It Pays to Complain: March 2011

FFRF letter gets cross off school bus

FFRF objected on behalf of a parent of a student of Owasso, Okla., Public Schools, to an 8-inch Latin cross prominently displayed on a public school bus. A letter from Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott on Feb. 25 noted that buses are under the control of the public schools and thus subject to the same treatment under the Establishment Clause as school classrooms.

Superintendent Clark Ogilvie replied Feb. 28 by e-mail: “The cross has been removed from the bus.”

FFRF stops prayer in kindergarten

FFRF halted a blatant constitutional violation by a kindergarten teacher who led students in prayer every day at Stocks Elementary School in Tarboro, N.C. The violation was discovered when a local complainant’s 5-year-old came home from school singing the following (to the tune of “Frere Jacques”):
“God, our father, God, our father,
Once again, Once again,
We will ask a blessing,
We will ask a blessing,
Amen, Amen.”

Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, wrote a letter of complaint to the Edgecombe County Public Schools, citing how the prayer broke the law of the land and the district’s own policy, which states: “The school system and its employees shall not conduct, sponsor, or endorse any form of religious indoctrination or exercise, including prayer, at school functions.”

The parent complainant notified FFRF that in November, the prayer song practice had ended. FFRF followed up with letters in December and February, and finally received a response from the Principal, Russell Johnson III, in February, which was a letter he had apparently sent to the district superintendent in October. The forwarded letter notes that FFRF’s letter had been shared with the school’s seven kindergarten teachers. The teachers reviewed and discussed relevant case law and board policies and were told to stop all prayer immediately. “All teachers will be reminded to immediately refrain from any expression of religious viewpoints and prayer in the classroom.”

FFRF halts violations in Tennessee schools

FFRF stopped the practice of broadcsasting prayers over loudspeakers during athletic events and hosting student-led prayers at graduation ceremonies in the McNairy County School District in Selmer, Tenn.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert complained initially in November and again in December in letters to the director of schools. She noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down prayer at public high school graduations, and that “it is no defense that graduations are events at which participation or attendance is voluntary. Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation.”

FFRF received a reply Jan. 27 from Director of Schools Charlie Miskelly: “I have addressed the issues raised in your letter with the appropriate personnel at Adamsville Junior/Senior High School and instructed such personnel that school-sponsored prayer is prohibited at school events, including athletic events and graduation ceremonies.”

Choir leader’s prayer strikes sour note

A Texas school district agreed with FFRF that a teacher’s prayers were out of bounds.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott objected by letter Jan. 14 on behalf of a Texas complainant to the choir director leading students in prayer at Tascosa High School in the Amarillo School District.

“Our complainant informs us that Mr. Talley is known to have in-class prayers. It is our information and understanding that each Friday, Mr. Talley’s students sing ‘The Lord Bless You and Keep You.’ We are told that it is often sung with students holding hands and heads bowed. We also understand that prior to competitions, Mr. Talley asks the students to bow their heads and then leads them in prayer.”

Talley was also alleged to have held a Sunday worship service at a Holiday Inn in Dallas for students who attended a choir competition last March.

An attorney for the district responded Jan. 24 that Talley has been instructed that he may not pray with students or encourage or discourage prayer. “Please know that AISD has thoroughly addressed the concerns that you raised, and does not expect for you to receive any future complaints,” wrote Andrea Slater Gulley.

This is the same school district that agreed not to bring back the traveling Liberty Bell and Ten Commandments display that FFRF objected to in 2010.

FFRF complaint ends Michigan meal prayer

Liver and onions and shepherd’s pie at the Cheboygan Center will no longer be served with an amplified Lord’s Prayer. The Michigan senior center, operated by the publicly funded Cheboygan County Council on Aging, agreed to stop allowing prayer five days a week before meals served to 110 participants.

Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, objected in a Feb. 23 letter about the constitutional violation. According to a local complainant, a center employee led the prayer over a microphone.

Markert pointed out that the center’s “support of public prayer during these meals ignored the rights of other seniors who may not wish to participate in the religious activities because they disagree with a particular faith publicly exercised, they prefer to be private in their worship, or they do not believe at all.”

The complainant informed FFRF on March 3 that an attorney for the center agreed that the practice was illegal and prayers have been stopped.

Three very capable and dedicated legal interns helped FFRF staff attorneys forge successful conclusions to recent complaints. Jayme Lawson Durkee prepared the Wayne County Community College complaint. Stephanie Schmitt prepared the Amarillo School District complaint, and the Owasso school complaint was prepared by Jane Kleven.

Freedom From Religion Foundation