It Pays to Complain: May 2011

Folsom’s folly

FFRF sent a letter of complaint April 14 to Melody Folsom, Cass County public administrator in Harrisonville, Mo., about this religious display on an office wall outside her administrator’s office. Another bible verse in the display, from Psalm 46:10, says “Be still, and know that I am God.” The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled that “government has a greater interest in controlling what materials are posted on its property than it does in controlling the speech of the people who work for it.”

Reflection replaces prayer in Eau Claire

The County Board in Eau Claire, Wis., voted 23-4 on May 3 to start meetings with a “moment of reflection” instead of an invocation. FFRF formally objected Feb. 25 to the prayer practice that’s long been in place, including regular invocations given by eight current board members.

“Government prayer is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive,” wrote FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Calling upon board members and citizens to rise and pray (even silently) is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of secular city government. Board 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.”

In April, a board committee recommended replacing the prayer with the county’s mission statement. That became a moment of reflection in the measure approved May 3.

The Leader-Telegram reported that Supervisor Paul Lokken was sorry that the committee “knuckled under” to pressure from FFRF and local prayer opponents. “It’s time to say, ‘We’re going to do it our way,’ ” Lokken said.

Supervisor Sue Miller, one of those previously offering “nonreligious” invocations, recalled being asked once why her remarks didn’t mention God or Jesus. “Whose god should I represent?” Miller said she responded.

FFRF stops city prayer sponsorship

Since 2008 in Keizer, Ore., FFRF has been fighting city staff involvement with the annual Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast held in conjunction with the National Day of Prayer. The city’s website advertised the breakfast and had images of praying hands and a Christian cross.

Two days after FFRF’s first written complaint, the city responded by claiming that the Keizer Chamber of Commerce sponsored it and reimbursed the city for printing and mailing invitations. Fruits of FFRF’s open-records request showed that city staff were organizing the event. City Recorder Tracy Davis drafted an invitation (on a “From the Desk of the Mayor” letterhead with Psalm 33:22) to pastors, and the city printed invitations and NDP fliers, drafted the program and arranged for catering.

FFRF followed up with letters to Mayor Lore Christopher in 2009 and 2010 asking that the breakfast be canceled, as well as official participation in the national event.

This year, according to FFRF’s local complainant, it appears the city is not involved in planning or organizing the breakfast. All promotional materials make it clear that the Chamber of Commerce is managing it. Christopher is still attending the breakfast, however, and FFRF sent a letter May 3 requesting that she “refrain, as mayor of Keizer, from issuing a National Day of Prayer proclamation and from participating in [her] official capacity in National Day of Prayer events.”

FFRF gets freethought to Tulsa inmates

An FFRF letter launched a successful investigation involving Tulsa County employees returning atheist books sent to an inmate at the David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center in Tulsa, Okla.

FFRF’s complainant attempted to send two atheist books to an inmate at the Justice Center via distributor The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality was “returned to sender” Feb. 14. A paperback copy of The Atheist’s Way was returned Feb. 17.

The facility’s policy allowed inmates to receive paperback copies of books that were religious in nature and sent directly from a distributor. The chaplain was in charge of determining which books met policy requirements.

Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, wrote to Sheriff Stanley Glanz on March 23: “A policy that allows for the acceptance of religious books while rejecting all others demonstrates an endorsement and preference for religion over nonreligion. In addition, allowing the chaplain to determine if books are of a religious nature also carries with it the risk that the Justice Center will endorse a preference for one religion over another, or religion over nonreligion.”

On April 11, Glanz acknowledged that the books were never signed for by employees, as they should have been. “I do not promote discrimination, of any kind, within this organization and investigate all allegations thoroughly. . . . After speaking with the employees I am comfortable stating that they misinterpreted the policy and in no way were they acting in a malicious, discriminatory manner.”

Glanz said the county has made “the appropriate changes to our policy and have ensured that all employees stationed at the front desk are made aware of the updated changes to our acceptance policy of inmate packages sent to the facility.

“[W]hile I sincerely apologize for the inadvertent offense to your claimant, these actions were not meant as interpreted,” Glanz wrote.

FFRF stops Conn. worship endorsement

A worship service was removed from the official schedule in New Britain, Conn., of the state-sponsored Civil War Commemoration Kickoff Weekend after FFRF’s timely letter of complaint April 4.

Central Connecticut State University (CCSU), one of the event’s organizers, had invited a Christian pastor from Asylum Hill Congregational Church to lead the worship service, planned for April 17. Other sponsors included the city of New Britain and two state-affiliated ad hoc entities.

In her letter, FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert reminded CCSU President Jack Miller and Matthew Warshauer, CCSU history professor and commemoration coordinator, that government can’t endorse religion.

“While it may be acceptable to teach about religion’s impact on the war from a scholarly perspective, the Establishment Clause prohibits the state from sponsoring a religious worship service, thus promoting religion over nonreligion,” commented Markert. “When multiple public institutions offer a worship service at a secular commemoration, the government itself expresses an establishment of religion and shows favoritism for the Christian religion.”

Markert also noted that Article 7 of the Connecticut Constitution states that “[N]o preference shall be given by law to any religious society or denomination in the state.”

FFRF received a response April 14 from CCSU: “Thank you for alerting us to the issue regarding the inclusion of a worship service in the agenda for the Civil War Commemoration which is scheduled for this coming weekend. Dr. Warshauer has removed the service from the agenda. Please note that the service will be held in a privately owned church on private property and is not being sponsored by Central Connecticut State University.”

Judge: County can bar nativity scene

In a case stemming from FFRF’s 2008 complaint on behalf of its Michigan members, a federal judge has dismissed a man’s lawsuit against the Macomb County Road Commission for barring a highway nativity scene.

U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen ruled April 19 in Detroit against plaintiff John Satawa’s attempt to keep erecting a holiday crèche that stood almost 10 feet high in the median of Mound Road in Warren.

After FFRF’s complaint, written by Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, the Road Commission investigated and found Satawa had no permit. The board refused to issue one on the grounds that the crèche was a traffic hazard and amounted to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

Satawa then sued the county in 2009, alleging an Establishment Clause violation and violation of his right to free speech. FFRF filed an amicus brief supporting the commission. While the dispute has been litigated, the nativity scene has been displayed at St. Anne’s Catholic Church.

In his ruling, Rosen found no First Amendment violation. “Concern for public safety constitutes a reasonable, viewpoint neutral reason for excluding speakers from a nonpublic forum.” Rosen said he visited the site to confirm it was a potential traffic hazard.

The judge noted that the church lawn was a viable site, “since, as Mr. Satawa admitted in his deposition, St. Anne’s Church just a few hundred yards from the proposed median site offered to permit a prominent display of the crèche on Mound Road and with virtually no public safety implications, as it did in past years when it was not possible for plaintiff to display the crèche in this median.”

Rosen also dismissed the claim to an Establishment Clause violation. “A reasonable observer here would not find that the Road Commission’s policy of not permitting the placement of temporary structures in the medians of major roadways conveys a message of endorsement or disapproval of religion.”

Traffic counts at the site showed more than 82,000 vehicles a day used the road at speeds in excess of 50 mph at times.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president, applauded the ruling. “This ruling appropriately ensures that our public highways should be free from religious displays which confer government endorsement of Christianity and those which pose a significant safety hazard!

“This was one of Rebecca’s early victories, and we’re pleased it has not been overturned,” Gaylor said. “FFRF is grateful to Danielle Hessell of Butzel Long law firm in Michigan for her pro bono assistance.”

FFRF request gets prayer banner pulled

The City Council in Ligonier, Pa., revoked approval April 14 of a National Day of Prayer banner for the Ligonier Valley Association of Churches. It was scheduled to hang from the city bandstand May 1-5.

The action came after the Freedom From Religion Foundation requested to hang a banner saying “God & Government a Dangerous Mix — Keep State & Church Separate.”

FFRF filled out a city application after a Foundation member in Ligonier asked for FFRF’s help, which apparently set in motion the revocation. Council members said they heard from several residents who opposed any banner in the city-owned recreational area. FFRF received a telephone call April 18 from the city informing it that the National Day of Prayer banner would not be displayed on city property.

“I was all for this last month,” council member Robert Helterbran Jr. told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “But I’ve heard from several people saying that banners, of any kind, would take away from the beauty of the Diamond.” Last year, a National Day of Prayer banner was approved after Mayor Ormond “Butch” Bellas broke a 3-3 tie vote.

Prayer dead in Ohio after FFRF letter

The Minford [Ohio] Local School District stopped scheduling prayers at high school assemblies and graduations after FFRF notified the superintendent of the illegal practices in a Feb. 25 letter.

Prayer was scheduled and delivered by a student during the February National Honor Society assembly at Minford High School, and prayer had been scheduled for high school graduations in previous years. The assembly prayer had been approved by the NHS adviser and the principal.

Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, wrote the district: “Even if student-initated, school officials may not invite a student, teacher, faculty member or clergy to give any type of prayer, invocation or benediction at a public high school-sponsored event.

“The Supreme Court has settled this matter — high school assemblies and graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students.”

An attorney for the school district responded April 6: “With respect to the assembly held to induct students into the National Honor Society, please be advised that the high school principal and NHS adviser have been advised that there should be no scheduled prayer in the future, in accordance with existing Board policy.

“With respect to the graduation, we have been informed that there was no scheduled prayer at the District graduation ceremony in 2010, nor is the Board aware that a prayer is scheduled as part of the program for this year’s graduation ceremony,” the letter said.

FFRF letter axes creationist film

FFRF was contacted by several parents in March and April about creationism instruction in public schools. In handling one of those complaints, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter to Superintendent Trey Lawrence in Shiner, Texas (yes, beer drinkers, the same city renowned for Shiner Bock).

FFRF was informed that Christie Migl, a Shiner High biology teacher, made comments to her class supporting “intelligent design” and showed a film titled “Where Does the Evidence Lead?” The film’s producers describe it as presenting “a comprehensive case for intelligent design based upon evidence from molecular biology and genetics.”

The film has segments on “Molecular machines that defy Darwin’s theory” and “The scientific evidence for intelligent design.” In 2006, Texas Citizens for Science called it a “deceitful work of creationist pseudoscience: religious-political ideology masquerading as legitimate science.”

After Elliott’s March 24 letter, Lawrence responded:

To Whom It May Concern,

I believe the information you received from the “anonymous parent” was completely taken out of context. Mrs. Migl was simply presenting an example of another point of view. The issue of creationism is not taught nor promoted. However, presenting opposing viewpoints are deemed appropriate. As an example, the issue of global warming is also discussed with opposing viewpoints.

Mrs. Migl has taught Biology for Shiner High School for the past 8 years. Her service record is spotless, and neither her professionalism nor teaching techniques has ever been questioned. Mrs. Migl has been questioned about this issue, and she is mortified by this accusation.

In the future I would encourage this parent to contact my office if he/she has any further complaints of this nature. In addition, I would encourage the parent to meet with the campus principal and Mrs. Migl to clarify any concerns he/she may have.

Thank you, and good day.

Trey Lawrence

Elliott replied with a letter that noted the instruction violated clear precedent in the 5th Circuit, adding, “District science teachers cannot undercut the teaching of evolution by presenting their own ‘alternative’ religion-based views.”

Lawrence replied by e-mail: “Mrs. Migl will no longer be allowed to show this video, nor [sic] any other presenting such a view.”

Board chooses 0, not 10 Commandments

The Rapides Parish Police Jury, the governing body of Rapides Parish, La., ultimately voted against placing the Ten Commandments in courtrooms after a letter of complaint from FFRF. The proposal received committee approval against the advice of parish legal counsel.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter of complaint on behalf of a parish resident, arguing that the display would violate the Establishment Clause. Anticipating legal problems with the original display, Juror John Lincecum proposed adding other documents to show the “role of faith in American history.”

Elliott said in his letter that these efforts would not succeed, citing the Supreme Court’s ruling in McCreary Co. v. ACLU of Ky.

The board voted 6-3 against the proposal April 11. Juror Oliver Overton was quoted as saying, “Like I said, when I was sworn in, I took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and Louisiana. I will not make a decision to knowingly violate the law.”

FFRF complaint makes rapture fliers vanish

FFRF alerted the U.S. Post Office in Lothian, Md., about a stack of religious fliers placed in the lobby. The flier headline read, “God Gives Another Infallible Proof that Assures the Rapture Will Occur May 21, 2011.”

Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, noted in an April 4 letter to Postmaster Derma Malden that the fliers violate postal regulations and the U.S. Constitution.

On April 28, Malden replied: “I want to personally apologize on behalf of the Postal Service. We regret this experience, which does not reflect our high standards of service. We do not condone and are not impartial to any fliers being placed in the lobby of our post offices.

“These particular fliers could have been left after a check was completed. However, they were noticed later that afternoon and disposed of.”

Schools won’t host baccalaureate

FFRF ended a serious state-church violation at Cedar Cliff High School in New Cumberland, Pa., involving a religious baccalaureate service.

On June 3, 2010, the school hosted the baccalaureate service under the direction of two teachers. The service included an invocation, religious message and benediction by Pastor Jeff Davidson and a performance of the religious “Anthem Dedication” by student members of the Chamber Singers.

Several days later, Red Land High School, also part of the West Shore School District, held a baccalaureate at the school. Students sang “A Closing Prayer” and “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” Cedar Cliff scheduled and transported students to an official baccalaureate practice after senior exams June 3. Both services used the district seal.

Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, sent a stern letter July 1, 2010, to Superintendent Jamry Small:

“As an inherently religious event, a baccalaureate service may not be held or financially supported by a public school. . . . School sponsorship, or even the appearance of sponsorship, of baccalaureate services is unconstitutional and any endorsement, participation, planning or promotion of the services must cease immediately.

“End-of-the-year celebrations mean a lot not only to Christian students but also to students practicing non-Christian religions and the 15% of your student population who are nonreligious,” she added. “A secular, school-sponsored awards night may benefit from full school endorsement and has the added advantage of being entirely inclusive of students and families from all types of religious or nonreligious backgrounds.”

While the district hasn’t officially responded, the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported April 6 that “Cedar Cliff High School no longer will host a baccalaureate service before graduation. According to a notice sent to parents and students, the West Shore School District received a complaint last summer that the program could cross constitutional boundaries separating church and state. . . . The note says most schools in Pennsylvania stopped hosting the service years ago because of constitutional questions regarding the separation of church and state, and ‘we are now doing similarly.’ ”

Nick Pantalone, Cedar Cliff student body president, said a committee will look into alternative locations.

Freedom From Religion Foundation