Legal staff busy shoring up state/church wall

FFRF reminds Tenn. principal of law

The principal of Little Milligan Elementary School in Butler, Tenn., has been reprimanded by the Carter County School District for frequently leading students in prayer and reportedly asking them each Monday if they had been to church. FFRF was contacted by a concerned parent.

The principal, J.R. Campbell, also reportedly recruited several students to accompany him during the school day to a Baptist church to set up chairs for a church service. While he drove to and from the church, the students walked, crossing Highway 321 twice without supervision.

“The district must take action to ensure that its educators, principals and teachers alike, are not recruiting students to participate in church-related activities, or to encourage student involvement in religious activities of any kind,” Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert said in a June 9 letter.

John Banks, district general counsel, replied July 10 to say that Ward had investigated the allegations and met with Campbell. Banks provided a copy of Ward’s letter, which was signed by Campbell and placed in his personnel file.

While praising Campbell’s “long, meritorious and exemplary service,” Ward said his investigation “leads me to believe there is some substance to the factual statements” in FFRF’s letter and that he will continue to monitor the situation. “Having discussed this at much length with you, I understand that you will take all necessary steps to prevent a violation of Board policy or First Amendment Rights of students, faculty, or staff in the future.”

No more bibles at school ‘career day’

Daniel Pratt Elementary School, Montgomery, Ala., will no longer allow Gideon bible distributions, which occurred during a “career day” at the school.

In response to FFRF’s June 12 letter protesting the distribution, James Seale, attorney for Autauga County Schools, informed FFRF that the principal, who no longer works in the district, approved the distribution without the district’s knowledge. “The new principal is aware that the distribution of bibles during the instructional day is not permissible,” Seale wrote.

Letters stop abuse of school prayer

Dalton Local School District’s future graduation ceremonies and school board meetings will not include prayer. “The Supreme Court has settled this matter — high school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students,” wrote Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a letter sent June 16. A letter to the school board followed on June 26: “It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings.”

Superintendent Scott Beatty responded July 6 that the district would not have an invocation or benediction as part of its 2016 ceremony, and an attorney for the school board wrote July 16 to let Markert know school board prayers would also be discontinued.

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Summit Leadership Academy-High Desert’s graduation ceremony will not include prayer or other religious sentiments in the future. The Hesperia, Calif., school’s 2015 graduation had included both a prayer and religious remarks from the commencement speaker.

After Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the district, the school’s attorney replied July 9 that the invocation and remarks by the graduation speaker both “contained sectarian language,” and said the school would ensure that this would not be the case going forward.

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Woodstown-Pilesgrove Regional School District in New Jersey is taking steps to end its sponsorship of an annual baccalaureate ceremony after it received a June 23 letter from Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler. Woodstown High School co-sponsored a baccalaureate with Sharptown United Methodist Church which was held in the school cafeteria and advertised in the senior class calendar, which “strongly encouraged [students] to attend this worthwhile activity.”

Students also received mailed invitations to the ceremony, lacking a disclaimer, from the church.

Ziegler pointed out, “The school’s role in sponsoring and promoting the baccalaureate would cause any reasonable graduating senior or parent to conclude that the district endorses the religious messages espoused at these services.”

Superintendent Thomas Coleman replied that district employees would not organize, plan or coordinate future baccalaureates, services would not be included in the official senior calendar, and district administrators would “receive professional development regarding the constitutional parameters that apply to baccalaureate services.”

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Green Local Schools, Green, Ohio, has instructed administrative staff that prayers will not be permitted at future school-sponsored events. An honors banquet, spring banquet and the senior awards night at Green High School had all included prayer.

“It is unlawful for any school-sponsored event to include prayer,” Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote in the first of two letters to the district. “The U.S. Supreme Court has found prayers at other traditional after-school events, such as football games and graduations, unconstitutional.”

Mary Jo Shannon Slick, attorney for the district, replied July 9 that Superintendent Jeffrey Miller has instructed staff that prayers, even if student initiated, won’t be permitted at events. Shannon Slick said the class president gave a prayer on her own initiative at the awards event.

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Mifflinburg Area School District Superintendent Daniel Lichtel has instructed administrators for the district in Union County, Pa., to no longer schedule prayers at school functions and directed staff to refrain from leading prayers.

Lichtel’s directions to staff came after Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler wrote the district June 12 about a report that a teacher gave a scheduled Christian prayer at a school-sponsored banquet: “An objective observer attending this event would almost certainly perceive such a prayer given by a teacher in full view of his superintendent as tacit district endorsement of religion in general, and Christianity in particular.”

FFRF stops forced recital of pledge

A Valhalla High School teacher in La Mesa, Calif., is no longer permitted to force students to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Previously, according to FFRF’s information, when students remained seated, math teacher Douglas Babington would shout at them to “get up or get out” and threaten them with failing grades if they refused.

FFRF sent a letter April 21 informing the Grossmont Union High School District that this conduct was unconstitutional. Superintendent Ralf Swenson said in a July 10 reply that “we have dealt with the issue internally and consider the matter resolved.”

FFRF douses fire chief’s prayer plans

Milton, Fla., Fire Chief John Reble planned and coordinated the Santa Rosa County Day of Prayer event, listing his city email address as the primary contact for the May 7 event. He has agreed to cease all planning of the event using city resources and his public title after receiving a letter from Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel.

The city’s attorney responded July 16 that Reble would refrain from sponsoring the event in his official capacity in the future.

Roadside cross goes away after letter

The Missouri Department of Transportation has taken down a cross that was posted at an intersection in Poplar Bluff, Mo. Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote the department on July 10: “It is blatantly unconstitutional for either the city or the state to display a patently religious symbol like a Christian cross at a public intersection.” The cross placement is unconstitutional even if it is privately funded, owned and maintained.
The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission replied July 16 that the cross had been privately and illegally placed and had been removed immediately.

Calif. swim meets will go secular

The Visalia Seahawks, a swim team organized by the city of Visalia, Calif., will no longer be subjected to prayers over the loudspeaker at meets. The team had solicited parents to volunteer to give the prayer.

“Any reasonable Visalia resident would interpret the prayers at the swim meet as government endorsement of religion,” Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote in a July 17 letter.

Nicolas Cardella, attorney for the city, responded July 24: “We conducted a review of the facts and law and determined the practice should be discontinued. City staff have since reminded league representatives that the Seahawks swim team is part of the City’s recreation program, that opening a municipal recreation event with prayer is improper, and that the practice must be discontinued.”

Georgia violations will be addressed

After a teacher delivered a prayer at Lowndes High School’s Freshman Academy Awards Night and a Lake Park Elementary School event was held in a church, Lowndes County Schools is taking steps to ensure no further violations of the separation of church and state will occur.

Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler sent two letters to the Valdosta, Ga., school district after the issues were reported. Counsel for the school district, Warren Turner, promptly resolved the matters and assured FFRF that school administrators now understand the law.

(Editor’s note: Now if they will only abide by it!)

Prayer silenced at Florida meetings

Quarterly employee luncheons for the city of Belleview, Fla., will now have a moment of silence instead of a prayer. “While individuals are certainly free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way,” wrote Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler in a complaint letter, “calling upon city employees to pray is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of secular government.” A city employee had alerted FFRF to the violation.

“In spite of the longstanding tradition in this country of ‘offering thanks’ prior to eating on such occasions, the City has chosen to observe a moment of silence,” City Clerk Sandi McKamey replied on July 23.

According to a story in the Ocala Star-Banner, the Belleview City Commission “reluctantly” voted 4-1 on Aug. 4 to also replace prayer before meetings with a moment of silence. The story said FFRF’s letter about prayer at employee meetings “prompted commissioners to examine their prayers before meetings.”

Meeting prayers used to be led by clergy but due to a decline in participation, commissioners themselves were leading them.

Teacher’s Catholic enthusiasm curbed

Rogers City (Mich.) Area Schools Superintendent Kathleen Xenakis-Makowski has resolved a state/church violation brought to her attention in a complaint letter from Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert. A Rogers City High School English teacher reportedly had inappropriately discussed his Catholicism with his students regularly and had repeatedly asked them if they were Christian.

Xenakis-Makowski informed Markert on July 21 that she met with the teacher and his principal to instruct them “not to use this form of instruction any longer.”

Coaches warned about midfield prayer

Hernando County (Fla.) School District’s football games will remain secular. A local complainant sent FFRF a photo of the Hernando High School and Sunlake High School teams gathered with coaches at midfield to pray at their May 22 game.

“If, while acting in their official capacities, school district 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,” wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, quoting a federal court case.

Attorney Dennis Alfonso replied that the matter would be addressed in training provided to staff. FFRF awaits a reply from Pasco County Schools regarding the same practice at Sunlake High.

Georgia school ends bible distribution

A representative of Gideons International who thanked the West Haralson Elementary School faculty for inviting him to distribute bibles to fifth graders for 16 straight years will no longer be permitted to proselytize children in Tallapoosa, Ga.

“There is no excuse or justification for this practice,” wrote Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler on May 8. “It is unnecessary, offensive and illegal.”

In a July 29 response, incoming Superintendent Jerry Bell said he would advise administrators that distribution of bibles by Gideons or school employees was not permitted.

Letter sours school on religious tea

Eighth-grade girls at Alice Robertson Jr. High School in Tulsa, Okla., have traditionally attended a religious “spring tea” event but won’t in the future due to Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s complaint letter. Students were taken annually to First United Methodist Church during school hours for the “abstinence-only” event hosted by Muskogee’s Pregnancy Resource Center, a “crisis” pregnancy facility.

Previous years’ events included prayer, religious music and adults recounting personal religious stories. Transportation was provided by “Okie Trolley,” a company that declares a commitment to “Christian faith” on its website.

“Due to the pervasively religious nature of the spring field trip, we see no reasonable alternative to canceling the event,” wrote Seidel.

The school made some changes but still held the event, which prompted a follow-up letter. Bryan Drummond, attorney for the district, replied to the second letter July 30. “Based on this entire situation, the District’s central administration has decided that in order to avoid any issues in the future, the District will discontinue its involvement with the ‘Spring Tea’ in any way in the future.”

Minn. baccalaureate gets the boot

Kingsland High School in Spring Valley, Minn., will no longer host a baccalaureate service after getting a complaint letter from Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott. “Given the blatant school endorsement of this event, we ask that you take measures to cease any school involvement in baccalaureate services going forward.”

A staff member, when asked whether the school had collected rent, said, “The baccalaureate is considered a school event. Being a school event, there was no charge for the space.”
Superintendent John McDonald replied July 29, stating that the district has a facility use policy and that he would ensure that it is being followed. He said he would also advise event organizers to “revise their program so that a reasonable observer would not conclude that the service is school-sponsored.”

School board ends meeting prayer

The North Lebanon (Pa.) School Board has stopped praying at its meetings. Prayers were recited even though students were typically present at meetings and a student representative attended each meeting.

“Federal courts, including the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Pennsylvania, have struck down school board practices that include this religious ritual,” wrote Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler on May 1.

A July 30 reply from school counsel Howard Klein said the board had stopped praying before meetings.

Parks head gets constitutional lesson

Employees of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department in Texas will not invite pastors to give religious motivational speeches at future mandatory meetings. Division Manager Jeff Jefferson invited his pastor, William Lindsey, to a June 26 employee meeting. Lindsey’s speech contained religious content, including Lindsey promoting his church.
Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler wrote the department a letter of complaint: “Religious messages at government-sponsored events are unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive.”
Parks and Recreation Director Joe Turner replied July 15 that Lindsey was not invited to speak on religious matters, and said FFRF’s letter had been reviewed with Jefferson, who is now aware of basic separation of church and state principles in the workplace.

‘Head of Christ’ not in Kansas anymore

A portrait of Jesus hanging in Royster Middle School in Chanute, Kan., was removed Aug. 20 in response to Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s letter to Chanute Public Schools. The reproduction of Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ” had been displayed in the school at least as far back as 1966.

Superintendent Richard Proffitt, in his first year in Chanute, told the Wichita Eagle that the image came down on advice of district legal counsel. “We were notified [by FFRF] and we responded to stay in compliance,” Proffitt said.

A similar copy of the painting in a middle school was involved in an FFRF and ACLU of Ohio lawsuit against Jackson City School District in Jackson, Ohio, in 2013. The school settled the suit, agreeing to permanently remove the portrait of Jesus and pay $95,000, including attorney’s fees. Seidel’s letter to the Chanute district stressed the settlement.

“It is illegal for Royster Middle School or any other Chanute public school to post religious images in its hallways, or anywhere else that appears to be school-sponsored. If this picture of Jesus is displayed, as we are told, the District must remove it at once.”
Proffitt said the portrait is being stored in a secure location “where it’s not visible.”
Ryan Jayne, FFRF legal clerk, noted it’s the second time the Foundation has worked with Proffitt to resolve a complaint. The earlier case involved Gideon bible distribution in Saline in 2014.

“It’s nice to have people who appreciate the law and get things done [and] who follow the law, even if it’s likely to be unpopular in the community,” Jayne told the Eagle.

New York City quiets amplified gospel

The Gospel Light Baptist Church will no longer be able to illegally gather and preach over a loudspeaker in a New York public park. The church had previously set up weekly in Major Mark Park in Queens, preaching for hours at a time at people walking by.

FFRF learned that the church did not have a permit to gather in the park, and that even if they did, no amplification was allowed at all in the small community park. Attorney Madeline Ziegler sent a letter July 23 to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, requesting that the city enforce permit restrictions.

In a July 27 phone call, Mark Edwards, park manager for New York City District 12, said he would send parks enforcement directly to the church to advise them that they could not hold events without a permit and could not set up their public address system. FFRF’s complainant confirmed on July 31 that the church had stopped harassing passersby.

Freedom From Religion Foundation