FFRF combats ‘pervasive religious endorsement’ in Texas school district

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A national state/church watchdog has lodged a formal complaint over "pervasive religious endorsement" by the Mt. Vernon Independent School District in Texas.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation contacted the district Oct. 31 on behalf of a local complainant. FFRF, based in Madison, Wis, has more than 21,500 members, including 900 in Texas. 

Numerous allegations of Establishment Clause violations include religious postings in several classrooms. One kindergarten teacher displays 10 Christian crosses on the wall next to her desk, several with bible verses printed on them. A high school Spanish teacher has a printed list of "Bible Verses for Teachers" on her wall that quotes such New Testament verses as Ephesians 3:16-17, "I pray that out of His glorious riches He may strengthen you with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith."

"Public schools have a duty to ensure that 'subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion' or use their positions of authority to promote a particular religious viewpoint," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote Superintendent John Kaufman in the Oct. 31 letter. "When teachers place Latin crosses or bible quotes on classroom walls, they have unconstitutionally entangled the school with a religious message, specifically a Christian message."

It is FFRF's information that hallways in multiple Mt. Vernon schools contain religious quotes painted on the walls. At Mt. Vernon High School, the quotes include, "Within the covers of the Bible are the answers for all the problems men face," attributed to Ronald Reagan, as well as one attributed to Thomas Paine, "Reputation is what men and women think of us, character is what God and angels know of us."

"The Thomas Paine quote is not only pious, but almost certainly misattributed," wrote Grover, pointing out that the quote has been attributed to Horace Mann and that Paine was a deist in the classical Enlightenment sense who wrote The Age of Reason, a book repudiating the bible. Paine wrote: "As to written or printed books, by whatever name they are called, they are the works of man's hands, and carry no evidence in themselves that God is the Author of any of them."

Grover referred the district to FFRF and ACLU's joint lawsuit in Jackson, Ohio, in which a school refused to take down a portrait of Jesus. The suit was settled a year ago with the school district removing the portrait and paying $95,000 in legal fees.

FFRF also protested the district's T-shirts on sale that read "FAITH – Family – TIGERS" with a cross replacing the "t" in the word "faith." The shirts are displayed at the main entrance at Mt. Vernon Elementary.

"Public school employees cannot sell, ask students to wear or themselves don religious T-shirts," wrote Grover. "Doing so alienates those non-Christian members of your community whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted by the school."

"Given the variety and pervasiveness of the violations reported to us, we recommend that the district not only address the specific violations reported here, but also make an effort to educate all district employees about their obligation to remain neutral toward religion under the Establishment Clause," the letter concluded.

"We have rarely seen such a collection of egregious state/church violations in one school district," commented Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. "This is religion run amok, targeting a captive audience of young students, including elementary school students. All of these religious mottos, symbols, posters, bible verses and Christian T-shirts should be removed immediately."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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