FFRF Victories September 2011

FFRF halts bible as algebra text

A Texas public school superintendent called a math teacher’s religious school supply list “a harmless error” after receiving an FFRF letter of objection.

FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a letter Aug. 30 on behalf of a district parent to Superintendent Stan Surratt of the Lindale Independent School District and to Principal Vicki Thrasher at Lindale Junior High School in Lindale, Texas.

The parent alerted FFRF about math teacher Amy Priddy’s inappropriate supply list for eighth-grade algebra students. Included under “Classroom Expectations” was “Listen: to the Spirit of the Lord, to all instructions. . .” Another “expectation” was to prepare “your supplies (notebook, textbook, Bible, pencils, graph paper, spiral notebook, red pen, homework, etc.)”

The list imposes the teacher’s religious sentiments on her students, and thus violates the U.S. Constitution, Schmitt noted. “Mrs. Priddy’s decision to include ‘Listen: to the Spirit of the Lord’ and a bible as classroom expectations distributed to parents and students crosses the line because she is endorsing and promoting religion while acting in her official capacity as a school district employee.”

(This apparently was the teacher’s personal list because the district’s supply list online was different.)

“It’s supposed to be reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic, not religion,” said Dan Barker, FFRF co-president. “This algebra teacher needs to be told to calculate the distance between church and state!”

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor added, “The bible claims there is nothing new under the sun. But the bible, as usual, is wrong because this type of brazen violation is new even to us! Whoever heard of the bible being used as a math textbook? We think this teacher should certainly know that such behavior is illegal in a public school, and she should be disciplined.”

KYTX, the CBS affiliate in nearby Tyler, reported Sept. 2 that the school takes the complaint “very seriously,” according to Surratt. “We’re very aware of the law. It was just a simple mistake.”

Surratt said Priddy never meant for students to get the list. “She knows that’s not allowed at our school. It was just a harmless error.”

A statement from Priddy said she used to teach in a private school and “used a previous supply list and inadvertently failed to cut [the religious requirements] from the current supply list.”

KYTX reported differing views in Lindale. “I would probably be having a conference with the teacher,” Barbara Brown said. “I don’t think those are things that need to be discussed in our classrooms.”

“Kids need to learn about God and Jesus,” Bud Morton said. “There’s nothing bad that’s going to come of it, so why not teach it?”

FFRF blocks Gideon bible distribution

FFRF alerted Meade County Schools in Brandenburg, Ky., to a serious offense. School policy allowed Gideons International to distribute bibles to fifth-graders.

Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, wrote June 7 to Superintendent Mitch Krump to ask that the district bar groups from distributing religious materials. She noted that the district “need not create an open public forum whereby any private organization may take advantage of school resources and a captive student audience to further its personal goals.”

School attorney David Wilson of Skeeters, Bennett, Wilson & Pike responded Aug. 5: “[T]he district has not been historically opposed to permitting the voluntary disposition of bibles to those students who wish to receive a bible. Nevertheless, in light of your above mentioned correspondence and having reviewed the applicable legal authority, the district agrees to preclude the distribution of bibles by the Gideons as requested by your correspondence.”

Public school doused with holy water

“Every inch of school was blessed that evening as Rev. Jaison Mangalath of Holy Ghost Catholic Church led two dozen people around the school for their annual prayer rally.” That’s from an Aug. 11 story in the Opelousas [La.] Daily World. The priest and a church group called the Blood Covenant Women of God were led through the public Opelousas High School by Principal Rodney Johnson prior to the start of the school year.

“Mangalath blessed classrooms, hallways, offices and meeting areas, sprinkling holy water throughout the school as the group followed behind and recited the Hail Mary,” the paper reported. Other prayers were also said.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, on behalf of Louisiana members, sent a letter of objection Aug. 12 to Superintendent Michael Nassif and the St. Landry Parish School Board.

“Opelousas High School is public property and may not be taken over, even temporarily, by religious proselytizers. It is immaterial that none of the parents, teachers and students invited was in attendance. The religious rituals encompassing the entire school were directed at students, parents and staff.

“What next,” Gaylor asked, “an exorcism of the school grounds with the principal’s consent?”

An open records request accompanied the letter, and FFRF was told the church did not have a contract with the school to use the building. Even if it did, Gaylor noted, “It too would indicate an unconstitutional collaboration by your public school district with an event whose sole purpose was to enact a religious ritual.”

The Daily World reported Aug. 16 that the church group had asked Nassif for permission to hold the rally and had been denied. Unbeknownst to Nassif, however, Johnson had already approved the rally. Johnson claimed not to know about Nassif’s denial.

“This organization wanted to use the school for religious reasons, and just from experience, I knew that was not something that we wanted it to engage in,” Nassif told the paper. “In my conversation with Dr. Johnson, he admitted that it was a weakness and an error in judgment. There is an investigation going on and we will take the appropriate action.”

Johnson could be disciplined, Nassif said, adding that principals will be reminded of separation of church and state rules at an upcoming monthly meeting.

FFRF nixes Christian anti-abortion link at State of Wis. website

The state of Wisconsin removed a link to a religious anti-abortion group from its website after receiving FFRF’s July 14 letter of objection.

FFRF wrote Gov. Scott Walker to point out that the state shouldn’t be directing residents to Care Net “pregnancy centers” while offering no links to information about legitimate, legal abortion providers. Care Net’s vision statement says: “Our vision is a culture where lives are transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and every woman chooses life for herself and her unborn child.”

Clicking on “Health & Safety” at wisconsin.gov, the online portal to Wisconsin government, led to (under “Family and Consumer Services”) “Family Services Links – NEW!” Clicking that brought up “Care Net Pregnancy Centers” under the “Family” subheading.

“By advertising this organization on a state of Wisconsin website, you are advertising evangelical ideals as well as an anti-abortion stance,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote. “Such religious propaganda has no place on a government website under ‘Health & Safety.’

“Care Net promotes a rabid evangelical Christian agenda, and is hostile to nonbelievers, non-Christians and nonevangelicals, as well as the feminist principle of a woman’s right to reproductive self-determination.”

The link was removed on Aug. 8, said Chris Schoenherr, state Department of Administration spokesman. “In general, the policy for the Wisconsin.gov website is to provide links to .gov and .edu websites only.”

School: No more graduation sermons

Macon County Schools now has a policy barring religious speech at commencement after FFRF expressed serious concerns about a fire-and-brimstone preacher at Nantahala High School in Nantahala, N.C.

Rev. Daniel “Cowboy” Stewart, the speaker, delivered a sermon that featured a volunteer from the audience bound in ropes with a bag over his head. Stewart was quoted in The Andrews Journal as saying, “This is a metaphor for how the devil is out to destroy you and tie you up.”

Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, wrote a letter June 29 to Superintendent Dan Brigman to note that Stewart “obviously abused his speaking opportunity to proselytize a captive audience.”

Brigman replied Aug. 4 to say that while Stewart was not invited to deliver a sermon, the district will “ensure that future graduation speakers refrain from religious speech.”

Complaint zips psalm out of post office

On May 16, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to the postmaster in Juneau, Alaska, about a religious posting on the customer counter. Under the counter glass was a copy of the entire text of Psalm 23.

Markert noted that “by displaying the biblical verse, the Juneau, Alaska, post office branch is illegally demonstrating a preference for religion, specifically Christianity.”

After two follow-up letters, the branch manager responded Aug. 23 to say that the bible verse had been removed and had been placed there by an unknown postal patron.

Prayerful teacher resigns in Texas

FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote a letter July 20 to Superintendent Xavier De La Torre of the Socorro Independent School District in El Paso, Texas, after complaints were received about teacher-led prayer and creationism instruction.

Schmitt reported allegations that Laura Varela, Montwood Middle School science teacher and girls soccer coach, promoted creationism in her classroom. “We further understand that on several occasions, Ms. Varela has led her team in prayer prior to the start of a game.”

According to a parent complainant, while exploring the “big bang” scientific theory, the teacher allegedly told students that “really, God created the world.”

On Aug. 9, Larry Baskind, school attorney, responded that Varela had resigned effective June 30. “Accordingly, there should be no concern regarding actions by her in the future.”

Baskind said the school “has been unable to confirm” that the questionable activities occurred, adding that the district “has in place appropriate policies to assure that teachers and other staff comply with applicable law.”

Creationism plan dies in Ohio school

The Springboro, Ohio, School Board won’t pursue a proposal by board members to teach creationism along with evolution. FFRF Senior Staff Attorney sent a letter Aug. 2 to board President Don Miller to object to the plan.

“It is wildly inappropriate for the religious beliefs of a few board members to be pushed on a captive audience of public school students,” Markert wrote. “Such a practice alienates those teachers and students who practice other religious faiths, those who are nonreligious, and those who believe that science and religion are compatible.”

The Dayton Daily News had reported earlier comments by board member Kelly Kohls saying that “Creationism is a significant part of the history of this country. It is an absolutely valid theory, and to omit it means we are omitting part of the history of this country.”

Kohls, who heads the Warren County Tea Party, was backed by Jo Ellen Myers, who like Kohls belongs to Educate Ohio, a statewide group of conservative school board members. “If they’re teaching the one, why not [both]?” Myers said. She said she believes in creationism but not evolution, because evolution is “based on a theory that can’t even be proven.”

Markert told the board in FFRF’s letter: “Any board member who feels passionately about the merits of creationism is free to teach that viewpoint to his/her own children or to ask that it be taught in his/her her church.” She cited six court decisions since 1968 rejecting creationism in public schools.

Markert noted that the board should be wary about committing the district to a course of action that would embroil it in an expensive, losing legal battle.

The Daily News reported Aug. 21 that Kohls had changed her mind and was dropping her proposal. Along with FFRF, ACLU of Ohio had also objected.

Some on the board saw the creationism issue as a distraction during efforts to keep the district financially afloat after several levy defeats. “No way, no how, no place should it be in public schools,” said board member Mike Kruse.

Nipped in the bud

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote a letter of complaint to the Cedar Grove-Belgium [Wis.] School District on behalf of a parent whose 8-year-old brought home from summer school a flower pot with verses from the biblical Book of Matthew, “And why worry about clothes? Look how the wild flowers grow: they do not worry or make clothes for themselves. But I tell you that not even King Solomon with all his wealth had clothes as beautiful as one of these flowers.” Superintendent Steven Shaw responded, “By addressing the issues during our fall in-service and by creating a heightened awareness on the part of our administrative team, issues such as were outlined in your letter will not occur again.”

Sub sandwich discount is toast

FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote a letter of complaint Aug. 15 to Quiznos restaurant owner Flint Noble in Ardmore, Okla., about a violation of federal and state law. The store advertised on its counter, “Sunday Only: Trade Church Bulletin for 10% Discount.” FFRF’s complainant said that when an employee was asked if a bulletin could be brought in from a non-Christian organization, the response was, “No, it has to be a Christian church.” A week later the complainant returned, saw the sign was gone and asked if the discount was still valid. The employee responded, “No, some atheist was threatening to sue us, so we had to stop that promotion.” Denver-based Quiznos trails only Subway in North American sub sandwich sales.

Freedom From Religion Foundation