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Lisa Strand

Lisa Strand

ConnellsvilleCommandmentsSenior U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry of the Western District of Pennsylvania issued a 50-page decision today in FFRF v. Connellsville Area School District, ruling that "the Ten Commandments monument at the Connellsville Area School District Junior High School runs afoul of the Establishment Clause." Connellsville is in Fayette Co., Pa., about 50 miles from Pittsburgh.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor hailed the ruling, noting "The First Commandment ('Thou shalt have no other gods before me') alone shows why the bible edicts don't belong at a public school or on government grounds. The government has no business telling citizens or public school students how many gods to have, which god to have or whether to have any god at all."

FFRF, a national state/church watchdog with more than 22,700 members across the nation, filed suit in September 2014 with a student, Doe 4, then a 7th grader, and the student's parent, Doe 5, an atheist and FFRF member. The large, tombstone-like granite monument was donated to the school system in 1956 by a local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, where it sits alone in a prominent area near the entrance to the auditorium of Connellsville Area Junior High. The area is adjacent to the parking lot where buses line up to drop off and pick up students.

McVerry's decision recites the chronology of the placement, which involved the mayor rhapsodizing that "there can be no better guidance for youth than God's laws," and notes it was one of the Ten Commandments markers donated as a campaign by the Eagles with filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, director of "The Ten Commandments."

The decision recites the community uproar over the request to remove the biblical edicts from public school grounds, including a prayer rally and public gathering at the monument, with sprinkles of "amen" from the crowd. At a public meeting the complainants were referred to as "yellow-belly bums" for being pseudonymous, and speakers cited the need to "stand up for the Bible" and Christianity.

"The monument still stands alone outside the school, declaring to all who pass it, 'I AM the LORD thy God.' There is no context plausibly suggesting that this plainly religious message has any broader, secular meaning," wrote McVerry.

Citing Supreme Court precedent, McVerry added: "Whether the key word is 'endorsement,' 'favoritism,' or 'promotion,' the essential principle remains the same. The Establishment Clause, at the very least, prohibits government from appearing to take a position on questions of religious belief or from 'making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person's standing in the political community.' "

McVerry added that First Amendment law "no doubt, is not always clear. But in this case, it compels a finding that the Ten Commandments monument at the Connellsville Area School District Junior High School runs afoul of the Establishment Clause. This ruling is in no way meant to denigrate the sincerely held religious beliefs of the citizens and elected officials in the Connellsville community who rallied in support of keeping the monument. . . . When, however, our government, at whatever level, departs from mere acknowledgement of our religious history to endorsement of a particular religious message, as set forth in the Ten Commandments, it has gone too far."

Although the student plaintiff is no longer at the junior high, because the student has graduated to high school, a claim for nominal damages was made, which avoided mooting the case. McVerry awarded the requested nominal damages in the amount of $1.00 to plaintiffs.

"We're very grateful to the plaintiffs who made possible this challenge, in the face of community rancor. Religion is divisive and builds walls between people, which is why it doesn't belong in our public schools." Gaylor added.

FFRF was represented by Attorney Marcus B. Scheider. FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott assisted in the case.

 

Choir concerts at grade schools in Ocean Springs, Miss. no longer include Christian worship songs, and are held at the school instead of a church, thanks to the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

A concerned parent contacted FFRF after their child participated in a school concert held at a local Baptist church and six of the 14 songs performed were religious. Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to Superintendent Bonita Coleman-Potter on Nov. 12, 2012, asking her to instruct the district’s school to stop teaching young, public school students religious songs. She also requested future school-sponsored events to not be held in churches.

Schmitt found one of the songs the choir performed, “Joshua Fit the Battle” particularly worrisome because it proudly recounts the Battle of Jericho, where Joshua is instructed by his god to commit genocide on the people of Jericho. Schmitt quoted Chapter 6 of Joshua where, “they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.”

On Feb. 14, 2013, FFRF was informed the school’s choir and band held a Fall Concert, which in previous years was called the Christmas concert, on Dec. 3. The concert was held in the school’s auditorium and included all secular music.

The City Council of Onalaska, Wis. voted not to commence government prayer to open their meetings. Secular-minded community members, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, La Crosse Area Freethought Society, and others spoke up, and a majority of common council members rejected the proposal.

At the Jan. 8 Common Council meeting Onalaska Alderman Jack Pogreba proposed to begin each meeting with prayer. He finished his proposal by asking all members to bow their heads in a prayer that ended by invoking Jesus’s name.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent Onalaska common council members a letter on Jan. 11 advocating for the separation of religion and government. Elliott noted that all of Onalaska’s places of worship are Christian and that offering sectarian Christian prayers would show unconstitutional city preference for Christianity. This would exclude members of the community who are nonreligious or of another faith and need to come before the City Council. “We urge the Council to concentrate on Onalaska matters, and not waste taxpayer time with divisive, exclusionary prayers,” Elliott wrote. At a subcommittee meeting, opponents of government prayer, including two council members, vastly outnumbered proponents.

On Feb. 12, the common voted 4-2 not to start the meetings with prayer.

Thanks to the Freedom from Religion Foundation and a concerned parent, neither the Gideons nor any other group will be allowed to distribute bibles at S.L. Mason Elementary, a public school in Valdosta, Ga.

The Gideons set up a table in the main hallway of the elementary school and handed out bibles to the young students. When one girl and her friend refused to take a bible, other school children told them they were going to hell.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted Valdosta City Schools Superintendent Dr. William Cason in a Feb. 12 letter. “When a school permits evangelists to distribute religious literature to its students, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message,” Seidel said. The public schools should protect the personal conscience of students, especially those students of a very young age who were given bibles at the elementary school, he said.

FFRF was informed by the parent complainant that Cason personally contacted her to apologize. Cason said he would update school administrators to let them know the Gideons and other groups are not allowed to enter the schools and distribute bibles.

Following a complaint filed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a sixth grade science teacher at Lakeview Middle School in Rossville, Ga. will no longer sing Christian songs during instructional time to students.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter to Catoosa County Public Schools Superintendent Denia Reese on Feb. 1, 2013, informing her that the teacher’s actions are unconstitutional, and make nonreligious and non-Christian students feel like outsiders. Seidel also expressed concern that several co-workers reported the teacher’s behavior to administration, but she continued to impose her beliefs on students in class.

The district’s legal counsel contacted FFRF after receiving a Feb. 11 follow-up letter. The counsel said the teacher admitted to singing inappropriate songs to children. The district explained the law to her and instructed her to stop proselytizing students.

Coaches at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., have been instructed to stop proselytizing their student athletes, following a complaint by the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

The football coach at Appalachian State University, Jerry Moore, had been inviting preachers to give sermons and pray in Jesus’ name at pregame dinners, which all student athletes on the football teams attended. Moore also led a bible-study class and encouraged his players to attend it.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott contacted the college’s Chancellor, Dr. Kenneth Peacock, in a Nov. 8 letter. Elliott asked the Chancellor to, “discontinue the practice of instituting team prayers, sermons, and bible studies for ASU football players.”

ASU’s general counsel responded in a Feb. 6 letter that the coach’s proselytizing has “no legitimate place in the University’s athletic programs.” He said a student athlete could see the coach’s “religious observances” as coercive.

“It is highly unlikely that a coach would look favorably upon a student athlete who walked out of a team meeting when a preacher, at the coach’s invitation, began to deliver a sermon or a team prayer,” he said. “In these circumstances, it would not be unreasonable for a student athlete to consider the atmosphere created by such religious observances coercive.”

The proselytizing coach left ASU for unrelated reasons, but the general counsel said ASU has reminded each of its coaches that the previous football coach’s behavior is not acceptable.

Thanks to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, religion has been separated from Pottsboro Independent School District’s athletic program.

FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell received a complaint from an injured party that the football coach at the Texas school was leading student athletes in a pregame prayer. The football games of both the middle and high school also featured a prayer addressing god and Jesus over the loudspeaker.

Cavell sent a Feb. 6 letter to Pottsboro ISD’s superintendent, Dr. Kevin Matthews, Feb. 6 letter outlining how these actions violated the Constitution. Cavell asked Pottsboro ISD to “take immediate action to ensure that coaches do not lead, organize . . . encourage, or participate in prayers with their teams.”

Pottsboro ISD’s legal counsel responded in a Feb. 7 letter to FFRF. He stated the school has discussed its policy regarding staff led prayer with all the coaches and intends to discuss the same issue with the broadcaster before football season starts.

Thanks to action taken by the Freedom from Religion Foundation and a brave group of Wauseon High School students, the Wauseon, Ohio high school will now have an inclusive spring assembly instead of a proselytizing Easter assembly.

Previous Easter assemblies at the high school encouraged the student body to accept Jesus as their Lord and savior and pressured students to sing Christian songs. A group of students at the high school protested the sermon-like assembly by walking out of the one held in 2012.

FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent the school district’s superintendent a May 7, 2012 letter asking him not to schedule religious assemblies in the future because it alienates students and violates the Constitution. Schmitt reminded Robinson all students should be made to feel welcome at school assemblies. She said parents, not the school district, decide whether and which religious concepts to expose their children.

The superintendent responded in a Feb. 7, 2013 letter that the district had asked the high school principal to change the nature, speakers, and format of the assembly. He said the spring assembly will focus on positive student choices.

An elementary school principal in Ligoner, Ind., will no longer push his religious beliefs and judgments on other district employees through religious newsletters and prayers at staff lunches, thanks to the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

A newsletter the principal sent to staff read: “People may be able to take away the symbols of Christmas, but they can never take away the meaning of Christmas; that a Savior was born to save the world.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott called the principal’s inappropriate actions to the attention of West Noble School Corporation Superintendant Dr. Dennis VanDuyne in a Dec. 19 letter.

VanDuyne responded in writing on Jan. 28 that the principal will apologize to his staff and stop promoting religion while acting as the school’s principal. VanDuyne added that the district policy on separation of church and state will be reviewed by all principals at the next administrators’ meeting.