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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

An assistant principal at Andalusia Middle School in Andalusia, Ala., will no longer be allowed to “witness” to students.

FFRF received a complaint that the assistant principal regularly proselytized students in his office. He used a social networking site to advertise the message that the school conducts prayers to Jesus before sporting events and that he personally witnesses to students and encourages bibles in his office.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a March 4 letter to Superintendent Ted Watson explaining why these are serious and egregious violations of the Constitution:

“It is not a violation of [the assistant principal’s] free speech rights to require him to stop the practice of proselytizing students in his office. [The assistant principal] is exposing a captive audience of students to this religious message because of his position as public school assistant principal. Religion is a divisive force in public schools.”

Seidel’s letter informed the district that it is illegal for public schools to organize, sponsor, or lead religious messages at school athletic events, and that the distribution of bibles on school grounds is unconstitutional even during non instructional time.

Superintendent Watson responded on March 24, saying the principal had admitted to overstating religious activity at the Middle School, “I assure you that we do not hold teacher, administrator or student led Bible, Koran, Torah, or any other religious studies in our rooms or offices. I will also assure you Bibles are not distributed at Andalusia Middle School nor do we have teacher, staff or administrator led prayer at sporting events.

“[T]hank you for making us aware of this situation,” the District added. “It has facilitated a review of the law as it pertains to the establishment clause within our school system. We strive to teach our students to be law-abiding citizens and it starts with the example we as adults set.”

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FFRF mounts Ohio billboard blitz

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Click on billboards to view higher resolution. 

Eleven friendly and thought-provoking billboards featuring members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its chapter, the Northern Ohio Freethought Society, are going up this week around Cleveland and Akron in a month-long campaign to introduce area atheists and agnostics to their communities.

The billboards feature the faces of local atheists, agnostics and freethinkers along with their personal freethought “testimonials.”

Marni Huebner-Tiborsky, chapter director, is pictured with her husband Mark Tiborsky on a billboard at Harvard and East 17th in East Cleveland. They note: “We are awed by nature, not the supernatural.”

Mark Tiborsky commented: “We just want to let other nonbelievers, or those on the fence about their religious belief, know they’re not alone and that the local nontheist community is both welcoming and growing.”

Artist and humanist chaplain Miguel Moore’s billboard, featuring his smiling face and his words, “Freedom comes from within, not without,” is found at Broadview and Brookdale in Parma.

“Doing good is our religion,” say Roni and Elliot Berenson of Chesterland, octogenarians who describe themselves as “Grandparents . . . Atheists.” Their billboard is at West 25th and Erin in Cleveland.

Roni Berenson is well-known in the area and nationally as an activist for social justice, world peace and secular humanist causes. She became a freethinker at age 16 after escaping the Holocaust in her native Germany.

Students with the University of Akron Secular Student Alliance are featured on two billboards in Akron. Craig Bauman, Austin Morgan and Anderson Friess note, “You are not alone” if you “question everything.” Their board is at East Exchange and Goodkirk in Akron.

Three other students, Tommy Panek, Shamari Fields and Austin Meredith, are featured on a billboard at Case and Kent Street in Akron, declaring: “We don’t believe in any gods.”

Chapter activists participating in the campaign include Sam Salerno of Lakewood, a bricklayer and an atheist who says about himself, “Not immortal, just a caring mortal.” His billboard is at West 117th and Berea Road, Lakewood.

Dave Huntsman of Peninsula, an aerospace engineer, notes on his billboard, located at Rocky River Drive and Rockland in Cleveland: “I believe in science, reason and secular values.”

“Atheism motivates my activism. The world is in OUR hands,” advises Sharon Woznicki, of Lakewood, who identifies as “Animal advocate, feminist, volunteer . . . atheist.” Sharon’s smiling image and message can be viewed at Scranton and Train Boulevard in Cleveland.

Pharmacist Eric Tawney of North Royalton identifies as “Kind. Compassionate. Good. Fair. Just. Humane. Atheist.”

A “loving family of atheists” are pictured on a lavender background with mother Joanna and her toddlers Willie and Channing. Joanna’s message? “Life is naturally beautiful and meaningful.”

The “Ladies of Northern Ohio Freethought Society” are in a group shot at East 18th and Carnegie in downtown Cleveland with a woman-affirming message: “We are united and growing in secularism.”

FFRF, a state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., is the nation’s largest association of atheists and agnostics with more than 20,000 members, including about 550 members in Ohio. FFRF debuted the “Out of the Closet” campaign in Madison in 2010 and has taken the personalized campaign to Columbus, Tulsa, Raleigh, Phoenix, Nashville, Portland, Spokane and Sacramento.

“Research shows that atheists and other nonbelievers are still at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to social acceptance. One of the reasons is that even though at least 20% of the population today is nonreligious in the United States, many Americans have never knowingly met an atheist,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

“This campaign introduces the Cleveland and Akron community to the atheists and skeptics in their midst. Taking a cue from the gay pride movement, our campaign invites other nonbelievers to share their views and ‘Come out of the closet.’ ”

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Location of billboards and featured “models”:

  • Broadview and Brookdale, Parma: Miguel Moore
  • East 18th and Carnegie, Downtown: Ladies of NOFS
  • Harvard and East 176th, Cleveland: Mark and Marni
  • St, Clair and East 38th, Cleveland: Joanna Polisena
  • St. Clair and East 200th, Cleveland/Euclid: Eric Tawney
  • Scranton and Train Blvd., Cleveland: Sharon Woznicki
  • West 25th and Erin, Cleveland: Roni and Elliot
  • West 117th and Berea Road, Lakewood: Sam Salerno
  • Rocky River Drive and Rockdale, Cleveland: Dave Huntsman
  • East Exchange and Goodkirk: Akron SSA students
  • Case Avenue and Kent Street., Akron: Akron SSA students

More about the Northern Ohio Freethought Society here. 

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E.C. Reems School of Technology and Arts in Oakland, Calif., has concluded an investigation into a religious assembly and now agrees it was “inappropriate.”

A complainant contacted FFRF with information regarding a religious assembly which included kindergarteners as young as four. The assembly was intended to honor classmate Jahi McMath, a 13-year-old girl declared braindead after a tonsillectomy went tragically wrong. Her religious parents insist Jahi is not braindead. At the assembly, 250 young, impressionable students were given purple T-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘#TeamJahi” and “Keep Calm and Pray On.”

According to a local news report, “The academy’s chief operating officer Lisa Blair said she has tried to honor Jahi’s family’s wishes by telling students that their classmate may still be alive, even though doctors say she is legally and clinically dead.”

Futhermore, Blair was on record saying, “Most kids are Christian here, and they believe that if you continue praying there’s always a possibility. The students understand the debate. They’re just choosing spirituality over science.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to the Board of Directors, calling for an investigation into the assembly and informing the district why public school employees cannot ask students to pray:

“What happened to Jahi is a terrible tragedy and all hearts go out to her suffering relatives and friends. No child’s life should be cut short before it can truly begin. But such tragedies are not an excuse to violate the Constitution. Public school employees cannot tell students that, if only they pray hard enough to a particular god, their classmate will come back to life. Public school employees cannot force their personal religious beliefs on students.

“Public school employees cannot distribute, ask students to wear, or themselves don religious T-shirts instructing everyone to ‘pray on.’ We understand these shirts were donated, but public school employees distributed them in a public school at a school function, and it is our understanding that those employees encouraged students to wear the shirts and set an example by wearing the shirts themselves.”

On March 14, the District sent the findings of their investigation. It concluded that:

“Ms. Blair acknowledged that statements attributed to her [in a local newspaper] were accurately reported. . .

“Ms. Blair, however, does not believe that the article accurately reflects the assembly itself. . . However the District found that the statements made by Ms. Blair were inappropriate and the decision by administration to distribute shirts to the School was inappropriate. . . School administration will receive training regarding requirements for compliance regarding religion in public schools.”

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By Dan Barker
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”?


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.”

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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