FFRF legal team compiles variety of successes

Proselytizing in Georgia, Minn., ended

Elementary school faculty in the Whitfield County School District, Dalton, Ga., have been instructed not to proselytize students. FFRF received a report from a parent whose Antioch Elementary kindergartner was told that Christmas was “Jesus’ birthday” and that “Jesus is the reason for the season.”

A project in the child’s class involved making a nativity scene from construction paper while the teacher read the story of the nativity. When the parent complained to the school, the solution offered was to remove the student “whenever anything religious was brought up” and to ask the parent what she would to do with the child “when they do activities for Easter.”

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a complaint letter to Superintendent Judy Gilreath on Dec. 23. Gilreath responded Jan. 5, saying that she met with the Antioch principal and “made her aware of the complaint and the legal restrictions concerning teaching of religion in a public school.” She instructed the principal to speak with the teacher who did the nativity project to “make sure she understands she is not to celebrate religious holidays with her students.”

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Minnesota School District 197 (West St. Paul, Mendota Heights and Eagan) took swift action after being alerted by Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott to a constitutionally problematic situation. Representatives from two evangelical Christian organizations, Young Life and Wyldlife, were seeking to further increase their access to middle school students.

A job description for a Young Life staff associate claimed they had been “blessed with open arms from a new administration” and were looking for a staffer to “build a foundation and significant ministry” in the schools.

“It is inappropriate for public schools to offer Young Life representatives unique access to a student audience before the school day on school property,” wrote Elliott. “While it is laudable that volunteers are willing to assist the school with monitoring students in the morning, any volunteers must not be identified as being affiliated with a religious organization and may not mention or promote their religious group activities.”

The sperintendent responded promptly, saying she met with the groups’ leader and told him they could not have a presence in the schools. “I was clear that under no circumstances may there be any recruitment of students to Young Life or Wyldlife, nor any discussion of religion or activities sponsored by Young Life or Wyldlife with our students.”

Coach warned about soliciting prayer

Olentangy High School, Lewis Center, Ohio, stopped letting staff solicit prayers at school-sponsored events after getting a Nov. 20 FFRF complaint letter from Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert. The girls cross-country team’s coach had reportedly invited a student to deliver a prayer at an end-of-season banquet.

“Prayer occurring as part of a regularly scheduled annual event sponsored or even co-sponsored by the school certainly leads ‘an objective observer, acquainted with the [prayer to] perceive it as a state endorsement,'” wrote Markert, quoting a Supreme Court case.

Superintendent Wade Lucas responded Nov. 25 that the coach’s prayer solicitation was unconstitutional. He said he would “take steps to monitor and ensure that appropriate distance is maintained by our coaches.”

City says brochure cross was careless

After getting an FFRF complaint letter, the city of Rice, Minn., will not include religious symbols on newsletters.

The city’s Spring 2014 newsletter included a cross image next to the notice that city offices would be closed Memorial Day. “Including a Christian cross with the announcement of the Memorial Day closing excludes any non-Christian or non-believing veterans. It perpetuates the myth that there are no ‘atheists in foxholes’ and that the only veterans worth memorializing are Christians,” wrote Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert.

An attorney for the city wrote back on Dec. 2, saying that the city would be careful about using religious symbols in the future.

FFRF letters clip angels’ wings

Gulf Coast Charter Academy South in Naples, Fla., removed a religious song from its repertoire after Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a complaint letter Nov. 24.
Kindergartners reportedly learned a song about a child getting lost in the woods and being saved by an angel after kneeling and praying. The chorus was something to the effect of “I believe in angels sent down from heaven.”

“The music described above has a devotional message and thus would be appropriate in a church setting but not in a public school,” Seidel wrote.

An attorney for the school responded Dec. 1: “Thank you for your concern. This matter is being addressed and the song will be removed from all classes. We are also reviewing the balance of the curriculum to ensure further compliance.”

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The Arizona Department of Economic Security has discontinued use of a religious training video. A mandatory meeting for certain employees included a video featuring a comedian who talked about dying and meeting God. Agency employees were described as “angels with big white wings.” The video included a prayer.

Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the department Nov. 17 about the illegality of the video: “As a government entity, DES has a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion.”

Training and Development Administrator Adele Cook responded Dec. 3 to say that the units using the video would immediately discontinue doing so, and “all agency training units will be directed not to use the video in the future.”

Choir cancels gig at Catholic shrine

Aberdeen High School in Washington state pulled out of the Festival of Lights at The Grotto in Portland, Ore. The Grotto is a Catholic shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The public school choir was scheduled to perform in the church. The venue charges an entrance fee, which it pockets.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter Nov. 24 to Superintendent Thomas Opstad about the inappropriateness of such participation.

Opstad responded Dec. 2 that he had looked into the matter and decided the choir would not be attending the festival.

Athletic league says no to prayer

The Marin County [Calif.] Athletic League, which includes public and private schools, will no longer allow a Catholic school to impose prayers on public school attendees. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter Feb. 25, 2014, to the Tamalpais Union High School District, which participates in the league. Justin-Siena Catholic High School, another league participant, regularly had a priest offer a prayer before home games.

League Commissioner Susie Woodall responded Dec. 3 to say that the Catholic school was now prohibited from engaging in organized prayer at events.

Calif. board votes to skip prayers

The Paso Robles [Calif.] School Board decided not to start including prayer at meetings. After learning the board was considering it, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Board President Katy Griffin, noting that the school context is different from the context of other government prayers, such as at city council meetings.

“Students and parents have the right, and often have reason, to go before or participate in school board meetings and deliberations. Fully 70 years of firm Supreme Court precedent bars religious indoctrination and rituals from public schools for the express purpose of protection of the rights of conscience of impressionable schoolchildren,” wrote Seidel.

FFRF’s complainant emailed Dec. 10 to report that the board voted Dec. 9 not to pray before meetings.

Complaint stops prayer at assembly

A teacher at Green Forest [Ark.] High School led a prayer at a Veterans Day ceremony. Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent the school district a letter Nov. 25: “While it is laudable for Green Forest High to organize an assembly to honor veterans, it is unconstitutional to allow any religious message or prayer to be part of a school-sponsored event.”

A school district attorney responded Dec. 10, saying the school had assured him none of its staff would lead a prayer at a student assembly in the future.

FFRF not answer to coach’s prayers

Anniston [Ala.] High School’s football coach will no longer organize and lead team prayers. After reading a local news report that Coach Eddie Bullock asked for a student “prayer leader,” Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Superintendent Darren Douthitt on Oct. 31.

“We have informed our coaching staff that they cannot initiate a prayer by the embers of our athletic teams. It is also our plan to remind all faculty and staff of all our schools that they cannot initiate nor [sic] participate in student prayer,” an attorney for the school district responded Nov. 17.

Oklahoma school art will be secular

Teachers in Chandler [Okla.] Public Schools will not create religious projects with their students in the future. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to the district in 2013 after learning of an auction at which two items were religious art projects created by students: a poster with a bible quote, “Blessed are the pure in heart,” and a poster that read, “Wash your hands & say your prayers cause Jesus and germs are everywhere.”

After several follow-up letters, ­Seidel received an email Nov. 20 from the new superintendent, who said he did not anticipate the recurrence of the constitutional violation.

No more graduations in church

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote the Los Gatos [Calif.] Union School District last June about R.J. Fisher Middle School’s graduation ceremony at Calvary Church.

Superintendent Diana Abbati responded Nov. 20, writing that the district would be moving 2015 graduation ceremonies to “a venue not affiliated with a religious entity.”

‘Finding Jesus’ in school no more

The new administration of Worth County Schools in Sylvester, Ga., say there’ll be no repeat of a religious assembly condoned by previous administrators. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Superintendent Barbara Thomas on Jan. 30, 2013, after receiving a complaint that an assembly included the principal prompting a student to lead a prayer followed by a speech by a pastor who talked to students about “finding Jesus Christ.”

After unproductive correspondence with Thomas, who stated that “it was the consensus of the Board [of Education] that no one’s rights would be infringed” by religious assemblies, a new superintendent, Kay Smith Mathews, eventually responded Nov. 20. She stated she could not confirm that the assembly had occurred, but said she was “most concerned about this incident” and had discussed it with the district’s principals and gave them guidelines about religion in public schools.

FFRF stands up for Nevada students

The Washoe County School District in Nevada distributed a memorandum reminding principals that students must not be compelled to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

After a student was ordered to stand for the pledge and to leave class after refusing, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter Oct. 22, 2013, reminding the district that numerous courts have consistently ruled “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.”

The school district’s attorney responded Nov. 24 that he had sent a district-wide memo about students’ right to decline participation without harassment.

No more staff-led prayer at school

Staff at the Haskins Learning Center in the Pratt [Kan.] Unified School District will no longer lead students in prayer. FFRF received a report that before a school-wide Thanksgiving lunch, the principal asked everyone to bow their heads while a teacher delivered a prayer.

After Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a complaint letter, a school district lawyer responded Dec. 18, saying he “[did] not disagree” with FFRF’s account of what happened at the lunch. “It is now acknowledged that prayer offered by staff members of a public school entity may not be appreciated by all students and parents, and it is not anticipated that this will occur in the future.”

Pole prayer limited in Alabama

Staff and church groups will not be permitted to lead religious events at Athens Elementary School in Athens, Ala. In 2013, a church group was permitted to lead a “See You At The Pole” gathering, a Christian prayer event, at the school. The school’s athletic coach reportedly led students in prayer.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent Superintendent Trey Holladay a letter Oct. 9, 2013, noting that public school employees “must refrain from actively participating in religious activities while acting within their governmental role to avoid any perception of government endorsement of religion.”

An attorney for the district responded in December, informing FFRF that no similar violations had occurred since FFRF’s letter.

Maryland DNR ends Boy Scout ties

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has ended a partnership with the Boy Scouts of America, which discriminates against atheists and agnostics, as well as LGBT adults.
The DNR previously had an annual charter agreement with the Baltimore Boy Scouts in which the DNR agreed to conduct a scouting program in accordance with the Boy Scouts’ policies. “The DNR cannot continue to sponsor this discriminatory program,” wrote Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott in a letter Sept. 24.

The DNR responded Dec. 22 that the charter agreement had expired and would not be renewed.

Gideons banned from Michigan school

Zeeland [Mich.] Public Schools will not allow Gideons to distribute bibles on school grounds in the future. After an Oct. 17 distribution, a parent informed FFRF that a teacher reportedly told students she would like each one to take a bible home.

“There is no excuse or justification for this practice. It is unnecessary, offensive and illegal,” wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover.

Assistant Superintendent Jon Voss responded Dec. 22, saying that the district would make it clear to all building administrators that “third parties without a connection to the school — like Gideons — are not allowed on school property to distribute information to our students.”

Voss also said the district would contact the Gideons directly to let them know about the ban.

Fire department deletes bible verse

The Reidville [S.C.] Fire Department removed a bible verse from its website after receiving an Oct. 17 letter from Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel.

FFRF had also objected to the department’s employment of a chaplain. The department removed a photo of the chaplain from the website’s “Members” section, while claiming the chaplain had “not been associated with our department for quite some time, thanks for your concern.”

Michigan district cuts religious music

Breitung Township Schools, Kingsford, Mich., is diversifying its music selections. A parent reported to FFRF that the district’s 2013 Christmas concert included many religious songs such as “Silent Night,” “Joyful, Joyful” and the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor in a letter Dec. 19, 2013, wrote that “No religious song gives any educational benefit to public students for which an inclusive secular alternative cannot be found.”
Superintendent Craig Allen finally responded in November, saying that the district would “ensure that there are a variety of songs from various origins to promote inclusion rather than alienation of non-Christian children.” The district also decided to refer to the concert as a holiday program instead of a Christmas program.

Ohio schools end bible handouts

Mad River Local School District and Miamisburg City Schools in Ohio are no longer hosting bible distributions. Both districts had hosted a group called “Shoes 4 the Shoeless” that held events to fit children with new shoes, then directed them to a table where they were given bibles.

The group described itself as “a faith-based nonprofit” that “include[s] a Christian New Testament in every box of shoes [they] deliver.”

Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to both districts, noting that bible distribution as part of the public school day is unconstitutional.

After FFRF followed up, both districts’ superintendents responded Jan. 15. “We no longer hold these events in any of our buildings,” said Mad River Superintendent Chad Wyen. During a subsequent visit from the group to Miamisburg City Schools, “no Bibles or New Testaments were distributed with the shoes and socks,” said Superintendent David Vail.

Freedom From Religion Foundation