FFRF legal staff resolves constitutional violations

Proselytizing teacher told to stop

A public high school teacher will no longer urge students to attend church in Fargo, N.D. A local complainant reported that a teacher told students there is a “meaning behind Easter” and that “You all should go to church.”

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliot wrote a letter to Fargo Public Schools on April 25, explaining that urging students to attend church is unconstitutionally endorsing religion.

The school district’s attorney promptly responded and said that the district took disciplinary action and placed the results in the teacher’s file: “Fargo Public Schools strictly forbids their employees to proselytize.”

Post office removes ‘Smile! God loves you’

A post office in Cleveland, Ohio, will no longer display a “Smile! God Loves You” sticker near the service counter after a local complainant contacted FFRF. Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell sent a letter to the post office manager April 17, asking for immediate removal of the religious symbol.

The Postal Service replied April 25: “The ‘God loves you’ sticker that you mentioned in your letter has been removed.”

Bible quotes halted in Arkansas school

Cutter Morning Star High School in Hot Springs, Ark., will no longer include religious quotes and references in the school’s daily announcements. A parent reported to FFRF that the emailed announcements sent by a school employee often included quotes from the bible such as “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. Proverbs 3:5-6.”

On March 20, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter of complaint to the superintendent: “You must make certain that staff members are not unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters.”

On May 15, the superintendent responded that the matter was resolved a day after getting the complaint. Staff were instructed to stop emailing bible quotes.

Ohio school to stop church graduations

Marlington High School in Alliance, Ohio, will no longer hold graduation in churches starting in 2015. FFRF received a complaint that the school was scheduled to hold its commencement ceremony at The Chapel in Marlboro (“a Bible church”) on June 1.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to the superintendent Feb. 17: “[I]t is unconstitutional for a public high school to force, compel or coerce its graduating students, their parents, teachers and other members of their families or friends, to violate their rights of conscience at a graduation ceremony.”

On May 8, the superintendent responded: “While it is not possible for the district to find an alternate location for graduation [this year], I have spoken to the Board and they have agreed to find a secular site for the 2015 graduating class.”

Court: cross was ‘completely inappropriate’

A customer service desk in the Austin, Texas, Municipal Court will no longer display a cross. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter March 6 to the presiding judge, explaining that the Latin cross is indisputably a religious symbol.

FFRF received a response from the court May 16: “[T]here had been a cross given as a gift from one employee to another and it was placed in an inappropriate place. The situation was strongly addressed with the employees. I do not think it was an intentional display but a careless placing of a gift. Regardless, it was completely inappropriate.”

Subway rescinds church bulletin discounts

Four Subway Restaurant locations will no longer offer a 20% discount to customers who present a bulletin from churches in Escanaba, Mich. Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell sent a letter to the restaurant owners about the civil rights violation.

“Your restaurant’s restrictive promotional practice favors religious customers, and denies both customers who do not attend church as well as nonbelievers the right to ‘full and equal’ enjoyment of Subway. Any promotions should be available to all customers regardless of religious preference or practice on a non-discriminatory basis.”

FFRF was notified May 23 that the church bulletin notice was removed.

Baptist rec team warned in Texas

Howe Independent School District in Howe, Texas, took action to stop proselytizing during an annual Field Day event for fifth- through eighth-grade students. A concerned parent contacted FFRF that the Field Day was being organized through Dallas Baptist University, whose stated mission is “to provide Christ-centered quality higher education.”

Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter informing the district that giving Dallas Baptist University Recreational Teams access to impressionable students is a constitutional violation.

On May 15, Howe Middle School’s principal replied: “It has been communicated to the Dallas Baptist Recreation Team leader and will be communicated with the team Friday morning that they are at the Howe Middle School Field Day to lead the recreation games for our students and not to proselytize to our students or promote Christianity during the Field Day activities.”

FFRF’s complainant later thanked FFRF and noted that “the Field Day went without any issues.” 

School washes hands of baccalaureate

George Washington High School in Charleston, W. Va., will no longer coordinate and fund a baccalaureate service for graduating seniors.

FFRF was contacted by a concerned student after the school sent two mailings to seniors describing the service as a “worship experience.” The mailing said a teacher was supervising student planning and sought donations, with checks made payable to the high school. A formal invitation was also sent to students, with the envelope mailed from the school. The invitation announced the date and time of “a service representing all walks of faith.”

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott’s letter of objection said: “The school’s role in sending letters to seniors from the school, collecting and disbursing funds for the service, and allowing a teacher to coordinate the service, signals to a reasonable graduating senior or parent that Kanawha County Schools endorses the religious messages espoused at these services. To avoid the perception of school sponsorship of religious practices, a public school should take measures to disassociate itself from the activity. This means that no public school employee can be involved in the organization, planning or coordinating of baccalaureate services. Public schools may not collect and distribute funds for the service and send mailings to students about the service.”

On May 13, the school’s attorney replied: “The school made an additional announcement last week that the baccalaureate was not a school-sponsored function, attendance was voluntary and whether or not a student attended would have no effect on anything at the school. . . . I believe having a member of school faculty involved and running money through the school accounts was done to assure the parents that everything would be handled properly. Nevertheless, these practices are going to stop, and the account will be closed at the end of this school year.”

The school will also stop mailing baccalaureate invitations to students.

‘Expelled’ expelled from classrooms

Science students at Adams Central High School, Monroe, Ind., will no longer be watching a documentary movie promoting “intelligent design,” a theory put forth by religious fundamentalists to counter evolution. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel first wrote the school district about it on behalf of a local complainant in October 2013.

The movie is Ben Stein’s “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” which has drawn FFRF’s attention since its 2008 debut. FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor panned the movie mercilessly after seeing it on its opening weekend and accurately predicted the future:

“Even though ‘Expelled’ isn’t exactly an overnight blockbuster, the harm is in its half-life: the DVDs to follow, those half-truths, untruths, manipulations and distortions available forever to stir up contempt for the scientific method and community, atheists and progressive thought.”

The late film critic Roger Ebert called it “cheerfully ignorant, manipulative, slanted.”

FFRF was informed that two Adams Central biology teachers were using the movie as well as teaching from “Icons of Evolution,” a popular creationist textbook. “Evolution, like gravity, is a scientific fact,” Seidel wrote. Teaching that there is a scientific controversy about the validity of evolution is akin to teaching astrology with astronomy or alchemy beside chemistry.”

A school attorney promptly responded. In his letter, Adam Miller wrote it “would be a disservice to students” to not mention the “controversies” and added, “Hitler and the Nazis [sic] claims of Aryan racial superiority are clear abominations of Evolution and Darwinism.”

After Seidel’s follow-up letter, Miller still denied that creationism or intelligent design were being taught or that there was any “hidden agenda” on one particular teacher’s part. “However, I directed that he should not show the movie ‘Expelled.’ . . . [W]e appreciate your organization’s concerns and will continue to monitor the situation.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation