Auditor: Church must ‘render unto Caesar’ and other FFRF victories

A decision by Christ Cathedral Church in Columbus, Ohio, to order removal of an FFRF “Out of the Closet” billboard is proving to be costly for the church.

Right after Columbus atheist Dylan Galos’ billboard stating “I can be good without God” went up in late June, Rev. Waymon Malone Jr. said it had to go, and it was moved to a new location. The church owns the property the billboard company was leasing near its parking lot.

After finding no record the church paid property taxes for commercial use of the property, FFRF sent a letter July 7 asking Franklin County Auditor Clarence Mingo II to investigate.

A few days later, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott got a phone call from a member of Mingo’s staff. “He said that the billboard property will be taxed. It is approximately one-tenth of an acre that will be taxed at a yearly rate of $185,” said Elliott.

FFRF further inquired in an Aug. 1 letter to Mingo about the church-owned property at 407 Stelzer Road that is directly behind the billboard. It was purchased in 2006 for $550,000 and is receiving a tax exemption. Several private businesses lease most of the building.

Teach & Learn Child Care, AMC Realty and AMC Transport, all with listed addresses at 407 Stelzer Road, are headed by Anthony Malone. FFRF does not know how Pastor Malone and Anthony Malone are related.

On Sept. 22, FFRF received confirmation that the property will now be fully taxed in 2011.

After assessing the property value for 2011, Mingo determined the property to be for commercial use and valued it at $735,300. In 2010, the property was assessed at $673,700, nearly all of it tax exempt, as it was listed as “a place of worship.”

The church failed to pay about $1,645 due for 2010 (for a small portion then considered commercial), and now owes, with penalties, $1,900. Commercial property taxes are expected to be more than $18,000. To date, the church has not submitted a new application for exemption and would need to provide evidence of exempt use.

“Apparently, this church doesn’t heed the scriptural advice in Matthew 22:21 about ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,’ ” noted FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Has this church, that was so offended that a grad student could be ‘good without God,’ been good with God?”

On Aug. 5, Christ Cathedral’s Facebook page warned that “Satan and his imps” were going after them. “I think they’ve been their own worst enemy,” said Gaylor.

Pole prayer event during school stopped

FFRF sent a speedy letter of complaint Sept. 26 after Pennsylvania Nonbelievers alerted it to a See You at the Pole prayer event scheduled for Sept. 28 during school hours at East Hanover Elementary in the Northern Lebanon School District.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott’s letter noted: “Public schools cannot host religious events during instruction time. While SYATP often occurs during nonschool hours at schools around the country, the prayer event in question is scheduled after the start of the school day. The flier that went home with students indicates direct school endorsement. First, it relays that parents would have to opt their child out of the event. Second, it says that teachers will collect the opt-out forms from students. This is school coordination and involvement in a devotional event. It gives the clear impression to students and their families that the school promotes and endorses the prayer event. It also should be obvious that a religious event that is organized by an outside adult and that requires students to be split into participants and nonparticipants should not be taking place during the school day. We question what other ways the school is involved. It appears that teachers will be needed to escort students and that the school day will effectively be on hold while the prayer event takes place.”

An attorney for the school, Robert Frankhouser Jr., responded Sept. 27 that the time of the event would be changed to 8:40 a.m. (school starts at 8:50).

The Harrisburg Patriot-News reported Sept. 28 that Superintendent Don Bell said the flier (below, left) had gone out without his approval and that the event cannot be held during the school day.

“Local nonbelievers were very vocal about this and deserve a lot of credit,” Elliott said. “We will follow up with a request for records to determine if the principal was improperly involved in planning this event.”

Kentucky school agrees to abide by law

The Martin County School District in Inez, Ky., has agreed to stop pregame prayers at athletic events at Sheldon Clark High School after receiving an FFRF letter of complaint on behalf of a district resident. Not only were the prayers staff-led, they were almost always sectarian and often referenced Jesus Christ.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert noted in her Sept. 6 letter to Superintendent Mark Blackburn that the crowd was asked to join in prayer, and that school officials seemingly organized and scheduled it. “It is our understanding that SCHS Principal Robbie Fletcher delivered this pregame prayer at the home game on Aug. 26.”

In a response Sept. 26, school attorney John Triplett said he had interviewed the principal. “Principal Fletcher indicated to me that his actions were a continuation of the practice he had observed as a student at Sheldon Clark High School many years ago and were taken without consultation with the board or other personnel.”

The superintendent met Sept. 15 with all principals “and directed that all schools in our system adhere to the current state of the law, and any activities to the contrary should and will cease,” Triplett said.

FFRF complaint ends bible distribution

Muhlenberg County Schools in Kentucky will end the distribution of bibles by Gideons International after receiving a letter of complaint from FFRF.

On Sept. 28, a group of men was allowed to enter fifth-grade classrooms at Longest Elementary School in Greenville and distribute bibles during instructional time. After the distribution, the Gideons instructed the students to “read and learn from the bible.”

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter Sept. 29 to Superintendent R. Dale Todd on behalf of a district parent to request an immediate investigation into the distribution, informing the superintendent that “the district is placing its ‘stamp of approval’ on the religious messages contained in the Gideon bible.”

In an Oct. 5 letter, Todd responded: “The principal was at a conference that day and not present at the school. I have instructed all schools to not allow members of the Gideons Internation organization to come into the school and distribute Bibles on school property.”

(Go to for FFRF’s state/church FAQ that addresses bible handouts and many other legal issues.)

FFRF plays hardball with softball prayer

Wynnewood Public Schools in Wynnewood, Okla., stopped school-endorsed prayer before athletic events after receiving an FFRF letter of objection.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter Sept. 2 to Superintendent Raymond Cole on behalf of a district parent.

The prayers were recited over the public address system before home football games. “It is our further understanding that the coach of the softball team tells his team to gather in a circle to pray at home and away games. We were told that the coach is actively involved, joining hands with the team on the field for the prayers,” Elliott wrote.

FFRF also has reason to believe that similar prayers involving staff occurred at other sporting events.

Elliott asked Cole to begin an immediate investigation, as “prayers at football and softball games constitute an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.”

In a Sept. 9 letter, Cole responded: “We have instructed our coaches to not lead any prayers. If the team members choose to pray, it will be initiated and led by students.” Cole added that from now on, the school “will not use the P.A. system to broadcast prayer at any school-sponsored events.”

Cole appeared none too happy at being forced to keep school separate from church, adding, “While you may stop us from praying over the P.A. system, your group will not prevent our students from praying if they choose to do so. I will make sure Wynnewood School obeys the law.”

New York school board stops prayers

After receiving a complaint about sectarian prayers before Ilion [N.Y.] Central School District board meetings, FFRF Senior Staff Attorney sent letters in June and September about the “unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive” practice.

On Oct. 4, Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra called Markert to say that FFRF’s letters were the catalyst for the board to vote in August to drop prayers. He said he had told the board, “Enough’s enough,” and that he agreed with the prayers should stop. Now, he said, meetings open only with the Pledge of Allegiance.

Markert asked the complainant to follow up to ensure that is the case.

Attending church in lieu of jail plan put on ice

FFRF sent a letter of protest Sept. 22 on behalf of a local complainant to judges in Bay Minette, Ala., about an off-the-wall proposal from Police Chief Mike Rowland to have persons convicted of misdemeanors given a choice of church or jail.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott’s letter noted that Rowland is working to implement a program called “Operation ROC: Restore Our Community,” which would put offenders under the supervision of pastors and require them to attend church services for one year in place of jail.

“We want to teach them that they’re valuable, that God has a plan, God has a purpose. That they can be successful, that they possibly can become the person that God wants them to become,” Pastor Bruce Hooks said in a Local 15 (Mobile, Ala.) news report. The report said 56 churches have already agreed to sponsor the program.

“This proposal is an egregious violation of the First Amendment. It is a bedrock principle of constitutional law that the state cannot coerce citizens to participate in religious practices,” noted Elliott, adding that the U.S. Supreme Court stated in Lee v. Weisman, “It is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which ‘establishes a [state] religion or religious faith, or tends to do so.’ ”

The program would also violate the Alabama Constitution, the letter noted.

According to Baldwin County Now, the Bay Minette City Council voted Oct. 3 to ask the state attorney general to issue an official opinion on the program.

Mayor Jamie Tillery said it could take six months to get an opinion. Until then, she said, the city will “reserve further comment.”

Georgia district will now uphold law

FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a letter of complaint Aug. 29 to Superintendent Thomas Lockamy Jr. of Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools, Savannah, Ga., after a local complainant alerted FFRF about constitutional violations.

Before games, soccer team members from Savannah Arts Academy, a public school with a performing and visual arts emphasis, join hands in a circle to pray, with referees often participating. In addition, the annual soccer awards banquet is held at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. A parent who is also a pastor leads the prayer before the meal, with the principal standing beside him.

The law is clear, Schmitt wrote, “Public high school events must also be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students. A public school cannot allow students and officials to join in prayer before athletic events. Nor can a public school invite a minister to deliver a prayer at awards banquets.

Lockamy responded Sept. 13 by letter and by phone Sept. 21 to give his reassurance that the district will uphold its “legal and constitutional obligations.”

School admits Christian fliers out of line

FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a letter of complaint Sept. 13 on behalf of a parent in the Huntington Independent School District in Huntington, Texas, to object to school officials coordinating with Salem Missionary Baptist Church to send home fliers for a Christian “youth rally” Aug. 27.

The flier asked, “Do you want God to set a fire in your soul?” The event included “Bible Study, Praise & Worship. Bible & change of clothes are only things needed!” The fliers were distributed by at least one teacher at Huntington Intermediate School, who apparently received the fliers and distribution instructions from the principal.

Superintendent Eric Wright responded Sept. 16 that “it was an oversight as our policy clearly does not allow for the distribution of materials from unassociated third parties. I appreciate your concern and will ensure that our faculty and staff follow the attached policy in the future.”

FRFF puts kibosh on religious assemblies

Several buildings in the Highlands County School District in Sebring, Fla., had religious assemblies scheduled for Oct. 5 until FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt put a stop to it with a Sept. 7 letter of complaint to Superintendent Wally Cox.

The assemblies were to be put on by Team Impact, self-described on its website as a ministry of “seasoned evangelists preach[ing] the message of salvation by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ.” The website’s “Reach Your Schools” page says: “With a Team Impact event, your church has the ability to impact your schools with this powerful message. Very rarely do we not couple these effective school outreaches with our local church events.”

John McClure, an attorney for the school, responded Sept. 15. “Following receipt of your letter and review of the circumstances, the ‘Team Impact’ event scheduled for Oct. 5, 2011, has been canceled.”

McClure later told Schmitt that the district has scheduled an assembly by Chad Varga that is “100% secular.” It appears from looking at Varga’s website (, that his assemblies are secular, at least as they are described online.

FFRF stops Louisiana loudspeaker prayer

After a parent in the Arab City School District alerted FFRF to illegal prayer over the stadium public address system before football games, Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote a letter of complaint Sept. 15 to Superintendent John Mullins in Arab, Ala. {It’s pronounced A-rab.)

While the school didn’t immediately respond to FFRF, WHNT News in Huntsville reported Sept. 20 that Mullins told a reporter he was reversing the loudspeaker prayer policy he started a decade ago and substituting a moment of silence for prayer. “It’s clear, what we’ve been doing is not in compliance with the Constitution. We’re going to cease doing what we’ve been doing,” Mullins said.

After Mullins was quoted in other media as saying he regretted having to stop prayer that many in the community wanted to continue, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote him Sept. 23 to urge him “to rise to the occasion by taking a leadership role in reeducating your community about the meaning and purpose of the Establishment Clause.

“The hysteria greeting a decision to abide by settled law is a symptom of the fact that students, parents and your community have been victims of miseducation,” Gaylor wrote. “The district through its example and its unlawful conduct have created a climate of ignorance and contempt for a precious constitutional principle that protects all citizens.”

Clint Maze, school attorney, responded Sept. 23 to Schmitt’s letter, saying that the board wants his official opinion on the constitutionality of letting students use the P.A. for pregame prayers. In the meantime, he said, there will be no prayer over the P.A.

Maze appeared to have his mind made up by Sept. 28, according to an Arab Tribune story. The issue, he told the paper, is not that students are being told they can’t pray, but “whether or not a student can or can’t lead a prayer on the public address system at an Arab High School football game.”

Maze said the law is clear. “I don’t have to like the law to interpret it for the school board,” Maze said. “When it comes to following Supreme Court precedent, as a lawyer, I have a responsibility to advise the board in ways that will keep them out of trouble. . . . I can’t advise the board to go into a lawsuit that it will lose.”

He told the paper the school “must not, in my opinion, make available the forum — the P.A. system — to Christian prayer.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation