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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

Tempe Preparatory Academy, a public charter school near Phoenix, Ariz., has adopted new policies to crack down on two separate state/church violations brought to its attention by FFRF.

Religious Iconography at School Events

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to Temp Prep in May 2013 based on complaints from parents about a large cross positioned at center stage during graduation ceremonies and other school events, which are held in a church. Although the school was founded by Catholics in the mid-‘90s, Seidel noted that its status as a public charter school means that Tempe Prep “cannot ask citizens to enter a place of religious worship for a secular rite of passage.”

After several communications back and forth, on April 23 a representative of the school indicated the school will modify its church space policy. All future uses of the church must be approved by the headmaster, who will then assign a school employee to remove religious items and iconography from the church prior to the event.

Teacher’s Religious Handout

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover and Andrew Seidel, in an April 3 letter, alerted Tempe Prep about a teacher who passed out a religious handout to students in a science class. The class had just finished watching an episode of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.” The handout offered to students without explanation or the opportunity for discussion, was a rant about how the episode was anti-Christian. FFRF’s letter reminded the school that “Tempe Preparatory Academy has an obligation under the law to make certain that subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion.”

On April 23, a representative for the school informed FFRF that the teacher had been disciplined and removed as head of his department. The school recently adopted a policy that requires all teachers and coaches to sign an acknowledgment that they must remain neutral toward religion while at work.

A parent reacted to the school’s disciplinary measures: “To my knowledge, this is the very first time in Tempe Prep’s 17-year history that a staff member has been disciplined for foisting religious beliefs on students. . . . This victory is one that I hope will send a message loud and clear — to those on staff and in our parent community who feel they have tacit permission to violate the rights of others because they suffer no consequences for doing so — that Tempe Preparatory Academy will not tolerate the violation of the law and the rights of students.”

Statement by Annie Laurie Gaylor ALG white headshot high resCo-President
Freedom From Religion Foundation

Supreme Court hero Ellery Schempp, who started the protest that led to a landmark 1963 ruling against recitation of the Lord's Prayer in public schools, emailed our office Monday to say that "FFRF is vital after the awful Greece decision. This is why we need FFRF!"

We share Ellery's dismay but are warmed by his confidence in FFRF and strengthened by his commitment. Freedom depends on freethinkers —nonbelievers must escalate our campaign to ensure that secularism is honored again by our government so that reason prevails.

The ruling that blessed sectarian prayer in the town of Greece, N.Y., by the Supreme Court is a personal blow to the stature and rights of U.S. nonbelievers and non-Christians. Plaintiffs in the Americans United case were Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist and member of FFRF. The court record documented their feelings of exclusion and discomfort over their town's now 15-year practice of scheduling and inviting almost exclusively Christian clergy to open governmental meetings.

The Supreme Court's ultra-conservative, all-Catholic majority openly approved such exclusion. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the decision, cavalierly said:

"Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable; and an Establishment Clause violation is not made out any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views in a legislative forum . . ."

Kennedy makes it sound as though Susan or Linda had simply wandered into a Christian church service and cried foul. But they encountered these Christian rituals and supplications not at church but at their town hall, while conducting city business.

Chillingly, Kennedy added: "Offense . . . does not equate to coercion." Notably, coercion has never been required to prove an Establishment Clause violation. Requiring coercion would be a direct constitutional U-turn. Yet coercion clearly existed, as even Kennedy's recitation of the record shows, when two citizens are told to rise and participate in a prayer to a deity in which they disbelieve by their local government. There should be no religious test for citizenship, just as the Constitution bars any religious test for public office.

As we pointed out in our amicus brief in the Greece case, public officials and judges have no excuse not to be aware of the changing demographics in our nation that show 20-30% of the population today identify as nonreligious. That's a lot of citizens to exclude and, yes, to offend.

The majority opinion claims government prayer is "historic," yet ignores the fact that the framers of our Constitution never once prayed during the four-month-long constitutional convention that produced our godless Constitution. If the framers didn't need to pray over something as momentous as the national Constitution, why do local public officials need to pray over such mundane decisions as liquor licenses, sewers and variances?

The issue of unconstitutional governmental prayer is near and dear to our hearts at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. One of the most common complaints we receive from citizens is about encountering prayer at local governmental boards. Protesting inappropriate governmental prayer actually led to the formation of FFRF.

* * *

Back in 1976, when I was a college student and my mother, Anne Nicol Gaylor, was a full-time volunteer activist, we had reason to go before a committee of the Madison (Wis.) Common Council. We were shocked and confounded that committee members asked us to bow our heads while they uttered a prayer to Jesus. When we realized clergymen were regularly leading prayers to open the entire council, we went before the city asking them to drop prayer.

Our request made "top of the fold" news coverage, and soon other freethinkers and secularists asked to join us. The rest, as they say, is history, as we have gone from the original two to 20,000 members nationwide.

Within a year, the city of Madison dropped prayer, and the Dane County Board dropped clergy-led prayer and substituted opening remarks led by rotating supervisors. The following year, my complaint as a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison ended a more than 130-year abuse of religious invocations and benedictions at University of Wisconsin-Madison commencements.

One of FFRF's first federal lawsuits was filed against the practice of opening the Wisconsin Legislature with paid prayer. A parking spot for the (invariably Christian) chaplain of the day was reserved and the guest chaplain received a per diem stipend.

That federal lawsuit languished for five years in district court, then was thrown out in 1983 when the Supreme Court issued its Marsh v. Chambers ruling. That decision carved out a narrow exception for governmental prayer on the grounds that the paid Nebraska Senate chaplain was giving nondenominational prayers directed not at citizens but at the senators. (And Sen. Ernie Chambers, another First Amendment hero, ultimately prevailed despite technically losing his case, in persuading his fellow senators to drop paid prayer.)

FFRF and many of our members subsequent to Marsh have successfully protested sectarian governmental prayer. Many enlightened local boards have dropped prayers altogether. Neither Marsh nor Greece requires any governmental body to open with prayer.

Marsh, as FFRF argued in our amicus brief, has always been an outlier — out of line with other Establishment Clause rulings or precedent — its reasoning specious. Marsh unfortunately OK'd prayers if they were a governmental "tradition" and called government prayer a "tolerable acknowledgement of beliefs widely held."

By similar bizarre reasoning, would slavery, which was a scourge on our continent for four centuries, have been defended as a "tradition"? Long-term abuse doesn't mitigate but only worsens a violation. FFRF urged the high court this year to overturn Marsh, but instead it issued a ruling that is incalculably worse.

In Greece, Kennedy argues: "Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates, unfettered by what an administrator or judge considers to be nonsectarian." This misses the point: Government shouldn't be inviting prayer into the public sphere in the first place!

Kennedy blurs the line between personal speech (i.e., from the unfettered speech from the pulpit in a church) and government speech, even seemingly denying that a government body that schedules and hosts clergy prayer is engaging in governmental speech:

"To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures sponsoring prayers and the courts deciding these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, thus involving government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town's current practice of neither editing nor approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact."

Kennedy, grasping at straws, argues prayer "is meant to lend gravity to the occasion." The only gravitas needed is to declare a meeting in order. (Sticklers can use a gavel, if they must.) The only "saving grace" in Kennedy's ruling is his one caveat:

"If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort. That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court."

Although Kennedy recorded that some of the town's invocations had castigated the "minority" who objected to prayer or lamented that other towns did not have "God-fearing" public leaders, that didn't phase him. Kennedy writes: "Absent a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose, a challenge based solely on the content of a prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation."

Government-fostered, vocal prayer to a deity one does not believe in by its very nature is proselytizing, coercive and denigrating. Preaching the Christian party line, that one must "believe on Jesus to be saved," by its very nature is disparaging, rejects other faiths and implicitly threatens damnation.

FFRF has a saying, coined by our principal founder, that "Nothing fails like prayer" (inspiring a song by Dan Barker, Listen here. Cemeteries are full of people who prayed to live, and wishful thinking cannot suspend the natural laws of the universe. Our species and our planet face an onslaught of unparalleled threats to our survival. The answers cannot and will not come from above. The answers must come from human ingenuity, determination and compassion. Pious politicians need to get off their knees and get to work. (Hear Dan's clever song of the same title.)

Kennedy's opinion is predicated in part on the idea that the town of Greece would be open to invocations by minorities, even atheists, despite a decade-long track record of inviting only Christian clergy. Freethinkers: It's time to crash the party, to ask for equal time to give our own atheist homilies and freethought invocations at local board meetings.

To that end, FFRF is offering the "Nothing Fails Like Prayer" award — an all-expenses-paid trip to open FFRF's annual convention, plus a plaque and cash prize — to the person who gives the best atheist/freethought invocation as an "equal time" response. Read more here about the contest. 

P.S. For this election year, FFRF has produced buttons, stickers and T-shirts that say, "I'm secular and I vote." The alarming ultra-conservative trend on the current Supreme Court is a reminder that seculars must support congressional and presidential candidates who will make it a priority to nominate or confirm judges and justices who will revere, not thumb their noses at, our secular Constitution.

popetogreenbay logo

City of Green Bay emails and documents requested by the Freedom From Religion Foundation reveal that Mayor Jim Schmitt and his staff have planned and coordinated a campaign to bring the pope to Green Bay on city time.

FFRF objected in March to Mayor Schmitt’s invitation to the pope to “make a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help,” which was sent by Schmitt in his capacity as mayor using city letterhead. FFRF subsequently requested public records concerning city involvement in the papal campaign and recently received those records.

Emails reveal that the mayor and the mayor’s chief of staff, Andy Rosendahl, planned and coordinated the “Pope to Green Bay Initiative” and organized committee meetings throughout the workday. Emails by city staff show it planned and scheduled weekly “Pope to Green Bay Committee” meetings (dubbed “the Pope Mobile Committee” by the mayor), reviewed wording on the website, and created meeting agendas.

On Friday, March 7 at 2:30 p.m., the mayor, using his official email, reported his “very productive and positive meeting with Bishop Ricken” who “sees this as a true community partnership. He is in full support and gave us his ‘blessings’ . . . He has committed that the Diocese will be part of the committee. . .” The mayor signed his email, “Believe. Pray. Act. Mayor Schmitt.”

The City of Green Bay Personal Policy Chapter 24.4 requires: “Employees must maintain a distinction between sharing personal and official City views,” and requires disclaimers for personal views and opinions, which were not employed by the mayor or his staff.

 “Green Bay taxpayers entrust city employees to conduct government business on paid time — not the personal religious mission of the mayor. Just as paid staff time may not be used for campaign activity, it is equally inappropriate and unseemly to promote Catholicism and this religious pilgrimage on city time, in violation of the U.S. and Wisconsin Constitutions,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF Co-President.

FFRF says the mayor and city staff must cease working on the papal visit during city time using city property, and follow disclaimer policy.

When Westvale Elementary School, West Jordan, Utah, sent permission slips home April 24 for a fourth-grade field trip to the Church History Museum, which is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, some parents parents were immediately wary. West Jordan is just south of Salt Lake City, headquarters for the LDS Church.

The slip told parents the trip would “supplement regular curriculum programs and [would] take place during the regular school day.” FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, on behalf of several district parents, sent a letter May 1 to Superintendent Patrice Johnson.

Seidel pointed out that the museum “presents an unscholarly, uncritical, nonobjective view of the LDS Church” and noted that the New York Times has described the museum as “created by believers, for believers.”

One section of the museum section called “Learn Truths” depicts the “stories of ancient prophets found in the Book of Mormon.” Another named “The Gospel Blesses My Life” displays artwork from children who share “how knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ blesses their lives.”

After taking a personal tour, Gregory Clark, a University of Utah associate professor of bioengineering, described how one museum docent “claimed that black skin was a curse from God.” Clark writes that the museum “is replete with religion, not history. It’s the Utahn equivalent of Ken Ham’s Creation Museum.”

In response to mounting evidence that the museum was much less about Utah history and more about prophecy and church doctrine, Kayleen Whitelock, a member of the Jordan School District Board of Education, said on May 6 that “students will no longer be attending this field trip.”

Seidel commented, “We hope that the Board of Education uses this opportunity to pick a more appropriate, educational location for a field trip. No one needs to play the martyr here.”

He added, “The Board of Education should have realized that this was an inappropriate location for a field trip from the beginning. If any Westvale fourth graders are disappointed, that’s on the board.”

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