FFRF Legal Victories

Proselytizing Texas teacher silenced

Arlington Independent School District in Arlington, Texas, will no longer allow a teacher to proselytize students after a complaint was filed by FFRF.

A concerned parent of a student at James Martin High School reported that a teacher, who is also a local pastor, used valuable time during a world history course to proselytize. The teacher reportedly told students that the stories of the bible are historical fact and that the bible is “about the only information we have” about any ancient civilization and said the first six weeks of class would rely heavily on “the Hebrew history book.”

The teacher also told students that “carbon dating is wrong,” posted a portrait of Jesus in the classroom and spent parts of several class periods complaining about Supreme Court decisions concerning prohibition of religious indoctrination in public schools and how he gets around the ban. 

Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a complaint letter Sept. 10, pointing out the obvious violations. The school responded Sept. 16: “AISD takes your letter and its contents seriously and has begun an investigation.”

The complainant told FFRF on Sept. 22 that the problematic content was removed from the classroom and that the teacher “has not been proselytizing recently.” FFRF pulls plug on loudspeaker prayer

Wise County Public Schools in Wise, Va., will no longer allow school-sponsored prayer before football games. The prayer was delivered before each home game over the loudspeaker by a member of the clergy.

On Sept. 18, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter to remind the district that school-sponsored religious messages are illegal and divisive:

The superintendent responded the next day: “We have addressed this issue and will resolve it immediately.” The game later that day did not include a prayer over the loudspeaker, a complainant told FFRF.

Notary publics need not be believers

A notary public education program in Raleigh, N.C., will no longer let an instructor misinform students. A student who took the course contacted FFRF to report that students were told several times that they “must believe in God to be a notary.”

On Sept. 5, Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell sent a letter to the Department of the Secretary of State: “[The instructor] may mistakenly believe that Article 6, Section 8 of the North Carolina Constitution requires notaries public to believe in God, but this section is unconstitutional and should not be presented as current law. If any instructor . . . is informing applicants that belief in God is a requirement to be commissioned as a notary public, this is a serious constitutional issue.”

The Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in 1961 in a case brought by the late Roy Torcaso, an honorary FFRF director of FFRF, against requiring religious tests for public office, specifically involving a notary public oath.

On Sept. 16, the DSOS replied: “[The instructor] has been informed that the provision disqualifying any person from holding a public office for denying the being of Almighty God is not congruent with the U.S. Constitution and is therefore not applicable to notary applicants in North Carolina and should not be taught. Although this specific provision of the constitution is not germane to notary education, we have taken this opportunity to make sure each of our instructors understand that it is not applicable to notary applicants.”

Prayer stopped at Pa. board meetings

The school board in Mercersburg, Pa., will no longer conduct prayer at meetings. Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell sent a complaint letter Sept. 8, noting: “The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Pennsylvania, has definitively held that school board prayer is unconstitutional.”

The board president responded Sept 24: “The Tuscarora School District Board of Directors will no longer open their monthly meetings with prayer.”

Texas email worship invites stopped

The Office of Public Affairs at the University of Texas Health Northeast in Tyler has stopped sending system-wide email invitations to employees to participate in bible study events at the Hurst Chapel.

A concerned employee contacted FFRF to report that the emails were signed “From the Office of Public Affairs.” In contrast to the bible study invitations, an email that promoted a Weight Watchers meeting contained the disclaimer, “This program is not in any way supported, endorsed, or managed by UT Health Northeast, other than allowing the meetings to take place on campus as a convenience to our staff. Participation in the program is entirely voluntary.”

It was additionally reported that employees were invited to attend bible study sessions in lieu of performing their normal work.

On Sept. 4, Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter of complaint: “While it may be standard practice in some hospitals to offer patients and their families access to a nondenominational chaplain for spiritual counseling, there is no reasonable justification for a public university-affiliated hospital to provide its employees with access to worship services during the workday.”

On Sept. 24, FFRF received word from the complainant that “Chapel services are still going on every week, but the emails promoting them have stopped.”

FFRF lowers boom on flagpole prayer

A superintendent in Toledo, Ohio, who used Twitter to promote a religious “See You at the Pole” event will no longer be permitted to do so.

A complainant informed FFRF that the superintendent “tweeted” Sept. 24 that “Courageous students will be praying at Whitmer’s flagpole at 7am. I will join them, it will be an amazing way to start the dsy [sic]!!”

On Sept. 26, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter of complaint to the district about the Whitmer High School event: “When the district’s employees participate in the religious events of students, they unconstitutionally entangle the district with a religious message.”

On Oct. 1, an attorney for the district responded: “I have discussed with [the superintendent] the possible appearance of religious endorsement that can arise from both messages and personal participation in certain student activities, and I believe that our discussion will inform his future approaches to his involvement.”

Faux history tracts get heave-ho

Valley View [Texas] Independent School District will no longer let a middle school teacher give students religious handouts. The history teacher distributed tracts about the Declaration of Independence published by the National Center for Constitutional Studies, a social conservative group that promotes religion under the guise of teaching American history.

The NCCS website includes a list of reasons to oppose same-sex marriage and has articles making egregiously false connections between the Constitution and the bible.

Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a complaint letter Aug. 29. The superintendent responded Sept. 10 that “VVISD intends to fully protect the rights of all our students and will do everything possible to replace the objectionable materials.”

S. Dakota football prayer grounded

Aberdeen Central High School in Aberdeen, S.D., will no longer let its football coaches engage in pregame prayers. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter Sept. 24: “The coaches’ apparent organizing and obvious participation in a team prayer constitutes an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.”

On Sept. 29, the superintendent replied, “All members of the administrative leadership team and coaching staff have received follow-up correspondence which instructs them not to organize, encourage, or participate in student prayer at any event sponsored by the District.”

Second coming of Ohio Jesus shirts

Akron Public Schools in Akron, Ohio, has once again told football coaches to stop wearing religious T-shirts. In 2013, FFRF filed a complaint after Buchtel Community Learning Center staff wore shirts stating “God Rules Buchtel Athletics” and “Jesus Is My Hero.” The district reported taking swift action but the shirts resurfaced in September with the football team.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert reminded the district Sept. 25 that coaches, like teachers, are restricted from certain religious activities and expression while acting in their official capacities.
A school district representative responded Sept. 29 that a church donated the shirts: “I will be forwarding them a letter explaining that the T-shirts they are donating to the school’s athletic program violate the Akron Board of Education’s dress code policy.” The board also met with coaching staff that day “to discuss the prohibition of wearing religious T-shirts.”

The board thanked FFRF for bringing attention to the issue and said it will be an agenda item at an upcoming district-wide meeting with all athletic staff.

Coach’s meal prayer off the menu

Eustis High School in Eustis Fla., will no longer let a football coach require prayer before team meals in the school’s cafeteria. FFRF received a complaint that the coach would often call upon players at random to offer prayers with the entire team. FFRF also raised concerns about a local resident promoting prayer events at school on an unaffiliated Facebook page titled #PRAYWITHEUSTIS. 

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter Sept. 11 to detail the violations. An attorney for Lake County Schools responded Sept. 12: “Be advised that we are aware of the pitfalls of any coach promoting organized prayer and direct our coaches accordingly. Any misstep that might have occurred at a meal involving [the coach] has been corrected and we do not expect it to occur again.”

As to the Facebook prayer promotion, the district denied have any knowledge of it “until we received this correspondence, [so] be advised that we are appropriately dealing with that situation as well.”

Church ads on school fence removed

Elk Grove Unified School District in Elk Grove, Calif., took down signs promoting a church after a complaint was filed by FFRF. Signs reading “Answers-Church.com” with pictures of a Latin cross enclosed in a light bulb, were posted at Harriet Eddy Middle School. At least two signs were displayed on the school’s chain link fence.

Answers Church rents the school on weekends (as allowed by a misguided Supreme Court decision) but displays its signs throughout the week.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a Sept. 3 letter: “If the church wishes to advertise its services on school property, it may only use school property during the time it has rented the property — on Sundays. It must put up the banners no earlier than when the rental time begins and take them down when the rental time ends.”

On Sept. 11, the district agreed, “[O]ur protocols allow for the sign you reference to be displayed only during the time of the event, such as when the Church has been approved to use the facility, and is not to be placed on the property beyond those times.”

The city is the site of the famous Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow case brought by Michael Newdow in which the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance are an endorsement of religion and therefore violate the Establishment Clause. (Sadly, the case was later thrown out by the Supreme Court on standing.)

Freedom From Religion Foundation