The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking for an investigation into bible study groups in several Ohio public schools that appear to be violating the constitutional separation of church and state.
It has come to FFRF's attention that Faith Memorial Church in Lancaster, Ohio, southeast of Columbus, has apparently organized bible study groups in a number of local public schools. The church's website states that "many of our area high schools or junior schools offer students an opportunity to participate in lunchtime or early morning Bible study groups led by volunteers or community pastors." (The webpage was deleted on Feb. 3) The church lists such groups in eight public schools in its vicinity, including four high schools. Most of the clubs meet during the schools' lunch breaks and are run by adults, according to the church's webpage.
The courts have clearly decided over the years that public schools cannot advance, prefer or promote religion. Even though in some circumstances there can be student-led religious groups under the Equal Access Act, direction by outside adults is not permitted. Back in 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark McCollum v. Board of Education that religious instruction on public school premises violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. In FFRF's Doe v. Porter, a 2002 case, the Sixth Circuit (the federal court of appeals in Ohio) affirmed this decision. Faith Memorial Church's activities in various public schools appear to flout such jurisprudence.
"We request that you investigate these concerns and, if confirmed, halt the FMC's involvement with student religious clubs," FFRF's Diane Uhl Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne states in Feb. 5 letters sent to officials in charge of the Ohio schools where the bible study groups have convened. "Any clubs that were led by FMC representatives should be dissolved because they are not bona fide student-initiated clubs. Students would be free to re-establish the clubs, on their own initiative, in the future."
FFRF has a national enrollment of 23,000 nonreligious members, including more than 500 individuals in Ohio. Ohio is consistently on FFRF's annual "top 10" list of states with highest state/church violations.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott submitted a legal memo to the state Attorney General Ken Paxton on Thursday erroneously insisting that Christian crosses may be legally displayed on sheriffs' vehicles. The governor is interfering in a controversy resulting from the Freedom From Religion Foundation's official complaint letter about this unconstitutional practice by the Brewster County Sheriff's Office, which recently added Latin crosses to its patrol cars.
Government officials such as Abbott, and sheriffs like those in Brewster County, took an oath of office to uphold our Constitution. But, apparently, they need a reminder that it is an entirely secular document. The Constitution does not recognize a god, much less the Christian one, and its only references to religion are exclusionary.
Abbott is governor of all Texas citizens, not just Christians. So it's dismaying that his brief assumes Brewster County has a Christian "heritage." Not so. Individuals may be religious, but counties have no religion. When public officials use their official capacity to promote their personal religion, they are violating the law. FFRF's complaint was not over an individual sheriff who had a personal cross around his neck, or a sheriff placing a cross on a personal vehicle, but over the department officially aligning itself and its officers with religion, in this case Christianity.
Such governmental speech and action sends a chilling message that the department itself enforces Christian doctrine, instead of civil law, and further signals that Christian citizens are the insiders, while non-Christians and nonbelievers are outsiders.
The absence of religious symbols from official sheriff vehicles would not, contrary to Abbott's claim, express "hostility to religion." Governmental neutrality is the appropriate viewpoint. A sheriff should not care about the religion of citizens or suspects, but about enforcing the law evenhandedly and protecting citizen rights.
Abbott attempts but fails to reconcile the government displaying exclusively Christian symbols on its property with the Constitution's Establishment Clause, which protects citizens from religious endorsement by the government. Rather than addressing the considerable body of Supreme Court case law condemning religious endorsement by the government, including by the placement of crosses on governmental property, Abbott mischaracterizes the Supreme Court as having an "expansive interpretation of the Establishment Clause's limited and unambiguous test."
Abbott's goal is clear: to pander to his religious constituents by being seen as a modern-day crusader for the Christian cause. His memo to the Attorney General's Office is anything but a fair and objective legal analysis. FFRF hopes that when the attorney general issues his own opinion, he will set aside political considerations and stick to interpreting the law.
FFRF has a national enrollment of 23,000 members, including almost 1,000 individuals in Texas.