FFRF Victories: March 2012

Sold out of the fish(y) special

Asuka Hibachi and Buffet, Smyrna, Tenn., ended its unlawful $1 discount to customers who brought in a church bulletin on Sundays after getting Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt’s Jan. 18 letter contesting the “family special” offer. The discount violated federal and Tennessee civil rights laws entitling all persons “to the full and equal enjoyment of goods.”
Owner Ricky Chan wrote back Jan. 21 that an employee put up the sign without his knowledge: “I have addressed this issue with my staff and have taken the sign down. I do apologize for any issues this may have caused.”

Reason trumps religion in Wisconsin school

The Kiel Area School District Board of Education, Kiel, Wis., has “decided to make no changes to the curriculum,” said School Board President Cynthia Schmahl in a February email to Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott and Andrew Seidel, FFRF’s constitutional consultant.

After being alerted by a district parent about a board agenda item, Elliott sent a letter Dec. 8 warning of the illegality of a proposal by board member Randy Kubetz to allow teaching creationist theories in science classes. After making an open records request, FFRF received an email Kubetz had sent to the board that included an outdated “intelligent design” legal guidebook which was debunked in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District in 2005. Kubetz sits on the board’s Curriculum Committee. His wife, Patty, is a strong proponent of teaching creationism.

According to documents, District Administrator Louise Blankenheim had responded to the email from Randy Kubetz: “I’m sure we can work with the teachers to enhance units in evolution to include alternate theories.”

“Any plan to teach evolution with ‘alternative theories’ is unlawful,” said Elliott. In a follow-up letter Jan. 31, he noted a public comment by Randy Kubetz that “It has nothing to do with Madison. We don’t tell them how to run their schools or their towns, so they should leave other districts alone.”

Elliott responded that FFRF has almost 1,400 Wisconsin taxpaying members who are very interested in keeping religion out of schools.

The board voted down the creation “science”proposal at its Feb. 1 work session.


FFRF slams door on bible distribution

FFRF put the kibosh on illegal bible distribution to fifth-graders in the Oakfield-Alabama Central School District in Oakfield, N.Y., with a Dec. 8 letter of complaint after being alerted by parents.

Parents had gotten advance notice of the distribution from the elementary principal: “On Friday, Dec. 16, members of the Gideon’s International Organization will be offering New Testament Bibles to any fifth-grade student who wishes to take one. The participation of our students is strictly voluntary. The Bibles will be free of charge. If you would prefer that your child does not take a Bible, please complete and return the form below.”

In her letter to Superintendent Christoper Todd, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt warned against “distribution of bibles on school grounds to a captive audience of students. Courts have held that the distribution of bibles to students at public schools is prohibited.”

Schmitt added that letting students “opt out” with a denial slip does not make the practice constitutional. “The Supreme Court has held that offending religious practices in schools were not ‘mitigated by the fact that individual students may absent themselves upon parental request, for that fact furnishes no defense to a claim of unconstitutionality under the Establishment Clause.’ ” (Sch. Dist. of Abington Twshp. v. Schempp, 1963)

Responding to the violation, Todd promised bible distribution “will no longer be practiced in our school district.”


FFRF forces prayers to take a knee

An FFRF complaint put an end to prayer in the football locker room at Bowie High School in El Paso, Texas. Before FFRF intervened, a pregame tradition included group prayer, with a pastor calling on team members to bow their heads and kneel in prayer.

Coaches also participated. FRFF was told the prayers had most likely been taking place since at least 2010.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Jan. 5 to the interim superintendent of El Paso Independent Schools to note the illegality of the prayers.

Principal Jesus Chavez then met with school personnel, said James Anderson, school district attorney, who responded Feb. 2: “Dr. Chavez directed all personnel to refrain from facilitating any and all prayers which are led by clergy members and/or school officials.”

Principals were also directed to discuss relevant school policy at a Feb. 16 meeting.


FFRF outs Brother Dale of the pumpkin patch

Kindergartners will no longer be exposed to Christian evangelism on Bel Air Elementary School field trips in Athens, Texas.

During three trips to Brother Dale Perry’s evangelical pumpkin patch at Living for the Brand Cowboy Church in October, first-grade and kindergarten students had to listen to religious stories. One included this: “God made each pumpkin different, just like he made each child different.”

Students also received a Christian-themed pamphlet titled “Bag of Jokes.” The pamphlet told students they were all sinners and instructed them to pray to God to ask for forgiveness.

Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote a letter Oct. 27 to the district superintendent to try to stop the third field trip and followed up with a letter Jan. 27.

On Feb. 3, attorney Blake Armstrong of Birdsong & Armstrong, representing the school, responded that the school didn’t intend to endorse religion, adding that Establishment/Free Exercise Clause concerns have been addressed. “To this end, it appears as if any such endorsement was done without knowledge or approval of the school district.”


FFRF closes Arkansas school’s bible stop

Bellview Elementary School in Rogers, Ark., will no longer allow Gideons International to distribute bibles in its hallways.

After receiving a complaint from concerned parents, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Rogers Public Schools Superintendent Janie Darr on Oct. 27.

After receiving the letter, the school said it was following a bible policy from 2010 that was based on recommendations from its attorney. The policy let men from Gideons hand out bibles near fifth-grade classrooms from a table as school was letting out. FFRF responded that the policy conflicted with court precedent.

On Jan. 27, a school attorney wrote: “Based upon Dr. Darr’s recommendation, the Rogers School District has informed the Gideon organization that it will no longer allow the distribution of Bibles on school property.”


FFRF bounces back principal’s ‘G-mail’

“Count on God instead of yourself,” was the statement Assistant Principal Rene Milanizadeh included in an email to staff in November at Klein Forest High School in Houston, Texas. The sentiment was part of a poem entitled “How to Observe Thanksgiving.”

Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to Milanizadeh on Dec. 20, pointing out the constitutional flaws with the overtly Christian email.

School attorney Ellen Spalding responded Jan. 18 that Milanizadeh “inadvertently included a poem with a religious line,” and that on discovering it later, “immediately recalled the email.” Spalding didn’t explain how one recalls an email, but added, “Ms. Milanizadeh has expressed understanding of her duties and obligations with regard to this issue.”


FFRF letter: ‘O Go, O Go, Emmanuel’

Southside High School in Elmira, N.Y., will no longer play religious holiday music nonstop over the P.A. in the halls after getting a Dec. 19 FFRF complaint letter from Rebecca Markert, senior staff attorney.

The principal said the carols “lift morale, especially for those underprivileged kids who don’t get much of a celebration at home.” Songs included “Oh Holy Night,” “Silent Night” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The music penetrated closed classroom doors, FFRF’s complainant said.

Superintendent Joseph Hochreiter responded Feb. 13 that legal counsel was consulted and that religious songs would no longer be broadcast over the loudspeaker in December.


Addiction to religion was not covered

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote a letter of complaint Feb. 8 about a religious assembly held the day before at Geenbriar High School, Greenbriar, Ark., after being contacted by student complaints.

Featured were five speakers from Renewal Ranch, a group dedicated, according to a statement at the top of its website, to “restoring broken lives through Christ where men with addictions can develop a personal love relationship with Jesus and God will be glorified!” Speakers discussed how Jesus is the only road to salvation from behavior like underage drinking and drug use.

Superintendent Scott Spainhour responded Feb. 18 that the district had no clue that Renewal Ranch would advocate “any religious belief or practice.” (Perhaps they didn’t see the Latin crosses or the statements on the website.)

Spainhour said the health education teacher and the high school counselor recommended Renewal Ranch to Principal Susan Jackson, who approved the assembly “with the understanding that its sole focus would be on drug awareness and prevention.”

Spainhour said Jackson attended the assembly and “acknowledges that there were religious statements made by the speakers, to the surprise of the Greenbrier faculty, which were inappropriate in a public school setting.”

To ensure such an incident isn’t repeated, all future speakers will be “directed to the school’s policy regarding religion and instructed to follow same,” Spainhour said.

“Further, Ms. Jackson will forthwith, during the regular morning announcements, make a specific statement reaffirming the policy of Greenbrier School District that it will neither advocate nor disparage any religion, and that to the extent the Renewal Ranch representative created an implied endorsement of any particular religious belief, the district apologizes for any offense that may have been taken.”


Texas school frees Internet freethought

The San Antonio Independent School District’s Internet firewall provider stopped students from accessing atheist and freethought websites while allowing access to religious ones. A student at Brackenridge High School contacted FFRF after attempting to view blocked atheist sites.

In a Dec. 9 letter, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote that the practice amounted to “viewpoint discrimination under the First Amendment because the filter treats information differently precisely because it relates to agnostic and atheistic viewpoints. The Supreme Court ruled school districts may not ban information based on ‘dislike of the ideas.’ ”

Marcos Zorola, chief information officer said Feb. 16 that “Our firewall provider, Fortinet®, has taken steps to remove atheist websites from the classification of ‘occult’ to ‘other’ religious or belief classifications. I have verified this by checking several sites from behind our firewall and all were accessible.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation