FFRF originally contacted Middletown City Schools in Ohio last spring about high school football coach Chris Wells leading students in prayer and inviting them to his church. The district assured FFRF that administrators had met with Wells and told him that his actions crossed the constitutional line.
But in September, FFRF received a report from a new complainant that Wells was again leading prayers before and after every game. Wells allegedly told players after a Sept. 19 losing game that they needed to rededicate themselves to God and ordered them to take a knee and pray. When one player refused, the coach allegedly threw him off the team.
“Coach Wells is purposefully and willfully ignoring the law and the district’s explicit directive,” wrote Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a second letter of complaint.
An attorney for the district responded in November, saying administrators reiterated to Wells that he could not “involve religion in any way in either his coaching or in his involvement with students. The athletic director was directed to monitor the situation closely.
“Should you receive any more complaints, please let me know, so that the district can investigate and take further action,” the attorney’s response said.
Two public high schools in Kalispell, Mont., declined this year’s invitation to participate in a performance “celebrating the birth of our savior Jesus Christ” at a Mormon church after FFRF objected to the school’s participation last year.
“Because this event includes literally hundreds of depictions of the birth of Jesus Christ as described in the bible, school participation in this overtly religious ‘Community Christmas Celebration’ event crosses the line by creating a perception of school endorsement of the religious aspects of Christmas,” wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel on Nov. 29, 2013.
The Flathead Area Secular Humanist Association in Whitefish told FFRF that the schools’ choir directors turned down an invitation to participate this year. Often, a school district or other governmental body will make the changes FFRF requests and then fail to report the action taken, as was the case here.
FFRF is grateful to the Flathead group for the update and encourages other local complainants to be sure to let FFRF know when its letters make a difference.
Students in the Washoe County School District in Nevada will no longer compel students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. A district parent contacted FFRF, reporting that a student was ordered to stand for the pledge and was ordered to leave class, counted absent and not allowed back into class after refusing to stand.
“Courts have reiterated over and over again that students have a constitutional right not to be forced to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance or to be compelled to stand for its recitation,” wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in an Oct. 22 letter.
The district’s general counsel replied, saying that he distributed a districtwide memo “reminding our school principals that students must not be compelled to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance or be harassed for remaining seated.”
Round Rock Independent School District in Texas unblocked several secular websites after Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the district Oct. 17 about its discriminatory policy. The district’s filtering software left sites affiliated with Catholicism, Islam and Scientology unblocked while filtering atheist sites as “alternative beliefs.”
“Schools may not ban information based on a ‘dislike of the ideas,’ ” wrote Grover. The superintendent responded Oct. 21 that the district was in the process of unblocking the sites mentioned. FFRF confirmed Nov. 14 they were unblocked.
FFRF’s complaint letter prompted prompted the Blount County Sheriff’s Office in Maryville, Tenn., to remove a box of religious brochures from the waiting room.
The brochures depicted Jesus, included a prayer and were the only brochures displayed. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert called the material inappropriate and unconstitutional in a July letter.
The county’s attorney responded Nov. 17, reporting that an investigation showed that staff had indeed placed the brochures and that they had been removed.
Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy’s Grammar School in Forest City, N.C., has ended teacher-led prayer and implemented a new policy on religion after a Nov. 6 complaint by Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott on behalf of a parent. A second-grade teacher led students in prayer before lunch each day.
The parent was later told the prayers would be replaced with a moment of silence, but the teacher reportedly instead called on a student to lead the prayer. Elliott noted that a moment of silence did not cure the problem because it was clearly intended for prayer.
The principal responded Dec. 1, attaching an extensive new policy the charter school’s governing board had adopted clarifying that while students remain free to pray on their own, “School administrators and teachers may not organize or encourage prayer exercises in classrooms. The right of religious expression in school does not include the right to have a captive audience listen, or to compel other students to participate.”
After getting an FFRF letter, Skiatook Public Schools in Oklahoma revised a Pledge of Allegiance worksheet that emphasized the phrase “under God” and decided it would no longer take students to a creationist zoo where students were taught about “God’s miracles” and the biblical flood.
It also did not include a prayer at a Veterans Day ceremony, a change from last year’s celebration.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter Oct. 30 outlining the constitutional violation. An attorney for the district responded Nov. 20, informing FFRF of the changes.
Celina Independent School District in Texas will no longer permit coaches to participate in prayer circles with students. Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter to the district Nov. 13, describing a local complainant’s report of widespread coach participation in prayer circles.
An attorney for the district responded Nov. 25 to say that the district would discuss participation in prayer with staff and “provide training to ensure that employees do not participate in student-led prayer at any school-sponsored events in the future.”
A coach in the Wimberley Independent School District in Texas will no longer pray with students or endorse students’ prayers. Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote Wimberley’s superintendent Sept. 25, detailing a report that Wimberley High School’s athletic director and head football coach led the team in prayer at the end of every football game, and that coaches also engaged in smaller prayer circles with players before games.
FFRF’s complainant said the letter led to the coach calling for a moment of silence right after his postgame talk to the team, after which he allegedly put his hands on the shoulders of two players, one of whom immediately led the students in prayer. Grover wrote a second letter Nov. 7.
The school’s attorney responded Nov. 17 that the coach no longer leads or participates in prayers, asks students to pray or designates a student to pray or participate in prayers. The coach was instructed to step away from student-led prayer and to tell students and parents that he neither encouraged nor discouraged prayer, said the attorney.