FFRF Legal Victories April 2012

FFRF pressure stops staff leading prayers

After a complaint in late 2011 from FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott about prayers at school athletic events, banquets and graduations, the South Montgomery Community School Corporation in New Market, Ind., has adopted restrictions on school-sponsored prayer. FFRF had been informed that the superintendent was even leading the prayers at school events.

An attorney for the corporation assured FFRF in March that guidelines were distributed to school officials and that the prayer issues have been addressed.

The policy specifies that prayer will not be conducted at graduation ceremonies or “during banquets, award ceremonies or other school functions.” It also says that persons affiliated with the school “will refrain from leading or participating in prayer prior to, during, or immediately following athletic or other extracurricular events.”

The policy on extracurricular events provides:

“If students participating in these events wish to pray, school officials, school administrators, teachers, coaches, volunteers and other schools representatives must separate themselves from the students as they pray in order to prevent the appearance that the students’ participation in the prayer is an endorsement or advancement of the students’ religious beliefs or practices by the corporation. In addition, student prayer will not be broadcast by way of amplification devices to those in attendance at the event.”


School stops claiming God created students

FFRF complaints to the chartering authority of Byron Center Charter School, Byron Center, Mich., about statements from the school’s handbook and website were successfully resolved.

The handbook said, “BCCS believes that to teach a child created by God is a noble calling.” The website said, “Byron Center Charter School cannot promote a certain religion, it can however teach both creation and evolution as a theory, and use the Bible as a historical reference.”

In response, BCCS denied engaging in religious instruction. FFRF requested records from the school relating to “creation” instruction and the use of the bible. The school immediately removed the “creation” and bible statements from the website and provided records on the science curriculum.

Those records did not include materials relating to creationism. After further inquiry from FFRF, an attorney for the school said, “Byron Center Charter School does not engage in the teaching of creationism or intelligent design as part of the curriculum. Byron Center Charter School does not use the Bible for instruction.”

The board of directors voted March 12 to remove phrasing from the handbook that said students were “created by God.”


FFRF arrests Wisconsin cop’s proselytizing

FFRF stopped Police Chief Ken Manthey, Portage, Wis., from using his public position as a religious soapbox.

He racked up a series of constitutional violations by using his city email to distribute religious materials to employees. He also sent employees bible verses, bibles and other devotional material.

One such article was titled “Strength for Service to God and Country.” Another was “The Connection between Spirituality and Policing.” In a Jan. 9 letter to the city administrator, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote, “It is grossly inappropriate for any government employee, especially the chief of police, to distribute religious messages to government employees.”

FFRF was also informed that the chief posted religious messages in the Police Department lobby and attended bible study while on duty. He also opened a mandatory employee meeting with a Christian prayer. Under his direction, employee “swearing in” ceremonies often included mention of “Jesus.” He also maintained an employee prayer board for weekly prayer requests and religious articles.

A city attorney replied to FFRF’s letter on March 5, stating that Manthey was “instructed to cease from religious displays or conduct that promotes or has the appearance of promoting sectarian beliefs while performing his duties.”

Wis. voucher bill dies

A last-minute push at the end of the legislative session in Wisconsin to expand school vouchers for students with special-needs died March 15 in the Senate.

It would have given parents vouchers for up to $13,500 for students with disabilities to attend private (mostly religious) schools or schools in another district. The originating school districts would have seen a drop in state aid.

FFRF said, “Our state Constitution contemplates a secular public education system, explicitly excluding the creation of sectarian schools and the funding of religious education. No state money should fund religious education, no matter which pupils are receiving it.”

“Disability rights groups have lamented the lack of accountability and have noted that private schools are not bound by laws that protect the rights of students with disabilities.” Parochial school lobbyists were key supporters of the measure.

Other expansions of voucher schemes in Wisconsin have not fared well. A voucher program was expanded to the city of Racine last year. The Department of Public Instruction released a report March 27 that compared the standardized test scores of voucher students to Racine public school students. The voucher student average was 50.8% proficient or advanced in math, compared to 61.5 % of public school students.

The voucher students averaged 55.7% proficient or advanced in reading compared to 69.2% of district students. Racine Superintendent Ann Laing said, “Basically, the scores speak for themselves.”


Commissioners move prayer to pole

Henderson County commissioners in Hendersonville, N.C., have “begrudgingly accepted” a 2011 ruling last year by the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals banning sectarian prayers to open government meetings, Blue Ridge Now reported March 27.

FFRF filed a complaint in 2010 with the commission about its prayers, but the board voted to continue them, said FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott. “The appellate decision in the Forsyth case seems to have changed their mind.”

The U.S. Supreme Court declined in January to hear an appeal of the 4th Circuit’s decision. Henderson County Manager Steve Wyatt then came up with the idea of prayer before meetings at the flagpole outside the courthouse in order to be able to pray while complying with the law.

All five commissioners said that while they disagree with court rulings, they will comply.


Religion rife in Tennessee school

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a letter of complaint March 5 to Lenoir City Schools, Lenoir City, Tenn. Violations included censoring a school newspaper article by atheist student Krystal Myers, the Panther Press editor; school-sanctioned prayer, including at swim meets and football games, where the public address system is used; alleged religious proselytizing by teachers; and opening Lenoir City School Board meeting with sectarian prayer. (See page 3.)

While FFRF had not received a formal response at press time, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported March 21 that the board decided to stop opening meetings with prayer. The school also decided it no longer will allow prayer before football games, said Superintendent Wayne Miller.

Long-term decisions on other issues raised by FFRF and other groups will be made with advice from legal counsel, Miller said. “We sent the letters to our attorney. I’m waiting to hear his response.” Miller said.


Team benches chaplain after FFRF complaint

The Haralson County High School football team in Tallapoosa, Ga., will no longer call upon a “team chaplain” to provide religious support, thanks to FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt.

Schmitt wrote to Superintendent Brett Stanton on Sept. 19, 2011: “A public high school football team should not employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain.” The tradition was for a pastor to lead sectarian prayers over the public address system before games.

The school district’s attorney replied Feb. 28, “We are confident that any of the situations that gave rise to your concern have been addressed and will not give rise to any concerns during next year’s football season or otherwise.”


Letter breaks divine rainbox connection

FFRF put an end to inappropriate prayer in a Manchester, Tenn., kindergarten classroom.

A Hillsboro Elementary School teacher was in the habit of leading her students in daily prayers, according to a local complainant. Children were expected to join their teacher in proclaiming “God is good, God is great.” In at least one instance, the teacher told students that rainbows “are a sign from God that he wouldn’t flood the world again.”

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent an advisory letter Feb. 28 to Superintendent Kenny Casteel: “Coffee County Schools must take immediate action to stop its teachers from imposing their religious beliefs and practices on their students.”

Markert received a positive response March 12 from the director of schools: “The teacher has been reminded of her obligations under the law, and has assured us that no such problems will reoccur. This topic will be brought to the attention of all teachers within the system.”


FFRF drives home secular bus message

FFRF’s Feb. 10 complaint to the County of Lackawanna Transportation System (COLTS) in Scranton, Pa., led to dropping displays of “God Bless America” on its buses.

Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt’s letter to COLTS Executive Director Robert Fiume noted that buses flaunted the message on an electronic ticker.

Fiume confirmed on March 5 that the bus company would comply with FFRF’s terms and had “updated its PR software to reflect only secular messages.”


FFRF assures God has left the building

FFRF forced removal of an unlawful religious display in a hallway at Hononegah Community High School in Rockton, Ill.

The phrase “In God We Trust” had been prominently featured on a school letterboard for at least 10 years, but FFRF Co-President Anny Laurie Gaylor’s March 13 letter to Superintendent Randy Gross changed that.

Gaylor referenced the history of the motto as a “Johnny-come-lately first adopted during the Cold War as a reaction to the purported ‘Godlessness’ of Communism. American’s original motto was purely secular, i.e., ‘E Pluribus Unum.’ ”

A representative of the high school responded March 16 to say that “maintenance removed the display.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation