Current Cases

Florida city restricts atheist invocations

FFRF objected to the Pompano Beach, Fla., City Commission’s recently adopted resolution to severely restrict who is allowed to give invocations before its meetings, limiting the pool to religious speakers only.

Under the new policy, the “invocation speaker” must be chosen from “‘churches,’ ‘congregations’ or other religious assemblies in the annual Yellow Pages” and “religious congregations with an established presence in the local community.” It also calls for the city clerk to determine a congregation’s “authenticity” by examining its tax-exempt status.

“This resolution flies in the face of the Supreme Court decision that allows these invocations in the first place,” said FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a July 16 letter. He noted that in that case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, the court took note that the town “at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver,” and that its leaders maintained that anyone, “including an atheist,” could give an invocation.
The change came in response to a request to give an invocation from Chaz Stevens, a self-described “minion of Satan.” Stevens previously made news when he put up a Festivus pole created from Pabst Blue Ribbon cans to celebrate the fictional holiday alongside other holiday displays in the Florida Capitol.

Pompano Beach’s policy is “blatantly discriminatory,” charged Seidel.

Records show city’s illegal prayer coordination

FFRF uncovered evidence though an open records request that the city of Orange, Calif., used employees’ time and city resources to coordinate mayor’s prayer breakfasts in 2013 and 2014. FFRF sent the city a letter June 20 to ensure there’s no similar unconstitutional sponsorship in the future.

The prayer breakfasts were “undoubtedly Christian affairs,” wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel to Mayor Teresa “Tita” Smith. The city admitted this in their records: “He will be talking about how Christ and following Christ has impacted his life — duh it’s a prayer breakfast and their goal is to share the Gospel and bring people to Christ and strengthen their beliefs,” wrote Deputy City Manager Irma Hernandez in an email about the 2013 keynote speaker.

City personnel sent invitations, responded to RSVPs, arranged musical performances and speakers, made seating arrangements, ensured staff attendance and prepared Smith’s opening remarks and coordinated her bible verse selections and themes of speakers’ messages.
“Given the high degree of city involvement and entanglement in the event, any reasonable person or court would interpret this conduct as government espousal of religion,” Seidel wrote.

“We know these events nearly always promote Christianity, but rarely do you see a city admit it in black and white,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “Our response to Hernandez is, ‘Duh, it’s unconstitutional!'”

Grant to Christian athletes contested

FFRF sent a letter July 9 strongly criticizing the state of Ohio’s $300,000 grant to Athletes in Action, a Christian sports ministry. Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine announced the grant July 1 “to reach more than 3,700 athletes and students over a two-year period,” including AIA Little Dribbler Camps.

According to its website, “Since 1966, Athletes in Action has been using sports as a platform to help people answer questions of faith and to point them to Jesus.” It was founded as part of Campus Crusade for Christ, now called Cru. “We dream of a day when there are Christ-followers on every team, in sport, in every nation.”

“The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the government cannot subsidize religious projects wherein public money is used to facilitate religious exercise, proselytization or inculcation,” wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Katherine Paige.

“The state is funding a Christian ministry that uses sports as a vehicle for faith; it is not funding a sports program that happens to be run by Christians. The distinction is crucial and means that the grant is unconstitutional.”

DeWine said funds for the grant came from Ohio’s share of a multistate settlement with a company regarding its marketing practices.

FFRF raises alarm over coach’s ‘coercion’

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter July 16 to Iowa State University President Steven Leath to raise concerns about Steve Prohm, the school’s new head basketball coach due to “numerous reports of Mr. Prohm’s promotion of religion through his coaching position.”

To combat Prohm’s anticipated proselytizing, FFRF also sent a letter to all Iowa State basketball players informing them that they have “a right to participate in university athletics free of religious proselytizing, promotion or bias from school employees.”
Prohm has stated that he’ll be praying with players before games and practices and will ask for prayer requests. At his previous coaching job at Murray State University in Kentucky, Prohm also reportedly declared that “we build our program around faith in Jesus Christ ­— not on individuals.”

“Mr. Prohm’s team is full of young and impressionable student athletes who would not risk giving up their scholarship, giving up playing time or losing a good recommendation from the coach by voluntarily opting out of his unconstitutional religious activities, even if they strongly disagreed with his beliefs,” Elliott said. “Using a coaching position to promote Christianity amounts to religious coercion.”

Lights out, please, on religious display

FFRF lodged a complaint June 22 on behalf of residents of La Crescent, Minn., to protest the city’s practice of hosting an illuminated cross and star decoration at Easter and Christmas on public land. The display, mounted on the bluffs above the city, has been illuminated to celebrate religious holidays for four decades. The Lions Club maintains the display, located inside a fenced area that includes the city’s 800,000-gallon water reservoir.

“The government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, but under the First Amendment it may not observe it as a Christian holy day by suggesting people praise God for the birth of Jesus,” Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert told Mayor Mike Poellinger. The star’s coupling with the cross “seems to suggest that the city is celebrating the religious aspect of the Christmas holiday, which is another violation of the First Amendment.”

City officials discussed the issue at a July 13 council meeting but took no action. FFRF is working with the La Crosse Area Freethought Society, a secular group across the Mississippi River in La Crosse, Wis.,to convince the city to remove the display.

Freedom From Religion Foundation