The Freedom From Religion Foundation yesterday sent a strong letter to the Tracy Unified School District (Calif.) censuring the punishment of two West High School students who omitted the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance.
Students in Shauna Baker's speech and debate class are charged with the responsibility of reading the daily announcements and the Pledge of Allegiance over the loudspeaker to everyone in the school as part of a graded assignment. Juniors Adrianna Teboe and Derek Giardina recently left out the words "under God" when it was their turn to recite the pledge.
Both students were marked down a grade for the omission, according to news reports. Giardina was reportedly given detention when he failed to include the phrase a second time, and Baker told him if he did not say the pledge properly, he would be suspended and kicked out of class.
"Students should not be singled out for exercising a conscientious objection to the words 'under God,' " wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Katherine Paige, pointing out that the phrase was only belatedly added to the previously secular pledge in the 1950s.
"Multiple courts have reiterated that students have a constitutional right not to be forced to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance and that any punishment administered in reaction to a student exercising that right violates the Constitution," added Paige.
In its seminal 1943 decision holding that compelling a student to participate in the pledge infringed upon the student's free speech, the Supreme Court memorably wrote, "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein." The decision was issued even before "under God" was added to the pledge.
FFRF asked the district to educate Baker and other teachers about the law and instruct them not to single out or penalize students for exercising their right not to participate.
"The school district should apologize to these students for violating their civil rights, and for subjecting them to embarrassment and reprisal for standing up for their rights," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF Co-President.
FFRF, a state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., has over 21,500 members nationwide, including over 3,300 in California.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church watchdog with 21,500 members, including more than 300 in Indiana, is pressing Mayor Jeff Gahan of New Albany, Ind., to end the city's extensive involvement in a long-running prayer breakfast.
New Albany's 46th annual Mayor's Community Prayer Breakfast is scheduled for this Sat., Nov. 15. The event is promoted on the city's website as a time to "come together to celebrate the diversity within God's family." The city also put an ad for the prayer breakfast on citizens' municipal utility bills, emphasizing the words "prayer" and "faith." City Hall's phone number is listed on both the city website and the utility insert as the number to call for more information about the prayer breakfast.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent Gahan a letter on Nov. 7 urging him to dissociate his office and the city from the prayer breakfast. "Your participation in this event, and the city's apparent coordination of the event, pose serious constitutional separation of state and church concerns," she wrote. "Since any reasonable city resident would logically interpret the city's actions in this case as government endorsement of religion, the city must refrain from expending any further taxpayer dollars, using publicly funded employees, and drawing on any other publicly funded resources to promote the religious prayer breakfast."
FFRF also sent the mayor an open records request for financial records and correspondence related to the event.
Markert directed Gahan to an injunction FFRF won against the mayor of Denver in 1993 over his promotion and endorsement of a "Day of Prayer." The court enjoined the mayor and other city officials "acting in an official capacity from promoting, endorsing, or supporting the Day of Prayer."
FFRF objects to officials lending their government titles to prayer events, as is the case with the Mayor's Community Prayer Breakfast. "Government officials can worship, pray, and participate in religious events in their personal capacities. But they are not permitted to provide credibility or prestige to their religion by lending a government office and government title to religious events. Their office and title belong to 'We the people,' not the office's temporary occupant," wrote Markert.
"FFRF receives so many complaints about governmental prayer, because religious sponsorship by our government turns believers into insiders, and nonbelievers — or those from minority beliefs — into outsiders. The New Albany prayer breakfast entanglement is a particularly egregious example of an inappropriate union between government and religion," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
FFRF, based in Madison, Wis., is North America's largest association of freethinkers.
The Covington County Commission in Andalusia, Ala., voted unanimously Nov. 6 to rescind a $3,000 donation of taxpayer funds to the Covington Baptist Association for a men's ministry whose purpose was "to get more men to church."
The vote was in response to an Oct. 27 complaint letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation protesting the flagrant constitutional violation.
FFRF, a national state/church watchdog with more than 21,500 members nationwide, represents more than 200 Alabama members as well as its longest-lived chapter, the Alabama Freethought Association.
Katherine Paige, FFRF legal fellow, sent the commission a second complaint letter Nov. 7 after learning that Commissioner Harold Elmore might ask to renew the grant to the ministry under the guise of funding building renovations.
Paige investigated property records and learned that Elmore was an incorporator of the Judson Baptist Church, which owns the building (sometimes referred to as the "Old Stanley School" or the "Stanley Community Center") and runs the ministry. Elmore serves as church deacon and is one of the Covington Baptist Association's four trustees.
"The commission cannot escape the grant's religious purpose and Commissioner Elmore's involvement raises serious ethical concerns under Alabama law," wrote Paige.
"The grant had, and would still have, a religious purpose: funding a Christian men's ministry," said Paige. During the Oct. 8 commission meeting when the faith grant was approved, Elmore was asked if the ministry was for Baptists only. He replied, "No, it's just a men's ministry. If any denomination wants to attend, we don't even claim to be a denomination, that's what it's for, just trying to get folks to accept the Lord."
Any further donation would be "tainted with the religious purpose of the first grant and the men's ministry," FFRF noted.
"Alabama law prohibits public officials from using their official position to obtain personal gain for themselves or for any business with which they are associated," said Paige.
FFRF also resubmitted a records request, which it had dropped after learning the grant had been rescinded.
"The Covington Baptist Association and the Judson Baptist Church are free to conduct their men's ministry, but the government may not support or fund it or their buildings," concluded FFRF's letter. "We assume this matter is dropped, but in the event the commission chooses to readdress the issue and provide support for this ministerial endeavor, FFRF will be inclined, at the very least, to submit an official complaint with the Alabama Ethics Commission."