FFRF legal victories

Schools back off baccalaureates

Fruita, Colo., Monument High School instituted a new policy on baccalaureates after getting a Jan. 28 letter from FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. FFRF learned the school previously held a baccalaureate, organized by administrators and other staff, in the gym.
At the 2014 ceremony, teachers reportedly read bible verses and spoke about the virtues of being Christian, with choir and orchestra students required to perform. Students were threatened with lower grades and told that failing to attend would result in having to perform all the concert music alone in front of the entire class.

“The District agrees that its schools and staff members should not sponsor, organize or require attendance at baccalaureate events in which prayers or other religious messages are recited,” wrote the Mesa County Valley School District’s attorney in an April 28 response. The new policy assures ceremonies will be conducted “in a manner that is fully consistent with modern First Amendment jurisprudence.”

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Olentangy Local School District in Lewis Center, Ohio, distanced itself from a baccalaureate ceremony after getting a May 13 complaint letter from Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert. An email invitation about the ceremony was sent to parents from an email address typically used to promote school events. It had no disclaimer that the ceremony was not school-sponsored and said to contact Olentangy High School teacher Linda Shank to sign up.

An assistant superintendent responded the next day to say that the district was taking steps to ensure employees maintained appropriate distance from the baccalaureate. FFRF’s complainant reported that further school announcements included a disclaimer that the baccalaureate was not school-sponsored and that students were no longer to contact school staff to sign up.

Shank, the teacher listed as the contact person, called Markert on May 19 and demanded to know the complainant’s name, a request Markert refused. FFRF carefully protects the identities of complainants, as it is allowed to do by law.

Texas teacher admits ‘planting a seed’

San Angelo Independent School District in Texas is taking steps to ensure a teacher who bragged about praying with students will follow the law in the future. Central High School teacher Julie Upton Schniers wrote on Facebook that she was “a teacher who prays with [her] team before every speech and debate tournament knowing they don’t all believe and knowing it could get [her] fired some day.”

She also wrote it was her job to subtly influence her students toward Christianity by “planting a seed.”

“Almost more troubling than the constitutional violation is the willful and blatant manner in which Schniers is breaking the law,” wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover in an April 28 complaint letter.

The school district responded May 1, saying it was conducting an investigation and would “promptly take all remedial actions necessary to ensure compliance with applicable legal standards.”

School moves testing from First Baptist

Kindergarten testing in Portage, Mich., will no longer take place in church. Previously, Woodland Elementary School held its mandatory screening at First Baptist Church, where religious pamphlets were reportedly distributed to students and parents.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote in an April 1 complaint letter, “It is outrageous and illegal for a public school to allow a church to proselytize 5-year-old students with religious materials at a mandatory school-sponsored event.”

The superintendent responded May 1 to say that the district was able to find an alternative secular location.

FFRF rains on Day of Prayer planning

Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission employees will no longer be allowed to plan a National Day of Prayer event on government time using the public dime. FFRF received a report that the employees plan an annual gathering held offsite during work hours. Planners reportedly advertised their office phone numbers as contact numbers for this year’s event and handed out fliers promoting it to other employees at work.

“Commission employees’ promotion and apparent coordination of this event at work using work resources poses constitutional separation of state and church concerns,” wrote Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler in a May 4 letter.

Commission counsel responded May 7, agreeing it was inappropriate for employees to be thus involved and ensuring they’d be made aware of restrictions.

Utah school board stops Mormon prayer

The Alpine School District Board of Education, American Fork, Utah, no longer starts meetings with a Mormon prayer. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the district Jan. 13 to object to the illegal prayer. Courts have consistently ruled “It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its scheduled meetings,” Seidel said.

An attorney for the board responded May 8 that the board has discontinued prayers.

Connection cut to Loaves & Fishes

Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, Texas, will no longer direct its charitable efforts toward a religious group. FFRF received word that teachers solicited students during class time to donate to Mobile Loaves & Fishes — Miracles on Wheels and offered a party for the class that donated the most. The group’s main activity is a “truck ministry.”

“It is laudable for CRHS to encourage students to become active, charitable and involved in their community by volunteering and donating, but the school cannot use that goal as an avenue to support a religious organization with a religious mission,” explained FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor in a letter to the Round Rock Independent School District.
The school district responded May 14. While denying teacher involvement, it said “District administrators will remind all teachers to refrain from soliciting donations to student fundraising endeavors.”

Dogmatic ‘Courageous’ off school screen

Students at Willow Glen High School, San Jose, Calif., will not be subjected to future screenings of the Christian movie “Courageous.”

A math and science teacher showed the movie to students, boasting on social media that his students “are hearing the Gospel as direct as if I were preaching it to them on the streets.”

The plot focuses on four police officers who resolve to honor God and be better fathers after one of their daughters is killed. The “Critics Consensus” on the rating site Rotten Tomatoes says, “While the filmmaking is fairly competent, ‘Courageous’ is overall worthless to anybody who doesn’t subscribe to its dogmatic agenda.”

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a Feb. 13 complaint letter. An attorney for the school district confirmed on May 4 that “Courageous” would not be shown again.

Prayer before lunch is reined in

The Lancaster County (S.C.) School District is taking steps to ensure an Indian Land Elementary teacher will no longer force her students to give prayers in class. FFRF learned that teacher Kathryn Watkins reportedly selected students at random to lead a prayer before lunch, continuing to select students until one gave a Christian prayer.
“A prompt by a teacher for a student to lead the class in prayer carries the stamp of approval of the school. Ms. Watkins goes further by requiring one student to recite the prayer, and all students to listen, before they are permitted to eat lunch,”
wrote Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott in a May 8 letter.

School attorney Kathryn Mahoney wrote back May 26. FFRF’s concerns were addressed with the teacher, who now understands she’s not to lead a prayer or ask students to do so, Mahoney said.

No more breaks on rent for churches

“Mobile churches” that set up shop at the Sahuarita Unified School District in Arizona will now be charged full rent. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter April 30, outlining allegations that several churches were far exceeding the scope of their contracts, using more space for more time than they paid for and “paying” with in-kind donations that were of dubious use to the school such as an expensive sound system. “These issues expose SUSD to severe legal and financial liability,” he noted.

FFRF’s complainant reported on May 27 that signs advertising the churches were removed and that the school district told churches they could only use the space they had actually rented.

Freedom From Religion Foundation