FFRF complaint letters add to tally of legal victories

Jesus saves (you from craving meth) 

Campbell County Comprehensive High School in Jacksboro, Tenn., will vet future assemblies to ensure no inappropriate religious programming after receiving an FFRF letter of complaint about a March assembly in the gym. According to a student, the school hosted a substance abuse assembly during school hours that included opening and closing student-led prayers and featured religious leaders. 

Speakers included Sheriff Robbie Goins, Caleb Arnold of the Hill College Ministry, representatives of the Stanfield Church of God and the Christian alternative rock band the Birdsongs. The band describes itself online as “passionate about spreading the gospel and pointing people to Christ.” 

The complainant reported that “references to God and Christianity” and “quotes from the bible” were prevalent and that a speaker told students that “Jesus Christ delivered [them] from methamphetamine.” 

The complainant reported that “some people I know didn’t want to go, given their beliefs, and were forced to attend the assembly.” 

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a March 28 letter to the director of schools: “Though teaching students about the perils of drug abuse is a commendable goal, allowing church representatives and an evangelical Christian band access to your student body gives the appearance that CCPS endorses those speakers’ religious messages.”

On July 9, after receiving two FFRF follow-ups, the district responded: “It was the assumption of the principal at the school that this would be a program in which the primary emphasis would be on curbing potential drug use. As a result of your letter we have spoken with the principal and have asked that he do a better job scrutinizing the content of future assemblies.” 


School backs off baccalaureate

Freeman High School in Freeman S.D., will no longer organize or sponsor an annual baccalaureate ceremony for graduating seniors. FFRF received a complaint that on May 14 a religious ceremony took place at which attendance was mandatory for all seniors and members of the band and chorus. Students were reportedly told that they would receive an “F” for not attending. Teachers, staff and the principal all have attended the event at the school.

FFRF was informed that between songs, a pastor preached and quoted bible verses. The pastor also led the crowd in prayer. The school promoted the event on the school calendar and website and announced it repeatedly over the intercom. 

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a complaint letter May 30 to Superintendent Don Hotchkiss. Shortly thereafter, the school responded that it would stop the practice. The complaint resulted in a flurry of Freeman Courier news articles in the town of about 1,300.

Hotchkiss said it was never his intention to eliminate the baccalaureate. “I do think we have to make some changes to how we do baccalaureate; I think we’re fortunate to have been able to do this for as long as we have.”

That comment sounded to FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor like the superintendent knew that the practice violated the law. “If so, that’s really sad,” Gaylor said. “It’s like he thought, ‘I know it’s illegal but maybe nobody is watching.’ That’s why we need state/church watchdogs like FFRF.”

Elliott sent a follow-up letter July 23 explaining that the district had to completely disassociate itself from the event. Hotchkiss then announced that the Ministerial Association would host future baccalaureates ”with no help, input, collaboration or participation from employees at the Freeman Public Schools.”

Sending FFRF a copy of the board motion to discontinue school affiliation, Hotchkiss snidely added, “I trust this information will not only be useful for you but will also allow you to have a more complete and restful nightly sleep cycle.” 

The Courier editorialized in FFRF’s favor July 24, asking readers to “Imagine if you, as a Christian, moved into a community that was primarily Muslim and the public school chose to hold a religious service as part of the graduation. Likely you’d have reservations about being there and offering prayers and following the religious tenets and traditions of Islam.” 


Teacher-led religious club disbanded

Hawkins Middle School in Hawkins, Texas, will no longer permit a teacher to organize and promote a “Feed and Seed” club. A concerned parent contacted FFRF, reporting that a teacher ran the club during lunch period. The teacher read from the bible and invited religious leaders to speak to students. Parents weren’t informed that their children were participating. The teacher also read religious materials on Good Friday during instructional time.  

Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter to the district June 4. On Aug. 5, the superintendent replied that regulations and practices regarding extracurricular and co-curricular clubs were reviewed as well as classroom instructional material guidelines: “We are working to make certain that the Hawkins ISD complies with all applicable laws, including the First Amendment’s prohibition concerning the endorsement of religion.”

The school noted that if the club returns as a strictly student-led group, the teacher involved in the abuses will not be approved as faculty supervisor.


Gideon bibles out in Kansas school 

An elementary school in Gypsum, Kansas, will no longer allow the Gideons to proselytize and hand out bibles to students. FFRF was informed that on May 16, a fifth-grade teacher at USD 306 allowed representatives from Gideons International to speak and distribute bibles in his classroom. 

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to the district July 8: “Parents carefully instruct children not to accept gifts from strangers. The Gideons’ practice is a usurpation of parental authority. It is the duty of public school administrators to protect not only the personal conscience of students but to ensure they are safe from predatory adults while at school.” 

On July 31, the district responded, “[The] superintendent . . . did not have any knowledge that this activity was going on. If he would have known it was occurring, he would have stopped it. This confirms that USD 306 will not permit this to happen anymore.” 

FFRF successfully complained about another teacher in the district who actively led, participated and organized a See You at the Pole prayer gathering. Fliers announcing the gatherings included the teacher’s name.

The letter said that a new policy prohibiting teachers sponsoring overtly religious events will be enforced by the district.  


Young students recruited for Team Jesus 

Michael T. Simmons Elementary School in Tumwater, Wash., will no longer allow religious materials to be handed out. 

Children were pulled out of class to attend a mandatory assembly led by former NFL player Shawn Harper, who at the conclusion handed out cards to students with his picture on the front and an image of Jesus on the back. The card said:

“I grew up in a religious home, but I did not know God. I suffered a potential career ending injury which put me out of the NFL for one year. It was during that year, when I thought I had lost everything, that I discovered the difference between religion and a relationship with Jesus. He found me, and I have been playing on His Team ever since. I was able to come back and finish my career in the NFL!” 

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter June 5 explaining why the school district needed to remedy the violation.

The district responded promptly: “The card about which you have stated concern, which looked like a traditional sports card, was made available to students by the speaker as the students were leaving the assembly hall. Not all students received a card, but many did. The card was not approved in advance by the principal. The principal has shared with me that in the future she will make sure to pre-approve any materials that are to be handed out to students in such a context.” 

The district defended the assembly itself as addressing bullying and not containing religious content, although Harper’s website says he’s a “Christian Motivational Speaker” at the top of the home page. 

The incident was scheduled for discussion at an August meeting of administrators, the response said.


Mandatory meetings in churches stopped

Dawson County School District in Gainesville, Ga., will no longer hold mandatory meetings for teachers in churches. 

A complainant reported to FFRF that the district held a mandatory staff meeting on Aug. 4 at the First Baptist Church of Dawsonville. The meeting was opened by a minister who gave a sermon inviting people to join his church and “come to Jesus.” He then urged the teachers to stand while he prayed to “bless” the teachers, school year, students, etc. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent complaint letter Aug. 15, noting that letting staff skip the church meeting wouldn’t cure the constitutional violation. Employees should not be forced to “out” themselves as nonreligious or non-Christian to their employers, he said.

The district responded Sept. 3: “While a church leader was invited to give a brief welcome to the facility, the length and nature of the comments was unexpected and certainly not invited. Under all the circumstances there is no expectation of such a gathering at the church anytime in the future.”


Senior center halts staff-led prayer 

Employees at a senior center in Eagle Nest, N.M., will not lead prayers before federally funded meals. FFRF was informed that staff recited sectarian prayers before meals at the center and that participants were asked to join hands.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent an Aug. 21 complaint letter. The center responded Sept. 3, saying that “to the extent that the prayers are conducted by Village employees or have an appearance of being Village sponsored, the Village will take action necessary to ensure that this does not continue to occur.” 


School reins in creationist teacher  

Eureka Union School District in Granite Bay, Calif., will no longer permit a teacher to “teach the controversy” about evolution during science class.

According to a complainant, a teacher at Ridgeview Elementary School routinely taught creationism and intelligent design during science instruction. The teacher claimed that it’s legally required to “present both sides of the issue.”

The strategy apparently consisted of giving the students a bag of popcorn and a sheet of paper with a complicated design, telling them to repeatedly let popcorn fall on the paper. If the popcorn did not form the complicated design, then, the teacher told them, it shows that evolution must be unreasonable. 

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter of complaint March 4, summarizing court rulings: “Evolution is not a ‘theory’ in the layperson’s sense of the word. Evolution is a ‘scientific theory.’ This difference is crucial. A misunderstanding of these terms often leads to a misunderstanding of evolution, the vast weight of evidence supporting evolution, and of its overwhelming acceptance in the scientific community.”

The district responded March 13, thanking and assuring FFRF that the complaint was immediately addressed and appropriate action taken.


Bibles verses removed at post office

A post office in Richmond, Calif., removed bible verses posted at employee time clocks. A concerned employee contacted FFRF that a sign quoting 1 Peter 4:15 (“But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a ‘busybody’ in other people’s matters”) was posted on internal bulletin boards.

Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell sent a letter to the branch, pointing out that the display directly violates regulations. The Postal Service said Aug. 19 that the verses were removed: “Employees at the facility will be reinstructed through a Stand-Up Talk regarding the policies related to posting items near time clocks and on internal bulletin boards.” 


Mormon video barred from assemblies

Kuna School District in Kuna, Idaho, addressed the constitutional concerns brought on by a religious video at an assembly. A complainant informed FFRF that Kuna Middle School held an anti-bullying assembly in May. A video, “Bullying — Stop It,” produced by the media channel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was shown to students. On stopping bullying, the video claims, “This mighty change of heart is exactly what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is designed to bring about.” It also claims that, “allowing us to see others the way our Heavenly Father sees us, because God loves us so much, we too must love and forgive; remember in the end it is the merciful who obtain mercy.”

The video was paused at the end to display the Mormon Church’s logo. 

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter June 4: “[Y]our community possesses many secular experts in this field, including counselors, psychologists, and sociologists, who have experience, training, certification and/or degrees and would be delighted, usually at no cost to the district, to discuss bullying before your student bodies, and whose presence would not raise constitutional red flags.” 

On July 7, Superintendent Wendy Johnson replied: “The student who presented the assembly and video did disclose to building administration that there was religious content at the end of the anti-bullying video. The building administration requested that the video be stopped before the religious content was shown. Unfortunately the video was not stopped in the appropriate time.”

Johnson added that building administrators will be directed to use only district-approved materials.


In Ohio, Jesus has left the building

Religious images will no longer adorn the locker room of North Canton Memorial Stadium Complex in Canton, Ohio. A concerned student contacted FFRF to report that a portrait of Jesus was displayed near the door leading to the stadium. 

On July 3, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a warning letter to the Stark County Educational Services Council, requesting an immediate investigation of the illegal religious display at Hoover High School.

Markert stated: “As you may be aware, a similar situation occurred at Jackson Middle School in Jackson, Ohio. A lawsuit brought by FFRF together with the ACLU of Ohio on behalf of a Jackson Middle School student resulted in a settlement for the permanent removal of the portrait of Jesus and a hefty fine, including attorney’s fees against Jackson City School District.”

A council representative responded Aug. 21 that the portrait had been removed.


Miami Beach removes Jewish eruv

A public park in Miami Beach, Fla., will no longer permit religious eruvin to be erected over public property after a complaint was filed by FFRF. 

An eruv is “an urban area enclosed by a wire boundary that symbolically extends the private domain of Jewish households into public areas, permitting activities within it that are normally forbidden in public on the Sabbath.” An eruv, constructed of 15-foot plastic poles connected by string, was installed by two members of the Orthodox Jewish community in Pine Tree Park without a permit. 

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a complaint letter to the city of Miami Beach: “Allowing Orthodox Jews to permanently demarcate large areas of public property as a private Jewish household that is ‘property’ of the Orthodox Jewish community forces those of other faiths and no faith to live within an Orthodox Jewish religious enclosure, including members of other Jewish denominations who are offended by the Orthodox Jewish elevation of legalistic constructs over what they believe to be the true spiritual values of Judaism.” 

On July 10, FFRF received a response from the city insisting that an “eruv does not violate the Establishment Clause,and can be legally permitted. It has the secular purpose of allowing Orthodox Jews to participate in matters of daily living outside of their homes on Saturday, their Sabbath.” 

Seidel replied July 14: “There is nothing secular about helping a religious sect comply with religious law. What do you think the reaction would be if Miami Beach endorsed and even helped devout Muslims rope off an area in which to adhere to Sharia law?”

FFRF’s complainant confirmed on July 24 that most of the eruvin had been removed from the park. She called it “a great victory.”


Chorus won’t sing in S.C. churches 

Broome High School students in Glendale, S.C., will no longer perform in churches. A concerned citizen informed FFRF that on May 11 the school chorus sang at the First Baptist Church of Cowpens during a Sunday morning worship service. 

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter May 19 to Spartanburg School District 3, explaining why holding school-sponsored activities in churches, especially during services, is a bad idea constitutionally, even if students are allowed to opt out of participating. 

On Aug. 11, an attorney representing the district responded that students should not be asked to participate in any activity that takes place during a religious service, where that activity is sponsored by the school.

The counsel added that she had met with all district administrators to give a presentation including “instruction regarding the Establishment Clause and how it applies to public school students and religion.”


Graduations won’t have official prayer

Alexander High School in Alexander N.Y., will no longer conduct prayer at graduation. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter June 24, 2013, about an invocation listed on a recent graduation’s program. 

After several follow-up letters, the district sent an email Jan. 31: “We do not believe it was illegal. It was student initiated and student led.” 

Markert responded April 8, citing the Supreme Court’s Santa Fe v. Doe ruling on precisely such violations. 

On May 28, the district responded: “The graduation planning committee for the class of 2014 has decided not to included an invocation in their graduation program.” 

In August, Markert received more confirmation that the School Board “made the decision not to included an invocation in the ceremony.” 


Teacher-led prayer stopped at banquets

After a complaint by FFRF, Sandy Run K-8 School staff in Swansea S.C., will no longer lead prayer at academic banquets. FFRF learned that a school staff member led students and staff in a Christian prayer at a June 2 banquet.  

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter to Calhoun County Public Schools on July 22. On Aug. 12, Superintendent Steve Wilson responded: “I have reminded staff on numerous occasions of the law and to not engage in any activity that could be considered out of bounds as it pertains to Freedom of Religion. After receiving your letter, I immediately placed the subject on the very next District Principals’ Meeting agenda . . . and directed any and all to refrain from such practices.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation