FFRF legal victories

Letter stops grants to Florida churches

The city of Ocala, Fla., has in the past used its discretionary fund to give grants to churches. Last year, the Ocala City Council provided a grant to First Presbyterian Church to repair its steeple. This year, St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church requested $10,000.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter to City Attorney Patrick Gilligan, noting that such grants violate the U.S. and Florida constitutions. The Florida Constitution says, “No revenue of the state . . . shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church.”

While maintaining he disagreed with FFRF’s position, Gilligan responded Sept. 8 that the council withdrew funding for St. Paul AME from its budget.

School cross, Jesus painting taken down

Guthrie Upper Elementary School took down a cross in a classroom after getting Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s Aug. 26 letter to Guthrie (Okla.) Public Schools: “When a school erects crosses on its property, it unconstitutionally promotes a religious message, specifically a Christian message.”

An Aug. 27 response from Superintendent Mike Simpson said the cross had been removed.

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A painting of Jesus was removed from Altizer Elementary School, Huntington, W.Va., just five days after Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent the school district a complaint letter. Cabell County Schools Superintendent William Smith informed FFRF on Sept. 8 that the picture had been taken down, adding that the district was conducting a sweep of all facilities “to make sure all are in compliance.”

Private sector gets Wisconsin crèche

The city of Elkhorn, Wis., will not put up a nativity scene on public land this December. Previously, a large nativity was displayed annually in Veterans Park and illuminated at night.

FFRF started objecting to the display in 2012. After FFRF asked to display its own banner this year alongside the nativity scene, Staff Attorneys Patrick Elliott and Sam Grover were invited to meet with attorneys for the city. The city then decided to move the crèche to a location on private property.

In response to the city’s action, FFRF withdrew its request to put up a freethought banner.

Teacher’s ‘Personal Testimony’ removed

Murchison Middle School, Austin, Texas, removed religious content from its website after getting an FFRF letter. Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy also will no longer be allowed to host eighth-grade graduation prayer.

Jeff Sanders, Murchison athletic coordinator, had a section on his Austin Independent School District page titled “My Personal Testimony.” In it he wrote of “accept[ing] Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior when I was 9 years old.”

Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter June 9. An attorney for the school district responded July 22 that the district took FFRF’s concerns seriously and said the constitutional issues had been discussed with administrators.

Texas police chief gets the message

Police Chief Steve Drumm will no longer post religious messages under the banner of the Zavalla, Texas, Police Department. Drumm had posted bible verses and a request for residents to “Pray For Your Pastor.”

“When a government organization or a government employee acting in his or her official role speaks, it is with the voice of the state,” said Staff Attorney Sam Grover in an Aug. 6 letter.

The next day, FFRF’s local complainant informed Grover that Drumm had changed the department’s Facebook page to be a personal page, despite claiming that “the Zavalla PD page has always been my own, and in no representation the city of Zavalla views, and feelings, I used it to keep the city informed on issues.”

Editor’s note: No grammar police at the chief’s disposal?

Church must clean up its leavings

Hoover High School in the North Canton (Ohio) City School District can continue to rent space to Mission View Church, but the church will no longer be allowed to leave materials behind after services.

The church had left behind signs, brochures, offering envelopes and ads for a “crisis” pregnancy ultrasound center. “When a school allows a church to leave religious, proselytizing materials displayed on its property, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message, here a Christian message,” Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert reminded the district in a letter.

According to an Aug. 7 reply from attorney Mary Jo Shannon Slick, the superintendent told the church it needed to clean up the area after renting the space.

Band’s religious music gets scrutiny

Winchester Community High School in Indiana will no longer perform religious routines after getting an FFRF complaint lodged with the Randolph Central School Corp.

The band’s 2015 performance of “With Trumpets and Cymbals” was based on Psalm 150 and included a narrator reciting “Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary!” Stained glass props served as a backdrop.

“WCHS has a responsibility to ensure that performances by school-sponsored groups do not impermissibly promote religion over nonreligion or Judeo-Christianity over all minority faiths,” wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover.

Steven Murphy, attorney for the school district, “acknowledge[d] the concerns expressed in [FFRF’s] letter” and said that separation of church and state would be “considered and addressed on all future performances.”

Prayer, ants deemed unwelcome at picnic

Dalton (Ohio) Middle School football coach Dennis Finley was warned about engaging in inappropriate religious activity at school for asking a student to lead a prayer at a school picnic. Senior taff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter of complaint Aug. 10.

School attorney Susan Hastings responded Aug. 13 that the superintendent for Dalton Local Schools made it clear to Finley that he cannot lead his team in prayer or invite a student to do so. “In addition to addressing this specific concern, the District will be scheduling professional development with all of its staff and coaches regarding the separation of church and state and, more specifically, the prohibition on leading, sponsoring or encouraging prayer in school at school sponsored events,” Hastings’ letter said.

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Teachers in the Tishomingo County Schools in Iuka, Miss., have been reminded that they cannot participate in religious activities with students. A parent informed FFRF that on the first day of school this term at Tishomingo County High, faculty joined students at the flagpole to pray. Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter Aug. 21 that quoted a federal court ruling: “If while acting in their official capacities, employees join hands in a prayer circle or otherwise manifest approval and solidarity with the student religious exercises, they cross the line between respect for religion and the endorsement of religion.”

Attorney Nathaniel Clark wrote back Aug. 28 to say that he personally hosted a discussion with high school staff to reiterate that they could not endorse any religious practice while on campus, adding that “mistakes, if any, [were] made in good faith and will be corrected immediately.”

Christian care ad off school website

An ad for the Christian Community Center’s child care services has been removed from the South Lewis Central School District website. “Advertising for the CCC on the District website crosses the line because anyone viewing [it] would understand that the District endorses any organization given a section of the website,” wrote Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a complaint letter.

Superintendent Douglas Premo responded Aug. 17 that the offending material had been removed.

School staff warned about prayer pole

This year’s “See You at the Pole” prayer events will not be organized or promoted by the Huffman (Texas) Independent School District. In 2014, a newsletter sent to all district staff documented SYATP events at several schools, indicating that staff, parents and community members participated in the events.

“Any religious events in any of the District’s schools must be entirely student-initiated and student-run,” wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover in a Sept. 26 letter, noting that “the best place for an adult to pray on the day of See You at the Pole is not on campus with the students but at alternate locations.”

After following up several times, FFRF finally received a response Aug. 11. It stated that district staff would not be involved in organizing or promoting future SYATP events and said administrators would review staff obligations during staff development meetings before the start of the 2015-16 school year.

FFRF letter curbs meeting in church

Keller (Texas) Independent School District’s mandatory employee meetings will not include proselytizing and employees who do not want to attend the meeting, which takes place in a church, can attend remotely.

At the most recent meeting, religious literature was distributed to employees and a pastor was allowed on stage to advertise the church’s ministries and to invite staff to attend services.

“If KISD permits a church to distribute religious pamphlets or gives a pastor time to promote the church’s services to a captive audience of employees during KISD-sponsored events, a reasonable employee will conclude that the district is endorsing religion,” Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote in a complaint letter Aug. 5. FFRF requested that staff meetings not take place in religious settings.

In an Aug. 17 response, school attorney Amanda Bigbee said the district would allow remote attendance for the upcoming meeting and religious speakers would not be allowed to speak or distribute religious literature.

Schools say football prayer not OK

University of Toledo (Ohio) football coach Matt Campbell will no longer lead his team in the Lord’s Prayer before games. “The University and the football coaching staff are endorsing religion whenever Coach Campbell incorporates prayer into the team’s pregame activities and allows himself or the coaching staff to lead them,” wrote Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert.

Media reports over the summer indicated that Campbell said players would now “determine on their own any personal preparation methods to help them mentally prepare.” The university confirmed on Aug. 31 that those reports were accurate.

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The Corsicana (Texas) ISD previously started all Corsicana High School football games with a prayer led by a clergy member. Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote a letter of complaint last November. Although FFRF never heard back from the school district, a report from a local resident said the game on Friday, Sept. 4, had a moment of silence in place of the prayer.

City drops Gospel Fest sponsorship

The city of Jonesboro, Ga., ended its unconstitutional involvement in Gospel Fest after getting an FFRF complaint letter. concert. While claiming that it disagreed with FFRF’s position, the city officially “relinquished sponsorship of the concert.”

The event was advertised with Christian imagery on the city’s Facebook page. Residents were encouraged to “enjoy some all night Saturday revelry in anticipation of a feverous day of Sunday worship and prayer.”

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel cited state and federal constitutional restrictions and court precedent that bar city participation.

Steven Fincher, attorney for the city, responded that the city had turned control of the concert over to two ministers’ groups, and noted that the city did not own the property or the stage where the concert was to be held. The city also removed all ads for the festival and informed residents by email of the new hosts.

Jonesboro, in central Georgia, has about 4,600 residents.

Graduation prayer won’t be repeated

The Collinsville (Texas) Independent School District will not schedule prayer at future graduation ceremonies. Staff Attorney Sam Grover in an Aug. 12 letter to the school district said, “Graduations are not the place for personal religious promotion, just as it would taint the occasion if a speaker promoted his or her personal political beliefs while speaking to those assembled.”

An attorney for the school district responded that future graduations would not include invocations or benedictions in order to comply with the law.

Board agrees to approve secular club

After more than a year of stonewalling, Ward Melville High School, Setauket, N.Y., finally gave a student permission to start a Secular Student Alliance chapter. FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to the district July 23 urging them to stop violating the Equal Access Act and let the club form.

Thomas Sheedy, who had tried for two years to start the club, planned to go to the Three Village Central School District board meeting in September to protest the denial, but got word of the club’s acceptance shortly before the meeting. He attended anyway to thank administrators for approving the group.

Thomas will speak at FFRF’s annual convention and receive the $5,000 Beverly and Richard Hermsen Student Activist Award.

Freedom From Religion Foundation