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Freethought Today · November 2013

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF Legal Victories

FFRF halts Ohio flagpole prayer

FFRF successfully ended a “See You At The Pole” event at Columbia High School in Tiffin, Ohio, after learning that a teacher organized and promoted the event, going so far as to order pizza and lead the students in prayer. The school principal also participated, promoting the event through the school’s morning announcements and commenting that he thought prayer was “an important thing to do.”

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter Oct. 8 to Superintendent Don Coletta to explain the violation: “Faculty participation and organization of a prayer event is inappropriate and problematic. Even if a prayer event in your school is hosted by a student organization, adult participation or promotion is impermissible. While the school cannot prohibit students from organizing or participating in a prayer event, the Supreme Court has stated that public school employees, including teachers, must refrain from actively participating in religious activities.”

Coletta responded Oct. 14: “I have taken steps with both individuals (and others) to make sure our personnel are both aware of the legal boundaries and that they act within them. I intend to monitor this situation in an effort to ensure both the rights of students and the obligation of the District are honored.”

 

Teacher: Freedom ‘comes from God’

A Michigan social studies teacher will no longer be allowed to distribute and display a poster with the Pledge of Allegiance alongside a message asserting that “our freedom ultimately comes from God” and that the founding fathers felt similarly.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent an Oct. 11  letter to Superintendent Tim Haist of Big Rapids [Township] High School: “While the recitation and display of the Pledge of Allegiance in a public school is permissible, promoting and displaying religious arguments alongside it are not. The poster’s assertion overlooks many statements from this country’s founders which acknowledge their secular principles, and thus flatly ignores the secular position on the issue.”

The posters were produced by Gateways to Better Education, a Christian group whose mission is to inject “faith in the public schools” and to teach students “about the importance of the bible and Judeo-Christian history, thought and values.”

Haist replied Oct. 14 that the teacher in question had been told that “District policy states that we can ‘neither advance nor inhibit religion.’ ” Haist said the teacher was also given a document stating, “While Michigan standards do include an exploration of the American government and its foundation, including fundamental ideas and philosophical and historical origins through investigation, I struggle to see the connection between the pledge and this standard. The pledge in not a foundational document. As we both know, it was written over 100 years later and not adopted by our government until 1954.”

He also encouraged the teacher to write a lesson plan about the pledge’s revisions and their historical context.

 

FFRF grounds prayer
 at Atlanta airport

A staff member at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport attended an employee and customer satisfaction luncheon that was organized by the airport, which is owned by the city of Atlanta and is the busiest U.S. airport. The lunch began with a Christian prayer, during which guests were instructed to bow their heads. It included readings of bible verses and was led by a Christian chaplain.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted the airport on behalf of the local complainant, pointing out that such prayer “creates acrimony, makes minorities feel like political outsiders in their own community, and shows unconstitutional governmental preference for religion over nonreligion.”

An airport representative responded in late summer, stating that FFRF’s concerns were taken very seriously, and that personnel conducting an upcoming customer service event were “committed to abiding by all applicable laws and City policies.”

 

VA: Stop mandatory treatment prayers

Military veterans sent to substance abuse treatment by the Sacramento Veterans Administration in California will be offered an alternative to religious programs because of an FFRF letter of complaint.

FFRF was contacted by a veteran who said that in his program, he was forced to take part in prayers and meetings that emphasized God. Despite multiple talks with counselors about his beliefs, he was threatened with expulsion if he so much as stepped out of the room during prayers.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to the VA on July 23: “[N]o government program can require participation in religious activity or promote one religious view over another. It seems that nothing is being done to protect the rights of conscience of those who are nonreligious.”

Elliott pointed out that 23.1% of all military personnel identify as atheist, agnostic or having no religious preference.

The Department of Veterans Affairs responded Oct. 22, stating that it was “reinforced to D&A Detox that they are not to require attendance in prayer activities to remain in treatment; reinforced with them that they should not stigmatize any Veteran who opts out of such activities; [and] reinforced with VA staff to ask about objections to 12-Step model programs in considering program placement.”

 

Praying Arizona coach ordered to stop

The football coach at Sunrise Mountain High School (Glendale, Ariz.) will no longer be allowed to force students to pray or pressure them to join the school’s Christian club, nor will faculty be allowed to participate in the club, due to a complaint letter from FFRF.

FFRF’s complainant reported that head football coach James Carter made all players hold hands and pray to Jesus Christ before and after football games or face reduced playing time. Carter also reportedly pressured players to join Christian Club on Campus (CCC). Several other teachers also participated in CCC.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the school district, pointing out it’s unconstitutional for coaches to organize, lead, participate in or force players to pray. Seidel also noted that the Equal Access Act says school employees may only be present at religious groups in a nonparticipatory capacity, and that such groups must be student-initiated and student-run.

The school district responded promptly to say that all parties named in the letter had been contacted and claiming the district would “continue to educate all personnel in order to ensure adherence [to federal and state laws].”

 

‘Preying’ pastors
ousted at lunch 

FFRF has stopped the practice of allowing preachers and pastors to enter Pedro Menendez High School in St. Augustine, Fla., during the lunch period and pressure students to attend their churches and church functions.

According to the complainant, youth pastors “quite intrusively butt into conversations” to ask students to attend religious events.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent an email to the school district to detail how this practice raises serious constitutional and liability issues for the school: “This predatory conduct should raise many red flags, especially if there are no security measures in place to keep such visitors out or if these religious visitors are not subject to the same security measures that other visitors may be.”

An attorney for the district responded Oct. 29: “We have terminated [the pastors’] standing invitation to visit the school at lunchtime.”

 

Struggle successful
for secular club 

After a contentious six-month struggle narrowly avoiding a lawsuit, James Bowie High School in Austin, Texas, has decided to allow senior Nick Montana to form his club. The group in question? A secular student alliance, which would provide a community for nonreligious teens.

Principal Stephen Kane had repeatedly refused to approve the group, but school attorneys ordered him to relent after Montana reached out to two national secular nonprofits, the Secular Student Alliance and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The organizations declared the school’s change of course a victory for atheist equality.

Struggles like Montana’s are common occurrences across the country. In a new effort to defend students’ rights, SSA and FFRF have formed a partnership.

Citing the federal Equal Access Act and the First Amendment, the partnership appealed to Kane to stop stonewalling Montana. The law requires schools with extracurricular clubs to treat all student groups equally, regardless of viewpoint. Once FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel weighed in for the partnership, it took four working days for school attorneys to order Kane to approve the group.

Montana’s efforts took six months from the time he first asked to start the student group. School administrators had delayed approving the group, and later suspended it when it tried to meet unofficially. Federal law and school policy state that a group shall be approved once a student has a faculty sponsor and submits a constitution, which Montana did. Two other groups submitted requests and were approved while Montana’s languished.

Montana’s controversy comes as America youths are becoming more secular and increasingly organizing around their secular identities. A 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that the percent of millennials 18-29 reporting doubts about the existence of God has doubled in five years, from 15% in 2007 to 31% in 2012. In the same time period, the SSA exploded with growth, from 81 campus groups to 357. They support 402 groups today, 52 of them at high schools.

 

Violations stopped
in Tenn. schools

FFRF has stopped several First Amendment violations in Franklin County Schools, Franklin, Tenn.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter in early September about a memo circulated last December to parents of children attending North Lake Elementary. The memo said “Merry CHRISTmas” and mentioned that parents need to teach their children the “real reason for the season.”

Markert additionally noted that candy canes were distributed by one teacher with a story attached claiming the origin of candy canes is religious: “The candymaker made the candy in the form of a ‘J’ to represent Jesus, who came to earth as our savior. . . Thinking that the candy was somewhat plain the candymaker stained it with red stripes. He used three small stripes to show the stripes of the scourging Jesus received, by which we are all healed. The large red stripe was for the blood shed by Christ on the cross so that we can have the promise of eternal life.”

Markert noted that Snopes has debunked this evangelical legend.

In October, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted the district yet again regarding a complaint that a teacher at South Middle School had passed out bibles with bookmarks warning that people who do not believe in Jesus are damned. Seidel wrote, “Parents who send their children to school in your district entrust teachers to use their positions of authority and influence for secular educational purposes, not to indoctrinate 6th graders in the teacher’s personal religion.”

A lawyer for the district has responded that while the school board hadn’t been aware of the bible and candy cane distributions, those practices would be halted immediately: “That’s done, that’s over.”

FFRF also asked the North Lake Elementary PTO to stop praying before meetings, noting the practice is divisive. According to the Herald Chronicle, board member Chris McDonough suggested a moment of silence: “There are people in this county who do not go to churches, who do not believe the same things you do, and we have to make it possible for those people to feel comfortable as well. The majority doesn’t rule.”

On Oct. 14, the school board voted to sever all connections with the PTO, which no longer has official standing or district affiliation.

 

Tenn. judge cited
for nixing Messiah

On Aug. 14, FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Timothy R. Discenza, disciplinary counsel for the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct in Nashville, to lodge a formal complaint about Lu Ann Ballew, a child support magistrate. Ballew had presided over a child support hearing Aug. 8 in Cocke County Chancery Court in Newport to settle a dispute over a 7-month-old’s last name.

At the hearing’s end, Ballew ordered the boy’s name changed from Messiah DeShawn Martin to Martin DeShawn McCullough. According to an interview with WBIR-TV in Knoxville, she said said the name change was warranted because “[T]he word Messiah is a title, and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ.”

Ballew further said that a child named Messiah would have a hard time growing up in a county with a large Christian population: “It could put him at odds with a lot of people, and at this point he has had no choice in what his name is.”

In FFRF’s complaint, Markert noted that such conduct “send a clear message to nonbelievers and those who practice minority religions that [Ballew] is not neutral and that she will abuse her position to advance her own Christian views. Ms. Jaleesa Martin, the child’s mother, stated ‘I was shocked. I never intended on naming my son Messiah because it means God, and I didn’t think a judge could make me change my baby’s name because of her religious beliefs.’”

The parents appealed and another judge ruled in September that Ballew’s ruling was unconstitutional. The parents continue to call their son Messiah DeShawn McCullough. Messiah’s siblings are named Micah and Mason.

On Oct. 23, a three-member investigative panel of the judicial board concluded there was “reasonable cause to believe [Ballew] has committed judicial offenses” and ordered the board’s disciplinary counsel to file charges, Reuters reported.

The panel cited a clause of the judicial code that says religion and other personal biases must not play a role in rulings. Ballew has 30 days to file a response.

Messiah was the 387th most popular name for boys born in the U.S. in 2012, according to the Social Security Administration. There were 762 applications for boys named Messiah in 2012. In 2011, there were 368 Messiah requests.

 

Charter school agrees to stop prayer

Indian River Charter High School in Vero Beach, Fla., has halted graduation prayers. After receiving a report that a student started the 2013 ceremony with a Christian prayer, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the school district June 4: “[T]he Supreme Court has settled this matter — high school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students.”

The district responded in late August, stating it would remove invocations from future graduation programs.

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