FFRF ends flurry of Florida violations

The Freedom From Religion Foundation recently ended a series of violations in public schools in Orange County, Fla., as well as invocations at City Commission meetings in Winter Garden.

The commission voted Sept. 5 to replace prayers with a moment of silence, following a controversy in which Mayor John Rees ejected a citizen from the meeting simply because he wouldn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter of complaint Aug. 29 in support of the citizen, “John Thoreau,” a member of FFRF and the Central Florida Freethought Community, FFRF’s local chapter.

As documented in a video recorded by Thoreau, Rees told everyone present to rise for the invocation and the pledge. As the prayer began, Rees interrupted, pointing at the seated Thoreau and saying, “We’re waiting for everyone to rise.” Thoreau repeatedly asserted he did not have to and remained seated. The sectarian prayer, given by a commission member, continued.

When Thoreau also refused to stand for the pledge, Rees ordered Police Chief George Brennan to “either escort him out or have him stand for the pledge.” Rees continued, “This is just not fair to our troops and people overseas, sir.” Brennan asked Thoreau whether he would stand or leave. He answered, “I guess I’m leaving” and was escorted out in front of the nearly 100 people in the room.

Rees claimed the refusal to stand was disrespectful, telling the Orlando Sentinel, “I did not make him stand for the prayer, but the pledge? Even school kids stand. So I told him, ‘You have two choices: You can stand or go outside.’ ”

Seidel, in a follow-up letter, asked the commission to “get rid of prayer altogether” and asked Rees to explain at the next meeting “that citizens are within their rights to remain sitting for the pledge and that it does not reflect a lack of patriotism.” 

The commission held a special meeting Sept. 5 and voted 3-2 to substitute a moment of silence for an invocation. (Rees voted no.) Four chapter members and chapter leader David Williamson spoke against the prayers. 

FFRF Co-President Dan Barker praised the decision, noting that it’s a major coup to persuade a city to drop prayers.

Orange County Schools

Orange County Public Schools in Orlando agreed in late August to end a variety of state/church violations. This is the district that, following a federal lawsuit, is now permitting FFRF and other nonbelievers to distribute freethought literature on the same date that evangelists “passively distribute” bibles. FFRF has had to contact the district about more than 10 violations in the past 18 months. 

Following a March complaint letter from Seidel, the district is abolishing athletic chaplaincies for its teams and removing bible verses from sports venues and apparel. Other violations included using religious music on game footage.

The district’s August memo from the Office of Legal Services stated: “Having a team chaplain is not permitted as it is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion in the same manner as a school employee participating in prayer with students. In this area the law is very clear.” 

Regarding staff praying with students, the memo said: “On this issue the matter is well decided that school personnel ‘cannot participate in a visible way with the players’ during student-led prayer. . . . Please make sure to educate the staff at this and other schools that active participation by any School Board employee and/or non-faculty coach in student-led prayer must not occur as it is contrary to established case law.” 

The school also properly got rid of the bible verses on team signs and apparel. “While the signs themselves may be permitted,” the memo said, “the reference or citation to a particular bible verse is deemed to be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.” 

The school also agreed with FFRF about banning religious music in videos: “The usage of religious lyrics could be seen as an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.”

Of course, these sensible actions were met with near hysteria on Fox News. Bobby Bowden, retired Florida State University football coach, noted during one interview that he didn’t care about the Constitution or the First Amendment: “I want to be spiritually correct.”  

Extremely conservative Fox columnist Todd Starnes, not known for his accuracy or balance, reported that one chaplain would stay but be renamed as a “life coach.” He also charged that FFRF is trying to “eradicate Christianity in the public marketplace of ideas.” 

“If this ‘life coach’ nonsense is accurate, Orange County can’t avoid this issue with creative wordplay,” responded Seidel. 

FFRF still has outstanding complaints, including school-sponsored baccalaureates, holding school events in churches and forcing students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Freedom From Religion Foundation