FFRF has named Shelby Conway, 14, Salem, Ore., the recipient of the Cliff Richards Memorial Student Activist Award for bravely standing up to a proselytizing Christian youth pastor at her school, which resulted in positive changes to school district policies.
By Shelby Conway
On Oct. 23, a youth pastor approached my lunch table at Straub Middle School. He began speaking to us, and I realized he was discussing religion. I expected him to stop, but he did not and asked my friends and me about our personal religious beliefs. A few people, myself included, replied that we were atheists, and he did not like that. He began explaining why it’s a “bad thing” to be an atheist and used words such as “evil” and “wrong” to describe it. He also went into detail about what would happen to us if we were not Christians, which made me extremely uncomfortable.
When I asked him to stop, he did not, and I could see that a few of my friends were also uncomfortable, especially when he began asking for our reasoning behind our religious beliefs. Finally, the lunch bell rang and he left.
After school, I wrote an email to my principal, Laura Perez. The next day, along with a couple students from my lunch table, I was called to speak to her. At right is the email I sent:
After my email was sent, our school district made changes in order to benefit all religious groups and minorities. Following that, our local newspaper did an article about the incident in which they interviewed me and a close friend who was also at the table.
After the article ran on Oct. 31, there were varying responses. Some people were very supportive and caring, which I appreciated very much. However, there were several people who viewed my actions as an overreaction, and were very adamant that they disapproved. Either way, I am very happy with the outcome, and appreciative of how the school district handled the situation. The Statesman Journal reported Nov. 1 that the proselytizer was Tim Saffeels, director of student ministries at Salem Heights Church. Principal Laura Perez said Saffeels will not be allowed back as a volunteer for the rest of the school year.
“I decided that I’m not going to allow him in because to me there was a breach of trust there,” Perez said.
Shelby Conway sent this email to her middle-school principal.
Dear Mrs. Perez,
My name is Shelby Conway, I am 14 years old and an eighth grader at Straub. Today at lunch, a youth pastor who said he was from a Christian church out in South Salem approached our table. He then proceeded to preach to our entire table, several of whom are not Christians. When he finished, he asked us for our religious beliefs. I replied that I am an atheist, which I am, and I am very firm in my beliefs, and that he should not try to convince me otherwise.
He began insulting me, my beliefs and my intelligence, saying that, “Any logical person would see that atheism is wrong” and telling me that I am “too young” to choose this belief and saying that he believes I am simply trying to “rebel.” I explained that it was quite the opposite, that I find religion itself illogical. He got upset here and started telling me that my belief was “bad,” “stupid” and “evil” and that I was as well.
I was already quite upset, so I told him to “leave me alone” and he simply continued, telling me that I needed to come to a church function to “cleanse my mind and soul of evil” and gave me a card for his youth group, which I promptly got rid of. I know there were other things he said, but some were not direct, and I don`t remember exact quotes.
I have no problem with religion, and I respect all peoples’ beliefs, even if they aren`t like mine. Some of my best friends are very strong Christians, and I have no problem with it. However, I am very willing to defend others and myself when they`re insulted, which they were. I was very uncomfortable and personally offended with the way he was speaking to both me and other non-Christians around the lunchroom.
I request that we keep things like this, such as pastors and religious speeches, in places where they are welcomed, such as churches or religious schools. It offends me, and several other non-Christians, that it was assumed that we were both a small minority and unintelligent and easily convinced. There is a wide array of religious beliefs here at Straub, and we should not assume that all people believe the same.
The man refused to offer his name, but I assume that there is a way to contact him. I`m fairly certain that he was here because he was welcomed by the school. I ask that he does not return.
Thank you very much for your time and consideration,
These FFRF complaint letters were all drafted on Friday, Nov. 21, as part of a legal staff “race day” to get out as many letters as possible. They were edited and sent out over the following week. Legal staff sent out dozens more letters during the month. Contact: Elk Grove Unified School District, Calif.
Violation: After a church’s sign was taken down from school property pursuant to an FFRF letter, our local complainant reported the sign was back up.
Contact: Miamisburg City Schools, Ohio; Zeeland Public Schools, Mich.; Madison County Schools, Fla.; Hardy County Schools, W.Va.; Willard Public Schools, Mo.
Violation: These districts conducted bible distributions in schools. In Zeeland, a teacher reportedly stood by the table with the bibles and “told the kids she would like each one to take a bible home.”
Contact: Paso Robles School Board, Calif.
Violation: The board was considering implementing prayers at meetings.
Contact: Colleton County School District, S.C.
Violation: A district-wide mandatory employee meeting, where students were also present, included a prayer.
Contact: Fish City Grill, Katy, Texas
Violation: The restaurant offered a church bulletin discount.
Contact: Wisconsin Department of Corrections
Violation: The department secretary delivered a prayer at a Veterans Day event.
Contact: U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, Calif. Violation: FFRF sent a records request regarding a SWAT training exercise that included a scenario where a “militant atheist extremist group” took hostages at a church.
Contact: Bibb County Schools District, Centreville, Ala.
Violation: Students at Randolph Elementary School went on a field trip to a church-owned pumpkin patch, where they were given name tags reading “Hay there, Jesus loves you” with a bible verse underneath. Bible verses also adorned students’ finger paintings and the fence where they took a class photo.
Contact: Temecula Valley Unified School District, Calif.
Violation: Good News Club signs were displayed outside LaVorgna Elementary and Temecula Valley Charter School.
Contact: Eufaula Public Schools, Okla.
Violation: FFRF submitted a records request after receiving a report that a church was permitted to use a school facility for free.
Contact: Franklin County District Schools, Eastpoint, Fla.
Violation: The district employs a team chaplain, who, along with coaches, leads students in prayer in the locker rooms and at practices and games.
Contact: Gulf Coast Charter Academy South, Naples, Fla.
Violation: Children were taught a song about angels and praying, the chorus of which was something to the effect of “I believe in angels sent down from heaven.”
Contact: Autauga County School System, Prattville, Ala.
Violation: Two Prattville Primary School teachers led students in Christian prayer during the school day.
Contact: St. Clairsville Schools, Ohio
Violation: The St. Clairsville High School fall sports banquet included a religious invocation and benediction
Contact: Wylie ISD, Texas
Violation: Several teachers’ Web pages on the district’s site had inappropriate religious references.
Contact: Okaloosa County School District, Fort Walton Beach, Fla.
Violation: Bob Sikes Elementary School’s music teacher taught students many religious songs and a lesson on the birth of Jesus to accompany the song “Away in a Manger.” Contact: Algoma School District, Wis.
Violation: Algoma Elementary holds a “bible lesson” in the cafeteria each week. FFRF requested records related to the lessons.
Contact: Collin County Clerk’s Office, Texas
Violation: A tax collection clerk includes a religious signature line in her messages to residents from her county email: “Living He loved us, dying He saved us.”
Contact: Waskom ISD, Texas
Violation: The district was featured in a local news article that claimed the district “focuses on faith-based living,” describing how the district organizes prayers at many events and allows Gideons to distribute bibles that parents must opt out of if they do not want their child to get one.
Contact: Green Forest Public Schools, Ark.
Violation: Green Forest High School included prayer at a mandatory Veterans Day assembly. Contact: Corsicana ISD, Texas
Violation: High school football games, faculty meetings, the faculty end-of-year awards ceremony and graduation ceremonies all include prayer.
Contact: Davidson County Schools, Lexington, N.C.
Violation: A West Davidson High School history teacher inserts his Christian views into nearly all aspects of the curriculum, commenting that “the Earth is only a few thousand years old” and referring to dates occurring in “the year of our Lord and Savior.”
Contact: Manchester City Schools, Tenn.
Violation: Westwood Middle School faculty participated in a “See You at the Pole” prayer event. A mandatory district in-service also included prayer, at which employees were instructed to bow their heads and join.
Contact: Marshall County School District, Benton, Ky.
Violation: A flier for a program called “Kids in Training” at Benton First United Methodist Church was distributed to parents with school forms. No fliers for any other activities were distributed.
Contact: Madison County School District, Miss.
Violation: Many classroom doors at Madison Station Elementary have religious messages sent in by parents posted on them. Many contain bible quotes or tell students and teachers things like “you are being prayed for.”
Contact: St. Elmo School District, Ill.
Violation: Four signs reading “Plow the Land / Plant the Seed / Love Our God / Follow His Creed” were posted along a fence on school property.
Contact: Calcasieu Parish Public Schools, Lake Charles, La.
Violation: FFRF sent a records request to find out more about what appeared to be a teacher-run bible club.
Contact: Merced City School District, Calif.
Violation: Students at Ada Givens Elementary were instructed to put their hands together as if in prayer during the line “What’s more American than praying in a church of your choice across the land?” while singing the Bing Crosby song “What’s More American?”
Contact: City of Saraland and Saraland Police Department, Ala.
Violation: The department employs a chaplain, who is also billed as the “city chaplain” on a business card.
Contact: Ozark Public Schools, Ark.
Violation: An Ozark High School student led prayers over the school’s loudspeaker before football games.
Contact: Grapevine Colleyville ISD, Texas
Violation: Cross Timbers Middle School partnered with Grace Christmas Cottage, a Christian group, to run a holiday gift program. A school representative encouraged participants to attend an open house put on by the religious group.
Contact: Marion County Public Schools, Ocala, Fla.
Violation: Dunnellon High School’s football program employs a team chaplain, who was photographed praying with players and cheerleaders after a game.
Contact: Lanier County Schools, Lakeland, Ga.
Violation: Lanier County Primary School held a Thanksgiving feast where an adult led attendees, including students, in prayer.
Contact: Waupaca County Sheriff’s Department, Wis.
Violation: The department’s website hosts a religious poem titled “The Final Inspection,” which opens with the line “The policeman stood and faced his God,” and goes on to describe a conversation between God and a policeman where the policeman is judged and allowed to enter heaven.
Contact: Coatesville Area School District, Thorndale, Pa.
Violation: A high school choir performs an annual “Christmas Carol Service,” a solemn, Mass-like concert which consists almost entirely of Christian hymns and songs. Contact: Watchung Borough School District, N.J.
Violation: A minister was invited to give an invocation and benediction at the district’s Veterans Day ceremony.
Contact: Howard-Suamico School District, Green Bay, Wis.
Violation: Staff prayed with students during a “See You at the Pole” event.
Linda Stephens and co-plaintiff Susan Galloway accepted Freethinker of the Year awards at the Los Angeles convention on October 25.
Good evening. I too would like to thank Annie Laurie and Dan and FFRF for this award. I am a longtime admirer of this organization, so this is a real honor.
I am Linda Stephens, the atheist plaintiff in the Town of Greece prayer case, the plaintiff who, you may have heard, got thrown under the bus at the Supreme Court.
Here’s how it all began: In 2002, I belonged to People for Parks, a parks advocacy group which had some issues with a town supervisor. That’s when I first started attending town board meetings and became aware that the new supervisor had started opening meetings with prayers delivered exclusively by conservative Christian pastors. Naturally, I thought this was wrong, but I just grumbled about it and did nothing.
Then, over time, I became aware of other inappropriate things that the supervisor was doing, such as hosting prayer services in the Town Hall every Jan. 1 and giving one of the churches government funds to put on its Fourth of July celebration.
I eventually learned that there was a local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Rochester, so I ended up joining that group, got on their board and started getting monthly newsletters. I read about AU’s lawsuit in Forsyth County, N.C. It involved a situation very similar to what was going on in Greece, N.Y. The local government was opening meetings with Christian prayers, and the issue was being challenged in federal court by AU and the ACLU.
That’s what prompted me to speak with AU’s legal director in Washington about the situation in Greece. She asked if I knew of any other Greece residents who objected to these prayers. I put her in touch with Susan Galloway. Susan and I had both been active in the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, and I knew Susan’s views on this subject.
First, Susan and I met with town officials and asked them to stop the prayers. The deputy supervisor told us, no, they couldn’t do that because it would offend the pastors.
Next, AU legal staff tried to reason with the town. The supervisor ignored the letter. AU then went ahead and filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Rochester in February 2008 on my and Susan’s behalf. The lawyers wanted to use the same argument that they, and the ACLU, were successfully using in the Forsyth County case. They wanted the court to rule that Greece was violating the First Amendment because the prayers were almost exclusively sectarian.
To be clear, AU was not arguing that the prayers in Greece should be abolished altogether. They were arguing that in order to be in compliance with the First Amendment, the prayers would have to be nonsectarian.
We would have preferred to ask the court to declare all prayers before the Greece Town Board unconstitutional, but there was a problem with that. In 1983, in the Marsh v. Chambers decision, the Supreme Court had ruled that prayers before government meetings were legal so long as they were nonsectarian and delivered to a generic god without bringing up specifics of particular religions, such as Jesus.
You may wonder why I, an atheist, was willing to go along with this argument. My thinking at the time was this: The overwhelming number of pastors who delivered prayers in Greece had made it clear, in the paper and elsewhere, that they could never deliver nonsectarian prayers, that they were compelled by their religion to pray to Jesus.
So, I thought to myself, if the court buys the nonsectarian prayer argument, most of the supervisor’s pastors will bow out and that will end the prayer business in Greece. Problem solved.
Well, that’s not the way it went down. District Judge Charles Siragusa, a Bill Clinton appointee, didn’t buy the nonsectarian prayer argument and ruled against us. We then appealed to the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New York City, and a three-judge panel ruled in our favor.
The court held that the town had violated the Establishment Clause by having “a steady drumbeat” of Christian prayers at meetings and for several other reasons. But the court did not like the nonsectarian prayer argument. As Judge Guido Calabresi, who wrote the decision, explained, requiring nonsectarian prayers would be in itself an establishment of religion, an establishment of the “OK” religions, of the religions that are sufficiently acceptable to the majority.
And, as Judge Calabresi also pointed out, the problem with nonsectarian prayers is that they leave out secularists, and of course people of minority faiths who pray to multiple gods.
Supremes take the case
After losing in the appeals court, the town and its Alliance Defending Freedom lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court. Our lawyers were a little nervous about that, but not real worried because the Supreme Court gets about 7,000 or 8,000 requests to hear cases each year and only take about 80 of those.
But the prayer case had one thing going against it. Similar cases were being litigated all over the country, and lower courts were coming down on different sides of the issue. Some courts were buying the nonsectarian prayer argument and others weren’t. When such a situation occurs, the Supreme Court is more likely to step in, which is exactly what happened.
Now our lawyers started getting worried. They knew what kind of Supreme Court they were up against. They also suspected that atheists and the rights of atheists were not high priority items for most of these justices. Justice Scalia, for example, had just recently given a widely reported speech in which he said that it was “utterly absurd to say that the Constitution cannot favor religion over nonreligion.”
The lawyers decided to stick with the nonsectarian prayer argument and soft-pedal much mention of atheists. By this time, I had become less than thrilled with the nonsectarian prayer argument, particularly after what the appeals and district courts had said about it. I brought up my concerns in a conference call with Susan and the AU legal department. But at this point, the legal staff was insistent and said we couldn’t switch horses in midstream.
Now I started worrying what our lawyer would say if one of the justices asked why an atheist would want nonsectarian prayer. But our lawyer told me not to worry — if that question were asked, she would give a “layered response.” It turned out there would be no layered response because the legal staff decided to have a law professor from the University of Virginia argue the case. His name was Douglas Laycock.
‘Under the bus’
Susan and I met Laycock for the first time on Nov. 6, 2013, on the day of oral arguments. Early on, Chief Justice Roberts asked Laycock, “We’ve excluded the atheists, right?” Astonishingly, the professor agreed. I’m sitting there listening to this and wanting to sink under my seat. Professor Laycock, it appeared, had chosen to ignore the fact that one of his clients is an atheist.
Then we’re pushed outside in front of the TV cameras, and all I can think of to say is, “Atheists need to come out of the closet like the gay community.”
Then the reporters and the bloggers start writing about this. The headline in The Economist is “Atheists thrown under the bus.”
Dahlia Lithwick, who reports on the Supreme Court for Slate magazine, told an audience at a conference the same thing: “Atheists were thrown under the bus.” And I’m told that the atheist Twitter community barraged the AU legal staff with tweets, the basic theme of which was “WTF” (What The F***).
Ron Lindsay, the president of the Center for Inquiry, wrote a blistering piece on the CFI website titled “We’ve excluded the atheists, right?” In the article, Lindsay pointed out that the Establishment Clause was intended to protect minority rights, not the sentiments of the majority. He also acknowledged the reality that the court was not going to overturn the Marsh decision and outlaw prayer before government meetings. Then he proceeded to give a “layered response” to Justice Roberts’ question.
This is in part what Lindsay said Laycock should have said to Justice Roberts: “[I]f this court is going to allow prayer, it’s clear that if we want everyone to feel part of the political community, there are certain things that must happen, one of which is that opportunities to open the business meeting must be offered to all, including to nonbelievers who are willing to deliver a solemn secular opening.”
One positive result
Of course we all know the outcome of the case. The court didn’t buy the nonsectarian argument and instead said sectarian prayers were fine. (Go ahead, guys, pray to Jesus all you want.) But the ruling did include one positive thing. It said that if municipalities have prayers before meetings, they can’t bar non-Christians from delivering them. So right after the decision came down, atheists and other secularists jumped on this and ran with it. They began delivering invocations at local government meetings all over the country, even in places like Huntsville, Ala.
In July, Dan Courtney delivered his atheist invocation at a Greece Town Board meeting where over 100 atheists and supporters showed up, along with a lone protester with a Jesus sign who refused to give his name to reporters.
This brings me to the present. According to the town’s new prayer policy, it appears that atheists might be allowed to deliver invocations at board meetings, but only if they meet certain requirements. Whether this new policy is just a ruse to keep atheists out is still unknown.
In the meantime, we atheists are getting our ducks in order. We have requested that the Sunday Assembly, which is the new atheist “church” in Rochester, and the Atheist Community of Rochester both be allowed to participate in the delivery of invocations.
What is my final assessment of this Supreme Court decision? I’m glad the court did not buy the nonsectarian prayer argument. I think this whole thing has been good for atheists in one big way. It has helped raise the profile of atheists and other secularists in positive ways all over the country.
Locally, in Greece, it’s interesting to see what’s been happening at the monthly board meetings lately. At the last two meetings, when the supervisor called on the designated Christian pastors to deliver the prayer, the pastors were nowhere to be found. They simply didn’t show up, and there was no explanation for their absence.
There has been speculation about why this is happening. It could be that the pastors don’t like the thought of sharing their platform with atheists. It could also be that they don’t like giving prayers that are now limited to one or two minutes at most. In the past, some of the pastors have given prayers that went on and on and on. It could also be that they aren’t able to deliver their prayers to the audience anymore. Now the podium faces the board members.
The final thing I would say is this court decision did not lay the issue to rest. There will be more litigation, and one day the Supreme Court may have to decide whether Judge Scalia is right when he says that the Constitution can favor religion over nonreligion and therefore bar atheists from delivering invocations before government meetings. That issue was not settled definitively in this court case.
Linda Stephens, FFRF Lifetime Member, has a B.A. in English (Western Michigan University), M.A. in English (SUNY-Brockport), master of library science (SUNY-Geneseo), Ed.D. (Syracuse University) and is a retired librarian.
Name: Todd L. Erickson.
Where I live: Atwater, in west-central Minnesota. I spend winters in Mesa, Ariz.
Where and when I was born: Willmar, Minn., May 21, 1958.
Family: My father, 88, my mother, 82, and six brothers.
Education: Electronics technology degree from Northwest Electronics Institute in Minneapolis.
Occupation: Retired telephone company worker, 31 years; real estate investor and tree grower.
Military service: Five years in the Minnesota National Guard. I’m a member of Veterans for Peace and a critic of the excessive military spending and imperialism of our government. We should rededicate many of those billions of dollars to things like higher education. How I got where I am today: I grew up on a farm and moved to Minneapolis after high school. Working for a large corporation, I valued the concept of being organized as workers. I served 16 years as an elected union representative. I’ve been involved with politics ever since.
Where I’m headed: I’m finding more time for the things I enjoy. I spent a month in early 2014 exploring Ecuador. Australia is next on my list. I work on retiree issues with the National Retiree Legislative Network’s Arizona chapter.
People in history I admire: Clarence Darrow and other lawyers who follow that type of legal service. He represented labor and other causes well during turbulent times. Also, George Carlin, Julia Sweeney and others who use humor to talk about the craziness of religion.
Quotations I like: “There was a time when religion ruled the world. It is known as the Dark Ages.” (Ruth Hurmence Green). I like the bumper sticker that says ”The bible was written by the same people who said the earth was flat.”
These are a few of my favorite things: Hiking, disc golf, bicycling, friends, movies, books, music, documentaries, parties and travel.
These are not: Our complicated, expensive health care system. People and organizations who are anti-woman, anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-science, anti-labor. Hate talk radio/TV. My doubts about religion started: My Lutheran upbringing was mild. I quit going to church after confirmation and mainly ignored/tolerated liberal religion. I learned from my father’s parenting skills to question authority. The Religious Right got my attention with their intolerant theories and policies in my 30s. I had more and more questions about the truth of the bible and the reason for religion.
I bought The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins at Mayday Books on the West Bank in Minneapolis on 12-27-07 and have called myself an atheist ever since. I have read dozens of books on this subject to get myself up to speed. It’s been quite the eye opener. Before I die: I hope to learn to play guitar and sing country and folk songs that appeal to me.
Ways I promote freethought: It has taken quite awhile, but I’m ready and willing to let people know that I’m a proud nonbeliever when it comes to religion. I do get letters to the editor published on religious issues — lots of right-wing religious nuts in Arizona. I’ve made life easier by: Avoiding debt and being on the frugal side of things have made money matters less stressful.
I like this about FFRF: Friendly staff, talented and and well-spoken attorneys, outstanding leadership of Annie Laurie and Dan. I treasure each issue of Freethought Today. I like FFRF’s appreciation of the history of freethinkers. I like the music and humor. I value being part of the greater freethought community. I enjoy the annual conventions. Thanks to FFRF and FFRF members for what you do!
Over the last few months, an atheist and a Wiccan have given the invocation at the Huntsville (Ala.) City Council meeting, thanks in part to FFRF’s efforts.
The council approved a Wiccan priest to give an invocation, but when it discovered his religious affiliation refused to let him deliver it. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent the council a letter June 27 protesting that decision and asking the council for permission to have a local FFRF member, an atheist, give an invocation at a later meeting. “Kowtowing to majority fears about a minority religion is simply using the heckler’s veto,” wrote Seidel. “It is not a permissible reason to discriminate, censor speech, and otherwise trample the Constitution underfoot.”
The council relented, permitting FFRF member Kelly McCauley (also a North Alabama Freethought Association board member) to give the first atheist-led “invocation” Sept. 25 at an Alabama government meeting. (See Kelly’s remarks at right.) Wiccan priest Blake Kirk delivered his invocation Nov. 6.
Note: After the May 5 Supreme Court decision Greece v. Galloway, government prayers are difficult to challenge. In response, FFRF is encouraging atheists to give irreverent or secular messages in place of those prayers with its Nothing Fails Like Prayer contest.
Kelly McCauley Huntsville City Council, Sept. 25, 2014 Dearly Beloved:
When the ancients considered the values that were proper and necessary for the good governance of a peaceful, productive society, they brought to our minds the virtues of Wisdom, Courage, Justice and Moderation. These values have stood the test of time.
In more recent days, an American style of governance has led to approbation for newer enlightened values; we celebrate diversity, we enjoy protections of our freedoms in a Constitutional Republic, and we dearly value egalitarianism — equal protection of the law.
So now let us commence the affairs that are presented to our community. Let Doubt and Skepticism and Inquiry be on our lookout when caution is the appropriate course. But also let innovation and boldness take point when opportunities for excellence appear on our horizon.
In this solemn discourse, let’s remember Jefferson’s words: “. . . that Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”
Let it be so.
FFRF ends several school violations
Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake, Ill., resolved several constitutional violations after getting an FFRF letter.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the school’s executive director July 8 to object to an assembly during the school day marking the installation of a “Freedom Shrine.” The mandatory assembly opened and closed with prayers. The Freedom Shrine was installed in a school building with a plaque engraved with the Pledge of Allegiance, on which the line “one nation under God” was in a larger, different colored and bolded font.
“Though teaching students about the history of our nation is a commendable goal, allowing an outside group to insert religious messages into a school assembly gives the appearance that PCCS endorses that group’s religious messages,” wrote Grover.
The director responded Nov. 7, informing FFRF that the school would prescreen future third-party presentations, watching for potential state/church violations. He also said the school removed the pledge plaque and held a staff meeting “to reiterate the neutrality toward religion in a public school.”
• • •
Sewer biller, cop emails go secular
A Seminole County, Fla., employee in the water and sewer billing department will no longer include a bible verse in her email signature.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the county attorney Oct. 10 of behalf of FFRF, saying, “The statements of a government employee are attributable to Seminole County. It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the county or its agents to promote a religious message because it conveys government preference for religion over nonreligion.”
The attorney replied Oct. 13 to say that the bible quote had been removed from the email signature and assuring FFRF that the county “does not, by administrative policy, countenance any dissemination of religious preference in its customer communications and is fully aware of the legal mandate for government neutrality in matters religious and nonreligious.”
• • •
A University of Colorado police officer at the Colorado Springs campus removed a religious email signature after Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s Sept. 25 complaint letter to the university.
“For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer,” read the officer’s email.
The university responded Nov. 18, saying that the officer met with his supervisor, who instructed him to remove the religious signature. The university also reviewed his email account several weeks later and reported that no additional religious emails were found.
Schools turn down Mormon invite
Two public high schools in Kalispell, Mont., declined this year’s invitation to participate in a performance “celebrating the birth of our savior Jesus Christ” at a Mormon church after FFRF objected to the school’s participation last year.
“Because this event includes literally hundreds of depictions of the birth of Jesus Christ as described in the bible, school participation in this overtly religious ‘Community Christmas Celebration’ event crosses the line by creating a perception of school endorsement of the religious aspects of Christmas,” wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel on Nov. 29, 2013.
The Flathead Area Secular Humanist Association in Whitefish told FFRF that the schools’ choir directors turned down an invitation to participate this year. Often, a school district or other governmental body will make the changes FFRF requests and then fail to report the action taken, as was the case here.
FFRF is grateful to the Flathead group for the update and encourages other local complainants to be sure to let FFRF know when its letters make a difference.
Letter benches praying coaches
A public charter school has taken steps to ensure its participation in a religious sports league remains secular, pursuant to an FFRF letter.
Seashore Middle Academy in Corpus Christi, Texas, participates in the Parochial Sports League. A local complainant forwarded FFRF a photo of students and coaches participating in a prayer circle. Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the school Sept. 30 asking it to refrain from further participation in religious rituals at school events.
The school director responded Oct. 2, saying that a pregame prayer circle was a league requirement, but added that in the future, coaches would sit on the bench during prayers and that Seashore students could join coaches on the bench, stand to the side or participate in the prayer.
Gideons wear out their welcomes
The Itawamba County School District in Fulton, Miss., will not conduct bible distributions in the future. FFRF received a report that representatives from Gideons International distributed bibles at Itawamba Attendance Center to “momentarily preach the word of God” and then “asked students to raise their hands if they wanted a bible.”
Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the district superintendent Sept. 23, noting, “Even if the students are not forced to accept these bibles, the school sends a clear message to the children in its charge who are nonadherents ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community and accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.’ ”
The superintendent responded Nov. 7, saying that the district “will not facilitate the distribution of Gideon bibles to fifth graders on school grounds during school hours.”
• • •
Cushing Public Schools, Cushing, Okla., is ending Gideon bible distribution after getting a Nov. 12 leter from Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. The Gideons had reportedly visited a fifth-grade classroom at Harrison Elementary, where they discussed the bible and passed out bibles to students.
The superintendent responded promptly two days later, writing, “Please be assured that Cushing Public Schools will no longer allow representatives of Gideons International to enter classrooms to have discussions with students or to distribute bibles to students.”
FFRF puts clamps on coach prayer
Long Beach High School in Long Beach, Miss., has ended two school-sponsored prayer rituals at football games. Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the district Sept. 26.
Traditionally, a student led a Christian prayer over the loudspeaker before every football game. In addition, the high school band, led by the drum major, recited the Lord’s Prayer before its halftime performances.
Grover noted that while student-led prayer is permissible, there was significant institutional pressure on the drum major to lead the prayer because it was “tradition.”
An attorney for the district called Grover on Nov. 17 to say that prayers would no longer be led over the loudspeaker, and that while students remained free to pray by themselves, band prayer would no longer be institutionalized.
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A coach in the Wimberley Independent School District in Texas will no longer pray with students or endorse students’ prayers. Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote Wimberley’s superintendent Sept. 25, detailing a report that Wimberley High School’s athletic director and head football coach led the team in prayer at the end of every football game, and that coaches also engaged in smaller prayer circles with players before games.
FFRF’s complainant said the letter led to the coach calling for a moment of silence right after his postgame talk to the team, after which he allegedly put his hands on the shoulders of two players, one of whom immediately led the students in prayer. Grover wrote a second letter Nov. 7.
The school’s attorney responded Nov. 17 that the coach no longer leads or participates in prayers, asks students to pray or designates a student to pray or participate in prayers. The coach was instructed to step away from student-led prayer and to tell students and parents that he neither encouraged nor discouraged prayer, said the attorney.
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Celina Independent School District in Texas will no longer permit coaches to participate in prayer circles with students. Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter to the district Nov. 13, describing a local complainant’s report of widespread coach participation in prayer circles.
An attorney for the district responded Nov. 25 to say that the district would discuss participation in prayer with staff and “provide training to ensure that employees do not participate in student-led prayer at any school-sponsored events in the future.”
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FFRF originally contacted Middletown City Schools in Ohio last spring about high school football coach Chris Wells leading students in prayer and inviting them to his church. The district assured FFRF that administrators had met with Wells and told him that his actions crossed the constitutional line.
But in September, FFRF received a report from a new complainant that Wells was again leading prayers before and after every game. Wells allegedly told players after a Sept. 19 losing game that they needed to rededicate themselves to God and ordered them to take a knee and pray. When one player refused, the coach allegedly threw him off the team.
“Coach Wells is purposefully and willfully ignoring the law and the district’s explicit directive,” wrote Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a second letter of complaint.
An attorney for the district responded in November, saying administrators reiterated to Wells that he could not “involve religion in any way in either his coaching or in his involvement with students. The athletic director was directed to monitor the situation closely.
“Should you receive any more complaints, please let me know, so that the district can investigate and take further action,” the attorney’s response said.
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Charter school ends lunch prayer
Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy’s Grammar School in Forest City, N.C., has ended teacher-led prayer and implemented a new policy on religion after a Nov. 6 complaint by Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott on behalf of a parent. A second-grade teacher led students in prayer before lunch each day.
The parent was later told the prayers would be replaced with a moment of silence, but the teacher reportedly instead called on a student to lead the prayer. Elliott noted that a moment of silence did not cure the problem because it was clearly intended for prayer.
The principal responded Dec. 1, attaching an extensive new policy the charter school’s governing board had adopted clarifying that while students remain free to pray on their own, “School administrators and teachers may not organize or encourage prayer exercises in classrooms. The right of religious expression in school does not include the right to have a captive audience listen, or to compel other students to participate.”
Religious brochures removed in Tennessee
FFRF’s complaint letter prompted prompted the Blount County Sheriff’s Office in Maryville, Tenn., to remove a box of religious brochures from the waiting room.
The brochures depicted Jesus, included a prayer and were the only brochures displayed. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert called the material inappropriate and unconstitutional in a July letter.
The county’s attorney responded Nov. 17, reporting that an investigation showed that staff had indeed placed the brochures and that they had been removed.
FFRF ousts Christ from Ala. parade
FFRF received word Dec. 1 that a city-sponsored “Keep Christ in Christmas”-themed parade meant to “reflect our strong belief in prayers” would be retitled the “City of Piedmont Christmas Parade.” An attorney for the city of Piedmont, Ala., wrote a letter notifying Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel that the parade would be renamed pursuant to FFRF’s request. FFRF sent a letter Nov. 24, challenging the unconstitutional theme on behalf of a local complainant. The theme “alienates non-Christians and others in Piedmont who do not in fact have a ‘strong belief in prayers’ by turning them into political outsiders in their own community,” wrote Seidel, explaining that a “Keep Christ in Christmas” parade was not a permissible secular Christmas celebration.
FFRF also wrote to Piedmont City Schools after the official Piedmont High School Facebook page advertised the parade. The post has since been edited to reflect the revised theme.
School won’t censor secular websites
Round Rock Independent School District in Texas unblocked several secular websites after Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the district Oct. 17 about its discriminatory policy. The district’s filtering software left sites affiliated with Catholicism, Islam and Scientology unblocked while filtering atheist sites as “alternative beliefs.”
“Schools may not ban information based on a ‘dislike of the ideas,’ ” wrote Grover. The superintendent responded Oct. 21 that the district was in the process of unblocking the sites mentioned. FFRF confirmed Nov. 14 they were unblocked.
It’s a (creationist) zoo out there
After getting an FFRF letter, Skiatook Public Schools in Oklahoma revised a Pledge of Allegiance worksheet that emphasized the phrase “under God” and decided it would no longer take students to a creationist zoo where students were taught about “God’s miracles” and the biblical flood.
It also did not include a prayer at a Veterans Day ceremony, a change from last year’s celebration.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter Oct. 30 outlining the constitutional violation. An attorney for the district responded Nov. 20, informing FFRF of the changes.
FFRF stands up for seated students
Students in the Washoe County School District in Nevada will no longer compel students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. A district parent contacted FFRF, reporting that a student was ordered to stand for the pledge and was ordered to leave class, counted absent and not allowed back into class after refusing to stand.
“Courts have reiterated over and over again that students have a constitutional right not to be forced to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance or to be compelled to stand for its recitation,” wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in an Oct. 22 letter.
The district’s general counsel replied, saying that he distributed a districtwide memo “reminding our school principals that students must not be compelled to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance or be harassed for remaining seated.”