It Pays to Complain: November 2011

FFRF protects Michigan state employees

FFRF action convinced the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) to change its oath-taking practice to permit secular affirmations.

DHS offices throughout Michigan were making employees retake their oaths of office. The complainant informed FFRF that when the oath was administered to the employees, the phrase “so help me God” was included. Employees were not given the option to either swear or affirm. On Oct. 25, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to DHS Director Maura Corrigan, alerting her to the constitutional violation.

a On Nov. 1, FFRF received assurance from Corrigan that the protocol would be altered. Her letter noted, “[T]o better meet the needs of all DHS employees, I have changed my practice to ask staff to affirm or swear. Further, I also now advise staff that they are welcome to omit the words ‘so help me God.’ That language is now entirely optional.”

FFRF stops Tennessee in-service prayer

FFRF stopped prayer and religion at a mandatory employee in-service at a Tennessee correctional facility.

An alarmed employee and FFRF members in Tennessee notified FFRF that the Tennessee Correction Academy in Tullahoma was engaging in religious practices at an employee in-service. FFRF was told there were bibles in employees’ rooms and prayer while employees were in formation. It was also FFRF’s understanding that there were religious postings in the gym.

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter Sept. 16 to Academy Superintendent Sam DiNicola advising him of the violations.

DiNicola replied Oct. 12: “Please be advised that as of Oct. 2, 2011, a presentation which informs or reminds trainees of the separation between church and state has been added to all academy orientation sessions presented to trainees shortly after their arrival.”

All religious postings in the gym have been removed, and the practice of putting bibles in dorms will stop, DiNicola said.

FFRF teaches Madison district a lesson

FFRF saved Madison [Wis.] Metropolitan School District (MMSD) employees from taking part in a nonsecular staff meeting.

An MMSD staff member was shocked to find out that middle-school staff development meetings were scheduled to take place at a Presbyterian church in late October, at a time when students would not be present in school buildings, allowing for ample space and no need to seek refuge in churches.

FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a letter of complaint to Superintendent Daniel Nerad on Sept. 22.

Although FFRF received a response from the district’s legal counsel that “[T]he district intends to move forward with the scheduled staff meetings,” a complainant notified FFRF on Oct. 31 that both meetings had been moved to a room in the middle school.

Even in Bethlehem, this is illegal

FFRF brought an end to a church bulletin discount at Bethlehem Brew Works in Bethlehem, Pa. A resident sent FFRF a copy of a menu for “ ‘Show Your Spirit’ Brunch!” reading “Bring in the current week’s bulletin from your local congregation and everyone at your table will receive $2 off any of the following brunch menu items!”

FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a letter Oct. 17 to Brew Works: “Offering this discount violates the federal Civil Rights Act in addition to provisions of state civil rights statutes.”

On Oct. 24, Brew Works said by email that the Sunday brunch discount had been discontinued.

FFRF grounds Alabama football prayer

FFRF received a complaint in September from a concerned resident of Lauderdale County, Ala., about Christian prayers over the loudspeaker at Brooks High School in Killen before home football games.

In a Sept. 15 letter, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt asked Superintendent William Valentine to “take immediate action to ensure that prayers are not scheduled at any school-sponsored events. After a follow-up letter Oct. 17, the district brought a halt to their illegal practice.

In an Oct. 31 response, the district enclosed an Oct. 27 memo sent by Valentine to district administrators and employees saying, “Effective immediately, football games are not to be opened with a prayer that is in any way led, directed, organized or encouraged by Lauderdale County Board of Education employees.”

Valentine added, “Additionally, no student, parent, volunteer, or anyone else may use the public address system of the stadium to lead, direct, organize, or encourage prayer.”

FFRF’s complaint received a lot of local media coverage.

FFRF complaint stops faith-based assembly

The Chesterfield County [S.C.] School District canceled a student assembly featuring a presentation by a faith-based drug rehabilitation center after FFRF sent a letter Oct. 17 on behalf of a local complainant. The assembly was set for Oct. 27 at New Heights Middle School in Jefferson, where FFRF successfully contested further appearances during the school day by Christian rapper B-SHOC and the planting of Christian crosses on the lawn.

The Oct. 27 assembly was to have featured speakers from the Bethel Colony of Mercy rehabilitation facility, self-described on its website as “missionaries to the addicted” offering “a 65-day residential program that teaches victory over sin through Jesus Christ and the Bible.” FFRF received information that a permission slip to attend the assembly, with a warning that “there is a possibility of a guest making faith-based statements,” was sent home with students.

FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt’s letter to David Duff, school attorney, noted that the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against school-sponsored religious exercise cannot be overcome by claiming such activities are “voluntary.” While FFRF understands the importance of drug and alcohol education, Schmitt said, “It is extremely disturbing that the school district would select this facility. There are several other government-run organizations, such as police departments, that are secular in nature and are well-qualified to present anti-drug awareness.

“Given the overt Christian nature of Bethel Colony of Mercy, we are extremely concerned that their religious focus will bleed into the message presented at the school assembly. Therefore, we ask that the district immediately cancel the presentation to be given by Bethel Colony of Mercy.”

Duff responded Oct. 25 to say the “Bethel Colony appearance as a school-sponsored event during the school day, involving students, has been canceled.” Duff added that it’s his understanding that the group “is to appear and present information following a PTO meeting in the evening on Nov. 17, 2011.”

The district has also responded to an FFRF open records request for the lease agreement and fee schedule for B-SHOC’s performance at McBee High School on Oct. 28, a staff development, no-student day. The school leased the gym, canteen and restrooms for $210 ($15 an hour), from noon to 2 a.m.

Gideon bibles out after FFRF complains

FFRF received recent assurances from three school districts that they would halt illegal bible distributions.

A concerned Georgia parent alerted FFRF in September about bible distribution by Gideons International inside Chatsworth [Ga.] Elementary School. According to the parents, their child came home with a bible and said the teacher had walked students down a hallway to a table to receive a New Testament bible.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott noted in a Sept. 27 letter to Murray County Schools Superintendent Vickie Reed: “The district cannot legally allow its campuses to be utilized by overreaching proselytizers.”

In an Oct. 12 response, the district told FFRF, “We have been advised by the Gideons that their organization will no longer be making bibles available at information tables in our schools.”

FFRF was alerted by a Fort Collins, Colo., parent about the Gideons handing out bibles after school to students who didn’t want them outside of Webber Middle School, where they may have trespassed on school grounds and allegedly blocked the sidewalk. In a Sept. 27 letter of complaint, Elliott asked Poudre School District Superintendent Jerry Wilson to “make sure the Gideons’ actions fall within the confines of the law.”

In an Oct. 4 response, an attorney for the district responded, “In light of the problems on Sept. 12, 2011, the school district is considering various options to protect students’ rights as they travel home from school on public streets and sidewalks if and when the Gideons return to distribute bibles and other literature. These options include a request for law enforcement personnel to monitor the Gideons’ distribution.”

Elliott wrote a Sept. 22 letter of complaint to the Norwood School District in Norwood, Mo., protesting bible distribution by Gideons at a table directly outside the school entrance during school hours. On Sept. 28, Superintendent John Eaton replied, “I will write the local Gideons a letter making sure they understand that they cannot be on school property nor can they try to distribute religious literature during school hours.” 

Freedom From Religion Foundation