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Freethought Today · Jan/Feb 2013

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF Legal Victories

Michigan letter results in prompt solution

After an early childhood program assistant sent home an inappropriate religious gift with students, the Monroe County (Mich.) Intermediate School District is ensuring that school policy will be followed by the assistant and other staff in the future.

The faculty member works with children as young as 4, some of whom are disabled, and distributed a gift of Play-Doh to children, along with a letter containing religious references and urging people to pray.

The letter was titled “CHRISTmas is Jesus’s Birthday” and opened, “So for the Jesus gift you could be like this play dough, and let Jesus mold & shape Your Life so Jesus Can use you for His Glory!” The letter encouraged parents to find a church that teaches about Jesus.

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Jan. 7 to Superintendent Randy Monday about the illegality of proselytizing to children in public school. She noted it was irrelevant that the assistant included the disclaimer “this is my belief & my gift & is not promoted by the school in any way.”

Assistant Superintendent Elizabeth Taylor replied the next day to say that the employee was told about the inappropriateness of her actions and her violation of school policy that states teachers or supervisors must approve items sent home with students.

Parents were also notified that the staff member had violated school policy. 

 

Gideons groups out after FFRF complaints

Gideons International representatives will no longer be allowed in Grant County Schools, Williamstown, Ky., to distribute bibles as a result of a complaint from FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert. A concerned parent contacted FFRF after her child was taken out of class to receive a bible.

Markert pointed out that by allowing Gideons to distribute bibles, the district was “impermissibly endorsing religion by placing its ‘stamp of approval’ on the religious messages contained in the bible.”

Superintendent Ron Livingood responded Nov. 30 and said that he had met with district principals and instructed them not to permit Gideons in schools or on school property.

Markert sent a similar letter Nov. 19 to Robertson County Director of Schools Daniel Whitlow in Springfield, Tenn., responding to a distressed parent whose child was ostracized for not taking a Gideon bible.

Whitlow responded Jan. 8 that all administrators had been notified that bible distribution was against district policies.

 

Georgia university
ends staff prayer

North Georgia College & State University, Dahlonega, Ga., will no longer be including prayers at university-sponsored events after receiving an FFRF letter of complaint last October. The school is one of six senior military colleges in the U.S.

A concerned student alerted FFRF that at an event that was mandatory for some students, faculty members led attendees in several Christian prayers. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to President Bonita Jacobs: “Including prayer at events at which attendance is mandatory is coercive, embarrassing, and beyond the scope of our public university system.”

Julia Anderson, state senior assistant attorney general, responded Dec. 13 that Jacobs would “remind [all faculty and staff] that prayers shall not be included in university-sponsored events.”

 

FFRF stills Wisconsin student bell-ringers

FFRF was able to intervene before students at the Medford (Wis.) Area Middle School were sent to ring bells to raise money for the Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army’s stated mission is “to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.” It has 11 Christian “articles of faith” and is blatantly discriminatory to gay people.

After a concerned parent contacted FFRF, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent District Administrator Pat Sullivan a letter Dec. 13 pointing out that “while it is laudable for a public school to encourage young students to become active and involved in their community,” the Salvation Army is “an overtly Christian organization.”

Elliott asked Sullivan to inform staff “that they may not continue with their plans to solicit funds for the Salvation Army during the school day.”

Sullivan responded Dec. 17 that the school was no longer planning to send students to ring bells.

 

FFRF tackles coaches’ prayers in Ohio

Coaches at Spencerville High School in Ohio will no longer pray with their students after Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert’s Nov. 6 letter to Superintendent Joel Hatfield, informing him that “a public school coach’s participation in a team’s prayer circle is illegal and inappropriate.” 

Hatfield responded Dec. 17: “As superintendent, I have informed our coaches that they are to no longer lead their athletes in prayer.”

 

School changes policy after FFRF complaint

The Cobleskill-Richmondville Central School District in New York banned groups from using school facilities for religious worship after FFRF urged it to adopt a revised policy.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor sent a Dec. 3 letter informing the school board that prohibiting the use of school buildings for worship was “in line with current law [as applied in the 2nd Circuit] and is the best policy option.” 

Gaylor detailed how start-up churches often take advantage of low rental fees to “get a foot in the door” while collecting church donations on public property, which amounts to “what many of us consider taxpayer subsidy of congregations.”

A church that had been using school facilities retained the American Center for Law & Justice, a Religious Right legal group founded by Pat Robertson, to object to the proposed changes. Despite that opposition, the board amended its policies Dec. 17, adding “Gatherings for the purpose of holding religious worship services” to its list of prohibited uses of school facilities.

 

FFRF letter gets Iowa park cross removed 

A house inside George Wyth State Park near Waterloo, Iowa, will no longer include a display of a lighted Latin cross.

A local complainant reported to FFRF that a large cross was affixed to the garage of a park ranger’s home owned by the state in the park. The cross was highly visible at night from the highway and within the park. 

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Dec. 14 to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources: “While it is appropriate for the park ranger to display personal religious items inside his home, it crosses the line when he chooses to display Christian symbols on the exterior of his home,” Markert said.

Markert received a phone call Dec. 19 from the DNR that the ranger had been directed to remove the cross.

 

School replaces hymns with secular songs

Main Street K-3 School in Shelbyville, Ill., removed two Christian hymns from its holiday concert after receiving an FFRF letter. A concerned parent contacted FFRF after learning her child’s concert included “Mary Had a Baby” and “Go, Tell it on the Mountain.”

In a Dec. 17 letter to Superintendent Denise Bence, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said it’s “wholly inappropriate for public schools to perform songs of Christian worship in a public school setting.”

Bence responded Dec. 21 that the songs would be taken out of the program and replaced with secular holiday music.

 

FFRF stops church’s free school ‘lunch’

Alma (Mich.) Public Schools will now require a church using its facilities to pay a rental fee and remove religious items left scattered around a district school.

The district let Alma Vineyard Church hold Sunday services and frequent events at Republic Alternative High School. The church was allowed to use the kitchen, gym, stage and extra rooms. It also had free use of building supplies and custodial services and was allowed to store religious items, including an 8-foot wooden cross that was left on display in the cafeteria.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter Oct. 19 to Superintendent Sonia Lark, pointing out that the religious symbols left in the school demonstrated “district preference for religion over nonreligion, and Christianity over other religions.”

The school district responded Oct. 23 that the cross and other religious items were removed or covered. The district further informed FFRF on Jan. 3 that the church would now have to pay for custodial services and rental of space.

 

3 boards ditch prayer after FFRF letters

Three governmental bodies, two in California and one in Georgia, have halted meeting prayers after receiving letters from FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel.  

Seidel wrote the Plumas County Board of Supervisors, Quincy, Calif., in August and sent several follow-ups before receiving a reply from the county’s counsel Jan 16 that the board voted Jan. 15 to stop the practice. “[T]he invocation will be removed from the agenda, and the county will not solicit invocation speakers.”

The city of Santa Clara, Calif., which previously had sectarian Christian prayers and excluded a Hindu officiant, has abandoned its prayers for a “values statement” after getting a November letter from Seidel.

The language is pious but doesn’t overtly address a supernatural being: “As we gather, we humbly seek blessings upon this meeting. May we act with strength, courage and the will to perform our obligations and duties to our people with justice to all. Let us seek wisdom so that we may act in the best interests of our people, our neighbors and our country. All this we ask so we may serve our community with love and grace, putting their needs before all.”

The city of Forest Park, Ga., received an FFRF letter in September and several follow-ups before City Manager John Parker responded curtly Jan. 10: 

“The city of Forest Park no longer participates in prayer during meetings of the City Council.”

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