March roared like a lion from beginning to end in winter-weary Wisconsin, and so did the Freedom From Religion Foundation, acting on many egregious entanglements between religion and government.
FFRF’s complaints stirred up lots of regional and national news coverage, crank mail and crank callers, starting with the March 3 announcement that the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct agreed with FFRF that former magistrate Lu Ann Ballew violated codes of judicial conduct by ordering a boy’s named changed from Messiah to Martin at an August hearing.
Ballew said Messiah is a title “earned by one person, and that person is Jesus Christ.” Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert’s letter of complaint set in motion the board’s public censure.
Garnering at least of a week of media attention in March was a letter from Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor to Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt, reprimanding him for inviting the pope to visit the Wisconsin city next year to make “a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help.”
Schmitt’s invitation on city letterhead was signed “Your servant in Christ” and extolled in excited tones “the events, apparitions and locutions” in 1859 that “exhibit the substance of supernatural character,” involving “the first and only Blessed Virgin Mary apparition approved by the Catholic Church in the United States.”
While noting Schmitt is “welcome to personally believe” in the supernatural sighting of the Virgin Mary a century and a half ago, the FFRF directors told Schmitt he’s not free to use his civic office to promote “your personal (and highly embarrassing) religious beliefs.”
At a press conference Schmitt called to defend himself, he admitted his letter was a “little heavy” on the religion. This is not FFRF’s first tussle with Schmitt, who was stopped by FFRF’s federal lawsuit from putting a nativity scene atop the entrance of City Hall.
FFRF, by the way, also criticized the invitation to the pope to address Congress from Catholic politicians John Boehner, U.S. House speaker, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi: “Congress needs a visit from the pope like Boehner needs more time in a tanning booth.”
Gaylor and Barker also stirred up an online hornet’s nest for reprimanding Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for misusing his official gubernatorial Facebook and Twitter accounts to promote religion. On March 16, Walker posted the words “Philippians 4:13” — a verse from the bible reading: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”
FFRF’s press release added that “this braggadocio verse coming from a public official is rather disturbing” and seems more like “a threat, or the utterance of a theocratic dictator than of a duly elected civil servant.”
Florida school violations
FFRF sent letters of complaint in March to two Florida school districts in Orange and Seminole counties over entanglement with a Christian congregation called The Venue Church (whose “venue,” ironically, is only in public schools).
Already, Seminole County Public Schools has promised to end the constitutional violations outlined by Seidel in FFRF’s letter.
Orange County allegations detail rampant religious activity at Apopka High School, including weekly services and other events sponsored by the church, which asserts, “We are permanently planting churches in Central Florida Schools.”
• Regular prayer sessions attended by football coaches and players, including prayers led by Venue Pastor Todd Lamphere, who is also team chaplain. Lamphere is also “bowling team chaplain.” A video shows him and other adults praying with the team.
• Bible verses on signs and apparel are common. A large banner saying “Prepare for Glory, 2 Corinthians 4:17” was displayed at the football field as was a banner with a verse from John 15:13. Several T-shirts and jerseys combine the school logo with religious messages.
Similar constitutional concerns were voiced to Seminole County Schools, including public endorsement of the church by district officials, who appeared in a promotional video for the church using their titles. The video was shot on campus. Seminole County Schools agreed almost immediately to end all such ties with the church.
Idaho, Kentucky letters
A letter sent by FFRF in November dominated March news and airwaves in Idaho, with more than 100 people turning out March 19 at a city meeting in Sandpoint over FFRF’s request that the Farmin Park Ten Commandments monument be moved to private property. The monument is one of several placed by the Eagles Club.
FFRF also called out Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear’s use of state resources to promote a March 13 prayer breakfast. The governor’s home page included a tab promoting the breakfast, and Kentucky.gov included a link to the event, named “Governor’s Prayer Breakfast.”
FFRF has received regular complaints about Beshear’s annual event, particularly from state employees who received two email invitations from the governor to the event. The prayer breakfast invitations included the official state seal and were sent to most state employees in violation of the state’s Internet policies.
Chief’s prayer walks
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s complaint about the police chief of Birmingham, Ala., received statewide and national coverage. Police Chief A.C. Roper, an ordained minister, created a Christian ministry called Prayer Force United. In his capacity as police chief, he leads monthly prayer walks through different neighborhoods, “claiming the city of Birmingham for God,” ostensibly to lower crime.
Roper has opined that one of Birmingham’s biggest problems is a “lack of godliness.” Seidel noted Roper can’t use his public office to “advance promote or endorse one religion over another, or religion over nonreligion.”
He also debunked the notion of prayer as a crime-fighting technique, citing statistics showing that nonreligious states and nations are safer. (View a video Seidel created documenting Rogers’s sermons with commentary on their legality on FFRF’s YouTube channel.)