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FFRF alarmed about Tennessee school

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation is alarmed about multiple constitutional violations occurring in a Tennessee high school.

A Christian club called FISH meets every Friday during lunch at David Crockett High School in Jonesborough. An employee at the high school, Jerry Day, leads this group. Community church members frequently attend these meetings, and they bring fast food to entice students to attend. FISH meetings include Christian songs, prayers and other Christian content. Guest speakers from fourteen local churches often speak, as well. Teachers also reportedly participate, sometimes leading prayers with students. Under the federal Equal Access Act, religious clubs must be student-led with no involvement from school staff or outside adults.

Members of a Christian group called Young Life also frequently enter the school shortly before school starts in order to pass out fast food biscuits and proselytize to students. Part of Young Life's mission is "sharing the truth of God's love with adolescents." The school has apparently not vetted any of these visiting adults, but still permits them unsupervised among the students.

"It is a well-settled principle of jurisprudence that public schools may not advance, prefer, or promote religion," FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert writes to Washington County Attorney Thomas Seeley. "It is unconstitutional for school staff to host, sponsor, lead or promote a Christian club, or to have outside adults come in during the school day to lead religious teachings." 

Additionally, there is a bible verse displayed on the high school's website. The David Crockett Lady Softball team webpage includes the following: "Philippians 4:13 – I can do all things through him who gives me strength."

"The placement of a bible verse on the school's website is unconstitutional," Markert writes. "Courts have continually held that school districts may not display religious messages or iconography in public schools."

FFRF asks that the school district investigate these matters immediately and take appropriate action. Staff should be informed that school-sponsored religious activity violates the U.S. Constitution as well as the rights of the students and their parents. Furthermore, the school district must dissolve FISH, and dissociate David Crockett High School from Young Life. FFRF also requests that the district remove the bible verse from its website.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the constitutional separation of state and church, with 24,000 members across the country, including more than 300 in Tennessee.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is objecting to a proposed program in New Jersey where offending juveniles will receive church counseling.

The Trenton Police Department intends to take juveniles who have broken the curfew law to churches for "counseling," according to media reports.

The city of Trenton's official code makes no mention of churches and in no way authorizes the proposed practice. The program the Trenton Police Department intends to install represents a distressing departure from city ordinances and the U.S. Constitution.

"This proposal is an egregious violation of the First Amendment, since it is a bedrock principle of constitutional law that the state cannot coerce citizens to participate in religious practices," FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel writes to Trenton Police Director Ernest Parrey Jr. "It is not surprising that Trenton's city code does not allow for transporting juvenile offenders to churches for counseling because as a government agency providing youth counseling, the Trenton Police Department has a duty to remain neutral towards religion." 

The plan also shows a clear and unconstitutional favoritism for religion over nonreligion. About 35 percent of millennials—those born after 1981, i.e., the juveniles the proposed program will affect—are nonreligious. In effect, the program will force a very large number of nonreligious citizens to endure the "counseling" of a religious practitioner from a religion they do not observe.

"It's baffling that a secular police department should try to implement such an idea," says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. "Trenton police should realize that theological counseling is not acceptable."

The proposal cannot be legally implemented. The Trenton Police Department should instead aim to provide secular support services and should inform FFRF of the steps it will be taking to change course.

FFRF is a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to the constitutional separation of state and church, with 24,000 members across the country, including more than 450 in New Jersey.

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

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