Name: Steve Pinski.
Where I live: Colorado Springs, Colo.
Where and when I was born: St. Paul, Minn., in 1959.
Family: Linda is the love of my life, best friend and wife of 35 years. Our two married children are also freethinkers; they made the leap much quicker than I.
Education: Bourgade Catholic High School, Phoenix; bachelor’s in electrical engineering, Arizona State University; master’s in electrical engineering, Air Force Institute of Technology.
Occupation: I work for the federal government. I’m here to help — trust me.
Military service: Retired with 20 years in the U.S. Air Force (10 years enlisted and 10 as an officer). Various jobs included maintaining the avionics on the F-111F, intelligence, acquisition and teaching electrical engineering at the Air Force Academy.
How I got where I am today: I grew up in a very Catholic family with seven siblings. I was an altar boy and received the highest honor in my high school, the Cardinal Award for Christian Leadership. I married at 20 and we raised our children Catholic. I was a member of the Knights of Columbus, a Eucharistic minister and led services known as Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest. Linda and I taught the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the classes required to join the church.
Basically, I went to church every week for 50 years and was as Catholic as possible. As I went deeper into the Catholic Church, the growing doubts became overwhelming. Finally, while reciting the Profession of Faith (Nicene Creed) one Sunday, I realized that I just didn’t believe the dogma and doctrine which I was professing to believe; I was not being honest with myself. So, I stopped going to church and started reading about the philosophy of religion. Linda, who had gone to church with me for 30 years, left the church as well, saying “It’s about time we both acknowledge the unreasonableness of all religions.”
Where I’m headed: I am determined to be mentally faithful to myself. I try not to deceive myself about all things in life. I enjoy reading about the philosophy of religion and why people believe what they believe. The human brain is fascinating.
Person in history I admire: Thomas Paine, who was a deist and wrote passionately about his beliefs and would not equivocate. Part one of The Age of Reason is my favorite book by Paine.
A quotation I like: “It is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing or disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.” — Thomas Paine
These are a few of my favorite things: Traveling, reading and learning about other cultures, beliefs and religions. In the last five years, I have read over 100 books, including ones on atheist, agnostic and theist subjects. I am a strong supporter of FFRF and the separation of church and state.
A few of my least favorite things: People who persecute others for their own agenda: homophobes, transgenderphobes, racists, theocrats, etc.
My doubts about religion started: In grade school. Religion, in general didn’t make sense. The more I learned, the worse my doubts became. How could all religions claim to have absolute truth? At best only one could be true; at worst they were all false.
Today, I believe all organized religions are man-made and false. It took me 50 years to break the spell and realize that all holy texts and divine revelations are myths and fables.
Ways I promote freethought: As an FFRF Lifetime Member, I try to respond to as many Action Alerts as possible. I also share my story and my lifetime of doubting organized religion. It’s amazing how many people have similar doubts (“De omnibus dubitandum,” all is to be doubted).
I wish you’d have asked me: “What do you believe?” I believe in God; however, I believe all organized religions are false. I most closely identify with deism, where God is simply the great mystery behind the existence of the universe. I appreciate the mystery of God; on the other hand I do not profess to understand this mystery.
I do not believe in an anthropomorphic, Santa Claus God who makes wishes come true, cures cancer and will save me from a tornado, but only if I pray hard enough. As a deist, I realize I am a minority in FFRF’s freethought membership. Conversely, I have never felt more welcome in an organization as I have amongst the atheists and agnostics here. FFRF is truly an umbrella organization welcoming all freethinkers who promote separation of church and state.
If alive, I believe Thomas Paine would also be a Lifetime Member.
FFRF legal staff was extremely busy sending out letters of complaint in August, as well as spending time being interviewed by media about situations where FFRF has intervened, often at the request of local complainants. Some may have been remedied already.
Contact: Folsom Cordova Unified School District, Rancho Cordova, Calif., Aug. 1.
Violation: Follow-up letter from June asking the district to address a third instance of a sign advertising a church on school grounds. The church rents space in a high school, but the sign was displayed well before the actual rental time.
Contact: North Carolina Office of Charter Schools, Aug. 1.
Violation: Wilson Preparatory Academy, a public charter school in Wilson, N.C., hosted an informational meeting for parents and students in the sanctuary of Raleigh Road Baptist Church. A pastor started the meeting with the Lord’s Prayer at the request of the school founder, who also repeatedly asked parents if he “could have a witness” throughout the meeting.
Contact: Academy District 20, Colorado Springs, Colo., Aug. 4.
Violation: The head football coach at Pine Creek High School instituted mandatory prayers for team members and either led them or told another coach to do so. He also reportedly told students that “football is God’s game.”
Contact: DeSoto County Schools, Hernando, Miss., Aug. 4.
Violation: “Jesus Loves Me” and “In God We Trust” signs were displayed in the counseling office at Lake Cormorant Middle School.
Contact: City Council, Chico, Calif., Aug. 4.
Violation: The council refused to let an atheist give an invocation and emailed FFRF the criteria. FFRF responded later that day, pointing out that criteria were applied inconsistently and detailing why the requirements burdened free speech.
Contact: Bay District Schools, Panama City, Fla., Aug. 5-6.
Violation: The district invited pastors to counsel students after several fatal shootings in the area. More than 30 pastors wanted to participate. The school district attorney responded, claiming pastors were just one of many community representatives who would be present on the first day of school to support students. FFRF wrote back to say that while it was fine to invite members of secular community groups, pastors should be disinvited.
Contact: Boerne ISD, Boerne, Texas, Aug. 6.
Violation: The Boerne High School football coaches and players’ parents participated in a weekly bible study in which they wrote religious notes to an assigned team member. They then decorated the locker room with scripture, blessed the lockers and delivered the notes to players’ lockers.
Contact: DeKalb County, Ga., Board of Registrations and Elections, Aug. 6.
Violation: A church sanctuary with many pictures of Jesus was used as a polling place.
Contact: Alexander Central School District, Alexander, N.Y., Aug. 6.
Violation: The district stopped holding prayers at graduation, but implied the decision came from the student body, not the district, raising concerns that the district might allow a different student body to decide to hold prayer in the future. The superintendent responded Aug. 14, claiming that was not the case, that it had been the district’s decision.
Contact: Tom Schedler, Louisiana secretary of state, Aug. 7.
Violation: A University of Louisiana-Lafayette police officer was denied a request to renew his oath of office with the line “so help me God” crossed out. His superiors delayed the signing of the form while they consulted Schedler’s office, which informed them they would not accept the modified form.
Contact: Frisco ISD, Frisco, Texas, Aug. 7.
Violation: Rebuttal to a school board which justified continuing prayers under Greece v. Galloway.
Contact: Anderson County Schools, Clinton, Tenn., Aug. 8.
Violation: The music teacher at Lake City Elementary School regularly taught her students religious songs, including “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”
Contact: Okaloosa County, Fla., Sheriff’s Office, Aug. 8
Violation: The office had several chaplains, whom the sheriff described as a “spiritual lifeline,” providing marriage and other counseling for employees.
Contact: St. Charles Parish Board of Education, Metairie, La., Aug. 8.
Violation: Rebuttal to a school board which justified continuing its prayer practice under Greece v. Galloway.
Contact: Jackson-Madison County Schools, Jackson, Tenn., Aug. 8.
Violation: The district held a mandatory in-service at West Jackson Baptist Church. The school’s attorney had assured FFRF that he would investigate covering/removing religious materials and that there would be no members from the church present and no religious content. FFRF’s complainant reported that the church’s pastor was present and was invited to deliver an invocation, with crosses displayed throughout the sanctuary.
Contact: U.S. Postal Service office, Katy, Texas, Aug. 8.
Violation: Every month, two stacks of a religious newspaper called “The Good News Just Keeps Coming” were left on a bench in violation of regulations.
Contact: U.S. Postal Service office, Redondo Beach, Calif., Aug. 8.
Violation: Copies of a Christian business directory were available in a magazine rack attached to the wall in violation of regulations.
Contact: Pelham City Schools, Pelham, Ala., Aug. 11.
Violation: School board meetings started with prayer led by a board member. A mandatory meeting for all employees was held at First Baptist Church, where the pastor started the meeting with prayer and invited everyone to a revival service.
Contact: Indian River County Schools, Vero Beach, Fla., Aug. 11.
Violation: The school board invited pastors to give invocations or have board members offer prayers, which were often sectarian.
Contact: 16 Texas public charter schools and school districts, Aug. 12-13, Aug. 18.
Violation: Schools participated in the Texas Christian Athletic League, a private, explicitly Christian league, which says, “We dedicate ourselves to encourage Christian values.” The league uses religious images and prayer at events.
Contact: Farmington Area Public Schools, Farmington, Minn., Aug. 13.
Violation: Elementary schools go annually to Feed My Starving Children, an overtly Christian charity. The students box food and are then asked to pray over the food they have packaged.
Contact: Wilson County Schools, Wilson, N.C., Aug. 14.
Violation: Jones Elementary School planned to host a “Backpack Prayer Service” at which “Education and faith leaders will gather to pray for the 2014 Back-to-School Fair.” Students will receive backpacks as part of the Wilson Education Partnership, which “links schools with the faith community.”
Contact: Beaverton, Ore., School District, Aug. 15.
Violation: Hazeldale Elementary School partnered with Cooper Mountain Presbyterian Fellowship to run the “Summerhawks Drop In Program,” a summer program at the school. A flier advertised “Positive character traits according to Jesus,” and T-shirts included logos for the school and the fellowship.
Contact: Jackson County Commission, Scottsboro, Ala., Aug. 15.
Violation: The commission was considering a proposal to display the Ten Commandments, along with the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, in a “historic” documents display.
Contact: Presiding judge, Breathitt County Courthouse, Jackson, Ky., Aug. 15.
Violation: A large, framed picture of Jesus was displayed in the main entranceway of the courthouse with a caption reading, “In your place what would Jesus do?”
Contact: Internal Revenue Service, Aug. 15.
Violation: Whitworth Memorial Baptist Church, Nashville, Tenn., placed political campaign signs on its grounds.
Contact: U.S. Army Installation Management Command, Washington, D.C., Aug. 15.
Violation: The army has a de facto policy allowing bibles in military-run hotels.
Contact: Bartlett City Schools, Bartlett, Tenn., Aug. 15.
Violation: The newly formed district held an employee meeting in the sanctuary of Bartlett Baptist Church underneath a large cross. The next day, a community-wide “Kickoff and Pep Rally” was held at Bartlett United Methodist Church. Both events featured student performances.
Contact: AKA Entertainment & Media, Greensboro, N.C., Aug. 15.
Violation: AKA operates food and music festivals. After an FFRF victory on a church bulletin discount at one RibFest, one in a different location was still offering the discount.
Contact: Splashdown Water Park, Spokane Valley, Wash., Aug. 18,
Violation: Admission to the park was $10, including tax, on Sundays with a church bulletin, reduced from the $16.99 plus tax regular admission.
Contact: Waller ISD, Waller, Texas, Aug. 19.
Violation: The district held a mandatory employee convocation, which began with a prayer given by a school board member, who is also a Christian pastor, and closed with a prayer given by a junior high principal.
Contact: Gwinnett County Schools, Suwanee, Ga., Aug. 19.
Violation: The district held a religious assembly at Parkview High School featuring Pastor Kevin Queen of 12 Stone Church. Queen described his “job” as “to tell the same basic and best story in many different ways, represent the Kingdom, and invite people to life with Jesus.”
Contact: Kaufman ISD, Kaufman, Texas, Aug. 20.
Violation: For the second year in a row, the district included prayer at its annual employee convocation, this year given by Pastor Chacko of Grace Christian Church.
Contact: Tipton Community School Corp., Tipton, Ind., Aug. 20.
Violation: Tipton High School displayed the Ten Commandments in a hallway with school photos.
Contact: Mayor of York, Pa., Aug. 20.
Violation: For five years, the mayor has hosted a city-organized conference, “FaithNet,” for local faith-based organizations. The events were attended almost exclusively by Christian pastors. The 2013 keynote speech was essentially a Christian sermon.
Contact: Vidor ISD, Vidor, Texas, Aug. 21.
Violation: Christian prayers are broadcast over the loudspeaker at Vidor High School football games. In addition, a teacher has publicly boasted about proselytizing to students during the school day, writing online, “I personally love my job as a public school teacher b/c I am able to talk with many kids about Jesus.”
Contact: Baldwin County, Ala., Aug. 21.
Violation: A monument displayed in front of the Baldwin County Courthouse in Bay Minette is “Dedicated to the glory of God and in honor of the veterans of all wars.”
Contact: Emmanuel County Schools, Swainsboro, Ga., Aug. 21.
Violation: Teachers at Swainsboro Primary School regularly lead students in prayer. Two teachers ask their students to bow their heads, fold their hands and pray before lunch. The complainant family alerted the principal to this issue, after which the complainants’ children were made to sit in the hallway while the rest of the class prayed. One child felt the teacher “used her mean voice” when asking the child to wait in the hall.
Contact: Internal Revenue Service, Aug. 21.
Violation: Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Fla., distributed a sample ballot for local elections which had “suggested candidates” marked.
Contact: Conemaugh Valley Board of Education, Johnstown, Pa.; South Butler County School Board, Saxonburg, Pa.; Northern Bedford County School Board, Loysburg, Pa.; Aug. 22. Violation: The school boards start each meeting with prayer.
Contact: Toledo Public Schools, Toledo, Ohio, Aug. 22.
Violation: The district invited all employees to a “Back to School Bash” at Cedar Creek Church, where it had held at least one earlier event. The district’s chief academic officer said that since nobody was mandated to go, “people who would be uncomfortable at a Christian church can stay away.”
Contact: Millville Police Department, Millville, N.J., Aug. 22.
Violation: The department has a chaplain program consisting only of Christian ministers. The program is meant to “have a large focus on juveniles,” but also consoles families after tragedies and counsels officers in need. The chaplains have been given some enforcement authority, recently picking up juveniles violating curfew.
Contact: Putnam County Schools, Oklahoma City, Aug. 25.
Violation: The Kenneth Cooper Middle School office displayed a religious poster with an image titled “Faith in America” by Donald Zolan, which features two children with their hands clasped in prayer against an American flag background.
Contact: Tarrant County, Fort Worth, Texas, Aug. 25.
Violation: The tax assessor’s office changed its official office envelopes, adding “In God We Trust” on the back, and intends to add the phrase to next year’s tax statements.
Contact: Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., Aug. 25.
Violation: The village annually hosts a holiday display in VFW Park in December, which contains a nativity scene erected by a Catholic church, a menorah erected by a Chabad group and a Christmas tree erected and lit by the village.
Contact: Springfield Public Schools, Springfield, Mo., Aug. 26.
Violation: Third graders at Wanda Gray Elementary School were given “take home” folders promoting a church. The front cover includes the school mascot, the name of the school, the office phone number and the school website. The back says the folder is “compliments of Seminole Baptist Temple,” lists the church contact information, and advertises evangelical Christian activities for students.
Contact: Stone Bridge High School, Ashburn, Va., Aug. 26.
Violation: The varsity girls tennis coach prayed with her students.
Contact: Seminole County Public Schools, Fla., Aug. 26
Violation: Seminole High School in Sanford reportedly allowed a pastor to serve as football team chaplain. The district responded to deny the claim.
Contact: Northern Tioga School Board, Elkland, Pa.; Blackhawk School Board, Beaver Falls, Pa.; Valley Grove School Board, Franklin, Pa.; Northern Potter School Board, Ulysses, Pa., Aug. 27.
Violation: The boards start monthly meetings with prayer.
Contact: Military Entrance Processing Station, Johnston, Iowa, Aug. 28.
Violation: A rack containing bibles and other Christian material was set up in the main lobby.
Contact: Madison County School District, Danielsville, Ga., Aug. 28.
Violation: Madison County High School unveiled a new monument in its stadium Aug. 22. The monument has two bible verses: Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me,” and Romans 8:31, “If God be for us who can be against us?”
Contact: Valley View ISD, Valley View, Texas, Aug. 29.
Violation: A teacher at Valley View Middle School distributed a tract to his students after teaching them about the Declaration of Independence. The tract was “Donated by Cooke County Republican Women” and encouraged readers to visit the website for the National Center for Constitutional Studies, a group which promotes religion under the guise of teaching American history. The website includes a list of reasons to oppose same-sex marriage and articles drawing connections between the Constitution and the bible.
Contact: Forney ISD, Forney, Texas, Aug. 29.
Violation: A student was punished for refusing to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. The teacher stopped class and told the student that while he did not have to recite the pledge or salute the flag, he did have to stand. When the student did not stand, the teacher sent him to the principal’s office, where he received in-school suspension.
Contact: Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Insurance, Madison, Aug. 29.
Violation: The office provided an “inadequate and unlawful response” to FFRF’s open records request regarding the office’s enforcement of contraception coverage requirements. The agency provided no responsive records, did not specifically state the public policy reasons for the refusal and did not either detail the records being withheld or state that there were no records.
— compiled by Maddy Ziegler
Jesus saves (you from craving meth)
Campbell County Comprehensive High School in Jacksboro, Tenn., will vet future assemblies to ensure no inappropriate religious programming after receiving an FFRF letter of complaint about a March assembly in the gym. According to a student, the school hosted a substance abuse assembly during school hours that included opening and closing student-led prayers and featured religious leaders.
Speakers included Sheriff Robbie Goins, Caleb Arnold of the Hill College Ministry, representatives of the Stanfield Church of God and the Christian alternative rock band the Birdsongs. The band describes itself online as “passionate about spreading the gospel and pointing people to Christ.”
The complainant reported that “references to God and Christianity” and “quotes from the bible” were prevalent and that a speaker told students that “Jesus Christ delivered [them] from methamphetamine.”
The complainant reported that “some people I know didn’t want to go, given their beliefs, and were forced to attend the assembly.”
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a March 28 letter to the director of schools: “Though teaching students about the perils of drug abuse is a commendable goal, allowing church representatives and an evangelical Christian band access to your student body gives the appearance that CCPS endorses those speakers’ religious messages.”
On July 9, after receiving two FFRF follow-ups, the district responded: “It was the assumption of the principal at the school that this would be a program in which the primary emphasis would be on curbing potential drug use. As a result of your letter we have spoken with the principal and have asked that he do a better job scrutinizing the content of future assemblies.”
School backs off baccalaureate
Freeman High School in Freeman S.D., will no longer organize or sponsor an annual baccalaureate ceremony for graduating seniors. FFRF received a complaint that on May 14 a religious ceremony took place at which attendance was mandatory for all seniors and members of the band and chorus. Students were reportedly told that they would receive an “F” for not attending. Teachers, staff and the principal all have attended the event at the school.
FFRF was informed that between songs, a pastor preached and quoted bible verses. The pastor also led the crowd in prayer. The school promoted the event on the school calendar and website and announced it repeatedly over the intercom.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a complaint letter May 30 to Superintendent Don Hotchkiss. Shortly thereafter, the school responded that it would stop the practice. The complaint resulted in a flurry of Freeman Courier news articles in the town of about 1,300.
Hotchkiss said it was never his intention to eliminate the baccalaureate. “I do think we have to make some changes to how we do baccalaureate; I think we’re fortunate to have been able to do this for as long as we have.”
That comment sounded to FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor like the superintendent knew that the practice violated the law. “If so, that’s really sad,” Gaylor said. “It’s like he thought, ‘I know it’s illegal but maybe nobody is watching.’ That’s why we need state/church watchdogs like FFRF.”
Elliott sent a follow-up letter July 23 explaining that the district had to completely disassociate itself from the event. Hotchkiss then announced that the Ministerial Association would host future baccalaureates ”with no help, input, collaboration or participation from employees at the Freeman Public Schools.”
Sending FFRF a copy of the board motion to discontinue school affiliation, Hotchkiss snidely added, “I trust this information will not only be useful for you but will also allow you to have a more complete and restful nightly sleep cycle.”
The Courier editorialized in FFRF’s favor July 24, asking readers to “Imagine if you, as a Christian, moved into a community that was primarily Muslim and the public school chose to hold a religious service as part of the graduation. Likely you’d have reservations about being there and offering prayers and following the religious tenets and traditions of Islam.”
Teacher-led religious club disbanded
Hawkins Middle School in Hawkins, Texas, will no longer permit a teacher to organize and promote a “Feed and Seed” club. A concerned parent contacted FFRF, reporting that a teacher ran the club during lunch period. The teacher read from the bible and invited religious leaders to speak to students. Parents weren’t informed that their children were participating. The teacher also read religious materials on Good Friday during instructional time.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter to the district June 4. On Aug. 5, the superintendent replied that regulations and practices regarding extracurricular and co-curricular clubs were reviewed as well as classroom instructional material guidelines: “We are working to make certain that the Hawkins ISD complies with all applicable laws, including the First Amendment’s prohibition concerning the endorsement of religion.”
The school noted that if the club returns as a strictly student-led group, the teacher involved in the abuses will not be approved as faculty supervisor.
Gideon bibles out in Kansas school
An elementary school in Gypsum, Kansas, will no longer allow the Gideons to proselytize and hand out bibles to students. FFRF was informed that on May 16, a fifth-grade teacher at USD 306 allowed representatives from Gideons International to speak and distribute bibles in his classroom.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to the district July 8: “Parents carefully instruct children not to accept gifts from strangers. The Gideons’ practice is a usurpation of parental authority. It is the duty of public school administrators to protect not only the personal conscience of students but to ensure they are safe from predatory adults while at school.”
On July 31, the district responded, “[The] superintendent . . . did not have any knowledge that this activity was going on. If he would have known it was occurring, he would have stopped it. This confirms that USD 306 will not permit this to happen anymore.”
FFRF successfully complained about another teacher in the district who actively led, participated and organized a See You at the Pole prayer gathering. Fliers announcing the gatherings included the teacher’s name.
The letter said that a new policy prohibiting teachers sponsoring overtly religious events will be enforced by the district.
Young students recruited for Team Jesus
Michael T. Simmons Elementary School in Tumwater, Wash., will no longer allow religious materials to be handed out.
Children were pulled out of class to attend a mandatory assembly led by former NFL player Shawn Harper, who at the conclusion handed out cards to students with his picture on the front and an image of Jesus on the back. The card said:
“I grew up in a religious home, but I did not know God. I suffered a potential career ending injury which put me out of the NFL for one year. It was during that year, when I thought I had lost everything, that I discovered the difference between religion and a relationship with Jesus. He found me, and I have been playing on His Team ever since. I was able to come back and finish my career in the NFL!”
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter June 5 explaining why the school district needed to remedy the violation.
The district responded promptly: “The card about which you have stated concern, which looked like a traditional sports card, was made available to students by the speaker as the students were leaving the assembly hall. Not all students received a card, but many did. The card was not approved in advance by the principal. The principal has shared with me that in the future she will make sure to pre-approve any materials that are to be handed out to students in such a context.”
The district defended the assembly itself as addressing bullying and not containing religious content, although Harper’s website says he’s a “Christian Motivational Speaker” at the top of the home page.
The incident was scheduled for discussion at an August meeting of administrators, the response said.
Mandatory meetings in churches stopped
Dawson County School District in Gainesville, Ga., will no longer hold mandatory meetings for teachers in churches.
A complainant reported to FFRF that the district held a mandatory staff meeting on Aug. 4 at the First Baptist Church of Dawsonville. The meeting was opened by a minister who gave a sermon inviting people to join his church and “come to Jesus.” He then urged the teachers to stand while he prayed to “bless” the teachers, school year, students, etc. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent complaint letter Aug. 15, noting that letting staff skip the church meeting wouldn’t cure the constitutional violation. Employees should not be forced to “out” themselves as nonreligious or non-Christian to their employers, he said.
The district responded Sept. 3: “While a church leader was invited to give a brief welcome to the facility, the length and nature of the comments was unexpected and certainly not invited. Under all the circumstances there is no expectation of such a gathering at the church anytime in the future.”
Senior center halts staff-led prayer
Employees at a senior center in Eagle Nest, N.M., will not lead prayers before federally funded meals. FFRF was informed that staff recited sectarian prayers before meals at the center and that participants were asked to join hands.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent an Aug. 21 complaint letter. The center responded Sept. 3, saying that “to the extent that the prayers are conducted by Village employees or have an appearance of being Village sponsored, the Village will take action necessary to ensure that this does not continue to occur.”
School reins in creationist teacher
Eureka Union School District in Granite Bay, Calif., will no longer permit a teacher to “teach the controversy” about evolution during science class.
According to a complainant, a teacher at Ridgeview Elementary School routinely taught creationism and intelligent design during science instruction. The teacher claimed that it’s legally required to “present both sides of the issue.”
The strategy apparently consisted of giving the students a bag of popcorn and a sheet of paper with a complicated design, telling them to repeatedly let popcorn fall on the paper. If the popcorn did not form the complicated design, then, the teacher told them, it shows that evolution must be unreasonable.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter of complaint March 4, summarizing court rulings: “Evolution is not a ‘theory’ in the layperson’s sense of the word. Evolution is a ‘scientific theory.’ This difference is crucial. A misunderstanding of these terms often leads to a misunderstanding of evolution, the vast weight of evidence supporting evolution, and of its overwhelming acceptance in the scientific community.”
The district responded March 13, thanking and assuring FFRF that the complaint was immediately addressed and appropriate action taken.
Bibles verses removed at post office
A post office in Richmond, Calif., removed bible verses posted at employee time clocks. A concerned employee contacted FFRF that a sign quoting 1 Peter 4:15 (“But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a ‘busybody’ in other people’s matters”) was posted on internal bulletin boards.
Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell sent a letter to the branch, pointing out that the display directly violates regulations. The Postal Service said Aug. 19 that the verses were removed: “Employees at the facility will be reinstructed through a Stand-Up Talk regarding the policies related to posting items near time clocks and on internal bulletin boards.”
Mormon video barred from assemblies
Kuna School District in Kuna, Idaho, addressed the constitutional concerns brought on by a religious video at an assembly. A complainant informed FFRF that Kuna Middle School held an anti-bullying assembly in May. A video, “Bullying — Stop It,” produced by the media channel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was shown to students. On stopping bullying, the video claims, “This mighty change of heart is exactly what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is designed to bring about.” It also claims that, “allowing us to see others the way our Heavenly Father sees us, because God loves us so much, we too must love and forgive; remember in the end it is the merciful who obtain mercy.”
The video was paused at the end to display the Mormon Church’s logo.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter June 4: “[Y]our community possesses many secular experts in this field, including counselors, psychologists, and sociologists, who have experience, training, certification and/or degrees and would be delighted, usually at no cost to the district, to discuss bullying before your student bodies, and whose presence would not raise constitutional red flags.”
On July 7, Superintendent Wendy Johnson replied: “The student who presented the assembly and video did disclose to building administration that there was religious content at the end of the anti-bullying video. The building administration requested that the video be stopped before the religious content was shown. Unfortunately the video was not stopped in the appropriate time.”
Johnson added that building administrators will be directed to use only district-approved materials.
In Ohio, Jesus has left the building
Religious images will no longer adorn the locker room of North Canton Memorial Stadium Complex in Canton, Ohio. A concerned student contacted FFRF to report that a portrait of Jesus was displayed near the door leading to the stadium.
On July 3, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a warning letter to the Stark County Educational Services Council, requesting an immediate investigation of the illegal religious display at Hoover High School.
Markert stated: “As you may be aware, a similar situation occurred at Jackson Middle School in Jackson, Ohio. A lawsuit brought by FFRF together with the ACLU of Ohio on behalf of a Jackson Middle School student resulted in a settlement for the permanent removal of the portrait of Jesus and a hefty fine, including attorney’s fees against Jackson City School District.”
A council representative responded Aug. 21 that the portrait had been removed.
Miami Beach removes Jewish eruv
A public park in Miami Beach, Fla., will no longer permit religious eruvin to be erected over public property after a complaint was filed by FFRF.
An eruv is “an urban area enclosed by a wire boundary that symbolically extends the private domain of Jewish households into public areas, permitting activities within it that are normally forbidden in public on the Sabbath.” An eruv, constructed of 15-foot plastic poles connected by string, was installed by two members of the Orthodox Jewish community in Pine Tree Park without a permit.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a complaint letter to the city of Miami Beach: “Allowing Orthodox Jews to permanently demarcate large areas of public property as a private Jewish household that is ‘property’ of the Orthodox Jewish community forces those of other faiths and no faith to live within an Orthodox Jewish religious enclosure, including members of other Jewish denominations who are offended by the Orthodox Jewish elevation of legalistic constructs over what they believe to be the true spiritual values of Judaism.”
On July 10, FFRF received a response from the city insisting that an “eruv does not violate the Establishment Clause,and can be legally permitted. It has the secular purpose of allowing Orthodox Jews to participate in matters of daily living outside of their homes on Saturday, their Sabbath.”
Seidel replied July 14: “There is nothing secular about helping a religious sect comply with religious law. What do you think the reaction would be if Miami Beach endorsed and even helped devout Muslims rope off an area in which to adhere to Sharia law?”
FFRF’s complainant confirmed on July 24 that most of the eruvin had been removed from the park. She called it “a great victory.”
Chorus won’t sing in S.C. churches
Broome High School students in Glendale, S.C., will no longer perform in churches. A concerned citizen informed FFRF that on May 11 the school chorus sang at the First Baptist Church of Cowpens during a Sunday morning worship service.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter May 19 to Spartanburg School District 3, explaining why holding school-sponsored activities in churches, especially during services, is a bad idea constitutionally, even if students are allowed to opt out of participating.
On Aug. 11, an attorney representing the district responded that students should not be asked to participate in any activity that takes place during a religious service, where that activity is sponsored by the school.
The counsel added that she had met with all district administrators to give a presentation including “instruction regarding the Establishment Clause and how it applies to public school students and religion.”
Graduations won’t have official prayer
Alexander High School in Alexander N.Y., will no longer conduct prayer at graduation. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter June 24, 2013, about an invocation listed on a recent graduation’s program.
After several follow-up letters, the district sent an email Jan. 31: “We do not believe it was illegal. It was student initiated and student led.”
Markert responded April 8, citing the Supreme Court’s Santa Fe v. Doe ruling on precisely such violations.
On May 28, the district responded: “The graduation planning committee for the class of 2014 has decided not to included an invocation in their graduation program.”
In August, Markert received more confirmation that the School Board “made the decision not to included an invocation in the ceremony.”
Teacher-led prayer stopped at banquets
After a complaint by FFRF, Sandy Run K-8 School staff in Swansea S.C., will no longer lead prayer at academic banquets. FFRF learned that a school staff member led students and staff in a Christian prayer at a June 2 banquet.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter to Calhoun County Public Schools on July 22. On Aug. 12, Superintendent Steve Wilson responded: “I have reminded staff on numerous occasions of the law and to not engage in any activity that could be considered out of bounds as it pertains to Freedom of Religion. After receiving your letter, I immediately placed the subject on the very next District Principals’ Meeting agenda . . . and directed any and all to refrain from such practices.”
Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ruled Aug. 21 in Raleigh, N.C., that a 2013 law to use public money for tuition at private and religious schools violates the state constitution.
Under the Opportunities Scholarship program, which the ruling halted, low-income families would get up to $4,200 annually. The law made $10 million available to a maximum of 2,400 students. As of Aug. 21, 1,879 scholarships had been accepted.
“This upholds North Carolina’s long-standing commitment to public education. Public education creates productive citizens, a strong economy and a great democracy,” Yevonne Brannon of Public Schools First told the Raleigh News & Observer.
“Appropriating taxpayer funds to unaccountable schools does not accomplish a public purpose,” Hobgood said in his ruling. “The General Assembly fails the children of North Carolina when they are sent with public, taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything.”
• • •
The New Hampshire Supreme Court upheld a law Aug. 28 that created a business education tax credit to fund scholarships to private schools. The unanimous decision vacated a lower court ruling that said giving scholarships to parochial school students was unconstitutional.
The bill was passed in 2012 by the Republican majority, which overrode then-Democratic Gov. John Lynch’s veto. Current Gov. Maggie Hassan, also a Democrat, told The Associated Press: “The voucher tax credit is bad public policy for public education in New Hampshire and our taxpayers, diverting millions of dollars in taxpayer money with no accountability or oversight to religious and private schools.”
The justices said the plaintiffs lacked standing and didn’t rule on the merits of the case. They also declared unconstitutional a 2012 law letting individuals sue even if they couldn’t show their rights were violated.
Businesses can donate to an independent scholarship organization in return for a credit on their taxes amounting to 85% of the donation. Republican Rep. William O’Brien said parents should be able to choose religious or secular education. “It will be up to them and not up to vested education industry interests trying to corral all students into failed government schools.”
Chancellor Bernie Patterson of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point told the approximately 1,425 graduates in the chancellor’s “charge” near the end of their May 17 ceremonies that when confronting an ethical dilemma at some point in their lives, they’ll have to lean on their foundation — “That is, your education and your faith in God. Now go and be servant-leaders. Godspeed.”
A graduate’s family member brought the statement, which Patterson has made at commencements in years past, to FFRF’s attention. In a May 22 letter, Staff Attorney Sam Grover told Patterson such remarks are inappropriate. “Graduation should be an inclusive, unifying event designed to celebrate the accomplishments and prospects of the graduates. Including religious references does exactly the opposite, isolating non-Christian and nonreligious students, cheapening their participation by sending the message that they are outsiders at their own graduation and in their own community.”
Grover added, “The university should be particularly sensitive to respecting the rights and conscience of the nonreligious, given that universities serve the least religious population in the country. One in three college-aged Americans (ages 18-29) are not religious.”
Patterson responded with a letter of thanks July 18. “I understand your concerns and will take them under consideration.”
I think atheists are getting organized. It’s a wave of visibility.
Penny Edgell, University of Minnesota sociology professor, who’s teaching what she says is the state’s first course on atheism this fall
St. Cloud Times, 8-11-14
I certainly respect the belief of the Hobby Lobby owners. On the other hand, they have no constitutional right to foist that belief on the hundreds and hundreds of women who work for them who don’t share that belief. I had never seen the free exercise of religion clause interpreted in such a way.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dissented in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, interview with Katie Couric
Yahoo! News, 7-30-14
[I]f we want the same acceptance that other groups have, we need to earn it — but not by convincing others there is no god. What we really need to do is get massively mobilized in service, education, and other positive social activities that will be good for us, good for our neighbors, and, it also happens, good for our image and electability.
Greg Epstein, head of Harvard University’s humanist chaplaincy
Humor for [the atheist] movement may be especially advantageous because . . . it offers a relatively non-threatening challenge to religion, while simultaneously causing people some discomfort and forcing them to rethink their religious views.
Katja Guenther, University of California-Riverside sociologist and lead author of “How Humor Matters in Social Movements: Insights from the New Atheist Movement”
UCR Today, 8-17-14
Religious teaching, especially exposure to miracle stories, leads children to a more generic receptivity toward the impossible, that is, a more wide-ranging acceptance that the impossible can happen in defiance of ordinary causal relations.
News story about a study published in Cognitive Science, “Researchers: Children exposed to religion have difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction”
The Raw Story, 7-18-14
The IRS could be coming to a church near you, and you can thank the atheists for that. They struck a deal with the troubled agency, giving it the power to keep a closer eye on nonprofit religious groups.
Fox News commentator Elisabeth Hasselbeck, on the legal settlement in which the IRS agreed to more closely monitor church politicking after being sued by FFRF
“Fox & Friends,” 7-29-14
The law’s supporters, like [anti-gay activist Pastor Martin] Ssempa and the leadership of the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, had been whipping up their supporters during the two days of hearings before the ruling, and LGBT activists expected a backlash if they won.
News story, “Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act Struck Down By Constitutional Court”
Things were really not good to begin with. She was so angry. After a while I think she just accepted it. We still don’t talk about it. It looks like she’s not going to kick me out.
Lasan Dancay-Bangura, 22, head of his university’s freethought group, on coming out as an atheist to his mother while still being afraid to tell his father
BBC News, 8-3-14
[L]et’s stop curtailing the rights of skeptics like myself trying to shed light on the lingering shadows of the Christian Dark Ages threatening our society under the false premise of freedom of religion.
Robert Rock, Mission City, B.C., “Letter of the Week: We should stop inflicting harmful religions on innocent children”
The Vancouver Province, 7-27-14
Why is it that we require our candidates to profess a religious faith but not that they demonstrate even minimal scientific literacy? Our representatives in Congress make critical decisions on science policy and science funding, and yet are often hostile to the entire scientific enterprise. In 2012, Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., while serving on the House science committee, famously said that evolution and the Big Bang are “lies from the pit of hell.”
Carlos Moreno, Emory University School of Medicine associate professor, “An atheist for Congress?”
CNN Opinion, 9-1-14
There’s no reason a bishop has to live like a prince or medieval monarch, even if he inherited the place from his predecessor. They should convert the mansions to museums and move into rectories.
Steven Avella, a Catholic priest and Marquette University professor of religious history, commenting on an investigation showing at least 10 of 34 active U.S. archbishops and many more who are retired live in buildings worth more than $1 million
CNN Belief Blog, 8-3-14
That it got on Irish radio, the fact of that was amazing. But there is very little loyalty left for the organization of the church at home. The damage done is obscene. And the lack of action to make reparations, and the lack of political will to make changes.
Singer/songwriter Andrew Hozier-
Byrne, on the success of his “losing your religion” song “Take Me to Church”
The Guardian, 7-31-14
The current board is operating with an outdated mindset on issues related to technology, innovation, equality, sex education and secular values. For example, why would the current board spend limited educational resources litigating cases that do absolutely nothing to further education, when that money could be much better spent on laptops for kids, leveraging technology in the classroom?
David Mech, Boca Raton, Fla., who’s running for the Palm Beach County School Board on a platform of technology, innovation, equality, sex education and secular values
If the Christian community — whether they be Baptist, Presbyterian or whatever — if they want their religious freedoms protected, then that means everybody’s religious freedoms have to be protected. You can’t let the government choose one side over the other.
Roane County Commissioner Steve Kelley, on the losing end of a 13-1 vote to place three granite “In God We Trust” signs at the Kingston, Tenn., courthouse
Nationally, as of 2009, 31 states, including New York, allowed faith-based organizations to receive public prekindergarten funds, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. In Florida, for example, parents may send their 4-year-olds to prekindergarten programs that teach religion.
News story, “De Blasio’s Prekindergarten Expansion Collides With Church-State Divide”
New York Times, 8-4-14
The decisions regarding prayer in schools came about because of the failure of a local school district or state school board to remember that government-sponsored school prayer almost inherently discriminates against minorities.
Richard Davis, professor of political science at Brigham Young University, op-ed, “Reinstituting state-sponsored school prayer is a bad idea”
Deseret News, 8-6-14
After initially agreeing with FFRF that stocking Christian bibles in every U.S. Navy-operated hotel was wrong, the Navy backed off and returned the bibles during a review process.
FFRF sent a complaint letter March 12 to the Navy Exchange Service Command (NEXCOM). On June 19, NEXCOM issued a directive stating that the “Navy Lodge General Manager should advise the Installation Commanding Officer of our intention to work through the chaplain’s office to determine what installation policy is and the method to remove religious material currently in guest rooms.” The directive said the action “is to be completed by 1 September 2014.”
When the decision was made public, the ensuing outcry put the ban on hold. Navy spokesman Ryan Perry said in a written statement that NEXCOM made the decision “without consultation of senior Navy leadership,” adding, “That decision and our religious accommodation policies with regard to the placement of religious materials are under review.”
Perry said that during the review the bibles would be returned.
A May 9 FFRF complaint to Berkley County Schools about religious activity at New Beginnings Child Care Center in Inwood, W.Va., resulted in clarification by State Superintendent of Schools Charles Heinlein that pre-K providers must steer clear of religion. The center provides state-funded pre-K four days a week, then offers a fifth day which includes religious instruction.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott said that’s confusing for children too young to distinguish public from religious education. Heinlein’s Aug. 5 reply largely concurred with FFRF’s letter but didn’t agree with the objection to religious images, including a cross on the New Beginnings sign.
Heinlein wrote that “no State funds may be used to purchase or maintain them and they may not be included or alluded to during conversation or instruction during the WV Pre-K program.” He said religious images are otherwise permissible.
FFRF contends he’s wrong and that all pre-K classes must be held in a secular environment. “Facilities used to teach public school students have to be secular. This is a bedrock constitutional principle that is not erased merely because classes are held in a nontraditional setting,” said Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
FFRF’s major victory to compel the Internal Revenue Service to resume monitoring tax-exempt churches that engage in illegal electioneering was finalized July 29.
U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman in Milwaukee issued an order approving the joint motion for dismissal between FFRF and the IRS. FFRF agreed to voluntarily dismiss its closely watched federal lawsuit after being given evidence that the IRS has authorized procedures and “signature authority” to resume initiating church tax investigations and examinations.
Since agreeing to settle July 17, FFRF has encountered a lot of misconceptions about the suit, the settlement and the law, which went into effect in 1954. FFRF is not “targeting” churches.
No tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit, church or otherwise, may lawfully engage in partisan political action. Among those who bought the claims of various theocratic media was Oklahoma Attorney General E. Scott Pruitt, who stated in early August:
“At the intersection of those two fundamental rights [free speech and free exercise] lies the right of religious organizations to encourage their members to engage in the political process in a manner consistent with the core tenets of their religions. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is unabashed in its desire to destroy that right, and the fact that this organization has now entered into an agreement with the IRS — an agreement that they call ‘a victory’ for their cause — is alarming.”
FFRF wrote Pruitt on Aug. 7 asking him to stop the smears, noting that FFRF “works not to ‘destroy’ the First Amendment but to uphold the law and the Constitution.”
“FFRF agreed to voluntary dismissal of our case because recent changes by the IRS have remedied our concerns,” noted Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor in her letter to Pruitt. “FFRF is satisfied that the IRS does not at this time have a policy specific to churches of nonenforcement of its anti-electioneering provisions. As you are undoubtedly aware, there is an appropriate blanket ban against any and all 501(c)(3) nonprofits from engaging in political action, specifically such as endorsing political candidates.”
To clarify the issues, FFRF put together an online FAQ.
FFRF will be monitoring “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” Oct. 5, as proclaimed by the theocratic Alliance Defending Freedom. ADF urges pastors to deliberately break the law by endorsing candidates from the pulpit.
Mary’s Gourmet Diner agreed with FFRF that all of its customers should be treated equally instead of some being rewarded for praying in the restaurant in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote an Aug. 4 letter of complaint after FFRF learned that the diner had long been offering a 15% discount for “praying in public.”
Co-owner Mary Haglund emailed Cavell Aug. 6: “I am notifying you & the FFRF that as of today we are no longer offering the 15% discount for Praying in Public.”
A news story in the Greensboro News & Record included a photo of a sign in the restaurant window: “We at Mary’s value the support of all our fellow Americans. While you may exercise your right of religious freedom at this restaurant by praying over your meal to any entity or non-entity, we must protect your freedom from religion in a public place. We are no longer issuing the 15% praying in public discount. It is illegal and we are being threatened by lawsuit. We apologize to our community for any offense this discount has incurred.”
Cavell’s letter noted that according to the federal Civil Rights Act, as a place of public accommodation, “Mary’s Gourmet Diner may not lawfully offer a discount only to customers who pray,”
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor added, “We have found that most restaurant owners, who, after all, are in business to please all customers, are gracious and drop illegal discounts that selectively reward customer piety.”
FFRF is currently involved in a discount-related lawsuit in Rhode Island and took successful action before a human rights agency in Milwaukee in another case.