FFRF letters, alerts protest mixing state, church

Foundation schools Tennessee ‘supers’

The Foundation sent educational letters in January to 132 Tennessee school superintendents reminding them that official prayer at school-sponsored events is illegal and urging districts to adhere to the law.

FFRF receives numerous complaints about prayer at athletic events in public schools. At least 10 of these complaints since October 2010 originated in Tennessee.

“It is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor or lead prayers at public high school athletic events,” wrote Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It is no defense that attendance at athletic events is voluntary. Courts have rejected arguments that voluntariness can protect a religious activity at a school function from the requirements of the First Amendment. Public school children cannot be forced to choose between their First Amendment rights and their right to participate in public school events.”

She urged superintendents to protect the freedom of conscience of all district students, parents and visitors, by reviewing their current school practices.

[Thanks to legal intern Jane Kleven for her work on this project.]

FFRF letters protest legislative prayer

Wisconsin State Assembly: The Foundation has formally put leadership in the Wisconsin State Assembly on notice that its pervasively sectarian prayers are in violation of the law. FFRF objected to the “histrionic displays of politicized religiosity” in the Assembly Chambers, and countless sermons to state legislators to act to “glorify Jesus Christ.”

Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor charged in her Jan. 26 letter to Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald: “The Wisconsin State Assembly’s practice of opening its sessions with strongly sectarian Christian prayers/sermons is an egregious violation of the Establishment Clause. These prayers/sermons are delivered by the representatives or by clergy hand-selected and endorsed by the representatives to advance their own particular Christian denominations.”

Attorney Sarah Braasch, who conducted an extensive study of the prayers for FFRF, found that 100% of representative-led prayers for the 2009-10 legislative session were Christian. All but one invoked the Christian deity, Jesus Christ, or some variant. The vast majority of clergy invited to lead prayers on behalf of representatives were also Christian and invoked Jesus. The prayers often cited biblical scripture.

FFRF also objected to the Assembly’s unlawful prayers to previous Assembly speakers in 2008 and 2009. FFRF hand-delivered its request to Fitzgerald, Speaker Pro Tempore Bill Kramer and Chief Clerk Patrick Fuller, along with extensive excerpts of the problematic prayers and a chart documenting the sectarian and overwhelmingly Christian emphasis. All members of the Assembly received a copy of the letter.

Iowa Legislature: FFRF, on behalf of its Iowa membership, has also urged the Iowa Legislature to drop prayer and reject resolutions continuing prayer in the 84th General Assembly and providing compensation to “chaplains” officiating over prayer. FFRF sent letters Jan. 7 to the president of the Senate, Jack Kibbie, to the speaker of the House of Representatives, Kraig Paulsen, as well as to other state officials and to each Senate and House member.

Local public boards: On the local level, FFRF sent a letter Jan. 13 to the El Paso County Commission in Colorado Springs, Colo., after Commissioner Peggy Littleton called for more prayer at her first meeting.

“I’d like to encourage my colleagues to have, at a minimum, prayer together every Tuesday and expand it to leaders, elected officials and citizens who would like to express their blessing over the board,” Littleton said during the Jan. 11 meeting, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette.

“Because Littleton’s appeal was not a policy item, informal agreement by at least three commissioners propelled it into motion,” the Gazette reported. “And because the commission chair has authority over agendas, it’s a done deal.”

The commission’s action, approved by new Chairwoman Amy Lathen, brought FFRF’s letter on behalf of an El Paso County resident. Co-President Dan Barker noted that government prayer is “unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive. Calling upon commissioners and citizens to rise and pray (even silently) is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of secular county government,” Barker said. “Commissioners are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. They do not need to worship on taxpayers’ time.”

Prayer complaints were also sent in January to Marshfield, Wis.; Clarksville, Tenn.; Live Oak, Fla.; Connersville, Ind.; Broken Arrow, Okla.; Tulsa, Okla. (second letter); and Yakima, Wash. (second letter).

FFRF continues to rock Christian fort

FFRF sent a second letter Jan. 25 protesting U.S. Army involvement in the evangelical “Rock the Fort” festival to the commanding general at Fort Bragg, N.C. The letter objects to “pervasive abuses and inappropriate expenditures” related to Rock the Fort, uncovered by a Freedom of Information Act request to the Army made by the Foundation, received on Jan. 11.

The Foundation first objected last Sept. 21 to the Sept. 25 festival which was sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association and Fort Bragg’s Religious Support Office.

“While we do not feel we received a complete response to our FOIA request, a number of documents reveal a high degree of impermissible Army aid to Rock the Fort,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

Disclosed Army expenditures for Rock the Fort appeared to total $52,475.80, but FFRF estimates the undisclosed personnel costs to be much higher.

A “Memoranda of Instruction” document shows that various departments at Fort Bragg were responsible for a majority of the tasks to organize and host “Rock the Fort.” The fort event action officer alone was assigned 12 tasks, while the Billy Graham Evangelical Association was only responsible for four duties.

The “budget” document shows Army organizers apparently spent $6,450 of public money on food. Hotel rooms for 39 “guests” cost taxpayers $7,168, and “escort vans” for artists cost $1,360. Apparently, one “worship service leader” was given a $1,500 honorarium. Fort Bragg spent over $12,000 on advertising. Thousands of dollars were apparently spent on Christian T-shirts, a climbing rock wall, children’s activities and Graham ministry DVDs.

The Billy Graham Evangelical Association, with reported net assets in 2008 of $171.5 million, is clearly not in need of taxpayer subsidy, charged Gaylor.

“It is a misuse of taxpayer money to aid any Christian ministry,” said Gaylor. “But it shows grossly misplaced fiscal decision-making on the part of Fort Bragg to subsidize an event put on by a multimillion dollar evangelical ministry. What a boondoggle!”

A freethinking soldier is organizing a “Rock Beyond Belief” festival, planned for April, to counter Rock the Fort and to test whether the Army will lend its support to a festival celebrating nonbelief. Speakers tentatively include Richard Dawkins and FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, among others.

In response to FFRF’s initial letter, Fort Bragg Commanding Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick wrote that he is “willing to provide similar support to comparable events sponsored by similar non-Federal entities that address the needs of the Soldiers on this Installation.”

Gaylor’s Jan. 25 response: “Our preference is for Fort Bragg to refrain from hosting any religious (or nonreligious) events of this nature, as beyond the constitutional limitations and purview of the Army. However, given your earlier response and the Army’s repeated sectarian advancement of evangelical Christianity, it would appear incumbent that Fort Bragg must now offer the equivalent support and assistance to an alternative nonreligious event.”

FFRF has filed an FOIA appeal for more records and clarification of where all the money came from.

Virginia district bows to pressure

The Giles County School Board in Pearisburg, Va., voted 5-0 on Jan. 20 to reinstall the Ten Commandments next to the U.S. Constitution in displays in the district’s six buildings. The administration had removed the religious text from the 4-foot-tall displays in December on advice of legal counsel after getting an FFRF complaint on behalf of a local resident.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote a Dec. 8 letter to Superintendent Terry Arbogast. Elliott cited Stone v. Graham (SCOTUS 1980). Arbogast replied Dec. 17 that the district would remove the Commandments and replace them with “another historical document” during the Christmas break. That didn’t sit well with district patrons, who convinced the board to reverse the removal.

According to the Roanoke Times, Baptist Pastor Shahn Wilburn was instrumental in getting the biblical displays mounted after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Colorado.

“It is so disheartening to see public officials in Virginia — the state that produced Madison and Jefferson — directly flout the law and violate the constitutionally required separation between religion and government,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The preeminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature.”

Gaylor invited parents with children in Giles County Public Schools who might consider serving as plaintiffs to contact FFRF at 608-256-8900 or [email protected]. Identities of plaintiffs can be protected.

“I commend Superintendent Arbogast for respecting the law and the rights of conscience of schoolchildren. Shame on the Giles County School Board for flouting clear Supreme Court precedent! A school board should not be teaching disrespect for the Constitution. Religious dogma and doctrine do not belong on schoolhouse walls,” Gaylor said.

Texas choir director yearns for Jesus

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott objected by letter Jan. 14 on behalf of a Texas complainant to a choir director leading students in prayer at Tascosa High School in the Amarillo School District.

“Our complainant informs us that Mr. Talley is known to have in-class prayers. It is our information and understanding that each Friday, Mr. Talley’s students sing ‘The Lord Bless You and Keep You.’ We are told that it is often sung with students holding hands and heads bowed. We also understand that prior to competitions, Mr. Talley asks the students to bow their heads and then leads them in prayer.”

The director is also alleged to have held a Sunday worship service at a Holiday Inn in Dallas for students who attended a choir competition last March.

Alabama gov ‘friends’ Christians only

The Foundation objected by letter after newly sworn Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley told a Baptist congregation Jan. 17: “Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.”

“These comments are divisive and exclude non-Christians and nonbelievers from their own government and communities,” wrote Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Governor Bentley is the top executive of Alabama, not the top preacher. He governs by the authority ­— not of Jesus — but of our entirely secular and godless Constitution.”

Members were asked to contact Bentley, who later apologized after receiving a storm of negative publicity. His “if-based” apology was classic: “If anyone from other religions felt disenfranchised by the language, I want to say I am sorry. I am sorry if I offended anyone in any way.”

If, on the other hand, you weren’t offended, he said nothing wrong.

Solstice sign went up in Mississippi

FFRF requested and received a permit to place a large Winter Solstice sign at the Mississippi Capitol in Jackson to counter a life-size nativity scene erected at the urging of Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and the 9/11 Remembrance Foundation to “honor our troops.”

Bryant told a reporter, “Recognizing our troops at Christmas, praying for our troops, I think it’s a perfect fit.”

Members were asked Dec. 21 to write Bryant to ask him to show respect for nonbelievers — including atheists in foxholes — for those of minority faiths and for the secular U.S. Constitution.

It was noted that FFRF would gladly remove its sign if religious displays were kept out of the State Capitol.

We pick ‘distant, uncaring farce’

USA Weekend magazine headlined its Dec. 19 cover “How Americans Imagine GOD.” The word “GOD,” against a yellow backdrop similar to rays of sun and topped with what looked like a halo, was written with the words readers supposedly submitted about who or what they think god is. The biggest words visible: love, creator, soul, universal. Can you say fluff piece right before Christmas?

The article asked, will “Americans, in the face of unemployment, home foreclosures, two wars and an uncertain economic future, describe the Almighty as a wrathful, cold critic of our failings, or maybe a distant, uncaring force?” The article and the response from readers overwhelmingly gave “god” credit for all life’s good things — love, goodness, peace, “brotherhood.”

Writer Cathy Lynn Grossman, a religion reporter for USA Today, claimed that 5% of those who chimed in were nonbelievers. Aside from that brief mention, nonbelievers (and Muslims) were excluded from the story. However, 15% of Americans identify as nonreligious (ARIS 2008).

FFRF asked members to use their nonbelieving voices to let Grossman and USA Weekend readers know they don’t believe in a god, and that readers are literally “imagining” a god, since there is no evidence of one.

Muslim prayer time protested in school

The Foundation sent a letter Jan. 3 following up on an earlier complaint about Edison High School, Edison, N.J., facilitating Friday prayer times in the school gym for Muslim students.

FFRF Senior Attorney Rebecca Markert’s initial letter, last October, noted the principal’s September memo to all staff regarding Friday prayer called Jummah or Jumu’ah. (A new memo, with later calendar dates added, went out in November.)

Markert wrote, “Our complainant informs us that some of the Muslim students ‘have been granted permission to perform their Friday prayers during rotating periods, 10, 11, 12.’ We further understand that these students are excused from these periods for 15 minutes in order to pray. It is also our information and understanding that these students are granted access to the high school auditorium for their prayers.”

The district responded negatively Nov. 1 to FFRF’s request that the practice stop.

“Given the history of this practice, we believe the Friday prayer practice will continue during 2011,” Markert’s second letter said. “Edison High School violates the Establishment Clause each time Muslim students are released from their normal classroom obligations to pray in the school auditorium.”

FFRF protests kindergarten blessing

FFRF sent a letter of complaint Dec. 6 to the Giles County Board of Education in Pulaski, Tenn., about a constitutional violation at Pulaski Elementary, where a local complainant’s kindergarten student came home singing:

“Oh, the Lord’s been good to me.

And so I thank the Lord

For giving me the things I need:

The sun, the rain and the appleseed;

Oh, the Lord’s been good to me.”

The song, sometimes titled “Johnny Appleseed Grace,” is in the genre of Christian prayer songs and is often sung as a table blessing.

“We ask that you commence an immediate investigation into this allegation and take prompt action to halt prayers occurring at public schools in your district,” wrote Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney. “It is well settled that a public school teacher may not lead, direct or ask her students to engage in prayer, even if it’s delivered in the form of a song.”

Preserving nation’s secular motto

The Congressional Prayer Caucus, headed by Rep. Randy Forbes, R.-Va., chastised President Obama in December for praising America’s original motto, “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of Many, One) during a speech in Indonesia. In his letter, Forbes ignorantly wrote Obama that E Pluribus Unum (originally chosen by a committee of Franklin, Adams and Jefferson) is not the national motto. Forbes insisted “In God We Trust” is the motto. In fact, both are national mottos, and E Pluribus Unum still appears on the Great Seal of the United States and on U.S. currency. The godly motto was unfortunately adopted after a religious lobbying campaign during the Red Scare in 1956.

FFRF sent a Dec. 7 Action Alert to encourage members to educate Forbes and the 41 congressional co-signers of the letter that showed a total disregard for the constitutional principle of state-church separation. Members were also encouraged to write or phone the White House to express thanks for recognizing America’s secular heritage and to write letters to the editor of their local papers.

FFRF protests many, many religious displays

FFRF got 50 inquiries about religious displays on public property during the last holiday season and sent 32 letters of complaint, several of which are still pending. Letters, sometimes more than one, went to:

Venango, Pa.; Brookville, Ind. (multiple letters to Town Council and County Commission); Gladwin County, Mich.; Whitehall, Ohio; Waltham, Mass.; Hawkins County, Tenn.; Altoona, Wis.; Paducah, Ky.; Cove Lake State Park, Tenn.; Prineville, Ore.; Canonsburg, Pa.; Smithton, Ill.; Cincinnati, Ohio; San Fernando, Calif.; Ellwood City, Pa.; Frankenmuth, Mich.; Eureka Springs, Ark.; Milwaukee County, Wis.; Addyston, Ohio; Wabash County, Ind.; Port Edwards, Wis.; Burlington, Mass.; Cheboygan County, Mich.; Whiteville, Tenn.; Breckenridge, Colo.; City University of New York (Hunter College); Wabash, Ind.; and Tempe, Ariz. (Hayden Butte Preserve).

FFRF asked for members’ help Dec. 21 after sending a letter to the mayor of Marion, Ill., objecting to two large nativity scenes, complete with loud religious music and other religious displays, prominently displayed on city property. A manger scene was placed inside City Hall in picture windows facing the front of the building.

A couple had asked to put up a Wiccan display for the Dec. 21 celebration of Yule, but the mayor turned it down. “The mayor and local papers need to hear from voices of reason who believe in upholding the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. Let them know you disagree with religious displays on government property. Suggest they move the displays to private grounds,” the Foundation recommended.

No honor among these thieves

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott calls this Canonsburg, Pa., situation “Christians on their worst behavior.”

FFRF was contacted by a member in Canonsburg and other Pennsylvania members about a nativity display that has been placed by the Knights of Columbus in front of the Canonsburg Borough building for years. It was temporarily removed from government property in early December after another resident, Meagan Hartley, complained.

Hartley reported she received threats for her complaint. On Dec. 13, the Canonsburg Borough Council voted 9-0 to again erect the nativity scene. On Dec. 16, FFRF requested the rules or procedures for citizens to place displays on public property under the state’s Right-to-Know Law. Borough Manager Terry Hazlet responded saying that no policy existed but that the borough was formulating a policy that would allow other displays.

A local group put up a sign Dec. 22 that included a large “A” and read, “Canonsburg Atheists & Agnostics — Have a safe and secular season.”

Within 24 hours, the sign was stolen.

Empire State owner wouldn’t knuckle under

Anthony Malkin, owner of the Empire State Building, was named one of 2010’s “Knuckleheads of the Year” by the New York Daily News on Jan. 1 for refusing to light the building in blue and white for Mother Teresa’s birthday last August. Instead of caving to major pressure from Catholic groups and those unaware of the “unsaintly” side of Mother Teresa, Malkin decided to light the building to commemorate the 90th anniversary of ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women suffrage.

An Action Alert asked for letters to the Daily News editor to object to calling Malkin a “knucklehead” and to support him for honoring feminists instead of an anti-choice “saint” who opposed birth control. 

‘Happy Holidays’ makes Florida senator grumpy

State Sen. Gary Siplin introduced a resolution to recognize “Merry Christmas” as the state of Florida’s “official greeting” for Dec. 25. The resolution stated, in part, “WHEREAS, many Christians and non-Christians throughout the United States and the rest of the world celebrate Christmas as a time to cherish and serve others. . .”

Siplin said, according to the St. Petersburg Times, “When I go through the stores people say, ‘Happy Holidays,’ but we all know why people exchange gifts. We all know it’s going to be Christmas, Jesus’ birth, on Saturday. Why not say ‘Merry Christmas’ for that day and not camouflage it?”

FFRF’s Jan. 6 Action Alert said, “If you are offended by this Christian-promoting resolution, please send a brief, polite message to Senator Siplin objecting to adopting ‘Merry Christmas’ as the official state greeting.”

Sign up for FFRF e-releases and action alerts at: ffrf.org/signup/news

Freedom From Religion Foundation