Photo credit: Alejandro Zeballos
Thanks to efforts by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and other organizations, Mustang Public Schools is canceling plans to conduct a bible course developed by Hobby Lobby President Steve Green, a zealous evangelical Christian advocate.
The district's announcement came in response to a follow-up open records request to the Oklahoma school district from FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, in conjunction with Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Greg Lipper, ACLU of Oklahoma Legal Director Brady Henderson and Daniel Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
FFRF is a prominent state/church watchdog with more than 21,500 members nationwide, including about 150 in Oklahoma.
"In summary, the topic of a Bible course in the Mustang School District is no longer a discussion item nor is there a plan to provide such a course in the foreseeable future," wrote Superintendent Sean McDaniel in his emailed response.
FFRF led the charge against the proposed class in April when the Mustang school board voted to approve Green's curriculum. FFRF pointed out numerous flaws with the course, entitled "The Book, the Bible's History, Narrative and Impact of the World's Best-selling Book." The course in the Mustang school district was to be the first in what Green intended to be implemented in school districts around the country. Americans United and ACLU later also wrote letters, and teamed up with FFRF for the most recent open records request.
McDaniel said two "non-negotiables" the school had requested from Hobby Lobby were not met, namely that the district be permitted to review the final curriculum before introducing it, and that Hobby Lobby commit to providing legal coverage to the district.
FFRF's concern from the beginning was that Green and his staff were using the Mustang School District for their own ends, persuading it to adopt an unconstitutional curriculum for which the Mustang taxpayers, not Green, would ultimately pay the court costs for the inevitable court battle.
Through its first open records request, FFRF learned that the proposed curriculum contained heavy Christian bias. FFRF criticized Green for encouraging the school board to circumvent open meetings laws, by inviting school representatives to meet at Hobby Lobby headquarters on the same day in two different groups at different times.
Green is a billionaire whose corporate headquarters is about five miles from Mustang in Oklahoma City. The company's first commitment, according to its website, is "Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with biblical principles." Hobby Lobby brought a challenge resulting in a 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that corporations with religious objections could defy the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Green's also embarking on an $800 million bible museum to open in 2017 in Washington, D.C.
"This development is a victory not only for reason and the law, but the sacrosanct right of a captive audience of students to be free from indoctrination in a public school setting," commented Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation criticized today's decision by the Colorado State Supreme Court saying that FFRF and four of its Colorado state members have no right to sue the governor over his annual proclamation urging citizens to set aside an annual day for prayer.
Chief Justice Nancy E. Rice delivered the state high court's 5-2 ruling, finding that the psychic harm suffered by FFRF members — Mike Smith, David Habecker, Timothy G. Bailey and Jeff Baysinger — isn't "injury sufficient to establish individual standing." Despite the fact that taxpayer standing is broad under Colorado law, the justices also called the "incidental overhead costs" insufficient to establish taxpayer standing.
Dissenting was Justice William W. Hood, III, joined by Justice Gregory J. Hobbs, Jr., warning "we turn a deaf ear to citizens" who have concerns about religious freedom. Hood wrote that the court is confusing "the issue of when an individual's claim should be heard with when it should prevail."
FFRF, a prominent state/church watchdog and the largest membership association of atheists and agnostics, has more than 650 Colorado members among its 21,500 national membership.
Noted FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor: "Under today's precedent, if Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper decided to proclaim a state religion, no state citizen would have the right to challenge him!"
"Being formally told to pray every year by their governor is what the Colorado State Constitution so obviously sought to protect citizens from. This decision guts the no preference clause of the Colorado State Constitution saying no preference shall be 'given by law to any religious denomination or mode of worship.' " added FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
FFRF had won a strong victory in state appeals court in May 2010, when the Colorado Court of Appeals unanimously ruled in favor of FFRF's challenge of Colorado Day of Prayer proclamations.
"A reasonable observer would conclude that these proclamations send the message that those who pray are favored members of Colorado's political community, and that those who do not pray do not enjoy that favored status," Judge Steve Bernard wrote. The proclamations violated the Preference Clause of the Religious Freedom section of Colorado's Constitution, being predominantly religious, lacking a secular contexts and effectively endorsing religion as preferred over nonreligion.
FFRF started the lawsuit in 2008, after then-Gov. Bob Ritter spoke at a religiously exclusionary, private Colorado Day of Prayer celebration on the steps of the State Capitol in 2007.
FFRF won a historic federal district court ruling, FFRF v. Obama, in 2010, declaring the federal National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. FFRF demonstrated the religious origins of the 1952 and 1988 acts of Congress, with Rev. Billy Graham and other evangelists pushing for the laws. The evangelical National Day of Prayer Task Force — based at Focus on the Family headquarters in Colorado Springs — has essentially acted as an arm of the government since 1988. In 2011, the conservative 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals threw out FFRF's standing.
"We thank our all-important state plaintiffs and are indignant on their behalf that courthouse doors are being slammed shut against citizens whose freedom of conscience is being violated so blatantly by theocratic elected officials," Gaylor added.
Richard L. Bolton served as litigation attorney.
Poster for next year’s National Day of Prayer blending government and religion.