Voter says pee-ew to church precinct
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter of complaint July 14 on behalf of a Wisconsin member Kurt Bocksenbaum to Village President Carl Krueger in Brown Deer, Wis., about a polling place violation at a July 12 state Senate recall primary election.
The letter objected to religious symbolism [see photo] at the polling place at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, including a Jesus portrait and a Latin cross, mixed in with depictions of U.S. history.
“All of these symbols and messages were visible, and unavoidable, to every voter entering the polling site that day and none of them was covered or removed during voting hours,” Elliott wrote, adding that Bocksenbaum made a similar complaint at the April spring election to Village Manager Russell Van Gompelon.
After consulting with legal counsel, Van Gompel removed the the display. Reportedly, church officials immediately protested and put the display back up.
On July 12, Bocksenbaum complained again and was confronted by the church president, who said that the cross display would not be taken down while the church was used as a polling place.
Elliott asked the village to choose a different polling place to avoid the potential for “political intimidation” in the minds of some voters, adding that the displays falsely tie patriotism to piety. Elliott also stated that Wisconsin law provides that polling places “shall be public buildings” unless it’s impractical or other buildings better serve the needs of the electorate.
FFRF received a response from the village attorney, stating that the Village Board would be meeting with the School Board to discuss an alternative polling place. The attorney said another option would be a community center that has not yet begun construction.
“Even if you deem it necessary to select churches or other religious properties as polling locations for future elections, we can certainly agree that it is inappropriate to allow these sites to display patently religious messages while acting as a designated polling location,” Elliott wrote.
Praying to bring rain, stop economic pain
Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s call for a day of prayer and fasting Aug. 6 may have inspired Maine Gov. Paul LePage to do the same. LePage released his proclamation the same day (June 6) with the same message (an Aug. 6 prayer rally), using almost the exact same wording. The proclamation called for Maine citizens to “join together for a solemn day of prayer and fasting on behalf of our troubled nation, quoted scripture and was stamped with the state seal.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor sent a letter July 20 to LePage, insisting that he stop misusing his public office to “inappropriately inveigle and exhort” his constitutients to pray.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin decided citizens should all pray on July 17 for an end to a devastating drought. Fallin’s proclamation, though nonsectarian, said “The power of prayer is a wonderful thing, and I would ask every Oklahoman to look to a greater power this weekend and ask for rain.”
FFRF sent a letter July 19 to Fallin’s office, asking her to refrain from such useless and offensive proclamations in the future.
Prayer bustin’ out all over California
An epidemic of government prayer in San Bernadino, San Diego and Orange counties drew attention from FFRF, which has about 2,460 California members.
FFRF has sent several recent letters of complaint to mayors and council members in Escondido, Highland, Colton and Yorba Linda and to the San Bernadino County Board of Supervisors.
The Yorba Linda City Council, for example, whose prayers are predominantly Christian, usually invites religious leaders to give the invocation. But on May 17, council member Tom Lindsey gave it, ending his prayer, “Father, we ask a blessing upon all of our city staff also, that they can continue to perform well and that they will enjoy their jobs and that we can appreciate them for all they do for us. These things we humbly pray for this evening, asking thy blessings in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”
In FFRF’s July 11 letter to Yorba Linda Mayor Nancy Rikel, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote, “To avoid the constitutional concerns these prayers cause for the Council and the divisiveness these prayers cause within the community the solution is simple: discontinue official, government prayers before legislative meetings.”
The San Bernadino County Board of Supervisors also routinely prays to a specific deity: Jesus. On June 28, Bishop Dexter Kilpatrick of the Spirit of Truth Worship Ministries concluded his prayer, “We thank you in your sovereign son Jesus’ name. Amen.” Pablo Cott, Sheriff’s Department chaplain, finished his June 16 prayer by saying, “I give you the glory in Jesus’ name. Amen.” The chaplain of the Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, Raymond Gregory, ended the May 24 invocation, “We thank you in the name of our risen lord Jesus. Amen.”
On July 11, FFRF sent a complaint to Josie Gonzales, County Board chair. Markert wrote, “The constitutional rights of citizens to participate in government meetings such as the board’s weekly meetings should not be predicated upon being subjected to Christian-based or even nondenominational prayer.”
On July 7, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor sent Highland Mayor Larry McCallon a letter objecting to Highland’s predominantly Christian prayers. The Highland City Council does not make recordings of its meetings available, but according to their official minutes, going back as far as 2008 the vast majority of the prayers were given by Immanuel Baptist Church. Between Jan. 1 and May 25, out of nine council meetings, all but one invocation were delivered by Immanuel Baptist clergy (one was delivered by a member of the Mormon church).
Turning “moments of reflection” at Escondido City Council meetings into overtly Christian prayers is illegal, Markert wrote Mayor Sam Abed on July 25. She noted that, according to FFRF’s information, all 12 persons giving the invocation this year are representatives of the Christian faith, and that nine of the 12 have given prayers invoking Jesus, which make the moments of reflection sectarian.
According to a North County Times news story, Dick Bridgman of Emmanuel Faith Community Church has coordinated the prayer program since 2005. “[W]hile Mr. Bridgman is instructed to inform speakers to keep their comments inclusive and nondenominational, the speakers continuously ignore such provisions, and Mr. Bridgman himself has admitted that he does ‘not . . . go to every meeting and enforce them,’ ” the paper reported.
N.Y. Rep. Rangel puts misguided trust in God
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor sent a letter Aug. 1 to U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., to object to his July 21 House speech, his July 22 email and an “In God We Trust” posting on his official website.
Rangel’s email said, in part: “Now is the time when we really need God to guide us to do the right and moral thing. . . . Saying ‘In God We Trust’ is a constant reminder that we respect our court system and the Supreme Court, but in the final analysis, it’s the higher authority of morality that should be guiding all of us.”
Gaylor wrote, “Our members have two concerns over this kind of gratuitous religious commentary by elected officials. First, we would wish that elected officials were not only more sensitive to their nonreligious constituents, but were better informed on the constitutional history of the separation between state and church.
Gaylor provided a short history lesson over Congress’ belated adoption of the exclusionary religious motto.
Federal agency stuffs kits with religion
The Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, distributes a binder entitled “Children’s Program Kit: Supportive Education for Children of Addicted Parents.” This informational binder is offered and shipped free of charge to anyone requesting it. Materials are aimed at support group facilitators who work with schoolchildren.
Many would support the concept of federal funding for programs to address substance abuse. But, says FFRF legal intern Kristen Fox, “SAMHSA’s binder sometimes slips from counseling to subtle religious endorsement.” The binder is littered with references to Alcoholics Anonymous, a spirituality-based treatment program about which FFRF frequently receives complaints for its religious components.
After receiving a citizen complaint, FFRF ordered the kit, which contains some troublesome component, include this statement in the preface: “The Elders have told us that the most important thing we can do for our children is teach them respect and teach them to pray. . . . Growing up in a family hurt by alcoholism or drug addiction blocks respect, the ability to pray, and the hope for a healthy future.”
The kit recommends the Serenity Prayer as a closing exercise: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
A high school-level quiz says that “Addiction to alcohol or drugs is a physical disease. Willpower alone will not work. Medical treatment and programs like Alcoholics Anonymous are ways that many people find sobriety after they have tried and failed to do it on willpower alone.”
In a July 19 letter to SAMHSA Administrator Pamela Hyde, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott explained that AA and other spirituality-oriented materials in the binder “is particularly troubling when numerous recovery, treat-ment, and support programs offer [assistance with substance abuse], but without the added religious advocacy. . . . Because the audience in this case consists of schoolchildren, the inclusion of AA materials is even more concerning.”
FFRF requested that SAMHSA remove religious materials from the binders to ensure that their content is medical and secular in nature.
Unfair advantage for godly Georgia plates
Numerous complaints about proposed designs for the new standard Georgia license plate led FFRF to submit a letter of complaint June 28 to the state Department of Revenue, which sponsored a contest for people to submit license plate designs. A committee then narrowed the hundreds of submissions to eight finalists to be voted upon by the public.
Three of the finalists’ designs displayed “In God We Trust” at the bottom of the plate, leading most to believe that the inscription would be included on the default plate, should one of the three designs win the contest.
Currently, Georgia’s policy allows for two inclusions on standard plates: the county designation or, for $1, an optional sticker to affix “In God We Trust.” No other stickers are available or allowed.
After the public backlash against the policy brought an onslaught of complaints, the department released a statement saying the policy would not change and that “In God We Trust” would only appear with purchase of the optional $1 sticker. Unsurprisingly, in the first round of voting, all three “In God We Trust” license plates were ranked highest.
Acknowledging that the vague contest policy likely tainted the votes, a second vote was scheduled, omitting from each plate design the optional “In God We Trust” emblem.
FFRF barks about seal in California
FFRF was contacted by an area resident of Santa Fe Springs, Calif., about the city seal that includes an image of an open bible with a Latin cross. The image represents religion, according to the city website. The seal is prominently displayed on city vehicles.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott notified Mayor Joseph Serrano that the seal violated the Establishment Clause, as well as the “No Preference Clause” of the California Constitution, which the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals interpreted to mean that government can neither prefer nor appear to act preferentially toward one religion over another.
Noting that both the bible and the cross are staple symbols of Christianity, Elliott wrote, “The federal courts that have examined similar seals have found that such displays violate the Establishment Clause. . . . Any claims of historical significance to the Latin cross and the bible on the Santa Fe Springs City seal do not relieve the city of its constitutional obligations.”
‘Cowboy’ pastor ropes in graduation crowd
FFRF filed a complaint June 29 about a fire-and-brimstone commencement speech by a Baptist preacher to the nine graduating seniors and the audience June 4 at Nantahala High School in Nantahala, N.C. The school is part of Macon County Schools.
During the speech, according to an account in The Andrews Journal, Rev. Daniel “Cowboy” Stewart bound a volunteer on stage with ropes while proclaiming, “The devil is out to destroy you, to tie you up. These people who took drugs, overdosed and died didn’t mean to. They got tied up.”
In a later story, the Waynesville Smoky Mountain News called the overall speech, with repeated biblical references, “a rousing sermon.” Stewart himself called it a sermon.
Religion in Macon County Schools is “out of control,” according to FFRF’s complainant.
In her letter to Superintendent Dan Brigman, FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert noted that the school can’t legally schedule prayer as part of its graduation ceremonies, and added that Stewart “obviously abused his speaking opportunity to proselytize a captive audience.”
According to the Smoky Mountain News story, Brigman “conceded that describing the [actual graduation] scene might sound strange, but being there, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.”
“ ‘The kids get to choose who the speakers are year by year,’ said Brig-man, and because Stewart was chosen by the students, he didn’t see a constitutional conflict inherent in the sermon.”
Markert wrote that the district should have realized that Stewart was apt to view the speaking engagement as “a carte blanche invitation to abuse the situation to proselytize,” and noted that Brigman’s public statements about the sermon expressed no disapproval.
It’s no defense that the students invited Stewart, Markert added, because the graduation was ultimately a school-sponsored event.
In a strong editorial June 17 that was headlined “Graduation not a time for sermons,” The Andrews Journal said, “We doubt Nantahala will be challenged for this violation of the Constitution. However, public schools and religious leaders cannot continue to flout the rule of law — even if they believe it is unjust.”
“Talk about a captive audience!” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, referring to the pastor’s bizarre rope trick. “The focus of public high school graduates ought to be on students, their achievements and futures, in keeping with our secular public education. The district may countenance this off-the-wall sermon disguised as a speech, but our Constitution does not.”
FFRF protests prayer in Newport News, Va.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter of complaint July 15 to Mayor McKinley Price and City Council members in Newport News, Va., on behalf of a local complainant opposed to prayer at council meetings.
“We understand that these prayers often invoke Jesus Christ, ending frequently ‘in Jesus’ name’ or some variation,” Elliott wrote.
Price said clergy are encouraged to give “generic” prayers, adding that “God is in my life every day. Personally, I see [prayer] as a necessity.”