FFRF Legal Victories

’Tis the season for school religious intrusion

FFRF’s busy legal staff sent more than 50 letters of complaint stemming from state/church violations at the end of the school year. Of those, 39 were about prayer at high school or college graduations, three were letters about graduations in churches or religious facilities and four were due to baccalaureate services.

One of the most blatant attempts to violate the Constitution was in Fostoria, Ohio. FFRF received a tip that Ten Commandments plaques were going to be given to Fostoria High graduates June 2 and that the plaques had a note tied to them that read “Jesus will save you.”

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Superintendent Andrew Sprang on May 31, “It is unfortunate that some educators feel it is their place to instruct other people’s children on religious edicts.”

Sprang responded the same day that “an outside organization” had asked for the plaques to be made available for graduates. “I have consulted with the high school principal and these items will not be available at the graduation ceremony,” Sprang wrote.


Students stop prayer with FFRF help

Luis Lucas-Tzun and Michael Thorpe, students at Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City, N.C., contacted FFRF and spoke at a board meeting of Chatham County Schools in opposition to plans to include prayers at their graduation.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a May 23 letter to Superintendent Robert Logan to report that the scheduled prayers were unconstitutional. After receiving no response, Elliott sent a follow-up June 5 that FFRF had filed a 2012 graduation day lawsuit for a similar violation in South Carolina.

Lucas-Tzun told the Ashboro Courier-Tribune that he and other students continued to oppose the prayers even when they were bullied and harassed by other students with epithets like “homosexual tree hugger.”

Lucas-Tzun said, “A public school is not to be made into a recruiting ground for any religion. Prayer has no place in a secular event such as a graduation ceremony.”

District legal counsel responded to Elliott on June 6 that prayer had been removed from the program. The graduation was held June 8 without any school-sponsored prayer. But in a show of opposition, some students recited the Lord’s Prayer during what was to have been moment of silence.

FFRF thanks Luis and Michael and two other Jordan-Matthews students, Shannon Dwyer and Josue Turcios, for their efforts to bring their school into compliance with the U.S. Constitution.

More on that next month.

No extra credit for baccalaureate

Students at Stilwell High School in Stilwell, Okla., weren’t required to do extra work if they chose not to attend baccalaureate, thanks to FFRF. A concerned parent reached out to FFRF after her child’s teacher required the student to do extra homework because she chose not to attend. Teachers also gave extra credit to students who did attend the baccalaureate, which was privately arranged and not hosted by Stilwell Public Schools.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel told Superintendent Geri Gilstrap on May 15 that no student should receive extra work or credit for participation or nonparticipation in a religious event.

Legal counsel responded May 17 letter that the district will not be involved in promoting the baccalaureate or in coercing attendance in the future. 


Oklahoma graduates keep caps on

Nonreligious students at Tahlequah [Okla.] High School became alarmed when instructions for the 2013 graduation ceremony asked male students to remove their graduate’s caps for prayer. FFRF had contacted the school after the 2012 graduation included unlawful, student-led prayer. The school’s administration had responded then that future graduations would not include prayer.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Superintendent Lisa Presley on May 13: “The district cannot instruct any students on how to worship or whether to revere another’s worship. The student who contacted us is understandably upset that their school is so steeped in religion and so unwilling to adhere to the First Amendment.”

Presley responded May 15 that the instructions had been changed and redistributed. The graduation did not include prayer.


Silence will replace Texas prayer

A concerned parent in Texas contacted FFRF about Schulenburg High School’s intention to include a student-led invocation and benediction and invocation at graduation.

Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell contacted Superintendent Walter Padgett on June 7 to urge that the school remove the divisive prayers and citing Supreme Court precedents.

FFRF received a response from the district June 11 that future graduations will substitute moments of silence for prayer.


Georgia prayer ‘circles’ down the drain

Lowndes County Public Schools in Valdosta, Ga., agreed with FFRF that schools cannot promote religion. A concerned parent contacted FFRF after her child was ostracized by classmates and teachers for refusing to participate in a prayer circle at Hahira Elementary School.

Several middle school teachers led the prayer circle to “prepare students for upcoming standardized testing.”

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a May 29 letter: “This flagrant violation will only exacerbate the bullying of non-Christian students. “Teachers should strive to be inclusive, not inject religion, a divisive force, into their classes.”

District legal counsel responded June 12 that “the principal has counseled with his staff as it relates to the Lowndes County School System’s prohibition against employee-directed prayer.”

(FFRF recommends a good night of sleep, a healthy breakfast and studying as the best way to prepare for standardized tests.)


School will ban religious handouts

Members of a local church came to Newman Middle School in Skiatook, Okla., at lunchtime to hand out pamphlets that contained bible quotes and the church’s address. They also reportedly asked students to attend their church.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Superintendent Rick Thomas on June 3, outlining the legal and ethical problems with allowing a religious group to prey on a captive audience of minors.

Thomas responded June 11 that the school’s administrators “were not aware” that the church was given access to students. “Visitors are not allowed to hand out information and should not be recruiting for any religious group,” Thomas said. “We will do our best to make sure this type of thing does not happen in the future.”


County board drops prayer proposal

The Island County Board of Commissioners in Coupeville, Wash., chose not to start scheduling prayer at meetings after getting an FFRF letter. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to the board June 4 about its prayer plans, advising leaving religion to individual consciences.

The Whidbey News Times reported June 10 that the board dropped a prayer proposal put forth by Chairperson Kelly Emerson. Commissioner Jill Johnson, who previously favored a prayer, said she changed her mind because she prays to Jesus Christ and realized she wasn’t willing to sit through a non-Christian prayer or one to a “watered-down God.”

Johnson and Seidel had exchanged several emails about the proposal. Johnson wrote, “If I have no intentions of compromising my deeply held beliefs, I would never be able to ask someone else to compromise their beliefs on my behalf.”

Seidel responded, “I admire your refusal to ask citizens to compromise their beliefs and wish more politicians had the integrity to do the same. The separation of state and church is meant to protect both the state from religion and religion from the state.”

Emerson said she might revisit the issue in the future. FFRF will continue to monitor the situation.


‘Singing Churchmen” stilled in school

FFRF resolved a complaint over a choral worship performance held at Choctaw [Okla.] High School. The worship service, which was called a “concert” during the announcement over the PA system, lasted until the end of the school day.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a May 21 letter detailing the violation to Superintendent Jim McCharen: “The Singing Churchmen of Oklahoma, an all-male choir, performed during school hours, on school property to public school students. According to their website, this is part of the Baptist Church’s ‘ministry.’ Not only is the choir composed of ‘ministers,’ the stated ‘purpose of this unique group is to spread the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ through the vehicle of music.’

Songs performed included “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” and “Your Great Name” and this lyric, “Jesus, worthy is the Lamb that was slain for us, Son of God and Man, you are high and lifted up; and all the world will praise your great name.”

Seidel wrote, “This was not simply religious music, it was worship music. The SCO exhorted students to join the choir in worship. The event began with a prayer and was punctuated with religious rhetoric like ‘All hail the power of Jesus name!’ ”

McCharen responded that the central administration had had no advance notice of arrangements for the presentation but promptly investigated. “[We] stressed with [the principal] the importance of avoiding reasonably perceived district endorsement of religious beliefs, scheduled a meeting of all school administrators within the district to discuss the constitutional concerns related to presentations of a religious nature, and has adopted an administrative procedural whereby any request to a local school administrator for a presentation by a nondistrict individual or group during the school day, whether having a secular or sectarian emphasis, will be referred to the central office for a decision at that level.”


FFRF gets Gideons off school grounds

Gideons International will no longer distribute bibles to students at Heritage Middle School in Colleyville, Texas, after receiving FFRF’s June 5 letter from Staff Attorney Liz Cavell.

The Gideons stood on school property next to doors where students were coming and going.

“Parents also understandably become nervous when adult men take an over-keen interest in handing materials to their young children without parental knowledge or permission,” Cavell noted.

District legal counsel responded June 7 that the Gideons should not have been permitted to distribute bibles to students.

FFRF frees students to ‘offend God’

FFRF intervened on behalf of a parent and student after a teacher at Sea View Elementary in Salton City, Calif., told students they were offending God by cursing, especially by using the word God.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote May 3 to Superintendent Darryl Adams that religion should be kept out of classrooms.

District legal counsel responded May 29: “Without delving too deeply into employer-employee confidentiality, suffice it to say that [the assistant principal] met with [the teacher] and appropriately handled the matter at that time.”


Religion goes off school lunch menu

Baptist church personnel will no longer be permitted to proselytize middle and high school students in the Wattsburg Area School District in Erie, Pa. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent an April 26 letter to the district, noting the predatory conduct and parental unawareness that a youth pastor was allowed to talk to students and promote church events during lunch time.

District legal counsel replied May 23 that youth pastors are no longer permitted to enter schools to meet with students for any reason.


Proselytizing prof told to stop

A Erie Community College professor in Orchard Park, N.Y., was reprimanded by the school for her religious activities.

A student was taking a final exam on May 8, 2012, when his teacher laid a folded manila envelope on the student’s desk and told him to open it later when he was alone. The package contained a bible with a personalized message and highlighted passages. The student contacted FFRF to say the letter was “bizarre” and “unsettling.” He gave FFRF a copy of the class syllabus in which the teacher said she forbids “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Market stated in her initial complaint letter on July 24, 2012, “This ‘gift’ from Professor ____ constitutes an official endorsement and advancement of religion over nonreligion, and specifically Christianity over all other faiths, within a public classroom.”

On May 17, Kristin Klein Wheaton, executive vice president for legal affairs, affirmed that the college told the teacher she had crossed the line and could be terminated if violations reoccur: 

“Erie Community College is directing you to refrain from proselytizing about religion to your students and/or giving bibles or religious articles to students in the future. The College is also directing you to remove the prohibition to ‘using the Lord’s name in vain’ from your list of classroom expectations. Furthermore, except for wearing religious jewelry, you are directed to refrain from communication with students that would conflict with your duty to show complete neutrality toward religion or would otherwise promote religion.”

Thanks to journalism intern Sarah Eucalano for assistance compiling.

Freedom From Religion Foundation