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October 9-11, 2015

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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

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By Dan Barker
Co-President
Freedom From Religion Foundation

This week’s Supreme Court decision allowing some sectarian prayer at city council meetings is a deeply disappointing betrayal of America’s honored progressive values. Once again, the lopsided conservative majority has proudly announced that it is on the wrong side of history.

We were not surprised to see the four staunchly nonprogressive justices huddle together in what social scientists call “in group bias,” patronizingly viewing us “out group” atheists, agnostics, Jews and other nonChristians as tolerated but marginalized citizens. Real Americans can pray, as they have always done (so the court imagines) while we nonbelievers sit in our secular City Hall beside our insider neighbors, listening but looking the other way. One of the plaintiffs in the Greece case is Linda Stephens, a nonbeliever and Life Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who has had to endure those proselytizing prayers fighting back with her only defensive weapon: keeping her eyes wide open.

But we were really hoping Justice Kennedy, who has a long history of resisting governmental coercion, would be able to keep his eyes open long enough to acknowledge the inherent inequality and divisiveness that actually occurs when the government sanctions religious exercises at public meetings.

Justice Kagan clearly spotted and articulated the problem in her scathing dissent: “When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so not as members of one faith or another. And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines.”

However, Kennedy, no longer a “swing vote,” caved in to the shrinking but still influential status quo doctrine that in order for government to function properly, the meetings must be “solemnized” with a “gravity” that is “ceremonial.” Referring to an imagined history—a history that Justice Kagan challenged in her dissent—Justice Kennedy invoked “values long part of the nation’s heritage.” But doesn’t he see that by equating God with gravity, he has placed his personal theistic views above those of us who equate God with levity? Does he truly think law is determined by history? Is “heritage” a club to be widely wielded against the “out group”?

Shame.

So what do we do? We can fight back. Before these bad laws are eventually overturned by a more enlightened future Supreme Court, we seculars and progressives can use the same opportunity given to Christian clergy: we can ask for our own equal-time free-speech chance to give freethinking and nonreligious invocations before those very same city council meetings! According to Kennedy’s decision, all Americans, not just Christians, have the right to address their secular government.

To that end, The Freedom From Religion Foundation has announced a “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” contest. Ask your city to allow you to give an “atheist invocation” (or agnostic, secular, freethought, nonreligious invocation). Videotape the invocation and submit it to FFRF. For details, see: FFRF announces ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer Award’ contest

In America, we are free to disagree with one another on religious matters. We are not free to ask our government to settle the argument.

Dan Barker is author of Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist and Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists

FFRF stops Georgia coach from leading students in prayer (April 19, 2014)

A coach at Thomas County Central High School in Thomasville Ga., will no longer lead a football team in prayer before practice. The coach’s involvement was confirmed by a news story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitutions, which included a photo of the coach praying with the team, who were dutifully bowing their heads.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent the District a letter Aug. 5 explaining that the Supreme Court has struck down school pre-game prayers for violating the Establishment Clause.

“It is a violation of the Constitution for the coach to organize, lead or participate in prayers before football practices and games. It is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor, or lead religious messages at school athletic events.”

On April 19, the school’s superintendent responded, “I have carefully considered your concern and have reviewed the team’s practices regarding prayer. I plan to address your concern by taking steps to end any coach-led prayer that may be occurring during football practices or games, while ensuring that religious students and staff may exercise their First Amendment rights to speak, associate, and participate in religious activities.”

A wrestling team in Parkersburg, W. Va., will no longer endorse the longtime motto, “Phillippians 4:13: I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.” The motto was adopted at least 10 years agoand had appeared on the wrestling team’s webpage, on the team T-shirts, and in the high school gymnasium.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter to Wood County Schools April 11, explaining why the motto was a constitutional violation:

“Advancing or promoting religion is precisely what a school does when it adopts a Christian motto for an athletic team and posts that religious message on its official website. Such a posting unconstitutionally entangles Parkersburg South with religion.”

FFRF advised the school to end all endorsement of Christian messages, including on the team’s webpage. Due to FFRF’s complaint, the bible verse that was posted inside the Parkersburg High School gymnasium was painted over and the motto has been taken off of the wrestling team webpage.

Atlanta High School in Atlanta, Texas, will no longer allow episodes from the series “The Bible” to be played during class.

A concerned student reported that an economics teacher aired episode six of the series, which depicts the “virgin” birth of Jesus, Jesus’ Baptism by John the Baptist, and the angel Gabriel telling Mary she is pregnant with “the Son of God.”

When the student complained to the teacher in question, saying he didn’t feel “The Bible” was appropriate to play during an economics class, the teacher called the TV show “factual.” Later, the student confronted the teacher again, who said that that “he would continue showing [The Bible] all week, and if [the student] wanted to go to a different classroom because of [the student’s] beliefs that would be fine.”

As a result, the student missed a weeks’s worth of economics classes, having been cast out of his classroom while the teacher continued showing biblical videos.

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter to the school’s superintendent explaining why the situation is illegal, unacceptable and an especially egregious violation:

“It is not a violation of the free speech rights of teachers when a school district regulates what they teach to students during the school day. Teachers have access to a captive audience of students due to their position as public educators. Atlanta Independent School District has a duty to prohibit religious proselytizing by teachers in the classroom.”

On April 22, Superintendent Roger Hailey informed Grover that “[The Teacher] has agreed to apologize to your complainant and has been instructed to align his instruction with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills Standards (TEKS) established by the Texas Legislature for the subjects he teaches.”

A high school in Middletown, Ohio, will no longer allow Coaches to lead athletes in prayers. According to a local complanant, the varsity football coach would provide food for players after practice, then tell students to bow their heads so the coach could lead them in prayer. It is our information that the coach also encouraged players to attend his church, invited them to church events during football practice and also provided rides. He often encouraged players to be “saved.”

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to the superintendent explaining that public school coaches cannot lead teams in prayer: “The prayers led by [the coach] in the Middletown football program, as well as his pressuring students to attend his church and be ‘saved,’ constitute an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. The prayers are clearly offered as part of regularly scheduled school-sponsored activities, so a reasonable Middletown student would certainly perceive the prayers as ‘stamped with her school’s approval.’”

On April 25, the District responded with a strongly-worded letter:

“[The Principal and Athletic Director] expressly informed [the coach] that his actions had crossed the line, and were impermissible. He was expressly informed that he was required to respect others’ religious beliefs, that his conduct could be viewed as a government’s endorsement of religion, and that he was not permitted to engage in any of the conduct listed in your letter (or similar conduct, for that matter).

“Although we encourage [the coach] to instill high moral values in his athletes, we reminded him that endorsing or promoting one religion in his coaching capacity was prohibited both by federal law and by existing Board policy.”

FFRF has halted a pious coach’s practice of proselytizing students in Spokane, Wash. According to the complainant, Rogers High School head football coach Matt Miethe and other coaches had not only been baptizing players at Pentecostal churches, but the assistant coach was leading the team in prayers during “chapel time” and prior to games.

The coaches pressured players to attend church. According to news reports, Coach Miethe “offered players three opportunities to gather for church and encouraged them to attend.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter Dec. 17, explaining why the coaches’ actions are impermissible:

“Even if Miethe is simply suggesting [church] attendance his position as head coach in charge of playing time impregnates any suggestion with force. Playing time leads to scholarships and college; it should be a question of merit only, not religion. No student should be deprived of the opportunity of playing football because they, as a matter of personal conscience, feel unable to participate in a religious ritual or attend church.”

On March 17, the district responded to FFRF’s complaint, “Rogers High School principal Lori Wyborney spoke with the football coach and confirmed activities that she had not been aware of.

“Ms. Wyborney took immediate action to ensure that the activities described ceased. She reminds her coaching and athletics staff as well as her administrative staff of the need to separate the role of school and religion. Additionally, and for unrelated reasons, Coach Matt Miethe resigned his position as head coach for Rogers High School.”

Northwest High School in Canal Fulton, Ohio, will no longer hold graduation in church venues starting in 2015. The Freedom From Religion Foundation received a complaint that the school plans to hold its commencement ceremony at Akron Baptist Temple on May 24, 2014.

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to the superintendent Feb. 17 informing the district that holding graduation ceremonies in churches is divisive and unconstitutional:

“This practice is unconstitutional because it forces graduating students and their family and friends wishing to participate in, view, or celebrate the graduation to enter a church to do so, even if the selected church espouses a religious ideology or belief to which they may not adhere.”

Markert further elaborated: “It is no defense that graduations are events at which participation or attendance is voluntary. Students wishing to participate should not be forced to forego this momentous occasion in their lives simply because Northwest High School deems it necessary to hold the graduation in a church.”

On April 8, the superintendent responded to Markert’s letter, “While it is not possible for the district to find an alternate location for graduation [this year], I have spoken to the Board and they have agreed to find a secular site for the 2015 graduating class.”

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Is this a Catholic Court?

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By Ellery Schempp
FFRF Lifetime Member
Supreme Court victor, Abington v. Schempp

This response was received from Ellery Schempp, named a Champion of the First Amendment by FFRF. Read more about Ellery here.

I am extremely disappointed in yesterday's Supreme Court decision (Greece v. Galloway) affirming that sectarian prayers at city council meetings do not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The 5-4 decision severely diminishes the non-establishment principle and effectively endorses majoritarian displays of public piety.

The notion of public prayer before council meetings is itself rather weird, a 'theological/religious' notion that praying somehow leads to better government, or that some supernatural entity will show favoritism to get better roads in communities that pray. This is naked superstition, a bow to witchcraft-like incantations, and acceptance of magical thinking. Like school kids praying before an exam– but it is better to have read the assignments and done the homework.

It is wholly specious to imagine, as Kennedy does, that prayer is not subtly coercive. It should be obvious that such prayers create an atmosphere that a certain god has to be prayed in order to to win its favor. And surely such prayers promote the idea that the government favors some religions or some gods over others.

It is also rather weird to imagine that clergy who pray such&such have some insight that others do not have. Clergy, of course, are not elected; and have as their agenda, continuing income from their congregation. City councilors have an agenda to get re-elected by doing good for their communities. There is a difference.

The decision wholly ignores non-believers, non-theists, atheists who have no use for prayer to an imaginary deity. It is even an affront to the Founding Fathers, many of whom were Deists, who rejected the notion that God would intervene in human affairs as a result of supplication and worship. George Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Franklin, even Adams, would be appalled at today's decision. The idea of a government body paying obeisance is anathema to the legacy of Roger Williams.

The decision is a major attack on a memorable phrase from the Engel case (1962): "It is no part of the business of government to be composing prayers. . ." This principle is a vitally important reminder. What is the proper business of government? Is having a prayer calling on Divine Providence and some dogma about Jesus going to help with the sewer works?

The decision will do no good for public policies, no good for good government, no good for welcoming minority participation in community government, and will only reinforce various power structures that buy into the majority religion.

Poplarville School District in Poplarville, Miss., will no longer use religious rhetoric in its student handbooks. FFRF received a complaint that the “Strategic Plan” section of the 2013-14 District student handbook states that one of the District’s beliefs is “[a] relationship with God is critical to a meaningful life.” FFRF was also informed that not only is this handbook given to every student, but that this statement of belief has appeared in the handbook for many years.

FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell sent a letter to the school’s superintendent on Feb. 13 explaining why public school districts may not display religious messages or iconography:

“The value statement in the student handbook sends the message that the District not only prefers religion over nonreligion, but the Christian god over all deities. . . This sort of entanglement between religion and public education excludes non-Christian and nonreligious students.”

On May 26 the District responded to Cavell’s letter informing FFRF: “At its meeting on March 10, 2014 the Board of Trustees voted to remove the above-referenced language from the strategic plan and handbook beginning with the upcoming school-year.”

Canton Local School District in Canton Ohio, will no longer hold graduation in church venues from 2015 onward. FFRF was informed that Canton South High School has a tradition of holding its graduation ceremonies and plans to hold this year’s ceremony at Canton Baptist Temple on May 27, 2014.

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to the district on Feb. 17 explaining why holding graduation in houses of worship is unconstitutional. It forces graduating students and their family and friends to enter a church even if the selected church espouses a religious ideology or belief to which they might not adhere:

“Students wishing to participate should not be forced to forego this momentous occasion in their lives simply because Canton South High School deems it necessary to hold the graduation in a church. . . [The] selection of Canton Baptist Temple as the site for the Canton South High School commencement ceremony demonstrates the school’s preference for religion over nonreligion, and more specifically, Christianity over all other faiths.”

On April 8, the superintendent responded to Markert’s letter, “While it is not possible for the district to find an alternate location for graduation [this year], I have spoken to the Board and they have agreed to find a secular site for the 2015 graduating class.”

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