FFRF legal victories span range of issues

FFRF ends several school violations

Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake, Ill., resolved several constitutional violations after getting an FFRF letter.

Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the school’s executive director July 8 to object to an assembly during the school day marking the installation of a “Freedom Shrine.” The mandatory assembly opened and closed with prayers. The Freedom Shrine was installed in a school building with a plaque engraved with the Pledge of Allegiance, on which the line “one nation under God” was in a larger, different colored and bolded font.

“Though teaching students about the history of our nation is a commendable goal, allowing an outside group to insert religious messages into a school assembly gives the appearance that PCCS endorses that group’s religious messages,” wrote Grover.

The director responded Nov. 7, informing FFRF that the school would prescreen future third-party presentations, watching for potential state/church violations. He also said the school removed the pledge plaque and held a staff meeting “to reiterate the neutrality toward religion in a public school.”

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Sewer biller, cop emails go secular

A Seminole County, Fla., employee in the water and sewer billing department will no longer include a bible verse in her email signature.

Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the county attorney Oct. 10 of behalf of FFRF, saying, “The statements of a government employee are attributable to Seminole County. It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the county or its agents to promote a religious message because it conveys government preference for religion over nonreligion.”

The attorney replied Oct. 13 to say that the bible quote had been removed from the email signature and assuring FFRF that the county “does not, by administrative policy, countenance any dissemination of religious preference in its customer communications and is fully aware of the legal mandate for government neutrality in matters religious and nonreligious.”

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A University of Colorado police officer at the Colorado Springs campus removed a religious email signature after Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s Sept. 25 complaint letter to the university.
“For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer,” read the officer’s email.
The university responded Nov. 18, saying that the officer met with his supervisor, who instructed him to remove the religious signature. The university also reviewed his email account several weeks later and reported that no additional religious emails were found.

Schools turn down Mormon invite

Two public high schools in Kalispell, Mont., declined this year’s invitation to participate in a performance “celebrating the birth of our savior Jesus Christ” at a Mormon church after FFRF objected to the school’s participation last year.

“Because this event includes literally hundreds of depictions of the birth of Jesus Christ as described in the bible, school participation in this overtly religious ‘Community Christmas Celebration’ event crosses the line by creating a perception of school endorsement of the religious aspects of Christmas,” wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel on Nov. 29, 2013.

The Flathead Area Secular Humanist Association in Whitefish told FFRF that the schools’ choir directors turned down an invitation to participate this year. Often, a school district or other governmental body will make the changes FFRF requests and then fail to report the action taken, as was the case here.

FFRF is grateful to the Flathead group for the update and encourages other local complainants to be sure to let FFRF know when its letters make a difference.

Letter benches praying coaches

A public charter school has taken steps to ensure its participation in a religious sports league remains secular, pursuant to an FFRF letter.

Seashore Middle Academy in Corpus Christi, Texas, participates in the Parochial Sports League. A local complainant forwarded FFRF a photo of students and coaches participating in a prayer circle. Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the school Sept. 30 asking it to refrain from further participation in religious rituals at school events.

The school director responded Oct. 2, saying that a pregame prayer circle was a league requirement, but added that in the future, coaches would sit on the bench during prayers and that Seashore students could join coaches on the bench, stand to the side or participate in the prayer.

Gideons wear out their welcomes

The Itawamba County School District in Fulton, Miss., will not conduct bible distributions in the future. FFRF received a report that representatives from Gideons International distributed bibles at Itawamba Attendance Center to “momentarily preach the word of God” and then “asked students to raise their hands if they wanted a bible.”

Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the district superintendent Sept. 23, noting, “Even if the students are not forced to accept these bibles, the school sends a clear message to the children in its charge who are nonadherents ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community and accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.’ ”

The superintendent responded Nov. 7, saying that the district “will not facilitate the distribution of Gideon bibles to fifth graders on school grounds during school hours.”

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Cushing Public Schools, Cushing, Okla., is ending Gideon bible distribution after getting a Nov. 12 leter from Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. The Gideons had reportedly visited a fifth-grade classroom at Harrison Elementary, where they discussed the bible and passed out bibles to students.

The superintendent responded promptly two days later, writing, “Please be assured that Cushing Public Schools will no longer allow representatives of Gideons International to enter classrooms to have discussions with students or to distribute bibles to students.”

FFRF puts clamps on coach prayer

Long Beach High School in Long Beach, Miss., has ended two school-sponsored prayer rituals at football games. Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the district Sept. 26.

Traditionally, a student led a Christian prayer over the loudspeaker before every football game. In addition, the high school band, led by the drum major, recited the Lord’s Prayer before its halftime performances.

Grover noted that while student-led prayer is permissible, there was significant institutional pressure on the drum major to lead the prayer because it was “tradition.”

An attorney for the district called Grover on Nov. 17 to say that prayers would no longer be led over the loudspeaker, and that while students remained free to pray by themselves, band prayer would no longer be institutionalized.

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A coach in the Wimberley Independent School District in Texas will no longer pray with students or endorse students’ prayers. Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote Wimberley’s superintendent Sept. 25, detailing a report that Wimberley High School’s athletic director and head football coach led the team in prayer at the end of every football game, and that coaches also engaged in smaller prayer circles with players before games.

FFRF’s complainant said the letter led to the coach calling for a moment of silence right after his postgame talk to the team, after which he allegedly put his hands on the shoulders of two players, one of whom immediately led the students in prayer. Grover wrote a second letter Nov. 7.

The school’s attorney responded Nov. 17 that the coach no longer leads or participates in prayers, asks students to pray or designates a student to pray or participate in prayers. The coach was instructed to step away from student-led prayer and to tell students and parents that he neither encouraged nor discouraged prayer, said the attorney.

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Celina Independent School District in Texas will no longer permit coaches to participate in prayer circles with students. Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter to the district Nov. 13, describing a local complainant’s report of widespread coach participation in prayer circles.

An attorney for the district responded Nov. 25 to say that the district would discuss participation in prayer with staff and “provide training to ensure that employees do not participate in student-led prayer at any school-sponsored events in the future.”

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FFRF originally contacted Middletown City Schools in Ohio last spring about high school football coach Chris Wells leading students in prayer and inviting them to his church. The district assured FFRF that administrators had met with Wells and told him that his actions crossed the constitutional line.

But in September, FFRF received a report from a new complainant that Wells was again leading prayers before and after every game. Wells allegedly told players after a Sept. 19 losing game that they needed to rededicate themselves to God and ordered them to take a knee and pray. When one player refused, the coach allegedly threw him off the team.

“Coach Wells is purposefully and willfully ignoring the law and the district’s explicit directive,” wrote Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a second letter of complaint.

An attorney for the district responded in November, saying administrators reiterated to Wells that he could not “involve religion in any way in either his coaching or in his involvement with students. The athletic director was directed to monitor the situation closely.

“Should you receive any more complaints, please let me know, so that the district can investigate and take further action,” the attorney’s response said.

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Charter school ends lunch prayer

Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy’s Grammar School in Forest City, N.C., has ended teacher-led prayer and implemented a new policy on religion after a Nov. 6 complaint by Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott on behalf of a parent. A second-grade teacher led students in prayer before lunch each day.

The parent was later told the prayers would be replaced with a moment of silence, but the teacher reportedly instead called on a student to lead the prayer. Elliott noted that a moment of silence did not cure the problem because it was clearly intended for prayer.

The principal responded Dec. 1, attaching an extensive new policy the charter school’s governing board had adopted clarifying that while students remain free to pray on their own, “School administrators and teachers may not organize or encourage prayer exercises in classrooms. The right of religious expression in school does not include the right to have a captive audience listen, or to compel other students to participate.”

Religious brochures removed in Tennessee

FFRF’s complaint letter prompted prompted the Blount County Sheriff’s Office in Maryville, Tenn., to remove a box of religious brochures from the waiting room.
The brochures depicted Jesus, included a prayer and were the only brochures displayed. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert called the material inappropriate and unconstitutional in a July letter.

The county’s attorney responded Nov. 17, reporting that an investigation showed that staff had indeed placed the brochures and that they had been removed.

FFRF ousts Christ from Ala. parade

FFRF received word Dec. 1 that a city-sponsored “Keep Christ in Christmas”-themed parade meant to “reflect our strong belief in prayers” would be retitled the “City of Piedmont Christmas Parade.” An attorney for the city of Piedmont, Ala., wrote a letter notifying Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel that the parade would be renamed pursuant to FFRF’s request. FFRF sent a letter Nov. 24, challenging the unconstitutional theme on behalf of a local complainant. The theme “alienates non-Christians and others in Piedmont who do not in fact have a ‘strong belief in prayers’ by turning them into political outsiders in their own community,” wrote Seidel, explaining that a “Keep Christ in Christmas” parade was not a permissible secular Christmas celebration.

FFRF also wrote to Piedmont City Schools after the official Piedmont High School Facebook page advertised the parade. The post has since been edited to reflect the revised theme.

School won’t censor secular websites

Round Rock Independent School District in Texas unblocked several secular websites after Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the district Oct. 17 about its discriminatory policy. The district’s filtering software left sites affiliated with Catholicism, Islam and Scientology unblocked while filtering atheist sites as “alternative beliefs.”

“Schools may not ban information based on a ‘dislike of the ideas,’ ” wrote Grover. The superintendent responded Oct. 21 that the district was in the process of unblocking the sites mentioned. FFRF confirmed Nov. 14 they were unblocked.

It’s a (creationist) zoo out there

After getting an FFRF letter, Skiatook Public Schools in Oklahoma revised a Pledge of Allegiance worksheet that emphasized the phrase “under God” and decided it would no longer take students to a creationist zoo where students were taught about “God’s miracles” and the biblical flood.
It also did not include a prayer at a Veterans Day ceremony, a change from last year’s celebration.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter Oct. 30 outlining the constitutional violation. An attorney for the district responded Nov. 20, informing FFRF of the changes.

FFRF stands up for seated students

Students in the Washoe County School District in Nevada will no longer compel students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. A district parent contacted FFRF, reporting that a student was ordered to stand for the pledge and was ordered to leave class, counted absent and not allowed back into class after refusing to stand.
“Courts have reiterated over and over again that students have a constitutional right not to be forced to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance or to be compelled to stand for its recitation,” wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in an Oct. 22 letter.

The district’s general counsel replied, saying that he distributed a districtwide memo “reminding our school principals that students must not be compelled to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance or be harassed for remaining seated.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation