FFRF Legal Victories

School: No prayer,
no graduation 

The Riverside School District Board in Lake City, Ark., voted May 6 to cancel its May 23 sixth-grade graduation ceremonies at two elementary schools after FFRF challenged the tradition of prayers at the ceremonies.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott complained to the district April 15 on behalf of a concerned parent: “It makes no difference how many families want prayer or wouldn’t be offended by prayer,” Elliott wrote. “The Supreme Court has settled this matter — school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students.”

Parent Kelly Adams, whose son would have graduated, told KAIT-TV, “We serve a God. And we should have the right to serve that God anywhere.” Her daughter closed last year’s ceremony with a prayer. Parents are organizing a ceremony instead at a church, she said. “We want everyone to be a part of it. We’re not trying to be pushy or ugly to anybody. We just want them to know that there is a God who loves them.”

Rev. Arthur Hunt Jr. of Hunt Memorial Cathedral of Faith appeared on a Fox Radio show to promote the myth that the Constitution “allows us to see our purpose in this nation of being under God.” Hunt asked, “Do we want to wait for another bomb or a mass shooting before the assembly and prays again?”

FFRF Co-President Dan Barker likened the cancellation to people “taking their ball and going home because they don’t like playing by the rules set out by numerous courts over the years. The word God is not mentioned in our entirely secular Constitution.”

Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor added, “Maybe in the 19th century it was a big deal to ‘graduate’ from sixth grade, but in today’s educational world, such a ceremony hardly seems relevant.”


Dinosaur ‘truth’ was mammoth mistake

Blackhurst Elementary School, St. Charles, Mo., will no longer allow guest speakers to indoctrinate students with misinformation about science, history and reality.

A concerned parent reached out to FFRF after students as young as 5 attended a school assembly in early April featuring a speaker with ties to the Creation Truth Foundation based in Noble, Okla. The speaker passed out fliers encouraging students to attend “Creation Truth Weekend” at Harvester Christian Church. The foundation promotes “research” that claims Americans’ only hope is to blindly follow the literal truth of the bible.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott asked Superintendent Jeff Marion in an April 15 letter to investigate the incident. “We are aware that some Christian proselytizers insinuate themselves into public schools through camouflaging their purposes and by professing to be experts in a secular field,” Elliott said. “It is incumbent that public officials do ‘due diligence’ when approached by outside groups with vested interests in pitching their messages to a captive audience of public school students.”

Marion responded April 16, agreeing that parts of the assembly were inappropriate. He said he contacted the principal to reinforce “the importance of verifying the specific nature of any and all presentations held at school.”

He also said he reminded the principal about district policies on distribution of nonschool-sponsored materials.


Letters stop Georgia religious graduations

It took nearly a year, but FFRF complaint letters about Georgia public school employees injecting religion into graduation ceremonies have paid off. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter to Houston County Schools Superintendent Robin Hines on June 4, 2012, on behalf of a local complainant, who noted that Hines gave a religious speech resembling a sermon at the May 2012 ceremony at Veterans High School in Kathleen.

The ceremony also featured the audience being led in prayer and performance of the Christian worship song “Find Your Wings.”

Seidel sent a follow-up letter June 5 after learning that prayer and praise music also were featured at the 2012 graduation at Perry High School, which is included in the district.  Several complainants told FFRF that two prayers were included along with two religious songs. One, sung by a former cheerleader coach, was “How Great Is Our God.”

While the district never responded formally, in a May 2 story in the Macon Telegraph, Hines said there will be no school-sanctioned prayers, hymns or religious references this year at graduation due to FFRF’s litigation threat. The school system doesn’t have a choice, he said, because the law is clear.

Hines added, “If the valedictorians want to thank their parents, grandparents and God, that’s freedom of speech. We can’t stop that. As long as it’s not lewd, they can say whatever they want.”

The Telegraph praised the school’s “prudent” decision in an editorial, saying it’s wise not to incur legal expenses. “We are a pluralistic society with many faiths and beliefs. Parents want their children indoctrinated in their family’s faith. That faith is not always Christianity. After all, it’s a parent’s job to teach their children in their religious tradition, not the school’s.”


FFRF halts math teacher’s proselytizing

A math teacher at Harmony Grove High School in Benton, Ark., will no longer promote religion in class. FFRF was informed that the teacher regularly proselytized and made students listen to Christian radio and frequently held discussions in class time about her church and church groups and a TV show about the bible. She placed religious displays in the classroom, including bible quotes on ceiling tiles.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote Superintendent Daniel Henley on April 11. “Public school students are a captive audience and should not have to view materials promoting religious messages or listen to their math teacher expound on her private religious beliefs.”

Henley responded April 15 that the teacher had been instructed to remove the religious displays and to not discuss her religion.


Cross off school’s
‘rock of ages’

A depiction of a Latin cross on a large boulder near the football field was painted over at Dawson High School, Dawsonville, Ga., after a Feb. 15 complaint from Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott. 

In April, the concerned parent notified FFRF that the cross was painted over.

This is not Dawson High School’s first state-church separation problem. In October 2012, a concerned student alerted FFRF that the school was planning on giving students academic credit for attending bible study classes at a local bible “school.”

The classes were scheduled to begin in January 2013. In an Oct. letter to supporters, the bible school claimed that classes were accredited through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

After Elliott informed the district that the bible program was unaccredited, the school backed off on granting credit. No such classes are currently being offered.


FFRF letter makes
anti-bullying secular

A concerned parent of a student at Mire Elementary, Crowley, La., contacted FFRF after a play with an anti-bullying message included a Christian song.

Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote Superintendent John Bourque in a Feb. 28 letter: “While we applaud the efforts of your school district to prevent bullying, it is wholly inappropriate for a public school to teach songs with blatantly Christian and religious messages in a public school setting,” Cavell said.

Bourque responded March 21 that similar violations would not occur in the future.


School learns ID
is not so smart

A science teacher at Northwood Middle School in Mead, Wash., showed his seventh-grade class an “intelligent design” video titled “Unlocking the Mystery of Life.” At the end, he reportedly told students that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution breaks down if one part of a bacterial flagellum’s “machinery” were to occur out of order or not at all.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel informed Superintendent Tom Rockefeller in a March 20 letter that the video, which is endorsed by Campus Crusade for Christ, does a great disservice to students’ scientific literacy.

“Evolution, like gravity, is a scientific fact,” Seidel wrote. “Teaching that there is a scientific controversy about the validity of evolution is akin to teaching astronomy with astrology or alchemy beside chemistry.”

Rockefeller responded April 8 that the district reviewed the incident and the video will not be shown anymore.


Wendy’s ends church bulletin bargain

Florida atheists and non-Christians will now get the same discount in the future at a Tallahassee Wendy’s as the burger chain’s churchgoing patrons. Restaurant staff had denied an atheist a 20% discount available on Sundays to patrons with a church bulletin.

In response to the discrimination, Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell contacted the store owner Feb. 21. The restaurant’s legal counsel replied by letter April 8 that the marketing promotion was ended.


Jesus fish caught,
freed from court

A Jesus fish display was removed from the Municipal Court Office in City Hall in Rolla, Mo., after a local resident asked FFRF to complain. Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell contacted city officials April 4 about the symbol visible to all citizens required to visit the court office. 

City Administrator John Butz responded in an email the same day to report the Jesus fish had been relocated to a private location.


German Fest agrees discount verboten

Sunday worship discounts for German Fest at the Summerfest grounds in Milwaukee have gone the way of those for Irish Fest and Mexican Fiesta after FFRF complaints. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott asked organizers in a Feb. 28 letter to treat all people equally and to modify its promotion that allowed festival patrons who attend a church service to enter free. Everyone else was required to pay the $13 entrance fee. The church service rotates between a Catholic Mass and a Protestant service.

German Fest’s legal counsel responded March 29, writing that the admission promotion and church service attendance will be uncoupled. All festival attendees will now get free admission if they enter between 11:30 and noon on Sunday.


FFRF scotches grant
for church sign

The Common Council of Muskego, Wis., voted 6-1 against giving a $3,000 grant to a church to build a new sign after Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott weighed in on the issue March 26 after being alerted by a resident. The city’s Community Development Authority had recommended grant approval.

Elliott pointed out that the project is beyond the scope of Muskego’s grant program for businesses because the church is not a commercial property. The grant program is only intended to create economic development to expand the tax base.

FFRF member Scott Weiss of Muskego also spoke at the council meeting in opposition to the grant.


FFRF fades Christian movie to black 

The Kirtland Middle School principal in Kirtland, N.M., canceled plans to show the 2006 Christian drama titled “Facing the Giants” after Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel called the district superintendent about the planned showing. The movie’s tagline is a New Testament verse, “With God, all things are possible.” A concerned teacher contacted FFRF a few hours before the movie was slated to be shown.  

The movie, produced by Sherwood Baptist Church and distributed by the Trinity Broadcasting Network, tells the story of a high school football coach whose team can barely win a game, is in danger of losing his job, drives a jalopy and can’t get his wife pregnant. Then he turns himself and the team toward God, wins the state championship and finds his wife is indeed with child, and it’s his (we hope)!

Seidel told the superintendent that showing such a movie at a public middle school is very inappropriate. The superintendent agreed and ordered the movie to not be shown.

Rotten Tomatoes’ professional critics rated “Giants” at 13% on the Tomatometer, while audiences gave it 83%. Sometimes you just want a cheesy Christian drama. [Read Sarah Eucalano’s trenchant movie review on page 8.] 


Michigan graduation prayer is stopped

A concerned student at Galesburg-Augusta High School in Galesburg, Mich., contacted FFRF hoping to stop prayers at her upcoming May 31 graduation.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert contacted Superintendent Tim Vagts on Feb. 18, noting that “The Supreme Court has settled this matter — high school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students.”

Vagts affirmed May 1 that prayer would not be included in the ceremony this year or at future graduations. 


Lord’s Prayer off meeting agenda

The Board of Supervisors in Newberry Township, Pa., will no longer recite the Lord’s Prayer at monthly meetings. A concerned resident contacted FFRF to report the ongoing state/church violation.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to each board supervisor, urging removal of the inappropriate, divisive and exclusively Christian prayer from public meetings.

The Harrisburg Patriot-News reported April 25 that the board’s most recent meeting did not include any government-led prayer.


Ohio city detached from prayer event

Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Michael Coleman and a city office coordinated and organized the interfaith prayer service, which took place on June 12, 2012, with a Baptist preacher as keynote speaker.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a complaint letter to Coleman on June 6, 2012, about the illegal coordination. She also filed an open records request, which showed heavy city involvement. The city’s website advertised the event, a city office was in charge of ticket sales and a city employee was the contact person for the event.

In a June 25, 2012, memo, Michael Reese, mayoral chief of staff, said that while Coleman would continue to lend his name to the breakfast, no city resources would be used to organize, plan or conduct the 2013 prayer service.

FFRF and a longtime FFRF member from Columbus monitored the May 9 event. Markert confirmed that instead of a city office, Coleman for Columbus, the mayor’s campaign organization, coordinated the event. Coleman for Columbus is barred from using government resources.


Disclaimer added
to school posters

A concerned parent contacted FFRF when posters announcing the May 2 National Day of Prayer were put up at Tiffin High School in Tiffin, Ohio. The posters contained a bible quote from Matthew 12:21, “In His name the nations will put their hope.”

The posters did not identify if they had been put up by a student group or by the school district. The parent was also concerned that a National Day of Prayer event was scheduled at the school.

In a response April 23 to an April 19 letter from Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, Superintendent Don Coletta said the posters were put up by a student group, Students Taking a New Direction (STAND). He said their May 2 event would not be held during school hours and participation would be voluntary.

Coletta said disclaimers were added to the posters to make it clear that the event was not sponsored or promoted by the school district.


School play not
the time to pray

A concerned parent of a student at North Knox Primary School, Bicknell, Ind., contacted FFRF after the principal delivered a Christian prayer at a kindergarten play.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a complaint letter March 13 to Superintendent Darrel Bobe: “The law is clear. School events must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students. It is coercive and inappropriate for a principal at a school function to urge attendees to participate in prayer.”

Bobe responded April 17 that the district’s administrative staff would not lead, direct or ask students to engage in prayer in the future.


Schools end Gideons bible handouts

The Gideons will no longer hand out bibles at graduation at St. Johns River State College, a public school in Palatka, Fla. FFRF received a complaint from a concerned student who was recently a part of a school ceremony at which the Gideons were allowed to distribute bibles.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted one of the college’s general counsels in a Feb. 12 letter. “This matter is especially troublesome in light of the wide range of cultures and faiths that were represented at graduation,” Seidel said. “The culmination of years of secular, publicly funded education should not end in an exclusionary distribution of bibles at the hands of a faculty member.”  

The executive vice president and general counsel responded March 6 to say there will no longer be bible distributions at college ceremonies.  

• • •

FFRF stopped the Gideons from distributing New Testament bibles to fifth graders in the Gates County School District in Gatesville, N.C. A concerned parent contacted FFRF when her student came home with a permission slip to receive a bible from a member of the Ahoskie Gideon Camp at Buckland Elementary on April 23. 

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent the district an open records request April 19 to get information on its distribution policies. 

District legal counsel responded April 29 that the school had chosen to cancel the bible distribution. The attorney added that the district had updated its distribution policy to bar groups like the Gideons from handing out bibles. 


Calif. city median cleared of cross

The city of Santa Ana, Calif., removed a Latin cross attached to a tree on a city median after getting an FFRF complaint on behalf of a resident.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Mayor Miguel Pulido about the violation Dec. 28, 2012: “The display of this patently religious symbol on this street confers government endorsement of Christianity in an extremely public way.”

Raul Godinez II, public works executive director, responded March 20 that the cross had been removed from the public median.

FFRF also resolved a state-church violation in March at an elementary school in Santa Ana, where students presented a play about Jesus’ birth. The administration said religious plays won’t be presented in the future.


Thanks to journalism intern Sarah Eucalano for compiling FFRF’s legal victories.

Freedom From Religion Foundation