FFRF legal victories

FFRF breaks up church-city event

FFRF’s complaint letter made the city of Casselberry, Fla., cancel a planned partnership with an evangelical Christian church. Camp Casselberry, a city-run youth program, was scheduled to partner with Church Together for “Friday Fun Day” at a park June 26. Pastor Andy Searles and church volunteers planned to participate in and facilitate the event.
When Searles partnered with Camp Casselberry in 2014, his message to campers reportedly was to be good at three aspects of life: physical, mental and spiritual. Searles allegedly likened being “spiritually good” to being “scripturally good.”

“Our concern is that Mr. Searles and church volunteers will take this opportunity to again proselytize Camp Casselberry campers,” wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a June 24 letter.

“Paid or not, Mr. Searles and the church volunteers are bound by the First Amendment like any other government employee and must remain neutral toward religion during their participation in Camp Casselberry,” said Seidel.

A Church Together newsletter obtained by FFRF [see graphic] confirmed that the church would not be participating. The church also urged congregants to pray for people connected with FFRF.

“They can pray for us all they want, so long as they don’t force that prayer on other people’s children,” commented Seidel.

Church Together has a history of proselytizing in secular settings. It was recently known as the Venue Church at South Seminole, one of three Venue Churches in the Orlando area, whose stated goal is “permanently planting churches in Central Florida Schools.” The churches have recently split and been renamed but continue to meet in Orange County Public Schools.

FFRF has tangled repeatedly with Venue churches, and especially with Venue founder Todd Lamphere, particularly for his relationship with Apopka High School. FFRF has learned that Lamphere, pastor at Venue’s flagship church at Apopka, was reportedly forced to resign in June as pastor at the flagship church in Apopka for undisclosed reasons. All mention of him has been scrubbed from the church’s website.

FFRF also previously wrote to Casselberry Mayor Charlene Glancy after she appeared in a church promotional video in her official capacity as mayor.

FFRF letter downs cross collection

Gregg County Clerk Connie Wade, Longview, Texas, removed a collection of more than 20 crosses from her county office after getting a July 2 letter from FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert. A local resident alerted FFRF to the violation.

County Judge Bill Stoudt told the Longview News-Journal that the collection belonged to one of Wade’s employees. It was in full public view. “The employee voluntarily took the crosses down,” said Stoudt, noting he didn’t order them removed.

“If the crosses have been removed, we consider that a victory for state/church separation,” Markert said. She pointed to several cases in which federal courts upheld restrictions on displays of religious materials in workspaces, even including in some private cubicles or offices, since posting religious displays in areas the public can access could reasonably be seen as government endorsement of religion.

Wade has been in the news for refusing to issue a marriage license to Patrick Franklin and his 16-year partner Sailor Smith, citing the lack of a gender-neutral application form.
“Wrong side of history. Thanks,” Franklin told Wade after being turned down.

Athletic banquet now religion-free

The La Farge, Wis., School District in Wisconsin agreed to stop including prayers at athletic banquets and other school-sponsored events after getting a May 7 letter from Staff Attorney Sam Grover.

FFRF had learned that a pastor invited to speak at La Farge High School’s athletic banquet delivered a lengthy Christian prayer. “School events must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students,” Grover wrote.

An attorney for the district told Grover on May 8 that there would be no prayers at future school-sponsored events.

Letter stops preaching while teaching

James Tillman, a science teacher at Douglas County High School, Douglasville, Ga., won’t be preaching anymore to his students during class time.

Around the end of April, Tillman had a discussion about God with a student during class time, FFRF was told. When an atheist student spoke up, Tillman quizzed the student on his atheism, eventually promising to give him a book that might change his mind. About two weeks later, Tillman gave the student two copies of his own book titled Are You Sure There Is No God? He had signed them “Be blessed.” The book is subtitled on Amazon.com as “A book of miracles including my warning from Jesus himself.”

Tillman also allegedly showed his class a YouTube video of him preaching at his church, Christian Life Center.

Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler sent a letter May 26 asking the district to investigate Tillman’s behavior. “Public school employees are government actors and subject to the strictures of the Establishment Clause’s separation of church and state,” wrote Ziegler. “Teachers have access to a captive audience of students due to their position as public educators.”

FFRF also called for an investigation into Tillman’s role as the head of the school’s Christian club. “Given Tillman’s exceedingly inappropriate conduct in the incidents described above, we doubt his role with the First Priority Club is nonparticipatory as required by the Equal Access Act,” wrote Ziegler.

The superintendent replied June 2 that the principal reviewed the First Amendment with Tillman and was confident that “similar incidents” would not happen in the future.

Teacher no longer leading devotions

Akron, Ohio, Public Schools teacher Brad Lingenhoel will no longer lead a religious club at Buchtel Community Learning Center. FFRF received a report that a group called Buchtel Devo Group put on a program called “Wednesday Morning Devotions” in the library before school. Lingenhoel allegedly started the group and stated at one meeting that he wanted higher student turnout, taking it upon himself to individually invite students who had arrived early to school.

FFRF’s complainant reported that Lingenhoel said he wanted to invite a variety of people to lead the meetings because “the students would get tired of just teachers running the group.”

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote the district Dec. 4: “As you are aware, school employees may not run or even participate in religious clubs in public schools, nor can they promote religious clubs or invite students to attend. Any teachers involved . . . may only be present at student religious meetings in a supervisory capacity.”

In a lengthy response April 2, the district’s general counsel noted several school policies that agreed with FFRF’s position and said Lingenhoel had stopped participating in Wednesday Morning Devotions.

Gideon bible handout stopped in Texas

The Corsicana Independent School District in Texas will no longer let Gideons International distribute bibles. Students from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes were allowed to skip class in order to assist with the distribution, and students who did not accept the bible were reportedly told that “they would go to hell.”

Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the district’s superintendent explaining FFRF’s objections to the unconstitutional practice.

The superintendent responded June 2 that the district “intends to ensure compliance with the law” by banning future bible distributions.

Reagan Rattlers’ coach to stop prayer

The baseball coach of the Reagan Rattlers baseball team at Ronald Reagan High School, San Antonio, Texas, will no longer lead the team in the Lord’s Prayer at games. Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter to the district June 1 about an incident FFRF was alerted to.
“The Fifth Circuit, the controlling Court of Appeals in Texas, has specifically held that coach involvement in prayer at practices and games is unconstitutional,” Grover wrote.

The district’s attorney, Ricardo Lopez, wrote back promptly to say that the district would ensure that coaches and staff members would no longer lead prayer “at any time prior to, during, or after baseball games.”

Graduation prayer won’t be official

Prescott, Ariz., Public Schools has ended its practice of including invocations and benedictions at Prescott High School graduation ceremonies. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote the district May 27 after FFRF received word that the public high school had prayer as part of official graduation ceremony program.

“A prayer taking place at a ‘regularly scheduled school-sponsored function conducted on school property’ would lead an objective observer to perceive it as state endorsement of religion,” Elliott wrote.

The district responded June 3 that “the District does not intend to include prayer as part of any school-sponsored events in the future, and appropriate administrators will be so advised.”

FFRF stops Florida ‘rampant religion’

Dixie County Schools ordered removal of classroom posters that proclaimed “Dixie County High School — God Can Do Innumerably More Than We Can Ask or Imagine,” after getting an FFRF complaint about the display at the school in Cross City, Fla.

On Nov. 12, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the district about rampant religious promotion at the school, including adult-led organized prayer, teaching creationism, bible verses on display and religious bullying. The district corrected those violations swiftly but failed to remove several of the religious posters.

After Seidel wrote again on April 10, the district agreed to remove the last of the religious posters.

Christian film nixed at middle school

Nevada’s Clark County School District will update its teacher handbook and reinstruct teachers not to promote their own sectarian beliefs to students. On May 21, a teacher at Victoria Fertitta Middle School in Las Vegas played the Christian movie “Amazing 3D Adventures: The P.U.S.H.” for students during instructional time. The message of the movie is to “Pray Until Something Happens” and features a religious rodent protagonist attacking a reasonable reptile.

The movie “teaches students that planning, foresight, and determination are less important to success than the belief and obedience to a god,” wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel on June 5.

On June 15, the district assured FFRF that the school would take steps to remind teachers they are not permitted to proselytize students.

Calif. schools agree complaints valid

Two California school districts have promised to take steps to ensure teachers will not use district resources to promote religious events after getting letters from FFRF.

A teacher at Modesto City Schools’ Downey High School used his district email address to coordinate and advertise the Modesto Area Educators’ 7th Annual Prayer Breakfast, a privately sponsored religious event that took place at the school. A teacher at Sylvan Union School District’s Somerset Middle School also promoted the event with a district email address.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the districts June 12, explaining that “statements of school employees made using official resources are attributable to the school. This endorsement of a Christian event offends the nearly 30% of American adults and the 37% of California adults that are non-Christian.”

Modesto City Schools responded June 16, promising to enforce its “acceptable use” policy and to review the policy to ensure employees comply with the Constitution. On June 23, the Sylvan Union School District assured FFRF that it would remind its staff on proper use of district technology.

Teacher’s bible quotes erased in class

Pender County Schools in North Carolina will put a stop to the classroom display of bible quotes. A Topsail Middle School teacher in Hampstead wrote bible quotes on a dry-erase board in his classroom, in full view of his students, and changed the quotes on a weekly basis. A concerned parent contacted FFRF.

“Religious postings are strictly prohibited in public schools,” wrote Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott in a May 28 complaint. “Matters of faith, or absence of faith, are best left outside of the classroom.”

FFRF received a response June 18, stating that the district provided staff with guidelines for selecting appropriate quotes and will further provide staff with “training on compliance with First Amendment principles of religion in public schools.”

Driving video ‘infested’ with religion

Bartram Trail High School in St. Johns, Fla., will stop illegal athletic prayer and will no longer show a religious video to students. A student reported to FFRF that the school’s football coach was participating in student-led prayers and that the school had shown students a video on safe driving that was “absolutely infested with Christian messages, bible verses and talk of prayer.” The video featured a local student who had been injured in a driving accident and credited prayer as the secret to his recovery.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel complained to the St. Johns County School District on April 30. The district promptly commenced an investigation and informed FFRF on June 26 that both issues would be corrected. The school’s football coach now understands that he cannot pray with players at school functions, and the school assured FFRF that it will not show any videos promoting religion.

Junior ROTC balls to end prayer

Bethel High School’s Naval Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps in Bethel, Conn., has taken several steps to keep religion out of its instruction. A concerned student reported to FFRF that a mandatory military ball included prayers said “in the name of Jesus.”
Students were also forced to recite a statement that included the phrase “May God grant me the strength to always live by this creed,” and a classroom displayed a “God Bless America” poster.

Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a complaint letter June 15 regarding all three issues.

Attorney Rebecca Santiago responded June 29 and said future military balls would not include prayers, the “God Bless America” poster would be removed and that students would not be required to recite a religious creed.

Goodbye to Good Friday observances

The city of Bayard, N.M., will no longer close its doors on Good Friday or Easter Monday. A resident reported to FFRF that city offices, the public library and the municipal court were closed in 2014 on Friday, April 18, and Monday, April 21, “in observance of the Easter holiday.”

Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to the mayor Feb. 27: “Easter is neither a federal holiday nor a New Mexico state holiday. It is unconstitutional and inappropriate for city offices to close for this Christian holy day.”

The mayor responded June 1 and agreed to remove the days from the city’s holiday schedule in future years.

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FFRF reminded the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District in Missouri that schools are not allowed to take time off to observe religious holidays. Colby Cantrell, a teacher at Woodland Elementary School, sent an email to parents saying that students did not have school April 3 “in observance of Good Friday!” FFRF was notified about this incident and sent a letter to the district May 26.

“This practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it not only promotes religion over nonreligion, but also impermissibly favors Christianity over all other faiths,” wrote Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert.

The district’s attorney assured FFRF on June 2 that the district would ensure Cantrell understood that the school was not closed for the religious holiday.

Freedom From Religion Foundation