It Pays to Complain: August 2011

New Jersey adds ‘No help me god’ oath

In August 2010, FFRF Staff Attorney wrote a letter of complaint on behalf of a teacher to the New Jersey Department of Education to object to the following “Oath of Allegiance/Verification of Accuracy” on its teacher li-censure form:

“I,______, do solemnly swear, (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New Jersey, and that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same and to the governments established in the United States and in this State, under the authority of the people, so help me God.”

Elliott noted that the oath doesn’t allow an appropriate alternative for teachers with no belief in a god or teachers who adhere to religions such as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

FFRF got a response July 11 from Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, who said the department will add a nonreligious affirmation which omits “so help me God.” Ohio district takes FFRF’s flier advice

The Garfield Heights City School District in Ohio settled a lawsuit filed against it by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group based in Arizona. The suit, brought by ADF on behalf of a mother’s group, alleged that the group’s free-speech rights were violated when Maple Leaf Intermediate School declined to distribute fliers and permission slips promoting after-school Christian programs.

In previous years, the school was the subject of several FFRF complaints about staff unconstitutionally sponsoring a “field trip” to a nearby church during the school day. Superintendent Linda Reid canceled the field trip last year after an FFRF complaint. Reid drew the ire of the mother’s group this year when she also declined to distribute fliers for their after-school biblethemed events.

In a May 2011 letter, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor suggested a solution to the lawsuit. Gaylor noted that problems arise when teachers distribute religious fliers: “I encourage you to consider amending the district’s policies so that only district-sponsored announcements are sent home with students. This avoids the difficult First Amendment issues that arise when the school becomes involved in distributing materials for other groups.”

The district, taking that advice, agreed in the settlement with ADF to amend school policy so that outside groups won’t be able to send fliers home with students. Groups can place limited quantities of fliers in the school office. The district also agreed to pay $3,000 to ADF attorneys to settle the suit, which was dismissed June 21. Gideons booted in Arkansas school

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote a letter of complaint July 7 to Superintendent Greg Murry, Conway [Ark.] Public Schools, about illegal Gideon bible distributions at Ruth Doyle Intermediate School.

According to FFRF’s complainant, the Gideons were positioned outside the cafeteria/auditorium exit where a mandatory assembly was being held.

The complainant said several families complained to Assistant Superintendent Carroll Bishop about the Gideons’ presence, and said the response they received was the district “[is] looking into this for the future.”

Murry emailed back to FFRF within hours to say that the district, in response to an earlier complaint, “would discontinue the distribution of Gideon bibles in our district. I have also informed the Gideons of this decision as well.”

Elliott noted, “Although it appears that the Conway Public School District reached the decision to bar Gideon bible distribution before receiving FFRF’s letter, this incident demonstrates that concerned families and citizens can effectively, and should, petition school officials to end this unconstitutional practices in their schools.”

FFRF forces sticker cover-up option

Something’s constitutionally amiss when the city of Blue Island, Ill., requires vehicle owners to advertise the 150th anniversary of a Catholic parish. So said a July 6 FFRF letter of complaint to city officials.

Blue Island, a south Chicago suburb of about 23,000, levies a municipal vehicle tax and issues stickers that must be displayed inside the windshield.

“The [2011-12] stickers give the impression to observers that the city approves of and wishes to celebrate St. Benedict Roman Catholic Church,” FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote. “The stickers say ‘Blue Island’ and ‘St. Benedict’ in large lettering and depict city buildings on an official, and required, vehicle sticker.”

Underneath in large letters is “150 years.” Federal courts have consistently struck down symbolism that ties cities to religion, Elliott said. “Secular organizations certainly could have been honored, as there is no First Amendment problem with honoring the Blue Island Fire Department.”

The city claimed the sticker acknowledges a special anniversary for St. Benedict. To that, Elliott rejoined, “Can you imagine the outcry if the city ‘acknowledged’ the opening of a Muslim mosque or the founding of an atheist group in Blue Island?”

About two weeks after FFRF’s letter went out, the Blue Island city attorney called Elliott and said that Mayor Donald Peloquin had instructed police not to cite residents who chose to cover up the religious part of the stickers. The city is working on a policy to avoid the issue in the future.

Ohio BMV removes religious materials

The Foundation received a complaint in February about religious bumper stickers and posters prominently displayed at an Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles branch in Columbus. FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott alerted the bureau by formal complaint of the serious constitutional issues raised by the display of those materials.

While the BMV didn’t officially respond to the letter, FFRF recently contacted the complainant, who said that a visit to the branch showed the religious materials were not on display.

‘9 Commandments’ judge in legal trouble

James “Jay” Taylor, a Juvenile Court judge in Hawkins County, Tenn., received a public reprimand from the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary. The reprimand stems from charges involving Taylor’s promotion of a “Citizens Heritage Display” containing the Ten Commandments. The June 6 reprimand said Taylor violated the Code of Judicial conduct by speaking before a legislative body in support of the display and by collecting funds for its construction.

Taylor has been dubbed the “Nine Commandments” judge because his original public proposal mistakenly omitted the prohibition of adultery. FFRF sent a letter of complaint in July 2010 to the Hawkins County Commission about the proposed Justice Center display. The letter noted several historical inaccuracies, along with state-church separation issues. The proposal has yet to come to fruition.

Taylor’s conduct violated a judicial canon requiring judges to avoid conflicts of interest. Judges are not permitted to appear at public hearings, solicit funds or use “the prestige of judicial office for fund-raising.”

Taylor is also the subject of a $3 million lawsuit filed in January by a former employee, Julie Rasmussen, who alleges he violated her civil rights and made “unwelcome and unwanted” sexual advances and unlawfully fired her as a court youth service officer in 2010.

He was also sued in May for $2.25 million by Melody Benson-Roberts, a former client who alleges Taylor committed “fraud, conversion, fraudulent concealment of a cause of action, breach of contract and malpractice” while representing her.

Freedom From Religion Foundation