Outreach & Events - Freedom From Religion Foundation
Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation is condemning the mayor and police chief of Winter Garden, Fla., after the two men kicked a resident out of a city commission meeting on Aug. 28 for refusing to stand during a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.

FFRF sent a letter of complaint Aug. 29 in support of the citizen, “John Thoreau,” a member of FFRF and the Central Florida Freethought Community, FFRF’s local chapter.

As documented in a video recorded by Thoreau, Mayor John Rees told everyone present at the meeting to rise for the invocation and the pledge. As the prayer began, Rees interrupted, pointing at the seated Thoreau and saying, “We’re waiting for everyone to rise.” Thoreau repeatedly asserted he did not have to and remained seated. The sectarian prayer, given by a commission member, continued.

When Thoreau also refused to stand for the pledge, Rees ordered Police Chief George Brennan to “either escort him out or have him stand for the pledge.” Rees continued, “This is just not fair to our troops and people overseas, sir.” Brennan asked Thoreau whether he would stand or leave. Thoreau responded, “I guess I’m leaving” and was escorted out of the room in front of the nearly 100 people in the audience.

Rees claimed the refusal to stand was disrespectful, telling the Orlando Sentinel, “I did not make him stand for the prayer, but the pledge? Even school kids stand. So I told him, ‘You have two choices: You can stand or go outside.’ ”

“These actions were an astounding violation of Thoreau’s rights,” said FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, citing several court cases holding that compelling citizens to recite the pledge or salute the flag is unconstitutional, including the 1943 Supreme Court case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, where the Supreme Court explained, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Seidel informed Rees and Brennan that it is also unconstitutional to coerce citizens into showing deference to prayers, writing, “The government cannot ask people to stand, let alone force people to stand under threat of arrest.”

As a remedy to this violation of Thoreau’s civil rights, FFRF urges Rees and Brennan to each explain at the next meeting that “citizens are within their rights to remain sitting for the pledge and that it does not reflect a lack of patriotism. In fact, refusing to rise and repeat the pledge is more patriotic and respectful of the godless, secular Constitution that created this nation, than rising and declaring our nation to be 'one nation under God.'” Twenty-four percent of FFRF’s membership is active or retired service members.

The letter informs the officials to expect members of the Central Florida Freethought Community to be at the next commission meeting. “In a show of solidarity with John,” Seidel wrote, “they will exercise their First Amendment rights to remain seated during the invocation and pledge, both involving gods and a religion they do not worship. Mayor Rees and Chief Brennan ought to honor their rights.”

The Ballwin Board of Alderman are considering putting up “In God We Trust” displays on city-owned buildings. The project already has a $750 pledge from the Knights of Columbus.

According to News Magazine Network

The Board unanimously approved the motion to consider the design, locations, and cost of these displays.

As Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of FFRF, has stated in an interview with The Christian Post: “Statements about a god have no place in government buildings. Elected officials should not use their government position and government buildings as a place for promoting their religious views."

She continued, "More than 638,000 Missouri adults identify as non-religious (American Religious Identification Survey 2008). Aldermen are elected to represent all residents… including those that do not believe in a monotheistic god or any gods."

TAKE ACTION

The Board will take final action on a proposed display at a future meeting. The Board meets the second and fourth Monday of each month at 7 p.m in the Board Room of the Ballwin Police Department, 300 Park Drive. If you live in the area, please attend an upcoming meeting.

Please contact members of the Board of Alderman via phone or email today and voice your opposition to adding “In God We Trust” on city-owned buildings:

CONTACT

Mayor of the City of Ballwin
Mayor Tim Pogue
Send Email: 
Phone Number: (636) 207-2386

Ward 1 Aldermen
Alderman James M Terbrock
Send Email: 
Phone Number: (636) 207-2386

Alderman Michael Finley
Send Email: 
Phone Number: (636) 207-2386

Ward 2 Aldermen
Alderman Mark Harder
Send Email: 
Phone Number: (636) 207-2386

Alderman Shamed Dogan
Send Email: 
Phone Number: (636) 207-2386

Ward 3 Aldermen
Alderman Frank Fleming
Send Email: 
Phone Number: (636) 207-2386

Alderman Jim Leahy
Send Email: 
Phone Number: (636) 207-2386

Ward 4 Aldermen
Alderman Mike Boland
Send Email: 
Phone Number: (636) 207-2386

Alderman Kathy Kerlagon
Send Email: 
Phone Number: (636) 207-2386

TALKING POINTS

Use your own words if possible, or cut and paste wording below. If you live in the City of Ballwin, please be sure to indicate you’re a local citizen.

I strongly oppose the proposal to post a public display of the words “In God We Trust” on city-owned buildings in Ballwin, Missouri. The phrase is not representative of all Ballwin residents. In fact, the Pew Research Center reports that nearly 20% of adult Americans and one in three young adults are now nonreligious.

The phrase "In God We Trust" is not representative of all Missourians. To be truly accurate, it should say "In God SOME of Us Trust," and wouldn't that be silly?

“In God We Trust” is a johnny-come-lately motto that was not adopted until 1956 during the Cold War. Our nation’s first and original motto, “E Pluribus Unum” (From many, [come] one) was chosen by a distinguished committee of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, celebrates diversity, and excludes no citizen. Why not display this historic motto instead?

Ballwin Aldermen are elected to represent all citizens, including those of us who do not believe in a monotheistic god or any gods. Please reject this divisive and religiously exclusionary proposal.

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FFRF ends Florida team chaplain programs

The same Florida school district that is allowing atheists to distribute literature is now abolishing athletic chaplaincies for its teams and removing bible verses from sports venues and apparel.  

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state-church watchdog, has contacted Orange County Public Schools about more than 10 violations in the past 18 months. 

In March, FFRF blasted the schools for allowing team chaplains, putting bible verses on the field and team gear and for including religious music on game footage. Earlier this month, Orange County issued a memo addressing these problems.  

“Having a team chaplain is not permitted as it is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion in the same manner as a school employee participating in prayer with students,” the memorandum stated. “In this area the law is very clear.” 

Regarding teachers, coaches, and other staff praying with students, the Office of Legal Services wrote: “On this issue the matter is well decided that school personnel “cannot participate in a visible way with the players” during student-led prayer. . . . Please make sure to educate the staff at this and other schools that active participation by any School Board employee and/or non-faculty coach in student-led prayer must not occur as it is contrary to established case law.” 

The school also properly got rid of the bible verses on team signs and apparel, the memo said. “While the signs themselves may be permitted, the reference or citation to a particular Bible verse is deemed to be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.” 

The school even agreed with FFRF about banning religious music in videos: "The usage of religious lyrics could be seen as an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.”

Of course, the Religious Right is in an uproar. On Fox News, Bobby Bowden, retired Florida State University football coach, noted that he didn’t care about the Constitution or the First Amendment prohibition, “I’d do it anyway. . . . I don’t care about political correctness,” Bowden said, “I want to be spiritually correct.”  

There is an open question as to whether the schools will allow the chaplains to remain by simply by changing their name to “life coach,” which FFRF maintains is impermissible. This was only “reported” by Todd Starnes, an extremely conservative Fox News columnist. Starnes, not known for his accuracy or balance, also wrote that “FFRF is attempting to . . . eradicate Christianity in the public marketplace of ideas.”  

“If this ‘life coach’ nonsense is accurate, Orange County can’t avoid this issue with creative wordplay,” argued Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, who’s been handling the Orange County complaints for FFRF. 

“The school cannot give preachers access to a captive audience of public school students for a religious purpose, like prayer. Does Orange County really expect people to believe that chaplains, now life coaches, will keep their religion and their bible to themselves? Does the school actually want to be in the business of regulating religious speech? We think not,” added Seidel. 

FFRF still has a number of outstanding complaints with the district, including school-sponsored baccalaureates, holding school events in churches,and forcing students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. But, if this memo and Orange County’s capitulation allowing FFRF to distribute atheist literature to students are any indication, these issues could soon be corrected.

After the Freedom From Religion Foundation contacted a West Virginia school district over a four-year-old kindergarten program run by a religious daycare center and overseen by the district, State Superintendent of Schools Charles Heinlein advised that West Virginia 4K providers must not offer religious programming as part of public instruction. 

FFRF complained to Berkley County Schools about religious activity at New Beginnings Child Care Center in Inwood, W.Va. A parent reported to FFRF that New Beginnings inflicts prayer before meals and retains religious icons in the part of the facility used by tots. The facility provides state-funded 4K four days a week, then capitalizes on the government program by offering parents a fifth day of operational daycare which involves religious instruction. FFRF contends this further blurs the line for youngsters who are too young to be able to distinguish public education from church education. 

FFRF is a national state/church watchdog with more than 21,000 members nationwide, including members in West Virginia.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a May 9 letter to Berkeley County Schools: “Through its partnership with a child care facility that offers religious programming, Berkeley County Schools violates the Establishment Clause by entangling itself with religion,” and furthermore, “explicitly undermines West Virginia’s stated goal of universal access to early childhood education.” 

Elliott advised: “This constitutional violation is more egregious when the students are so young and thus more vulnerable to coercion.” 

On June 30, the Berkley County Superintendent contacted the State Superintendent of Schools to seek an interpretation of the applicable laws. 

Heinlein’s reply on Aug. 5 largely concurred with FFRF’s letter: “[It] is implicit in all of the WVBE policies that they must be implemented in a manner which does not violate State or Federal Constitutions.” Heinlein continued, “During the hours of operation in which the… WV Pre-K program is operated, the providers must: (1) use the WV Pre-K Program approved curriculum; (2) refrain from teaching religious beliefs; and (3) avoid engaging in religious practices, including praying at mealtimes.” 

With respect to the religious icons and images, including a cross on the New Beginnings sign, Heinlein simply wrote: “no State funds may be used to purchase or maintain them and they may not be included or alluded to during conversation or instruction during the WV Pre-K program.” He said that religious icons and images were otherwise permissible. 

FFRF contends that Heinlein is mistaken and that all pre-K classes must be held in a secular environment. “Facilities used to teach public school students have to be secular. This is a bedrock constitutional principle that is not erased merely because classes are held in a non-traditional setting,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF Co-President. 

The state’s Office of Early Learning was directed by Heinlein to develop model language for collaborative agreements with daycare centers. That included specific language to protect the constitutional rights of families: 

“The WV Pre-K program may not contain religious observances, such as prayer, grace, confession, church attendance or religious instruction or use religious materials. The WV Pre-K program cannot be used to proselytize or attempt to persuade or convert children or their families to religion or a particular religious persuasion.” 

Gaylor commented, “The center should be strongly reprimanded for forcing prayer on tiny children. This is these children’s first introduction to public education, yet sectarian religion permeates the environment. One in five adult Americans today is nonreligious. Nonreligious or non-Christian parents should not have to send their children to ‘public schools’ replete with Christian images, which make them feel like outsiders.” 

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

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator

 

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FFRF is a member of Atheist Alliance International.