Outreach & Events - Freedom From Religion Foundation
Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

After FFRF objected to inappropriate religious references at a public school assembly in Branson, Mo., the district has taken steps to ensure future assemblies will be religion-free.

Last October, Branson Junior High School hosted a “character assembly” sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. A former football player offered to pray with students, told them to give all their problems to Jesus and handed out football cards with a testimonial about how God and Jesus had helped him through difficult times.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote the district March 27: “Providing a school assembly with religious content by a Christian speaker gives the appearance that Branson Public Schools endorses that speaker’s religious message.”

Superintendent Doug Hayter responded April 3 that the administration discussed policies regarding neutrality toward religion with the school principal and would “review these guidelines with our entire administrative team to ensure knowledge and full compliance.”

Lincoln High School in Manitowoc, Wis., took down sexist prom posters sponsored by a Catholic health care provider and a “crisis” pregnancy center after FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent an April 29 complaint letter.

The poster featured a silhouette of a girl in a dress made out of words suggesting supposedly desirable qualities for women, including “quiet, gentle and classy.” The Crossing of Manitowoc County, a Christian anti-abortion group, and Holy Family Memorial, which offers faith-based health services and is operated by the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, sponsored the poster message.

The complaint was picked up by national media, with many stories pointing out the poster implied that girls who had sex had no character and would no longer embody qualities named in the poster. Senior Kelsey Schindl met with Principal Luke Valitchka to ask if she could put up posters countering the “shaming” message but was refused.

“The insinuation that if you do have sex, then you don’t have any character any more is a horrible message to send,” Schindl said. “I’m not endorsing teen sex, but you’re not a bad person if you do and you’re not a bad person if you don’t.”

Grover wrote, “When a school district allows a private religious organization to advertise on the walls of its school, it entangles itself with the religious message being advertised. As it stands, Principal Valitchka appears to have denied students the right to advertise a message on the same topic as the religious advertisements currently on display solely because their message is an opposing viewpoint.”

Manitowoc Public School District Superintendent Marcia Flaherty responded April 30, denying that the posters were religious but confirming they were taken down.

The Los Angeles Unified School District removed church advertising from school grounds after Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel informed the district March 6 that four permanently posted signs at University High School on Texas Avenue near Santa Monica Boulevard violated the Constitution.

"When a school permanently displays a banner on its property advertising a church, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message, here a Christian message," Seidel wrote.

FFRF's local complainant reported on March 27 that the banners had been removed.

Gator Freethought and Humanists on Campus, two student groups at the University of Florida in Gainesville, sent a letter to university President W. Kent Fuchs in support of FFRF's April 13 objection to a bible verse inscribed on a new business school building.

Heavener Hall has a bible verse on an archway reading, "He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your god. Micah 6:8."

In an April 23 letter, the two groups said, "We, as students and staff of the University of Florida, feel that the quote promotes Judeo-Christian beliefs over all other beliefs on campus, and that this alienates members of the University of Florida community, such as ourselves, who do not hold the same beliefs and encourages discrimination against ourselves and other individuals of different faiths, creeds and beliefs."

The organizations, which have about 45 active members total, requested the verse be replaced with "a more secular, encompassing inscription."

"It's wonderful to see students standing up for their rights and taking an active interest in upholding the Constitution," said FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel.

The university told FFRF on April 15 that it was reviewing the complaint.

FFRF filed an amicus brief April 22 in a case over government-sponsored prayer in Eureka, Calif. In Beaton v. Eureka, city resident and atheist Carole Beaton filed suit over prayers that start city council meetings. FFRF's "friend of the court" brief supports Beaton's position that prayers at government meetings violate the Constitution.

FFRF argues that the California Constitution provides extensive protection of state/church separation, broader than that required by the Establishment Clause, and that the government should refuse to lend its "prestige and power" to religion by endorsing religious practices.

The brief also criticizes U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Marsh v. Chambers and Greece v. Galloway, which upheld legislative prayer. The cases reject legal principles in favor of relying on a misguided view of history, alleges FFRF, urging California courts to refuse to incorporate flawed reasoning into state law.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science were successful in getting a science teacher in Arroyo Grande, Calif., to stop teaching creationism. The groups sent a letter that sparked an investigation by the Lucia Mar Unified School District into lessons on creationism by Brandon Pettenger at Arroyo Grande High School.

In an April 29 email to Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Chuck Fiorentino reported that he and the school principal met with Pettenger on April 23 and told him "to immediately cease using [creationist materials] and not to instruct at all on the topics of creationism, intelligent design, or anything related."

They also told Pettenger he must adhere to state-adopted science standards and that anything outside those standards needed approval. Creationist material was also removed from his school district Web page.

In addition, the district "will be reminding all teachers of their legal obligation to teach only material that is in the State adopted Standard, or Curriculum, or Board approved."

Dawkins Foundation CEO Robyn Blumner praised the anonymous student for bringing the situation to light. "That student helped bring evidence-based science back into a public school classroom hijacked by religious teachings."

St. Elmo Junior & Senior High School removed religious signs from its property, after the Freedom From Religion Foundation contacted the St. Elmo Central Unified School District in Illinois.

FFRF learned the school had four signs posted on the school’s fence alongside a road reading “Plow the Land / Plant the Seed / Love Our God / Follow His Creed.” FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent Superintendent Deborah Philpot a letter on Nov. 25, 2014, asking the district to take down the sign. “Courts have continually held that school districts may not display religious messages or iconography in public schools,” Grover wrote.

“The signs suggest that the school has adopted one god, the Christian God, above all others and encourages readers to ‘follow His creed.’ This endorsement of a Christian message alienates those non-Christian students, families, teachers, and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted by the school,” he continued.

After two follow-up letters, Superintendent Philpot informed FFRF on April 17 that the district had the signs removed in February.

After protests by local activists and a letter from FFRF, the Venice, Fla., City Council voted 5-2 on April 28 against displaying "In God We Trust" in its chambers.

David Williamson, head of the Central Florida Freethought Community, a chapter of FFRF, spoke at the meeting, as did Marie Glidewell of the Gulf Coast Humanists Association. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that about 20 supporters of the display also showed up.

"This is not a chamber of the majority, it is a chamber of all," Williamson told the council.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor sent the council a letter April 27: "Posting 'In God We Trust' interferes with citizens' rights of conscience and is a misuse of city property for the benefit of a system of religion."

The proposal was just the latest in a series of nearly identical efforts pushed nationally by a California-based group called In God We Trust ~ America Inc. Its aim is to display the phrase "in every city and county chamber in America."

Such campaigns show why the phrase, adopted by Congress in 1956 at the height of the McCarthy era, should not be a national motto because it excludes a large percentage of the population, Gaylor said.

A Chicago Public Schools teacher who regularly promoted weekly religious club meetings to students during instructional time will no longer be allowed to do so. A Greeley Elementary School teacher promoted meetings of WyldLife, a Christian club that meets in the school's gym after the school day ends. WyldLife is sponsored by Young Life, an organization dedicated to "introducing adolescents to Jesus Christ and helping them grow in their faith."

The teacher also regularly invited students to bible study with his wife and other adults.

"A public school may not sponsor or provide preferential treatment to a Christian club," said FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover in a complaint letter. The district responded that it advised the teacher he could not promote the club or bible study during the school day. In addition, FFRF received word on March 25 that all staff had been issued guidelines regarding religious clubs.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a March 6 letter objecting to letting a church permanently post signs on the fence of University High School in Los Angeles. Vintage Church had been permitted to keep signs up around the clock for at least two years.

FFRF's complainant reported March 20 that the signs had been taken down.

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