FFRF making a scene about nativity displays pays off

Persistence pays off

FFRF Lifetime Members Maria and Edward Susterich were initially stopped by security from bringing FFRF’s sign into the Milwaukee courthouse in December. The sign was temporarily confiscated. After further discussion, the facilities management director allowed it to be placed in a “free-form display area” that required no permit.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott had contacted the county in advance to seek approval. FFRF also wrote a letter of complaint in 2010 to the Milwaukee County Board protesting the devotional display in the lobby every December. Then-County Executive Scott Walker helped private individuals first place the crèche in the rotunda in 2009. FFRF’s letter went unanswered.


In December, FFRF renewed its complaint from 2010 over the Ellwood City, Pa., nativity scene that was annually placed in front of the Ellwood City municipal building. In response to FFRF’s complaint and potential litigation, the Borough Council voted 4-2 to remove the nativity display from government property for future years.

The favorable conclusion was surprising given that the community held a large rally earlier in the month to keep the display. Initially, officials invited FFRF to send its Winter Solstice banner to be placed near the nativity. FFRF sent the banner, but the offer to place it was rescinded.

At a Dec. 19 council meeting, Borough Attorney Edward Leymaire presented the board with the two options: keep the display and include the FFRF banner or maintain the display this year and move it to private property next year. The council voted to move the display in 2012 and all future years. Council President Anthony DeCarbo voted in favor of moving the nativity to private property because, “We took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and of the state of Pennsylvania.”

Mayor Anthony Court disagreed with the decision and attempted to rescind the vote. About 100 people attended the Jan. 10 meeting to support putting the display back on borough property, but the council refused to revote. Councilwoman Judith Dici said, “The vote is done and over with. Let’s look toward 2012.”

FFRF was inundated with complaints in December from citizens objecting to nativity displays at courthouses, city parks and even in school buildings. FFRF sent more than 25 letters of complaint about displays last holiday season. In other instances, FFRF attorneys requested records from local governments to learn their display policies.

“Challenges to these longstanding traditions that violate the Constitution can take time to resolve,” noted Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott. Several municipalities that received FFRF complaints about nativity displays in both 2010 and 2011 came to either remove them or now allow all displays, including FFRF signage.


Pa. district agrees to abide by law

In September 2010, a student complained to FFRF about prayer before Cornwall-Lebanon School District board meetings in Lebanon, Pa. Prayers were most often Christian in nature.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to the district, informing them “it is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule prayer as part of its monthly meetings.” Markert cited a strong case from the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education), which struck down prayers at school board meetings as violative of the First Amendment.

In response, the board refused to change its practice, opting to instead wait to see how the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled on a similar case, Doe v. Indian River School District. In August, the 3rd Circuit ruled against the school district.

FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt followed up with a Nov. 15 letter to Cornwall-Lebanon, noting the decision in Doe v. Indian River. On Nov. 30, 2011, school attorneys confirmed that “there has been no prayer at the beginning of any subsequent public School Board meetings. Cornwall-Lebanon School District is abiding by this Third Circuit decision.”


FFRF ‘goes Grinch’ on Texas violation

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott’s Dec. 14 letter to the South Texas Independent School District in Mercedes about a proselytizing teacher resulted in action by the district, including an investigation of the teacher.

According to FFRF’s complainant, a physics teacher at South Texas Science Academy put up a nativity scene in his classroom for “people of my faith, fellow Christians.” He also put up a “Grinch Who Stole Christmas” display for “every other religion, people who aren’t Christians,” according to the complainant.

The grade 9-12 academy is part of the school district and is geared to students pursuing careers in science, technology and engineering.

Elliott wrote, “It should go without saying that, if the allegations are founded, it is highly inappropriate for a public school teacher to demean a student’s religious beliefs or lack of belief by likening them to a cartoon villain. [The teacher]’s alleged statements and these displays exceed not only the bounds of courtesy, but also the bounds of the First Amendment.”

Two days later, FFRF received a letter from the school district’s attorney, advising that “the referenced displays have been removed from the classroom and appropriate directives have been conveyed that protect religious freedoms.” Furthermore, “[w]hile the outcome of the investigation is confidential,” the district was investigating the allegations against the teacher.

A solid victory for the Constitution.


FFRF ends prayer in Carolina school

Clifdale Elementary School in Glendale, S.C., will no longer schedule prayer during assemblies.

District residents complained to FFRF after learning that a child was asked by school officials to lead the school in a prayer at a Nov. 11 Veteran’s Day ceremony. In a Nov. 17 letter to Clifdale Superintendent Jim Ray, Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt responded to this gross violation of the First Amendment and exploitation of an elementary school student.

The school district’s legal counsel replied Dec. 8: “Dr. Ray is aware of the prohibitions on such prayers at school-sponsored events and has met with the principal of Clifdale to make certain that there is no misunderstanding about proper protocol in the future, such as having a student offer a moment of silence.”


FFRF work made settlement possible

The Chesterfield County School District board, Chesterfield, S.C., voted 6-3 Jan. 12 night to adopt a settlement agreement to end the practice of school-sponsored prayer, preaching and religious activities aimed at students.

The agreement, subject to court review, would end a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of South Carolina on behalf of a student and his father who objected to religious activities at New Heights Middle School in Jefferson and at other district schools.

The violations first came to light publicly in 2011 due to the efforts of FFRF, which worked with several local complainants in preparing letters protesting the activities. The violations included a Sept. 1 school assembly featuring Christian Chapman, a preacher and evangelist, and Christian rap artist B-SHOC, The initial letter Sept. 19 by Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert was followed by several other formal complaints pointing out constitutional violations, along with Freedom of Information Act requests.

The district canceled a student assembly featuring a presentation by a faith-based drug rehabilitation center after Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt’s Oct. 17 letter on behalf of a local complainant. The assembly was set for Oct. 27 at New Heights Middle School.

The district also responded to an FFRF open records request for the lease agreement and fee schedule for B-SHOC’s performance at McBee High School on Oct. 28, a staff development, no-student day. The school leased the gym, canteen and restrooms for $210 ($15 an hour), from noon to 2 a.m.


FFRF displaces Illinois Baby Jesus song

The Sandburg Elementary School’s winter concert in Wheaton, Ill., will no longer feature at least one Christian song.

Before FFRF’s Dec. 2 complaint, Sandburg Elementary hosted a musical program in November at which children performed the Christian tune “There Was a Little Baby” (“They laid him in a manger, oh my Lord.”)

District parents were concerned that sectarian songs were being taught in a public school by a public school teacher. FFRF wrote to Superintendent Brian Harris, calling attention to the constitutional violation.

On Dec. 27, Harris responded: “Please know that the song in question was pulled from the program before the performance and replaced with a secular song choice. This piece of music will not be used again.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation