Colin Mueller, a junior at Walton High School, Marietta, Ga., was denied approval from his school in April to start a new student group titled Freethinkers for Cooperation Acceptance and Trust (FACT). The school has more than 70 approved student groups, including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Muslim Student Association.
Proposals for creating new groups were heard April 18 by a school committee. FACT was one of several groups denied approval for the next school year. After receiving a letter from FFRF, the school reversed its earlier decision and granted FACT student group status.
The application for FACT included information on the group’s purpose, activities, a list of 10 prospective members and a faculty supervisor. The application described the club this way:
“The purpose of the club is to bring freethinking students together who are surrounded by a predominantly religious society; together the students will be able to find a support group and help each other with problems associated with being a freethinker (such as ‘coming out’ to your parents that you are not religious, or seeing the meaning in life). The mission of the club is to show the Walton community that freethinkers (atheist, agnostics, Unitarians or other non-mainstream religious affiliates) can very well live a life of high morals and be genuinely good people without reporting to a higher power.”
Colin received a rejection letter that said:
“There are so many clubs existing at Walton that part of the decision-making process includes making sure that clubs do not compete for the same members. Additionally, we cannot accept a club that holds or espouses any particular religious, political or philosophical beliefs, is physical in nature or does not have a service or curriculum component.”
Colin appealed but was told that the denial was final and that the committee only approved the “best” of the proposed groups.
After the denial, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter of complaint to the Cobb County School District. Elliott wrote that the denial was a violation of both the federal Equal Access Act and the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. The Equal Access Act provides that schools receiving federal funds cannot deny equal treatment to noncurriculum student groups on the basis of their religious, political or philosophical views.
Elliott said, “If FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes] is allowed club status, then the school may not censor FACT. . . . Minority views are protected under the First Amendment. It is not permissible for a committee to vote on group approval based on which views will be the most popular. The school should train any persons who make approval decisions, whether staff or students, on how to make decisions in a viewpoint neutral manner.”
On April 29, Colin was informed that his group was approved. Ironically, his initial application focused on the mistreatment of atheists: “This club would not be formed if it were not for the lack of acceptance of freethinkers in the USA. In this day, there are still 50% of Americans who say that they would not vote for a well-qualified atheist candidate solely based on the grounds that said candidate is an atheist.”
Florida school ends adult-led prayers
After receiving a complaint from a student and FFRF, Highlands County Schools, Sebring, Fla., took action to limit the reach of a Christian group that was interacting with Lake Placid Middle School students before school.
A student reported that an adult from a group called Youth for Christ was regularly in the gym playing Christian music and leading students in prayer. All students were subject to the music and prayers because students who arrive early to school are required to be in the gym.
In March, FFRF sent a complaint stating that the school’s grant of access to a minister to proselytize a captive audience violated the Establishment Clause. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott also wrote, “This predatory conduct is inappropriate and should raise many red flags.”
John McClure, Highlands County Schools general counsel, replied, saying that use of the gym for prayers has been stopped. But his letter also said that the school will allow the meetings to continue if the group is operated as a student club not run by adults.
McClure said, “Upon becoming aware of the circumstances, the school principal has changed the meeting place and reinforced with the club the requirement that the club be student led.
“Further, the Deputy Superintendent of Schools is publishing the issues at the monthly principal’s meeting so that the requirements can be reinforced throughout all schools in the school district, which I think was one of your primary concerns.”
‘9 Commandments’ judge loses robes
FFRF started fighting a proposed Ten Commandments display and the judge pushing it in July 2010 at the Hawkins County Justice Center in Rogersville, Tenn. It was a pet project of Juvenile Judge James “Jay” Taylor, whose personal website was plastered with piety. As it turns out, all that piety blew up horrendously in his face after FFRF took an interest in the case.
The Knoxville News Sentinel reported that Hawkins agreed to resign May 1 in an agreement with the Tennessee Court of Judiciary, which charged him with taking $9,000 from clients for personal gain. “He is a charlatan, and his charlatanry is about to come to an end,” said Morristown lawyer Paul Whetstone, who represents two clients who have filed civil suits.
The Court of the Judiciary earlier sanctioned Taylor for lobbying the County Commission to support the “Foundations of American Law and Government” display and fundraising for it.
A county committee had approved the display, heavily weighted with religious elements, including the Ten Commandments, all obviously meant to show that America is a Christian nation. Besides the constitutional violations, as FFRF noted in a follow-up complaint, shouldn’t a decalogue that’s supposed to be historical at least have ten commandments? Taylor’s proposed plaque listed only nine (omitting adultery — hmm — see below), and mixed up the Roman numeral XI for IX. Local media neglected to pick up on the errors, which Taylor corrected after FFRF’s letter pointed them out. The display, which has never been put up, also contained numerous historical inaccuracies.
A petition for discipline filed in February by the Board of Personal Responsibility alleged Taylor used about $6,000 of display donations for his personal use.
Taylor is also the subject of a $3 million lawsuit by a former employee alleging he violated her civil rights, made “unwelcome and unwanted” sexual advances and unlawfully fired her.
FFRF starves out N.C. church discount
An FFRF complaint put an end to an illegal church bulletin discount at the Fisherman’s Quarters II in Asheville, N.C. The restaurant regularly offered a 10% discount to church-going patrons. The promotion was at the top the list of discounts on its website.
Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt first wrote to the owners in October 2011: “Fisherman’s Quarters II’s restrictive promotional practice favors religious customers and denies customers who do not attend church as well as nonbelievers the right to ‘full and equal’ enjoyment of Fisherman’s Quarters II.”
After Schmitt sent two follow-up letters, a restaurant representative said in late March that the discriminatory practice had ended.
Religion stripped from Ala. sheriff’s sleeve
Chilton County, Ala., Sheriff Kevin Davis will no longer send his constituents an overtly sectarian Christmas card, thanks to FFRF’s action. Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt first wrote Jan. 20 to Davis that his card was “grossly inappropriate.”
It showed Davis and his family in front of a Christmas tree and was signed “Sheriff Davis and Family.” The card also contained a religious poem ending with “The Christmas gift given to us is Jesus Christ’s gift of love.”
Schmidt added, “We strongly urge you to consider your status as one of the highest elected officials in Chilton County and the importance of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state before you send out holiday cards promoting your personal religious beliefs and viewpoints.”
Davis spoke with Schmitt on March 19 and assured her that the card will be changed for the upcoming holiday season. He said he had “no intentions of offending anyone.”
FFRF opens Nevada libraries on Easter
The Washoe County Library System in Reno, Nev., will be open during Easter next year.
FFRF and a local complainant took issue with the library’s holiday closure policy. Before FFRF’s involvement, all county libraries were closed each Easter Sunday, even libraries that had typical Sunday hours.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Library Director Arnie Maurins on Feb. 16: “Easter is neither a federal holiday nor a Nevada state holiday. It is unconstitutional and inappropriate for a public library system to close on Easter.”
FFRF learned that library employees are forced to make up the hours they missed for the mandatory Easter shutdown by working at another branch unless they took vacation time. “Government employees should not be inconvenienced or punished so that Christian employees can celebrate a holy day,” asserted Markert.
Maurins replied March 12 and said the policy will change in the future, and staff would be directed to “take the necessary steps to enable libraries with Sunday hours to be open on Easter.”
FFRF letter muffles Christian rock band
Lewis County Schools in Weston, W.Va., canceled a Christian concert after receiving an FFRF letter of complaint. Both the Lewis County middle school and high school were scheduled to interrupt instructional time to host the Jason Lovins Band, a Christian rock group with a clear mission to “take the focus off themselves and point it to the One they sing about.”
Lovins is known to “testify” at performances and frequently insists “life begins at conception.” He claims he was conceived as the result of rape and warns students against abortion. The event was sponsored by Youth Alive a student Christian club.
“We are concerned that this assembly will be utilized by the Youth Alive club and their guest to push their religious agenda and religious values on a captive audience of students,” wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt.
A school representative confirmed March 9 that the middle school assembly was canceled. While the high school assembly took place, “no religion was brought into the assembly,” the school said, assuring Schmitt that it will “stay within the proper guidelines of separation of church and state.”
FFRF hunts down Tenn. Easter event
FFRF persuaded the city of Mt. Juliet, Tenn., to stop promoting “the Great Easter Bash,” a Christian event set to take place on April 7 in a public park. The city Parks and Recreation Department was the designated host, with Friendship Community Church as a co-sponsor.
The city advertised the event on the department’s website and on mass-distributed postcards. Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote April 4 to Parks Director Jay Cameli to protest city sponsorship of a religious event.
Schmitt received confirmation April 6 that the city removed all information about the event: “[The Parks Department] removed the city logo, as well as all references to the ‘City of Mt. Juliet’ on the printed materials that will be distributed at the event.” Employees were instructed to treat the event as they would any other.
Bible-pushers banished at UW Hospital
The University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison, Wis., will no longer allow Gideons International to unlawfully distribute bibles on public property, thanks to FFRF’s vigilance.
Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent an advisory letter March 22 to UW Hospital President and CEO Donna Katen-Bahensky: “Permitting members of the Gideons or other bible distribution organizations the privilege of passing out their religious literature in the entrance of a state-run hospital constitutes blatant state endorsement of these Christian publications.”
A local complainant noted that security officers regulated the area in question, but claimed they were unable to take any action because it was in “a public space,” even though it was by the main hospital entrance. Many of the security officers stated that “they were getting a lot of complaints” and admitted being upset about the situation.
Katen-Bahensky sent a positive reply April 9: “In reeducating our Security Department on the nonsolicitation policy earlier this year, we did discover that there had been some confusion with respect to the Gideons, but that confusion has been clarified. All solicitors, including members of the Gideons, will be asked to leave the area if they are soliciting there.”
FFRF had protested the practice on behalf of patients, families and staff for many years.
FFRF to Ga. judge: Send aid, not bibles
A judge in Douglasville, Ga., was ordered to stop using county resources to promote Christianity after Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a complaint letter April 13. Magistrate Court Judge Barbara Caldwell was soliciting donations of new and used bibles in the county newsletter and collecting bibles at the courthouse.
An aide to the chief magistrate promptly responded to Schmitt and confirmed that bibles will no longer be accepted at or delivered to the courthouse. She added that there will be no more newsletter bible ads.
‘Homeboy’ Jesus loses N. Carolina homeroom
An eighth-grade teacher at Starmount Middle School in Booneville, N.C., will no longer proselytize to her students. The teacher said in class that “God is the only creator of the universe,” and “Evolution is not allowed to be considered.” She also used skeletons adorned with T-shirts as teaching aids, including shirts that said “Jesus is my Homeboy” and “Mary is my Homegirl.”
The Secular Student Alliance sent two emails to the teacher, asking for the removal of the offensive shirts. A third email went out to the school principal but garnered no response. FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert intervened on Feb. 28: “Public schools are prohibited from teaching creationism or ‘intelligent design.’ Courts have routinely found that such teachings are religious and unconstitutional.”
In a March 8 reply, Superintendent L. Stewart Hobbs confirmed that the shirts had been removed.
FFRF ‘deletes’ biblical emails in Georgia
Inappropriate use of employee email at the Harris County School District in Hamilton, Ga., ended after FFRF’s involvement. The school district allowed “principals and other leadership staff to send emails to their subordinates which include bible passages.”
One correspondence took place between an elementary school principal and the district’s director of transportation. The emails contained “relevant” bible passages intended to “guide” the recipient.
Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to Superintendent Craig Dowling on March 15: “No public school employee may urge religious points of view on students, parents, or employees. This includes bible verses and talking about ‘following God.’ ”
Dowling responded March 23: “The Harris County School District will take such action as it deems appropriate regarding such communications to fulfill its responsibilities to avoid the advancement of religion and remain neutral in respect thereto.”
Mandatory school staff prayer is stopped
The Wichita Falls [Texas] Independent School District has barred sectarian prayer at mandatory staff events. The district held its August convocation at the First Baptist Church. Local complainants told FFRF that School Board President Reginald Blow delivered the sectarian prayer “in Jesus’ name” at the mandatory meeting.
FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote three complaint letters, starting last August, before Superintendent George Kazanas answered March 7 that “future convocations will not include a prayer.”
‘Faith & Family Day’ ousted at Ohio college
FFRF informed a Cleveland university that faith does not mean family Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio, sponsored “Faith & Family Day” on Jan. 7 during a men’s basketball game. It was promoted with a logo featuring several Christian crosses.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to CSU President Ronald Berkman on March 13 about the inappropriate religious endorsement. The school responded March 26:
“Immediately upon being notified of this, all posters, fliers and marquee messages within the Wolstein Center were removed [and] appropriate steps have been taken to ensure that there will not be any future advertisements or promotional events sponsored by the university that will in any way suggest that the university endorses religion or any religious preference.”
‘Pagans’ remove Gideon bibles from Hagan
Hagan Elementary School in Williston, N.D., will no longer permit representatives of Gideons International to distribute bibles to students.
In a letter of complaint to Superintendent Viola LaFontaine, Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt took issue with fifth-grade students getting bibles. Students returning one day from music class found bibles on each of their desks. The teacher then led the class in a discussion of the bible.
Schmitt wrote that Williston Schools may not allow Gideons or any other religious group to enter school property to distribute religious literature, or to engage in bible discussions.
In an April 9 response, LaFontaine wrote, “Please be assured this will not happen again and bibles will not be distributed in any of the Williston Public School District #1 Schools.”
FFRF stills Kentucky loudspeaker prayer
FFRF stopped a preacher from delivering pregame basketball prayer over the loudspeaker March 6 at Madisonville-North Hopkins High School in Madisonville, Ky. A local complainant informed FFRF about the pastor’s Christian prayer, which was allowed even though the school was warned last fall about it.
FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor sent a statewide memorandum to all Kentucky superintendents prior to the 2011 athletic season. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert followed up with Superintendent James Stevens in a March 12 letter: “As was made clear last fall, it is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor and lead prayers at public high school athletic events.”
A school district attorney responded March 20: “We appreciate your reiterating [the law] and we have taken steps to ensure compliance with federal law on this issue.” The district directed Stevens to address the issue with all principals and administrators to ensure compliance.