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Freethought Today · April 2013

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF halts multiple state/church violations

Festival drops discount for Catholic Mass

Mexican Fiesta in Milwaukee will no longer give festival-goers discounts for attending Catholic Mass per the terms of a settlement with Richard Halasz, a Wisconsin FFRF member.

The annual festival, held on the Summerfest grounds, had discounted entrance tickets for attending Mass on the grounds before the festival opened to the general public.

The regular rate at the gate was $13, but Mass attendees were charged only $5. FFRF first objected to the discriminatory discount Aug. 14, informing organizers it violated Wisconsin’s public accommodations law. A week later, FFRF advised organizers it would file a complaint with the state if the festival didn’t drop the discount.

Halasz, an atheist, attended Mexican Fiesta on Aug. 26 and wasn’t able to get the discount, which led to Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott filing a complaint with the state’s Equal Rights Division.

According the settlement, “future Mexican Fiesta promotions will not be timed to coincide with times of entry or exit of the annual Mass.” Organizers apologized to Halasz and gave him an $8 refund. Halasz agreed to withdraw his complaint and he and FFRF waived recovery of any attorneys’ fees.

“I’m thankful to the Freedom From Religion Foundation for standing up for our First Amendment and civil rights,” Halasz said.

Carolina soccer coach won’t lead prayers

A soccer coach at a Charleston, S.C., suburb high school will no longer lead prayers before matches, and coaches at all middle and high schools in the district will review guidelines on state-church separation.  

A concerned parent of a student at Ashley Ridge High School in Summerville told FFRF that the coach led prayers before matches and at the annual banquet.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a March 6 letter to Superintendent Joseph Pye in order to get the violations corrected.

Pye responded March 12: “[The coach] was directed to cease leading or directing prayer immediately, and he gave his assurance this would be the case.”

FFRF makes bibles history in Oklahoma

The Gideons will no longer distribute New Testament bibles to fifth-graders in the Grove [Okla.] School District. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel requested in an Oct. 19 letter to Board Chairman Jim Rutter on behalf of concerned parents that the district should stop the illegal distribution of bibles.

“The Gideon practice is a usurpation of parental authority, and can pose safety risks when children have to run a gauntlet of aggressive adults hawking religious literature on school property,” Seidel noted.

The Grove Board of Education has changed its policy to exclude external sources from distributing materials. Rutter confirmed in a Jan. 7 email that the policy prohibits bible distribution.  

• • •

Cross Timbers Elementary School in Tecumseh, Okla., is reviewing its policy on bible distribution after fifth-graders were given Jehovah’s Witness bibles at school. They were told to write their names inside the bibles and take them home.  

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel told Superintendent Tom Wilsie in an Oct. 26 letter that schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion. Seidel said the district should not allow anyone to enter schools to distribute religious literature.  

Wilsie responded Jan. 7 to say the materials distribution policy is under review. 

 

God no longer copilot on USAF plane

The U.S. Air Force removed a “Commando Prayer” from the side of one of its aircraft after Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a Feb. 25 letter on behalf of a concerned service member to the commanding colonel.

“Service members have the constitutional right to decide how or whether to observe religious practices,” Seidel said. “While non-Christians and nonbelievers are fighting to protect the freedoms for all Americans, their freedoms are being trampled upon.”

In a March 8 email, the complainant informed FFRF that the prayer was removed.  

 

Tenn. teacher bios
can’t endorse religion

FFRF, acting on behalf of a local complainant, has stopped religious content from being posted on school district websites in Jackson, Tenn. Proselytizing messages will no longer be allowed on teachers’ biographical sections in Jackson-Madison County Schools.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a July 9 letter to Superintendent Thomas White to request that the religious messages be scrubbed from the schools’ websites.  She criticized the teachers’ endorsement of Christianity on Web pages.

Markert cited teacher messages from the website such as, “I see teaching as my ministry and Christian outreach to our community,” as well as direct quotes from the bible.

Markert received word Jan. 22 that the district has updated its policy to include “District staff will not post quotes from religious texts or post information about their personal religious mission or calling, while on the district network.”  

 

FFRF puts an end to religious bullying

A school in Sulphur, Okla., will no longer require students to take part in plays and songs with Christian themes. A concerned second-grade parent at Sulphur Elementary School contacted FFRF when her daughter’s class sang a song in a play held Dec. 6 with references to “the reason for the season” in the “form of a baby boy.”

When the parent discussed the problem with the principal, she was told no child had to participate. However, three students who chose not to were forced to do homework in the principal’s office.  

The parent tried to make headway with other school officials, but they expressed surprise and took offense at the idea of her atheism. Later, her daughter was made to sit in the hallway when carolers came to the class because “Mom might get mad,” the teacher said.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Jan. 9 to Superintendent Gary Jones to object to the religious song and mistreatment of the child. He called for the teacher to be disciplined for her unacceptable and juvenile behavior.  

Jones responded Jan. 11, stating that principals and music teachers have been instructed to be more selective in choosing songs and were told not to place any child in a situation in which they feel uncomfortable or ostracized.  

 

Schools warned about lunchtime prayer

Two grade schools in Albertville, Ala., have been reminded by FFRF that teacher-led prayer is unconstitutional. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel told Superintendent Frederic Ayer in a Jan. 7 letter about parental complaints over prayer before lunch.

Seidel has been notified that Ayer sent a letter Jan. 14 to all administrators and teachers asking them not to ask, lead or direct students to pray or to set aside class time for students to pray.  

 

Ohio town ‘crossed’ line on building

FFRF has successfully petitioned the town of Stratton, Ohio, to remove a large display of a Latin cross from its Municipal Building. Two large crosses, one Latin and the other Greek, were prominently displayed on the building façade.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Oct. 16 to Mayor John Abdalla to ask that the unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity be removed.

A Stratton resident confirmed in a Dec. 17 email to FFRF that both crosses had been removed. He said secular decorations were added to the building to celebrate the winter holidays.  

Honor Society forced to go prayerless

Utah’s Iron County Schools will no longer allow prayers to be given at school-sponsored events. FFRF received a complaint from a concerned parent that there were two student-led prayers given at Canyon View High School’s National Honor Society induction ceremony in Cedar City.

School officials participated in the prayer, bowing their heads. The parent reported that such incidents are frequent in schools.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Sept. 19 to Superintendent Jim Johnson, who responded Jan. 7 that he had cautioned principals that prayers are not to be given during school events.

 

Christ off the wall
at Florida VA facility

A Veterans Administration medical center in Lake City, Fla., removed a bible verse from a waiting room wall after FFRF contacted the facility on behalf of a local complainant. The verse was Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Director Thomas Wisnieski on Jan. 4: “The message implies Jesus is an important element in the rehabilitation of the patient. When one is healed by doctors using taxpayer funds at this federal hospital, the patient is invited to credit the Christian god.”  

Wisnieski responded that the verse was removed and said he asked supervisors to avoid inappropriate postings.  

 

FFRF stands up to bullying bus driver

FFRF stopped religious bullying in Honolulu of students who identify as gay or lesbian. Two female Pearl City High School students were reprimanded by their bus driver for public displays of affection while riding the bus. They were harassed twice in December.

During the first incident, the driver pulled the bus over and asked the girls if they were both female and then told them to separate because she was Christian and did not approve of their behavior. Several days later, the driver yelled at the girls when one leaned her head on the other’s shoulder, reiterating her Christian connection.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted Kathryn Matayoshi, state Department of Education superintendent, in a Dec. 11 letter , asking her to conduct an immediate investigation of the incidents. “The bus driver’s behavior creates a hostile and intimidating environment for LGBT students and non-Christian students, who now know that their driver demands conformity with [her] particular sect,” Seidel wrote. “This behavior is nothing short of bullying.”  

James Kauhi, director of Student Transportation Services, responded Jan. 16 to say that an investigation was under way and that the woman driver was relieved of driving duties.

 

School won’t include religious ‘history’

An Alabama Baptist church will no longer use school assemblies on the “History of Easter” and the “History of Christmas” to proselytize students. A concerned parent of two young children in the Houston County Schools system contacted FFRF after the Columbia Baptist Association came to her children’s school.

The school routinely held proselytizing assemblies. Around Christmas time, a teacher gave students handouts with bible verses, told them about “the true meaning of Christmas” and referenced a local church. After talking with teachers, the parent received a note and conflicting information from the teacher about a “History of Easter” assembly.

She then contacted Superintendent Tom Pitchford in a March 4 letter, requesting religious activities be stopped. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel also sent Pitchford a letter on March 6: “The [church’s] attempt to insinuate themselves into public schools by camouflaging their purposes as ‘history’ does not make the assemblies legal. That a baby was born of a virgin and a person rose from the dead after three days are matters of faith, not history.”

Seidel also said allowing students to opt out is not an option, because it excludes students and leads to bullying.  

In a March 7 conversation, Pitchford told the parent the “History of Easter” assembly was cancelled, along with all future religious assemblies.  

 

All godly hope gets
swooped from Swope

A publicly funded health clinic in Independence, Mo., will no longer post religious plaques and decorations on the walls. A client at Swope Health East contacted FFRF about the displays near the check-in and other areas.

Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell contacted Dave Barker, Swope Health Services president and CEO, in a March 5 letter, asking the company to respect patients’ diverse religious views. On March 10, the complainant informed FFRF that the religious postings were removed.  

 

FFRF finds foxhole atheists for school

Assemblies at Lawrence B. Morris Elementary School, Jim Thorpe, Pa., will no longer include organized prayer. FFRF was contacted by a concerned parent after a Veterans Day assembly included opening and closing prayer by a chaplain.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Superintendent Barbara Conway on Nov. 21. Markert noted that prayers alienate nonreligious members of the school and mislead children into believing only religious people serve in the military, while citing the statistic that about 23% percent of military personnel identify as having no religious preference.  

“These prayers further perpetuate the myth that there are no ‘atheists in foxholes’ and that the only veterans worth memorializing are Christians,” Markert wrote.

The district’s attorney responded March 14 to say that the violation will not recur and that all outside entities making presentations in the district “will not engage in offending behavior.”

 

FFRF plagues teacher who proselytized

Students at Harrison Elementary School in Riverside, Calif., weren’t required to complete a religious homework assignment after Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter of complaint.

A concerned parent contacted FFRF after a sixth-grade teacher assigned homework that treated religious events, such as the biblical 10 plagues on the Egyptians, as historical facts. Assignments also required students to read the bible and copy the Ten Commandments.  

Renee Hill, director of elementary education for Riverside Unified School District, responded Feb. 27 to say students would not be required to turn in the assignment and would not be penalized if they choose not to complete it.  

 

School won’t repeat play on nativity

A winter program at Jackson Elementary School in Santa Ana, Calif., that included a 15-minute play reenacting Jesus’ birth naturally didn’t sit well with a parent, who contacted FFRF. The play was performed and narrated entirely by students and included children in praying positions reciting lines such as, “God told Mary she was going to have a baby.”  

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Superintendent Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana on Jan. 7 about the obvious and egregious constitutional violation.

The district’s attorney responded March 1 by letter, admitting that the nativity play was inappropriate and assuring FFRF that the district has taken measures to make sure similar performances do not happen in the future. Next holiday season, district staff will be reminded about the Establishment Clause. 

 

Jesus prayer out at Michigan school

At the 2012 graduation for West Michigan Academy of Arts and Academics, a public elementary charter school in Spring Lake, a pastor delivered a Christian prayer that referenced Jesus.  

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter March 8 to Timothy Wood, special assistant to the president for charter schools, urging that schools must remain neutral toward religion and remove religious rituals from graduation ceremonies.  

Wood said March 11 that he would inform the school board about the violation and make sure “they understand that religious rituals are not allowed at graduation ceremonies or any other school-sponsored event.”  

 

Texas coach ordered
to stop prayer

Football games at Stephenville [Texas] High School frequently included postgame prayers led by coaches, including a coach putting his hands on a player’s head as the coach prayed.  

Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote a letter of complaint March 13 to Superintendent Darrell Floyd: “Parents trust their children to the coach’s charge, and the coaches through their own example must be sure that athletes are not only treated fairly but also imbued with a sense of community and camaraderie.”

Floyd said in a March 17 response that the district “will take immediate action to stop all school-sponsored prayers occurring at district events.”

 

Wall of separation topples ‘Firewall’

A high school in Haysville, Kansas, will no longer invite clergy to proselytize students after getting Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s March 9 letter to Superintendent John Burke. The school’s religious class, called “Firewall,” was held every Wednesday in the school during the lunch period.  Staff members frequently attended and solicited students to do the same. Posters advertising the class were hung around the school, and food was provided to entice students.  

One of the pastors, after quoting copiously from the bible, told students, “A life lived with God is more valuable than anything you can achieve.”  

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted Superintendent John Burke on March 9, calling the inappropriate arrangement “predatory conduct [that] should raise many red flags.”

Seidel corrected several calculation errors one pastor made while “solving” a math problem about King Solomon and gold.  

 

School can’t encourage bible acceptance

FFRF has put an end to another case of the Gideons peddling bibles to children in public schools, this time in Bartow County, Georgia.  

A parent of a student at White Elementary contacted FFRF in September with concerns that her child was coerced by the Gideons to take a bible. Students were also encouraged by the principal during morning announcements to take one. 

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel objected in October to Superintendent John Harper, who finally responded  Jan. 16 to say that no school official will encourage students to accept a bible.  

 

School to teachers: Don’t lead prayer

A concerned parent contacted FFRF after a kindergarten teacher at Clay Elementary School in Clay, Ala., required students to learn a prayer and recite it several times during the school year.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted Superintendent Stephen Nowlin on Feb. 5, requesting he end the unconstitutional teacher-led prayer. Nowlin responded Feb. 12 to say the teacher has been told she must stop leading prayer and that all teachers in the district have been instructed not to lead prayers.

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