Another Pennsylvania school board has decided to drop prayer at board meetings after getting a letter from FFRF. That means FFRF is batting 5 for 5 in recent challenges to prayers by Keystone State school boards.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Aug. 17 on behalf of a local complainant to Glenn Yoder, president of the Eastern Lancaster County Board of School Directors in New Holland.
FFRF is a national state/church watchdog with over 18,500 members, including over 600 in Pennsylvania.
Markert noted that state and federal court have repeatedly ruled that prayers by public school boards are unconstitutional, inappropriate and divisive and cited the relevant cases. (The Anti-Defamation League of Philadelphia also wrote the board to complain about its invocations.)
On the weekend of Oct. 20, Superintendent Robert Hollister left a phone message at FFRF's office that said the board would no longer be opening meetings with prayer.
According to unofficial minutes from the Sept. 17 board meeting, meetings will instead open with a moment of silence. The minutes contend there's value in "thoughtful reflection," i.e., prayer, but add "the board doesn't not wish to expose our taxpayers to threat of litigation that these outside groups have implied will occur, because our tax dollars are best spent supporting the education of our children."
The Greencastle-Antrim, Grove City, Octorara Area School Board in Atglen and Big Spring school boards also voted recently to stop praying before meetings after getting FFRF letters.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation condemns as "blatant politicking" full-page ads by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which make clear whom Graham wants voters to choose for president and U.S. Senate. The ministry ran ads in Sunday's New York Times and in the Wisconsin State Journal two Sundays in a row, as well as in USA Today on Oct. 19, in the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 18, and in "more than a dozen national and battleground state newspapers before Nov. 6," according to Huffington Post.
Billy Graham met with Mitt Romney in his North Carolina home on Oct. 11, where the evangelist tacitly endorsed Romney for president. According to Huffington Post, "Although the Romney campaign stopped short of calling it an endorsement, Graham made it clear at the meeting's conclusion that Romney had his support. After leading a prayer for the Republican nominee, Graham told Romney, 'I'll do all I can to help you. And you can quote me on that.' "
Two days after the meeting, the ministry announced its "vote biblical principles" campaign.
On Sunday, Oct. 21, a full-page ad ran in the Wisconsin State Journal. Graham's face dominated half of the ad, which reproduced his signature. The text attributed to Graham read:
"On November 6, the day before my 94th birthday, our nation will hold one of the most critical elections in my lifetime. We are at a crossroads and there are profound moral issues at stake. I strongly urge you to vote for candidates who support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and woman, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms. The Bible speaks clearly on these crucial issues. Please join me in praying for America, that we will turn our hearts back toward God."
The ad is clearly marked "Paid advertisement by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association," a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charity. Tax exempt organizations are forbidden by the IRS to engage in partisan politicking, which includes actions making clear whom tax-exempt entities want people to vote for or against.
"It was not necessary for Billy Graham to name names. One presidential candidate has come out in favor of marriage equality for gays and is pro-choice. The other rejects gay marriage and is antiabortion. Ditto for Wisconsin's heated U.S. Senate race, between one candidate who is antiabortion and anti-gay marriage, and the other candidate who is a lesbian who supports marriage equality and abortion rights," noted Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF Co-President.
"This is dirty pool," she added, because taxpayers are subsidizing these ads by virtue of the fact that donations to the Graham ministry are tax-deductible, making it an "unfair political battle."
A similar full-page ad ran again in yesterday's State Journal, as well as the New York Times. The ad featured a photo of the evangelist's face taking up two-thirds of the page, and this statement by him:
"The legacy we leave behind for our children, grandchildren, and this great nation is crucial. As I approach my 94th birthday, I realize this election could be my last. I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman. Vote for biblical values this November 6, and pray with me that America will remain one nation under God."
Tax-exempt organizations may engage in voter registration drives. These ads by the Graham ministry, which reported $122 million in net assets for the year 2011, go far beyond that, FFRF contends.
The "coded" message continues at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website, where a majority of banner ads and highlighted links on the homepage work together to send an endorsement message for Romney. These include:
1. A banner ad saying "Vote Biblical Values on November 6. Important Message from Billy Graham" (with his photo) taking readers to copies of the ads the ministry is running around the country.
2. A banner ad saying "Billy Graham Welcomes Mitt Romney," featuring a photo of Romney and Graham, linking to more photos and a press release saying: "It was a privilege to pray with Gov. Romney—for his family and our country." The press release features the same language as the current ads, urging readers "to vote for candidates who will support the biblical definition of marriage, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms."
3. A banner ad saying "Can an Evangelical Vote for a Mormon? Franklin Graham Provides an Answer," linking to a statement by the junior Graham dated Oct. 22, 2012, which concludes: "So, can a Christian vote for a Mormon? The answer is yes."
"These coded messages overall create a clear message of endorsement of a presidential candidate, even picturing Romney with the head of the ministry," said Gaylor.
After Billy Graham's Oct. 21 meeting with Romney, references to Mormonism as a "cult" were "scrubbed" from the ministry's website, according to Religion News Service.
FFRF received many complaints from its North Carolina members and members of the public after Graham was featured in ministry ads supporting the North Carolina referendum to ban gay marriage, which passed this summer. FFRF found no evidence that the ministry had registered with state election officials in North Carolina.
"The Billy Graham Evangelical Association is abusing its tax-exempt status," said Gaylor. FFRF will pursue complaints with appropriate agencies. Read letter to Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.
The Haralson County (Tallapoosa, Ga.) football team will no longer call upon a "team chaplain" to provide religious support, thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt. Schmitt wrote Haralson County School District Superintendent Brett Stanton on Sept. 19, 2011.
"A public high school football team should not employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team, or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain." Prior to FFRF's intervention, a local pastor issued sectarian prayers over the loudspeaker before home football games. Schmitt pointed out that it is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor or lead prayers before public high school athletic events. Appointing a team chaplain was in direct violation of the Constitution.
The school district's legal counsel sent a letter of reply on Feb. 28: "We are confident that any of the situations that gave rise to your concern have been addressed and will not give rise to any concerns during next year's football season or otherwise."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has stopped a City of Portage (Wis.) Police Chief from using his public position as a religious soap box.
The Police Chief used his employee email to distribute religious materials to his employees. He also sent employees bible verses, bibles and other devotional material. One such article was titled "Strength for Service to God and Country." And another "The Connection between Spirituality and Policing." In a Jan. 9 letter to the city administrator, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote: "It is grossly inappropriate for any government employee, especially the Chief of Police, to distribute religious messages to government employees."
Adding to the Chief's repertoire of egregious state/church abuses was the posting of religious messages in the Police Department lobby and his attendance at a bible study while on duty. He also opened a mandatory employee meeting with a Christian prayer. Under his direction employee "swearing in" ceremonies often included mention of "Jesus." The Chief also maintained an employee prayer board for weekly prayer requests and religious articles.
Schmitt noted that "as the face of local police enforcement, the Chief of Police is charged with great responsibility and has been given significant trust by Portage's citizens, including those citizens and employees who may not share his religious viewpoints."
A city attorney replied to FFRF's letter of complaint on March 5 stating that the Police Chief was "instructed to cease from religious displays or conduct that promotes or has the appearance of promoting sectarian beliefs while performing his duties as the Chief of Police."
The County of Lackawanna Transportation System (COLTS) in Scranton, Pa., will no longer display "God Bless America" on its buses, thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a Feb. 10 letter of complaint to Executive Director Robert Fiume. "It is inappropriate for COLTS buses to display 'God Bless America' messages on its buses because it conveys government support for belief in a god," wrote Schmitt. The COLTS buses included the overtly sectarian message via an electronic ticker. The transportation system used federal, state and county resources to share their message with passerby and was directly responsible for the 'God Bless America' sign placement.
Fiume confirmed on March 5 that the bus company had "updated its PR software to reflect only secular messages."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking Chancellor Jimmy Cheek of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville to end prayers over the loudspeaker at Neyland Stadium before Volunteers football games.
The Knoxville News Sentinel reported today that "the administration does not believe there is anything wrong with the long-standing tradition of a pre-kickoff invocation." Vice Chancellor for Communications Margie Nichols said that the university "is still formulating its response" to FFRF's Sept. 13 letter of complaint.
An alumnus wrote FFRF in August that an announcer asks fans to stand for the invocation, which is delivered by a clergy member.
"It is also our information and understanding that the pastors giving the prayers routinely invoke Jesus Christ," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. FFRF cited a decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is binding in Tennessee, that makes clear that sectarian prayer at public universities is unconstitutional. FFRF asks that all prayer be dropped.
UT-Knoxville fans began to question the illegal prayers after FFRF successfully muffled athletic prayer at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga last week.
Please phone Cheek today! Calling Cheek during business hours is most effective and guarantees that your secular point of view will be heard. Tell him that you do not deserve to sit on the bench, football fans are not just Christian. These sectarian prayers violate the law and must be stopped.
If you are a resident of Knoxville and/or Tennessee, please identify yourself as such. Include your address and other contact information when appropriate. Please take a moment to draft a short, but strong note to Cheek (or better yet, phone).
Office of the Chancellor
527 Andy Holt Tower
The University of Tennessee
Knoxville, TN 37996
Phone: (865) 974-3265
Fax: (865) 974-4811
SAMPLE WORDING/TALKING POINTS
(One sentence is sufficient, your own words are best. But you may wish to copy this paragraph in your correspondence:)
I urge you to put an end to UT-Knoxville's pre-kickoff invocation. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has struck down sectarian prayers at public universities, so I encourage you to abide by the law and protect the rights of conscience of all students, staff and faculty. Not every UT-Knoxville fan subscribes to the Christian faith, or any religion for that matter. Up to a quarter of young Americans today identify as nonreligious. Football games act as a bridge between the university and the community and it is inappropriate for UT-Knoxville to make its non-Christian fans feel out of place. Follow UT-Chattanooga's wise decision to maintain and foster a diverse campus by ending prayer. Football fans come in all shapes, sizes, colors and religions. Do not leave us on the bench! Thank you. (Sign your name)
Knoxville News Sentinel: "UT: Prayer before games not unconstitutional" (Please respond to the poll attached to this story: "Should the University of Tennessee stop its pre-game prayer ritual?")
FFRF's News Release: "FFRF urges end to UT-Knoxville football prayer"
Thank you for your help!
Maia Disbrow, a 12-year-old from Hixson, Tenn., has received $1,000 as a student activist from the Freedom From Religion Foundation this month, for speaking before the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners to ask them to drop government prayer.
She becomes the fifth and youngest student to receive a student activist award from FFRF in 2012, and the third student awardee from Tennessee this year. Krystal Myers, 18, of Lenoir City, Tenn., received a $1,000 award from FFRF this spring after her column, “No Rights: The Life of an Atheist,” was banned from her high school newspaper. Jeff Shott, 17, of Spring Hill, Tenn., also received $1,000 after dressing up as Jesus Christ for Fictional Character Day and protesting state-church entanglements at his high school.
Maia got involved when she accompanied her father to a board meeting where he spoke up against government prayers, and witnessed the board giving a special award to the preacher. Maia decided on her own that she wanted to speak against prayers at the July 18 meeting.
“I realized that there were some things I'd like to say to them. It took me a while to decide because even though I go to a middle school for the arts that is supposed to accept everyone, I was worried. During elementary school, I was bullied about my beliefs and whenever the subject of my religion, or lack thereof, came up, my social status dropped for a few days. When I realized that the county commissioners were actually behaving like a bunch of fifth-grade bullies, I sat down and started writing my address to them.”
Good morning. My name is Maia Disbrow, and I am twelve years old. I am a perfectly normal young adult, although some of my friends would beg to differ.
I was present at the meeting at which my dad spoke. The prayer was very rude to me and some of my closest friends, not to mention parts of my family.
My dad did not put me up to this. I came because I care about this and things like it. All through elementary school, I was teased and ridiculed by people who I thought were my friends. Whenever the subject of me being a freethinker came up, I was singled out. By my friends. You are doing the same thing that they did to me at every meeting you have. Singling me out. Singling out every single person in Hamilton County who is not Christian.
It is not fair for you to pray openly to your God without praying to all the others as well. I believe a moment of silence would accommodate all beliefs, not just one. And after speaking today, I hope I have some friends left at school next year.
Click here to view Maia's speech.
Maia will be entering seventh grade at the Center for Creative Arts. She loves to read, having taught herself to read at 18 months, will be appearing in a local production of “Medea,” has a dog and two guinea pigs, and a younger brother, Logan.
Contentious prayers before the board are the subject of a federal lawsuit filed July 3 by Hamilton County residents Tommy Coleman, a secular humanist, and Brandon Jones, who identifies as an atheist.
FFRF has three formally endowed annual student activist awards of $1,000 each: The Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award endowed by a West Coast FFRF couple, the Catherine Fahringer Memorial Student Activist Award, partly from a bequest by Catherine supplemented by smaller contributions by many FFRF members, and the new Paul J. Gaylor Memorial Student Activist Award, created by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
This year, victorious Rhode Island school prayer litigant Jessica Ahlquist received the Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award, doubled as a one-time bonus to $2,000 after her state legislator called her “an evil little thing,” and her victory set off a new wave of harassment.
In June, Matthew “Max” Nielson received the Catherine Fahringer Memorial Student Activist Award of $1,000 as principal plaintiff in FFRF’s new lawsuit challenging illegal graduation prayers at his high school in Columbia, S.C.
Last year, FFRF awarded six student activist awards, five to high school students and one to a middle school student.
Maia is tied with another 12-year-old for being FFRF’s youngest honoree. In 1996, FFRF gave a Freethinker of the Year Award, Jr. to Michael Bristor, age 12, from Minnesota. His name had been dropped from the honor roll when he was six, after his family had protested illegal classroom prayer and the school board did nothing about daily harassment. Michael’s battle, with the help of the ACLU and Minnesota Atheists, ended when he receive his honor roll certificate six years late.
“We are so impressed with activism by high schoolers and even middle schoolers in areas of the country that are hotbeds of intolerance, and are standing up not just for their rights but for the Constitution,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
Note: Nominees for student activist awards are exceeding FFRF’s endowed awards. If you would like to endow and name a one-time or annual student activist award, please contact r or phone 608/256-8900. Your tax-deductible donation will go directly to reward student or youth activists.
Read about FFRF's other student activist awards here.
Matthew “Max” Nielson, 18, is the principal plaintiff in FFRF’s federal lawsuit challenging illegal graduation prayer at his high school. Two younger students have signed on as plaintiffs. Max is an honors and international baccalaureate candidate. He’s training for a black belt in American freestyle karate this summer. He’s an Eagle Scout who is religiously unaffiliated. Max received a $1,000 Catherine Fahringer Memorial Student Activist Award from FFRF in 2012.
Early in the 2011-2012 school year at Irmo High School of Lexington Richland School District 5 in Columbia, S.C., faculty members distributed ballots to determine whether a majority of graduating seniors were in favor of holding a prayer at their graduation ceremony. The majority was in favor, to no one’s surprise.
District policy allows for that action, so long as the prayer is nonsectarian and nonproselytizing — which is to say, it can be explicitly Christian, so long as it makes no distinctions between Catholics and Baptists, for example. The spirit of inclusion stops there.
I wasn’t comfortable getting that ballot in my English class, but growing up as an atheist in South Carolina, I was used to exposure to public prayer and the religious status quo. After becoming familiar with Harrison Hopkins’ story — a student activist who, with the help of FFRF, reversed his school district’s stance on a majoritarian-governed graduation prayer in South Carolina last year — I took immediate action. Timing was critical, as I was inspired to take action just 10 days before the graduation ceremony.
FFRF moved swiftly, issuing the appropriate letters of notice and securing a spectacular lawyer for local counsel. I met with the district superintendent to discuss the issue to attempt to reach a resolution. He delivered his decision in a follow-up email after we met, which ironically states, “I do not believe that Freedom of Religion should be interpreted as requiring Freedom from Religion within the public schools.”
As such, the prayer and lawsuit proceeded. I recruited two younger students from Irmo to join the suit to ensure that it will survive despite my graduation and departure from District 5.
This event lead my realization that I have a true passion for secular activism, and I plan to tenaciously pursue involvement with the College of Charleston’s chapter of the Secular Student Alliance throughout my next four years of education.