It Pays to Complain: April 2011

Wisconsin jurors get secular oath option

After its Feb. 11 letter of complaint, FFRF was assured March 14 by the clerk of Circuit Court in Washington County, Wis., that jurors will be informed “of the option of a secular affirmation or oath” when being sworn.

A county resident had complained to FFRF after being summoned for jury duty that the panel was sworn in with an oath that ended with “so help me God” and was not offered the option of a secular affirmation.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that “neither a state nor the federal government can constitutionally force a person to ‘profess a belief or disbelief in any religion,’ ” wrote Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney. Wisconsin law also provides for a secular option.

School stops offering religious MLK ribbons

FFRF stopped the Beloit Turner School District in Wisconsin from asking staff to wear a ribbon with an image of a Christian cross and the name of a ministry to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

On Jan. 14,  William Beckley, director of curriculum and staff development, e-mailed staff: “[W]e will be delivering the Dr. King ribbons this a.m. All staff are asked to wear the ribbons today and on Monday.” In addition to the cross, the ribbon said at the bottom, “Beloit Community Ministers Fellowship.”

Patrick Elliott, FFRF staff attorney, in his March 10 letter, said, “While honoring Dr. King is laudable and a worthy cause . . . the Latin cross is universally understood to represent Christianity. Non-Christians and nonbelievers do not wish to display this Christian symbol on their person. Students may perceive the ribbons as an endorsement of Christianity and the Beloit Community Ministers Fellowship.”

Superintendent Dennis McCarthy responded by e-mail March 14: “At times the good intentions of individuals may cause unintended consequences for others. It will not be an issue in the future.”

Secular counselors get free parking

Thanks to letters of complaint by FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, secular counselors will join clergy in getting free parking at the University of Kentucky Hospital in Lexington.

FFRF began its investigation after a query in late August from a Kentucky resident who wondered if it was legal to give free parking to ministers visiting hospital patients but not to nonreligious counselors.

Markert first wrote in November to Dr. Michael Karpf, UK executive vice president for health affairs. Free parking for clergy, Markert wrote, “is an impermissible practice because it affords a specific religion-based preference for access to a public accommodation. Chapter 344 of the Kentucky Statutes protects individuals against discrimination.” She also cited federal anti-discrimination law, including the Civil Rights Act.

Receiving no response, FFRF followed up with another letter Jan. 4.

On March 10, Clifton Iler of the UK Office of Legal Counsel replied: “In reviewing our current policy related to clergy, the university has concluded that there are likely patients treated at the University of Kentucky Hospital who do not hold religious beliefs.

“Consequently, the university has amended its policy providing clergy with free parking so that any professional who provides emotion of spiritual support to patients at the University of Kentucky Hospital is eligible to receive free parking.”

FFRF stops school lunchtime prayer

A teacher at Chadbourn [N.C.] Elementary School has been ordered to “cease and desist from any prayer time or references to prayer” after the district received a Jan. 28 letter of complaint from FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert.

Third-grade teacher Becky McCleney had instructed students to say this prayer before lunch:

“Thank you for the world so sweet,
Thank you for the food we eat,
Thank you for the birds that sing,
Thank you God for everything.”

Superintendent Dan Strickland had been notified of the violation before FFRF complained, but the prayers continued.

An attorney for the School District responded Feb. 8: “[W]e are well aware that it is violative of the U.S. Constitution and the various court cases that have been brought under the principle of separation of church and state.” He wrote that each year, teachers are briefed on the issue, “but being in the ‘Bible Belt’ it is oftentimes forgotten. We have taken the appropriate measures to address it and will monitor the situation to be sure that it does not occur again.”

FFRF member exposes Christian roots myth 

Ralph Stewart, FFRF member and former U.S. Marine, won one for nontheists in March when the Johnson County Commission in Mountain City, Tenn., voted unanimously to add his display at the courthouse in order to ward off his lawsuit challenging the Ten Commandments in the public building’s lobby.

The commission voted last May to deny Stewart’s request to put two posters alongside the Ten Commandments and other historical documents, including bible verses, that purport to show America is a Christian nation. In January, Americans United sued Johnson County on Stewart’s behalf for using a public forum to promote religion.

Stewart’s posters are titled “On the Legal Heritage of the Separation of Church and State” and “The Ten Commandments Are Not the Foundation of American Law.” It features quotations from the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, three U.S. Supreme Court cases, and other law-related historical sources.

Freedom From Religion Foundation