It Pays to Complain: August 2014

Bible ads take permanent vacation

An advertisement for vacation bible school in front of the Caraway Public Library in Caraway, Ark., has been removed. The sign, an electronic, scrolling text marquee, promoted a bible program for children at a local church.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Mayor Barry Riley on June 13, noting the Establishment Clause violation. “The best policy would be for the city to disallow such advertising,” Elliott suggested.

Riley responded the same day: “The message on the sign has been removed.”

FFRF thwarts school abstinence assembly

Onaway Area Community Schools in Onaway, Mich., will no longer invite speakers with a proselytizing agenda. Matt Fradd, who describes himself on his website as “a Catholic apologist and speaker,” was invited to give a presentation April 29 to Onaway High School students on the subject of abstinence.

According to Fradd’s website, his presentation “challenges audience members to open their minds and hearts and embrace the Church’s teachings on human sexuality.” Students were reportedly told, “Romantic love is impossible without chastity.”

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Superintendent Rod Fullerton on May 20, citing constitutional concerns over the religious content, adding that regardless of the motive, inviting such a speaker “gives the appearance that Onaway Area Community School District endorses the program’s message.”

Replying on June 18, Fullerton said the school “had no intention of violating any laws with this assembly” and that it “will not be participating in this type of assembly in the future.”

Bible quote off township website

Inappropriate religious material brought to FFRF’s attention by a concerned individual has been removed from the official website of the township of Watersmeet, Mich.

The bible quote, accredited to “Mr. Jesus Christ,” which we will politely refrain from quoting again here, endorsed a belief in heaven, sin and Jesus.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Township Supervisor Mike Rogers on June 16 to relay the information that “Courts have continually held that townships may not display religious messages.”

Rogers agreed moments after receiving the letter electronically to remove the quote.

School to review
policy on religion

Due to FFRF’s intervention, Manierre Elementary School in Chicago relocated its kindergarten graduation from a church sanctuary to its banquet hall.

On June 10, Staff Attorney Sam Grover, acting on reports from a concerned community member that the ceremony was to be hosted in Moody Church, wrote Barbara Byrd-Bennett, chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools about the clear constitutional violation.

The next day, school attorney James Bebley replied that, “the school has arranged for the captioned ceremony to be moved to the banquet hall.” And “at our administrator training this summer, we plan to address again the prohibition on the use of religious sites for public school events.”

No more religious rituals at school

Rockwall Independent School District in Rockwall, Texas, will no longer permit prayer at any school-sponsored events. According to a local complainant, Rockwall High School’s June 10 graduation included a religious prayer led by a local police officer. The graduation was one of two scheduled that week.

Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Jeff Bailey on July 11. “Graduation should be an inclusive, unifying event designed to celebrate the accomplishments and prospects of the graduates. Including religious references does exactly the opposite, isolating non-Christian and nonreligious students, cheapening their participation by sending the message that they are outsiders at their own graduation and in their own community.”

Later that day, counsel for Rockwall ISD replied that the district “has agreed to take [the] appropriate steps to ensure that religious rituals are not part of graduation ceremonies or any school-sponsored events in the future.” 

The Rockwall-Heath High School graduation, which took place after the FFRF complaint, did not include prayer.

Swan song for graduation prayer

Graduation ceremonies in Forsyth County School District in Cummings, Ga., will no longer include religious prayer.

On May 24, Forsyth Central High School’s graduation reportedly included a student-delivered invocation and benediction, both of which specifically mentioned God and Jesus.

Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote Superintendent L.C. Evans on May 30: “School officials may not invite a student to give any type of prayer, invocation or benediction at a public high school-sponsored event.” 

District counsel replied July 13: “The issues which you raise in your letter will not be a part of next year’s graduation program at Forsyth Central High School.”

Satisfied complainant: FFRF is ‘awesome’     

A concerned resident reported church ads in front of Castle Rock Middle School and Castle View High School. The signs advertised Sunday morning worship at Eternal Rock Lutheran Church and Summit Church. The churches rent from the school district, but have routinely left advertising banners up for months on school property.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter of complaint to the Douglas County School District on July 8. The next day, the complainant confirmed that FFRF’s letter had a positive effect. “You guys are awesome — the signs are down now!”

FFRF intervention saves prayer addicts

Prayer will no longer be sanctioned at Piedmont High School athletic events in West Piedmont, Ala.

Previously, it was the practice for a Christian prayer to be delivered over the school’s public address system before football games. A graduate and Piedmont athletics booster reached out to FFRF, noting that he found the prayers “very offensive to those who do not share in the belief of prayer,” and that a student should not be “subjected to ridicule for not participating.”

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert notified Superintendent Matt Akin of the unconstitutional action on March 20. Akin responded July 2 after two follow-up letters: “Beginning immediately, the Piedmont City School District will no longer allow student-led prayer at athletic events.”

Navy agrees to allow equal access

Naval Hospital Bremerton (NHB) and associated clinics in Bremerton, Wash., will no longer block minority religious Web pages. Their Internet filtering policy banned websites of non-monotheistic religions. 

A concerned individual was distressed to learn that the online Church of Satan was “blocked for reasons of Cult and Occult,” along with other non-mainstream religions such as Scientology, Wicca and various pagan religions. He described the discriminatory practice as “an outrage,” noting that monotheistic websites, including the outrageously bigoted Westboro Baptist Church’s site, were readily available.

Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the NHB on May 1, explaining that the policy was discriminatory. On July 15, Lt. Cmdr. David Peck reported that the policy had been changed to allow sites such as and

Church graduation ceremonies moving

Graduation ceremonies for Perry Local School District, Massillon, Ohio, will no longer be held at the Faith Family Church. From now on, nonreligious students wishing to participate in one of life’s most momentous occasions will not be excluded from doing so.  

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Superintendent Martin Bowe on Feb. 17, informing him that “It is unconstitutional for a public high school to force, compel, or coerce its graduation students, their parents, teachers, and other members of their families or friends, to violate their rights of conscience at a graduation ceremony.”

Bowe’s May 15 reply said the district has “agreed to find a different site for the 2015 graduating class. 

Bible distribution stopped in school

A South Carolina school district has agreed to stop allowing the distribution of bibles on school property due to a July 3 letter from Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott to Superintendent David Havird, Anderson School District One in Anderson.

FFRF’s complainant reported that a man told students they could take a bible as a staffer stood by outside an elementary school library, with bibles on the table.

Elliott’s letter addressed illegal events that occurred in April, when the bibles were distributed to students at Powdersville Elementary School in Greenville, S.C. “It is unfortunate that some adults view public schools as ripe territory for religious recruitment,” wrote Elliott, adding that courts have held that “religious instruction is for parents to determine, not  public school educators.” Elliott noted that the distribution also violated school policy.

District counsel responded July 21 that “the district will ensure that bibles are not made available to elementary school-aged students during the school day on school premises.”

‘Pervasive religious culture’ addressed

Lamar County School District staff in Purvis, Miss., will no longer be permitted to proselytize to students. A Sumrall Middle School student contacted FFRF in April about a teacher who talked about “why our country needs God” and the “war on Christmas.” Another teacher apparently held an Easter event and spoke about “the Rapture” and the anti-Christ.

Staff Attorney Sam Grover noted the violations June 20 in a letter to interim Superintendent Tess Smith, also citing faculty participation in prayer at Sumrall Elementary School and a “pervasive culture of proselytization in the district.”

Smith responded July 8 and agreed to “meet with each of the staff members mentioned, including a follow-up meeting with the school principal.” Smith said she’s organizing an in-service for principals to give them “the necessary guidance to train their staff in the future regarding constitutional issues.”

FFRF ends prayer at school banquet

There will no longer be teacher-led prayer or any prayer at the end-of-year banquet for Sarah Scott Middle School in Terre Haute, Ind.

A family member of a student contacted FFRF with information that, like ceremonies from previous years, a school-sponsored banquet May 27 celebrating the top 10 students in each grade featured teacher-led prayer. 

“Everyone is expected to bow their heads while a teacher leads the prayer,” reported the complainant. “The school is fairly diverse, so I’m sure I’m not the only person that is uncomfortable with the school trying to force everyone to pray.”

Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter May 30 to Superintendent Daniel Tanoos of Vigo County School Corp., declaring that, “The district should make certain that teachers in its schools are not unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters by encouraging them to engage in prayer. Schoolchildren already feel significant pressure to conform from their peers. They must not be subjected to similar pressure from their teachers, especially on religious questions.”

After a July 8 follow-up inquiry, district counsel replied July 17 that each building principal has been told that “teacher-led prayer with students present will cease, as it is prohibited by the Constitution and should not be allowed.”

Georgia Air Force base
grounds job ad bias

Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta, Ga., has removed a requirement that only Catholics need apply for a position as music director.

FFRF was alerted to the July 15 job ad, which requested a “Catholic Music Director to provide worship services at Moody AFB Chapel.” The posting specified that “the contractor shall maintain a lifestyle consistent with Catholic principles” for the position, and said the applicant would “not be required to perform duties that are incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

Staff Attorney Sam Grover’s July 18 complaint letter noted that the religious test violates the equal employment provisions of the Civil Rights Act, which says military departments may not discriminate on the basis of religion.

Within 15 minutes of receiving the complaint, an Air Force representative called to apologize for impermissible language in “all of the solicitations” and said the base intends to “modify the verbiage” in all of its job postings and remove the “Catholic lifestyle” mention.

Prayer breakfast promotion stopped

Putnam County in Carmel, N.Y., will no longer use county email to promote prayer breakfasts. Last fall, the director of personnel invited county employees to attend the 22nd Annual Putnam County Leadership Prayer Breakfast. The email included a bible verse from 2 Chronicles: “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive them, and heal their land.”

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent three letters to the county, starting March 17. County counsel responded July 10: “The individual who sent the email in question regarding the Prayer Breakfast event has been advised not to send such notices by County email in the future.”

Baccalaureate will include disclaimer

Columbian High School in Tiffin, Ohio, will no longer be involved with a baccalaureate service for seniors. The June 7 baccalaureate at Trinity United Church of Christ was coordinated with school faculty, including the principal, his secretary and the choir director. 

The religious service was listed on the school’s graduation checklist and promoted on the school calendar. Additionally, the graduation FAQ on the school’s website encouraged graduates and their families to attend.

On June 12, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Superintendent Vicki Wheatley of Tiffin City Schools. Due to the school’s “promotion of the worship service on its school website, students will perceive the baccalaureate service as school-sponsored,” Markert wrote.

Wheatley responded June 25 that “future District publications regarding a baccalaureate service will include a disclaimer indicating the event is not school-sponsored, it is an optional event, and that the District does not endorse any message espoused.”

Wheatley said she has “reminded the appropriate District employees of the policies and limitations discussed above, and [has] clarified the District’s expectations.” 

Georgia district agrees to prayer curbs

Future graduations at Bremen City High School in Bremen, Ga., will not include prayer, at FFRF’s behest. A religious photo of prayer has also been removed from the Bremen City Schools Facebook page.

The school’s May 24 graduation included opening and closing prayers. Each lasted several minutes and addressed the Christian “Heavenly Father, we thank you.”

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote the district June 6, noting other recent violations in the district, including a photo on the district website of the football team praying and an elementary school administrator leading kindergarteners in prayer.

The district responded June 17, saying that “the phrase ‘invocation’ will not be used in next year’s graduation program.” Additionally, the “superintendent has removed that photo” in question. 

Prayer off football team pregame menu

Illegal pregame prayer at football team meals has been halted at Alexander High School in Douglasville, Ga. According to reports by a concerned individual, the varsity football team had been supplied pregame meals by Pray’s Mill Baptist Church. A pastor was present at the meals and at most of the practices and games.

At the end of the mandatory meals, the pastor would deliver a “pseudo-sermon” and ask those present to bow their heads and pray. The complainant said the prayer “makes several nonbeliever athletes uncomfortable as well, but because they’re students on the team, they can’t just ‘step out’ and not participate or risk banishment.”

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Superintendent Gordon Pritz on May 27. District counsel replied June 17 that Pritz “has discussed with school administration and appropriate staff members the legal issues that you raised. . . . To the extent there existed any issue with a prayer or religious talk being given to students on the team during a team event by local clergy, there will be no such activity during next football season.”

The district was successfully sued by Doug Jager, son of a longtime FFRF member, over pregame invocations in the late 1980s. Doug was a member of the marching band. In Jager v. Douglas County District, the Supreme Court in 1989 let stand a ruling in Doug’s favor by the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Jesus vanishes from department’s Facebook

The police department in Jacksonville, Ala., has removed and will no longer display religious postings on its official Facebook page. The posts included an image with the words “Happy Birthday Jesus,” an image of a nativity, a number of bible verses, a picture promoting the “National Day of Prayer for Law Enforcement,” a picture of a man carrying a “Police Officer’s Bible” and a link to a Christian website with police officers singing a Christian song. 

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert contacted Jacksonville Chief of Police T.L. Thompson on Dec. 31. After two follow-up letters, Thompson finally replied July 2: “That post and similar ones were deleted from that account and no new posts of this nature have been posted.”

FFRF halts public school prayers

Ignacio School District in Ignacio, Colo., will no longer feature prayers at certain ceremonies held throughout the academic year.

A complainant reported to FFRF that schools included prayers before graduation, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas ceremonies. It was also reported that two prayers are offered at each of these events, one to the Christian god and another to a Ute Native American god.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter Oct. 18, explaining that the district has a legal duty to remain neutral toward religion.

After receiving a follow-up letter, the district responded June 23: “We have discontinued that practice.”

The response sets a record for the most concise letter of compliance an FFRF attorney has ever received.

— Compiled by publicist Lauryn Seering and intern Noah Bunnell

Freedom From Religion Foundation