Freethought Today · Vol. 27 No. 9 November 2010

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF Legal Victories

School halts classroom bible distributions

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter Oct. 19 to Perkins-Tryon Public Schools (Perkins, Okla.) to object to Gideons International distributing bibles in classrooms to students at Perkins-Tryon Intermediate School.

“It is unconstitutional for public school districts to allow the Gideons to distribute bibles during the school day,” wrote Elliott. “Courts uniformly have held the distribution of bibles to students at public schools during instructional time is prohibited.”

An attorney for the school district responded Oct. 25 that the distribution of bibles “was inconsistent with District’s policy regarding the same.” She noted the policy “comports with constitutional requirements,” and that the district “will ensure that future distributions of materials comply with the established policy.”

The policy severely restricts distribution of print materials, but does allow for some items to be placed on a table in the school to be passively distributed. Since Gideons International did not follow the rules, they may be prohibited from any future attempts at distributing bibles.

“While the policy is not ideal,” remarked Elliott, “it will prevent the Gideons from distributing bibles to most students and will stop them from forcefully pushing the bibles. I’m sure the district would reconsider the policy should other people or groups start to utilize the policy. If a ‘There is no god’ flier were distributed, I bet the school would start to see the problem with using part of the school as a ‘limited open forum.’ ”

Schools stop censoring of atheist websites

Indianapolis Public Schools received considerable criticism in 2009 when its Internet filtering policy was made public and residents complained to FFRF and the ACLU. The policy censored websites with information about “alternative spirituality/belief,” including atheistic views, and sites advocating for full civil rights for gays and lesbians.

The policy banned websites “that promote and provide information on religions such as Wicca, Witchcraft or Satanism. Occult practices, atheistic views, voodoo rituals or any other form of mysticism are represented here. Includes sites that endorse or offer methods of, means of instruction, or other resources to affect or influence real events through the use of spells, incantations, curses and magic powers. This category includes sites which discuss or deal with paranormal or unexplained events.”

“This section of the filtering policy is unlawful because it blocks harmless websites about various religious beliefs, or nonbelief, which are protected speech under the First Amendment,” FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote in a letter to the superintendent.

Markert pointed out that “the filtering policy of Indianapolis School District is unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination under the First Amendment. . . . The policy blocking access to ‘atheist views’ prefers religion over nonreligion, which the government cannot do.”

After several follow-up letters, the district responded that its Internet filtering policy had been amended. The new policy includes anti-discrimination language and excludes the discriminatory language.

W.O.W. evangelicals invaded middle school

McAlester Public Schools in Oklahoma took action after an Oct. 13 complaint from FFRF about religious proselytizing at Puterbaugh Middle School with a program called W.O.W. (Worship On Wednesdays).

“We were informed that during each Wednesday lunch period, students participating in W.O.W. are escorted to the front of the lunch line in front of the other students,” wrote Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott. “We understand that they then go to Mr. Newman’s room, Room 2, for a preaching session. We are told that Mr. Newman brings pastors from the community to preach to the students and that

Mr. Newman speaks to the students on occasion.”

A local complainant told FFRF that Pastor Steve Mayhew of First Free Will Baptist Church preached to and prayed to students Sept. 29. Elliott added: “Our complainant informs us that a concerned parent contacted Superintendent Tom Condict by telephone about W.O.W. The parent told Mr. Condict that federal law did not allow such an activity to occur in public schools. The parent reported that Mr. Condict said, ‘I don’t care what federal law says.’ We understand that Superintendent Condict has taken no action in regards to W.O.W. since the parent’s phone call.”

An adult-led Christian group named Wyldlife is also advertised at the school with posters and intercom announcements. Wyldlife has the goal of “introducing adolescents to Jesus Christ and helping them to grow in their faith.”

Elliott said that a public school and its personnel cannot organize, authorize or otherwise coordinate a Christian ministry program. “Even if school personnel were not involved, it is illegal for public schools to allow religious instruction to occur on school property during the school day.”

It’s unclear if parents had knowledge of their child’s attendance at W.O.W. or if parental written authorization was solicited by the school.

On Nov. 11, school attorney William Ervin Sr. responded: “This is to inform you that the Board of Education of McAlester Public Schools at their November 8, 2010, monthly board meeting decided [7-0] all nonschool-sponsored group meetings should be suspended until a determination could be made as to whether such meetings were in fact being conducted in accordance with the District’s policy concerning such matters. The suspension will remain in effect until further action of the Board, at which time I will further advise you.

Elliott has learned that since FFRF’s letter, W.O.W. students are no longer escorted in front of other students at lunch, and that the school has made clear that teachers and outside adults may longer participate in W.O.W.

School admits Christian fundraiser was wrong

FFRF sent a letter in June 2010 to the Hillsborough County School District (Tampa, Fla.) objecting on behalf of a parent concerned about Bartels Middle School distributing fliers soliciting contributions to a school in Namibia, Africa. The flier failed to mention the school was Christian and failed to include a required disclaimer distancing the school from official sponsorship or endorsement of the program. It also didn’t list the flier’s sponsor: the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The flier said that checks made out to Bartels Middle School would be accepted.

In an attempt to remedy the violation after complaints, the school redistributed the flier, still without a disclaimer, asking for donations to a Christian school. “The new flier did nothing to disassociate the school from the religious organization, but rather seemed to further amplify the school’s endorsement of the Christian academy,” wrote Rebecca Markert, FFRF staff attorney, in a follow-up.

“By promoting this fundraiser as a ‘school-wide event,’ asking ‘EVERY student and family’ to participate, and involving teachers and staff to collect donations, Bartels Middle School lent its support and aid to a sectarian institution,” Markert said.

An attorney for the district responded Oct. 11: “The events which occurred at Bartels Middle School violated several School Board policies, including the prohibition of student fundraising without the express approval of the superintendent. . . . The appeal should not have been conducted through the school because of the just-cited policy.”

Coach prays, has pastor bless football helmets

FFRF complained Oct. 7 to the Redlands [Calif.] Unified School District about a serious state-church violation at Redlands High School football practices and games. A complainant informed FFRF, which has about 2,500 members in California, that the team and coach regularly recite the Lord’s Prayer and traditionally open the first practice of the season with a “blessing of the helmets.”

“First and foremost, it is illegal for a public school athletic coach to be leading his team in prayer,” wrote Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott. “The Supreme Court has continually struck down formal and teacher or school-led prayer in public schools.”

The Redlands Daily Facts reported that the team’s coach invited Larry White, pastor of Horizon Church [core value: Christ-centered worship] in Victorville to deliver the “blessing of the helmets” prayer.

The coach “cannot be allowed to engage in religious ritual with students or encourage his student athletes to have particular religious beliefs. Establishment Clause concerns are especially heightened given the coercive pressure for student athletes to follow the direction of their coach,” said Elliott. He requested in writing the steps the district is taking to remedy the violations.
Compiled by Bill Dunn and Bonnie Gutsch.

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