Freethought Today · May 2014

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Legal staffers successfully resolve multiple violations

Proselytizing coach ends up resigning

FFRF has halted a pious coach’s practice of proselytizing students in Spokane, Wash. According to the complainant, Rogers High School head football coach Matt Miethe and other coaches had not only been baptizing players at Pentecostal churches, but the assistant coach was leading the team in prayers during “chapel time” and before games. 

The coaches reportedly also pressured players to attend church. According to news reports, Miethe “offered players three opportunities to gather for church and encouraged them to attend.”

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a complaint letter to the school district Dec. 17: “Even if Miethe is simply suggesting [church] attendance, his position as head coach in charge of playing time impregnates any suggestion with force. Playing time leads to scholarships and college; it should be a question of merit only, not religion. No student should be deprived of the opportunity of playing football because they, as a matter of personal conscience, feel unable to participate in a religious ritual or attend church.” 

On March 17, the district responded: “Rogers High School principal Lori Wyborney spoke with the football coach and confirmed activities that she had not been aware of. 

“Ms. Wyborney took immediate action to ensure that the activities described ceased. She reminds her coaching and athletics staff as well as her administrative staff of the need to separate the role of school and religion. Additionally, and for unrelated reasons, Coach Matt Miethe resigned his position as head coach for Rogers High School.” 

 

Rampant religiosity out at Arizona elementary

Oakwood Elementary School in Peoria, Ariz., will no longer allow religious icons, bibles and proselytizing “gifts.” This is not the first violation from the Peoria School District that FFRF has acted on. 

FFRF was informed that a kindergarten teacher has been pressuring families to attend a specific church and had decorated her classroom with religious iconography, bible verses, crosses and Christ Church of the Valley propaganda such as “I love Jesus” clothing and mugs. She had also distributed inappropriate religious gifts to students, including bookmarks featuring the holy sites of Christianity. 

A parent alerted FFRF about another violation: a Thanksgiving program last year which included a call and response in which teachers sang questions and kindergartners responded. At the teacher’s prompting, the student “turkeys” would gobble, the Native Americans would say “big and brave” and the preachers would say “praise the Lord.” 

The student “preachers” wore school-owned costumes with Latin crosses on them. According to a complainant, this program has been performed for at least 15 years. 

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a Dec. 5 letter of complaint to the district, which acknowledged in an April reply that the complaint’s allegations were accurate. The district assured FFRF that the religious icons and bibles were removed and that religious conversations and activities have been eliminated from the classroom. “The Thanksgiving performance is being revisited for content, but rest assured that the crosses will be removed and the choral response will be reworded.”

 

Church graduations
will go secular

FFRF complaint letters led two Ohio school districts to drop churches as high school graduation venues.

Canton Local School District in Canton will no longer hold church graduations starting in 2015. Canton South High School plans to hold this year’s ceremony May 27 at Canton Baptist Temple.  

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to the district Feb. 17 to explain that it’s illegal to force graduates, families and friends to enter a church that might espouse an ideology or belief to which they might not adhere.

The superintendent responded April 8, “While it is not possible for the district to find an alternate location for graduation [this year], I have spoken to the board and they have agreed to find a secular site for the 2015 graduating class.” 

Northwest High School in Canal Fulton, part of Northwest Local Schools, made a similar response April 8 to a Feb. 17 letter from Markert about its graduation May 24 at Akron Baptist Temple. 

 

‘Religious value’ claim out of handbook 

Poplarville School District in Poplarville, Miss., will no longer use religious rhetoric in its student handbooks. FFRF received a complaint that the “Strategic Plan” section of the 2013-14 handbook states that one of the district’s beliefs is “[a] relationship with God is critical to a meaningful life.”

The statement of belief has reportedly appeared in the handbook for many years. 

Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell sent a letter to the superintendent Feb. 13: “The value statement in the student handbook sends the message that the district not only prefers religion over nonreligion, but the Christian god over all deities.”

The district responded May 6 that “the Board of Trustees voted to remove the above-referenced language from the strategic plan and handbook beginning with the upcoming school year.”

 

Praying Ohio coach ‘crossed the line’ 

A high school in Middletown, Ohio, will no longer let coaches lead athletes in prayers. According to a local complainant, the varsity football coach provided food for players after practice, then told them to bow their heads before leading them in prayer.

The coach also is alleged to have encouraged players to attend his church and be “saved,” invited them to church events during football practice and provided rides.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert’s letter to the superintendent explained the multiple reasons why such proselytizing is illegal in a public school.

On April 25, the district responded: “[The principal and athletic director] expressly informed [the coach] that his actions had crossed the line and were impermissible. He was expressly informed that he was required to respect others’ religious beliefs, that his conduct could be viewed as a government’s endorsement of religion, and that he was not permitted to engage in any of the conduct listed in your letter (or similar conduct, for that matter).”

 

School: Teacher owes student an apology

Atlanta High School in Atlanta, Texas, will no longer allow episodes from the series “The Bible” to be played during class. A concerned student reported that an economics teacher aired Episode 6 of the series, which depicts the “virgin” birth of Jesus, his baptism by John the Baptist and the angel Gabriel telling Mary she’s pregnant with “the Son of God.” 

When the student told the teacher that it was inappropriate to show “The Bible” in economics class, the teacher called the show “factual.” After confronting the teacher a second time, the student was told he could go to another classroom during future showings. As a result, the student missed a week’s worth of economics classes. 

In FFRF’s letter to the superintendent, Staff Attorney Sam Grover strongly objected to such illegal and egregious behavior.

On April 22, Superintendent Roger Hailey responded that “[The teacher] has agreed to apologize to your complainant and has been instructed to align his instruction with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills Standards established by the Texas Legislature for the subjects he teaches.” 

 

Wrestling team drops religious endorsements

The Parkersburg South High School wrestling team in Parkersburg, W. Va., will no longer display the motto “Philippians 4:13: I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.” The motto was adopted at least 10 years ago and has appeared on the team’s website, on team T-shirts and in the high school gym. 

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter April 11 to Wood County Schools to explain the constitutional violations. He advised the school to end all endorsement of Christian messages.

In response to the complaint, the bible verse that was posted inside the gym was painted over and the motto was taken off the website.

 

Coach-led prayer
ended in Georgia

A coach at Thomas County Central High School in Thomasville, Ga., will no longer lead a football team in prayer before practice. The coach’s involvement was confirmed by a news story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which included a photo of the coach praying with the team with heads dutifully bowed. 

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent the district a complaint letter Aug. 5.

On April 19, the school superintendent responded: “I have carefully considered your concern and have reviewed the team’s practices regarding prayer. I plan to address your concern by taking steps to end any coach-led prayer that may be occurring during football practices or games, while ensuring that religious students and staff may exercise their First Amendment rights to speak, associate and participate in religious activities.” 

Tragedy doesn’t excuse trampling Constitution

E.C. Reems School of Technology and Arts in Oakland, Calif., has concluded an investigation into a religious assembly and agrees with FFRF that it was “inappropriate.” 

A complainant contacted FFRF about the assembly, which included kindergartners as young as 4. It was intended to honor Jahi McMath, a 13-year-old schoolmate declared brain-dead after surgical complications in December 2013. She remains on a ventilator.

At the assembly, about 250 students were given purple T-shirts emblazoned with “#TeamJahi” and “Keep Calm and Pray On.”  

According to a local news report, “The academy’s chief operating officer Lisa Blair said she has tried to honor Jahi’s family’s wishes by telling students that their classmate may still be alive, even though doctors say she is legally and clinically dead.”

Blair is also on record as saying, “Most kids are Christian here, and they believe that if you continue praying there’s always a possibility. The students understand the debate. They’re just choosing spirituality over science.” 

In a letter to the school board, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel said, “What happened to Jahi is a terrible tragedy and all hearts go out to her suffering relatives and friends. No child’s life should be cut short before it can truly begin. But such tragedies are not an excuse to violate the Constitution. Public school employees cannot tell students that, if only they pray hard enough to a particular god, their classmate will come back to life. Public school employees cannot force their personal religious beliefs on students.”

On March 14, the district responded that “the statements made by Ms. Blair were inappropriate and the decision by administration to distribute shirts to the school was inappropriate.” Administrators “will receive training regarding requirements for compliance regarding religion in public schools.” 

 

School scratches Mormon museum trip 

When Westvale Elementary School, West Jordan, Utah, sent permission slips home April 24 for a fourth-grade field trip to the Church History Museum, which is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, some parents parents were immediately wary. West Jordan is just south of Salt Lake City, headquarters for the LDS Church.

The slip told parents the trip would “supplement regular curriculum programs and [would] take place during the regular school day.” FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, on behalf of several district parents, sent a letter May 1 to Superintendent Patrice Johnson.

Seidel pointed out that the museum “presents an unscholarly, uncritical, nonobjective view of the LDS Church” and noted that the New York Times has described the museum as “created by believers, for believers.” 

One section of the museum section called “Learn Truths” depicts the “stories of ancient prophets found in the Book of Mormon.” Another named “The Gospel Blesses My Life” displays artwork from children who share “how knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ blesses their lives.”

After taking a personal tour, Gregory Clark, a University of Utah associate professor of bioengineering, described how one museum docent “claimed that black skin was a curse from God.” Clark writes that the museum “is replete with religion, not history. It’s the Utahn equivalent of Ken Ham’s Creation Museum.” 

In response to mounting evidence that the museum was much less about Utah history and more about prophecy and church doctrine, Kayleen Whitelock, a member of the Jordan School District Board of Education, said on May 6 that “students will no longer be attending this field trip.”  

Seidel commented, “We hope that the Board of Education uses this opportunity to pick a more appropriate, educational location for a field trip. No one needs to play the martyr here.”

He added, “The Board of Education should have realized that this was an inappropriate location for a field trip from the beginning. If any Westvale fourth graders are disappointed, that’s on the board.”

 

Principal’s ‘witnessing’ to students banned

An administrator at Andalusia Middle School in Andalusia, Ala., will no longer be allowed to “witness” to students. 

FFRF received a complaint that the assistant principal regularly proselytized students in his office and used social networking to advertise the message that the school allows sectarian prayer before sporting events.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a March 4 letter to Superintendent Ted Watson to detail the constitutional violations.

Watson responded on March 24: “[T]hank you for making us aware of this situation,” and added, “[Your letter] has facilitated a review of the law as it pertains to the Establishment Clause within our school system. We strive to teach our students to be law-abiding citizens and it starts with the example we as adults set.” 

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator

 

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