It Pays to Complain: July 2010

Kindergarten prayer stopped in Goldsboro, N.C.

Imagine, as a freethinker, your kindergartner coming home from her public school singing, “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.” Then, after your daughter tells you that her class sings it every day before going to lunch, you talk to school officials, one of whom later has your daughter stand in the hall the next time the class sings it.

That’s what happened to a mother in Goldsboro, N.C., who reported the violation to FFRF, prefacing the complaint by saying she doesn’t discuss religion with her daughter, “as I have decided to wait until she is older and enable her to form her own beliefs and choose her own path.” The situation “has me worried, angry and feeling pretty helpless,” she wrote.

She’d visited with an unsympathetic principal, who said she’d talk to the teacher. On the way out of the school, the child’s teacher’s aide was encountered, who said, “We’ll have her step outside when we do it.”

The teacher, new to North Carolina, was sympathetic and said pre-lunch prayer seemed to be a school-wide tradition and one that was her aide’s idea, not the teacher’s, especially since she wasn’t usually in class right before lunch. “She did not think that alienating and ostracizing my child was the right thing to do.”

But it happened, and the girl was made to stand alone in the hallway, she told her mom, but didn’t know why. “I did not feel it was right to discuss this with her; she’s only 6 years old and doesn’t understand.”

After FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert had finished the draft of a letter on this very obvious breach of the Constitution and common sense to the Wayne County Public Schools superintendent (whom the parent had also called), the mom wrote to say that the assistant superintendent had called her. Her daughter’s teacher verified that the superintendent visited the school to meet with staff and issued warning letters.

“He apologized for this situation, and then the principal and teachers apologized as well and said it would not happen again,” the mother wrote. “My daughter’s class did not pray today. All in all, I think I accomplished all that I intended.”

It can be hard for people to come forward in their communities with this type of complaint, Markert said. “We encourage our members to speak out because public officials are apt to listen more closely to their constituents.”

FFRF halts church ‘field trip’

Taking public school students to a Nazarene church to hear a bible story violates state-church separation, even if the school calls it “release time” instead of a field trip, the Foundation said in a complaint to Maple Leaf Intermediate School in Garfield Heights, Ohio. The complaint forced the school district to cancel its illegal “field trip” to a church during school hours.

The case goes back to 2007, when FFRF first complained on behalf of a local resident. The complaint was re–newed in 2008 and 2009. This was at least the fourth-straight year the field trip was scheduled.

On its website, the Church of the Nazarene says it’s “a Great Commission church. . . . ‘To make Christlike disciples in the nations’ is the new seven-word statement of mission.”

Patrick Elliott, FFRF staff attorney, wrote to Superintendent Linda Reid on May 20: “It is our understanding that the school has promoted such visits as bible story programs. We received information that the programs incorporate proselytizing of the students and ask that they accept Jesus Christ as their savior.”

A parental permission slip for the trips scheduled for May 26-27 called them a “release time activity.” Initially, FFRF’s complainant said, times were set up during the school day for all fourth and fifth graders to attend. Things changed after FFRF’s complaint letter.

On May 26, an e-mail went to staff that said the church visits were postponed due to “scheduling conflicts.” The school later confirmed to Elliott that a church visit occurred after school on June 2.

The Foundation has sent a follow-up letter to the school to determine what public resources were used in arranging and carrying out the after-school trip to the church.
Bible gifts nixed in Alabama schools

Fourth-grade students at Forest Hills Elementary in Florence, Ala., came home from school last December with Christmas stockings that included bibles. The Foundation wrote a letter of complaint June 4 on behalf of a parent who had first contacted an Alabama humanist group several months ago. The school principal denies getting the initial complaint and a follow-up letter.

FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert noted that federal courts have uniformly ruled that bible distribution to students at public schools during instructional time is prohibited: When that occurs, elementary schoolchildren are given the “impression that the school endorse[s] a particular religious belief: Christianity.”

Schools cannot allow teachers or other school officials to give students “holy books” as gifts, Markert said, because that places an official “stamp of approval” on religious messages.

In a June 6 reply to FFRF, Superintendent Kendry Behrends said the teacher “will be notified this week of her wrongdoing. It will be requested in writing that she cease and desist the distribution of any religious materials or any discussion of religion unless it abides by the State of Alabama approved courses of study that cover religion. She will also be given professional literature to read that is designed for educators, whereby her responsibilities are made clear regarding the separation of church and state.”

In a Florence Times Daily news story June 9, the teacher, Debbie Reynolds, said parent helpers were responsible: “Homeroom mothers help us tremendously with these parties, as was the case here, and one of the children brought bibles for the class as a Christmas gift,” she said.

“I saw the bibles and looked inside and there was nothing stamped such as a church affiliation. I didn’t think another thing about it.”
While the superintendent laudably took action, said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, the official complained that the parent should have contacted her right away and she’d have taken care of it.

Gaylor said that public officials may not understand why people don’t complain directly to schools or other agencies, especially if they’re unsure of their rights or whether the law is being violated.

“Going against the grain when you’re in the minority isn’t easy, particularly when it may stigmatize your children,” Gaylor said. “People don’t always feel free to speak up, and there’s no guarantee your anonymity will be maintained when you do inquire. That’s why people come to us to work on their behalf.”

Exeter, Calif. graduation prayers stopped

The Foundation joined other secular groups in successfully stopping illegal prayer at graduation at Exeter Union High School.

A moment of silence replaced prayer at the June 4 commencement. School district trustees voted 3-0 on June 1 to eliminate student-led prayer.

The Foundation opposed the prayer in a letter and sent an action alert to members in the Exeter-Visalia area ahead of a trustees’ meeting.
Prayer opponents at the meeting included two former students and two current ones with signs that said “God Hates Showoffs” and “God Says No Prayer,” reported the Visalia Times-Delta.

Trustees had voted earlier to cancel the prayer, but then decided to ask the 221 seniors to illegally “vote” on the constitutional matter. Seniors voted but the votes were never counted and won’t be, school officials said.

Why the school decided to let students vote is puzzling, said Rebecca Markert, staff attorney. “The Supreme Court has settled this matter — high school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students.”

Dan Barker, FFRF co-president, said for the school district to ignore the law and instead let students vote was an illegal copout. “Passing the buck on a legal issue like this was rather cowardly. The adults are supposed to be in charge of schools.”

Not everyone observed the moment of silence, the Times-Delta reported. Some people recited the Lord’s Prayer instead and shouted “Praise God!” afterward.

Teens in Va. spared mandatory preaching

FFRF received a complaint from a parent about the Chesterfield County, Va., Juvenile Detention Home, where officials let a local church group visit each week and preach to the residents, including those who don’t want to be preached at.

Patrick Elliott, FFRF staff attorney, wrote the head of the 90-bed facility May 4: “Any teens not participating are able to hear everything said during the service. Our complainant informs us that his son heard discussion by the group of the ‘fact’ that nonbelievers would burn in hell. It is also our understanding that the church group makes a point to address those not participating.

“We were also provided with information that people affiliated with the Chester Christian Church participate in arts and crafts activities on some weekdays. We are unaware of any protections that the Detention Home has in place to prevent proselytizing during this time.”

Stylian Parthemos, senior assistant county attorney, wrote back May 12 that as a result of FFRF’s letter, a new policy was in the works. “This policy will ensure that no resident of the Home will be exposed to the services unless he voluntarily chooses to participate, and will include measures to ensure that residents who do not wish to participate are separated physically from the services, in areas where they can engage in activities of their choice.”

Procedures were already in place to ensure separation, Parthemos claimed.

It’s interesting, Elliott said, that on the first visit after the changes, the church group asked for a “vote” to see how many juveniles wanted to attend a “preaching session.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation