Legal victories shore up wall of separation

FFRF gets sexist posters removed

Lincoln High School in Manitowoc, Wis., took down sexist prom posters sponsored by a Catholic health care provider and a “crisis” pregnancy center after FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent an April 29 complaint letter.

The poster featured a silhouette of a girl in a dress made out of words suggesting supposedly desirable qualities for women, including “quiet, gentle and classy.” The Crossing of Manitowoc County, a Christian anti-abortion group, and Holy Family Memorial, which offers faith-based health services and is operated by the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, sponsored the poster message.

The complaint was picked up by national media, with many stories pointing out the poster implied that girls who had sex had no character and would no longer embody qualities named in the poster. Senior Kelsey Schindl met with Principal Luke Valitchka to ask if she could put up posters countering the “shaming” message but was refused.

“The insinuation that if you do have sex, then you don’t have any character any more is a horrible message to send,” Schindl said. “I’m not endorsing teen sex, but you’re not a bad person if you do and you’re not a bad person if you don’t.”

Grover wrote, “When a school district allows a private religious organization to advertise on the walls of its school, it entangles itself with the religious message being advertised. As it stands, Principal Valitchka appears to have denied students the right to advertise a message on the same topic as the religious advertisements currently on display solely because their message is an opposing viewpoint.”

Manitowoc Public School District Superintendent Marcia Flaherty responded April 30, denying that the posters were religious but confirming they were taken down.

Missouri school drops ‘character assembly’

After FFRF objected to inappropriate religious references at a public school assembly in Branson, Mo., the district has taken steps to ensure future assemblies will be religion-free.

Last October, Branson Junior High School hosted a “character assembly” sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. A former football player offered to pray with students, told them to give all their problems to Jesus and handed out football cards with a testimonial about how God and Jesus had helped him through difficult times.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote the district March 27: “Providing a school assembly with religious content by a Christian speaker gives the appearance that Branson Public Schools endorses that speaker’s religious message.”

Superintendent Doug Hayter responded April 3 that the administration discussed policies regarding neutrality toward religion with the school principal and would “review these guidelines with our entire administrative team to ensure knowledge and full compliance.”

California official won’t endorse prayer

A Solano, Calif., County supervisor will no longer officially participate in a prayer breakfast. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Supervisor Linda Seifert on April 1, objecting to her participation in the Vallejo Prayer Breakfast: “It is unlawful under the First Amendment for a government employee to attend the event in an official capacity or to place official government seals on publications of the event.”

Seifert responded April 6, saying she would not authorize the use of her title and the county seal as a sponsor or participant in future prayer events.

Georgia teachers can sit out pledge

The principal at Greenbrier Elementary School, Evans, Ga., will no longer make teachers participate in the Pledge of Allegiance to “set an example” for students.
“The Supreme Court ruled over 70 years ago that compelling participation in the Pledge of Allegiance was constitutionally impermissible,” wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a letter to the district. “Employees should not be singled out, rebuked or otherwise penalized for following their freedom of conscience.”
Columbia County Schools Superintendent Sandra Carraway responded soon after, informing FFRF that the district “recognize[s] and support[s] our inability to compel anyone to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance,” and would educate the principal on the law.

FFRF shuts down Oklahoma proselytizing

Students in the Cleveland, Okla., School District will no longer be subjected to bible distributions and harassment from teachers about religion.

FFRF received a complaint that a teacher at Cleveland Intermediate School read aloud to the class from a bible. When the complainant’s child asked her to stop because “not everyone believes the same thing,” the teacher allegedly refused because it was “her personal reading material.” The teacher later reportedly singled out the student, saying she bet the student didn’t know a certain bible verse. The school principal and another man also handed out bibles to students as they left school.

In a March 30 letter, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel detailed the problems with the school employees’ conduct: “Public schools have a duty to ensure that ‘subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion’ or use their positions of authority to promote a particular religious viewpoint.”

In an April 7 response, Superintendent Aaron Espolt said the bible distribution was done without his knowledge, adding that future distributions would not be permitted. In addition, the administration addressed bible reading with the teacher, which Espolt said would “prevent any future incidents.”

Student screening moved from church

The Tea Area School District, Tea, S.D., will end its practice of holding a mandatory kindergarten screening at a local church. In an April 9 letter of complaint, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote, “This practice forces parents and children, who may be of varying faiths or none at all, to enter a Christian house of worship in order to be screened to attend public school.”

Superintendent Jennifer Lowery replied April 29 that the screening would be moved to a district facility.

Praying Iowa coach told to stop

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote the Ankeny, Iowa, Community School District on Feb. 11 about a football coach illegally praying with his students. “We ask that you ensure coaches are not leading, organizing, inviting, encouraging or participating in prayers with their teams in the future.”

Superintendent Bruce Kimpston responded April 16 that the district provided guidelines to all high school activity directors to give to coaches: “Ankeny CSD respects the separation between government activity and religion. While we are grateful for any assistance our sports teams may receive, we understand that sponsoring religious practices is not an appropriate school function.”

Church trailer, awards venue remedied

Volusia County Schools, DeLand, Fla., remedied state/church violations after getting a Feb. 5 letter from Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. FFRF received a report that Spruce Creek High School in Port Orange let a church leave a trailer with a church ad on it in a school parking lot all week. The school also scheduled its senior honors awards program at a Baptist church.

Chief counsel for the district responded that the trailer would be removed entirely or have its message covered during the week. The district will use a secular location for the awards program in future years.

FFRF cures school’s religion addiction

Students at Central Freedom School in Mankato, Minn., will no longer be required to attend religious Alcoholics Anonymous programming.
Central Freedom, a public alternative school for students with chemical dependency issues, required AA meetings during the school day. Students who refused to attend might be found “resistant” or otherwise noncompliant.

“Public school programs may not encourage or require student recognition of a ‘greater power’ and that students turn their lives over to God,” wrote Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott, referencing some of AA’s famous 12 steps.

FFRF’s complainant reported that several changes were being made, including no further 12-step meetings held at the school. The district superintendent confirmed the changes April 16.

Virginia ‘release time’ punishment barred

Nottoway, Va., Public Schools students who do not attend religious “release time” will no longer be forced to clean rooms or do extra homework. At least one student at Blackstone Primary School who didn’t participate in a religious class off-campus was required to sweep and dust classrooms until the other students returned. In addition, class instructors reportedly pressured nonparticipating students to attend.

“Allowing release-time instructors to cajole primary students despite their parents’ objection is impermissible. Forcing nonparticipating students to partake in punitive exercises like dusting and sweeping, rather than enrichment activities, is downright coercive,” wrote Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott in an April 14 letter.
The district responded the next day, saying that what FFRF described as happening was not consistent with school policy and that teachers had been advised of those concerns.

Teacher told no more class prayer

Dawson County School District in Georgia took corrective measures about a teacher planning prayer at a class Christmas party. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote an April 8 letter after a complainant reported that a first-grade teacher at Robinson Elementary in Dawsonville told students and parents at the party, “Now let’s all bow our heads for the blessing.” A student then led a prayer.

Attorney Philip Hartley responded April 20, confirming that the incident had occurred as described. He reported that after talking to the teacher, the school was confident it would not happen again.

Vet center religious sign removed

Louis A. Johnson Veterans Administration Medical Center, Clarksburg, W.Va., has taken down a religious sign. A veteran contacted FFRF to report that while at the center to have his photo taken for an ID card, he encountered a sign saying each day was “a gift from God” positioned near the camera.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor sent a letter of objection Feb. 10 noting that 23% of military personnel currently choose “no religious preference” when asked.

The center’s director responded April 22 that the sign had been removed.

FFRF reins in Georgia baccalaureate

Mount Zion High School in Carrollton, Ga., will have no further involvement in a baccalaureate ceremony. FFRF Attorney Madeline Ziegler lodged a complaint with the district April 28 about a teacher in charge of planning the baccalaureate, a religious ceremony for graduates to be held at a church. A pastor was slated to speak and seniors were being pulled out of class to learn Christian worship songs to sing at the ceremony.

FFRF’s student complainant was told written permission from a parent and “a valid excuse” would be required to skip the ceremony.

Assistant Superintendent Terry Jones replied April 30, noting that the district made changes to ensure it was meeting legal requirements. FFRF’s complainant confirmed that the teacher was no longer in charge of the baccalaureate, practice was no longer held during the school day, and the school made it clear that the ceremony was completely voluntary.

Freedom From Religion Foundation