The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent letters of complaint March 7 to public school districts in Orange and Seminole counties and to the mayor of Casselberry, Fla., about government entanglement with a Christian congregation called The Venue Church.
FFRF, a state-church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., has about 20,000 members and 950 in Florida. FFRF has been fighting other religious intrusions for some time in the Orange County district and filed a lawsuit in June 2013 in U.S. District Court against the Orange County School Board.
In that lawsuit, FFRF and its chapter, the Central Florida Freethought Community, allege that distribution of freethought materials was censored while distribution of the bible and other Christian literature was unfettered.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel detailed allegations in FFRF's letter to Diego “Woody” Rodriguez, Orange County Schools general counsel. They include:
— Rampant religious activity at Apopka High School, including weekly services and other events sponsored by The Venue Church. “We are permanently planting churches in Central Florida Schools,” the church asserts.
— Regular prayer sessions attended by football coaches and players, including prayers led by Venue Church Pastor Todd Lamphere, who is also team chaplain. Lamphere is also "bowling team chaplain." A video shows him and other adults praying with the team.
— Bible verses on signs and apparel are common. A large banner saying “Prepare for Glory, 2 Corinthians 4:17” was displayed at the football field as was another banner with a verse from John 15:13. Several T-shirts and jerseys combine the school logo with religious messages.
— Highlight reels of Apopka and other district football teams posted on YouTube sometimes include Christian music in the background. "If the district is contracting with AH Media to produce this content, or providing special access to this company to shoot video of district games, the content must be neutral toward religion," Seidel wrote.
FFRF also filed open records requests with both districts March 7 that ask for:
— Applications and contracts between schools and the church regarding use of district facilities.
— Proof of the church's liability insurance coverage and payment for facility use, including rental rate schedules.
— All email correspondence between any district staff and Pastors Todd Lamphere, Brian Pikalow, Andy Searles, and Vickie Martin, Chris Burns, Jerry Martin, and/or any other church employee.
— Contracts with AH Media.
— Any official or unofficial policies on ownership and wearing of uniforms for any Apopka High School choral group and the football team.
In FFRF's letter to Rodriguez, Seidel said it's "inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district to offer a Christian minister unique access to befriend and proselytize student athletes. Accordingly, public high school football teams cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team, or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain, because public schools may not advance or promote religion."
It also appears that Lamphere led a mission trip for football coaches and players last summer. "Nonschool persons cannot be allowed to treat the school as a recruiting ground for their religious mission," Seidel added.
"It is very clear that a religious atmosphere has been directed and cultivated in the school district. No doubt some of these problems arise because of the school’s unconstitutional relationship with Pastor Todd Lamphere and The Venue Church. We intend to address that relationship and other issues further after our open records request has been fulfilled."
Seidel detailed several more constitutional issues in FFRF's March 7 letter to Ned Julian, Seminole County School Board attorney involving The Venue Church with Lake Brantley High School and South Seminole Middle School.
— Public endorsement of the church by district officials, including board Chairperson Karen Almond and South Seminole Principal Mia Coleman-Baker, who both appeared in a promotional video for the church and used their titles. The video appears to have been shot on campus.
— The Church published a note from Brian Shafer, Lake Brantley dean of students, to Pastor Brian Pikalow in which he stated that “my prayer is for the Venue Church @ Lake Brantley to continue prospering and grow and reach the community for Jesus Christ.”
— Special access was apparently given to pastors to district activities and to pray with South Seminole teachers at school.
— Lake Brantley Fellowship of Christian Athletes Twitter messages indicate club formation and activities were coordinated with the church, a violation of the federal Equal Access Act, which states school clubs are “voluntary and student-initiated” and that “nonschool persons may not direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend activities of student groups.”
— District promotion of staff participation in two religion-based physical fitness programs founded by Pastor Lamphere. The church is believed to have paid for some school staff to enroll.
— Rental by Greater Life Church of space at Lawton Chiles Middle School in Oviedo, where an ad for the church is posted on a school fence "24/7" and not just when services are being held.
— Lamphere’s biography states he was chaplain of the Lyman High School and Lake Howell High School football teams. "Public high school athletic teams cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain, because public schools may not advance or promote religion," Seidel wrote.
In his letter to Casselberry Mayor Charlene Glancy, Seidel criticized Glancy's appearance in a promotional video for The Venue Church in which she was identified as mayor of Casselberry (an Orlando suburb). In the video she says:
"[W]hat I’m very excited about is that Venue is located in the heart and soul of the Casselberry community, at our middle school. I believe that this is going to be an opportunity to bless people, to help the hurting, but also for people to grow and to see this community flourish as a result of all the great things that could happen in this church called The Venue."
Seidel wrote, "Your active promotion of The Venue Church in your official capacity unabashedly promotes a particular church and its worldview, sending an official message of endorsement of religion over nonreligion and of exclusion of many of your constituents.
FFRF told Glancy it's an "inappropriate usurpation" of her office for her to use her title to promote any church, in particular The Venue Church. "As an elected official, you should condemn an organization that perpetuates constitutional violations, not publicly invite your citizens to join it."