Michael T. Simmons Elementary School in Tumwater, Wash., will no longer allow religious materials to be handed out.
Children were pulled out of class to attend a mandatory school assembly led by former NFL player Shawn Harper, who at the conclusion handed out cards to students with his picture on the front, and a promotion of Jesus on the back. The card read:
“I grew up in a religious home, but I did not know God. I suffered a potential career ending injury which put me out of the NFL for one year. It was during that year, when I thought I had lost everything, that I discovered the difference between religion and a relationship with Jesus. He found me, and I have been playing on His Team ever since. I was able to come back and finish my career in the NFL!”
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter on June 5 explaining why the school district needs to remedy this matter:
“Regardless of the motives of the presenters or those who invited them, allowing Mr. Harper access to your student body to hand out his cards gives the appearance that Tumwater School District endorses the card’s message.”
The district responded promptly, “The card about which you have stated concern, which looked like a traditional sports card, was made available to students by the speaker as the students were leaving the assembly hall. Not all students received a card, but many did. The card was not approved in advance by the principal. The principal has shared with me that in the future she will make sure to pre-approve any materials that are to be handed out to students in such a context.”
The district defended the assembly itself as being strictly on bullying without religious content, but said the incident would be discussed at an August training of administrators.
An elementary school in Kansas will no longer allow Gideon Society to proselytize and hand out bibles to students. FFRF was informed that on May 16, a fifth-grade teacher at USD 306 allowed representatives from Gideon’s International to speak and distribute bibles in his classroom.
Additionally, FFRF successfully complained about another teacher in the district actively led, participated and organized a See You at the Pole prayer gathering. Fliers announcing these gatherings sported the teacher’s name, and the teacher leads students in prayer at the gathering.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to the district on July 8: “Parents carefully instruct children not to accept gifts from strangers. The Gideon practice is a usurpation of parental authority. It is the duty of public school administrators to protect not only the personal conscience of students but to ensure they are safe from predatory adults while at school.”
Seidel wrote that teacher-led prayer and promotion of events such as See You at the Pole would be perceived by a reasonable observer as being stamped with the school’s approval.
On July 31, the district responded, “[The] superintendent. . . did not have any knowledge that this activity was going on. If he would have known it was occurring he would have stopped it. This confirms that USD 306 will not permit this to happen anymore.”
The letter reported that a new policy prohibiting teachers sponsoring overtly religious events will be enforced by the District.
Freeman High School in Freeman S.D., will no longer organize or sponsor an annual baccalaureate ceremony for graduating seniors. FFRF received a complaint that on May 14 a religious ceremony took place in which attendance was mandatory for all seniors and members of the band and chorus. Students were reportedly told that they would receive an “F” for not attending. Teachers, staff and the principal all have attended the annual event taking place at the school.
FFRF was informed that between songs a pastor preached and quoted bible verses. The pastor also led the crowd in prayer. The school promoted the event on the school calendar and website, and announced the event repeatedly over the intercom.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter on May 30, informing the superintendent that it is illegal for public schools to sponsor any type of religious practices. The school shortly after told FFRF that the practice would discontinue. FFRF’s complaint resulted in a flurry of news articles in the Freeman Courier newspaper. At a school board meeting, Board Member Laverne Diede reportedly said, “I want to continue to be able to provide baccalaureate for our students and this is a way we can do that.” Superintendent Don Hotchkiss said it was never his intention to eliminate the baccalaureate: “I do think we have to make some changes to how we do baccalaureate; I think we’re fortunate to have been able to do this for as long as we have.”
On July 23, Elliott sent a follow-up letter explaining that the district had to completely disassociate itself from the religious ceremony.
In July, the Superintendent reported that the Freeman Ministerial Association would hold future baccalaureate services. “The contents of the program will be entirely coordinated and conducted by the Ministerial Association, with no help, input, collaboration or participation from employees at the Freeman Public Schools.” He enclosed a copy of the Board motion to discontinue school affiliated baccalaureates.
The superintendent added, “I trust this information will not only be useful for you but will also allow you to have a more complete and restful nightly sleep cycle.”
The Freeman Courier editorialized in FFRF’s favor on July 24, asking readers to “Imagine if you, as a Christian, moved into a community that was primarily Muslim and the public school chose to hold a religious service as part of the graduation. Likely you’d have reservations about being there and offering prayers and following the religious tenets and traditions of Islam."
“Our Constitution allows us to practice our religion — and not to practice the religion of someone else. That is what the separation of church and state means.” The editorial quoted cited 17th century secularist Roger Williams, noting that state/church separation “both protects the religion from state control and it protects the state from religious control.” The Freeman Courier ran a earlier editorial on July 15 applauding the resolution as a “win-win situation.”
The Texas Department of Public Safety in Austin removed a cross on the first floor conference room wall of the Highway Patrol Headquarters, after a concerned employee filed a complaint with FFRF. This location is where most regular meetings take place.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter on July 8, informing the DPS that this large cross is unquestionably a religious symbol and sends the unmistakable message that the department endorses Christianity over all other religions and religion over non religion.
“The Latin cross in the DPS Highway Patrol Division’s conference room sends a divisive message that turns non-Christian and nonreligious employees into outsiders in their own community and workplace.”
On August 11, after initially attempting to justify this display as nonreligious, the Department informed FFRF that it would remove the illegal cross.
Hawkins Middle School in Hawkins, Texas, will no longer permit a teacher to organize and promote a “Feed and Seed” club. A concerned parent contacted FFRF, reporting that a teacher ran the club during lunch period. The teacher read from the bible and invited local religious leaders to speak to students. Parents were not informed by the school that their children were participating in this religious club. Additionally, the teacher repeatedly read religious materials on Good Friday during instructional classtime.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter to the district on June 4, explaining that the heavy involvement of faculty in a religious club is impermissible and illegal. Grover also noted why religious statements in the classroom are unconstitutional:
“Allowing a public school teacher to read religiously themed materials with no pedagogical purpose, such as ‘The Tale of Three Trees,’ to a sixth-grade class on Good Friday in an attempt to proselytize the teacher’s personal religious views shows the District’s endorsement of religion.”
On Aug. 5, the superintendent replied that regulations and practices regarding extracurricular and co-curricular clubs were reviewed, as well as instructional material in the classroom.
The district stated: “We are working to make certain that the Hawkins ISD complies with all applicable laws, including the First Amendment’s prohibition concerning the endorsement of religion.” The school noted that if the Feed and Seed club returns as a strictly student-led club, the teacher involved in the abuses will not be approved as faculty supervisor.
“I had nearly forgotten how death plays out over time — not the biological episode that collapses it all into a nanosecond of being and nonbeing, but the slower arc of our leaving — sorting through the mail, paying the bills, stumbling upon notes. . . Have I no more than these solicitations, the invitations, these letters delivered late? I do. I have memories. I have places where I feel both his closeness and his distance. And I have the all-too-brief visitations allowed in dreams. For the nonbeliever I’ve become, it is what passes for an afterlife.”