FFRF Legal Complaints

FFRF contests public agency chaplaincies

FFRF’s latest objection in a series of complaints about law enforcement chaplaincies went to the Orlando (Fla.) Police Department on Nov. 3. Orlando chaplains, as is typical, are required to be ordained ministers who counsel employees, their families and crime victims and assist with death notifications and other activities.

So far this year, FFRF has sent 14 letters of complaint about such chaplaincies, surpassing the past two years’ totals combined. Most have gone to public agencies in the South: three to Georgia and four to Florida. Many cities and counties are launching new chaplain programs, said FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, who has handled the bulk of the complaints. One involved a fire department.

FFRF’s letter explain that courts allow government-employed chaplains only as an accommodation where the government makes it difficult for people to seek out private ministries, as is the case with military service members or prisoners. Since there is no government-imposed religious burden on law enforcement officers or the public, the government does not need to provide chaplains.

“Favoring religious officers with free, on-the-job counseling while ignoring the needs of those of no faith is discriminatory,” Seidel noted. “If chaplains were adept at providing secular therapy, they would be therapists, not chaplains. There is no reason to think a nonbelieving employee would be comfortable dealing with a person who provides comfort from a religious viewpoint.”
There are few court decisions or laws governing law enforcement chaplaincies, which perhaps explains why agencies try to stonewall FFRF. Orlando Police Chief John Mina emailed back the day after receiving FFRF’s letter, saying, “I have no intention of discontinuing our Chaplain Program,” but failed to cite any law or decision permitting it to continue.

FFRF again takes on pulpit politicking

Before the Nov. 4 general election, FFRF provided the Internal Revenue Service with nine complaints about churches improperly endorsing or opposing candidates for political office. FFRF is investigating more complaints that came to light after that.

FFRF in August voluntarily dismissed its high-profile federal lawsuit against the IRS, challenging its failure to enforce its own electioneering restrictions against churches. FFRF dismissed its suit after the IRS indicated that it had resumed flagging churches involved with political intervention. FFRF may refile the suit if there is evidence the IRS has resumed looking the other way when tax-exempt churches violate the law.

Many complaints stem from pastors who purposely violate restrictions as part of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” an annual event put on by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian Right law firm. Many pastors, at the urging of ADF, have sent videos of their lawbreaking sermons directly to the IRS, hoping to incite a legal challenge to rescind the 1954 law against politicking by 501c3 churches. According to ADF, more than 1,700 pastors participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday in October.

Pastors reported to the IRS by FFRF include Skyline Church Pastor Jim Garlow of La Mesa, Calif. In a sermon, Garlow described a letter sent by some Christian Right groups to Republican leadership opposing certain Republican candidates across the country, including Carl MeMaio, running for California’s 52nd Congressional District. DeMaio is gay. Garlow encouraged his parishioners to go one step further and vote for DeMaio’s Democratic opponent as part of what he called “defensive tactical voting.” DeMaio lost by about 5,000 votes.

Other flagrant violations have come in the form of “sample ballots” provided by churches with “suggested candidates” filled in or highlighted. Legacy Church in Albuquerque, N.M., handed out such ballots to parishioners along with actual campaign materials for certain candidates. Three candidates were also introduced during the church’s Oct. 11 service.

Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Fla., set out “Conservative Primary Ballots” in August.

The ballots indicated how liberal or conservative each candidate was judged to be, placing stars next to the most conservative candidate in each race. Several other religious groups were reported for posting campaign signs on their property. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert handled those complaints.

Schools get ‘civics lesson’ on prayer

Coaches at Cape Henlopen High School in Lewes, Del., and Piedmont High School in Piedmont, Ala., will no longer lead their players in prayer or participate in students’ prayers.

Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote to the Cape Henlopen School District on Oct. 8 after receiving a report that the high school football coaches participated in a team prayer circle: “While students may wish to engage in prayer on their own, school staff, including coaches, cannot participate in or encourage such religious activities.”

In an Oct. 17 response, Superintendent Robert Fulton told FFRF he had discussed the matter with the administration and football coach, and said “employees, including coaches, will be reminded of laws involving the Separation of Church and State.”
In a similar violation, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert first wrote to Piedmont City Schools in March about Piedmont High’s unconstitutional practice of starting football games with prayer broadcast over the loudspeaker.

After several follow-up letters, Superintendent Matt Akin emailed Markert last summer: “Beginning immediately, the Piedmont City School District will no longer allow student-led prayer at athletic events.”

The complaint made news again in October after Piedmont High School posted a message on its Facebook page informing the public of its decision. Noting that FFRF had cited numerous Supreme Court cases in its letter, the post said, “While the personal opinions of the administration and employees of the system may differ with the opinions of the Court and the author of the letter sent to the system, the school system’s attorneys advised that we consent since there is established case law regarding this issue.”

“It’s a lesson in civics,” said Principal Adam Clemons, who manages the school Facebook page. “Sometimes the courts make decisions that we may or may not agree with, but we have to abide by those decisions.”

Tamara Woodard told the Anniston Star that she supports the Christian prayer. “I was surprised that anybody even complained about it our community.”

Her husband, Joe Woodard, said he’s also Christian but disagreed with her. “Now there are so many diverse religious groups that go to our school,” he said, adding that no member of any one religious group should be subjected to the prayers of another group. “It would not be right for a Christian in the crowd to be subjected to a Muslim or a Jewish prayer.”

While officially a moment of silence was announced at Piedmont’s Oct. 24 game, many in the crowd broke the silence by reciting the Lord’s Prayer in unison.

FFRF employs five staff attorneys and a legal fellow and has sent out more than 800 formal letters of complaint over state/church violations so far in 2014. Public school violations accounted for the greatest majority of letters. FFRF has halted over 150 state/church violations this year, including 13 related to prayer in public school athletics. FFRF stills middle school prayer

Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School in Honolulu will no longer allow a partner organization to pray with students after getting an Oct. 31 FFRF complaint letter.

The school holds “Family Reading for Success” events regularly. An attendee informed FFRF that a recent meeting opened with a sectarian prayer initiated by a nonprofit organization, Kula No Na Poe Hawaii, that partners with the school for the events.
“It is unlawful for any school-sponsored event, such as a meeting dedicated to student literacy, to include prayer,” wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a letter to the state Department of Education.

The school’s principal responded the same day to say that he had followed up with Kula No Na Poe Hawaii and reminded them that all school-sponsored events must remain prayer-free.

Religious assembly canceled in Texas

School administrators at Azle (Texas) ISD canceled an assembly set for Oct. 29 after getting an FFRF complaint letter. The assembly was to be presented by Seven at Schools, which is affiliated with the religious ministry Youth Alive North Texas, a “strategic outreach organization that maintains the vision of reaching every student in every school across the region and beyond with the life-changing message of Jesus Christ,” according to its website.

Although the group claimed that the assembly would have no religious content, a Seven at Schools representative told FFRF’s complainant that the personal stories in the presentation “would include religious themes, including discussion of God.”

Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent the district a letter Oct. 28 asking the district to ensure the presentation would be secular.

Acting on the advice of counsel, the district took even stronger action to ensure students would not be proselytized and canceled the assembly entirely, according to local news reports. Seven at Schools representatives gave a religious talk to Azle community members at a church that night.

Good news: Good News Unlinked

Greater Albany Public Schools in Oregon will no longer give preferential treatment to the Good News Club over other after-school groups. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent the district a complaint Sept. 11.

The district partners with community groups for early release day programs, including a community program, Boys and Girls Club and the Good News Club, a Christian organization. Seidel pointed out that the district’s link to the Good News website linked directly to its registration forms but instructed parents to contact other organizations directly to register. The club’s forms were also sent home with students the first week of school and made available at schools and were to be turned in to the school office. Fliers from other groups weren’t distributed.

“By extensively coordinating the Good News Club’s signup, the district is providing a benefit to the club that it does not afford other secular programs,” Seidel wrote. The complaint was forwarded to FFRF from its Portland chapter. Cheryl Kolbe, chapter president, said Oct. 29 that the website had been modified so that parents were instructed to contact the Good News Club directly for registration like the other groups.

Adults warned to back off prayer

Adults will no longer participate in religious activities at Bath High School in Lima, Ohio. Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Oct. 16 to Bath Local Schools after a local complainant forwarded a media profile of the school’s “team chaplain,” who, along with coaches, prayed with students.

Superintendent Dale Lewellen responded Oct. 23: “I recognized that the constitutional line may have been crossed and have taken appropriate steps to ensure it will not recur. Religious proselytization and/or participation by staff in their school capacities are not consistent with my aim to comply with applicable constitutional and statutory requirements.”

Mizzou U. cancels church discount

The University of Missouri agreed that a church bulletin discount offered as part of a volleyball ticket promotion was inappropriate, said the school’s director of athletics in response to an Oct. 16 letter from Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell.

A university employee informed FFRF that free admission was offered to the Sept. 28 game with a church bulletin as part of “Faith and Family Day.”

Cavell noted that the discount violated the federal Civil Rights Act, Missouri statute and raised Establishment Clause concerns.
Director of Athletics Michael Alden responded the next day, agreeing that the discount was “not consistent with our department’s practices and that we stopped the promotion from being carried out as described in the materials.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation