Outreach & Events - Freedom From Religion Foundation
Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

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School district sued over scholarships

Plaintiffs are FFRF, Antelope Valley Freethinkers

FFRF, along with the Antelope Valley Freethinkers, is suing a California school district for censoring information about the groups' scholarship opportunities.

The lawsuit was filed April 12 in California federal court. FFRF, the Antelope Valley Freethinkers, and AVF President David Dionne are plaintiffs. The defendants are the Antelope Valley Union High School District and members of the district board of trustees.
The Antelope Valley Union High School District distributes lists of scholarship opportunities to district students. But for the past two years the district has refused to publish scholarship opportunities offered by FFRF and the Antelope Valley Freethinkers.

The Freethinkers' scholarship asked college-bound seniors to write essays on the topic, "Being a young freethinker in Antelope Valley," with a total award money of $1,750. FFRF's rejected essay competition for college-bound high school seniors (with more than $7,500 in cash prizes) offered students a chance to write on the topic of "Young, bold and nonbelieving: Challenges of being a nonbeliever of color" or "Why I'm good without God: Challenges of being a young nonbeliever."

The district said it was rejecting the scholarships because the essay announcements would upset parents, claiming that they that they appeared to "promote anti-religious expression" and had "aggressive" and "argumentative undertones toward religion." Offers by the local group to modify the wording were rejected.

In 2014, FFRF sent the district two letters objecting to the district's censorship. In her response at the end of the year, the district's general counsel, Bridget L. Cook, stated that "since the district is a limited public forum, we reserve the right to determine what information we allow to be disseminated in our schools." Repeated FFRF follow-ups were to no avail.

The Antelope Valley Union High School District is being inconsistent in its policy. The district's scholarship lists included scholarships that solicit religious expression or contain religious elements. In one example, the Quartz Hill High School Scholarship Bulletin for December-January 2015-2016 lists the "Playing with Purpose Award," which requires the applicant to write "at least one paragraph . . . describing how and when you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior and what your present relationship with Him means to you."

The school district's censorship of Antelope Valley Freethinkers and FFRF is government suppression of free speech in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, FFRF asserts. The district censored FFRF and the Antelope Valley Freethinkers' speech because their message is nonreligious, critical of religion and controversial.

This unequal treatment amounts to viewpoint discrimination because a public school that publishes scholarship opportunities for students offered by religious groups many not refuse to publish scholarships offered by two nontheistic organizations, FFRF contends. FFRF seeks a permanent injunction enjoining the defendants from engaging in continued viewpoint discrimination in publishing scholarship opportunities.

The case is being litigated by California attorney David J.P. Kaloyanides, with FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel and FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler serving as co-counsel. The case, No. 2:16-cv-02487, was filed in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California, Western Division.

Delta County School District employees in Delta, Colo., placed FFRF literature, along with material from the Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers and The Satanic Temple, in schools for students to take. In early April, FFRF sought the distribution to protest a previous bible distribution in the school.

However, the School District complained about two FFRF pamphlets: "An X-Rated Book: Sex and Obscenity in the Bible" and "What Does the Bible Say About Abortion?" Both of them were limited to just the local high schools.

The School District objected to the cartoon cover of "An X-Rated Book," which shows a bible groping a young woman.

"It is inappropriate in a school setting; we would not allow any of the high school students to wear or otherwise display such a cartoon," says School District Attorney Andrew Clay. "Why would we allow them to carry it in the building? It may also qualify as hate literature, demeaning women."

But district officials are misconstruing the cover.

"The School District misses the point entirely," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "The cover image is a feminist cartoon whose message is that the bible itself demeans women."

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel also dismisses the School District's argument.

"The idea that the pamphlet qualifies as hate literature is absurd, and if you're banning it on those grounds, then the district must ban the bible too," he says. "If you actually examine the pamphlet, you will see that it is comprised almost entirely of bible quotes. There is absolutely no way for the district to exclude the pamphlet and allow the bible to be distributed."

This gets to the larger point of why FFRF insisted that it be allowed to dispense its literature. In spite of repeated FFRF requests, the Delta County School District refused to stop the Gideons from passively distributing bibles in the local public schools. Since the School District has told FFRF that it will keep on giving the Gideons access, FFRF made sure other perspectives got heard, too.

"The school has no ability to censor any materials based on their viewpoint once it opens a forum," says Seidel. "That is why open forums in public schools are such a bad idea. If you want to open a forum, you do not get to determine what is acceptable and not."

As a compromise, FFRF put stickers over the cover of "An X-Rated Book," stating "censored by order of Delta County Schools." The organization is of the view that the attempt at censorship will likely backfire, since students are more likely to take "forbidden fruit."
The School District also limited the distribution of "What Does the Bible Say About Abortion?" to local high schools, since it deems the cover, a famous depiction of Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer, to be a "pornographic picture."

Billboards featuring local atheist voters greeted presidential candidates and their staff as they traveled to campaign in Madison in advance of the April 5 Wisconsin primaries.
FFRF displayed its 'I'm an Atheist and I Vote' billboards in 12 locations across Madison featuring local Millennials.

"Madison is a very secular city, and we want the candidates to acknowledge our presence and priorities," said Calli Miller, FFRF's legal assistant, who is featured on one of the billboards. "Candidates should acknowledge secular voters as the fastest-growing minority group in America, while committing to keep religion out of government."

Since President Obama was first elected, the number of religiously unaffiliated adults in America has grown by 19 million, fueled largely by growth of young, secular Millennials.

The billboards are part of FFRF's campaign to reach voters across the nation through FFRF chapters, a national TV ad buy focusing on the separation of church and state, efforts to mobilize students on college campuses, and coordination with the nation's other major freethought associations as part of the June 4 Reason Rally in Washington, D.C.

"Secular voters are highly educated and independent-minded," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "They care deeply about women's rights, environmental protection, marriage equality and social justice, and candidates should be reaching out to us directly."

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State/church violations in schools

FFRF receives numerous complaints every month about violations of the First Amendment happening in public schools around the country. Here are several of the state/church issues FFRF is working on.

Iowa

FFRF is questioning the appropriateness of creating prayer spaces for Muslims and Christians at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

The public university has recently established two prayer rooms for its Muslim students. This is in addition to a longstanding university chapel that features a Latin cross. The presence of such religious venues on a public campus raises a number of issues.
FFRF is asking for the University of Iowa to close down the Muslim prayer areas and to remove Christian symbols from the chapel.

Kansas

FFRF recently learned that late last year, Impact World Tour organized two meetings at the Spring Hill Middle School in Spring Hill, Kan., that were heavily evangelical in nature. Tickets were handed out to the students, but the actual theme of the programs was concealed.

An Impact World Tour gathering at the school attended by a student (daughter of the complainant) was so religious that she remarked afterward: "It was a cult." The presenters asked the audience to come to the front and "surrender their lives to Jesus."

Records obtained by FFRF show that each school principal in the district requested that these assemblies be held.

FFRF is asking for assurances in writing from the Spring Hill School District that such unconstitutional violations will not recur.

Kentucky

Okolona Elementary School in Louisville has a Fellowship of Christian Athletes student club sponsored by teacher Ashley Pearson. Also, the school art teacher, Mary Smith, showed a video last November in class of "Amazing Grace" that featured the Christian hymn in multiple languages and several images of Latin crosses. Additionally, a door at Pleasure Ridge Park High School in the same town has multiple crosses, a portrait of Jesus and the words "Jesus is the way, the truth and the life" on the outside. Finally, a teacher at Fern Creek High School, also in Louisville, told students at a health class that an important aspect of health is "spiritual health," defined as "the practice of a religion or guided by faith which gives you purpose."

FFRF is asking the district to investigate and to ensure that the reported violations do not recur.

Missouri

Several Missouri public school employees are unconstitutionally promoting evangelical youth ministries, charges FFRF.

It was reported to FFRF that South Valley Middle School and Liberty High School teachers in Liberty, Mo., are spreading the word about Young Life and Wyldlife on school property and during school time in their professional capacities. (Young Life has as its explicit mission "introducing adolescents to Jesus Christ and helping them grow in their faith," with Wyldlife sharing in this purpose.) The teachers wear T-shirts during the school day with the names of these ministries emblazoned on them.

FFRF asks Liberty Public Schools to investigate the situation and to make certain that its employees are not unlawfully and inappropriately promoting religious organizations during school hours.

Ohio

Norwalk City School Board of Education meetings have regularly opened with a prayer, in spite of repeated FFRF objections. The School Board has deliberated over the issue and will consider a written policy formalizing opening meetings with a prayer.
A federal district court in California recently ruled in FFRF's favor in a lawsuit filed against the Chino Valley School Board for a similar violation, awarding the organization attorneys fees and costs totaling more than $200,000. In the case, the court scrutinized a written policy that was virtually the same as the Norwalk School Board's proposed draft.
FFRF urges the Norwalk School Board to reject its policy proposal and drop the practice of scheduling prayer before its meetings.

South Carolina

FFRF is contending that the hiring of a South Carolina public school football coach may have been because of his religion, which is in violation of school nondiscrimination polices.

Text messages exchanged between Seneca High School Principal Cliff Roberts and recently hired coach Hal Capps indicate that their shared religiosity was a significant factor in Capps' appointment.

While offering Capps the job, Roberts texted, "I am going to trust you and trust the Good Lord through this, and be obedient to what I feel he is leading us to do." Capps responded, "Amen."

Capps was known for leading post-game prayer circles at a North Carolina high school, which ended after FFRF complained in 2014.

FFRF is asking the School District, in Seneca, S.C., to conduct an immediate investigation into whether its hiring and nondiscrimination policies have been violated.

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FFRF: Jersey borough needs secular motto

FFRF wants a New Jersey borough to get rid of its unmistakably religious seal and motto. The official seal of the borough of Clayton depicts a church and a Latin cross, with the accompanying motto reading: “A Great Place to Live and Play, Work and Pray.”

The inclusion of a cross and church on the official seal and the declaration that the borough is a great place to pray violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, FFRF asserts.

The borough’s logo signals an endorsement of Christianity and prayer.

“Federal courts have ruled that similar seals violate the Establishment Clause,” wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler in a letter last September to Clayton Mayor Tom Bianco. The borough responded to FFRF that the seal and the motto were nothing more than a reflection of its history, citing no law to back up its assertions. Ziegler contends in a follow-up letter that such an argument is untenable.

“The federal courts have consistently held that religious symbolism on official city seals is unconstitutional, even in the face of claims that the religious portions are in some way historical,” Ziegler writes.

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FFRF, friends to restore Ingersoll statue

Thanks to 248 donors from 42 states plus Puerto Rico, including 26 who sent $1,000 and whose name will be credited on the new base along with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, FFRF has raised more than $30,000 to restore the 1911 statue of Robert Green Ingersoll in Glen Oak Park in Peoria, Ill.

Ingersoll, a Civil War colonel and famed 19th-century "infidel" orator and author, built his early career as an attorney in Peoria, where he met his wife, Eva. He served as Illinois' attorney general from 1867 to 1869.

Peoria Secular Humanist Society Board member Ken Hofbauer was instrumental in setting the project in motion by contacting the Peoria Parks Department. The statue, sculpted by Fritz Treibel, and the base will be restored this summer.

FFRF is objecting to top Indiana state officials taking part in a Christian foot-washing ceremony in their official capacities.

Employees from Gov. Mike Pence's office, as well as Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann and her staff, sponsored and participated in a "foot-washing" ritual during office hours at the Shepherd Community Center in Indianapolis. Pence made an appearance at the center, too, shortly after the ceremony was completed. The rite was deeply religious.

Sonna Dumas, director of the school associated with Shepherd, "a faith-based ministry," commented to the Indianapolis Star that "the teachers told students about the biblical origins of the tradition in preparation for the event."

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that government offices may not appear to endorse religion, FFRF reminds the governor. The governor's office may not spend taxpayer money on religious ceremonies, including paying employees to participate. The office's endorsement of religion — and of Christianity in particular — turns non-Christian and nonreligious Indianans into outsiders in their own community.

As it is inappropriate and unconstitutional for government officials to sponsor and participate in religious rites, FFRF is seeking assurances from the governor that his office will not engage in this again.

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Congressman asked to end propaganda

FFRF is asking U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida to stop using taxpayer money for religious indoctrination.

Miller's office issues an official weekly "Miller Newsletter" that often explicitly promotes his Christian faith.

"Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of Christ and for giving thanks to God Almighty for sending his Son to save us," reads a newsletter from last December, for example. "In Luke 2:10-11, the shepherds learned of the birth of Jesus, when the Angel said to them 'Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.'"

In addition, Miller's newsletter often makes erroneous claims about the separation of state and church, stating, for instance: "It was not the intent of the Founders' to keep God out of the government, but to keep the government out of the church."

FFRF is calling on Miller to refrain from disseminating his religious perspective in a newsletter paid for with public money.

Government officials may not use their government office or resources to further their religion, FFRF asserts.

FFRF, with local member Andrew DeFaria, is suing the city of Santa Clara, Calif., to remove a gigantic cross from a local public park.

The lawsuit was filed April 20 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Jose Division.

The 14-foot granite Latin cross at Memorial Cross Park that FFRF and DeFaria are suing about officially commemorates a 1777 Spanish Catholic mission. The prominent Christian edifice was donated by the Santa Clara Lions Club in 1953, with the city maintaining the cross and the park ever since. FFRF contends that the city's decision to accept the cross and its subsequent display and maintenance "amounts to the advancement of religion," specifically Christianity.

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert first complained in April 2012 to the city's then-mayor, Jamie L. Matthews. The city indicated two months later that it looked forward "to resolving this matter in an expeditious and responsible manner."

In the past three years, on at least 12 occasions, Markert and other FFRF employees have followed up on the status of the cross's removal. But the city's only action to date has been to remove a sign reading "Memorial Cross Park."

DeFaria, who lives in Santa Clara, has encountered the cross at the park. "As a nonbeliever in any religion, he finds the cross on public land objectionable," the lawsuit says. DeFaria now avoids the park, and even the street on which the park is located, so he won't have to encounter his city's endorsement of the Christian religion.

FFRF and DeFaria are asking the court to declare the city cross in violation of Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the No Preference Clause of Article I, § 4 of the California Constitution.

"It should not be necessary to sue over such an obvious and blatant establishment of religion," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We waited four years for the city to act in good faith and divest itself of this unconstitutional endorsement of religion, and were left with no recourse but to go to court."

FFRF v. City of Santa Clara is being litigated on behalf of FFRF by David J.P. Kaloyanides, with FFRF attorneys Rebecca Markert and Madeline Ziegler serving as co-counsel. The defendants are the city of Santa Clara, Santa Clara City Council, Mayor Lisa Gillmor, Vice Mayor Teresa O'Neill and other members of the council.

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Judge sanctioned over sentencing

A bible-foisting judge was sanctioned by Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct for making a man write bible verses 25 times a day as part of his sentencing.

Last July, Judge Randall Rogers from Smith County, Texas, decided that the best punishment for Josten Bundy, who punched an ex-boyfriend of his girlfriend, was to marry his girlfriend, get counseling and write bible verses.

If Bundy declined to the probation rules, he would be sentenced to 15 days in jail.
Bundy was told to write Proverbs 26:27 ("If a man digs a pit, he will fall into it") 25 times a day.

Bundy did comply with the marriage injunction and ended up marrying his girlfriend.
FFRF filed a complaint with the commission and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a letter to the judge.

"After a thorough review and investigation of the issues you raised in your complaint, the commission voted to issue the judge a private sanction," Seana Willing, executive director of the commission, said in the letter. However, FFRF was not allowed to see the details of the sanction.

FFRF thanks the commission.

"In our secular constitutional system, courts should not be forcing people to act according to biblical precepts," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

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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