Dan Courtney, an FFRF Life Member and engineer who’s active with the Atheist Society of Rochester and is past president of the Free Thinkers of Upstate New York, delivered the first atheist invocation at a town board meeting in Greece, N.Y., after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in May that said Greece’s practice of allowing sectarian prayer was OK as long as the town didn’t discriminate.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor came from Wisconsin to lend moral support (and promptly sat down during the “under God” part of the Pledge of Allegiance). The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reported more than 100 people and 14 news cameras were present.
Courtney said he was surprised by all the media attention. “I would like it to get to a point where this would not be news at all, but at the same time, I appreciate the attention because this is important in a society that to a large extent doesn’t respect nonbelief.”
Many in the audience held supportive signs such as “I Stand for Secular Values.” A protester held a “JESUS SAVES. Ye must be BORN AGAIN” sign and said he felt “compelled” to come. He wouldn’t identify himself, the paper reported.
Lisa Gleason of Greece wore a shirt that said “I’m an atheist because . . . I have read it” on the front and “1 Corinthians 14:34 Women should remain silent in the Churches” on the back.
“I think this will spur people across the country to push harder,” she said.
Dan Courtney, Greece, N.Y. City Council, 7-15-14
Thank you, members of the Town Board. Thank you, Supervisor Rielich, for allowing me to offer the invocation.
Freethinkers, atheists, nonbelievers, whatever label you wish, this group comprises a significant part of our population. I am honored to be providing an invocation on their behalf and on behalf of all the citizens of the town of Greece.
On July 4, 1776, the 56 men who pledged their lives to the document that changed the course of history, agreed to the central tenet that, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
More than 238 years later, the central premise still echoes, however faintly, from the town hall to the white-columned halls of Washington. Yet this premise, this foundation necessary for a free and flourishing society, is today, more than ever, under assault. This central pillar of a free society; this notion that is deeply heretical to authoritarian culture, proclaims that it is from the people that moral authority is derived. It is that within us, the citizens, that knowledge and wisdom must emerge.
The preservation of this premise does not come from accepting the status quo, but by asserting our rights and exercising our duties. That this premise still endures testifies to its truth, and we can say with confidence that it is in seeking the counsel of our conscience that we find the beginning of wisdom. It is in the exercise of our duty as citizens that we find the beginning of knowledge.
We, as citizens, the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega of our destiny, are not, as the great philosopher Immanuel Kant warned, mere means to the ends of another, but we are ends in ourselves.
This basic premise, this profound idea, guides us such that we need not kneel to any king, and we need not bow to any tyrant.
So I ask all officials present here, as guarantors of our Founders’ revolutionary proclamation, to heed the counsel of the governed, to seek the wisdom of all citizens, and to honor the enlightened wisdom and the profound courage of those 56 brave men.
Linda Allewalt, Secular invocation, Shelbyville, Ky., City Council, 7-17-14
Good evening. As this is a secular invocation and not a prayer, there is no need to stand during my presentation. Tonight I would like to have us think about “blessings.”
Last year the council passed a set of resolutions outlining their new program for including invocations in city council meetings. In the resolutions, the council stated that the main purpose of an opening invocation was “for the benefit and blessings of the council.”
The word “blessings” drew my attention because it is a word heard often in our society in differing contexts. I wondered what the term really means. The origins of the word “bless” are from Old English and its meaning is connected to a human action. It refers to the action of sprinkling blood on a pagan altar. I don’t think that is what the council had in mind.
But what did they have in mind when using that term? It appears from reading the resolutions and how the invocation system is set up that they feel the source of blessings comes exclusively from a divine entity. But is that true? And what do “blessings” have to do with the realm of government?
The founders of our country provided us with a clue in this paragraph. “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The founders did not mention a divine source for their “blessings,” but a human one. . . we the people. We the people take the actions and make the laws to secure our blessings for ourselves and for future generations. Following these words are the contents of our Constitution . . . a vehicle to assist us in securing our blessings of liberty. The Constitution makes no mention of a deity in creating this vehicle, and its authors chose not to invoke blessings from a divine entity during their deliberations.
I would appeal to the council and those in attendance here to consider this:
In government, blessings are the actions we take and the decisions we make out of our common human desire to form communities and make them successful. The council’s blessings come from working with fellow council members in trying to fulfill their roles as representatives of all the people. They also come from the citizens who take the time to attend and offer their advice, their expertise, and even their criticism. These blessings do not need to be invoked. They are at your fingertips every day.
So I would encourage the council and all those who make the efforts to ensure the success of our community to consider these observable and measurable blessings --— to consider their true source, and to never forget to count them!
I wish you a peaceful and productive meeting.
Editor’s note: Linda adds that since she followed up her invocation with a statement during the public comments section of the meeting advising the council to shut the discriminatory program down, “I think this is my first and last invocation!”
Linda Stephens (with NOW sign) at a rally she organized at the Federal Building in Rochester, N.Y., protesting a Catholic group which was protesting the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate. “The theme of both of our protest and theirs was ‘Support Religious Freedom,’” Linda said. “Of course, we each defined that term differently. I had signs printed up that read ‘Religious Dogma, Bad For Your Health.’ ”
Name: Linda Stephens.
Where I live: Greece, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester.
Where and when I was born: Battle Creek, Mich., Nov. 16, 1942.
Family: Kathryn Gibson (mother, 91) and five younger siblings, one deceased.
Education: B.A. in English (Western Michigan University), M.A. in English (SUNY-Brockport), master of library science (SUNY-Geneseo), Ed.D. (Syracuse University).
Occupation: Retired librarian.
How I got where I am today: By reading, traveling, observing life and thinking.
These are a few of my favorite things: Poetry, flowers, indie films, travel, Bruce Springsteen.
These are not: Fox News, anti-abortion protesters, religious bigots.
A quotation I like: “Come, come my conservative friend, wipe the dew from your spectacles and see that the world is moving.” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton)
My doubts about religion started: In my high school years, but they solidified in 1962 when I was 19 and attended a symposium titled “Is there a God?” at Albion College in Michigan.
Where I’m headed: To England in the fall to visit “Hardy Country.” A writer for The New Yorker called Thomas Hardy “God’s Undertaker,” and Hardy made no bones about the fact that he was a nonbeliever. In fact, one of Hardy’s most famous poems is titled “God’s Funeral.” In it, he describes a procession carrying the corpse of the “man-projected Figure . . . whom we can no longer keep alive.”
Before I die: My wish list includes a woman president in the White House, passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, early retirements by Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Roberts and the death of racism. (A few pipe dreams in there, I know.)
Ways I promote freethought: I was the atheist plaintiff in the Town of Greece v. Galloway Supreme Court decision. I am an event organizer for the Atheist Community of Rochester (ACoR). I am the vice president and web administrator for the Rochester chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. I was vice chair of Monroe Citizens for Public Education and Religious Liberty before it disbanded.
Other activism: I am past president of the Greater Rochester chapter of the National Organization for Women.
Person in history I admire and why: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, lead author of the “Declaration of Sentiments,” which was presented at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and which kicked off the first women’s rights and women’s suffrage movements in the United States.
I also admire Elizabeth because she believed that “The heyday of woman’s life is the shady side of fifty.”
Max Nielson spoke May 3 at the Freedom From Religion in the Bible Belt conference sponsored by FFRF in conjunction with its chapter, the Triangle Freethought Society, in Raleigh, N.C. Max had previously received a student activist award at FFRF’s 2012 annual convention in Portland, Ore.
That year he became lead plaintiff in FFRF’s federal lawsuit to stop graduation prayers in his school district. The issue is largely resolved, but FFRF, Max and two other plaintiffs (Dakota McMillan and Jacob Zupon) are still challenging prayer by their school board.
Max received a second honor in Raleigh, the Allen P. Wilkinson Student Activist Award of $1,000, generously endowed by FFRF member Allen P. Wilkinson. He asked that it go to the student who “best exemplifies qualities of FFRF and dares to speak up and engage in enlightening high school students and others in the community.”
I was raised secular with the Unitarian Universalist Church in Columbia, S.C. So when I was confronted with the issue of school prayer at my high school, I didn’t really know what to do at first. I didn’t know that I could do anything until I found out that a similar issue had already been settled with help from FFRF in my state through the complaint of Harrison Hopkins.
District 5, where I lived, had a policy on the books that a majority of graduating seniors would vote on whether or not to have a prayer at graduation. It is kind of ridiculous. Rights are not to be voted on. And every part of that graduation prayer ceremony process was facilitated by school officials. It was a clear violation of church and state across the board.
Since I last spoke at the FFRF convention about my case, I’ve gone on to found the Secular Student Alliance at the College of Charleston and interned in D.C. with the Secular Coalition for America. I began work as their social media specialist, in which I have helped launch Openly Secular, which has been a lot of fun. This year I continued to lead the Secular Student Alliance in Charleston. This summer I am interning with the Center for Inquiry in Buffalo, N.Y.
The opportunity FFRF has given me to become involved with this movement I never even knew existed has probably been one of the most profoundly impactful moments of my life. I am very grateful for the opportunity. But my co-plaintiff, Dakota, is still in high school. Dakota and my other co-plaintiff, Jacob, having just graduated, didn’t have all of those opportunities.
Something that stands out since I last spoke was that Dakota was handed a note by one of her friends, who said — I can quote directly from it — he was discussing the issue of the lawsuit with his mother. He was basically given the ultimatum of agreeing that there should be a graduation prayer or not living in the household. It was that stark.
The way Dakota got this note was that she was wondering why this friend suddenly had stopped talking to her. It is horrifying. It is a scary thing to have happen to her.
I went through my deposition with the attorneys. The first half of it was very intense. They were asking all sorts of questions about my history with the Boy Scouts of America or any time I would have encountered public prayer of any sort.
It relaxed after Aaron, my fantastic lawyer, cut in and informed them I am only suing for nominal damages. Even the lawyers on the other side understand that the school prayer issue is pretty much settled.
Since then, as mentioned, the case has grown to encompass the school board prayers, and at those events they oftentimes have pastors come in from neighboring churches. And there are events at the school board meetings where students are invited and actively attend. I think on that issue we will see some change.
As Annie Laurie mentioned, they have changed the school policy from voting on graduation prayer to directly parroting the South Carolina Student-led Messages Act. Which I am OK with. It basically says the school can appoint a student speaker, and then they are done. That is it. They do not have any influence on what that speaker says. If that speaker wants to pray, that is within the purview of their free speech. I am much more comfortable with that than a specifically sponsored graduation prayer event.
I am happy to see how far this has come, and I am very grateful for this award and the opportunities FFRF has given me. Thank you.
FFRF is pleased to announce that it has awarded a $1,000 scholarship to Kelvin Manjarrez, a graduate from Gardena High School, Calif., who will be attending El Camino College in conjunction with Black Skeptics Los Angeles’ 2014 First in the Family Humanist Scholarships.
Kelvin has been a volunteer for Reading Partners Los Angeles and a translator in the 2014 primary election. He identifies as an atheist and aspires to be an English professor. “I have always been passionate about our educational system. A wise man once said that: ‘Humanity’s greatest fear is the unknown,’ “ Kelvin wrote in his essay. “This accounts for contrived religions of all sorts, a simple explanation to the unexplained.
“Citizens who are better educated can better distinguish between right and wrong. This, in turn, generates understanding and unity amongst different groups of people who would have otherwise segregated, fought and killed one another. It is of no coincidence that some of the brightest minds in history have been social activists as well as advocates for a better pedagogical system: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson, just to name a few.”
The BSLA scholarships focus on outstanding South Los Angeles students who are undocumented, in foster care, homeless, LGBT or atheist youth. BSLA is the first atheist organization to specifically address college pipelining for youth of color.
“If current prison pipelining trends persist the Education Trust estimates that only one of every 20 African American kindergartners will graduate from a four-year California university in the next decade,” noted BSLA activist Sikivu Hutchinson.
“We’re delighted to be partnering with BSLA on such a worthwhile and needed endeavor, and are impressed with Kelvin’s essay and aspirations,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
FFRF first launched a student scholarship essay competition shortly after it began as a national group in 1978. FFRF now offers three contests: one for college-bound high school seniors, one for ongoing college students and a third for graduate students and/or students age 25-30. Last year FFRF awarded over $34,000 in essay scholarships to a diverse range of students.
FFRF also offers student and youth activist awards, several endowed by generous individual FFRF members. This year so far, FFRF has already awarded $7,000 to secular student activists.
BSLA’s other scholars this year are: Jamion Allen, Hugo Cervantes, Elizabeth Hernandez and Tiare Hilland. They received $500-1,000 scholarships toward their college expenses.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor introduced Kalei and Ben Wilson at the Freedom From Religion in the Bible Belt conference in Raleigh, N.C., on May 2:
Kalei is one of our younger student activist awardees, but we’ve actually had honorees as young as 11. Kalei is 15. She and her brother Ben were thwarted in trying to start a freethought club at their high school in a smaller town in North Carolina. Kalei is receiving the memorial that I started in honor of my father, who was the principal volunteer for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He died three years ago. It’s called the Paul J. Gaylor Memorial Award of $1,000. He would have been very touched by her plight.
Ben, who started this challenge at the school, is 17. He’s going to say a few words. He tried to start a secular club during the fall semester, then he moved on to community school. He is the debut recipient of the Cliff Richards Memorial Student Activist Award of $1,000. You’re going to be hearing about this award because one of our members who got ill very abruptly with stage 4 cancer called me up and said he wanted a bequest to go to the perpetuation of our student activist awards.
We have received a $140,000 in his name this spring for these awards. He was very excited about the activism of younger people and freethinkers. He was from Wisconsin, ended up in Washington state, where he made use of the death with dignity law. He would have been very, very impressed with Ben Wilson.
By Ben Wilson
Wow! Well, it started out at my first year at the school, a big bible belt school, bunch of country people, Christians. We wanted to start a club because I knew a couple people who weren’t “out” atheists but were not religious. So I started talking the club up, talked to the Secular Student Alliance, got all the paperwork completed and went into the principal. She actually told me “no” — at first. She said it was because they didn’t want an atheist group in the schools. I came back to her with the law that said if she had Christian groups, she’s going to let me have a secular group.
She then postponed our meeting for two weeks, I guess hoping I’d forget about it. Postponed it for two weeks — not even researching about what the club was about, which she promised she would do.
I came in again and was like, “Hey, I need to get moving on this.” She goes, “Oh, I haven’t even looked it up.” I was like, “Well, let’s do that now.” And so we looked it up. She reads the definition of atheist from Wikipedia, I think, and goes, “I think this a satanist group.”
I was — completely confused! “I think you’ve got the wrong definition of atheism. Theists are known as believers, and atheists are nonbelievers.”
So we went on about that. She ended up saying stuff like, “It’s like if you’re gay, you go to Asheville and not stay here.” So confused.
Then we took it to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. They helped us out a lot, but then I ended up getting out of school, going to Haywood Community College, and then Kalei took over. She ended up getting the harsh end of the deal because a lot of kids turned on us. Friends just said we’re not going to be your friends anymore. People destroyed her projects at schools with bibles.
But, thank y’all. I love being up here, I love you y’all. This is awesome. It’s nice to have a community now. Better than Christians.
FFRF has awarded Josh a $1,000 Cliff Richards Memorial Student Activist Award. He was FFRF’s complainant in Orange County, Fla.
My name is Joshua Flashman and I am 14 years old. This past year while in the eighth grade at Southwest Middle School in Orlando, Fla., I fought for the right of our students to sit during the Pledge of Allegiance.
Our school had a policy of forcing students to stand and recite the pledge, regardless of a person’s beliefs. When I tried explaining that I believed I was allowed to sit quietly during the pledge, I got in trouble with the deans. I worked with FFRF to get this to be allowed. The school now allows students to sit quietly during the pledge and has posted a notice saying so.
Even after we were finally allowed to sit during the pledge, I still faced many repercussions from the deans and principal. They were not happy that I made them change. But it was worth it because I knew I was helping other students who would have been too scared to stand up for their rights and beliefs.
Next year at my new high school, I am creating a Secular Student Alliance club with a dedication and determination to advance secular rights. I expect to run into some trouble and bullying, but I feel this is important and will continue to press on.
My main interests are in computers, and I am also joining the high school ROTC program in High School. I hope to go to college (MIT would be my choice) to study computer programming so I can join the military as an information warfare officer.
Sam Erickson may occasionally wrap himself in the flag but never the cross.
Name: Sam Erickson.
Where and when I was born: Eagan, Minn., Aug. 13, 1994.
Family: Mother, Pamela; father, Keith; brothers Tim, 23, Ben, 17, and Dan, 14.
Education: University of Wisconsin-Madison class of 2016, majoring in economics and political science.
My religious upbringing was: Baptist.
How I came to work as an FFRF legal intern: I am the president of Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics (AHA!) at UW-Madison. We are one of the largest student atheist groups in the country and have hosted Dan Barker, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Andrew Seidel of FFRF at various times. Through those connections, I was offered a summer internship.
What I do here: I split time between the legal department and doing graphic design work. When not writing follow-up legal letters or dealing with legal paperwork, I am designing the Freethought of the Days seen on Facebook and Twitter [examples shown below], in addition to many other cool design projects.
In the future, I hope to get more heavily involved in legal projects while continuing to help with design needs.
What I like best about it: Gives me a chance to help out a cause that I am extremely passionate about!
Something funny that’s happened at work: When I first started working with the office equipment, I had to be taught how to use a fax machine because I had never used one before. That is how young I am, I suppose.
My legal interests are: I am still exploring all my career options, but if I decide on law school, I would use my law degree to fight for causes that I am passionate about, such as the environment, protection of civil liberties or the separation of church and state.
My legal heroes are: Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Meiklejohn, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Clarence Darrow.
These three words sum me up: Workaholic, outgoing, optimistic.
Things I like: When I have the time, I love staying up way into the night doing one of my many hobbies. I will commonly be up until 3 in the morning engrossed in a book or a song that I’m producing on my computer, or just messing around in graphic design software.
I also love staying in shape and exercising. You’ll see me playing pickup soccer at least once a week, in addition to running, weight lifting and skiing in winter.
Things I smite: Religion’s foothold in our world and influence in American culture and politics; religious repression of critical thinking, sexuality, and many other things; how religion poisons the minds of the young; and how awkward family dinners are now that I’m the only “out” atheist in the family.
My loftiest goal: To one day get interviewed on Fox News and then proceed to offer an intellectual smackdown of whichever bigot is interviewing me (I’m looking at you, Bill O’Reilly).
Special treatment under the law for religious people was popular in this abbreviated edition of the crank mail, printed as received.
Miserable with your own life: You should rename your site “Demons of Satan and servers of Jesus Christ haters”. Hell will be your eternal dwelling at the moment of your death! — Grady Brown
you: You guys must be bigger assholes than the assholes at the IRS, if you want to partner with the against churches in America to shut them down. — doug akers, columbus, ohio
So you did not like the Hobby Lobby decision: This white, Catholic male was thrilled. Now don’t you have the Little Sisters of the Poor to pursue? — kenneth k
Court ruling: Too bad all nine judges are not Catholic, then the supreme court could be counted on to always rule in a most judicious manner! — John Duffy
Hobby Lobby: Nations build on lies, such as communism and socialism and all the isms, have risen and fallen. See you either at the top with the truth, or the fallen with the likes of Stalin and Hitler. — M. Gazal
Hello: came across your website and fleetingly read a few stuff. are you opposed to all religions eg islam hinduism or just the church? — Daisy Pillai, CARLETONVILLE
Religious Liberty: So you guys think religious liberty trumps women’s rights. I believe contraception is immoral. That being said, if you guys want your women contracepting why don’t you guys stand up like men and pay for it yourself. — rjvrable
Hobby Lobby: Your latest tirade of ant-Catholicism bigotry has no place in America. My legal team is looking into having your tax-exempt status revoked. — John Lushis, Jr, Bethlehem, PA
Shame: Your anti-Catholic venom is beneath contempt. Hitler would be proud. — William W. Whiting
Freedom from Tyranny: Couldn’t your time be better spent? But I guess I should not be surprised at your self-centeredness since you have no concept of self-sacrifice. Note: it’s all about a cross. I am sad you cannot grasp that. — Lynn Weathers, Ohio
Stuff it: Stuff it Stuff it Stuff it Stuff it Stuff itStuff it Stuff it Stuff it Stuff it Stuff it —
Bible ads take permanent vacation
An advertisement for vacation bible school in front of the Caraway Public Library in Caraway, Ark., has been removed. The sign, an electronic, scrolling text marquee, promoted a bible program for children at a local church.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Mayor Barry Riley on June 13, noting the Establishment Clause violation. “The best policy would be for the city to disallow such advertising,” Elliott suggested.
Riley responded the same day: “The message on the sign has been removed.”
FFRF thwarts school abstinence assembly
Onaway Area Community Schools in Onaway, Mich., will no longer invite speakers with a proselytizing agenda. Matt Fradd, who describes himself on his website as “a Catholic apologist and speaker,” was invited to give a presentation April 29 to Onaway High School students on the subject of abstinence.
According to Fradd’s website, his presentation “challenges audience members to open their minds and hearts and embrace the Church’s teachings on human sexuality.” Students were reportedly told, “Romantic love is impossible without chastity.”
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Superintendent Rod Fullerton on May 20, citing constitutional concerns over the religious content, adding that regardless of the motive, inviting such a speaker “gives the appearance that Onaway Area Community School District endorses the program’s message.”
Replying on June 18, Fullerton said the school “had no intention of violating any laws with this assembly” and that it “will not be participating in this type of assembly in the future.”
Bible quote off township website
Inappropriate religious material brought to FFRF’s attention by a concerned individual has been removed from the official website of the township of Watersmeet, Mich.
The bible quote, accredited to “Mr. Jesus Christ,” which we will politely refrain from quoting again here, endorsed a belief in heaven, sin and Jesus.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Township Supervisor Mike Rogers on June 16 to relay the information that “Courts have continually held that townships may not display religious messages.”
Rogers agreed moments after receiving the letter electronically to remove the quote.
School to review
policy on religion
Due to FFRF’s intervention, Manierre Elementary School in Chicago relocated its kindergarten graduation from a church sanctuary to its banquet hall.
On June 10, Staff Attorney Sam Grover, acting on reports from a concerned community member that the ceremony was to be hosted in Moody Church, wrote Barbara Byrd-Bennett, chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools about the clear constitutional violation.
The next day, school attorney James Bebley replied that, “the school has arranged for the captioned ceremony to be moved to the banquet hall.” And “at our administrator training this summer, we plan to address again the prohibition on the use of religious sites for public school events.”
No more religious rituals at school
Rockwall Independent School District in Rockwall, Texas, will no longer permit prayer at any school-sponsored events. According to a local complainant, Rockwall High School’s June 10 graduation included a religious prayer led by a local police officer. The graduation was one of two scheduled that week.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Jeff Bailey on July 11. “Graduation should be an inclusive, unifying event designed to celebrate the accomplishments and prospects of the graduates. Including religious references does exactly the opposite, isolating non-Christian and nonreligious students, cheapening their participation by sending the message that they are outsiders at their own graduation and in their own community.”
Later that day, counsel for Rockwall ISD replied that the district “has agreed to take [the] appropriate steps to ensure that religious rituals are not part of graduation ceremonies or any school-sponsored events in the future.”
The Rockwall-Heath High School graduation, which took place after the FFRF complaint, did not include prayer.
Swan song for graduation prayer
Graduation ceremonies in Forsyth County School District in Cummings, Ga., will no longer include religious prayer.
On May 24, Forsyth Central High School’s graduation reportedly included a student-delivered invocation and benediction, both of which specifically mentioned God and Jesus.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote Superintendent L.C. Evans on May 30: “School officials may not invite a student to give any type of prayer, invocation or benediction at a public high school-sponsored event.”
District counsel replied July 13: “The issues which you raise in your letter will not be a part of next year’s graduation program at Forsyth Central High School.”
Satisfied complainant: FFRF is ‘awesome’
A concerned resident reported church ads in front of Castle Rock Middle School and Castle View High School. The signs advertised Sunday morning worship at Eternal Rock Lutheran Church and Summit Church. The churches rent from the school district, but have routinely left advertising banners up for months on school property.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter of complaint to the Douglas County School District on July 8. The next day, the complainant confirmed that FFRF’s letter had a positive effect. “You guys are awesome — the signs are down now!”
FFRF intervention saves prayer addicts
Prayer will no longer be sanctioned at Piedmont High School athletic events in West Piedmont, Ala.
Previously, it was the practice for a Christian prayer to be delivered over the school’s public address system before football games. A graduate and Piedmont athletics booster reached out to FFRF, noting that he found the prayers “very offensive to those who do not share in the belief of prayer,” and that a student should not be “subjected to ridicule for not participating.”
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert notified Superintendent Matt Akin of the unconstitutional action on March 20. Akin responded July 2 after two follow-up letters: “Beginning immediately, the Piedmont City School District will no longer allow student-led prayer at athletic events.”
Navy agrees to allow equal access
Naval Hospital Bremerton (NHB) and associated clinics in Bremerton, Wash., will no longer block minority religious Web pages. Their Internet filtering policy banned websites of non-monotheistic religions.
A concerned individual was distressed to learn that the online Church of Satan was “blocked for reasons of Cult and Occult,” along with other non-mainstream religions such as Scientology, Wicca and various pagan religions. He described the discriminatory practice as “an outrage,” noting that monotheistic websites, including the outrageously bigoted Westboro Baptist Church’s site, were readily available.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the NHB on May 1, explaining that the policy was discriminatory. On July 15, Lt. Cmdr. David Peck reported that the policy had been changed to allow sites such as wicca.org and churchofsatan.org.
Church graduation ceremonies moving
Graduation ceremonies for Perry Local School District, Massillon, Ohio, will no longer be held at the Faith Family Church. From now on, nonreligious students wishing to participate in one of life’s most momentous occasions will not be excluded from doing so.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Superintendent Martin Bowe on Feb. 17, informing him that “It is unconstitutional for a public high school to force, compel, or coerce its graduation students, their parents, teachers, and other members of their families or friends, to violate their rights of conscience at a graduation ceremony.”
Bowe’s May 15 reply said the district has “agreed to find a different site for the 2015 graduating class.”
Bible distribution stopped in school
A South Carolina school district has agreed to stop allowing the distribution of bibles on school property due to a July 3 letter from Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott to Superintendent David Havird, Anderson School District One in Anderson.
FFRF’s complainant reported that a man told students they could take a bible as a staffer stood by outside an elementary school library, with bibles on the table.
Elliott’s letter addressed illegal events that occurred in April, when the bibles were distributed to students at Powdersville Elementary School in Greenville, S.C. “It is unfortunate that some adults view public schools as ripe territory for religious recruitment,” wrote Elliott, adding that courts have held that “religious instruction is for parents to determine, not public school educators.” Elliott noted that the distribution also violated school policy.
District counsel responded July 21 that “the district will ensure that bibles are not made available to elementary school-aged students during the school day on school premises.”
‘Pervasive religious culture’ addressed
Lamar County School District staff in Purvis, Miss., will no longer be permitted to proselytize to students. A Sumrall Middle School student contacted FFRF in April about a teacher who talked about “why our country needs God” and the “war on Christmas.” Another teacher apparently held an Easter event and spoke about “the Rapture” and the anti-Christ.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover noted the violations June 20 in a letter to interim Superintendent Tess Smith, also citing faculty participation in prayer at Sumrall Elementary School and a “pervasive culture of proselytization in the district.”
Smith responded July 8 and agreed to “meet with each of the staff members mentioned, including a follow-up meeting with the school principal.” Smith said she’s organizing an in-service for principals to give them “the necessary guidance to train their staff in the future regarding constitutional issues.”
FFRF ends prayer at school banquet
There will no longer be teacher-led prayer or any prayer at the end-of-year banquet for Sarah Scott Middle School in Terre Haute, Ind.
A family member of a student contacted FFRF with information that, like ceremonies from previous years, a school-sponsored banquet May 27 celebrating the top 10 students in each grade featured teacher-led prayer.
“Everyone is expected to bow their heads while a teacher leads the prayer,” reported the complainant. “The school is fairly diverse, so I’m sure I’m not the only person that is uncomfortable with the school trying to force everyone to pray.”
Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter May 30 to Superintendent Daniel Tanoos of Vigo County School Corp., declaring that, “The district should make certain that teachers in its schools are not unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters by encouraging them to engage in prayer. Schoolchildren already feel significant pressure to conform from their peers. They must not be subjected to similar pressure from their teachers, especially on religious questions.”
After a July 8 follow-up inquiry, district counsel replied July 17 that each building principal has been told that “teacher-led prayer with students present will cease, as it is prohibited by the Constitution and should not be allowed.”
Georgia Air Force base
grounds job ad bias
Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta, Ga., has removed a requirement that only Catholics need apply for a position as music director.
FFRF was alerted to the July 15 job ad, which requested a “Catholic Music Director to provide worship services at Moody AFB Chapel.” The posting specified that “the contractor shall maintain a lifestyle consistent with Catholic principles” for the position, and said the applicant would “not be required to perform duties that are incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
Staff Attorney Sam Grover’s July 18 complaint letter noted that the religious test violates the equal employment provisions of the Civil Rights Act, which says military departments may not discriminate on the basis of religion.
Within 15 minutes of receiving the complaint, an Air Force representative called to apologize for impermissible language in “all of the solicitations” and said the base intends to “modify the verbiage” in all of its job postings and remove the “Catholic lifestyle” mention.
Prayer breakfast promotion stopped
Putnam County in Carmel, N.Y., will no longer use county email to promote prayer breakfasts. Last fall, the director of personnel invited county employees to attend the 22nd Annual Putnam County Leadership Prayer Breakfast. The email included a bible verse from 2 Chronicles: “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive them, and heal their land.”
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent three letters to the county, starting March 17. County counsel responded July 10: “The individual who sent the email in question regarding the Prayer Breakfast event has been advised not to send such notices by County email in the future.”
Baccalaureate will include disclaimer
Columbian High School in Tiffin, Ohio, will no longer be involved with a baccalaureate service for seniors. The June 7 baccalaureate at Trinity United Church of Christ was coordinated with school faculty, including the principal, his secretary and the choir director.
The religious service was listed on the school’s graduation checklist and promoted on the school calendar. Additionally, the graduation FAQ on the school’s website encouraged graduates and their families to attend.
On June 12, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Superintendent Vicki Wheatley of Tiffin City Schools. Due to the school’s “promotion of the worship service on its school website, students will perceive the baccalaureate service as school-sponsored,” Markert wrote.
Wheatley responded June 25 that “future District publications regarding a baccalaureate service will include a disclaimer indicating the event is not school-sponsored, it is an optional event, and that the District does not endorse any message espoused.”
Wheatley said she has “reminded the appropriate District employees of the policies and limitations discussed above, and [has] clarified the District’s expectations.”
Georgia district agrees to prayer curbs
Future graduations at Bremen City High School in Bremen, Ga., will not include prayer, at FFRF’s behest. A religious photo of prayer has also been removed from the Bremen City Schools Facebook page.
The school’s May 24 graduation included opening and closing prayers. Each lasted several minutes and addressed the Christian “Heavenly Father, we thank you.”
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote the district June 6, noting other recent violations in the district, including a photo on the district website of the football team praying and an elementary school administrator leading kindergarteners in prayer.
The district responded June 17, saying that “the phrase ‘invocation’ will not be used in next year’s graduation program.” Additionally, the “superintendent has removed that photo” in question.
Prayer off football team pregame menu
Illegal pregame prayer at football team meals has been halted at Alexander High School in Douglasville, Ga. According to reports by a concerned individual, the varsity football team had been supplied pregame meals by Pray’s Mill Baptist Church. A pastor was present at the meals and at most of the practices and games.
At the end of the mandatory meals, the pastor would deliver a “pseudo-sermon” and ask those present to bow their heads and pray. The complainant said the prayer “makes several nonbeliever athletes uncomfortable as well, but because they’re students on the team, they can’t just ‘step out’ and not participate or risk banishment.”
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Superintendent Gordon Pritz on May 27. District counsel replied June 17 that Pritz “has discussed with school administration and appropriate staff members the legal issues that you raised. . . . To the extent there existed any issue with a prayer or religious talk being given to students on the team during a team event by local clergy, there will be no such activity during next football season.”
The district was successfully sued by Doug Jager, son of a longtime FFRF member, over pregame invocations in the late 1980s. Doug was a member of the marching band. In Jager v. Douglas County District, the Supreme Court in 1989 let stand a ruling in Doug’s favor by the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Jesus vanishes from department’s Facebook
The police department in Jacksonville, Ala., has removed and will no longer display religious postings on its official Facebook page. The posts included an image with the words “Happy Birthday Jesus,” an image of a nativity, a number of bible verses, a picture promoting the “National Day of Prayer for Law Enforcement,” a picture of a man carrying a “Police Officer’s Bible” and a link to a Christian website with police officers singing a Christian song.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert contacted Jacksonville Chief of Police T.L. Thompson on Dec. 31. After two follow-up letters, Thompson finally replied July 2: “That post and similar ones were deleted from that account and no new posts of this nature have been posted.”
FFRF halts public school prayers
Ignacio School District in Ignacio, Colo., will no longer feature prayers at certain ceremonies held throughout the academic year.
A complainant reported to FFRF that schools included prayers before graduation, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas ceremonies. It was also reported that two prayers are offered at each of these events, one to the Christian god and another to a Ute Native American god.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter Oct. 18, explaining that the district has a legal duty to remain neutral toward religion.
After receiving a follow-up letter, the district responded June 23: “We have discontinued that practice.”
The response sets a record for the most concise letter of compliance an FFRF attorney has ever received.
— Compiled by publicist Lauryn Seering and intern Noah Bunnell
FFRF ran a full-page ad in the July 3 New York Times to protest the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling that is bringing in many new members (welcome, all) and is still creating a stir.
Featuring a portrait of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, whose motto was “No Gods — No Masters,” the ad criticizes the “all-male, all-Roman Catholic majority” on the court for putting “religious wrongs over women’s rights.”
That caught the attention of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who facetiously thanked FFRF for showing there is still anti-Catholic bigotry. Dolan claimed the ad was a “drippingly bigoted blast in the hospitable pages of The New York Times.”
The near-apoplectic Bill Donohue, Catholic League president, of course claimed FFRF was bigoted for pointing out that six of the nine court members are Catholic, with five of them very committed and reactionary Catholics.
FFRF’s 2012 full-page ad in the Times was titled “It’s time to consider quitting the Catholic Church.” (The paper made FFRF rephrase the original headline, which was the much punchier: “It’s time to quit the Catholic Church.”)
Dolan is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which the ad criticized for openly declaring war on the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate and for placing dogma above humanity.
Online newscaster Cenk Uygur of “The Young Turks” featured an amusing analysis July 13 of the reaction to the latest ad, running clips of Fox News going after FFRF. Andrea Tantaros emceed a round table going after FFRF and the Times, showing a close-up of the “Dogma should not trump civil liberties” part of the ad.
“The ad doesn’t go after Catholics. It says we don’t want the Catholics to force their religion on us,” Uygur pointed out. “If there’s so much bigotry against Catholics, how did so many of them wind up on the Supreme Court?”
FFRF has taken the lead in calling for repeal of the 1993 Religious Freedom Resoration Act, which was the basis for the Hobby Lobby ruling.
“None of our civil rights, established after decades and decades of struggle and education, will be safe until RFRA is overturned,” commented Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. (See more about ruling on page 5.)