Employees at a senior center in New Mexico will not lead prayers before federally-funded meals.
FFRF was informed that staff recited a prayer before meals at the Eagle Nest Senior Center, and that participates were asked to join hands. The prayers were sectarian and began with phrases like, “Our Lord Jesus.” Since the center receives at least some public money it must adhere to federal laws, which unequivocally prohibit religious activities.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter on August 21:
“[T]he Center cannot engage ‘in inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction or proselytization.’ Prayer is an inherently and quintessentially religious activity. Public prayer is both ‘religious worship’ and proselytizing by peer pressure and repetition.”
Seidel added that those who wish to pray remain perfectly free to do so, however the Center and its employees cannot lead others in prayer or encourage them to pray.
On Sept. 3, the Center informed FFRF, “to the extent that the prayers are conducted by Village employees or have an appearance of being Village sponsored, the Village will take action necessary to ensure that this does not continue to occur.”
Miami Beach Park in Miami, Fla., will no longer permit religious eruvin to be erected over public property, after a complaint was filed by FFRF.
An eruv is “an urban area enclosed by a wire boundary that symbolically extends the private domain of Jewish households into public areas, permitting activities within it that are normally forbidden in public on the Sabbath.” An eruv — constructed of 15-foot plastic poles connected by string — was installed by two members of the Orthodox Jewish community in Pine Tree Park without a permit.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to the City of Miami Beach, explaining why religious displays are not permissible on public property: “The religious significance of the eruvin is unambiguous and indisputable. They are objects which are significant only to some Jews as a means to obey religious laws that have no bearing on non-adherents.”
He noted: “Eruvin extend the ‘property of an individual’ to the eruv boundaries, thus enabling Orthodox Jews to break the rule laid out in Exodus 16:29 without fear of divine retribution. In other words, eruvin are designated specifically so that a certain religious sect can avoid adhering to their own onerous rules. Eruvin do not seek to alleviate a government-imposed burden; they seek to alleviate a self-imposed religious burden.”
Seidel added, “Allowing Orthodox Jews to permanently demarcate large areas of public property as a private Jewish household that is ‘property’ of the Orthodox Jewish community forces those of other faiths and no faith to live within an Orthodox Jewish religious enclosure, including members of other Jewish denominations who are offended by the Orthodox Jewish elevation of legalistic constructs over what they believe to be the true spiritual values of Judaism.”
On July 10, FFRF received a response letter from the city insisting that, “[A]n eeruv does not violate the establishment clause, and can be legally permitted. It has the secular purpose of allowing Orthodox Jews to participate in matters of daily living outside of their homes on Saturday, their Sabbath.”
Seidel replied on July 14, rebutting the city’s contention that these religious displays were in fact secular. “There is nothing secular about helping a religious sect comply with religious law. What do you think the reaction would be if Miami Beach endorsed and even helped devout Muslims rope off an area in which to adhere to Sharia law? . . . Orthodox Jews suffer no government-imposed burden on their religion. The Sabbath prohibitions on labor are imposed by their own religion.”
On July 24, FFRF’s complainant confirmed that most of the eruvin had been removed from the park, she called it “a great victory.”
Kuna School District in Kuna, Ida., addressed the constitutional concerns of FFRF about a religious video at an assembly.
A complainant informed FFRF that Kuna Middle School held an anti-bullying assembly in May. A video, “Bullying — Stop It,” produced by the media channel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was shown to students. This video explicitly refers to both Jesus Christ and a Heavenly Father. Regarding stopping bullying, the video claims, “this mighty change of heart is exactly what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is designed to bring about.” It also claims that, “allowing us to see others the way our Heavenly Father sees us, because God loves us so much, we too must love and forgive; remember in the end it is the merciful who obtain mercy.” This video was shown in its entirety and was paused at the end to display the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints logo.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter on June 4, stating that despite the important anti-bullying message, the overtly religious nature and promotion of a specific religion videos is clearly inappropriate.
“[Y]our community possesses many secular experts in this field, including counselors, psychologists, and sociologists, who have experience, training, certification and/or degrees and would be delighted, usually at no cost to the district, to discuss bullying before your student bodies, and whose presence would not raise constitutional red flags.”
On July 7, Superintendent Wendy Johnson replied: “The student who presented the assembly and video did disclose to building administration that there was religious content at the end of the anti-bullying video. The building administration requested that the video be stopped before the religious content was shown. Unfortunately the video was not stopped in the appropriate time.”
Johnson added that the District will perform proper diligence in reviewing all videos and documentation presented to students: “To prevent this type of occurrence from happening in Kuna School District schools in the future we have requested that all building administrators utilize Kuna School District approved materials.”
Eureka Union School District in Granite Bay, Calif., will no longer permit a teacher to ‘teach the controversy” about evolution during science class.
According to a complainant, a teacher at Ridgeview Elementary School routinely taught creationism and intelligent design during science instruction. The teacher claimed that it is legally required to “present both sides of the issue.” The strategy apparently consisted of giving the students a bag of popcorn and a sheet of paper with a complicated design, telling them to repeatedly let popcorn fall on the paper. If the popcorn did not form the complicated design, then, the teacher told them, it shows that evolution must be unreasonable.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter of complaint to the District on March 4, which summarized federal and Supreme Court rulings striking down creationism, including under the guise of ‘alternative theories’”:
“Evolution is not a ‘theory’ in the layperson’s sense of the word. Evolution is a ‘scientific theory.’ This difference is crucial. A misunderstanding of these terms often leads to a misunderstanding of evolution, the vast weight of evidence supporting evolution, and of its overwhelming acceptance in the scientific community. . . Putting creationism, intelligent design, or any other creatively named offspring in public school is undoubtedly unconstitutional.”
The district responded on March 13, thanking and assuring FFRF that the complaint was immediately addressed and appropriate action had been taken.
Dawson County School District in Gainesville, Ga., will no longer hold meetings for teachers in churches or force them to listen to prayers and sermons.
A complainant reported to FFRF that the district held a mandatory staff meeting on Aug. 4 at the First Baptist Church of Dawsonville. The meeting was opened by a minister who gave a sermon inviting people to join his church and “come to Jesus.” He then urged the teachers to stand while he prayed to “bless” the teachers, school year, students, etc.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter on August 15 stating:
“It is . . . inappropriate for an official government meeting to be held in a religious place of worship. This practice forces employees, who may be of varying religions or have none at all, to enter a house of worship. For some, it would conflict with their beliefs and freedom of conscience to be forced to enter the church as a job requirement.”
Seidel explained that the violation would not be solved simply by allowing employees to skip the church meeting. Employees should not be forced to “out” themselves as nonreligious or non-Christian to their government employers. Requiring staff attendance at essentially a church service as a condition of receiving important school information is unacceptable and raises serious constitutional concerns.
On Sept. 3, the District responded: “While a church leader was invited to give a brief welcome to the facility, the length and nature of the comments was unexpected and certainly not invited. Under all the circumstances there is no expectation of such a gathering at the church anytime in the future.”
Alexander High School in Alexander N.Y., will no longer conduct illegal prayer during graduation ceremonies.
FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter on June 24, 2013, about an invocation listed as part of a recent graduation ceremony’s scheduled events.
“The Supreme Court has settled this matter — high school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students,” Markert informed the district. “A prayer taking place at a “regularly scheduled school-sponsored function” would lead an objective observer to perceive it as state endorsement of religion.”
After a series of follow-up letters received no response, the District sent an email on Jan. 31: “We do not believe it was illegal. It was student initiated and student led.”
Markert informed on April 8 that it is indeed unconstitutional and illegal, even if student initiated and led, citing the Supreme Court’s Santa Fe v. Doe ruling on precisely such violations.
On May 28, the District finally sent a letter notifying FFRF that, “The graduation planning committee for the class of 2014 has decided not to included an invocation in their graduation program.”
In August, Markert received additional confirmation that the School Board “made the decision not to included an invocation in the graduation ceremony.”
After a complaint by FFRF, Sandy Run K-8 School staff in Swansea S.C., will no longer lead prayer at academic banquets. FFRF learned that a school staff member led both students and staff in a Christian prayer at a June 2 banquet.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter to the district on July 22, to explain why public school teachers and staff may not lead or direct prayer. After citing 50 years of Supreme Court decisions barring religious devotions in public schools, Elliott added:
“Teachers and staff have access to a captive audience of students due to their positions in public education. Therefore, the District has a duty to regulate religious proselytizing in the classroom and at school functions.”
On Aug. 12, the Calhoun County Public Schools Superintendent Steve Wilson responded with a strongly-worded assurances: “I have reminded staff on numerous occasions of the law and to not engage in any activity that could be considered out of bounds as it pertains to Freedom of Religion. After receiving your letter, I immediately placed the subject on the very next District Principals’ Meeting agenda. . . and directed any and all to refrain from such practices.”
A post office in Richmond, Calif., removed bible verses posted at every employee time clock.
A concerned employee contacted FFRF that a sign quoting 1 Peter 4:15 (“But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a ‘busybody’ in other people’s matters”) from the New Testament was posted on the internal bulletin boards. FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell sent a letter to the branch, pointing out that the display directly violates post office regulations:
“Bulletin boards and other posting space in the Post Office lobbies and other public access areas may not be used for posting or display of the following: . . . . Religious symbols or matter including but not limited to nativity scenes and the Star of David.”
“By displaying this bible verse on its postal property, the Richmond post office branch is illegally demonstrating a preference for religion, specifically Christianity,” Cavell wrote.
On Aug. 19, the United States Postal Service responded that the verses were removed. “Employees at the facility will be re-instructed through a Stand-Up Talk regarding the policies related to posting items near time clocks and on internal bulletin boards.”