FFRF legal team tackles violations

Public school axes Christ-centered club

The Bible/Library Club that was a homeroom activity at Bellwood-Antis Middle School in Bellwood, Pa., was dropped by the public school district after a complaint by FFRF on behalf of a parent. FFRF sent a letter Sept. 13 about an Aug. 30 flier that was sent home with students listing the club as one of four that students could participate in during the first-semester homeroom activity period. The other three are chorus, band and cartooning.

The description for the Bible/Library Club, supervised by a librarian, said: “Students will assist in the various library activities of organizing and returning books to the shelves and creating bulletin boards. Students may participate in various ‘Christ’ centered activities such as devotional readings, Bible study, prayer and games.”

FFRF received a letter from Principal Donald Wagner on Sept. 14: “The club name has been changed. The new name of the club is Library Club. There is no reference to the Bible and there will not be any ‘Christ’ centered activities, devotionals, prayer or Bible study.”

That letter was followed by one Sept. 15 from school district attorney David Andrews: “The superintendent was not aware that this club was being conducted during the school day.” Andrews said the district “has taken immediate steps” to discontinue it during the school day and will not allow it to be led or supervised by a teacher. “The district will permit the Bible/Library Club to meet before or after school as a student-run organization,” Andrews said.

California school library balances books

Until receiving a letter from FFRF in July 2010, the Atascadero [Calif.] High School library had contained 10 Christian-themed books, including five or six bibles, which were prominently displayed in the nonfiction section, but lacked other religious or freethought texts.

“Public schools must remain neutral with regard to religion,” wrote Rebecca Markert, Foundation staff attorney. “This applies to the types of religious texts supplied by the public school library. . . . The practice of supplying public school students with the bible while not providing access to other religious and nonreligious alternatives violates the spirit of California law.”

Markert noted that such a practice also conflicts with the American Library Association’s “Library Bill of Rights.”

A district educational committee assessed the library’s collection and determined it would add other religious texts, including the Quran, Torah, Buddhist Dharma and freethought texts, placing these books on the shelves at the same level as Christian-oriented books.

“The committee welcomed the opportunity to meet, review and discuss the balance and resources of the library,” wrote the district. “The members believe that the committee’s recommendations are valid and will ensure our high school students access to balanced information.”

Graham group targets N.C. Army base

A good way to describe the Rock the Fort event Sept. 25 at Fort Bragg, N.C., was “out-of-control evangelism totally entangled with a military base.”

FFRF protested it with a letter and members responded to an Action Alert. The event put on by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was co-sponsored by the base’s Religious Support Office.

“Rock the Fort places the Army’s imprimatur on a strictly evangelical Christian message,” FFRF’s letter said. “Fort Bragg, where our brave Army servicemen and women train and live, should not be used as a platform for outside sectarian religious organizations.”

Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick responded lamely in a letter Sept. 22 that no one on base would be pressured to attend. “It is a well-settled issue of Constitutional Law that it is permissible for the military to have a Chaplain’s Corps and for that corps to offer events of a religious nature to Soldiers on Installations such as Fort Bragg,” Helmick wrote.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor noted that Helmick ignored an essential problem. “Military chaplains are employed to accommodate the religious practices of service members, not to impose religious practices on the public at large and servicemen and women at large.”

FFRF’s complain made ABC “Nightly News” and USA Today.

Gideons pick on Kentucky fifth graders

FFRF informed the Laurel County School District in London, Ky., that it’s illegal to let Gideons International distribute bibles to fifth-grade students.

FFRF sent a letter Sept. 13 to school officials after receiving a complaint from one of its Kentucky members. According to an Aug. 9 news story in the London Sentinel-Echo, the School Board approved distribution of New Testaments from tables inside county schools.

“Courts have held the distribution of bibles to students at public schools during instructional time is prohibited,” FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert said.

Even when distribution of religious materials in school is done passively — from a table or some other fixed location — such distribution is inappropriate, her letter noted.

The Foundation asked the district to adopt a policy to limit distribution of any nonschool material to literature that is directly related to educational goals and filed an open records request seeking a copy of the board’s policy that lets groups distribute religious materials, copies of board meeting minutes in which the policy was discussed and correspondence between Gideons and any Laurel County school staff.

School board attorney Larry Bryson told media it was OK for Gideons to distribute bibles to fifth graders because they had reached “the age of accountability.”

Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said, “What we need is a little accountability from the school district. This is irresponsible advice. Public schools may not serve as conduits and facilitators for the Gideons — an aggressive and predatory Christian male missionary society which openly targets fifth-grade students. Children in our public schools are a captive audience. These adult missionaries need to pick on someone their own size and stay out of our public schools.”

FFRF leads objections to shipboard prayers

On behalf of military members who strongly object to official prayers on board U.S. Navy ships, FFRF drafted and sent a letter, co-signed by several other groups, to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus to stop the unconstitutional prayers.

The First Amendment violation is occurring aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln (the aircraft carrier President Bush gave his 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech on), the USS Porter, the USNS Comfort and, most likely, other Navy ships, according to complainants. From FFRF’s Sept. 9 letter:

“It is our information and understanding that Navy personnel broadcast a prayer every night over the intercom system aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. We understand that these prayers are initiated with the announcement ‘Tattoo, tattoo, stand by for the evening prayer.’ One of the four chaplains or a person designated by the chaplains then delivers a prayer. We understand that the prayers, whether delivered by the chaplains or designees, are nearly always in the Christian tradition. We received information that sometimes the religious officiant even recites passages from the bible, including verses from the New Testament.

“It is our further understanding that the prayer is broadcast on all areas of the ship, including service members’ private staterooms. We are also told that the ship’s televisions (including those in staterooms) are remotely turned off during the prayer. We understand that some service members, when in the presence of others, feel compelled to remain silent in observance of the prayer. The television broadcasts are turned back on following the prayer.”

Such prayers violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because military personnel are being coerced to participate in religious exercises, said FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker and co-signatories, which include the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, Center for Inquiry, American Atheists Inc., American Humanist Association and retired Navy Cmdr. Jesse Kingg.

The letter continues: “Claims that the prayers are ‘tradition’ or that some are ‘nondenominational’ cannot disguise their inappropriate and coercive nature. Matters of personal conscience should not be the subject of official Navy announcements over the loudspeaker.”

Religious groups keep infiltrating schools

Since the school year started, FFRF has received numerous complaints about religious groups coming into the public schools. In some instances, the organizations claim to have a permissible objective, such as teaching about dinosaurs or instructing about the harms of alcohol and drug use. In reality, their main objective is to use the public school as a recruiting ground to further a religious mission.

Patrick Elliott, FFRF staff attorney, noted two recent examples. “In Arkansas, the Creation Truth Foundation, a fundamentalist Christian group that promotes the literal truth of the bible as it relates to science, displayed an exhibit in an Arkansas high school. FFRF sent a letter of complaint, detailing the impermissibility of the display under both school board policies and court precedent relating to teaching creationism in public schools.”

FFRF also recently contacted a Nebraska school regarding an assembly by the Todd Becker Foundation, a group that provides assemblies in schools urging students to make proper choices. The talk, given by Keith Becker, is “based on Matthew 7:13.” The group’s stated purpose says,  “As we travel around this state, our desire that our efforts would result in this one thing; that young and old alike would turn their lives over, fully over, to Jesus Christ. It’s a simple vision that far outweighs anything on and of this world — it’s about eternity.”

Elliott said Becker’s school talks not only reference bible scripture on how students can get to heaven, but they promote Becker’s evening religious programs. They also ask students to talk with a Becker Foundation representative after the school assembly. Representatives will “point them to the new life found in Christ.”

FFRF received a response from the school district’s attorney. The response ignored the religious aspects of the Becker programs and claimed Becker had a free-speech right to preach at the school. FFRF requested a copy of the video made at the assembly and will continue to monitor the involvement of the Todd Becker Foundation.

Freedom From Religion Foundation