FFRF’s small but efficient legal staff kept extremely busy in midsummer churning out complaints to shore up the wall of separation between state and church. Many of the complaints got a lot of publicity and stirred up local hornets’ nests at the thought of “outsiders” suggesting that the theocrats should abide by the Constitution.
Some of the notable complaints follow. For more information, go to ffrf.org and click on “News/news releases.”
FFRF fights school ‘prayer caravan’
An Aug. 10 “prayer caravan” that entails public school district personnel going to every district school in Cullman County, Ala., to say a 10- to 15-minute prayer is being challenged by FFRF. The district’s event description online ended with, “It will be a time to lift our schools up to God and ask His blessings for the upcoming school year.”
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a complaint July 22 to Superintendent Billy Coleman, saying that the event should be canceled. Hours later, the district removed all information about the event from its website and Facebook page. But since then, Coleman has said publicly several times that the event won’t be canceled and denied it’s school-sponsored.
In a follow-up letter to a school attorney, Seidel wrote, “Wishing or stating that ‘the school system doesn’t sponsor’ the event does not make it so. This event was organized by the superintendent, who used his official power to post the event on the official district website, to post the event on the official district Facebook page, and the event bears the title ‘Cullman County Schools Prayer Caravan.’ ”
Since its initial letter, FFRF has received reports from seven local families about additional violations, mostly regarding unconstitutional prayers. Complainants say schools allow daily recitations of the Lord’s Prayer during the school day, including over the loudspeaker system, have teacher-led prayer before lunch, at graduation ceremonies. One student said every school event starts with a prayer.
Schools often hold school events in churches instead of at school. It’s also alleged that Coleman frequently schedules a student investment dinner and school meetings at various churches around the area.
The most disturbing information is that every Tuesday, according to a complainant, a preacher visits West Point Elementary to proselytize. Teachers reportedly have told student their teachers “would be disappointed” if students chose not to listen to the sermons.
Mayor uses civic
pulpit to bully
FFRF is asking Mayor Rita Stephens of Hawesville, Ky., to stop using her civic ‘bully pulpit’ as an actual pulpit. Stephens writes a column called “Hawesville City Hall Happenings” once a month with religious content sprinkled through every column.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert’s July 22 letter of complaint detailed Stephens’ references to Christianity in the Hancock Clarion:
• “We started out the month celebrating our Chief of Police ‘Buz’s’ birthday. I believe God wants us all to celebrate the day HE created us.”
• “We have had so many small water leaks this month, one of which caused a major mudslide on town hill. The good Lord works all things out.”
• “Jackie Logsdon and Amy Powell from the Kentucky Division of Water conducted our first Sanitary Sewer Survey. They will send the results next month. Say a prayer.”
• “My husband just celebrated two years free of addictions. Good job! Praise the Lord! We are so thankful.”
• The mayor cannot in her official capacity, Markert noted, “make religious statements, quote biblical scripture or exhort citizens to pray.”
The letter, on behalf of a local complainant, also asks the city to stop scheduling prayer at meeting.
Challenge to church discount continues
FFRF continues to challenge a discriminatory admission policy by Festa Italiana in Milwaukee, which offered free admission to Catholic Mass attendees for its festival.
FFRF sent its first letter of complaint Feb. 28 after the fest’s website posted “FREE admission to Festa when you attend High Mass at 11 a.m. in the Marcus Amphitheater.” The normal gate price is $13.
An attorney for the fest later told Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott that the fest would end the discount before the July 21 event. But the July/August issue of the Italian Times again mentioned free admission and said Mass would be “followed by a religious procession through the [Summerfest] grounds.”
In a July 18 follow-up, Elliott again pressed the legal point that state law bars such preferential treatment. Most ethnic festivals in Milwaukee, at FFRF’s behest, have changed their similarly discriminatory policies, including Irish Fest, Polish Fest, German Fest and Mexican Fiesta.
‘Holiday’ strikes fear
in Texans’ hearts
Grandstanding pols in Texas passed the “Merry Christmas” bill, which was signed into law June 13 by Gov. Rick Perry, who was surrounded by Santa Claus impersonators ringing sleigh bells.
The law is supposedly meant to protect the right of public school students and staff to express “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah” and similar religious sentiments.
But as MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow put it, “Thanks to Governor Perry, it’s not illegal to say Merry Christmas. Was it ever illegal to say Merry Christmas in Texas? You know, you never can be too careful, but saying Merry Christmas is now doubly, triply, merrily, Rick Perry-ly protected in Texas.”
“Holiday” seems to be a dirty word to the Christian Right, noted FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, who strongly suspects the law’s real purpose is to put nativity scenes into public schools. At the bill signing, Perry said, “Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.” Attending were several Kountze High School cheerleaders wearing red “I cheer for Christ” T-shirts. They recently sued for the right to hold up bible banners for football players to run through at games, a case that began with a letter of complaint by FFRF.
The law the pols are lauding encourages schools to display religious symbols, including nativity scenes, on school property — providing that either a secular symbol is next to it or two religious symbols are erected together. “If a school puts up Frosty the Snowman, it can then erect a crèche depicting the supposed miraculous birth of the Christian savior,” Gaylor said.
Co-President Dan Barker added, “Putting a menorah next to a nativity scene in a public school setting to ‘secularize’ religious displays is like saying two wrongs make a right.”