Zack Kopplin, 20, received FFRF’s first Richard and Beverly Hermsen Student Activist Award of $5,000 for his impressive work to repeal a stealth creationism law in Louisiana. This is his acceptance speech, edited for print, given at FFRF’s 36th national convention in September in Madison, Wis. He’s now a history major at Rice University in Houston.
Thank you all so much for having me here so I can tell you about the fight for science in Louisiana and in the United States. My home state, Louisiana, is addicted to creationism.
In 1987, the Supreme Court threw out Louisiana’s first creationism law in the Edwards v. Aguillard decision, but the creationists never give up. When we passed the misnamed and misguided Louisiana Science Education Act back in 2008, we became repeat offenders. I won’t lie. It was really a pretty clever piece of legislation.
The act never once mentions creationism or intelligent design in order to dodge court rulings like Edwards, which said Louisiana cannot require that creationism be taught in public school science class, or the more recent 2005 case, Dover v. Kitzmiller, in which Judge John Jones ruled that intelligent design was creationism, too, just all dressed up in a lab coat and therefore still patently unconstitutional.
Instead, the law allows and encourages teachers to use supplemental materials that “critique” evolution and other political controversies, including climate change and cloning. The overwhelming majority of scientists support evolution theory. This is only a controversy to Louisiana politicians.
But, because of this law, in our public school science classes, teachers can bring in materials that say the Earth is only thousands of years old. Throughout the bill and the talking points of proponents are references to the importance of teaching critical thinking.
Of course, you don’t need a law to teach critical thinking in a science class — that’s the whole point of a science class! Critical thinking is at the heart of the scientific method. You only need a law if you want to sneak unscientific and unconstitutional creationist supplemental materials into public school classrooms.
When he first introduced the bill, Sen. Ben Nevers let the cat out of the bag, explaining that a creationist group, the Louisiana Family Forum (which, by the way, claims to have drafted and promoted the LSEA) asked for the law so creationism could be taught in public schools.
“I’ve got no problem if a school board, a local school board, says we want to teach our kids about creationism, that some people have these beliefs as well,” Gov. Bobby Jindal told NBC’s “Education Nation.”
When the state Board of Education originally wrote the rules implementing the LSEA, they specifically outlawed teaching creationism and intelligent design. The creationists went berserk and had those rules scrapped. The Livingston and Tangipahoa Parish boards went so far as to use the law to justify making creationism a mandatory part of the curriculum. This isn’t just a Louisiana issue, though. Attacks on science come from all around the country, and the damage from science denial falls on all Americans. A prime example is Texas, which is currently adopting new science textbooks. And because it’s Texas, creationists are attempting to undermine these biology books.
The state board has appointed “expert reviewers” to issue corrections to the textbook publishers. The issue is these experts are not experts. They’re Discovery Institute fellows and members of the Creation Science Hall of Fame.
They have sent reviews to the textbook publishers, insisting they revise their books to say there are no transitional fossils and to include the “creation model” based on “biblical principles.”
We need to stand up and launch a movement to fight for science. That’s what I’m fighting for. We’re standing up in Louisiana, we’re standing up in Texas, and we need to stand up across the country.
Forging a coalition
When I was a senior in high school, I realized I had a voice and a moral responsibility to use it and started a campaign to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act. The first thing I did was contact Dr. Barbara Forrest, one of the country’s foremost leaders in fighting creationism. She happens to live just 25 miles down the road in one of our creationist hot spots, Livingston Parish.
We met and started working on the repeal. The first step was to find a legislator courageous enough to sponsor the repeal bill. The LSEA passed with only three votes against it.
I met with Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, one of the brave three, and she agreed to author the repeal legislation. Rep. Walt Leger agreed to handle our legislation when it got to the House.
When this campaign began, everyone told me that we didn’t have a chance, that we were taking on powerful interests and it wasn’t worth it. Our first repeal bill was defeated 5-1 in committee. We came back for a second try the next year and lost again. This year we lost again in a 3-2 vote but made progress and will be back again next spring. And we’ve done some incredible things along the way. We protected Louisiana’s biology textbooks and now defeated four attempts to throw them out.
Nearly 40% of living Nobel laureate scientists have joined us. Major science organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science are on board. Public servants, including the full New Orleans City Council, and tens of thousands of others, have joined our cause.
Despite our progress, our issues have taken a new turn for the worse. It seemed like Governor Jindal had already done as much damage as he could to science education with the LSEA. Wrong.
The state has now passed a program that takes money from public schools and gives vouchers to creationist schools. The program has been ruled unconstitutional, but the Legislature could find a way around it.
I documented 20 private schools which blatantly teach creationism or use creationist curricula that could end up receiving over 1,300 voucher slots, which were initially slated to receive $11 million in taxpayer funds annually. They’ve since decreased the amount to about $4 million. If they manage to keep the program going, they’re going to be funding millions more.
I found schools that teach “Our position on the age of the Earth and other issues is that any theory that goes against God’s Word is in error” and others that call scientists “sinful men.” I found a school that requires students to “defend creationism through evidence presented by the Bible versus traditional scientific theory.”
There be dragons
Mother Jones magazine picked out the 14th craziest lessons taught in creationist schools. My favorite was the textbook that claimed dragons were real (they were dinosaurs with chemicals in their noses, and they lived with humans).
By the way, one of our state legislators who voted for the voucher program now says she opposes it because she didn’t realize Muslim schools could potentially qualify for vouchers. She thought religious schools meant only Christian schools, and for good reason. Besides all the creationism and dragons, there’s even a school slated to receive $360,000 a year led by a man who calls himself The Apostle and teaches prophecy.
As the New Orleans Times Picayune opined, “Vouchers have turned out to be the answer to a creationist’s prayer.”
We’re giving public money to private schools that will fail our students through teaching creationism and bad science. But again, all of you know that this isn’t just Louisiana craziness.
I’ve found that over 300 schools across the country are teaching creationism and receiving tens of millions or quite possibly even hundreds of millions in public money. I found schools bringing students to the Creation Museum and calling evolution “the way of the heathen.”
This fight may be long and it may be hard, but as President Kennedy said when he launched the moon mission, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
We need a new science revolution because our generation faces unprecedented challenges to our way of living and to our survival as a species. Our population continues to climb, but the amount of clean water and living space we have is stretched thin. Our climate is growing increasingly extreme. We’ve discovered “super bugs” which are resistant to antibiotics.
Earth is experiencing a rapid decline in biodiversity, especially in our oceans. The recent meteorite that exploded over Russia is a sobering reminder that we could be faced with a killer asteroid in the near future.
I know these threats sound like science fiction, but they are real and my generation will have to address them. The way to overcome these challenges and ensure the continued long-term existence of our species is through investment in rapid scientific innovation.
We have a choice of two futures. In the first, we keep on our present track. This is a future where science funding continues to stay stagnant or decline. In this future, we teach creationism and climate denial instead of science. In this future, we fall to these threats.
I have a vision where we invest $1 trillion in science in the next decade. Science funding offers a massive return on investment, over 30%. And the great thing about funding science is that what we discover, unlike a tax cut, never sunsets. Unlike a road, it never needs to be replaced or repaved. What we discover will be with us forever.
I have a vision where we teach evolution, not creationism. Where we teaching about radio carbon dating rather than Noah’s flood. Teach climate science, not just plain denial science.
I have a vision of humanity harnessing wave energy and revolutionary sustainable technology like algae fuel. I have a vision where we discover how to turn off cancer cells and even aging.
When I was a freshman in high school, when my dad ran for Congress, I didn’t recognize I had a voice and that my voice had power. I didn’t recognize that with this power, came great responsibility. I have a responsibility to serve my country and my species. We all do.
We have the power to launch a scientific revolution to overcome the challenges we face and we all have a responsibility to do that.
This is our generation’s movement. We need a Second Giant Leap for humankind!
An FFRF member took this photo Sunday in Pitman, N.J.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation is offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the persons who tried to torch FFRF's "Keep Saturn in Saturnalia" billboard Dec. 17, five days after it went up to counter a "Keep Christ in Christmas" banner in Pitman, N.J.
According to a South Jersey Times story, an off-duty police officer from Deptford Township was in Carolina Blue Smokehouse and Taproom when he looked across the street and saw two men under the billboard.
The story said Pitman police were told that the men tossed gasoline on the billboard or its supports and lit it. "The fire did not stay lit, and the men, spotting the people approaching them from across the street, fled in a possibly blue-and-silver Chevrolet Model 1500 pickup truck with ladder racks," the story said.
Pitman Police Chief Bob Zimmerman said in a statement that only the "legs" of the billboard owned by Clear Channel caught fire and that damage was minimal.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel pointed out that, in addition to attempted aggravated arson, the perpetrators could well be charged with a hate crime under New Jersey's "Bias Intimidation" statute. The statute, 2C:16-1 greatly increases the severity of the punishment for crimes, such as arson, done "with a purpose to intimidate [a] group of individuals because of ... religion..."
Two days before, on Dec. 15, a man in a Santa Claus suit stood at the sign for some time with his own sign in protest. Later that day, a man accompanied by a woman and a child tried to attach a picture of a manger over FFRF's message but police intervened and they left. Part of it was caught on video:
Anyone with information should contact FFRF at 608-256-8900. FFRF asks supporters to pass on any information and discourages independent action. Police on patrol have been directed to give extra attention to the billboard.
Saturnalia was an ancient holiday named after the Roman god Saturn. The holiday took place near the winter solstice.
"Vandalism like this amounts to censorship and suppression of minority viewpoints," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. "It's especially dismaying given that it likely was done by religious persons who supposedly abide by Christian principles."
An obscure Wisconsin Anglican church with a fanatical anti-abortion bent, represented by a Catholic legal firm, has moved to intervene as a party in the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s federal church electioneering lawsuit.
FFRF naturally will oppose the intervention, requested more than a year after FFRF filed suit to enforce Internal Revenue Service policies against illegal church electioneering. No 501(c)(3) organizations are allowed to retain tax exemption if they engage in partisan politicking. FFRF obeys the law, but points out the IRS has turned a blind eye to widespread flouting of the regulations by churches.
Fr. Patrick Malone, vicar of Holy Cross Anglican Church in Milwaukee, participated in the “Pulpit Initiative” this year, publicly joining more than 1,200 churches that made overt endorsements from the pulpit.
Malone submitted an affidavit claiming he is called to “preach to Holy Cross Anglican Church about candidates that, as a matter of faith and practice, they should not vote for. I have done so in the past, as recently as the November 2013 elections, and I plan to do so again in the future.”
Malone openly admits in the affidavit that he preaches on the “sanctity of life," adding, "I have in the past, and will in the future, declare to my congregation that Elective Abortion is a fundamental evil, and that voting for a candidate that supports such laws is to be a supporter and accomplice to this grave sin.”
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor responded: “Nobody’s above the law, not even churches on a crusade. It’s so simple: If churches want to politick, they’re free to do so, and to freely give up their tax exemption. Fair’s fair.”
Gaylor said if churches engaging in politicking are permitted to retain tax exemption, the consequences “will make Citizens United look like child’s play.” She pointed out that congregations would become political wards and churches would money launder political donations, with virtually no public accountability or ability to trace donors.
“Tax exemption is a privilege, not a right,” added FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “It’s the bargain that we strike with the government and taxpayers in order to earn the tax break — that we will not betray this fundamental principle.”
The lawsuit, FFRF v. Schulman (12-cv-818), was filed on FFRF’s behalf by attorney Richard L. Bolton. U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Adelman, for the Western District of Wisconsin, has ruled that FFRF has standing to pursue the case.
Read FFRF’s legal complaint.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and local members placed a sign Dec. 17 in the Rhode Island Capitol in Providence that says there are “no gods” and declaring “At this season of the winter solstice, may reason prevail.”
FFRF, a Madison, Wis.-based national state/church watchdog with nearly 20,000 members, placed the sign to counter the numerous manger scenes now appearing in the Capitol. FFRF’s sign, with a stained glass motif, joins other secular displays by the Humanists of Rhode Island and the Secular Coalition of Rhode Island.
The sign, composed by Anne Nicol Gaylor, FFRF co-president emerita, reads in full:
“At this season of the winter solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”
“We don’t think religion, or irreligion, belong at the seat of state government,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “But there has to be ‘room at the inn’ for dissenting points of view once the state opens up its government buildings to religious displays.”
Barker added that FFRF’s sign celebrates the winter solstice, “the real reason for the season.”
Saturday, Dec. 21, the shortest, darkest day of the year, traditionally is a time of “pagan revelry” in the Northern Hemisphere since it heralds the “rebirth” of the Sun.
S.C. atheists barred from volunteering
Upstate Atheists, a freethought group in the Spartanburg, S.C., area, was barred from volunteering at the Spartanburg Soup Kitchen, according to an Oct. 23 story in the Herald-Journal.
Eve Brannon, 25, Upstate Atheists president, said the group would instead hand out 300 “care” packages to the needy on Oct. 26. Packages contained socks, gloves, toothpaste, toothbrushes, combs, soap, rain ponchos, snacks, shaving razors, antiseptic wipes, deodorants, tissues and gum.
“I told them we wouldn’t wear our T-shirts. We wouldn’t tell anyone who we are with. We just want to help out,” Brannon said. “And they told us that we were not allowed.”
Lou Landrum, Soup Kitchen executive director, told the Herald-Journal she would resign before she let atheists volunteer and be a “disservice to this community.”
“This is a ministry to serve God,” she said. “We stand on the principles of God. Do they think that our guests are so ignorant that they don’t know what an atheist is? Why are they targeting us? They don’t give any money. I wouldn’t want their money.”
Landrum added, “They can set up across the street from the Soup Kitchen. They can have the devil there with them, but they better not come across the street.”
Legion pulls support over pledge refusal
American Legion Post 134 in Morton Grove, Ill., withdrew its financial support for the city park district because park board member Dan Ashta refuses to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Post Commander Joseph Lampert confronted Ashta at the Oct. 24 board meeting.
Ashta thanked Lampert for speaking his mind, according to the Morton Grove Champion, but stood his ground, as he did earlier when he told the village clerk that “I feel like we’re compelling people to speak,” adding that the First Amendment affords the right to also not speak.
Ashta objected to making people pledge allegiance to a government they might oppose. He said people with objections to religion or religious objections also shouldn’t have to feel isolated or unwanted for not standing.
“I think the Constitution is what makes this country great and worth making sacrifices for. Countries with weak constitutions usually don’t last,” Ashta said.
Post 134, with about 800 members, contributes $2,600 annually to city-sponsored events.
Christian college group flush with cash
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, headquartered in Madison, Wis., had just over $99 million in 2012-13 revenues, according to an Oct. 9 InterVarsity press release. That amount puts InterVarsity atop a list of Wisconsin nonprofits compiled by KerstenDirect, a Texas fundraising and marketing agency. The ranking doesn’t include hospitals, universities, museums and several other categories of nonprofits.
InterVarsity’s National Service Center in Madison serves over 1,600 staff, including field staff who work with 909 InterVarsity chapters on 590 college and university campuses across the U.S.
Bus driving pastor
fired for prayer
George Nathaniel, 49, Richfield, Minn., was fired Oct. 30 as a bus driver for refusing to stop leading students in prayer. The private contractor fired him after getting repeated complaints from the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District.
Nathaniel is pastor at the Elite Church of the First Born and Grace Missionary Baptist Church, reported the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Nathaniel said he drove school buses in Wisconsin and Georgia before coming to Minnesota and that he’s always prayed with students.
“We got to get Christians to be able to be Christians and not have to be closet Christians. You have something good, you are going to share it with somebody.”
He allegedly waited till the last child got on the bus before starting the daily prayers, which lasted about seven minutes.
Catholic ‘Red Mass’ draws high court
Five U.S. Supreme Court justices attended the annual Catholic “Red Mass” at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington on Oct. 6, as did several members of Congress and Denis McDonough, White House chief of staff. Attending were Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. (The first three are Catholic and the last two are Jewish.)
The Mass continued a 60-year-old tradition and is intended to bless the upcoming work of the Supreme Court and other judges and public officials, reported the Legal Times. The name refers to the bright red vestments worn by clergy and to the red flame symbolizing the Holy Ghost.
In Stars of David, a 2005 book by Abigail Pogrebin, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said of the Red Mass, “I went one year and I will never go again, because this sermon was outrageously anti-abortion. Even the Scalias, although they’re very much of that persuasion, were embarrassed for me.”
to have baby
The Nebraska Supreme Court, in a 5-2 decision Oct. 4, denied a 16-year-old girl’s request for an abortion, saying she had not shown that “she is sufficiently mature and well informed to decide on her own whether to have an abortion.”
The girl lives with foster parents because she was taken away from her biological parents due to physical abuse and neglect. At the parental rights hearing, she told the court she was pregnant and couldn’t support a child or be “the right mom that [she] would like to be right now.” She also told the court she feared losing her placement in foster care if her highly religious foster parents found out she was pregnant.
The district court judge, Peter Batallion, appears to have served in the 1980s on the Omaha committee for Metro Right to Life, according to the Houston Chronicle. Batallion allegedly told her “when you have the abortion, it’s going to kill the child inside of you” and asked if she would “rather do that than risk problems with the foster care people.”
boycott over prayer
American Legion Post 311 in Hawley, Pa., said if its chaplain isn’t allowed to pray at the Veterans Day ceremony at Wallenpaupack Area High School, members will boycott the ceremony.
The post chaplain has never prayed at the annual ceremony, but when Commander William Kennett heard that graduation prayers were no longer allowed [following a complaint by FFRF last June], he asked if that applied to the Veterans Day event. Yes, it does, he was told, reported the Pocono Record.
In a letter to the editor, Pat Thompson, Legion executive board member, spread a widely believed myth: “There are no atheists in foxholes. Saying a prayer does not establish a religion.”
loses law license
Former Kansas Attorney General Phillip Kline lost his law license indefinitely Oct. 18 after the Kansas Supreme Court unanimously ruled he violated ethics rules in his prosecution of abortion providers, including the late Dr. George Tiller.
The court, in a 154-page decision, found that Kline, attorney general from 2003-07, demonstrated “overzealous advocacy” and failed to operate “within the bounds of the law,” reported the National Law Journal.
Kline, now an assistant professor at Christian-oriented Liberty University School of Law in Lynchburg, Va., can’t seek bar readmission for three years.
He was at the center of controversy in 2006 when a memo from Kline to his staff was leaked. In the memo, he told staff how to form a campaign committee for him at each church to “encourage people to contribute and volunteer.”
God in Air Force
oath now optional
The U.S. Air Force Academy has made “so help me God” optional in its honor code after being pressured by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, CNN reported Oct. 25. The oath reads “We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does, so help me God.”
Cadets had been required to recite the oath at the end of basic training. It’s also taken yearly by all cadets to reaffirm their commitment to the honor code, said academy spokesman Maj. Brus Vidal.
The academy respects “the ability of our cadets, Airmen and civilian Airmen to freely practice and exercise their religious preference — or not,” a statement said.
Mikey Weinstein, MRFF’s founder and president, said he intends to sue unless the offending phrase is removed, even if it’s optional. “If the words are still there and you don’t say [them], you turn yourself into a tarantula on a wedding cake.”
FFRF halts Ohio flagpole prayer
FFRF successfully ended a “See You At The Pole” event at Columbia High School in Tiffin, Ohio, after learning that a teacher organized and promoted the event, going so far as to order pizza and lead the students in prayer. The school principal also participated, promoting the event through the school’s morning announcements and commenting that he thought prayer was “an important thing to do.”
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter Oct. 8 to Superintendent Don Coletta to explain the violation: “Faculty participation and organization of a prayer event is inappropriate and problematic. Even if a prayer event in your school is hosted by a student organization, adult participation or promotion is impermissible. While the school cannot prohibit students from organizing or participating in a prayer event, the Supreme Court has stated that public school employees, including teachers, must refrain from actively participating in religious activities.”
Coletta responded Oct. 14: “I have taken steps with both individuals (and others) to make sure our personnel are both aware of the legal boundaries and that they act within them. I intend to monitor this situation in an effort to ensure both the rights of students and the obligation of the District are honored.”
Teacher: Freedom ‘comes from God’
A Michigan social studies teacher will no longer be allowed to distribute and display a poster with the Pledge of Allegiance alongside a message asserting that “our freedom ultimately comes from God” and that the founding fathers felt similarly.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent an Oct. 11 letter to Superintendent Tim Haist of Big Rapids [Township] High School: “While the recitation and display of the Pledge of Allegiance in a public school is permissible, promoting and displaying religious arguments alongside it are not. The poster’s assertion overlooks many statements from this country’s founders which acknowledge their secular principles, and thus flatly ignores the secular position on the issue.”
The posters were produced by Gateways to Better Education, a Christian group whose mission is to inject “faith in the public schools” and to teach students “about the importance of the bible and Judeo-Christian history, thought and values.”
Haist replied Oct. 14 that the teacher in question had been told that “District policy states that we can ‘neither advance nor inhibit religion.’ ” Haist said the teacher was also given a document stating, “While Michigan standards do include an exploration of the American government and its foundation, including fundamental ideas and philosophical and historical origins through investigation, I struggle to see the connection between the pledge and this standard. The pledge in not a foundational document. As we both know, it was written over 100 years later and not adopted by our government until 1954.”
He also encouraged the teacher to write a lesson plan about the pledge’s revisions and their historical context.
FFRF grounds prayer
at Atlanta airport
A staff member at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport attended an employee and customer satisfaction luncheon that was organized by the airport, which is owned by the city of Atlanta and is the busiest U.S. airport. The lunch began with a Christian prayer, during which guests were instructed to bow their heads. It included readings of bible verses and was led by a Christian chaplain.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted the airport on behalf of the local complainant, pointing out that such prayer “creates acrimony, makes minorities feel like political outsiders in their own community, and shows unconstitutional governmental preference for religion over nonreligion.”
An airport representative responded in late summer, stating that FFRF’s concerns were taken very seriously, and that personnel conducting an upcoming customer service event were “committed to abiding by all applicable laws and City policies.”
VA: Stop mandatory treatment prayers
Military veterans sent to substance abuse treatment by the Sacramento Veterans Administration in California will be offered an alternative to religious programs because of an FFRF letter of complaint.
FFRF was contacted by a veteran who said that in his program, he was forced to take part in prayers and meetings that emphasized God. Despite multiple talks with counselors about his beliefs, he was threatened with expulsion if he so much as stepped out of the room during prayers.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to the VA on July 23: “[N]o government program can require participation in religious activity or promote one religious view over another. It seems that nothing is being done to protect the rights of conscience of those who are nonreligious.”
Elliott pointed out that 23.1% of all military personnel identify as atheist, agnostic or having no religious preference.
The Department of Veterans Affairs responded Oct. 22, stating that it was “reinforced to D&A Detox that they are not to require attendance in prayer activities to remain in treatment; reinforced with them that they should not stigmatize any Veteran who opts out of such activities; [and] reinforced with VA staff to ask about objections to 12-Step model programs in considering program placement.”
Praying Arizona coach ordered to stop
The football coach at Sunrise Mountain High School (Glendale, Ariz.) will no longer be allowed to force students to pray or pressure them to join the school’s Christian club, nor will faculty be allowed to participate in the club, due to a complaint letter from FFRF.
FFRF’s complainant reported that head football coach James Carter made all players hold hands and pray to Jesus Christ before and after football games or face reduced playing time. Carter also reportedly pressured players to join Christian Club on Campus (CCC). Several other teachers also participated in CCC.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the school district, pointing out it’s unconstitutional for coaches to organize, lead, participate in or force players to pray. Seidel also noted that the Equal Access Act says school employees may only be present at religious groups in a nonparticipatory capacity, and that such groups must be student-initiated and student-run.
The school district responded promptly to say that all parties named in the letter had been contacted and claiming the district would “continue to educate all personnel in order to ensure adherence [to federal and state laws].”
ousted at lunch
FFRF has stopped the practice of allowing preachers and pastors to enter Pedro Menendez High School in St. Augustine, Fla., during the lunch period and pressure students to attend their churches and church functions.
According to the complainant, youth pastors “quite intrusively butt into conversations” to ask students to attend religious events.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent an email to the school district to detail how this practice raises serious constitutional and liability issues for the school: “This predatory conduct should raise many red flags, especially if there are no security measures in place to keep such visitors out or if these religious visitors are not subject to the same security measures that other visitors may be.”
An attorney for the district responded Oct. 29: “We have terminated [the pastors’] standing invitation to visit the school at lunchtime.”
for secular club
After a contentious six-month struggle narrowly avoiding a lawsuit, James Bowie High School in Austin, Texas, has decided to allow senior Nick Montana to form his club. The group in question? A secular student alliance, which would provide a community for nonreligious teens.
Principal Stephen Kane had repeatedly refused to approve the group, but school attorneys ordered him to relent after Montana reached out to two national secular nonprofits, the Secular Student Alliance and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The organizations declared the school’s change of course a victory for atheist equality.
Struggles like Montana’s are common occurrences across the country. In a new effort to defend students’ rights, SSA and FFRF have formed a partnership.
Citing the federal Equal Access Act and the First Amendment, the partnership appealed to Kane to stop stonewalling Montana. The law requires schools with extracurricular clubs to treat all student groups equally, regardless of viewpoint. Once FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel weighed in for the partnership, it took four working days for school attorneys to order Kane to approve the group.
Montana’s efforts took six months from the time he first asked to start the student group. School administrators had delayed approving the group, and later suspended it when it tried to meet unofficially. Federal law and school policy state that a group shall be approved once a student has a faculty sponsor and submits a constitution, which Montana did. Two other groups submitted requests and were approved while Montana’s languished.
Montana’s controversy comes as America youths are becoming more secular and increasingly organizing around their secular identities. A 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that the percent of millennials 18-29 reporting doubts about the existence of God has doubled in five years, from 15% in 2007 to 31% in 2012. In the same time period, the SSA exploded with growth, from 81 campus groups to 357. They support 402 groups today, 52 of them at high schools.
in Tenn. schools
FFRF has stopped several First Amendment violations in Franklin County Schools, Franklin, Tenn.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter in early September about a memo circulated last December to parents of children attending North Lake Elementary. The memo said “Merry CHRISTmas” and mentioned that parents need to teach their children the “real reason for the season.”
Markert additionally noted that candy canes were distributed by one teacher with a story attached claiming the origin of candy canes is religious: “The candymaker made the candy in the form of a ‘J’ to represent Jesus, who came to earth as our savior. . . Thinking that the candy was somewhat plain the candymaker stained it with red stripes. He used three small stripes to show the stripes of the scourging Jesus received, by which we are all healed. The large red stripe was for the blood shed by Christ on the cross so that we can have the promise of eternal life.”
Markert noted that Snopes has debunked this evangelical legend.
In October, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted the district yet again regarding a complaint that a teacher at South Middle School had passed out bibles with bookmarks warning that people who do not believe in Jesus are damned. Seidel wrote, “Parents who send their children to school in your district entrust teachers to use their positions of authority and influence for secular educational purposes, not to indoctrinate 6th graders in the teacher’s personal religion.”
A lawyer for the district has responded that while the school board hadn’t been aware of the bible and candy cane distributions, those practices would be halted immediately: “That’s done, that’s over.”
FFRF also asked the North Lake Elementary PTO to stop praying before meetings, noting the practice is divisive. According to the Herald Chronicle, board member Chris McDonough suggested a moment of silence: “There are people in this county who do not go to churches, who do not believe the same things you do, and we have to make it possible for those people to feel comfortable as well. The majority doesn’t rule.”
On Oct. 14, the school board voted to sever all connections with the PTO, which no longer has official standing or district affiliation.
Tenn. judge cited
for nixing Messiah
On Aug. 14, FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Timothy R. Discenza, disciplinary counsel for the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct in Nashville, to lodge a formal complaint about Lu Ann Ballew, a child support magistrate. Ballew had presided over a child support hearing Aug. 8 in Cocke County Chancery Court in Newport to settle a dispute over a 7-month-old’s last name.
At the hearing’s end, Ballew ordered the boy’s name changed from Messiah DeShawn Martin to Martin DeShawn McCullough. According to an interview with WBIR-TV in Knoxville, she said said the name change was warranted because “[T]he word Messiah is a title, and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ.”
Ballew further said that a child named Messiah would have a hard time growing up in a county with a large Christian population: “It could put him at odds with a lot of people, and at this point he has had no choice in what his name is.”
In FFRF’s complaint, Markert noted that such conduct “send a clear message to nonbelievers and those who practice minority religions that [Ballew] is not neutral and that she will abuse her position to advance her own Christian views. Ms. Jaleesa Martin, the child’s mother, stated ‘I was shocked. I never intended on naming my son Messiah because it means God, and I didn’t think a judge could make me change my baby’s name because of her religious beliefs.’”
The parents appealed and another judge ruled in September that Ballew’s ruling was unconstitutional. The parents continue to call their son Messiah DeShawn McCullough. Messiah’s siblings are named Micah and Mason.
On Oct. 23, a three-member investigative panel of the judicial board concluded there was “reasonable cause to believe [Ballew] has committed judicial offenses” and ordered the board’s disciplinary counsel to file charges, Reuters reported.
The panel cited a clause of the judicial code that says religion and other personal biases must not play a role in rulings. Ballew has 30 days to file a response.
Messiah was the 387th most popular name for boys born in the U.S. in 2012, according to the Social Security Administration. There were 762 applications for boys named Messiah in 2012. In 2011, there were 368 Messiah requests.
Charter school agrees to stop prayer
Indian River Charter High School in Vero Beach, Fla., has halted graduation prayers. After receiving a report that a student started the 2013 ceremony with a Christian prayer, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the school district June 4: “[T]he Supreme Court has settled this matter — high school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students.”
The district responded in late August, stating it would remove invocations from future graduation programs.