FFRF shores up wall of separation

Texas school welcomes Christian evangelizers

FFRF asked Northwest Independent School District Superintendent Karen Rue to stop the evangelical “Seven Project” assembly in Trophy Club, Texas, a wealthy northwest Dallas suburb. FFRF tried by letter (Oct. 6) and with a phone call to stop the assembly, which took place Oct. 12 at Byron Nelson High School. The topics included abstinence.

Seven Project is directly affiliated with the Assemblies of God National Youth Ministries, whose goal is to “win, build, and send students to the cause of Jesus Christ.”

“It is clear that the group is a pervasively sectarian religious organization,” said FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott, who also made an open records request for rental or honoraria or other payments to Seven Project.

“The group’s stated goal is ‘[connecting] your community to share Jesus.’ Their website also states that the project ‘serves as a catalyst to mobilize and equip Christian communities to reach out to schools.’ In fact, the website blatantly states that the ‘Seven Project is not merely a school assembly or evening rally,’ but is ‘a comprehensive outreach strategy that equips and trains leaders and students in effective evangelism and discipleship,’” Elliott said.

Charles Crawford, school attorney, responded: “This is not a religious program that gives the appearance that NWISD is endorsing or promoting a religious message. Simply because a presenter at a curriculum-based program has sincerely held religious beliefs is, in the district’s view, insufficient to cancel the assembly and/or bar the presenter.”

The assembly takes advantage of the captive audience of impressionable students in attendance, charged FFRF. Allowing a Christian organization access to a student body gives the impermissible appearance that the school endorses the program’s message.

“This arrangement is opportunistic, parasitical and unacceptable. Groups with an overt religious agenda should not be allowed access to public school students,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

The Forth Worth Star-Telegram reported Oct. 12 that Pastor Kyle Embry preached to 1,400 students at two assemblies. “The carefully scripted presentation avoided references to God, Jesus or religion,” according to the reporter.

Terry McDonald, a member of FFRF and Metroplex Atheists, told the Star-Telegram that “We’re not trying to get anyone to give up religion or change their beliefs. We’re just against using a public forum to proselytize for the Assembly of God.”

He likened presentations like Embry’s to “a Trojan horse. They don’t mention Jesus in the assembly, but when the Greeks left the horse, they didn’t mention the soldiers inside.”

FFRF contests spiritual insurance for healing

FFRF sent an Action Alert Sept. 30 warning Utah members about a proposal by Christian Scientists to the Legislature’s Health Systems Task Force to force insurance companies to cover “spiritual healing” (i.e., prayer).

According to a Sept. 23 Salt Lake Tribune article by columnist Paul Rolly, headlined “Be healed, thou art covered by insurance,” legislators listened politely to the Christian Scientist lobbyists but were noncommittal.

“It actually might have been a tough audience for that kind of pitch,” Rolly wrote, “since the majority of the committee members, like the full Legislature, are members of the LDS Church, which believes in providing lay spiritual service without charge.”

Florida principal promotes prayer

FFRF sent a letter Oct. 11 on behalf of local complainants to Superintendent Ben Wortham of the Clay County School District to stop a weekly “Prayer Around the Flagpole” event at Clay Hill Elementary School, Jacksonville, Fla.

Principal Larry Davis promoted the weekly prayer in the September school newsletter: “The event takes place every Monday at 8:15 at the flagpole next to the office and is sponsored by our area Pastors.” The newsletter quoted Rev. Steven Andrew saying, “Our children need God back in schools. . . . The First Amendment was for Christianity, not other religions.” Davis wrote that Andrew is calling Christians nationwide to bring back the Holy Bible and Christian prayer to schools.

The program is especially concerning, given the young age of all the elementary school-aged students being solicited by their principal to attend devotions. Andrew is quoted saying, “The First Amendment says, ‘Congress shall make no law. . . prohibiting the free exercise of [Christian] religion. . . .’ Our Founding Fathers fought for God’s unalienable rights of Christian life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Freedom comes from obeying God. Let’s get active to bring back the Holy Bible and Christian prayer to schools.”

Davis then claimed, “Our prayer around the flagpole gatherings are permissible because they are community led and take place outside of class time.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt said that despite Davis’ disclaimer, “[T]he unabashed promotion of the event in the school newsletter and the repeated use of the possessive ‘our’ would lead any reasonable observer to infer that the event is directly sponsored by Clay Hill Elementary and the School District of Clay County. It is grossly inappropriate for principals, teachers, other public school employees, or outside adults to actively participate in or promote student-run religious organizations and activities.”

The brazen and shameless historical and factual errors in the newsletter are highly concerning, Schmitt said.

“That a faculty member of an elementary school — a principal, no less — would attempt to pass such egregiously false information off as fact displays an utter lack of respect for the school environment and the education of the hundreds of children entrusted to his care,” added Schmitt. “All students are equal under the law. The principal’s promotion of Pastor Andrew’s bigoted and ignorant remarks raises serious concerns about his professionalism.”

School board president mixes state, church

FFRF sent a letter Sept. 14 on behalf of a local complainant to School Board President Mike Delesdernier of Jefferson Parish Public Schools, Harvey, La., regarding Delesdernier’s religious references at staff meetings and in emails.

FFRF Staff Attorney, Stephanie Schmitt’s letter noted that Delesdernier reportedly referenced “God” during mandatory teacher inservices Aug. 11-12. Delesdernier also mentioned the bible at least six times during the speech and told a story about Cain and Abel.

“The meetings were required as part of teacher preparation week and your speech included several Christian references. Therefore, the meetings appear to a reasonable observer to be a district endorsement of religion, particularly Christianity. This is exactly the type of government endorsement that is prohibited by our Constitution’s Establishment Clause,” wrote Schmitt.

“It is grossly inappropriate for government employees to include religious references as part of an official email. It is our information and understanding that you have sent emails to Jefferson Parish faculty and staff, using your school email account, indicating that you are ‘praying’ for them. We further understand that references to ‘God’ were also communicated in these emails,” noted Schmitt.

In a Sept. 20 New Orleans Times-Picayune story, Delesdernier, a Catholic, said FFRF’s letter accurately summarized his comments, but said he has no plans to respond.

“Under this context, wishing somebody good luck would be a violation of church and state.” In wishing someone good luck, he said, “You’re invoking some supernatural, unexplained power.”

He claimed his email to teachers (that he was praying for them before students took standardized tests) was only a simple statement of best wishes. He said he told the story of biblical brothers Cain and Abel at staff training sessions only to stress the idea of “my brother’s keeper,” that they were responsible for each other’s successes.

“The reference to Cain and Abel was more a literary reference,” he said.

FFRF protests Texas, Kentucky prayers

FFRF sent a letter Sept. 30 to Judge/Executive Gary Moore and Boone County commissioners in Burlington, Ky., to stop sectarian prayers “in Jesus’ name” at Fiscal Court meetings.

“By hosting prayers, which inevitably show preference for Christianity, the Fiscal Court is illegally and inappropriately imposing its religious beliefs on the citizens of Boone County who attend the Fiscal Court’s meetings for public business,” wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott.

Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a letter Sept. 28 to follow up an earlier one to stop sectarian prayers by the Bowie County Commissioners Court in New Boston, Texas.

According to KTBS-TV in Shreveport, La., the Commissioners Court voted unanimously Sept. 26 to accept the Alliance Defense Fund’s offer to represent the county on the prayer issue. “This is always a great controversy, but in Bowie County, Texas, we believe we still have a right to pray to God in the name of His son, Jesus Christ,” KTBS reported Judge Sterling Lacy saying.

“Unfortunately, the information provided by ADF about legislative prayer is inaccurate, misleading and requires a thorough response,” Schmitt wrote. “We understand that ADF routinely claims, ‘legislative prayers — even sectarian ones — are clearly constitutional’ and that in hosting sectarian prayers, ‘government officials run no risk of violating the Constitution.’ However, the cases analyzed by federal courts on this issue tell a different story.”

FFRF’s letter cited the many cases in which courts have ruled such prayer is clearly unconstitutional.

PBS series panders to Catholics

After a Colorado member contacted FFRF about the 10-part PBS series “Catholicism” that began airing in late September, freethinkers were asked to monitor the series.

Fr. Robert Barron, the Chicago priest who produced “Catholicism” and is the protagonist, has a global media ministry called “Word On Fire Catholic Ministries” with a stated mission “to evangelize the culture.”

A series trailer states: “The church is going through a dark period. The church is under fire. It’s under attack. That Catholic story is being told, but told by the wrong people in the wrong way. We need to tell our own story. We need to get the message out so as to draw people in.”

FFRF Co-President Dan Barker commented: “It seems clear that PBS stations are putting federal funding and the donations of diverse citizens to use for the purpose of blatant Catholic missionary work.”

You can contact PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler at pbs.org/ombudsman/feedback.html.

In turnabout, FFRF educates schools

FFRF sent educational memos to 396 public school superintendents in Mississippi, Louisiana and Kentucky in October to remind them that official prayer at school-sponsored events is illegal and and to monitor schools for violations.

There has been immediate cessation of school-initiated prayer in at least one school district in Mississippi.

FFRF has had several legal victories halting school prayer in recent months. Morehouse Parish Schools (La.) cancelled school-organized prayer at a graduation ceremony this spring, and FFRF letters brought an end to football game prayer at Bell County Schools (Ky.) in August and two other Kentucky school districts since then. DeSoto County Schools (Miss.) halted prayer at athletic events at the start of the fall term after receiving FFRF’s request to end the illegal action. Each of these actions brought forth new complaints of state-sponsored prayer by parents and students.

After FFRF halted football prayer in several Tennessee school districts late last year and this year, it sent memos about the state of the law to 132 Tennessee superintendents.

In response to the 151 memos sent to Mississippi superintendents, North Pike High School in Pike County (Miss.) announced that prayer before football games was prohibited. Before receiving FFRF’s memo, Christian prayers were routinely recited over the public address system.

ADF’s ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’ challenges IRS

FFRF asked members Sept. 30 to report any abuses during the Alliance Defense Fund’s “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” on Oct. 2, when the conservative evangelical law firm urged churches to defy the federal law banning political endorsements from pastors’ pulpits.

ADF encouraged pastors to abuse their 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status so that they can challenge enforcement by the IRS of the law in court. While leaders of religious organizations may express their opinions on political matters as individuals, they are precluded from making “partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions of the organization.”

Last year, nearly 100 pastors participated. ADF bragged that “none of the participating churches have had their tax exemption revoked.”

This year, ADF said, more than 475 pastors in 46 states and Puerto Rico gave sermons “that present biblical perspectives on the positions of electoral candidates.”

FFRF requested a formal review by the IRS last year of a Minnesota church, but the agency has not disclosed if any action was taken.

FFRF Action Alerts keep you connected

FFRF urged members Sept. 30 to comment to government agencies on the Obama administration’s proposal to require contraception coverage by insurance companies withhout a co-pay. Religious groups were pushing for broad exceptions to proposed new rules on “conscience” grounds.

On Aug. 1, the Internal Revenue Service, Department of Labor and Department of Health and Human Services announced guidelines for access to preventive care. The proposal also requires that insurance providers offer services such as wellness visits, screening for gestational diabetes and HPV and other STD testing without a co-pay.

The guidelines do exempt group health plan sponsors whose primary purpose is religious indoctrination and who primarily employ and serve only members who share their beliefs. FFRF would prefer that there be no religious exemptions.

“Allowing providers to deny coverage based on a personal religious belief is unconscionable,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It creates such nightmare scenarios as the rape victim denied emergency contraception by a Catholic hospital, or the working class family who cannot afford the often steep price of contraceptives to bear the burdensome cost of an unplanned pregnancy. The matter of whether or not to utilize family planning options is a private decision for individuals, not employers, priests or pastors.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation