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Lauryn Seering

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FFRF ends Florida team chaplain programs

The same Florida school district that is allowing atheists to distribute literature is now abolishing athletic chaplaincies for its teams and removing bible verses from sports venues and apparel.  

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state-church watchdog, has contacted Orange County Public Schools about more than 10 violations in the past 18 months. 

In March, FFRF blasted the schools for allowing team chaplains, putting bible verses on the field and team gear and for including religious music on game footage. Earlier this month, Orange County issued a memo addressing these problems.  

“Having a team chaplain is not permitted as it is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion in the same manner as a school employee participating in prayer with students,” the memorandum stated. “In this area the law is very clear.” 

Regarding teachers, coaches, and other staff praying with students, the Office of Legal Services wrote: “On this issue the matter is well decided that school personnel “cannot participate in a visible way with the players” during student-led prayer. . . . Please make sure to educate the staff at this and other schools that active participation by any School Board employee and/or non-faculty coach in student-led prayer must not occur as it is contrary to established case law.” 

The school also properly got rid of the bible verses on team signs and apparel, the memo said. “While the signs themselves may be permitted, the reference or citation to a particular Bible verse is deemed to be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.” 

The school even agreed with FFRF about banning religious music in videos: "The usage of religious lyrics could be seen as an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.”

Of course, the Religious Right is in an uproar. On Fox News, Bobby Bowden, retired Florida State University football coach, noted that he didn’t care about the Constitution or the First Amendment prohibition, “I’d do it anyway. . . . I don’t care about political correctness,” Bowden said, “I want to be spiritually correct.”  

There is an open question as to whether the schools will allow the chaplains to remain by simply by changing their name to “life coach,” which FFRF maintains is impermissible. This was only “reported” by Todd Starnes, an extremely conservative Fox News columnist. Starnes, not known for his accuracy or balance, also wrote that “FFRF is attempting to . . . eradicate Christianity in the public marketplace of ideas.”  

“If this ‘life coach’ nonsense is accurate, Orange County can’t avoid this issue with creative wordplay,” argued Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, who’s been handling the Orange County complaints for FFRF. 

“The school cannot give preachers access to a captive audience of public school students for a religious purpose, like prayer. Does Orange County really expect people to believe that chaplains, now life coaches, will keep their religion and their bible to themselves? Does the school actually want to be in the business of regulating religious speech? We think not,” added Seidel. 

FFRF still has a number of outstanding complaints with the district, including school-sponsored baccalaureates, holding school events in churches,and forcing students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. But, if this memo and Orange County’s capitulation allowing FFRF to distribute atheist literature to students are any indication, these issues could soon be corrected.

After the Freedom From Religion Foundation contacted a West Virginia school district over a four-year-old kindergarten program run by a religious daycare center and overseen by the district, State Superintendent of Schools Charles Heinlein advised that West Virginia 4K providers must not offer religious programming as part of public instruction. 

FFRF complained to Berkley County Schools about religious activity at New Beginnings Child Care Center in Inwood, W.Va. A parent reported to FFRF that New Beginnings inflicts prayer before meals and retains religious icons in the part of the facility used by tots. The facility provides state-funded 4K four days a week, then capitalizes on the government program by offering parents a fifth day of operational daycare which involves religious instruction. FFRF contends this further blurs the line for youngsters who are too young to be able to distinguish public education from church education. 

FFRF is a national state/church watchdog with more than 21,000 members nationwide, including members in West Virginia.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a May 9 letter to Berkeley County Schools: “Through its partnership with a child care facility that offers religious programming, Berkeley County Schools violates the Establishment Clause by entangling itself with religion,” and furthermore, “explicitly undermines West Virginia’s stated goal of universal access to early childhood education.” 

Elliott advised: “This constitutional violation is more egregious when the students are so young and thus more vulnerable to coercion.” 

On June 30, the Berkley County Superintendent contacted the State Superintendent of Schools to seek an interpretation of the applicable laws. 

Heinlein’s reply on Aug. 5 largely concurred with FFRF’s letter: “[It] is implicit in all of the WVBE policies that they must be implemented in a manner which does not violate State or Federal Constitutions.” Heinlein continued, “During the hours of operation in which the… WV Pre-K program is operated, the providers must: (1) use the WV Pre-K Program approved curriculum; (2) refrain from teaching religious beliefs; and (3) avoid engaging in religious practices, including praying at mealtimes.” 

With respect to the religious icons and images, including a cross on the New Beginnings sign, Heinlein simply wrote: “no State funds may be used to purchase or maintain them and they may not be included or alluded to during conversation or instruction during the WV Pre-K program.” He said that religious icons and images were otherwise permissible. 

FFRF contends that Heinlein is mistaken and that all pre-K classes must be held in a secular environment. “Facilities used to teach public school students have to be secular. This is a bedrock constitutional principle that is not erased merely because classes are held in a non-traditional setting,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF Co-President. 

The state’s Office of Early Learning was directed by Heinlein to develop model language for collaborative agreements with daycare centers. That included specific language to protect the constitutional rights of families: 

“The WV Pre-K program may not contain religious observances, such as prayer, grace, confession, church attendance or religious instruction or use religious materials. The WV Pre-K program cannot be used to proselytize or attempt to persuade or convert children or their families to religion or a particular religious persuasion.” 

Gaylor commented, “The center should be strongly reprimanded for forcing prayer on tiny children. This is these children’s first introduction to public education, yet sectarian religion permeates the environment. One in five adult Americans today is nonreligious. Nonreligious or non-Christian parents should not have to send their children to ‘public schools’ replete with Christian images, which make them feel like outsiders.” 

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Bombshells Week

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