FFRF state/church complaints make headlines

They called his name ‘Messiah’

FFRF has called for a probe of a Tennessee magistrate who ordered a child’s legal first name changed because it offended her Christian sensibilities. FFRF wrote a letter of complaint Aug. 14  to the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct over the impropriety, suggesting disciplinary action may be in order.

Lu Ann Ballew, a child support magistrate for the Fourth Judicial District of Tennessee, presided over a now notorious child support hearing Aug. 8 in Cocke County Chancery Court to settle a dispute over a 7-month-old’s last name. But at the hearing’s conclusion, Ballew ordered the boy’s first name changed as well: from Messiah DeShawn Martin to Martin DeShawn McCullough. Messiah ranked fourth among the fastest-rising baby names in 2012, according to the Social Security Administration’s annual list of popular baby names.

Bellew told WBIR-TV in Knoxville the name change was warranted because “[t]he word Messiah is a title, and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ.”

Martin, who told reporters she will appeal, said she likes how Messiah sounds alongside her son’s two siblings, Micah and Mason.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert Markert noted the magistrate violated Canons 1 and 2 of the Tennessee Code of Judicial Conduct through her actions. “Her statements regarding her decision to change the child’s name imposed her own personal religious beliefs upon parties coming before her, thus calling into question her ability to conduct herself in a manner that ‘promotes public confidence in the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.’ ”

Markert added that Ballew has “shown a lack of respect and compliance with the law by using her position as a child support magistrate to endorse a Christian viewpoint in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

FFRF’s call for a probe received widespread news coverage.


Prayer caravan becomes religious circus

FFRF’s protest of an Aug. 10 “prayer caravan” called by the superintendent of schools in Cullman County, Ala., dominated news that weekend across the state, after the official refused to cancel the inappropriate event.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley even got in the act, publicly condemning FFRF’s work to stop the third annual “prayer caravan” called by Superintendent Billy Coleman. 

Bentley stated, “I personally believe that one of the problems we have in this country is taking God out of, not only our lives, but out of government.”

Coleman not only organized but spoke at the Christian rally that preceded a ritualistic visit to 29 area public schools, quoting the bible’s admonition to “pray without ceasing.” After the complaint by Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel was publicized, FFRF received complaints from seven additional area families about widespread abuses in Cullman County schools. Stay tuned!

FFRF blasts Alabama religious dorms

In another highly publicized complaint in August, FFRF sent a letter to the chancellor of Troy University, Troy, Ala., protesting its newly unveiled faith-based campus dormitories.

Troy opened a 376-bed, $11.8 million student housing complex specifically designed to give students a “faith-based collegiate experience.” Included is a 2,300-square-foot Newman Centre leased and operated by the Catholic Archdiocese of Mobile.

Three Catholic and three Baptist resident advisers will be named. Media reported that preference will go to students who “maintain an active spiritual lifestyle,” are actively engaged in a campus faith-based organization and are Christian, with nonreligious only considered if there is space available, according to a university spokesperson.

Troy is known as Alabama’s international university, many of whom are not Christian.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel noted in a complaint that the university cannot lawfully “make a determination of how religious a person is, and then discriminate among students based on that determination.” To stay in good standing, students will have to engage in a service project tied to a church at least semi-annually. 

Seidel noted the arrangement violates not only the principle of separation between church and state, but arguably the most important purpose of higher education: “to broaden horizons, to meet new people from different backgrounds, to collide with new ideas that challenge and stimulate.”

The 5-acre property the complex is located on is leased from the university and was paid for through Troy’s foundation, a private entity.


FFRF to USDA: No religion for lunch 

FFRF has called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to adopt more safeguards to separate religion from a free summer lunch program. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging him to bring the Summer Food Service Program into compliance with executive directives that protect aid recipients from proselytizing.

While lauding the program’s goal of providing nutritious lunches during the summer, FFRF noted the program is another case where “religion gets the credit and taxpayers get the bill.”

“Parents must not be forced to choose between their children going to religious ‘activities’ and their children not getting a proper meal. Such religious coercion is unconstitutional,” Elliott wrote.

The federally funded food service and the organization’s religious activities are frequently combined, making it difficult for a family to opt out of religious propaganda if they want children to receive the free lunches. The program encourages providers, including churches, to accompany such meals with “educational, enrichment and recreational activities.”

The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service even gives as an example “faith-based organizations or churches that offer religious study day camp sessions.” Current USDA regulations and program materials don’t explicitly prohibit religious discrimination, and fail to mandate safeguards to keep religious activities separate from meals.

“Impressionable children are receiving federally funded meals in the same location as they receive religious instruction,” FFRF noted. “Churches should not be locations for children to receive free meals at public expense any more than they should be where low-income families must pick up SNAP EBT cards or college students sign up for federal loans,” Elliott added.

The USDA has failed to give incentives to secular sites, much less to give preference to public schools, the ideal location for free lunch programs for young children.

An executive order specifies that religious activities be kept clearly separate from lunches provided using federal funding, but FFRF noted there is no monitoring required or rules on religious symbolism where children eat.


New Hampshire ‘church lady’ update

As noted in the August issue, FFRF’s complaint about a woman praying loudly, arms outstretched and bible in hand, at high school students in Concord, N.H., got the woman banned from Concord High School.

Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert notified the superintendent about the aggressive evangelizer, who recited bible verses for at least 15  minutes each day at the school’s entrance, with permission from the principal.

According to the Concord Monitor, the theocratic Alliance Defending Freedom has offered to provide legal services to Lizarda Urena to challenge the decision to remove her from school property. As of press time, no lawsuit had been filed.


Postal Service trucks religious imagery

After receiving a complaint about an image of praying hands on the side of a truck carrying U.S. mail, FFRF sent a letter to the U.S. Postal Service about inappropriate religious imagery on contract vehicles.

Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a July 2 letter to the Postal Service’s counsel. Counsel for USPS replied that the Postal Service takes no position on whether an image of clasped hands “constitute[s] religious imagery under an Establishment Clause analysis.” 

Markert sent a July 31 follow-up citing multiple federal court cases, as well as historical examples that clasped hands are both legally and traditionally understood to be a religious image.

No branch of federal government can take any action that demonstrates preference for or endorsement of religion over nonreligion. This prohibition extends to those contracting with the federal government to carry out governmental duties like mail delivery, Markert noted.

“The simplest, most rational course of action would be to remove the religious symbols from the vehicle and any other vehicles which may bear similar imagery that are being used in the service of the Postal Service,” wrote Markert.


FFRF protests Marine Corps labeling

FFRF has protested a U.S. Marine Corps policy that labels a “lack or loss of spiritual faith” as a risk indicator.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent Commandant of the Marine Corps General James Amos an August 9 letter requesting that the U.S. Marines stop violating the freedom of conscience of nonreligious Marines. FFRF’s letter follows one sent by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation previously requesting the offending clause in the order be changed.

The order lists factors that could lead to “loss of life or diminished functioning.” Under the “guidance/moral compass” category the U.S. Marine Corps lists “lack or loss of spiritual faith” as one of four risk factors.

“It is deeply offensive and grossly inappropriate for the military to suggest that Marines are at risk because they ‘lack spiritual faith’,” Seidel wrote. “Imagine how it feels to be told by the military that your reasoned, intellectual conclusion that unsupported religious claims are untrue is dangerous ‘risky behavior’ that requires monitoring.”

Seidel referenced the House of Representative’s offensive July 23 vote to prohibit the appointment of chaplains to serve nonreligious service members.

FFRF submitted an open records request to the Corps to verify the corps’ claim that the risk factors are based on scientific studies and to learn more about the policy.


Mad at a Hornet for team worship 

FFRF has called “foul” over an Arkansas football coach’s invitation to students to attend “Bryant Hornet Football Team Worship” at a church.

The “Bryant Hornets” Facebook page posted the invitation from the Bryant High School football coach for the Aug. 26 event.

The coach wrote, “I would like to invite anyone and everyone that would like to join us in worshiping The Lord and kicking off the football season the right way! This tradition has been a blessing to me, our staff, our players and all of our families and we would love for you to come and share in this exceptional experience.”

He added that the president of a Baptist college would be the guest speaker.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent an Aug. 22 letter to Superintendent Randy Rutherford askin him to cancel the service. “Bryant Public Schools has a duty to remain neutral toward religion. By one of its employees scheduling a religious service for a school athletic team, the district has breached that duty.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation