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Lead Us Not Into Penn Station:Provocative Pieces

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October 7-9, 2016

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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is going to see a little reimbursement as part of its legal victory over the Chino Valley School Board in California.

U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal ruled on Feb. 18 that the School Board's prayers violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Of the $200,000-plus that Bernal fined the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education for violating the U.S. Constitution, FFRF will be receiving a bit more than $40,000 as reimbursement for all the hard work that Staff Attorneys Andrew Seidel and Rebecca Markert put in. The rest will go to attorney David Kaloyanides, who litigated the case in California for the organization, and his law clerk Roda Torres. 

Together, the team put in more than 400 billable hours on the case (about three-fourths of which were Kaloyanides and Torres) and plenty of unbillable hours. If the School Board pays up, which could depend on the appeal, FFRF will simply be recouping the cost of having Seidel and Markert work the case, not reaping a windfall. The Chino Valley School Board has taken the legally and constitutionally unwise step of appealing the decision, so it'll likely be a while before FFRF sees any of the reimbursement.

In short, there isn't any bonanza in store for the state/church watchdog organization, not now or down the road. As always, FFRF is reliant on the generosity of its members and donors for its sustenance and legal activism.

This does not take away how major the victory over the Chino Valley School Board is—for all of us, not just for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The School Board's overtly religious meetings were way over the line constitutionally and otherwise.

"We are celebrating our win not because of the monetary aspect, but as one for the Constitution," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We have 22 individual plaintiffs who came to FFRF seeking help to curb religious entanglement permeating the school district and school board meetings. We expect to prevail in appeals court as well."

And that's something all of us can rejoice in.

Plus, the fees are an important deterrent against other governmental bodies behaving similarly.

"Sadly, these fees are important," Seidel explains. "Not because they generate income for FFRF, but because they deter other school districts from violating the law and strengthen FFRF's ability to resolve future cases without litigation, which is always our goal."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nontheistic organization that has 23,700 nonreligious members all over the country helping it to do its good work.

A West Virginia school district changed its policies after the Freedom From Religion Foundation objected to a Christian revival meeting held at one of its schools.

Evangelist Matt Hartley sermonized to students at Mingo Central High School in Williamson, W.Va., on Wednesday, April 13, preaching to them about Jesus, mulling about whether being gay was a choice, and asserting that "God never made a mistake" in choosing a person's gender. FFRF contacted the school district after receiving a complaint.

A public school assembly with a religious message confers endorsement of that speaker's message, FFRF contended. In addition, Hartley's negative opinions about gay and transgender students could lead to bullying, FFRF pointed out.

"This type of event is blatantly unconstitutional," FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Mingo County Schools Superintendent Robert Bobbera. "Promotion of religion as part of a school assembly violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment." 

The school district quickly informed FFRF that it was revamping its policies governing such events.

"Steps have already been taken by the superintendent to ensure that such events will not occur in the future and that all staff are educated regarding the legal obligations of school systems when such issues arise," Denise Spatafore, legal counsel for Mingo County Schools, wrote back to Elliott. A new circular "is being distributed to all school administrators, and a training session for all staff on the same subject matter will be provided to you following completion. Also, the principal of Mingo Central has been individually counseled about the event that occurred at her school." 

Hartley had also reportedly conducted meetings in the school on April 14 and 15 and led a revival on the school athletic field on the following Saturday, April 16.

FFRF appreciates the swift way with which the school district dealt with the issue and wants it to serve as a lesson to other districts in the region, especially since Hartley is apparently making appearances at various schools in the area.

"Public schools need to know that hosting a person such as Hartley is a serious breach of constitutional norms," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We'll be watching to make sure that what occurred at Mingo Central High School doesn't happen again."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a state/church watchdog organization that has 23,700 nonreligious members nationwide, including in West Virginia.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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