Freethought Today · Vol. 28 No. 1 January/February 2011

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

It Pays to Complain

String of FFRF legal victories

Bell ringers moved from postal grounds

An FFRF letter Dec. 23 swiftly resolved a violation in which Salvation Army bell ringers were soliciting funds on U.S. Post Office property in Elgin, Ill. The Foundation’s letter included photos of a bell ringer at the postal entrance.

Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, wrote: “The Post Office cannot allow a Salvation Army bell ringer to solicit donations on postal property. [Postal regulations] state specifically that ‘soliciting alms and contributions . . . or impeding access to or egress from Post Offices are prohibited.’ ”

Elgin’s postmaster first phoned the Foundation to say she was not aware of those postal regulations or that the Salvation Army was a religious organization. The Salvation Army is not just a religious organization; it is a Christian denomination. The postmaster agreed that religious affiliation is moot since it was a violation of postal regulations.

She followed up with a letter Jan. 14: “I have contacted the Salvation Army and informed them that they would not be allowed to stand in front of Postal Property while ringing their bell. This will not be an issue in the future in Elgin.”

School will limit religious dance group

FFRF objected in early January to Gaston County Schools, Gastonia, N.C., hosting religious-based assemblies. A Dec. 7 assembly at Webb Street School, a special-needs facility, featured Elements of Dance, self-described as “a school of dance where students learn technical skill in ballet, modern, tap, and hip-hop while worshipping the Lord. ‘For Him we live and move and have our being. Acts 17:28.’ ”

On Jan. 18, a school district attorney spoke with Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, and confirmed that Christian music had been played and that the school had planned to bring the dance company back in the spring of 2011.

FFRF was informed that the principal has agreed that no future performance may include religious content, and that all assemblies must be secular in nature.

Prayer strikes out before Virginia games

FFRF helped stop a 13-year state-church violation in Sterling, Va., involving Potomac Falls High School baseball coaches leading players in pre-game prayer.

“Before each game, we go to left field, take a knee, take our hats off, and the team prays,” one player said in a story headlined “Playing on a prayer” in a school publication. “Coach says the same thing every time,” another player added. “It really helps us get ready for the game.”

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a letter last Sept. 23 to object to the unconstitutional tradition. Federal law “dictates government employees should refrain from actively participating in religious activities while acting within their governmental role to avoid any perception of government endorsement of religion and/or excessive entanglement with religion.”

An attorney for the district responded Jan. 20: “We have taken steps to insure that administrators and coaches are aware of the current status of the law and strictly adhere to those parameters in the future.”

FFRF stops Florida school staff’s religion

Faculty and staff at Clay County Schools in Green Cove Springs, Fla., were told to stop taking part in student-initiated religious activities and prohibited from promoting religion in their official capacities after the district received a letter from FFRF on Oct. 26, 2010.

A high school varsity soccer coach regularly encouraged her players to attend Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings, and her team participated in an FCA-sponsored “team bonding retreat.” The coach ended one e-mail to her team: “Discover and grow strong in the word of God.” The previous year, she led the soccer team in prayer before each game.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert pointed out in her six-page letter that the coach’s constant encouragement for student involvement in “ ‘student-led’ FCA is constitutionally problematic. Prayer before athletic events in your district is illegal and inappropriate and must cease immediately.”

An attorney for the district agreed with Markert’s analysis and responded on Dec. 17 that the coach and principal were told that “there should be no school employee participation in activities such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes and ‘Meet Me At the Pole’ or any other religious extracurricular clubs, organizations or groups.

“Additionally, there are to be no e-mails with personal testimony, no encouraging students to get involved with FCA, and no encouragement of any kind by the coach or any other school employee to get involved in any religious activity.”

‘Inspiration’ graduation out in West Virginia

A high school in Gilmer County, W.V., finally confirmed that it held its graduation last May without an “inspiration” after receiving numerous letters from FFRF, starting in August 2009. The graduation ceremony in 2009 had included an “inspiration,” which was actually a Christian invocation, and FFRF had concerns that the 2010 graduation would again schedule unconstitutional prayers.

After four follow-up letters and calls between the district superintendent and Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, the principal of the high school finally responded Dec. 19: “I have attached a copy of the program from Graduation Ceremonies held May 28, 2010, which indicates that no invocation, prayer, or inspiration was scheduled.”

Disclaimers ordered for religious fliers

FFRF protested fliers advertising a religious “See You at the Pole” event last Sept. 22 at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven, Conn. The flier stated: “Take your place in history with millions of other students on this Global Day of Student Prayer. See You at the Pole can provide a powerful connection between you and the other Christian students on your campus to pray and reach out all year long. Be bold! Be unashamed! And stand in prayer with other Christian Youth for your Generation to be changed.”

Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, wrote: “The school district should not approve fliers or posters for distribution or display unless an appropriate disclaimer is included to disassociate the school district from the religious organization or event. Without such a disclaimer, students are apt to believe that the school is endorsing the prayer engaged in during the ‘See You at the Pole’ event.”

Future fliers advertising religious groups’ events at the school “should contain language to remove any perception of government endorsement,” she added.

The district responded Dec. 2: “New Haven Public Schools does not approve fliers or posters for display and/or distribution unless an appropriate disclaimer is included. Wilbur Cross has a newly appointed principal and I have met with the leadership team stressing the aforementioned concern. We are mindful of the religion/state concerns and have taken the necessary steps to avoid additional situations.”

School drops shrine from field trip

On Nov. 26, the Foundation alerted the superintendent of Alexander Central School District, Alexander, N.Y., about the unconstitutionality of a scheduled 10th-grade field trip in April that included a stop at the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Md.

“Including a stop at a Catholic shrine, whose mission is for ‘visitors to [enrich] spiritually through their pilgrimage to the site where [Seton] taught, worked, prayed and died’ during a public school trip, appears to be an impermissible school endorsement and furthering of Catholic doctrine,” wrote Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney. “The Constitution’s prohibition against school-sponsored religious activities cannot be overcome by claiming such activities are ‘voluntary,’” Markert noted.

The superintendent responded Jan. 4 that the school “removed a stop at Seton Shrine from the itinerary.”

‘Spiritual’ staff e-mail tag removed

The Beaverton, Ore., School District responded Dec. 10 to an FFRF complaint by Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott about a school staff member who used an e-mail signature that said, in part: “We are spiritual beings going through a temporary human experience.”

Camellia Osterink, legal counsel, said that while the district disagreed that the words were religious, it did agree that they were “not an appropriate use of district technology.”

Separating church and polling place

FFRF member C. Ryan Shannon stood up for his right to be free from religious encroachment by contacting his Oklahoma election board about a sticker on the door at the entrance to his polling place in an Episcopal church. The sticker said “Please visit our church on Sunday!”

The election board asked the church to remove the sign after Shannon objected. “The church responded that it was ‘a permanent sign which is there every day,’ — although it was a sticker and not a sign — and said they would reroute voters through a different door during voting hours,” he said.

A board employee checked the proposed alternate entry but determined it wasn’t handicapped accessible: “I understand from my staff that this signage you alerted us about is a permanent sign that appears to be taped to the door which stays there for all activities at the church, not just for voting.”

A “permanent” sign taped to the door?

But, the employee told Shannon: “The church administration has said they would cover this sign for us on Election Day, and that if they should forget to do so, our inspector at the precinct will have in the supplies a sheet of paper large enough to cover the sign. We will do our best to see that this is taken care of on Election Day. Hopefully, this solution will satisfy your concern. Please let us know if we may be of further assistance.”

He’s very glad he raised the issue. “It has allowed me to feel empowered against the overwhelming presence of religion here.”

Shannon adds, “I was surprised to see McAlester, Okla., mentioned in Freethought Today. I was once a substitute teacher in that school system, where my niece still attends. I was saddened to hear that W.O.W [Worship On Wednesdays] was proselytizing on campus and giving special privileges to its members, yet very grateful that there was an FFRF member who stood up to it.

“Thanks to her parents, my niece is being raised to experience life in all its wondrous aspects. We don’t want to limit her experiences based on some archaic tribal texts that denigrate intellect, women and her gay uncle. I sometimes feel like I am lost in the wilderness of crazy and inane believers, then I get Freethought Today and I feel a bit better.”

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