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Freethought Today · January/February 2014

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Recent FFRF legal victories

Bibles removed from UW guest rooms

After attempting to end the practice for several decades, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has persuaded University of Wisconsin-Extension in Madison to remove Gideon bibles from its 137 guest rooms.

In November, a complainant who encountered the bible at the Lowell Center on the UW-Madison campus contacted FFRF. The seven-story conference center hosts events of up to 400 people and was used by the UW secular student group — Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics — to host a freethought festival last March.

Patrick Elliott, one of FFRF’s five staff attorneys, took action, contacting UW-Extension: “When a government entity like the Lowell Center allows distribution of religious material to visitors, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message, in this case a Christian message.”

UW-Extension Chancellor Ray Cross (now UW System president) responded Nov. 25 that all bibles would be removed from guest rooms by Dec. 1. The decision received wide area media coverage.

Elliott called it a solid victory for state/church separation. “While private hotels may choose to put any type of literature they want in their guest rooms, state-run colleges have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion.”

FFRF President Emerita Anne Nicol Gaylor first contacted UW-Extension in the 1980s and 1990s about the unconstitutional practice. Now 87, Gaylor responded, “It’s satisfying to finally see this violation remedied.”

 

Letter stops N.C. employee prayers

A complainant reported to FFRF that annual Thanksgiving celebrations at a department within the North Carolina Education Lottery have included prayers initiated by the department director.

In a Nov. 29 letter, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott urged NCEL Executive Director Alice Garland to remind employees that such practices are unconstitutional.

Founded in 2005, the lottery is mandated to turn over 100% of its proceeds to public education.

In a Dec. 6 response, lottery counsel assured FFRF that the practice will stop. “We have addressed this matter with the affected department director, and informed all upper management that religion should never be part of any activities, NCEL-sanctioned or not, while on company property and/or time.”

Okla. staff warned on teacher prayer 

A concerned student reported to FFRF that pep rallies at Alva High School in Oklahoma regularly featured student-led prayer circles supported by the faculty. In a letter sent Oct. 23, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel reminded Superintendent Steve Parkhurst and the school principal that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment deems any school-sponsored sectarian practice unconstitutional.

FFRF received a statement from Parkhurst on Nov. 4, claiming that the group prayer was merely optional after a pep rally. Seidel addressed this contention in his letter, “Even if prayer at Alva High’s pep rallies were voluntary, and even if participation at pep rallies were made non-mandatory for students in the band, cheerleaders, and football players, the mere voluntariness of the prayers would still not remedy this constitutional violation. Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation.” 

Parkhurst concluded his letter on a positive note, “Faculty members have been reminded that this must be student-initiated and as a faculty member they cannot participate.”

 

Hymns removed
from school music

Emmons Lake Elementary School in Caledonia, Mich., was contacted Oct. 3 by Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel on behalf of a concerned parent. Seidel informed Superintendent Randy Rodriguez that teaching Christian-themed music to students is unconstitutional.

“The problems with the music are compounded by the fact that [the teacher] used the song as an opportunity to teach Christian doctrine to students, as well as by the fact that the concert is specifically labeled a ‘Christmas’ concert,” noted Seidel.

On Oct. 16, the superintendent assured FFRF that the school “has initiated steps to resolve this concern at a local level.” 

The complainant confirmed that religious teachings have been withdrawn from music classes.  

 

Jersey restaurant
stops church discount

FFRF successfully ended a discount extended exclusively to churchgoers by Aleathea’s Restaurant in Cape May, N.J. Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell, informed by a concerned customer, advised the restaurant to drop the discriminatory practice in an Oct. 10 letter:

“Your restaurant’s restrictive promotional practice favors religious customers, and denies both customers who do not attend church as well as nonbelievers the right to ‘full and equal’ enjoyment of Aleathea’s. Any promotions should be available to all customers regardless of religious preference or practice on a nondiscriminatory basis.”

Cavell said such a discount violates New Jersey law and the federal Civil Rights Act, which ensures equal opportunity to “goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages and accommodations.”

The owner confirmed Dec. 2 that the restaurant had dropped the discount.

 

Carolina meals won’t open with prayer

Prayers will no longer precede meals at the Simpsonville Activity and Senior Center in Simpsonville, S.C. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel warned the Parks and Recreation Department, which runs the center, that such religious practices are prohibited by the Establishment Clause and Title XX of the Social Security Act.

“Not only does organizing public prayer at meals jeopardize your federal funding, it also violates our citizens’ rights to be free from religious proselytizing by the government or government funded organizations,” wrote Seidel.

On Dec. 5, FFRF received a reply from Director of Recreation Robbie Davis, stating that “staff at the Simpsonville Senior Center has ceased leading or encouraging prayer before meal functions.”

 

FFRF letter curbs Cornerstone prayer 

FFRF reminded the Hyde Park Central School District in New York that active involvement of faculty during after-school clubs is inappropriate. 

In a Nov. 7 letter to Superintendent Greer Rychcik, Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell requested that staff at F.D. Roosevelt High School in Staatsburg, N.Y., stop participation in the school’s prayer group, Cornerstone, on constitutional grounds.

Cavell also referenced the Equal Access Act, which prohibits teachers from participating in noncurricular student activities.

“We ask that teachers throughout the district be reminded of their constitutional duty to remain neutral toward religion, a duty that does not simply begin and end with the school day,” wrote Cavell. 

The school’s legal counsel responded Dec. 3: “The district understands and appreciates its constitutional and statutory obligations to students in this regard and, to that end, has reminded those teachers who were approached by Cornerstone to remain neutral toward religion and to refrain from participating in the substantive affairs of religious clubs. The district has also instructed those teachers to refrain from any participation or activity that may be perceived as an endorsement of the club’s religious message.”      

 

Proselytizing cop warned to stop

A concerned citizen in Toledo, Ohio, informed FFRF that during a traffic collision investigation, after asking whether the citizen attended church, the police officer started recommending various churches in the area. 

Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell requested in a Nov. 26 letter that the city remind the officer that such actions are unconstitutional.

“[The officer’s] overt promotion of religion while acting in his official capacity as a government agent gives the unfortunate impression that the Toledo PD endorses Christianity over other religions and generally endorses religion over nonreligion,” wrote Cavell.

In his response Dec. 4, the police chief said the situation would be investigated further and that “[the officer’s] supervisor was made aware of the incident and was instructed to counsel [the officer] about his actions.”

 

FFRF extinguishes Points of Light

A proselytizing group will no longer have access to families at Frick Middle School in Oakland, Calif. A religious organization called Points of Light hosted a barbecue at a “Back to School Night” alongside school activities. FFRF’s complainant reported that both events were treated and advertised through official school channels as a single event with no mention of the ministry’s involvement. At one point, a PoL representative addressed the crowd and made religious statements, such as “praise God” and “lift up Jesus.” 

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Gary Yee on Nov. 7: “It is regrettable that religious groups seek to use the school as a recruiting ground for their particular religion. Their presence at this school event creates the appearance of district endorsement of their programs. Given the purpose of the school welcome event, the prominence of the PoL ministry, and PoL’s use of the school to spread its message, a reasonable parent would conclude that PoL has the backing of the school.” 

In a Dec. 19 response, the district’s attorney strongly criticized the arrangement. Attorney Laura O’Neill told Points of Light, “The statements made by your staff member violated board policy because they promoted Christian viewpoints. It is the district’s expectation that your staff will comply with Board Policy and refrain from making any statements that proselytize or favor one religious viewpoint over another. Specifically, your staff may not in any way promote Christian viewpoints or proselytize on any district campus.” 

 

School tells coach to stop prayer

A coach at West Linn High School in Tualatin, Ore., will no longer participate in team prayer. FFRF received a complaint last fall that Assistant Coach Art Williams would regularly join a circle of football players to bow his head in prayer. 

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter Sept. 24 to William Rhodes, superintendent, requesting that all coach-led prayer cease immediately: “West Linn High School and its coaches should be aware of the tremendous influence coaches have on their athletes. Parents trust their children to the coaches’ charge and 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.”

On Oct. 15, an attorney representing the district responded that Williams was directed not to join students in prayer. 

 

Superintendent removes nativity scene

The superintendent of Green Local Schools in Green, Ohio, took down a nativity scene after receiving a letter from FFRF.

Superintendent Judith Robinson had displayed a nativity scene in her office window. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to her Dec. 18: “It is unlawful for a public school to maintain, erect, or host a nativity scene, thus endorsing Christianity.”

Robinson emailed promptly that same day stating that she had taken down the scene.

 

Pledge refusal
OK at Utah school

Students at Oquirrh Hills Middle School (West Jordan, Utah) will no longer be reprimanded for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. A student contacted FFRF to say that, on multiple occasions, a teacher had singled out a student for refusing to recite the pledge.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the superintendent Nov. 13: “Students should not be singled out, rebuked, told they must stand, or otherwise penalized for following their freedom of conscience. It is illegal to reprimand a student in any way for non-disruptively exercising his or her constitutional right to object to reciting the pledge of allegiance.”

The district responded Nov. 20 that it has and “will continue to teach and remind our students, faculty, and staff to foster and maintain an atmosphere of respect and tolerance in our classrooms and communities.” 

 

Religious fliers out in Ohio school

South Bloomfield Elementary School (Ashville, Ohio) will no longer be permitted to pass out religious fliers to students.

A concerned parent contacted FFRF when her child brought home an advertisement for “A Night in Bethlehem,” an event organized by a church and featuring a live nativity scene, Christmas music and religiously themed activities.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted the school Dec. 12 about its constitutional obligation to remain neutral to religion and pointing out that religious fliers “waste the time and resources of paid school personnel” and force “teachers of diverse views and beliefs to distribute religious promotional materials.”

Superintendent Jeff Sheets responded Dec. 23 that the district has a policy not to send any third-party communications home with students. He said he informed the South Bloomfield principal, who was new, of this policy. Sheets also stated he would remind district residents of the policy.

 

K-9 unit’s bible
posts taken down

The Douglas County [Ga.] Sheriff K-9 Unit’s Facebook page no longer posts religious messages. The page administrator regularly posted bible quotes on Sundays, as well as several other Christian-themed posts. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the sheriff Nov. 27: “It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that the government cannot in any way promote, advance, or otherwise endorse religion.”

Since receiving FFRF’s letter, there have been no further religious posts on the unit’s Facebook page.

 

Religious marquees banned at school

The superintendent of the Wayne County [W.Va.] School District will ensure that religious messages are not put on school marquees after FFRF notified her of one such marquee and the constitutional problems it posed.

Buffalo Elementary School had displayed the message “WISE MEN STILL SEEK HIM” around Christmas. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to the superintendent Dec. 31.

Superintendent Lynn Hurt responded Jan. 3 that she had notified the principal to remove the sign. The school district’s attorney “will prepare a notice for all of our principals and share it with them at their monthly meeting about this situation,” Hurt said.

 

Public school prayer monitored in Minn.

FFRF has received multiple complaints about prayer at Pillager [Minn.] Public School events. In 2010, FFRF objected to a prayer led by a pastor at a Veterans Day assembly for all K-12 students. Superintendent Chuck Arns gave assurances that prayers would not recur at future events but prayers at some events continued.

Most recently, an invocation by a pastor was included as part of a National Honor Society ceremony in November. 

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to the attorney for the school district about the continuation of prayers, asking for the superintendent to “issue a memorandum which makes absolutely clear that prayers are not permitted as part of school-sponsored events, which includes all events organized by school staff. We also request that all staff who plan school events are trained on the legal necessity to immediately cease scheduling prayers.” 

The attorney replied Jan. 8: “In the next week, Superintendent Arns will address all school administration and others who could be responsible for planning school events. He will remind them that during school-sponsored events, there shall be no religious expression or instruction, whether in the form of prayer or references to the bible.”

FFRF members with students in the district will monitor future activities to ensure compliance. 

 

Band director’s prayer strikes sour note

The marching band director at a high school in Rock Hill School District Three, Rock Hill, S.C., apparently initiated a student prayer circle before performances. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott contacted the school’s legal counsel Dec. 6 on behalf of a complainant:

“It is a violation of the Constitution for a [school] employee to organize, schedule, or participate in prayers or other religious proselytizing before marching band performances.”

In a Dec. 12 letter, legal counsel admitted that “the band director has on occasion signaled to the students just before they recited the prayer.”

The director “understands that he is to refrain in the future from signaling that any such prayer take place at a school-sponsored activity or event.”

 

School strips staff of ‘Jesus’ shirts

FFRF action led to return of shirts like this to the donor.

Buchtel Community Learning Center teachers in Akron, Ohio, will no longer be allowed to wear religious T-shirts in school. The shirts promote the school’s athletic program with messages such as “Jesus Is My Hero,” “Pick Up the Cross and Follow Me: Jesus” and “God’s Got Our Back.”

FFRF contacted Akron Public School Superintendent David James on June 5. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert detailed constitutional concerns and conflict with the board’s policy, which bars staff from using their positions or property “ ‘for participant political or religious purposes.’ Wearing T-shirts calling upon others to follow Christ is not an example public school teachers are constitutionally allowed to set. Furthermore, the policy states staff would ‘dress in a manner consistent with their professional responsibilities.’ ” 

The district responded that it takes such allegations seriously and requested names of teachers involved. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a follow-up letter with names of staff who had worn the shirts, including the principal and assistant principal. Seidel also noted that the shirts were being sold in the official school store. 

“The [shirt] designs themselves align official athletics teams (not private student clubs) with Christianity in violation of the law.” 

Seidel urged the district to confiscate the remaining stock of shirts and remind staff not to wear them to school. 

The district responded Oct. 23: “The entire school staff was notified that the donated shirts are not to be worn during school because they are a violation of the board’s policy regarding the wearing of religious symbols. The rest of the donated T-shirts have been confiscated and will be given back to the donor.” 

Religion off athletic shirts at school

After a complaint by FFRF, coaches at South Central High School in Winterville, N.C., received a lesson from the school principal on the Constitution.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote Nov. 27 to the Pitt County School District about reports of coach-led prayers at football, soccer, baseball and basketball games. 

On Dec. 20, FFRF received assurances from the school district’s attorney that the principal had informed all coaches of restrictions on prayer at school events. The district also agreed that bible verses would not be placed on athletic shirts, which at least one team had done in the past.

 

School removes ‘Lord God’ from mural

FFRF was successful in remedying this constitutional violation in a Georgia elementary school.

Robinson Elementary School in Dawsonville, Ga., painted over part of a verse from an Anglican hymn after FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliot contacted the attorney for the Dawson County School District on behalf of a concerned parent.

The verse, which read, “All Creatures Great and Small. The Lord God Made Them All,” was painted above a cafeteria mural depicting a variety of animals and insects. 

In December, the parent notified FFRF that the religious portion of the hymn had been painted over with a new message. The mural now reads, “All Creatures Great and Small. Robinson Elem. Loves Them All.” 

The mural was the latest violation in Dawson County Schools that FFRF has rectified. In January 2013, FFRF received confirmation from the school system that it would not grant academic credit to students for attending an unaccredited Christian Learning Center, as had been reported in the news. 

In February 2013, a parent alerted FFRF about a Latin cross painted on a large boulder beside the high school football field. After receiving a letter from Elliott, the school painted over the cross.

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