The Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Indiana filed a federal lawsuit today, challenging an annual live nativity performance at Concord High School in Elkhart, Ind.
The complaint notes that for several decades Concord High School has organized a "Christmas Spectacular" each winter. Every performance, of which there were five last year, "ends with an approximately 20-minute telling of the story of the birth of Jesus, including a live Nativity Scene and a scriptural reading from the Bible. During this segment, students at the High School portray the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men, shepherds, and angels."
FFRF, a non-profit membership organization dedicated to defending the constitutional principle of the separation between state and church, has brought suit on behalf of its 23,000 members, including more than 360 in Indiana and a local family. Jack Doe, a student at the school, is a member of the performing arts department. Attendance and performance at the Christmas Spectacular is mandatory for students enrolled in the performing arts department.
Attorneys for FFRF and the ACLU argue in the complaint that the nativity performance and the reading of the biblical story of the birth of Jesus are, of course, "well-recognized symbols of the Christian faith. Their presence at the Christmas Spectacular is coercive, represents an endorsement of religion by the High School and the School Corporation, has no secular purpose, and has the principal purpose and effect of advancing religion."
"FFRF is suing to ensure that nonreligious and non-Christian students are able to fully participate in their school's winter concert," explains FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "The nativity represents the pinnacle of Christian belief and its most holy day. This spectacle would be appropriate at a private Catholic school, but is a blatant and egregious promotion of religion in a public school setting."
“While public schools may recognize and celebrate the secular aspects of winter holidays, they may not endorse or promote religious beliefs and they may not use school functions to coercively subject students to religious messages and proselytizing,” said Heather L. Weaver, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU. “Incorporating a live Nativity scene and scriptural reading into a public school concert clearly violates the law.”
A video of the 2014 Nativity performance can be viewed here.
FFRF has brought suit in conjunction with the ACLU of Indiana and the national ACLU. Attorneys on the case include Sam Grover and Ryan Jayne of FFRF, Gavin Rose of the ACLU of Indiana, and Daniel Mach and Heather L. Weaver of the ACLU. FFRF v. Concord Community Schools, Case No. 3:15-cv-00463, is in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division. Judge Jon DeGuilio, a President Obama appointee, has been assigned to the case.
Statement by Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker
Freedom From Religion Foundation
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has written nearly 60 letters to various police and sheriffs' departments since late July, responding to complaints by local citizens shocked at seeing "In God We Trust" decals popping up on official police or sheriff vehicles.
One such complaint was received from Childress, Texas. Our letter to the police chief there received widespread news coverage, The New York Times. So has the sheriff's derisive reply to us: "Go fly a kite."
We'll proudly "go fly a kite," and it will say "In REASON We Trust."
Seeing a chance to pander, Texas State Rep. Chuck Perry has now asked the Texas Attorney General for an opinion on the constitutionality of "In God We Trust" on police vehicles:
"We are in the middle of a spiritual battle in American right now, with the issue of religious liberty front and center. I am proud of Childress Police Department for standing strong."
The attorney general's opinion is a fait accompli. We all know what the attorney general will rule: Congress adopted "In God We Trust" as a motto, therefore it's not only fine, it's patriotic for the Childress Police department to place it on its vehicles.
Piety or faith are not and should not be synonymous with patriotism. But godliness has been equated with good citizenship since this unconstitutional and misguided law passed in 1956.
The motto "In God We Trust" very obviously excludes the nearly quarter of "We the People" today who identify was nonreligious. Our numbers include members of the police force and sheriffs' departments — one of whom has contacted FFRF because he's so offended at having to drive around in a vehicle espousing a religious viewpoint that disrespects his own opinions. Other citizens have contacted us, fearful the nonreligious will become profiled, targets, especially those of us who sport irreverent bumper stickers on our cars.
Childress Police Chief Adrian Garcia first announced the decision to add the message on the force's Facebook page, just as he later dissed FFRF on it. A news article noted that a local man's two-word post, "Bad move," was deleted five minutes he posted it, and then he was blocked. He told the Amarillo Globe News he saw other posts criticizing the decision, but they were also quickly removed.
"They're the police for the entire community, not just the Christians," Douglas Messer said. "I happen to know that there are a fair number of atheists in that town that would feel discriminated against."
So we don't just have endorsement of god belief by a police force, but now censorship and government suppression of dissenting views.
U.S. police forces need to quit impersonating the God Squad. Police don't answer to their personal interpretation of "God's law" — but to our civil laws. Police take an oath to uphold our godless and entirely secular constitution. It's as inappropriate for them to sport a godly message as it would be to put on a decal saying "God Is Dead" or "Mohammed is the only true prophet." Imagine the outcry if those words were spreading like wildfire on law enforcement vehicles!
It's impossible not to suspect that this "God Squad" craze is more about circling the wagon than a sudden interest in promoting the national motto. FFRF first got complaints in July and August, as the headlines were dominated by outcries against police shootings of defenseless African Americans. Wrapping oneself in a mantle of piety's a great way to deflect criticism.
Our message to phony police chiefs and sheriffs is the same as to phony politicians: It's time to get off your knees and get to work.
Our country is becoming more diverse. The winds of change will lift our kite, "In Reason We Trust," very high.
A 4,743-pound granite monument dedicated to "ATHEISTS IN FOXHOLES and the countless freethinkers who have served this country with honor and distinction" was installed today, Oct. 6, at the Freedom From Religion Foundation's new offices in Madison, Wis.
The Atheists in Foxholes monument will be dedicated on Friday, Oct. 9 at 10:30 a.m. during the by-invitation-only grand opening of the renovated Freethought Hall downtown. Vets in attendance will be encouraged to pose for a photograph.
The monument, made of the same South Dakota granite that Mount Rushmore is carved from, is more than 7 feet high, reflects the long windows that are part of the original 1855 building and provides a focus for the new Rose Zerwick Memorial Garden and Courtyard adjoining Freethought Hall's new entrance. A teak bench opposite the display provides a spot for reflection.
The monument text concludes with a pacific plea: "Presented with hope that in the future humankind may learn to avoid all war."
About a quarter of FFRF's membership are vets or in the military, as is true for the military as a whole.
This is FFRF's second Atheists in Foxholes monument. The prototype, which was carved by World War II veteran Bill Teague, is nestled in piney woods next to FFRF's southern Freethought Hall near Munford, Ala., which is overseen by its chapter, the Alabama Freethought Society.
FFRF worked with Pechmann Memorials, which also carved the patio pavers — bearing donor names and slogans — surrounding the monument in the cozy courtyard space.
"FFRF deals with so many state/church entanglements regarding all branches of the military, where substantial incursions by aggressive evangelicals have been made. This monument not only honors nonreligious veterans, but serves as a reminder to our nation that — contrary to that tired, old, untrue cliché — there are indeed many 'atheists in foxholes,' " said Annie Laurie Gayor, FFRF co-founder and co-president.
FFRF's 38th national convention takes place this weekend in Madison, starting with the Friday morning grand opening, and moves to Monona Terrace convention center in the afternoon. Keynoter Ron Reagan will speak Friday night. Registrations can be taken at the door. For more information, phone 608-256-8900 or click here.
In a secular coincidence, a monument to the Ten Commandments placed at the Capitol grounds in Oklahoma City, which was found unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court, was removed yesterday.
Watch video clips of installation. Thanks to FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel for the video and photographs and Publicist Lauryn Seering for compiling the video.
Photograph: FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor & Dan Barker.