FFRF Legal Victories June July 2011

FFRF letter stops kindergarten prayer

In May, FFRF was alerted by a Pulaski, Tenn., resident that “kindergarten graduation” at Pulaski Elementary featured a two-minute prayer by a Church of Christ minister who offered it “in Jesus’ name.” It was the second complaint FFRF received in a year about violations at Pulaski Elementary. In December, FFRF complained about kindergartners being instructed to sing the religious song “Johnny Appleseed Grace” as a lunch blessing.

On May 26, FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to Tee Jackson, Director of Schools in Giles County, requesting an end to prayer at all graduations. Markert wrote, “The graduating kindergarten children, as young as 5, who have previously been taught prayer by their teachers and are again subjected to religious ritual on their big graduation day, cannot possibly be able to discern that the school district does not endorse the religious messages embodied in the graduation prayer.”

Jackson responded June 6, “We do not expect this circumstance in the future.”

Bible distribution nixed in Indiana

After FFRF was alerted that Gideon bibles were being given to fifth-graders at McCormick’s Creek Elementary in Spencer, Ind., Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote a letter May 23 to Spencer-Owen Community Schools Superintendent Greg Linton: “When a school distributes religious literature to its students, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message, in this case a Christian message.”

On June 2, the school’s attorney, Jack Woodruff, responded that students, supervised by teachers, had been allowed off school property during recess to receive bibles. Woodruff said Linton had “communicated in writing to his entire administrative team, that the facilitation of bible distribution to school students on school grounds is strictly forbidden.”

Woodruff continued, “In addition, Mr. Linton has taken it upon himself to make contact with the local director of Gideons International to advise him that their bible distribution to public school students is in violation of the law and that Spencer-Owen Community Schools will not be complicit in their distribution.”

Elliott noted, “We do not have any firsthand information that contradicts the superintendent’s account of how the distribution occurred; the complainant did not witness the distribution. In any case, the district responded quickly and appropriately.”

FFRF gets highway Easter cross removed

A complaint in April about a Christian cross on the Interstate 43 right of way near Cedarburg, Wis., led Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott to contact the state DOT’s Bureau of Highway Maintenance. A cross had also been put there last year at Easter time.

The state agency responded April 28: “[It] will be or has been taken down today, to be held for a short time in a county shop for the owner to claim should the owner wish to pay for the cost of removal. We would like to notify the owner of the cross that nothing may legally be affixed to a highway right of way fence, but we do not know who owns and places the cross. Without that information, we cannot prevent a recurrence of this incident. Also, the state’s highways are patrolled less frequently than in the past due to reduced resources, which means that illegal signs and objects remain for longer periods of time.”

History won’t start with Adam, Eve

In April, FFRF received a complaint from a Glendale, Ariz., resident about religious displays in Glendale Union High School classrooms. A history teacher had displayed a timeline of world history which started with Adam and Eve and said, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” In the same school, a picture of Jesus and the Ten Commandments hung on the wall of a language arts classroom, where the teacher kept a bible on his desk.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote a letter of complaint to Superintendent Jennifer Johnson, reminding her that “Courts have continually held that school districts may not display religious messages or iconography on the walls of public schools.”

After FFRF followed up on May 25, Johnson responded May 31 to say that the displays had been taken down. Johnson said she had directed the principal to “have a conversation with the two teachers involved and directing them to remove the questionable materials.”

She added that she wished the complainant had followed district protocol by objecting directly to school administrators instead of going through FFRF. “We can resolve issues more quickly and more efficiently when handled closest to the source of the concern.”

Local officials all too often don’t appreciate the potential for vitriol to be directed at people who inquire whether the law is being broken, said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “We see it time and time again — word somehow gets out that ‘so and so’ objected, and then they’re subject to retribution by their teachers or harassment by the classmates. There’s nothing wrong at all with the cloak of anonymity in these instances. Either the law is being followed or it isn’t.”

Mayor: Rub FFRF’s nose in complaint

The City Council in Prineville, Ore., voted May 24 to end city sponsorship of a Christmas crèche. FFRF received a complaint from a Prineville member in December about the nativity scene, traditionally set up at the entrance to City Hall. FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a letter Dec. 13 asking that the display not be put up. The city ignored the request.

According to a May 25 story in the Central Oregonian, the city council voted 5-2 to hand over sponsorship of the project to the private sector. Prineville Mayor Betty Roppe stated the decision was intended to avoid lawsuits or further legal complaints. “It is time to accept our obligations to the citizens of Prineville — they want the nativity scene. But we also have a fiduciary responsibility to our citizens to not waste taxpayers’ money on lawsuits.”

Meeting attendees expressed strong discontent with the decision. Roppe told them to fight back in another way. “I think all of you, and us — anybody who wants to be involved — can make our holiday season in our community so big, so wonderful that we rub their noses in it.”

‘Belief in God’ expires in Ohio

In another chapter in a successful struggle for nonbelievers in the Lake Local School District in Uniontown, Ohio, the School Board left “belief in God” out of the new statement of values it adopted June 20. FFRF started battling the district in 2009 on the issue, which raised a lot of hackles locally.

The board eventually dropped the phrase but didn’t “officially” remove it until now, said FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert. The closest the new statement gets to any “higher power” is a goal to develop programs and partnerships “in the areas of mental, spiritual and financial health.”

FFRF helps stop Ten Commandments

After the Louisiana House of Representatives voted 91-0 on June 6 to erect a Ten Commandments monument at the Capitol in Baton Rouge, FFRF sent an Action Alert to members June 10 to “Keep the State Capitol secular!” The alert made the point that it’s a dishonest sham to claim that the monument was a legitimate display of U.S. legal history rather than a religious display. The bill had passed after a mere 30-second introduction and no discussion.

On June 15, a Senate committee voted 5-2 to defer the House bill, effectively killing it. Some members of the committee predicted the display would lead to lawsuits. “These are tight times. I’d rather spend money on services than litigation,” said Sen. Lydia Jackson, D-Shreveport.

God credit removed from park tree

A religious label has been removed from a tree in Whitnall Park in Milwaukee County, Wis., after FFRF sent a letter of complaint in November. An area member contacted FFRF with photos of the label, which read: “Richard A. Kietzmann, Regional Manager. Only God can create a tree.”

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert noted in her letter that it’s illegal for a public employee to nail a religious message to a tree in a public park.

On May 18, the Parks Administration responded: “The plaque has now been removed.”

FFRF schools Tenn. teacher on prayer

After receiving a high school student’s complaint in April, FFRF stopped illegal prayer in a classroom in Lenoir City, Tenn. The student at Lenoir City High School told FFRF that an algebra teacher was leading students in prayer before their final exams.

After Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a letter of objection, Superintendent Wayne Miller responded on May 5 that the teacher had been informed of the law against classroom prayer, that she had apologized in writing, and that Miller had taken steps to inform all district staff of the illegality of classroom prayer.

Football chaplain out after FFRF letter

After FFRF’s complaint, the football team at West High School in Knoxville, Tenn., will no longer have a volunteer chaplain. In December, FFRF was alerted by an area member that Rev. Graham Schulyer, a priest at Apostles Anglican Church, was serving as team chaplain. The complainant sent a copy of a local news article about the team’s religious inclinations.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert contacted the Knox County Schools superintendent and the West High School principal, informing them of the constitutional violation: “A public high school football team should not employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team, or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain.”

On May 3, the Knox County Law Director’s Office responded: “West High School football team will not have a volunteer chaplain in the future. By policy, Knox County Schools neither advances nor inhibits religion.”

Faith disappears from city website

The city of Grandville, Mich., removed religious language from its website after receiving a complaint from FFRF. The website included a list of community values adopted in 2000, including “Faith, being guided by a strong religious heritage.”

“Incorporating a proclamation of shared religious belief into the values of a municipality is inappropriate,” wrote Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a March letter. “By implying that belonging to the Grandville community requires adherence to ‘religious heritage’ and valuing ‘faith,’ Grandville is compromising the First Amendment rights of its citizens.”

Mayor James Buck responded May 4: “As of the date of this letter, the city of Grandville has complied with your request and the city’s website no longer contains a page listing the community values, including one referencing faith.”

Town settles with ACLU on prayer

The Point Beach [N.J.] Borough Council voted June 21 to pay $11,200 in lawyer’s fees to the American Civil Liberties Union, which battled the borough over its former policy of opening meetings with the Lord’s Prayer. Only one nay vote was cast.

“I’m glad it’s done,” said Sharon Cadalzo, the resident who sued the borough for saying the Lord’s Prayer because it is used only by some religions. “I never expected it to take this long.” She is Jewish.

An invocation is now read by the borough clerk with more general language asking for guidance to make good decisions for the town.

Pointing to the council chambers, Cadalzo told the Point Pleasant Patch that “There are people in there who used to be my friends who won’t say hello to me now. But it’s fine.”

“She’s been ostracized,” said her husband, Luis Cadalzo. “But she’s also had a lot of people come up to her in town and support her. But they won’t come here and say that,” he said.

Freedom From Religion Foundation