FFRF at work: Not our prayers or cross to bear

The City Council in Albany, N.Y., voted 12–1 (with one member voting “present”) in April against a council member’s proposal to replace a moment of silence at meetings with prayer.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation had objected with a letter in February to Anton Konev’s resolution, which required council members to lead prayers or have religious leaders do so on their behalf. Konev said the council “desperately needs” prayer, reported the Albany Times Union.

“Calling upon council members and citizens to rise and pray, even silently, is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of secular city government,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “Council members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. They do not need to worship on taxpayers’ time.”

Councilwoman Jackie Jenkins-Cox, who voted present, said she appreciated Konev’s passion but added, “I like to keep my prayer between me and God.”

Councilman John Rosenzweig added, “What this council needs are ways to increase our economy. I think the last responsibility that we have in this chamber is to dictate prayer of any sort.”

Foundation: Remove fire station cross

The Foundation sent a demand letter (a precursor to a lawsuit) April 23 to the city of Charleston, S.C., to remove a Latin cross from the entrance to a fire station. FFRF initially complained in December 2008 about the cross and a Christian nativity scene at Fire Station No. 12.

Civil rights attorney George Daly, of Charlotte, N.C., is now representing the Foundation, which is ramping up its efforts. In a letter to Mayor Joseph Riley Jr., Daly noted that the cross “has been there for a long time, and we are ready to take action to get it removed.” He asked for a reply by May 14. (Daly is also representing FFRF in its suit against a public school district in Spartanburg, S.C., for giving students academic credit for religious released-time classes.)

After the first complaint, the city ordered the nativity scene removed, which it was. But later it returned, flanked by secular trimmings to try to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that permits manger scenes on public property if they’re part of an overall “secular” Christmas display. FFRF noted the “sham” quality of the action, obviously taken to ensure a manger scene stayed up at Christmas time.

Then the city said it would “permanently” leave the lighted cross at the entrance as a memorial to firefighters who died in a June 2007 fire.

“Another real sham is that the same cross, claimed now to be a memorial, has been used as a Christmas decoration since at least 2004,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

Christian preference nixed for club

An Ohio public college removed illegal religious wording from its Web site after an FFRF complaint on behalf of a student. Terra Community College in Fremont is a two-year “commuter college” controlled by the state Board of Regents.

Until FFRF sent President Marsha Bordner a letter of complaint March 19, the school’s “Student Life” Web page had a separate tab for Terra Christian Fellowship. The only other student organization to have its own tab was Phi Theta Kappa, an academic honor society for two-year colleges.

The Christian group’s page also said: “In addition to weekly meetings, special events include staff-sponsored Bible studies, concerts, coffee houses and other activities.” It also contained a passage from Psalm 118: “The LORD is my song and my strength; He has become my victory.”

Rebecca Markert, FFRF staff attorney, reminded the school that “staff-sponsored Bible studies” violate the First Amendment, which requires that government employees refrain from actively participating in religious activities while performing their official duties.

Terra didn’t respond officially, but addressed the violations. The Christian Fellowship’s “Student Life” tab was been removed, and it’s listed with the other clubs on the “Student Clubs” page. Reference to staff participation in religious activities and the biblical quotation are also gone.

An FFRF complaint led the Janesville (Wis.) School District to review the legality of housing a public charter school in a Lutheran church and whether students can be required to attend 12-step recovery sessions that are religious in nature.

The school, called CRES Academy, is for students in grades 9-12 who have completed a 12-step program for addiction recovery. Addiction counseling is woven into the educational framework, according to the school’s Web site. CRES stands for Community Recovery Education Service.

In a March 26 letter to Superintendent Karen Schulte, FFRF asked what steps the district has taken to ensure that the school space at St. John Lutheran Church is free of religious displays. The letter included concerns about requiring students to attend meetings that have religious components as part of a treatment plan.

“The central components of the required 12-step treatment programs are religious in nature,” said Patrick Elliott, FFRF attorney. Programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous require recognition of a “greater power” and “require participants to turn their lives over to God. Typical AA meetings contain group Christian prayer and other Christian practices. Other 12-step programs follow the steps of AA or some variation of the AA steps,” Elliott said.

According to the CRES Facebook page, students are taught about the history of AA and discuss its overtly religious steps.

The school has operated at the church only since last year. The district also is renting office space there for student services employees.

In an April 2 story, the Janesville Gazette reported that CRES materials were no longer available online. Principal Marge Hallenbeck said she ordered the Web page taken down as part of the district’s review.

In an April 8 editorial, the Gazette said it’s good the district is reviewing the policy. A reporter sent the story to Charles Haynes at the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C. Haynes replied that “‘sending’ students to 12-step programs without offering other alternatives may be problematic.”

The editorial added, “The district appears to have been doing more than just ‘informing’ students about 12-step programs.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation