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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

Thanks to FFRF intervention, future graduations at Bremen City High School in Bremen, Ga., will not include prayer. So too, a religious photo of prayer has been removed from the Bremen City Schools Facebook page.

On May 24, Bremen City High School’s graduation ceremony included opening and closing prayers. Each of the prayers lasted several minutes and addressed the Christian, “Heavenly Father, we thank you.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter to the District on June 6, pointing to two Supreme Court cases which ensure that: “School officials may not invite a student, teacher, faculty member, or clergy to give any type of prayer, invocation, or benediction at a public high school graduation.” Seidel also cited other recent violations occurring in the same district — including a photo of the football team praying on the district webpage and an elementary school vice president leading a group of kindergarteners in prayer — suggesting “a systemic problem with prayer at Bremen City Schools. It appears that the district staff members are unaware of or blatantly disregarding the law surrounding school prayer.”

The District responded on June 17 to guarantee that, “the phrase ‘invocation’ will not be used in next year’s graduation program.” Additionally, the “Superintendent has removed that photo” in question. 

Illegal prayer at football pre-game team meals has been halted at Alexander High School in Douglasville, Ga.

According to reports by a concerned individual, the varsity football team had been supplied pre-game meals by Pray’s Mill Baptist Church. Not only was a pastor of the church present at the meals, but also at most of the practices and games. At the end of the mandatory meals, the pastor would deliver a “pseudo-sermon” and ask those present — the entire team — to bow their heads and participate in prayer. The complainant added that “it makes several non-believer athletes uncomfortable as well, but because they’re students on the team, they can’t just ‘step out’ and not participate or risk banishment.”

On May 27, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Supt. Gordon Pritz of Douglas County School District, censuring them, explaining: “It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for AHS to offer a Christian minister unique access to befriend and proselytize student athletes. Public high school athletic teams cannot seek out a spiritual leader for the team and allow that person to sermonize and pray with students, because public schools may not advance or promote religion.”

Counsel for the District replied on June 17, assuring that Supt. Pritz “has discussed with school administration and appropriate staff members the legal issues that you raised. . . To the extent there existed any issue with a prayer or religious talk being given to students on the team during a team event by local clergy, there will be no such activity during next football season.”

Unfortunately, prayer violations in the Douglasville County School District are perennial. The district was successfully sued by Doug Jager, the son of a longtime FFRF member, over pregame invocations in the late 1980s. Douglas was a member of the marching band. Jager v. Douglas County District prevailed in 1989, when the Supreme Court let stand a ruling in Doug’s favor by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Jacksonville Police Department in Jacksonville, Ala., has removed and will no longer display religious postings on its official Facebook page. The Jackson Police Department posts included a picture reading “Happy Birthday Jesus” with an image of a nativity, a number of bible verses, a picture promoting the “National Day of Prayer for Law Enforcement,” a picture of a man carrying a “Police Officer’s Bible,” and a link to a Christian website with police officers singing a Christian song, among others. 

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert contacted Jacksonville Chief of Police T.L. Thompson on Dec. 31, 2013, regarding the religious postings. In her letter, Markert elucidated, “It is inappropriate for the Jacksonville Police Department (JPD) to indicate a preference for Christianity and religion by quoting the Christian bible, posting prayers, and sharing postings asking people to pray on the official JPD Facebook page. This proselytizing message gives the appearance of government endorsement of Christianity. It also conflicts with personal religious and nonreligious views of many city residents and employees.”

After two follow up letters, Police Chief Tommy Thompson finally replied on July 2: “That post and similar ones were deleted from that account and no new posts of this nature have been posted.”

FFRF has secured the removal of religious symbols from a public park in Clark County, Wash.

In Whipple Creek Regional Park, a Latin cross with a bible verse was installed at the top of Carousel Hill. The plaque read, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Lean not on your understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him. And He shall direct your paths. Proverbs 3:5-6.”

On June 26, FRFF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert alerted Clark County to the constitutional violation, explaining, “The display of this patently religious symbol on public property confers government endorsement of Christianity, a blatant violation of the Establishment Clause.”

The complainant wrote FFRF on July 2 to confirm that employees of Clark County “have removed the cross from Whipple Creek Park.”

Lewis Public Schools USD in Lewis, Kansas, will not allow the Gideon Society to distribute materials during the school day or facilitate such distributions.

A complainant contacted FFRF after a fifth-grade teacher directed her students to cross the street unescorted to receive a bible during the school day. The teacher lined the students up, told them to cross the street to get the bibles, but did not accompany the children because she believed this made her actions legal.  

When the complainant’s child refused a bible because the student’s family was not religious, the teacher asked the student, “Do you always do what your parents tell you to do?”

The complainant noted that bible distribution by Gideons at the school has been going on for 30-some years.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter on May 21 to Superintendent Virgil Richie, pointing out why forcing students to accept religious literature is predatory and illegal:

“The arbitrary line the District drew to pretend this bible distribution was acceptable was patently ridiculous. A teacher leading students to the schoolhouse doors during class time, instructing them to leave school property alone to receive a bible, and questioning  students who do not wish to participate shows that the District clearly coordinated and facilitated the bible distribution and required students to participate in it.”

On June 10, Superintendent Ritchie responded that it had been decided that “Lewis Elementary School will not allow The Gideon Society to distribute materials during the school day or on school grounds. The teacher mentioned in your letter is no longer employed by the school district.” 

Faculty members of Lamar County School District in Miss., will no longer be permitted to proselytize to students.

A concerned student of Sumrall Middle School contacted FFRF regarding proselytizing by faculty in April. Complaints were about a teacher who spoke on “why our country needs God,” and the “war on Christmas.” They were also about another teacher who held an Easter storytelling event invoking the rapture and the antichrist.

Acting on these reports, FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote Superintendent Tess Smith in protest on June 20. In his letter, he noted serious constitutional concerns over the “pervasive culture of proselytization in the district,” citing recent issues with faculty participation in a prayer event at Sumrall Elementary School.

Furthermore, Grover stated: “Teachers have access to a captive audience of students due to their position as public educators. The District has a duty to prohibit religious proselytizing by teachers in the classroom,” and thus school district regulation of teaching materials are “not a violation of the free speech rights of teachers.”

Interim Superintendent Tess Smith responded to Grover’s letter on July 8,  and agreed to

“meet with each of the staff members mentioned including a follow up meeting with the school principal” and stated that she is “organizing an inservice for our school principals. . . [to] provide them with the necessary guidance to train their staff in the future regarding constitutional issues.”

There will no longer be teacher-led prayer, or any prayer for that matter, at the end of year banquet for Sarah Scott Middle School students in Terre Haute, Ind.

A concerned family member of a student contacted FFRF with information that, in keeping with ceremonies from previous years, a school-sponsored banquet on May 27 celebrating the top ten students in each grade featured a teacher-led invocation.

“Everyone is expected to bow their heads while a teacher leads the prayer,” reported the complainant, who added: “The school is fairly diverse so I’m sure I’m not the only person that is uncomfortable with the school trying to force everyone to pray.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter to Superintendent Daniel Tanoos of Vigo County School Corporation on May 30, declaring that, “The District should make certain that teachers in its schools are not unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters by encouraging them to engage in prayer. Schoolchildren already feel significant pressure to conform from their peers. They must not be subjected to similar pressure from their teachers, especially on religious questions.”

“Considering the young age of the students, concern over religious coercion and proselytization should be especially high in middle schools,” Grover added.

After a July 8 follow-up inquiry, counsel for the District replied on July 17 that, “the School Corporation has informed each building Principal that teacher-led prayer with students present will cease, as it is prohibited by the Constitution and should not be allowed.” 

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