Christmas cross won’t return to Illinois water tower

The village of Alsip, Ill., will not display a Latin cross on the village water tower this holiday season after receiving demands from FFRF to end the practice.

The annual display of an illuminated cross each December on its distinctive water tower brought a complaint from FFRF last December. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote that the display violated precedent by the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Illinois. FFRF sent the village a reminder Nov. 6 about the illegality of the cross.

Mayor Patrick Kitching posted a letter on the village’s website during the week of Nov. 18:

“A tradition for almost 35 years here in the Village of Alsip is coming to an end. You will notice this year our holiday decoration on the West Water Tower (Holiday Cross) will not be erected nor [sic] lit. We have an organization out of Wisconsin, Freedom from Religion Foundation, who is threatening a lawsuit for having a holiday symbol that can be construed as a religious decoration. It is considered to be unconstitutional. Other municipalities have been brought to suit regarding this very same issue and have lost. We have chosen not to waste taxpayer dollars to fight a losing battle in court. The holiday cross will be replaced with a different holiday decoration in the future, however, I am not sure this process can be completed in time for Christmas of 2012.”

Kitching added, “I am very saddened by this and had hoped we would not have to change tradition, however in these economic times, the Village cannot afford to waste any tax dollars on a lawsuit that simply cannot be won.”

In years past, the illuminated cross could be seen by heavy traffic on Interstate 294. FFRF learned through a Freedom of Information Act request that the village Water Department installs and removes the cross each year.

The original installation of the cross, along with a decoration on another water tower, cost the village $3,200 in 2003.

Proselytizing teacher also big bully 

A high school biology teacher in Cheektowaga, N.Y., a Buffalo suburb, removed religious displays from her classroom and will no longer proselytize as a result of an FFRF complaint.  A student alerted FFRF after the teacher invited a guest speaker who promoted Christianity and used biblical quotes from Isaiah and Judges. There were also four posters with bible quotes in the classroom. The complainant also noted a cross painted in a hallway.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent Superintendent Dennis Kane a letter June 7. Kane said in a June 22 reply that the cross in the hallway and religious posters had been removed. He said the district discussed the student’s concerns with the teacher.  

The student complainant reported that the teacher showed a copy of FFRF’s June 7 letter to her class on June 12, the last day of school, disclaiming responsibility for her actions. The teacher also attacked the student anonymously, saying whoever had complained to FFRF lacked integrity and character and was on the same level as a student who had cheated on the class’s final exam. 

Markert responded to the teacher’s inappropriate handling of the situation with a June 14 letter to Kane. “Bullying is rampant in schools. Teachers should strive to conduct their classes in an inclusive manner so that students can participate fully without compromising their own personal beliefs.”

Kane responded Sept. 11 that the teacher’s conduct was addressed and she was directed to not discuss religion in her classroom.


FFRF closes book on bible handouts 

FFRF stopped Gideons International from distributing bibles to fifth-graders at Central Elementary School in Magnolia, Ark. Before FFRF’s involvement, men from Gideons were scheduled to give a presentation to students and then present them with bibles.

“Courts have held that the distribution of bibles to students at public schools is prohibited,” wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott in an Oct. 31 letter to Superintendent John Moore. Elliott added that districts cannot allow any group to distribute religious material during the school day.

FFRF received word Nov. 5 that the Gideons were not allowed to be on campus. 


FFRF letter ends religious song

First-graders at Ada Givens Elementary School in Merced, Calif., will no longer be instructed to sing “God Bless America” in the classroom. 

A district parent told FFRF that her 6-year-old daughter was being taught to sing the religious song in class. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Superintendent RoseMary Parga Duran on Oct. 17: “The first verse of ‘God Bless America’ ends with, ‘As we raise our voices in solemn prayer.’ A prayer conceived, hosted and advocated by a publicly-supported school does not pass constitutional muster.” 

The school district issued a positive response Oct. 25: “The principal spoke to the teacher about the complaint and about the district’s policy regarding these matters. The teacher was very apologetic and stated she never intended to offend any of her students, or make them uncomfortable in her class. She immediately discontinued singing patriotic songs.”

[Editor’s note: “patriotic” songs?]


FFRF: Just say no
to drug prayer

The Cherokee County School District (Canton, Ga.) has stopped including religious messages on anti-drug ribbons during “Red Ribbon Week.” During a special drug prevention week, the district distributed ribbons to students that said “God answers prayers, drugs don’t.” The ribbons also depicted two hands praying.

After being alerted by a concerned parent, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote an Oct. 26 letter to Superintendent Frank Petruzielo urging him to “remain sensitive to the diverse religious and nonreligious views of students and staff. While the anti-drug concept is laudable, the injection of religion into the public schools is unconstitutional. Government actors must be especially careful to remain neutral on matters of religion in the public school context.”

A school district attorney replied Oct. 30: “[S]taff has been counseled to be more careful in the future in giving even an appearance of promoting religion.” 


Football bible banners won’t happen again

FFRF received a local complaint after Stone High School cheerleaders held a banner with a bible quote at a football game in Wiggins, Miss.  

Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a letter Oct. 17 to Stone County School District Superintendent Gwen Miller. FFRF has contacted the district in the past about prayer at school-sponsored athletic events.

District attorney Sean Courtnal called FFRF on Oct. 22 to say the district took this violation very seriously and that it would not happen again. [Editor’s note: Till the next time it happens, when FFRF will again contact the district about flouting the law.]


School counselors leave religion at door

FFRF helped Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Oklahoma City rethink its use of religion in school assemblies and counseling sessions. 

A local complainant witnessed several incidents at an Oct. 4 assembly. A third-party counselor was invited to speak to students after a bullying incident. The speaker described “what heaven looks like” and “how we get to heaven.” Even more egregiously, the speaker told students “the way they were acting was not going to get them into heaven.”

Counselors were also being forced to distribute fliers to students. One listed worship times at a church and a Gamblers Anonymous meeting schedule.

Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Nov. 5 to Superintendent Karl Springer, urging the district to “refrain from hosting overtly religious assemblies” and religious flier distribution.

General counsel for the district told Seidel in a Nov. 9 phone call that the superintendent agrees “that their current policy on religion in the public schools is ‘clearly not enough for nonlawyers’ and they are going ‘to draft a new policy.’ ” She added that this will involve additional staff training. 


‘First priority’: warn about religious clubs

Austin High School (Decatur, Ala.) teachers will no longer sponsor the First Priority Club, a Christian, noncurricular group that describes itself as a vision with a comprehensive plan of action to reach and disciple a generation with the message of Jesus Christ.

A photo caption in the local paper described the relationship between the school and churches: “Austin High School students, teachers and youth pastors join hands and pray at the closing of the First Priority club meeting Tuesday.”

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Oct. 19 to Superintendent Edwin Nichols: “A public school may not endorse or provide preferential treatment to a Christian club. While students may organize religious clubs, we are concerned that FPC is not ‘student-inititated’ or ‘student-run.’ Students might presume that this Christian club is sponsored by the school because of the apparent role of school faculty in organizing club activities.” 

Nichols responded in a Oct. 29 letter that he would “review with the teacher providing custodial oversight of this student noncurricular group and make sure that they understand their parameters as related to the legal ramifications cited in your letter.”  


Pep rally prayers stopped in Texas

Ballinger [Texas] Independent School District no longer selects a student prayer leader during pep rallies as a result of a Sept. 18 letter from Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt. FFRF received a complaint from a Ballinger alumnus.  

Superintendent Will Brewer in a Sept. 26 response letter thanked FFRF for alerting him to the violation and said that the district does not endorse religion and is reviewing the pep rally program. “Ballinger ISD employees do not request that students engage in prayer, privately or publicly, nor do they encourage or otherwise lead students in prayer,” Brewer said.  

Football coach brags
he breaks the law

After receiving an Oct. 25 letter from Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, Newton County Schools ordered a football coach in Covington, Ga., to stop leading students in prayer at practices and games. 

Occasionally, FFRF receives taunting “complaints” from teachers, coaches and government officials intentionally violating the Establishment Clause. Rick Hurst, head football coach and athletic director at Eastside High School in Covington, wrote one such email to FFRF, defending another praying coach and happily thumbing his nose at the Constitution:

“I am a Christian first and a Head Football Coach in the state of Georgia . . .  I have open prayer at my practices and before and after our games. If a player does not want to participate I would kindly excuse him.”

Unwilling to limit his bragging to constitutional violations, Hurst pointed out that we here at FFRF are probably going to hell:

“Here is the important question that I ask to ALL of you. What if your [sic] right about your idea of there not being a God? Well, that would be ok for all of us including myself. But, what if I am right about my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and you are wrong. I am still ok, but where does that leave you?” 

The letter was signed, “Rick Hurst (A believer).”

Seidel sent a copy of the email to Superintendent Gary Matthews. FFRF received a copy of a Nov. 5 letter from Matthews to Hurst, chastising the coach: “Legal counsel for the Newton County School Board of Education has reviewed this matter and confirmed that your actions may violate federal law, including but not limited to the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, you must cease and desist these actions immediately.”


Another school board drops meeting prayer

There was no prayer before the Eastern Lancaster County  (Elanco)[Pa.] School Board meeting Nov. 12, according to LancasterOnline.

The board decided to halt the practice after getting an FFRF complaint letter in August. The Anti-Defamation League of Philadelphia also pressured Elanco to stop praying.

Superintendent Robert Hollister notified FFRF after the October board meeting that Elanco would no longer open meeting with a board member leading a prayer.

“After consultation with our solicitor, it was clear that the district would lose the lawsuit,” Hollister told LancasterOnline in an email. “So rather than throw money away and simultaneously add fuel, cash, to the coffers of those organizations, the board made the logical choice to withdraw the formal prayer.”

Four other Pennsylvania school districts also agreed this year to stop prayer at board meetings after getting letters from Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert. A fifth school board dropped prayer in 2011 after getting a warning letter.

FFRF thanks current interns JJ Rowling, Maddy Ziegler, Calli Miller, Sarah Eucalano, legal assistant Liz Cavell and publicist Katie Stenz.

Freedom From Religion Foundation