U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner on Oct. 1 dismissed the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s lawsuit against officials of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for declaring 2012 as “the Year of the Bible,” while at the same time chastening state officials for “premeditated pandering” for religious and political purposes and expressing alarm that it passed unanimously.
FFRF sued in March after the House passed the resolution Jan. 24 that exhorted citizens and government officials to “study and apply the teachings of the Holy Scriptures.” It challenged the resolution for violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, section 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
In his Oct. 1 decision, Conner ruled that FFRF and its local plaintiffs had standing to sue, “which is a major victory in itself these days,” commented FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. Conner also ruled that House officials had absolute legislative immunity. Conner, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2002 by President George W. Bush, has notably also ruled against the Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Barack Obama.
While granting the defendants immunity for a “legislative act,” Conner noted that the immunity “should not be viewed as judicial endorsement of this resolution. It most certainly is not.”
Conner wrote, “At worst, it is premeditated pandering designed to provide a reelection sound bite for use by members of the General Assembly. But regardless of the motivation. . . its express language is proselytizing and exclusionary. . . . The court is compelled to shine a clear, bright light on this resolution because it pushes the Establishment Clause envelope behind the safety glass of legislative immunity. That is passed unanimously is even more alarming.”
The resolution passed 193-0, although several members soon expressed regret that they voted for it. It was included in a stack of “noncontroversial” resolutions that are usually approved pro forma.
The “blatant use of legislative resources” contravened “the spirit — if not the letter — of the Establishment Clause,” Conner wrote scathingly.
He concluded, “At a time when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania faces massive public policy challenges, these resources would be far better utilized in meaningful legislative efforts for the benefit of all of the citizens of the Commonwealth, regardless of their religious beliefs.”
“The Establishment Clause, prohibits all government speech endorsing religion — without or without coercion. The government is precluded from taking a position on the merits of religion, contrary to the clear import of the Year of the Bible Resolution in this case,” said Barker.
The lawsuit was filed by attorneys Lawrence M. Otter, Doylestown, Pa., and Richard L. Bolton, Madison, Wis., on behalf of FFRF and 41 named Pennsylvania members.
In a related story, the House on Oct. 17 approved another “noncontroversial” resolution that was introduced Oct. 15 declaring October in Pennsylvania as “Prayer Month for the purpose of setting aside time to pray. . .”
FFRF sent out an Action Alert but the resolution passed 189-2.
“It’s absurd to declare that a month of prayer should be observed by all citizens, including many who never pray or certainly don’t say Christian prayers,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Even more absurd is that they didn’t pass the resolution until the month was more than half over. I guess we should at least be thankful for that.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation received word in September that the Tucson City Council has permanently suspended its decision to grant $1.1 million to the Catholic Diocese of Tucson, Ariz., to repair the church’s Marist building.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel had written an Aug. 7 letter to Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, warning that it was unwise policy for the city to offer $1.1 million to repair a religious building it does not own.
“If you truly believe the best policy is to repair the Marist building, then the diocese should sign the building and property over to you free and clear. Alternatively, given the neglect the diocese has shown for a piece of Tucson history, consider seizing the property through eminent domain. Title should not remain with the diocese if the taxpayers are paying $1.1 million.”
Ward 6 Councilman Steve Kozachik, who was one of two council members to vote against the original funding scheme, noted at the time, “The Catholic Church has neglected it for a decade. If they were serious about this building, they could cancel one of their pro-life ad blitzes and pay for it in a heartbeat.”
Seidel echoed this point in his letter. “The diocese is perfectly willing to spend money to restore its other property. Last year, the church spent $75,000 to restore a crucifix.” He pointed out the diocese just spent $1.1 million raised in the “Treasures of the Heart” campaign to restore St. Augustine Cathedral next door to the Marist building.
According to a Sept. 11 memo by City Manager Richard Miranda, “The diocese of Tucson has informed city staff that they wish to retain ownership of the Marist College so that it can be used by them and the local parish.”
Miranda explained that because of the diocese’s position, the grant “can not be accommodated” and the city will “take no further action regarding a potential agreement for the use of [grant] funds for the stabilization of the Marist College.” The city has already begun allocating the grant funds for other projects, including road and water tower repairs.
“This is a major victory for taxpayers and for the constitutional principle of separation between state and church,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It pays to complain, or rather in this case, our complaint stops an unconstitutional payment.”
Seidel’s letter reviewed details on the diocese’s healthy finances despite bankruptcy after payouts for more than 100 credible allegations of sexual misconduct with minors involving 26 priests.
FFRF, not Jesus,
An FFRF letter of complaint Aug. 21 about a wrongful religious tax exemption in Wichita, Kan., resulted in the property being put back on the tax rolls and back taxes assessed. Sedgwick County Appraiser Mike Borchard said in October that Grace Baptist Church owes $2,194 in back taxes for 2010 and 2011 on a home occupied by a local politician.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Borchard after being alerted to the nonexempt use of the home, which has been listed as a parsonage for clergy since 1996. Michael O’Donnell, a Wichita City Council member and Kansas Senate candidate, lives in the home. He’s the son of a Grace Baptist Church pastor of the same name.
Pastor Michael O’Donnell said the church will refile a tax exemption request, “essentially appealing the appraiser’s ruling,” the Wichita Eagle reported Oct. 17. Under state law, there is a presumption that property is taxable. The church will have the burden to show that the house is exempt.
The younger O’Donnell, who has now changed his original story to the newspaper on whether he was paying rent to the church, accused FFRF of having “a political agenda.”
Not so, responded Elliott to the Wichita Eagle, “We’re an apolitical group, a nonprofit that does not get involved in elections or campaigns, but we are concerned about state-church issues, including churches abusing tax privileges, which was the case here.”
The house is taxable for 2012, but because levies aren’t set, an exact figure isn’t known, Borchard told the newspaper. The church likely faces a total bill for current and back taxes in excess of $3,000.
FFRF stops city’s church collaboration
The city of West Linn, Ore., rescinded an unconstitutional grant to Willamette Christian Church after a Sept. 28 Freedom From Religion Foundation letter of complaint.
It came to FFRF’s attention that the West Linn City Council had approved a $1,300 grant to the church, ostensibly to start a teen center called The Summit. City staff purportedly spent considerable time on the proposal, with the regular fees waived.
Councilor Mike Jones, who later became a member of the church, was apparently the driving force behind the grant, fee waiver and overall proposal.
“Finding suitable after-school activities for middle school students and providing them a safe place to gather is laudable,” wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. “Teen programming may be a genuine concern for the community, and while WCC is willing to address that concern to a certain extent, the record provides ample evidence that the city’s actions crossed appropriate constitutional boundaries.”
It’s clear that the center, which would have been managed by the YMCA on weekdays, had religious purposes, Seidel noted. “WCC has scheduled ‘church-related activities’ for twice as much time as teen center activities.”
The schedule called for the center to be open 10 hours a week to the general public and 20 hours a week for church activities.
FFRF noted numerous public statements that the main use of the center would be for church activities.
“The primary effect is to help a church expand by funding new construction,” Seidel wrote. “In other words, the council gave WCC $1,300 to expand their church space.”
FFRF suspected the center would be another way to target children who would otherwise not attend WCC.
“The city had no safeguards against religious use or proselytization at the time the grant and waiver were approved, nor does the city have any way to ensure that YMCA involvement continues. WCC is leasing the space, setting the hours and has the final say in all decisions. Should they choose not to partner with the YMCA, the city has no recourse.”
The complaint letter noted other problems with the proposal, including waiver of fees, parking impacts, city officials in their official capacity sitting on a church advisory board and Councilor Jones’ ties to the church.
While the city has not formally responded, FFRF has learned the proposal is dead, at least for now.
According to an Oct. 2 story in the Oregonian, Assistant City Manager Kirsten Wyatt told the newspaper the city decided to immediately rescind the grant to avoid controversy and a legal battle.
“Our options are either fight this or say, ‘Hey, $1,300 isn’t that much money,’ “ Wyatt said. “We’re chalking this up as a learning experience.”
FFRF pulls plug on hospital religion
A public hospital in Hollister, Calif., will no longer allow Christian prayers and verses to be displayed on its walls.
Hazel Hawkins Hospital formerly displayed Christian prayers, including a plaque entitled “Nurse’s Prayer” on the wall in the medical surgical unit.
In a June 26 letter, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt warned, “Government-run hospitals have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion.”
On Sept. 17, FFRF received assurance from hospital management that they “have taken all appropriate actions to address the areas identified and respect constitutional rights of all employees.”
Lord’s Prayer out, silence is in
Another Pennsylvania school board has decided to drop prayer at board meetings after getting a letter from FFRF.
The Octorara Area School Board in Atglen voted to substitute a moment of silence for Christian prayer to open meetings.
FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert had written Aug. 17 to board President Lisa Bowman on behalf of a local complainant about the illegal recitation of the Lord’s Prayer as an invocation. She reminded the board of numerous court rulings that said scheduled prayer at school board meetings is unconstitutional.
While the school hasn’t formally notified FFRF of the change, according to a LancasterOnline story, the decision was made Sept. 17. The story said Vice President Brian Norris told the board it must honor the law and that members could meet privately to pray before meetings.
The advice to pray privately didn’t sit well with everyone, the news story said: “Three school board members, however, stepped down from the official table to protest the change. Board member John McCartney Jr. walked to the end of the table and knelt in prayer as the school board began its new tradition of a moment of silence.”
Bowman was out of town but told the board in a letter: “The board should not put the district at [financial] risk. It could affect taxpayer and student programming.”
The Greencastle-Antrim, Eastern Lancaster County, Grove City and Big Spring school boards also voted recently to stop praying before meetings after getting FFRF letters.
Georgia district drops team chaplain
FFRF has followed up on Walker County Schools’ (Ridgeland, Ga.) response to its request to investigate unusual constitutional violations by Ridgeland High School football coach Mark Mariakis. Although praising the superintendent’s “commitment to upholding the Constitution,” the letter raised some lingering concerns.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Sei-del’s Aug. 21 letter of complaint had detailed allegations FFRF had received over a number of egregious public sports-church entanglements at Ridgeland High School. Most notably, they included the coach taking public school football teams to pre-game church meals where pre-meal prayers are conducted.
FFRF also asked for an investigation into the allegation that Mariakis regularly prays with his teams, had pressured public school students to attend a “Christian football camp” and that the team had adopted a “team chaplain.”
Superintendent Damon Raines responded Aug. 30 that “the district will not have a team chaplain nor will school officials or employees, including coaches, organize, lead or participate in any prayers. Staff will also refrain from participating in the FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes].”
The district indicated pregame meals will no longer include “religious references.”
As Seidel stated in his Sept. 11 reply, “taking public school teams to church still involves constitutional concerns.” Quoting legal precedent that prohibits public schools from holding graduations in churches, Seidel argued that regardless of the purpose in choosing to have a pregame meal in a church, “the sheer religiosity of the space create[s] a likelihood that high school students . . . would perceive a link between church and state.” FFRF suggested that the district could avoid legal liability and save money on transportation by hosting a “potluck” at the school and allowing “any organization, restaurant, or business to donate meals.”
FFRF was alarmed over Mariakis’ attendance on Sept. 9 at a “Rally to Pray” by those who wish to “keep prayer in the practices and before games.” FFRF’s response called the coach’s appearance inappropriate, saying, “It seems to send a message that he is unrepentant and hostile to First Amendment limitations on his proselytizing.”
The letter asked the schools to investigate the context of his remarks and to “ensure that Mariakis understands he cannot use his position as coach to ‘share the Gospel’ with his team and other public students.”
FFRF urged the district to adopt a written policy over religion in the schools “clearly prohibiting proselytizing and prayer by school officials or at school-arranged and sanctioned events.”
FFRF also noted that it appears public school buses and drivers are taking players, coaches and staff from the school to churches for meals. FFRF further requested a response to an unanswered allegation from its original complaint that the football program has used the bible as a motivational tool.
Faculty now barred from Christian club
A teacher in Abbeville County Consolidated School District, Abbeville, S.C., will no longer be allowed to actively participate in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes student club.
The Wright Middle School science teacher was the group’s faculty sponsor but actively participated in its 2010 prayer meeting and praised its Christian agenda. She stated in an article on the South Carolina FCA website that the 200-student prayer group was “very sweet and moving” and that at each FCA meeting they’ve had a student come to Christ.
A June 18 letter from Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert warned, “The Supreme Court has stated that public school employees, including teachers, must refrain from actively participating in religious activities while acting within their governmental role.”
An attorney responded Sept. 14 that the district would “ensure that school faculty understand their role with regard to the sponsorship of religious [clubs] so that no further concerns will occur.”
FFRF halts discount at Miss. restaurant
A restaurant in Wiggins, Miss., will no longer offer a preferential discount to church-going patrons.
Western Sizzlin’ Steakhouse promoted a “half-off buffet” to customers who presented a “church member appreciation card.” The discount was valid only for members of three local Baptist churches.
In a June 11 letter, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt warned the manager that the restaurant was in violation of the Civil Rights Act and that “it is illegal for Western Sizzlin’ to discriminate, or show favoritism, on the basis of religion.”
In a Sept. 11 response, management confirmed the business will “discontinue including churches in our discount promotions and programs moving forward and will only offer them to other local businesses and companies that are not religious in nature.”
Michigan board drops opening prayer
The Pellston [Mich.] Public Schools board meetings no longer open with prayer after FFRF letters of complaint. The prayers were often delivered by a board member.
FFRF first sent a letter in July 2011. An attorney for the board responded that he didn’t believe the prayers were illegal.
In a November 2011 follow-up, Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt clarified the law. She urged discontinuation of the practice immediately to “eliminate the need for costly and protracted litigation of an issue that is settled by the courts.”
The attorney responded Sept. 10 that “the Board of Education no longer opens its meetings with a prayer. Instead, the Board observes a moment of silence which is not intended to promote religion.”
Teacher uses FFRF’s letter against student
A Cheektowaga [N.Y.] Central High School teacher who posted bible verses and a drawing of three crosses in her classroom has been admonished.
She also invited a guest speaker to her advanced placement anatomy class who used bible verses to encourage students to “head down the right path, according to FFRF’s student complainant.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert objected in a June 7 letter to Superintendent Dennis Kane. The student reported that the teacher shared FFRF’s letter with the class on the last day of school and verbally attacked the student anonymously, alleging that the person who had complained to FFRF lacked integrity and character and was on the same level as a student who had cheated on the class’s final exam.
Markert sent another letter June 14 to the school district outlining the teacher’s egregious reprisal. In a series of replies on June 20, June 22 and Sept. 11, Kane informed FFRF that he took the complaint very seriously, had done an extensive investigation and confirmed that the student’s allegations were true.
Kane told FFRF that all religious displays were removed from the classroom and said the teacher was reprimanded and directed not to discuss religion in her classroom.
Arkansas teacher told
to stop religious talk
An elementary teacher in the Little Rock [Ark.] School District who “referred to Jesus and God in several conversations” has been warned to stop. A June 21 letter from Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott cautioned the district “to make certain that ‘subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion.’ ”
The district responded Sept. 13, assuring FFRF that the administration told the teacher that her conduct “was inappropriate and that she must follow the LRSD 5th Grade Curriculum.”
FFRF action stops football prayers
Monroe High School in Alexandria, Ind., will no longer permit coaches to participate in or facilitate pregame prayer. In a May 23 letter to the Alexandria Community School Corp., Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel informed the district that coaches were violating the law.
The superintendent responded Sept. 12: “The administration has undertaken measures to correct behavior by providing reference to our school policy and the case law . . . as well as your original correspondence to the building principals and athletic director.”
Pregame prayers will no longer be broadcast over the loudspeaker at West Jones High School football games in Ellisville, Miss.
Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote an Aug. 26 letter to the school district. After several follow-up letters, FFRF has learned that prayers have been replaced by a moment of silence.
Epic fail for teacher’s ‘Critical Thinking’
A Suwannee High School teacher in Live Oak, Fla., is no longer permitted to display religious images in his “Critical Thinking” classroom. FFRF was alerted that the teacher had a Ten Commandments statue on his desk and a poster with a quotation exhorting people to pray.
“It is unconstitutional for the school to promote a religious message to students through calls to prayer and religious iconography put on display by a school official,” Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Aug. 28.
Three days later, the superintendent responded that “religious statutes, posters, or messages” had all been removed from the classroom.
Religious commercial forced off air
The New Mexico Department of Health has stopped airing an anti-smoking TV ad containing religious messages. The ad featured a woman in a church pew praying, lamenting her ability to quit smoking and making the Catholic sign of the cross.
In a May 3 letter, Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor noted “this imagery tends to send the message that the New Mexico Department of Health endorses the Christian religion.”
On Sept. 5, the agency answered that “The ad is no longer being placed and there is no plan to renew the license for that spot of others in the ‘Dear Me’ series at this time.”
Water board can’t pray for rain in Oklahoma
The Oklahoma Water Resources Board stopped opening its meetings with Christian prayers after getting an Aug. 1 letter from Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel.
An attorney for the board responded Sept. 10 that “the OWRB has discontinued the invocational prayer at the beginning of its regular monthly meetings.”
’Tis the season for FFRF to combat potentially illegal electioneering by churches and pastors. On Oct. 17, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to the Internal Revenue Service regarding the senior pastor of Summit Church in Wichita, Kan.
Senior Pastor Terry Fox ran an ad in the Wichita Eagle stating that he would speak “about how the Obama administration and its socialistic agenda is [sic] making the way for the Antichrist to take over the world.” Fox and Pastor Joe also host the church’s weekly radio show, on which they routinely breach the wall of state/church separation.
Fox stated on one show that “There’s no question in my mind that the sitting president we have today is far more evil and far more committed to a one-world government. . .”
These pastors also previously violated IRS rules when they endorsed Rick Santorum during the Republican presidential primary. The church’s publication, The Summit Informer, includes illegal political campaign intervention, including an issue in August which railed against Obama’s campaign strategies: “The secular left has mastered use of the Internet to further its extremist goals. In fact, President Obama’s web-based ‘Organizing for America’ propaganda machine may have given him the 2008 election. Let’s beat them at their own game.”
On Oct. 19, Markert wrote to the IRS about a sign outside of Church in the Valley, Leakey, Texas. The church’s marquee read, “Vote for the Mormon, not the Muslim! The capitalist, not the communist!”
Markert stated the church violated IRS regulations by expressly advocating its support from presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Bullies in the pulpit
FFRF’s legal staff continues to sift through complaints generated from the so-called Pulpit Freedom Sunday on Oct. 7 that was organized by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Religious Right law firm formerly called the Alliance Defense Fund. The pastors are thumbing their noses at the IRS, which has stopped enforcing the 1954 Johnson Amendment that requires political neutrality on candidates in order to maintain tax-exempt status.
It was first held in 2008 with 33 pastors taking part in 2008. A record 1,477 participated this year, organizers said.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Skyline Church Pastor Jim Garlow ended his Sunday sermon in La Mesa with this: “Some came to hear to hear an endorsement. My endorsement will be Jesus. I’ll tell you whom I’m going to vote for, but I don’t think that makes it an endorsement. I’m going to vote for Mitt Romney, but I’m not telling you to.”
The Bloomberg News editorial board summed it up pretty well Oct. 3:
“The plan is for pastors to make explicit candidate endorsements in their churches, tape the endorsements and send the incriminating evidence to the Internal Revenue Service. . . . This is not a battle for free speech, in the pulpit or out. It’s a test of whether Americans are willing to allow a taxpayer subsidy to be used for partisan political activity.”
Voting in churches
FFRF continues to receive complaints from members distressed about voting in churches. FFRF sent three letters in October to elections officials asking them to refrain from selecting churches as polling places in their precincts.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to the Wake County Board of Elections in Raleigh, N.C., regarding a large picture of Jesus right above a voting booth in Christ Baptist Church.
Letters also were sent to the village clerk in Germantown, Wis., and the Orange County supervisor of elections in Orlando, Fla., asking them to “remove churches as polling places for future elections.”
Look what happened in Murfreesboro, Tenn., a city with more than six dozen churches. Muslims wanted one mosque, but the locals would have none of it. Scratch an “oppressed” Christian and watch a hypocrite bleed.
Justin Blair, letter to the editor, on the contention that nonbelievers should just not listen to pregame football prayers over the loudspeaker
Knoxville News Sentinel, 10-3-12
I just think they’re misrepresenting certain minorities. Judaism, atheism, the lack of a religion, agnosticism or Islam — their God or their lack of God wasn’t on this banner. And I think if it were, then that would be equally offensive to the many Christians that are in this community.
Dillon Nicholson, Vidor [Texas] High School senior, on cheerleaders’ Christian football banners at neighboring Kountze High School
KFDM Beaumont, 9-23-12
As we learn more about the universe, there’s less and less need to look outside it for help.
Theoretical cosmologist Sean Carroll, California Institute of Technology, comment in an article headlined “Will science someday rule out the possibility of God?”’
“Life’s Little Mysteries,” 9-18-12
If we raise a generation of students who don’t believe in the process of science, who think everything that we’ve come to know about nature and the universe can be dismissed by a few sentences translated into English from some ancient text, you’re not going to continue to innovate.
Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” decrying creationism
Associated Press, 9-24-12
As long as there are those who would take innocent life in the name of God, the world will never know a true and lasting peace.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Libya
You roll your eyes and say why is this going on at a government-subsidized event? It shouldn’t be happening. I also see it at all the high school games where they have prayers before games and after games. It’s really out of place. It’s hurting all those people that don’t have that belief and ostracizing them.
Retired ecologist and FFRF member Bob Craig, Oak Ridge, Tenn., on prayers over the loudspeaker before University of Tennessee football games
Knoxville News, 9-18-12
As Every Student Every School’s name implies, their idea is to proselytize every student in every public school in America through an aggressive “Adopt-a-School” campaign. And the way to do it is to have the kids do what grownups are not allowed to do: establish full-fledged missionary operations inside the schools. A clever map allows viewers to click on their state and type in their area code, revealing every school in the district and determine whether it has been “adopted” by churches or other religious organizations. Kids from those entities are instructed to conduct daily prayer groups during the school day, distribute religious literature and are given numerous other ideas for practicing or promoting their religion at school.
Author Katherine Stewart, who spoke at FFRF’s convention in Portland, Ore., “How evangelicals are making children their missionaries in public schools”
The Guardian, 9-25-12
Critical thinking says it’s time we start cracking down on child molesters, whether you are the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church or affiliated with any other organization. Until we get tough and prosecute to the full extent of the law, more and more horrifying stories are going to come to light, and more innocent young children will continue to needlessly suffer.
Steve Siebold, author of Sex, Politics and Religion: How Delusional Thinking is Destroying America
Huffington Post, 9-26-12
We’re atheists not because we want to gather and engage in collective back-slapping, not because we want to chortle at the foolishness of benighted believers, but because we care about creating a world that’s more just, more peaceful, more enlightened, and we see organized religion as standing in the way of this goal.
Adam Lee op-ed, “Atheism’s growing pains”
To permit this name change would be placing unwitting members of the public, including public servants, in the position of having to proclaim petitioners’ religious beliefs, which may or may not be in agreement with that person’s own equally strongly held but different beliefs. For instance, a calendar call in the courthouse would require the clerk to shout out “JesusIsLord ChristIsKing” or “Rejoice ChristIsKing.”
Discussion of a New York court’s denial of a petition to change a family’s surname from Nwadiuko to ChristIsKing
Texas District Judge Steve Thomas of Hardin County implemented a temporary injunction Oct. 18 in Matthews v. Kountze Independent School District that allows Kountze High School cheerleaders to make and hold Christian banners for football players to run through before games and for players to carry them around the stadium.
Thomas didn’t rule on the actual merits of the case but set a June 24 hearing date for a permanent injunction, thus allowing the banners to be displayed through the end of the school year.
The injunction temporarily overturned the decision Superintendent Kevin Weldon made barring the banners after receiving a Sept. 17 letter from FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt on behalf of a local complainant.
The team ran through banners at home games with bible verses such as “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13); “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14); and “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).
Responding to FFRF’s complaint, Weldon told a TV station, “I commend [the cheerleaders] for what they stand for. But I called legal counsel and even though it’s led by students, it should not be allowed to go on.”
Schmitt had cited a long list of court cases that have held such displays “constitute an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. A reasonable Kountze student would certainly perceive the banners ‘as stamped with [their] school’s approval.’ ” The prevailing precedent is Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, a 2000 Supreme Court case.
According to cheerleaders, the bible banner idea came from an instructional camp they attended. “Coaches preach devotionals before games. We wanted to show our support for our boys,” Meagan Tantillo said.
Banner supporters were immediately up in arms at the school’s decision. FFRF’s phone lines were swamped for several days with angry callers as the story went national, with coverage by major broadcast and print media, including “Good Morning America,” the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. FFRF Co-President Dan Barker faced off with a Liberty Institute spokesperson on Fox News.
Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott intervened on behalf of the Liberty Institute, an evangelical law firm, which sued to get the temporary restraining order. Both state officials made inflammatory public statements, as both have done in the past on state/church issues. Abbott called FFRF “menacing and misleading.”
The grandstanding attorney general then proclaimed at a press conference with Perry, “We will not allow atheist groups from outside of the state of Texas to come into the state, to use menacing and misleading intimidation tactics, to try to bully schools to bow down at the altar of secular beliefs.”
Perry, who repeatedly referred during the press conference to Abbott as “General,” also castigated FFRF and, by extension, its 700-plus Texas members. “The underlying problem here is that there’s this very vocal, as you shared, and very litigious minority of Americans that are willing to legally attack anybody who dares to utter a phrase, a name that they don’t agree with.”
Perry went on to demonstrate that he apparently has never read the godless U.S. Constitution: “We’re also a culture built upon the concept that the original law is God’s law, outlined in the Ten Commandments.”
FFRF’s local counsel Randall Kallinen of Houston filed an amicus brief Oct. 3 on behalf of the school district. (FFRF’s four staff attorneys worked doggedly to research and write the brief in less than a week.)
In its brief, FFRF takes issue with the plaintiffs’ claim that the banners are an exercise of free speech: “The speech in question is government speech or, at a minimum, school-sponsored speech.”
“If the majority of the cheerleaders were atheists, would a court support their ‘right’ to hold up a banner insulting Christianity or all believers? The District has every right to simply prohibit all run-through and on-field banners.”
FFRF contends that the banners are government speech because they are displayed in a context implying school endorsement and because the school has effective control over the messages. “Cheerleading for the school is undeniably a school-sponsored activity, and the banners displayed by the cheerleaders take place during a school-sponsored event.”
The New York Times quoted Charles Haynes, director at the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum. “If the cheerleaders aren’t representing the school, then who are they [representing]? It would be like saying that the football team doesn’t represent the school, they are just individual students just coming on the field and are free to do what they want to do.”
The school district could decide to appeal Thomas’ ruling, but in what seems like a curious bit of collusion, the district had formally asked the court to hold “that the Establishment Clause should not be interpreted so as to require Defendants [the school] to bar the religious banners. . .”
While FFRF’s complaint started the case, it’s not a party to the suit. But if contacted by those with standing to sue, FFRF is prepared to challenge the continuing violation in federal court, where the case belongs.
“We encourage any student or parent with children in the public schools coming into contact with this religious practice at public school functions to contact FFRF,” said Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. Plaintiffs with standing might also include school employees coming into regular contact with the banners at school sporting events.
FFRF has taken complaints about the practice spreading to other schools and has recently sent letters of complaint to to Newton, Texas; Bossier Parish, La.; Stone County Schools, Miss.; and Thackerville Schools, Okla. FFRF was notified that the Stone County Mississippi School District ordered cheerleaders to stop making religious banners.
“Since the state’s top law enforcer, Attorney General Greg Abbott, and its highest executive officer, Gov. Rick Perry, have openly expressed contempt for atheists and the Establishment Clause, this leads to a climate of intolerance. It takes courage to face down the full apparatus of state government, but we need those brave few to contact FFRF,” added Barker.
“Don’t let collusion, politicking and religious fervor in Texas destroy respect for keeping public schools free of religious divisiveness,” Barker added.
The New York Times (“Faith, Football and the First Amendment,” Oct. 21) and Washington Post (“Bench the Bible,” Oct. 24) editorialized in FFRF’s favor.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed two lawsuits that contest Ten Commandments monuments at Pennsylvania schools. One suit was filed Sept. 27 in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh against the Connellsville Area School District for a marker at a junior high school.
FFRF, on behalf of two local “Doe” plaintiffs, seeks a declaration that the display is unconstitutional and should be removed. FFRF is also named as a plaintiff in both suits.
A similar federal suit was filed Sept. 14 against the New Kensington-Arnold School District for maintaining a Ten Commandments monument at Valley High School in New Kensington. FFRF first sent a letter of complaint in March about the illegal monument.
The Fraternal Order of Eagles donated the slabs to both schools in the mid 1950s. FFRF has nearly 700 Pennsylvania members. Pittsburgh-based attorney Marcus Schneider represents the plaintiffs in both suits.
Some nonmembers of FFRF were up in arms with dire predictions. At a “Save Our Stone” rally at Valley High, New Kensington resident Mike Hresko spoke to the “crowd” of 50, according to the Valley News Dispatch. “We don’t want it removed. This is part of our community. . . . They’ll lock up the churches and we’ll be just like a communist country.”
At a similar event in Connellsville, a woman told WTAE-4 that the monuments contain “God’s principles” and should stay. “I believe that God should be in school with our children.”
The legal complaints state that the continued presence of the Ten Commandments on school property unconstitutionally advances and endorses religion. The complaints also note that [each] display “lacks any secular purpose,” citing Stone v. Graham, a 1980 Supreme Court decision which ruled the Commandments may not be posted in public school classrooms, because “The pre-eminent purpose” for doing so “is plainly religious in nature.”
Plaintiffs in the suit against the New Kensington-Arnold School District are FFRF member Marie Schaub, who has a child, Doe 1, in the school district who regularly encounters the bible edict, and Doe 2, a student at Valley High School, along with Doe 3, parent and guardian of Doe 2.
The Valley News Dispatch reported that Schaub came to a pro-Commandments rally. “I just wanted to hear what they are saying. I find it amazing that people gather in support of breaking the law.”
Doe 5 is an atheist member of FFRF who views the Connellsville monument as usurpation of parental rights and who does “not subscribe to the religious statements that are inscribed on the monument.” Her child, Doe 4, attends the junior high and comes in regular contact with the prominent monument, which is in view of students boarding or exiting school buses and participating in outdoor gym classes.
The complaint notes, “FFRF and Doe 5 contend that a public school district has no right to instruct its captive audience of impressionable students on which god to have, how many gods to have, or whether to have any gods at all.”
The tombstone-like New Kensington monument, about 6 feet tall, is directly in front of the main school entrance, near two footbridges that students, staff and visitors use to enter the building.
School Board President Robert Pallone wrote in March on a Facebook page called “KEEP THE TEN COMMANDMENTS AT VALLEY HIGH SCHOOL,” that the district would not “remove this monument without a fight !!!!!”
The Eagles’ Commandments campaign started when a devout judge and Eagles member, E.J. Ruegemer — who wanted to promote religion and Minnesota granite — teamed up with film director Cecil B. DeMille, who was advertising his 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments.”
In 2002, FFRF successfully removed one of the first such monuments placed on public property in the city of Milwaukee. Actor Yul Brenner, who played Rameses II in the movie, had attended the dedication.
FFRF seeks permanent injunctions directing the districts to remove the monuments from district property, reasonable costs and attorneys’ fees and nominal damages to plaintiffs. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott helped draft both complaints.