I would have a difficult time supporting this because I'm not seeing the support from our community to do it."
On behalf of an area taxpayer, Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor sent a letter to the police chief of the police department in Gulfport, Miss., urging him to immediately disassociate from the "Go Haiti" Baptist ministry project, which it publicly endorsed on its Web site. The mission of "Go Haiti" is to raise at least $20,000 to rebuild a Baptist church in Haiti (a country where a vast majority of residents identify as Roman Catholic). Gaylor noted that while the ministry "is free to choose to fundraise to rebuild a church in the face of this national disaster, a disaster leaving millions of people starving, exposed and homeless, the Gulfport Police Department absolutely is forbidden to raise funds for or otherwise publicize fundraising for this Baptist church project, or for any other Christian ministry to Haiti." The Foundation called the police department's public endorsement irresponsible and inappropriate. The same day he received Gaylor's complaint, the chief of police phoned the Foundation to report he removed the "Go Haiti" links from the police department's Web site.
An FFRF member alerted the Foundation to a violation involving a public high school football coach in Farrell, Pa., regularly gathering players for prayers before each game. FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca S. Markert wrote a letter (Jan. 26, 2010) to the Farrell Area School District superintendent pointing out that "the federal courts have struck down prayer in public schools because it constitutes a government endorsement of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment." Prayers at football games "would lead anyone participating on the team or in attendance to believe that the Farrell Area School District is endorsing religion, and specifically, in this case, Christianity," the letter said, and requested a full investigation. The district superintendent responded with a letter (Feb. 2), stating: "In reviewing this issue, it appears that these coaches crossed the line with regard to state/church behaviors." The superintendent met with the high school principal and athletic director, advising them and circulating a memo among the school's staff, regarding appropriate and acceptable behaviors with state/church issues. The letter thanked FFRF for bringing the issue to the district's attention and agreed to "stay alert with regard to behaviors which might be deemed to be violations of state/church relations."
A district parent and taxpayer alerted the Foundation to a praying coach at Maconaquah Middle School in Bunker Hill, Ind. According to the parent, the 7th grade boys basketball coach regularly prayed with the players. FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert (then Kratz) sent a letter to the Maconaquah School Corporation asking it to immediately investigate and end this unconstitutional practice. "The Supreme Court has continually struck down formal and teacher—or school-led prayer in public schools. The prayers before the Maconaquah Middle School's basketball games and practices constitute an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion," the letter said. The coach's conduct, the letter added, "crosses the line because he endorses and promotes his religion when acting in his official capacity as a school district employee." The Superintendent distributed directives to all coaches and other extracurricular staff forbidding them "from leading prayer at any school function as directed by the Supreme Court of the United States of America."
On behalf of two families with young children in the school district, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca S. Markert (then Kratz) wrote a letter of complaint in August 2009 to Lake Local School District in Uniontown, Ohio, pointing out its mission statement, which included valuing belief in God, was unconstitutional. The mission statement, which appeared on district publications and the district's website, violated the First Amendment because it imposed religious sentiments on students and their parents within the school district, FFRF charged. Markert noted: "This value clearly demonstrates that the school not only prefers religion over non-religion but also religious students over non-religious students. This character trait also offends the fifteen percent of the U.S. population that is non-religious. The School District's promotion of religion over non-religion impermissibly turns any non-believing Lake Local School student, parent, teacher, or staff member into an outsider." The School Board unanimously approved a revised "mission statement" on Dec. 14, which deleted the inappropriate reference. According to a local paper, The Canton Repository, "legal precedent clearly was against the mission statement in its unchanged form. Board members and the superintendent said their legal advisers told them there is no way the district could win a lawsuit allowing the reference to God in the mission statement."
Read FFRF's letter (Aug. 26)
Read the Aug. 26, 2009 press release and action alert
Read the Dec. 14, 2009 Canton Repository article
Read Dec. 18, 2009 press release
FFRF wrote a letter to the Petoskey School District in Michigan urging it to reconsider a proposal to change its "Winter Break" session to "Christmas Break." FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Kratz, in her letter to the district, wrote: "Changing the wording to Christmas break so that Petoskey school children know that 'we are a Christian nation' violates the most basic and fundamental principles of Establishment Clause jurisprudence. The proposal originated from an inflammatory e-mail to the district from school board treasurer, Jack Waldvogel. Either make the change voluntarily, Waldvogel said, "or I will make a motion to change it at the NEXT Board meeting, and raise such a stink, and bring out every redneck Christian Conservative north of Clare, to compel the District to do so." The e-mail also said: "Our children need to know we are a Christian nation and taking all reference to a higher being out of our educational vocabulary is wrong." The Foundation's letter to the district noted that the board's action illegally advances religion over nonreligion and Christianity over all other faiths: "The previous wording reflected an enlightened respect and viewpoint for the community's diverse population and the District should restore its original wording on the school calendar." After the Foundation's urging, the school board voted to not move forward with the change.
On behalf of an area taxpayer and district resident, Foundation Staff Attorney Rebecca S. Markert (then Kratz) wrote a letter and open records request to the superintendent of the Indianapolis Public School District challenging its distribution of fliers promoting "Safe Summer Youth Fest," sponsored by East 91st Christian Church, and inviting students and their families to sign up for Vacation Bible School. Markert's letter said the distribution of religious fliers by public schools, in addition to violating federal law, is "entanglement between religion and government officials" and therefore "unseemly and inappropriate." Legal counsel for the district responded with a Dec. 4 letter, stating that IPS flier distribution policy requires materials which are non-secular to involve positive student opportunities and undergo an approval process. The letter affirmed that the "Youth Fest" fliers underwent this procedure, but agreed that it should have been rejected in the screening process.
Read FFRF's Aug. 7, 2009 letter
Read the IPS Dec. 4, 2009 response
An employee of Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) sent a mass e-mail on May 7, 2009, via the statewide e-mail system to invite government employees to attend a National Day of Prayer observance—specifically to "pray for our state and our country"—at the DEQ headquarters. The e-mail included a "God bless you," and stated that DEQ administration cooperated in hosting the event at the DEQ building. FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca S. Markert (then Kratz) wrote a letter to DEQ Secretary Harold Leggett, who authorized the prayer event, pointing out that it was "grossly illegal and inappropriate for DEQ to be hosting, organizing, supporting or otherwise promoting a patently religious event." Markert cited Establishment Clause concerns and noted that the misuse of the government e-mail system violated DEQ's own Computer System Usage Policy, which requires the computer "be used primarily for official business purposes in furtherance of the DEQ agency mission." The Office of the Secretary responded with a letter, which noted, "The Department has warned its employees against the unauthorized use of state equipment or facilities for private purposes. . . . We appreciate the opportunity to respond to this important issue of public concern."
A longtime FFRF member from Greensboro, N.C., alerted the Foundation to a state/church violation at Poblano's Mexican Grill, a popular restaurant in the member's city. The restaurant was offering a 15% discount to patrons that presented a "church bulletin" when dining. FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Kratz called the restaurant's owner to inform him that the discount violated the federal Civil Rights Act and a Greensboro City Ordinance, both of which prohibit discrimination based on religion. He agreed to discontinue what Kratz, in a follow-up letter, called, "Poblano's restrictive promotional practice [that] favors religious customers and denies customers who do not attend church, and nonbelievers the right to 'full and equal' enjoyment of Poblano's" (June 11, 2009).
A student alerted FFRF, in May 2009, that churches in New Glarus, Wis., sent invitations to area high school seniors for a church-sponsored graduation celebration. The invitations were distributed through the high school and students were asked to RSVP to the New Glarus High School main office. The Foundation wrote to New Glarus’ Superintendent requesting the school be omitted from the invitation and planning process of the church-sponsored party. School and district officials complied by discontinuing any coordination and promotion of the event, in writing and practice. Students were additionally notified that the event was voluntary and not school-sponsored.
An FFRF member was dismayed at the displaying of religious materials at a public rest area in Portage, Wis. One publication entitled "The Law of Liberty" discussed "God's law," the Ten Commandments and biblical verses. In a letter of complaint to the state Secretary of the Department of Transportation, the Foundation wrote: "The availability of Christian literature alongside maps and other publications provided by the government, could lead a reasonable observer to conclude that the government is endorsing religion. To avoid further confusion, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation should remove any and all religious literature displayed and set out for taking in publicly owned and operated rest areas" (April 21, 2009). The Director of the Bureau of Highway Operations wrote in response: "The literature you described has not been approved for distribution in the location where it was available and has been removed . . . Please be assured that the literature does not reflect any official position of the State of Wisconsin and appears to have been inappropriately placed in the facility by a third party" (May 1, 2009).
Read FFRF letter (April 21, 2009) (pdf)
See excerpt from "The Law of Liberty," Example A (pdf)
See excerpt from "The Law of Liberty," Example B (pdf)
See excerpt from "The Law of Liberty," Example C (pdf)
Read the DOT's response (pdf)
An area resident and taxpayer alerted FFRF that reading materials promoting Christianity permeated both the staff and inmate areas of the state-run Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility in Nashville, Tenn. This prompted the Foundation to write a letter of complaint to the Nashville facility. FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Kratz wrote to the facility's warden: "The undoubtedly Christian atmosphere created by these overwhelming displays . . . inexplicably leads a reasonable observer to perceive the State of Tennessee is not only endorsing religion over non-religion but also Christianity over all other faiths. This atmosphere also tends to create an environment hostile to non-Christians and non-believers" (March 12, 2009). In response, a Tennessee Department of Correction investigation confirmed the existence of inappropriate religious materials placed throughout the Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility. A Commissioner informed FFRF that all religious materials were removed as of April 2009, and staff was reminded to keep private any religious resources.
Student complaints to FFRF in March 2008, helped prevent prayer from opening an academic banquet, as was the practice of previous years, at a public high school in Fulton, Mo. FFRF formally requested, on the day of the banquet, that Fulton’s Superintendent take action to ensure a prayer would not take place at the banquet. FFRF’s complaint stated: "[B]anquets are school-sponsored events, which occur on school property. It does not matter that this event occurs after-school hours because prayers at other traditional after-school events such as football games and graduations have been found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court." The Superintendent promptly responded, confirming that no invocation was delivered or would be in the future.
On Election Day 2008, in Tobyhanna, Pa. (Monroe County), employees and volunteers of the Shawnee Tabernacle, a voting site, distributed bags of religious literature to voters, and displayed religious materials in the registration area and between polling booths. In a letter of complaint, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Kratz wrote: "We are sure there are many secular options—perhaps public schools, firehouses, public libraries, or even private businesses—which could accommodate voters and be relied on not to abuse voter trust" (Jan. 8, 2009). Following the complaint from FFRF, the Monroe County Director of Elections indicated they would not likely use the Shawnee Tabernacle as a polling location in the future.
FFRF received a complaint from a taxpayer and parent with a child enrolled at Live Oak Elementary School, in Valencia, Calif., which allowed the Good News Club to religiously indoctrinate children during school hours. The Good News Club is an Evangelical group that encourages children to "hear the Gospel and learn Truth from God's Word." Further, the school sent students home with Good News Club flyers stating children will "learn that 'Character Counts' through Bible stories" and there will be "inspiring and amazing Bible memory verses and songs." In Oct. 2008, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Kratz wrote to the school district's Superintendent: "By allowing this group to hold meeting during instructional hours at this public school, you are in effect endorsing a particular religion, which is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution." As a result of FFRF's complaint, the Good News Club moved their meetings to after school hours, as of Jan. 2009.
In Dec. 2008, a resident placed a massive nativity scene at a prominent intersection on county property in Warren, Mich., Macomb County. Following a complaint from a Macomb County resident, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Kratz wrote the Macomb County Road Commission: "Once the government enters into the religion business, conferring endorsement and preference for one religion over others, it strikes a blow at religious liberty, forcing taxpayers of all faiths and of no religion to support a particular expression of worship" (Dec. 10, 2008). The Commissioners discovered a permit had not been granted for the display and ordered immediate removal of the nativity scene.
A U.S. Army non-commissioned officer in the 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command stationed in Iraq, notified the Foundation that, as part of a twice-daily shift-change briefing, soldiers were required to attend Christian prayers and bible readings. The Freedom From Religion Foundation responded to the claims citing violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Kratz, in a 4-page letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, wrote: "The potential for government coercion is strong in this case. Given that the chain of command, particularly in foreign military operations, presents an inherently coercive atmosphere, daily prayer at shift change briefings is unconstitutional. [Soldiers] should not be compelled to participate in or listen quietly to government-sponsored prayer before reporting for duty, nor when they are 'on the clock'" (Nov. 5 2008). The Staff Judge Advocate Office determined, based on FFRF's complaint, the current practice of prayers should cease. The Chief of Chaplains promised to end the shift-change prayers as of November 2008.
In 1976, the Foundation ended an arrangement whereby public schools in Madison, Wisconsin, were financially sponsoring an annual nativity pageant using public school students at the state Capitol. A Foundation complaint that public school teachers were still organizing and recruiting for the Christian event resulted in firm guidelines adopted by the Madison schools and some surrounding areas in 2004. View Article...
Foundation complaints downed a large Christian cross from Terry Andrae State Park, Wisconsin (complained 1979, removed February 1980).
In April 2003, Oklahoma City officials removed a permanent cross from city fairground property, following a complaint by a Foundation member backed up by the national Foundation.
Following several years of negotiation, the Milwaukee City Council agreed to remove a Ten Commandments monument from city property in July 2001. The move came in May 2002. The action was significant because Milwaukee was the first city to be given a Ten Commandments monument by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. Yul Brenner even attended the dedication ceremony. View Article...
In April 2002, the city of Monroe, Wisconsin, followed suit, removing a Ten Commandments monument which the Foundation had originally asked it to move in 1983! View Article...
In December 2003, officials in Casper, Wyoming, removed a Ten Commandments monument from a public park following a Foundation complaint. View Article...
The city of Bolingbrook, Illinois, agreed to remove religious playground equipment from a public park in 2001. Religious playground equipment was removed from Lily Cache Greenway, shortly after the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote a letter of complaint on behalf of a Foundation member. One piece of equipment with a biblical Noah's Ark theme was covered with text paraphrasing the entire bible tale, and informing children that Noah "was 950 years old when he died." The Foundation received a prompt response from a city official thanking it for letting the city know about the presence of the religious equipment, and assuring the Foundation it would be removed. View Article...
The Denver chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, represented by attorney Robert R. Tiernan, in 1999 protested the low rent (sometimes no rent) charged to the area ministerial association to hold an annual Easter Service at the public amphitheatre. Denver officials agreed that year to discontinue the reduced rate for the Easter Sunrise Service.
Protracted legal letters halted a religious discount at a grocery store in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1998, where the Catholic owner gave out "free milk" coupons to anyone showing a Catholic church bulletin to prove they had attended mass. The Foundation has ended similar violations of the Equal Rights Act, forbidding discrimination on the basis of religion by places of public accommodation, around the country.
After tenacious complaints and requests for public documents, the Foundation persuaded the University of Wisconsin-Madison to end a de facto Catholic chaplaincy for the University of Wisconsin Badgers (1994). (The free airfare and expenses for the priest to accompany the Badgers was ended.) Foundation complaints later ended prayer and religious ritual at a basketball camp for young girls led by a UW coach in 1996.
After learning that the school board of Madison, Wisconsin, was not charging Boy Scouts rent to meet in public classrooms, while all other kids' groups were charged rent, the Foundation successfully complained in 1994. The Foundation has also monitored public schools in Wisconsin which do not comply with wording in the State Constitution requiring that outside religious groups meeting in schools must pay rent.
A complaint to the U.S. Secretary of Labor halted subsidy of "Our Lady of the Rockies" by the federal Job Corps in Montana. Job Corps recipients were being ordered to help build the Catholic shrine, violating Job Corps' own prohibitions (1994).
First complaining (successfully) about religious artifacts on display at the Post Office in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin (a community entirely made up of nuns), the Foundation got the U.S. Post Office to delete a job description requiring the Postmaster to be a nun in 1993.
The Foundation was the first group to formally call for an ethics probe into an Alabama governor and his state-financed preaching (1991). Probable cause was found in the ethics probe. Scrutiny of the governor's record brought legal indictment.
A complaint by the Foundation expelled a preacher from the state docks in Mobile, Alabama, who was hired as a contractor using underage teenagers under his care at a Christian home as unpaid labor, in conditions that violated federal law (1989). The investigations started by the Foundation protest eventually closed down Bethel School in Mississippi (1990).
Foundation complaints have ended "grace" at public schools in Janesville, Wisconsin (1977); at the publicly-financed Independent Living, Madison, Wisconsin (1977); at Conway, Arkansas schools (1978). The Foundation halted paid prayers for at least one session in the Wisconsin Senate (1985). The Foundation has also ended school sponsorship of religious baccalaureates in several public school districts, such as in Monroe, Wisconsin (1989). The Foundation has widely circulated "The Case Against School Prayer" to many school districts around the nation. It has ended unlawful distribution of Gideon bibles in public schools.
In the "war of the bus ads," the Foundation began protesting "Keep Christ in Christmas" posters which were displayed free of charge on city buses in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1982. The free ads came down. In 1983 and 1984, the Foundation launched its own signs on Madison buses, reading: "The Bible: A Grim Fairy Tale" and a tongue-in-cheek cartoon showing Mary announcing, "It's a girl!"
In 1976, a complaint by co-founder Annie Laurie Gaylor, then a college student, ended a 122-year violation of prayers (invocations and benedictions) at University of Wisconsin-Madison graduation commencement ceremonies. (They haven't been missed!)