FFRF saves Tucson taxpayers $1.1 million

The Freedom From Religion Foundation received word in September that the Tucson City Council has permanently suspended its decision to grant $1.1 million to the Catholic Diocese of Tucson, Ariz., to repair the church’s Marist building.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel had written an Aug. 7 letter to Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, warning that it was unwise policy for the city to offer $1.1 million to repair a religious building it does not own.

“If you truly believe the best policy is to repair the Marist building, then the diocese should sign the building and property over to you free and clear. Alternatively, given the neglect the diocese has shown for a piece of Tucson history, consider seizing the property through eminent domain. Title should not remain with the diocese if the taxpayers are paying $1.1 million.”

Ward 6 Councilman Steve Kozachik, who was one of two council members to vote against the original funding scheme, noted at the time, “The Catholic Church has neglected it for a decade. If they were serious about this building, they could cancel one of their pro-life ad blitzes and pay for it in a heartbeat.”

Seidel echoed this point in his letter. “The diocese is perfectly willing to spend money to restore its other property. Last year, the church spent $75,000 to restore a crucifix.” He pointed out the diocese just spent $1.1 million raised in the “Treasures of the Heart” campaign to restore St. Augustine Cathedral next door to the Marist building.

According to a Sept. 11 memo by City Manager Richard Miranda, “The diocese of Tucson has informed city staff that they wish to retain ownership of the Marist College so that it can be used by them and the local parish.”

Miranda explained that because of the diocese’s position, the grant “can not be accommodated” and the city will “take no further action regarding a potential agreement for the use of [grant] funds for the stabilization of the Marist College.” The city has already begun allocating the grant funds for other projects, including road and water tower repairs.  

“This is a major victory for taxpayers and for the constitutional principle of separation between state and church,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It pays to complain, or rather in this case, our complaint stops an unconstitutional payment.”

Seidel’s letter reviewed details on the diocese’s healthy finances despite bankruptcy after payouts for more than 100 credible allegations of sexual misconduct with minors involving 26 priests.


FFRF, not Jesus,
saves taxpayers         

An FFRF letter of complaint Aug. 21 about a wrongful religious tax exemption in Wichita, Kan., resulted in the property being put back on the tax rolls and back taxes assessed. Sedgwick County Appraiser Mike Borchard said in October that Grace Baptist Church owes $2,194 in back taxes for 2010 and 2011 on a home occupied by a local politician. 

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Borchard after being alerted to the nonexempt use of the home, which has been listed as a parsonage for clergy since 1996. Michael O’Donnell, a Wichita City Council member and Kansas Senate candidate, lives in the home. He’s the son of a Grace Baptist Church pastor of the same name.

Pastor Michael O’Donnell said the church will refile a tax exemption request, “essentially appealing the appraiser’s ruling,” the Wichita Eagle reported Oct. 17. Under state law, there is a presumption that property is taxable. The church will have the burden to show that the house is exempt.

The younger O’Donnell, who has now changed his original story to the newspaper on whether he was paying rent to the church, accused FFRF of having “a political agenda.”

Not so, responded Elliott to the Wichita Eagle, “We’re an apolitical group, a nonprofit that does not get involved in elections or campaigns, but we are concerned  about state-church issues, including churches abusing tax privileges, which was the case here.”

The house is taxable for 2012, but because levies aren’t set, an exact figure isn’t known, Borchard told the newspaper. The church likely faces a total bill for current and back taxes in excess of $3,000.


FFRF stops city’s church collaboration

The city of West Linn, Ore., rescinded an unconstitutional grant to Willamette Christian Church after a Sept. 28 Freedom From Religion Foundation letter of complaint.

It came to FFRF’s attention that the West Linn City Council had approved a $1,300 grant to the church, ostensibly to start a teen center called The Summit. City staff purportedly spent considerable time on the proposal, with the regular fees waived.

Councilor Mike Jones, who later became a member of the church, was apparently the driving force behind the grant, fee waiver and overall proposal.

“Finding suitable after-school activities for middle school students and providing them a safe place to gather is laudable,” wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. “Teen programming may be a genuine concern for the community, and while WCC is willing to address that concern to a certain extent, the record provides ample evidence that the city’s actions crossed appropriate constitutional boundaries.”

It’s clear that the center, which would have been managed by the YMCA on weekdays, had religious purposes, Seidel noted. “WCC has scheduled ‘church-related activities’ for twice as much time as teen center activities.”

The schedule called for the center to be open 10 hours a week to the general public and 20 hours a week for church activities.

FFRF noted numerous public statements that the main use of the center would be for church activities.

“The primary effect is to help a church expand by funding new construction,” Seidel wrote. “In other words, the council gave WCC $1,300 to expand their church space.”

FFRF suspected the center would be another way to target children who would otherwise not attend WCC.

“The city had no safeguards against religious use or proselytization at the time the grant and waiver were approved, nor does the city have any way to ensure that YMCA involvement continues. WCC is leasing the space, setting the hours and has the final say in all decisions. Should they choose not to partner with the YMCA, the city has no recourse.”

The complaint letter noted other problems with the proposal, including waiver of fees, parking impacts, city officials in their official capacity sitting on a church advisory board and Councilor Jones’ ties to the church.

While the city has not formally responded, FFRF has learned the proposal is dead, at least for now.

According to an Oct. 2 story in the Oregonian, Assistant City Manager Kirsten Wyatt told the newspaper the city decided to immediately rescind the grant to avoid controversy and a legal battle.

“Our options are either fight this or say, ‘Hey, $1,300 isn’t that much money,’ “ Wyatt said. “We’re chalking this up as a learning experience.”


FFRF pulls plug on hospital religion

A public hospital in Hollister, Calif., will no longer allow Christian prayers and verses to be displayed on its walls.

Hazel Hawkins Hospital formerly displayed Christian prayers, including a plaque entitled “Nurse’s Prayer” on the wall in the medical surgical unit.

In a June 26 letter, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt warned, “Government-run hospitals have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion.”

On Sept. 17, FFRF received assurance from hospital management that they “have taken all appropriate actions to address the areas identified and respect constitutional rights of all employees.”


Lord’s Prayer out, silence is in

Another Pennsylvania school board has decided to drop prayer at board meetings after getting a letter from FFRF.

The Octorara Area School Board in Atglen voted to substitute a moment of silence for Christian prayer to open meetings.

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert had written Aug. 17 to board President Lisa Bowman on behalf of a local complainant about the illegal recitation of the Lord’s Prayer as an invocation. She reminded the board of numerous court rulings that said scheduled prayer at school board meetings is unconstitutional.

While the school hasn’t formally notified FFRF of the change, according to a LancasterOnline story, the decision was made Sept. 17. The story said Vice President Brian Norris told the board it must honor the law and that members could meet privately to pray before meetings.

The advice to pray privately didn’t sit well with everyone, the news story said: “Three school board members, however, stepped down from the official table to protest the change. Board member John McCartney Jr. walked to the end of the table and knelt in prayer as the school board began its new tradition of a moment of silence.”

Bowman was out of town but told the board in a letter: “The board should not put the district at [financial] risk. It could affect taxpayer and student programming.”

The Greencastle-Antrim, Eastern Lancaster County, Grove City and Big Spring school boards also voted recently to stop praying before meetings after getting FFRF letters.


Georgia district drops team chaplain

FFRF has followed up on Walker County Schools’ (Ridgeland, Ga.) response to its request to investigate unusual constitutional violations by Ridgeland High School football coach Mark Mariakis. Although praising the superintendent’s “commitment to upholding the Constitution,” the letter raised some lingering concerns.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Sei-del’s Aug. 21 letter of complaint had detailed allegations FFRF had received over a number of egregious public sports-church entanglements at Ridgeland High School. Most notably, they included the coach taking public school football teams to pre-game church meals where pre-meal prayers are conducted.

FFRF also asked for an investigation into the allegation that Mariakis regularly prays with his teams, had pressured public school students to attend a “Christian football camp” and that the team had adopted a “team chaplain.”

Superintendent Damon Raines responded Aug. 30 that “the district will not have a team chaplain nor will school officials or employees, including coaches, organize, lead or participate in any prayers. Staff will also refrain from participating in the FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes].”

The district indicated pregame meals will no longer include “religious references.” 

As Seidel stated in his Sept. 11 reply, “taking public school teams to church still involves constitutional concerns.” Quoting legal precedent that prohibits public schools from holding graduations in churches, Seidel argued that regardless of the purpose in choosing to have a pregame meal in a church, “the sheer religiosity of the space create[s] a likelihood that high school students . . . would perceive a link between church and state.” FFRF suggested that the district could avoid legal liability and save money on transportation by hosting a “potluck” at the school and allowing “any organization, restaurant, or business to donate meals.”

FFRF was alarmed over Mariakis’ attendance on Sept. 9 at a “Rally to Pray” by those who wish to “keep prayer in the practices and before games.” FFRF’s response called the coach’s appearance inappropriate, saying, “It seems to send a message that he is unrepentant and hostile to First Amendment limitations on his proselytizing.”

The letter asked the schools to investigate the context of his remarks and to “ensure that Mariakis understands he cannot use his position as coach to ‘share the Gospel’ with his team and other public students.”

FFRF urged the district to adopt a written policy over religion in the schools “clearly prohibiting proselytizing and prayer by school officials or at school-arranged and sanctioned events.”

FFRF also noted that it appears public school buses and drivers are taking players, coaches and staff from the school to churches for meals. FFRF further requested a response to an unanswered allegation from its original complaint that the football program has used the bible as a motivational tool.


Faculty now barred from Christian club

A teacher in Abbeville County Consolidated School District, Abbeville, S.C., will no longer be allowed to actively participate in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes student club.

The Wright Middle School science teacher was the group’s faculty sponsor but actively participated in its 2010 prayer meeting and praised its Christian agenda. She stated in an article on the South Carolina FCA website that the 200-student prayer group was “very sweet and moving” and that at each FCA meeting they’ve had a student come to Christ.

A June 18 letter from Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert warned, “The Supreme Court has stated that public school employees, including teachers, must refrain from actively participating in religious activities while acting within their governmental role.”

An attorney responded Sept. 14 that the district would “ensure that school faculty understand their role with regard to the sponsorship of religious [clubs] so that no further concerns will occur.”


FFRF halts discount at Miss. restaurant

A restaurant in Wiggins, Miss., will no longer offer a preferential discount to church-going patrons.

Western Sizzlin’ Steakhouse promoted a “half-off buffet” to customers who presented a “church member appreciation card.” The discount was valid only for members of three local Baptist churches.

In a June 11 letter, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt warned the manager that the restaurant was in violation of the Civil Rights Act and that “it is illegal for Western Sizzlin’ to discriminate, or show favoritism, on the basis of religion.”

In a Sept. 11 response, management confirmed the business will “discontinue including churches in our discount promotions and programs moving forward and will only offer them to other local businesses and companies that are not religious in nature.”


Michigan board drops opening prayer

The Pellston [Mich.] Public Schools board meetings no longer open with prayer after FFRF letters of complaint. The prayers were often delivered by a board member.

FFRF first sent a letter in July 2011. An attorney for the board responded that he didn’t believe the prayers were illegal.

In a November 2011 follow-up, Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt clarified the law. She urged discontinuation of the practice immediately to “eliminate the need for costly and protracted litigation of an issue that is settled by the courts.”

The attorney responded Sept. 10 that “the Board of Education no longer opens its meetings with a prayer. Instead, the Board observes a moment of silence which is not intended to promote religion.”


Teacher uses FFRF’s letter against student

A Cheektowaga [N.Y.] Central High School teacher who posted bible verses and a drawing of three crosses in her classroom has been admonished.

She also invited a guest speaker to her advanced placement anatomy class who used bible verses to encourage students to “head down the right path, according to FFRF’s student complainant.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert objected in a June 7 letter to Superintendent Dennis Kane. The student reported that the teacher shared FFRF’s letter with the class on the last day of school and verbally attacked the student anonymously, alleging that the person who 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 sent another letter June 14 to the school district outlining the teacher’s egregious reprisal. In a series of replies on June 20, June 22 and Sept. 11, Kane informed FFRF that he took the complaint very seriously, had done an extensive investigation and confirmed that the student’s allegations were true.

Kane told FFRF that all religious displays were removed from the classroom and said the teacher was reprimanded and directed not to discuss religion in her classroom.


Arkansas teacher told
to stop religious talk

An elementary teacher in the Little Rock [Ark.] School District who “referred to Jesus and God in several conversations” has been warned to stop. A June 21 letter from Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott cautioned the district “to make certain that ‘subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion.’ ”

The district responded Sept. 13, assuring FFRF that the administration told the teacher that her conduct “was inappropriate and that she must follow the LRSD 5th Grade Curriculum.” 

FFRF action stops football prayers

Monroe High School in Alexandria, Ind., will no longer permit coaches to participate in or facilitate pregame prayer. In a May 23 letter to the Alexandria Community School Corp., Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel informed the district that coaches were violating the law. 

The superintendent responded Sept. 12: “The administration has undertaken measures to correct behavior by providing reference to our school policy and the case law . . . as well as your original correspondence to the building principals and athletic director.”

Pregame prayers will no longer be broadcast over the loudspeaker at West Jones High School football games in Ellisville, Miss.

Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote an Aug. 26 letter to the school district. After several follow-up letters, FFRF has learned that prayers have been replaced by a moment of silence.


Epic fail for teacher’s ‘Critical Thinking’

A Suwannee High School teacher in Live Oak, Fla., is no longer permitted to display religious images in his “Critical Thinking” classroom. FFRF was alerted that the teacher had a Ten Commandments statue on his desk and a poster with a quotation exhorting people to pray.   

“It is unconstitutional for the school to promote a religious message to students through calls to prayer and religious iconography put on display by a school official,” Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Aug. 28.

Three days later, the superintendent responded that “religious statutes, posters, or messages” had all been removed from the classroom. 


Religious commercial forced off air

The New Mexico Department of Health has stopped airing an anti-smoking TV ad containing religious messages. The ad featured a woman in a church pew praying, lamenting her ability to quit smoking and making the Catholic sign of the cross. 

In a May 3 letter, Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor noted “this imagery tends to send the message that the New Mexico Department of Health endorses the Christian religion.”

On Sept. 5, the agency answered that “The ad is no longer being placed and there is no plan to renew the license for that spot of others in the ‘Dear Me’ series at this time.” 


Water board can’t pray for rain in Oklahoma

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board stopped opening its meetings with Christian prayers after getting an Aug. 1 letter from Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel.

An attorney for the board responded Sept. 10 that “the OWRB has discontinued the invocational prayer at the beginning of its regular monthly meetings.”


Freedom From Religion Foundation