Schools head breaks prayer chain
Dave Knight, superintendent of schools in Medina, Ohio, broke the prayer chain at A.I. Root Middle School, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported Sept. 19. “Public school staff can’t use district resources, including email, to promote prayer, especially when the principal, a person in a position of influence, is involved,” Knight said. “When it comes to separation of church and state, it’s very clear.”
The chain was supposedly started to comfort staff members and students facing illness or other problems. Knight said it’s fine to send an email “to keep a family in your thoughts and prayers,” but when a principal sends a message calling for a prayer chain that “systemizes it, a teacher could feel it wasn’t voluntary to participate.”
Several teachers complained about the prayer chain email that was sent Sept. 8 and was included in a staff newsletter.
Knight added, “I have seen this type of issue grow into divisiveness and put a school in the middle of a debate between liberal and conservative beliefs. I’m a man of faith who wants good for all, but I’m also a firm believer in separation of church and state.”
Coach suspended for football prayer
A high school football coach in Tempe, Ariz., was suspended for two games in late September for encouraging and participating in prayer at Tempe Preparatory Academy, The Associated Press reported.
Headmaster David Baum said Brittain told players to lead the team in prayer before and after games. He’s coached for 12 years at the public charter school.
Baum told a reporter that Brittain “is a man who likes to pray, and I don’t object to that. Just, he can’t do that with our students. That’s the only prohibition.”
Baum said Brittain joined students in prayer “in view of everyone. I think I preserved the religious freedom of our students, who have to have the liberty to be able to practice or not practice their religion on our campus, without interference by adults.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation announces that three activists will share its inaugural “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” award this year, reserved for activists who succeed in giving secular invocations to counter governmental prayer.
Following the Supreme Court’s injudicious decision “blessing” sectarian prayer last spring, FFRF called on atheists, seculars and other freethinkers to ask for equal time to give secular invocations. In September, after placing 14 entries on YouTube and allowing the secular public to vote, FFRF announced the winners:
• FFRF member Dan Courtney, for his historic invocation before the Town Board in Greece, N.Y., site of the prayer litigation resulting in this year’s unfortunate Supreme Court decision.
• FFRF Member Tim Earl, who’s given three secular invocations before the Park Board in Portage, Mich. The former Navy lieutenant commander is a member of the board.
• Amanda Novotny, Brookings, S.D., who is president of Siouxland Freethinkers and works to increase the visibility of nontheists in South Dakota. Her invocation was before the Sioux Falls City Council.
The three winners are scheduled to deliver secular invocations at FFRF’s national convention in Los Angeles on October 24-25 and received $500 each and a plaque.
All other entrants were mailed a commemorative “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” certificate as a thank-you and keepsake.
The contest continues until governmental bodies are persuaded to pray on their own time and dime, or until the Supreme Court overturns its Town of Greece v. Galloway ruling. New entries received will be considered for the 2015 convention award.
So unbow your head, open your eyes and give your local government a piece of your secular mind! To be considered for the award, those giving secular invocations must submit an official entry, supply a video and a transcript of their remarks. Read the contest rules at:
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has awarded and congratulates the 21 currently enrolled college student winners of its annual essay competition. Entrants were asked to write about “My atheist/unbeliever ‘coming out’ story” in 700 to 900 words. Read the top-placing essays on pages 11-15. Winners are:
• First place, Michael Hakeem Memorial Prize ($3,000): Bijan Parandeh, University of Illinois-Chicago.
• Second place ($2,000): David Andexler, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh.
• Third place ($1,000): Reem Abdel-Razek, Onondaga Community College, N.Y.
• Fourth place ($750): Audrey Gunn, Concordia College, Minn.
• Fifth place (tie, $500 each): Marcus Andrews, Ohio State University; Keith Greer Milburn, University of Memphis.
• Sixth place (tie, $400 each): Aaron McLaughlin, University of Iowa; Anvita Patwardhan, University of California-Berkeley. FFRF also awarded 13 “honorable mentions,” with each receiving $200:
• Nathan Hume Stevens, University of Oregon.
• Chris Holder, University of Montevallo, Ala.
• Joe Magestro, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
• Marina Esposito, Grand Canyon University, Phoenix.
• Jennifer Wilson, St. Olaf College, Minn. • Eric Duran, University of North Texas.
• Jessie Warme, University of California-San Diego.
• Harrison Slater, Pennsylvania State University.
• Benjamin Carton, Lesley University, Mass.
• Jenny Cox, California Polytechnic State University.
• Alexander Andruzzi, University of British Columbia.
• Blake Allen, Louisiana State University.
• Anna Bridge, South Dakota State University.
FFRF extends special thanks to Dorea and Dean Schramm in Florida for providing each student who is a member of a secular campus group with a $100 bonus. The award total of $12,550 reflects the additional $100 bonuses.
“Our student scholarships are among FFRF’s most important endeavors and outreach to the next generation of freethinkers,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “All too many scholarship programs reward orthodoxy, but FFRF rewards students for critical thinking and for being willing to make known their dissent from religion.”
The late Michael Hakeem, a sociology professor whose bequest endows the competition, was an FFRF officer and atheist known to generations of UW-Madison students.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation told the Rowan-Salisbury [N.C.] School System it must immediately drop unconstitutional elementary school-level bible classes. FFRF is awaiting response to an open records request to determine the extent of the violation.
In addition to weekly sessions of physical education and art classes, the school district’s youngest students attend a weekly bible class. FFRF received a report about one such session in which the teacher presented the bible and seven-day creation as literal fact.
Local churches fund the bible teachers through nonprofit groups set up specifically to promote bible classes. Under firm Supreme Court precedent, such outside funding does not relieve the school of its obligation to ensure secular education, FFRF noted.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter to the district Sept. 24 calling the classes “flagrantly unconstitutional,” pointing out that the Supreme Court had struck down similar classes in 1948 in a landmark case in which the facts “could hardly be more similar.”
“It is appalling that the district would take away from instructional time to indoctrinate children in Christian dogma,” Elliott said, calling on the district to put a moratorium on the classes involving “young, impressionable elementary school students.”
Elliott wrote that the district’s ill-advised decision to offer the classes calls into question the legitimacy of the bible classes currently being taught in the middle schools and high school.
FFRF Co-President Dan Barker noted that FFRF resoundingly won a federal court case before the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in 2004 challenging similar weekly bible classes in Dayton, Tenn., area schools.
“It’s absolutely shocking,” Barker said, “that 66 years after the Supreme Court’s McCollum ruling, we would still see such a flagrant violation.”
FFRF, which was at the center of a high-profile lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service over illegal church electioneering, warned that the seventh-annual “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” that was held Oct. 5 deliberately incited church pastors into flouting the law. All 501(c)(3) nonprofits, including churches, are prohibited from engaging in partisan politicking in exchange for the privilege of tax exemption. FFRF’s federal lawsuit charged that political violations by churches were being selectively ignored. FFRF took the IRS to court in November 2012. After being given assurances this summer that the IRS has authorized procedures and “signature authority” to resume initiating church tax investigations and examinations, FFRF agreed to drop its suit.
FFRF criticized the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is behind Pulpit Freedom Sunday, for treating church pastors like pawns. ADF, which calls the event a “strategic litigation plan,” reported revenue of more than $50 million last year.
About 1,500 pastors intentionally violated the law this year, the Wall Street Journal reported. That’s similar to the number in 2013.
“Rogue pastors who endorse from tax-exempt pulpits are playing dirty pool,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-founder. Such an abuse creates an unfair election advantage. Donations to politicians are not tax-deductible, but donations to churches are. Imagine if tax-exempt churches — which don’t have to file financial returns with the government like all other 501(c)(3) groups must — were allowed to openly engage in partisan politics? Church congregations could become political machines, and political donations could be ‘money laundered’ through tax-deductible church contributions.”
FFRF Co-President Dan Barker added, “Pastors are free to endorse from the pulpit, but then their churches need to give up their tax exemption.”
U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman’s order granting the joint motion for dismissal by FFRF and the IRS left open FFRF’s ability to renew its lawsuit if the IRS reverts to previous inaction.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation appears to have scored another victory for secularism in a public high school, after Madison County School District in Danielsville, Ga., announced it will either modify or remove an overtly religious monument at the Madison High School football stadium. FFRF became aware of the monument after a complaint was reported by a resident who is affiliated with the athletic program.
The monument was unveiled Aug. 22, and currently sits at the team entrance to the field. It features the school’s logo alongside two New Testament bible verses carved on the stone: Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me”) and Romans 8:31 (“If God be for us who can be against us?”).
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter Aug. 28: “Courts have continually held that school districts may not display religious messages or iconography in public schools.” He also noted that religious monuments have the potential to cause religious divides.
On Sept. 24, an attorney representing the district responded: “The Board is currently investigating options available to it regarding the monument, including, but not limited to, removal of the monument or modifying the monument in some manner.”
FFRF sent a letter Sept. 2 to Joseph Olchefske, president of Calvert Education Services in Hunt Valley, Md., about inclusion of religious material in mandatory assignments used in public schools’ virtual (online) curricula. It was brought to FFRF’s attention by 8-year-old Florida student Emarie Wakefield and Rachel Spiller, her mother.
A complaint letter was also sent Sept. 2 to the superintendent of Lee County Schools in Fort Myers, Fla.. The school district supervises Emarie’s online instruction, which uses the Calvert curriculum, including an assignment called “Let’s Read a Poem.” One poem (actually a hymn) is titled “God be in my head” and starts “God be in my head, and in my understanding” and concludes with “God be at mine end, and at my departing.”
Other selections were misattributed and very age-inappropriate, FFRF noted, including passages from the Song of Solomon, the most notoriously erotic book of the bible with its thinly veiled allusions to oral sex such as “he feedeth among the lilies” and “his fruit was sweet to my taste.”
Superintendent Nancy Graham had told the family in correspondence that some school staff told her “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution and is not a legal standard. FFRF noted that the Supreme Court has used the phrase to interpret the First Amendment as far back as 1878. Graham also misinterpreted the Establishment Clause. In his response, Calvert CEO Richard Rasmus denied any intent to promote religion and claimed content was chosen for its “literary, cultural, historical or other educational value.” He closed with, “We appreciate the professional manner in which you have raised your concerns.”
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel rebutted the claim of nonreligious significance in a response to Rasmus and again decried the “shoddy scholarship,” writing, “In light of your response, we must contact the organizations that have accredited Calvert materials and provide them with copies of this letter and ask them to revisit your accreditation. Of course, if you wish to provide assurances that these four ‘poems’ will be removed, that will prove unnecessary.”
In his Sept. 25 response, Calvert CFO Todd Frager wrote, “We have removed the selections in question. We will remove the digital text immediately and we will no longer print the selections going forward. Feel free to call me with any additional comments or concerns.” FFRF is proud to announce a $1,000 student activist award to Emarie and to share what she wrote about her experience:
My Little Voice
By Emarie Wakefield
(with help from Mom)
When I was interviewed by the local news station about my objection to prayers (as well as bible passages and misauthored prayers being passed off as “poems”) in my public virtual school’s curriculum, many people had a lot to say against me. Many people said I wasn’t old enough to have a voice, an opinion or freedom. I’m little, so I’m just learning about history, but so far I haven’t found an age limit on freedoms.
Lincoln didn’t say “conceived in liberty for those who are over school-aged.” I know this. I had to recite the opening to the Gettysburg Address. The First Amendment isn’t only for grown-ups.
I live and grow in a humanist home. I’m taught every day that my little voice makes a big difference. I know that some people are told they are too little to speak up, but in my home I’m taught that when I see something wrong, it’s my job to speak out loud to change that.
I’m proud of my freedom as an American. Since I do not believe that there is some being in control of everything, I know that it’s going to be me that has to do the work to get things done. It’s the job of all of us. We have to work together as a big team to make this planet a better, kinder and happier place to live. No one is going to magically fix it for us.
If I had just stayed quiet and “did the homework I was told to do,” then what about the children that came after me that weren’t told that freedom belongs to them, too? Others can do as they are told when their freedoms are being taken from them, but as for me and my little voice, we’re off to big places.
When a lot of those little voices come together, it gets too loud to ignore. Humanity, come with me. Let’s do big, wonderful things, because even a little voice is equal under our laws. That’s a self-evident truth.
I have so much gratitude to the Freedom From Religion Foundation for this scholarship, because education makes little voices louder.
Rachel Spiller writes:
This is incredible news! We are elated! We did, however, eventually remove Emarie from the Lee County School system. It became more and more apparent every day that no one was actually reviewing the materials that were being passed on to our children in the Lee virtual program.
Every day there were serious “mistakes” in their online testing and otherwise that made us realize that to leave her in this curriculum would be disregarding our parental responsibilities. We are currently doing home education while we assess our options. You’d be surprised at what Emarie endured during the press coverage of this. Of course there were “trolls” that even went so far as to say that they hoped she died, but there were many amazing strangers that encouraged her. One such example was Jonathan Mann, a musician well-known for turning Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Hobby Lobby dissent into a song. He wrote a song called “Ignore the Trolls” for her, and the blog SheKnows also did a wonderful piece. Please feel free to point to a Facebook “public figure” page that we administer for Emarie: facebook.com/EmmieOutLoud/. We started the page because she hoped to encourage other young people to become involved in volunteerism. (Her nickname is Emmie, and she chose “OutLoud” after a Coco Chanel quote: “The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.”)
Emarie is also outspoken on LGBT rights and volunteers by my side at the LGBT community center in our area (pridecenterswfl.com/), where she sometimes leads anti-bullying youth rallies.
Emarie is also involved with a charity called “Pushing Daizies” that raises money to send low-income children to art and music camp. She also participated in the “No One Else Can Play Your Part” campaign for World Suicide Prevention Day.
Her first taste of activism was when she, by her own choice and will, decided to march with the Occupy movement in Birmingham, Ala., when she was 5. She woke me that morning and told me we had to go to the march or ”the people with all the money and resources will win.”
It was a long march on those tiny little legs, but she did not complain a single time. She can still lead the Occupy callback chant to this day and is proud to have taken a place in democracy.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation called on the superintendent of Gallia County Local Schools in Patriot, Ohio, to recall and replace a 2014 elementary school yearbook whose cover features a large Latin cross.
FFRF, which has 21,500 members nationwide, including 600 in Ohio, wrote Superintendent Jude Meyers on Sept. 26, asking him to investigate and take action over a state/church violation that is “beyond comprehension” at Addaville Elementary. The horizontal arms of the cross on the bible-like cover carry the word “Believe.”
“The inclusion of the Latin cross, which is the preeminent symbol of Christianity, on a public elementary school yearbook is illegal,” noted Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney. “It is beyond comprehension that public school officials would have allowed this publication to be printed with sectarian religious imagery and then distributed to young schoolchildren.”
“Religion is a divisive force in public schools,” Markert reminded the district. More than a quarter of the U.S. population either identifies as nonreligious (20%) or practices a non-Christian religion (5%).
She noted that whether or not the yearbook was published by the district or a private entity is “legally immaterial.”
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor commented, “The cover of this yearbook would be appropriate at a Catholic or sectarian school, but it’s an egregious violation in our secular elementary public schools.”
The district contacted FFRF to indicate it would ensure that the Parent Teacher Organization would be told it could no longer use a religious cover for the yearbook. The district said the PTO was responsible for printing the book and that the cover did not have district approval.