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Employees at Peach County Senior Citizens Center, Fort Valley, Ga., were regularly leading residents in prayer before meals, playing Baptist hymns on the piano, and reading from the bible to celebrate any event or special day, according to a senior citizen complainant.

On July 26, 2012, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter to the director of the center explaining that, because it receives federal funds, it is subject to federal law which “is explicit and unequivocal in its prohibition on religious activities. . .” Even though it is a private center, the federal government attaches secular strings to its funding to protect client freedom of conscience.

The center responded on August 9 that “we have reminded staff or our Agency’s position… at all times, our agency intends to fully comply with regulations. . .” The center added that “we have discussed this matter with the participants to educate them that our staff cannot/will not initiate, encourage, or participate in any religious based activity. Any participant that observes staff promoting religion in any way has been made aware of the Agency’s grievance policy. . .”

Thanks to an FFRF complaint, a coach at Hutto High School in Texas will no longer be allowed to play an active role in the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter.

The high school coach was the Christian group’s faculty advisor, but he actively participated in the organization, sending emails to the staff and faculty promoting FCA events and listing himself as the contact person on event advertisements.

FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt in wrote a letter on Feb. 17, 2012, noting that this Christian student organization was not actually student-initiated or student-run. “A reasonable Hutto High School student would presume that this Christian club is sponsored by the school.”

FFRF received a response from the attorney for the school district on August 8. He assured FFRF that the district would be provided training on the Constitutional issues raised and that the “district will also ensure that this club is truly student initiated and student run.” 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has stopped a high school teacher in Raymond, Miss., from proselytizing and distributing bibles in her classroom.

A U.S. history teacher brought “Truth for Youth Bibles” to class for students to take and distribute. The same teacher asked students in her classroom to raise their hands if they “believe that women who have abortions are going to hell.” While the teacher was present and during class, a student was permitted to ask all students who were “saved” to raise their hands.

In a May 23, 2012, letter, FFRF staff attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to Superintendent Stephen Handley, “It is unconstitutional for Hinds County School District to allow employees to facilitate the distribution of religious materials during the school day.” Schmitt also warned, “Public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral towards religion.”

In an Aug. 8 response, Handley assured FFRF that “the teacher was given instruction and counseling on her role as a teacher in our district and the requirement of neutrality with respect to religious issues.”

FFRF received a complaint that the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) hosted a soccer tournament that included prayer. Video footage revealed that a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes delivered an invocation at the Athens versus Chelsea girls soccer championship.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter on July 31, 2012, to remind the AHSAA that even student-initiated and student-led prayers at public school events are unconstitutional, and has been specifically barred by the Supreme Court. Students may not be subjected to religious ritual as the price of attending or participating in school sporting events. Any reasonable observer would perceive that the school was endorsing the religion espoused in the prayer.

AHSAA responded on August 6 that “we certainly appreciate your concerns and take very seriously our duties and obligations under federal and state law. To that end, we intend to fully comply with all constitutional mandates.”

Thanks to a letter from FFRF, the Rocky River Municipal Court will now offer secular alternatives to Alcoholics Anonymous.

As part of a rehabilitation program in Rocky River, which is just west of Cleveland, the court required some offenders to either attend Alcoholics Anonymous or face jail time. An atheist complainant reported that the probation conditions were unworkable and said, “all I want is a viable alternative to AA other than jail.”

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote a March 16, 2012, letter to the court’s probation department, pointing out that courts have consistently found AA and other 12-step programs to be “religious programs for purposes of First Amendment analysis.” Therefore, requiring attendance at one of the programs violates the Establishment Clause because “it coerces offenders to attend religious programming in violation of their conscience.” 

The Chief Probation Officer Judy Nash responded on August 1 to report that the Rocky River Municipal Court will now offer offenders options for other support. Nash also said that the court will make available information on Rational Recovery and Secular Organizations for Sobriety.

When it comes to public school assemblies, evangelists need not apply. Thanks to a letter from Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, Signal Mountain Middle/High School is on notice that future school assemblies cannot use warnings about alcohol as pretext for Christian proselytization.

Our complainant alerted us to an assembly at Signal Mountain Middle/High School (Chattanooga, Tenn.) that featured a speech by Dave Walton. The school brought in Mr. Walton to speak of the dangers of alcohol but a cursory search of his website, www.braggingforjesus.org, reveals his ulterior motives. In her July 26, 2012, letter to the school district, Markert wrote that “given the speaker’s over and primarily Christian message, it is troubling that the district would schedule this speaker for the assembly.” She identified such assemblies as “subvert[ing] constitutional mandates” with the purpose of “inject[ing] Christianity into students.”

Markert’s powerful letter demanding positive action garnered a quick response. The attorney for Hamilton County Schools wrote on Aug. 1 that many faculty members were also concerned that the presentation was inappropriate and that the presentation resulted from a “gross failure” to screen the speaker. Hamilton County Schools have acknowledged the grave error and their attorney calls this “a good story for training.” 

Performances from proselytizing groups will no longer be allowed in Joshua Independent School District, thanks to an FFRF complaint.

A North Joshua Elementary School assembly was hosted by KidStand, a Christian ministry group that stages school performances to convert children to Christianity. KidStand targets children under age 14 “to reach children with the Gospel of Christ before the window of opportunity diminishes greatly.” KidStand veils their religious agenda by claiming their school assemblies address secular topics such as bullying and drugs, but they admit that they perform in hopes that “kids will bring their families to the Community Family Festival where we can teach they can be all they are created to be through Jesus.”

A Feb. 1, 2012, letter from FFRF staff attorney Stephanie Schmitt warned “recruitment for religious programming as part of a school assembly is in violation of the Establishment Clause.”

An attorney for the District agreed in a response on July 30 that the KidStand performance was against the policy of the District, and that disciplinary action was taken. The District confirmed, “this type of assembly will not occur in the future at Joshua ISD.”

The outgoing recorded message of the License Office in Rolla, Mo. no longer includes an endorsement of religion.

The Rolla License Office voice mail greeting, which played when the line was busy and during non-business hours, ended “God bless you.”

In a July 11, 2012, letter, FFRF staff attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote that this message amounts to a government endorsement of religion “thereby alienating non-believers by turning them into political outsiders in their own community.”

On July 28, FFRF learned that the outgoing message had been changed to replace “god bless you” with “have a wonderful day.”

The Tishomingo County School District will no longer allow teachers to lead students in prayer.

Teachers at Iuka Elementary School in Iuka, Miss., were leading their students in prayers before heading to lunch. The prayers became a normal daily routine, with teachers encouraging students to volunteer to lead the class in prayer before lunch.

FFRF staff attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote in a May 3, 2012, letter, “It is well settled that a public school teacher or administrator may not lead, direct or ask her students to engage in prayer.”

On July 23, Superintendent Ben McClung responded, stating “we understand that teachers cannot encourage students to pray or lead students in prayer.” He assured FFRF that these issues would be addressed with faculty and staff before the school year begins.

An invocation and benediction were given at the 2012 Mercer County High School graduation ceremony in Frankfort Ky. Both prayers, also listed in the official program for the ceremony, made references to Jesus Christ and one ended with a genuflection.

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to the school district on June 8, 2012, reminding it that "the Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations." Markert requested "written assurances that the Mercer County High School and Mercer County Schools are taking the appropriate steps to ensure that religious rituals are not part of graduation ceremonies or any other school-sponsored events in the future."

On July 20 the school district's attorney wrote, "I have advised that there should not be any prayers as part of the ceremony." He added, "While planning for the graduation ceremony in the Spring of 2013 has not yet occurred, it is my understanding the School District representatives intend to make the necessary changes to next year's graduation so that this is no longer an issue."

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