New Legal Successes
FFRF reminded the Lewisville Independent School District in Texas that employees must not endorse their personal spiritual beliefs to students through religious displays.
A community member informed FFRF that a cross was visibly hanging in a classroom of Arbor Creek Middle School promoting the teacher's Christian views to students. On Feb. 8, FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the school district's superintendent, Kevin Rogers, asking that the cross be removed.
Lewisville ISD's legal director called to inform FFRF on Feb. 13 that the cross had been removed from the classroom.
FFRF learned that coaches in Texas' Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City Independent School District were illegally participating in prayers with its student-athletes.
Coaches from Byron P. Steele II High School, Samuel Clemens High School and Ray D. Corbett Junior High School had engaged in prayers.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Greg Gibson on Jan. 25 to inform the school district that it is illegal for public school coaches to organize or participate in prayer with their teams.
Gibson responded on Feb. 9 that he worked with the athletic director and health educator to schedule training for all coaches on complying with the Constitution.
FFRF has dissuaded a Virginia city’s park and rec department from hosting a trip to the infamous “Ark Park” and creationist museum.
A resident informed FFRF that the Christiansburg Parks and Recreation Department was arranging a visit in early April to the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum in Kentucky. The excursion was advertised on the city’s website.
FFRF urged the city to refrain from organizing an outing to such overtly religious sites, and the city responded within a couple of days.
“Please be advised that the trip has been cancelled and will be removed from the town of Christiansburg’s website,” the city’s legal counsel wrote.
The Ark Encounter is a Christian ministry run by the creationist Ken Ham, who also built the Creation Museum. Ham has been open about the proselytizing nature of his projects right since the beginning.
“We are eagerly approaching what I believe will be a historic moment in Christendom,” he stated in a 2016 letter outlining his motive. “It’s the opening of the one of the greatest Christian outreaches of our era."
FFRF was informed that a statue of an angel with its hands clasped in prayer had been put up in a public park in Kokomo, Ind. The display conferred government endorsement of Christianity over all other faiths or no faith.
FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to the Kokomo Parks and Recreation Department's superintendent on June 3, 2015, asking that the statue be removed from the park or to a more private location.
After several follow-ups, FFRF was informed on Feb. 6 of this year that the statue had been removed by the city park department's new superintendent.
FFRF took action to end a partnership between the Decatur Public Schools District in Illinois and two local churches after learning of a constitutional violation.
The school district had partnered with Glad Tidings Church and Tabernacle Baptist Church for six half-day retreats at the churches. FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to the district's administrators on Dec. 21, 2016, reminding them that public schools may not advance or promote religion.
The school district's attorney contacted FFRF early this February to inform the organization that the partnership program with the churches had been suspended and cancelled for the next year.
A Florida judge says a prayer lawsuit against a high school athletic league should be tossed out. FFRF filed an amicus brief in the case.
U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Amanda Arnold Sansone issued a Feb. 3 recommendation to dismiss a case brought by Cambridge Christian School against the Florida High School Athletic Association. The First Liberty Institute, a theocratic group, filed the suit in September, arguing that the association was mandated to allow Cambridge Christian to deliver a Christian prayer over the PA system at state championship events. Sansone found that Cambridge Christian's request for a preliminary injunction should be denied and its suit should be dismissed.
In Louisiana, the Caldwell Parish High School football team's coaches have been warned not to promote religion to the team in the future.
FFRF was informed that a coach had been taking the team to church. The coach had also been exposing the athletes to religious movies and music. The coach had described his efforts to indoctrinate student-athletes into Christianity as "faith-based team building."
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent John Gullatt on Sept. 16, 2016, about the violations.
The school district's attorney responded in writing to FFRF on Feb. 1, that the coaches had been reminded of the district's policies against religious promotion.
An Illinois school district has confirmed to FFRF that its staff members will not remain involved in a school gospel choir.
FFRF initially contacted the Oak Park and River Forest High in December after a local community member informed the organization that there was a gospel choir at the school being led by the school's outreach coordinator.
"It is wholly inappropriate for a public school to teach its students songs of Christian worship," FFRF's Elaine and Eric Stone Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Interim Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams on Jan. 23. In a letter received on Jan. 25, the district informed FFRF that it would adhere to the law.
A parent with a child in Victoria School District in Texas contacted FFRF to report instances of religious promotion at Ella Schorlemmer Elementary School. A Christian prayer was part of the school's Veterans Day celebration and a teacher at the elementary school incorporated religious worksheets into a lesson plan.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Robert Jaklich on Dec. 22, 2016, asking that the school district refrain from including religious rituals during public school assemblies and that teachers not incorporate religious instruction or devotional teachings into their lesson plans.
Jaklich responded on Jan. 24 that steps had been taken to ensure that the violations would not recur.
An Indiana school district has pledged to FFRF that it will not permit the distribution of fundamentalist flyers to its students.
A resident contacted FFRF to inform it that staff at Yankeetown Elementary School in Newburgh, Ind., were distributing ultrareligious flyers to third- and fourth-grade female students. The handouts were a description of POP Girls ("Pearls Of Purity"), a Christian ministry promoting the "wisdom of Christ."
FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Warrick County Schools Superintendent Brad Schneider on Jan. 20, cautioning the school district about disseminating such material.
"This flyer should not have been approved and we will put steps in place to prevent objectionable flyers to slip through the cracks in the future," Schneider responded on Jan. 24. "You have my word that flyers of this nature will not be distributed home in the future."
Educators at Grant County Schools in Kentucky have been reminded of their responsibility to uphold the First Amendment's requirement that they not proselytize religion.
FFRF was alerted to a published nativity display in the high school's newsletter, accompanied with the phrase "Merry Christmas." FFRF Managing Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Superintendent Donald Ruberg on Jan. 17, asking that the school refrain from including religious iconography in their newsletters and that staff be reminded of their constitutional duty to remain neutral toward religion.
On Jan. 19, the attorney for Grant County Schools communicated that the superintendent would meet with the school district's principals and let them know that the newsletter nativity was inappropriate and why.
The city of Zachary, La., has changed its rules to ensure that its annual "Mayor's Prayer Breakfast" will no longer violate the First Amendment by receiving city endorsement.
The city's website promoted the annual breakfast as a "Christian event," which was held in a church. FFRF's Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to Mayor David Amrhein on Dec. 16, 2016, informing him that the event violated the Constitution.
Amrhein responded on Jan. 17 with a list of changes that the city would make in future prayer breakfasts to avoid city endorsement. Amrhein informed FFRF that the event would take place at a non-city facility, not use city resources or funds, not require mandatory attendance by city employees and not be mentioned on the city's website.
An Illinois school district has apologized to FFRF for a coach's participation in prayer gatherings at school events.
On Dec. 26, 2016, after a basketball game between Vandalia Community High School and Pana High School, Coach Brian Buscher took part in a prayer circle with students of both teams.
In a letter sent on Jan. 11 to Vandalia Community Unit School District #203 Superintendent Rich Well, FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne reminded him that it is illegal for public school coaches to lead, organize or participate in prayers with their students.
"Please accept our apology," Well emailed back a few days after receiving FFRF's letter. "Our Varsity Boys Basketball Coach Brian Buscher has been notified that no coaches are allowed to participate."
An Auburn, Ala., elementary school assured FFRF that it will not be promoting Christianity or a religious group.
Dean Road Elementary School distributed flyers and used social media postings to promote "All Pro Dad" events, which the school was hosting throughout the school year. All Pro Dad is a group that promotes "family values," along with Christian prayer and worship.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover first wrote to Auburn City Schools Superintendent Karen DeLano on July 16, 2015, about the unlawful flyers. After several interactions, an attorney representing the school district replied to FFRF on Jan. 12 that there would not be any promotion or endorsement by the school of a religious organization.
Religious artwork hanging on the office wall of Bob Miller Middle School in Henderson, Nev., has been taken down after FFRF took action on a complaint.
The organization received a report that a cross and a reference to Jesus were being displayed on the BMMS Dean of Students' office wall. FFRF's Patrick O'Reiley Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to School District General Counsel Carlos McDade on Dec. 22, 2016, asking that the Christian iconography be taken down.
McDade responded in a letter to FFRF on Jan. 11 writing that the employee had removed the displays of religious symbolism.
FFRF was able to get the Upper Arlington City Council in Ohio to amend its rules to comply with the Constitution.
FFRF received a complaint that the council was having government officials lead invocations at the beginning of its meetings when a local minister was not present. FFRF Managing Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to City Council President Donald Leach on Dec. 6, 2016, informing him that not only is prayer at government meetings unnecessary and divisive, but it is illegal for officials to lead prayers at government meetings.
FFRF received a response from City Attorney Jamie Hummer on Jan. 6, who wrote that the council amended their rules to state that neither council members or employees are permitted to conduct the prayer.
A nativity display was removed from an Ohio public high school's property after FFRF took action.
It was brought to FFRF's attention that a December nativity scene had been put up for the second year in a row at Buckeye Local High School in Rayland. FFRF Managing Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert informed district officials on Dec. 20, 2016, that the display was unconstitutional because it signaled that the school district preferred Christianity over all other faiths or no religion.
Interim Superintendent Scott Celestin informed FFRF on Dec. 28 that the nativity scene had been taken down after receiving Markert's letter.
A community member contacted FFRF to report that a radio in the front office of Osceola (Wis.) Intermediate School regularly played a Christian station loudly enough for everyone passing by to hear. The station was St. Paul-based 98.5 KTIS, which describes itself as a "ministry" that "communicat[es] God's message in the Twin Cities" in order "to lead people to Christ and nurture believers in their faith through Christ-centered media."
FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Osceola School District Supertintendent Mark Luebker with FFRF's concerns, and the district complied.
"Effective Jan. 1, 2017, the Osceola Intermediate School office will refrain from playing 98.5 KTIS or other religious programming while students or parents are present," Luebker responded.
On behalf of a local resident, FFRF recently wrote to the North Carolina town of Butner objecting to a nativity scene in a public park that had been placed there for years around Christmas. It was a large exhibit prominently displayed across from the Butner Town Hall that featured figurines and lights illuminating it at night.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Butner Mayor Vicky Cates about the violation, and the town responded.
The town has sent FFRF an official acknowledgement of the removal of the nativity scene.
Teachers at an elementary school in Guilford, Maine, have been reminded of their constitutional duty to not promote religion in their public roles as educators.
FFRF received notice that a third-grade teacher at Piscataquis Community Elementary School had handed out a coloring page depicting a pious turkey with wording that read, "Thank You God for everything — for family, friends and fun — but most of all for Jesus, My Savior and Your Son."
FFRF sent a letter to Superintendent Ann Kirkpatrick on Dec. 21, 2016, who responded a month later that the matter had been investigated, and that the teachers understood their obligation to refrain from any religious promotion in the classroom.
In December 2015, a nativity scene was on display at a publicly owned manor in Wadena, Minn. The manor is owned and managed by the Wadena Housing and Redevelopment Authority and funded in part by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott contacted the housing authority to inform it of the constitutional violation.
FFRF's local complainant reported this past December that the nativity scene was not put back on display during the holiday season.
FFRF contacted Wayne City Community Unit School District #100 in October to object to a posting on Wayne City High School's Facebook account about a "Bring Your Bible to School" day. The announcement gave a location (school library), time and day to meet and "pray over the day."
FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Superintendent Jeff Mitchell and pointed out that such an announcement violated the constitutional separation of church and state.
The Wayne City school district has promised to prevent any future misuse of its social media.
Cross removed (no official response; complainant emailed STG on December 6, 2016 to let him know that the cross was removed)
In mid-December, FFRF was able to persuade the city of Longview, Texas, to remove a cross from a Texas fire station's lawn in front of the station's sign. After FFRF heard from an area resident, Grover wrote to Longview Fire Chief J.P. Steelman about the violation. City officials then told the fire department to remove the cross.
"A cross that caused a stir when it was erected a year ago as part of a Longview fire station's Christmas display went up again this year — until city officials asked firefighters to remove it," the Longview News-Journal reports.
"It's our practice to follow what case law has shown throughout the United States," city spokesperson Shawn Hara told the paper. "So that is to not display on our city-owned property displays that are specifically sectarian — things like the cross."
A football coach in Michigan's Millington Community School district will no longer be participating in or leading prayer with student-athletes after FFRF blew the whistle on the unlawful violations.
It was brought to FFRF's attention that after a November football game hosted by Millington High School against Detroit Central High School, both teams joined each other on the field to pray together. This prayer involved Millington head coach Roger Bearss.
FFRF Managing Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert informed Millington Community Schools Superintendent Bruce Martin that it is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer or to permit someone else to.
Martin informed FFRF that the situation had been discussed with Bearss, who had been made aware of the church and state violation regarding coach participating in prayer with student-athletes.
A Christian flag displayed in an office window at Stephen F. Austin State University has been removed after FFRF raised concerns.
The flag displayed the image of the Latin cross, the global symbol for Christianity, and was visibly hanging in the office window of the university's processing coordinator for admissions, Dorinda Byly. FFRF's Grover contacted the university president about the constitutional violation in the university's expression of favoritism for Christianity above other religions or no religion.
FFRF received notice on Dec. 16 from General Counsel Damon Derrick that the flag had been removed from the window.
Coaches in an Arkansas public school district will no longer be promoting personal religious beliefs after FFRF presented video evidence of a Harmony Grove School District football coach and a team chaplain leading his team in prayer before a game.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Daniel Henley, informing him of the dual constitutional violations of district staff praying with students and athletic team chaplains in a public school setting.
In reply, Henley claimed that the prayer had been organized by a student-
athlete and that the coaches did not organize or participate in the prayer. Grover then presented two pieces of video evidence clearly displaying a pastor leading the players and coaches in a team prayer.
On Dec. 12, Henley stated in an email that, after reviewing the video evidence, he had met with the district's athletic director and head football coach and had been assured that coach-led prayer would cease.
FFRF was informed that the annual Gun & Knife Show in Cumberland County, Tenn., which is co-sponsored by the county, included an advertisement for free admission this past summer for anyone presenting a church bulletin. This kind of discount violates the federal Civil Rights Act.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Mayor Kenneth Carey, Jr., who was also the chair of the County Commission.
Carey responded in December, telling FFRF that he spoke with the facility manager to ensure this discriminatory promotion would not be used at future events.
An Alabama school district will have its staff undergo training to reacquaint them with constitutional principles.
FFRF contacted the Blount County School District in November 2016, after a parent at Hayden Primary School informed it that a second-grade teacher there asks the "class leader" of the day to lead a prayer when the class lines up for lunch.
FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Blount County Schools Superintendent Rodney Green
The school district proved to be very responsive to FFRF's concerns.
"We have every reason to believe that our teachers in the Blount County System understand what the law requires," the school district's legal counsel replied. "However, Superintendent Green advises he and his staff will conduct professional development with Blount County teachers in January 2017 on board policy and the Establishment Clause."
During the 2015 holiday season, the Roopville Elementary School in Georgia posted a religious message on its marquee, reading, "For God so loved the world, He sent his only Son. Merry Christmas."
FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to Superintendent Phillip Hartley to ask that he ensure that the school is aware of the constitutional prohibition of displays of religious messages in public schools.
Hartley replied on Dec. 9, informing FFRF that he had discussed the requirements with the principal and assistant superintendent.
It was brought to FFRF's attention that the Gulfport (Miss.) School District staff was regularly propagating their personal religious belief to students in the public school. Several counselors had been handing out Christian-based informative packets to students, and every week staff members held a bible study with students.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Glen East to complain about the multiple violations. FFRF's complainant reported that the district had complied with FFRF's request by removing posters advertising religion, ceasing to pass out Christian materials during school hours and ending bible study sessions.
A Centerville, Ga., resident contacted FFRF to report a city-owned recycling center displaying a sign reading, "Pray for our nation." The sign was in full view for anyone using the center.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Centerville City Clerk Krista Bedingfield, and City Attorney Rebecca Tydings wrote back to inform him that the sign had been removed from the recycling center.
A concerned community member in the Camden County School District in Georgia informed FFRF that district employees had involved themselves in a religious student club at the high school and middle school. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes was meeting before school on Tuesdays with district employees and outside adults leading, regularly attending and participating in the meetings, in violation of the Equal Access Act.
FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Camden County Schools Superintendent William Hardin to remind him that public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion.
Hardin wrote back on Dec. 6, informing FFRF that he had discussed the constitutional violations with the principals of both schools.
Adults in the Sarasota County School District in Florida organized and participated in "See You at the Pole" events put on by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at county schools in November. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted Superintendent Lori White about the violation.
White wrote back on Dec. 6 informing FFRF that she had instructed district administrators to remind the school principals not to allow staff promotion of religion in the schools through student clubs.
FFRF's persistent efforts persuaded an Indiana school district to remove prayer from the local high school's graduation ceremony.
Jennings County High School in North Vernon, Ind., had prayers as part of its graduation ceremonies in both 2015 and 2016. FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Jennings County Schools Superintendent Terry Sargent about the violation.
Initially, Jennings County Schools replied in a legalistic manner, but after FFRF sent a number of follow-up letters, it did the right thing.
"Please be advised that Jennings County School Corporation will no longer incorporate prayer as an official aspect of any program," the school district's legal counsel writes in a recent letter.
After FFRF's involvement, Madisonville High School in Texas has made changes to its spiritually discriminatory and unconstitutional apparel policy.
FFRF received a complaint from a student at the high school, who had been told by the school's vice principal, Kathleen Golden, to remove an inverted cross necklace and pentagram ring and was threatened with expulsion if he did not. Golden allegedly told the student that he should "practice his bloody religion somewhere else."
The school dress code had banned attire that could be interpreted as promoting or insinuating demonism, such as satanic symbols. Grover wrote to the Madisonville CISD informing the district that it could not draw a distinction between student religious expression and which religion they choose to express.
On Dec. 1, Madisonville High School Principal Heath Brown called to inform FFRF that the district would remove discriminatory language in its dress code.
After receiving a complaint that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Montana's Rockwood School District was receiving special treatment in its advertising, FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler contacted Superintendent Eric Knost.
The club was given preferential treatment by being displayed on a permanent board at Eureka High School, a privilege that other clubs were not allowed.
Knost replied on Dec. 1 informing FFRF that Rockford school administrators would be reminded that religious-related student groups are not to be given preference over other noncurricular student groups.
FFRF has put an end to church advertising through an Oklahoma public school district after Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted Superintendent Brad Overton.
A local district family informed FFRF that Cordell Public Schools had partnered with several local churches to provide school supplies to children. The churches were taking advantage of the school's charitable goal by using the partnership to recruit church members.
Overton wrote back, informing FFRF that changes had been made to the supplies distribution system to eliminate any religious endorsement.
Action was taken by FFRF after it was informed that Hartford (Kan.) High School's mandatory drunk-driving awareness assembly had opened with a prayer, led by the school's Athletic Christian Team sponsor Mike Watkins.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Superintendent Michael Argabright to inform him of the violation.
A response dated Nov. 30 informed FFRF that the principal of the building where the assembly had been held had addressed the issue with Watkins and that the prayer would not happen again.
The Gunter Independent School District in Texas has been educated on its obligation to uphold the Establishment Clause of the US. Constitution after violations made by staff members.
FFRF took action after receiving a report that a social studies teacher at Gunter High School, Kerry Clement, had shown his ninth-grade class the trailer for the 1991 movie "Not Without My Daughter" when teaching about Islam. Clement supplemented the trailer with statements that all Muslims have multiple wives and that they are "hateful" and "wife beaters." In contrast, Clement spent two days discussing Christianity with the class and teaching the tenets of Christianity as factual information by presenting a video about the miracles performed by Jesus in the bible.
Grover wrote to the school district asking it to ensure that its employees not promote religious beliefs in the classroom.
On Nov. 29, FFRF received a response from a firm representing Gunter ISD stating that Clement would ensure that all religions are represented in a historically and culturally accurate manner in the future. Christian ad removed
A sign advertising a Christian after-school program, Kids Beach Club, has been removed from the wall of Wester Elementary School in Texas after FFRF took action.
The sign, which read "Making Jesus cool at school!" had been permanently posted on the cafeteria wall of the public elementary school.
Grover expressed the FFRF's objection to the district's appearance of a government endorsement of a religious message to Lubbock Independent School District Berhel Robertson.
"When a school permanently displays a sign on its property advertising a Christian club, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message," wrote Grover.
An attorney representing Lubbock ISD informed FFRF on Dec. 22 that the advertisement had been removed from the school and communicated that the district had agreed that it never should have been put up.
A Missouri high school basketball team will not continue to partner with a religious ministry in its summer camp program, thanks to FFRFs involvement.
FFRF was informed of a constitutional violation occurring in the Eldon School District after the high school basketball team announced that it would be partnering with Sports Crusaders to host summer athletic camps for fourth- through eighth-grade students.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Matt Davis asking that the district end its school's partnership with the religious ministry.
On Nov. 23, an email from Davis was sent to FFRF informing the legal staff that he had visited with the basketball coach to ensure this legal violation would not happen again.
The city of Lakewood, Calif., will no longer be sponsoring a prayer breakfast held annually by the city's mayor.
A concerned city resident informed FFRF about an email that had been sent out inviting residents to congregate with Lakewood Mayor Jeff Piazza and the Lakewood City Council, along with a gathering of religious leaders and groups, in a "celebration of faith, unity and community spirit."
FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote to the city saying the event was a constitutional violation.
On Nov. 22, FFRF learned from the city manager that the city would no longer be sponsoring the prayer breakfast and that the breakfast would no longer be carried out in the name of the city.
FFRF complained last year about schools in Wake County, N.C., participating in the Apex Nativity Celebration, an annual Christmas festivity that a local Latter Day Saints church puts together. FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliot wrote to the legal counsel for the Wake County Public School System with his concerns.
After learning that the schools were still planning to participate, FFRF contacted the district's legal counsel again and requested further records. That did the trick. The schools pulled out.
"After continued review of the invitation under applicable legal standards, we regret to inform you that Wake County public school students will no longer be participating in this year's celebration," Cathy Moore, Wake County Public Schools deputy superintendent, wrote to event organizers in an email shared with FFRF.
After FFRF got involved, a Jehovah's Witness display with religious pamphlets has been removed from the side of a commuter bike path in Madison, Wis.
A concerned resident contacted FFRF to report a "sandwich board" display that was standing in Glenwood Park at the side of the bike path. The display held religious literature advertising the Jehovah's Witnesses Christian sect.
In a letter to the Parks Superintendent on Nov. 10, FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne informed the city of the display.
"This religious display stood as an advertisement to bikers and other users of the commuter path," wrote Jayne. "FFRF and our members are concerned that displays at this location will be a hindrance on others' use of the park and bike path."
FFRF received a response on Nov. 16 from the Department of Public Works Engineering Division City Engineer Robert Phillips, who wrote that the sign had been removed and was not permitted by the city.
Jumoke Academy, a public school in Connecticut, will be upholding its obligation to keep school and religion separate after a constitutional violation was reported by a school employee to FFRF.
The employee noticed that an academic assistant at the school was displaying a bible verse on her profile outside of one of the school's classrooms.
Managing Attorney Rebecca Markert informed the school board that the display was an unconstitutional display of religion, and especially inappropriate given that nearly 30 percent of Americans and 44 percent of Millennials are non-Christian, either practicing a minority religion or no religion.
"The display alienates those nonreligious students, families, teachers, and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the messages being promoted by the school," wrote Markert on June 24.
FFRF received a response on Nov. 7 from the charter school's executive director, Troy Monroe. Monroe wrote that the employee who had been displaying the bible verse had been met with and the religious display had been removed. Furthermore, Monroe informed FFRF that the school-based leadership team was informed of the expectations to ensure Jumoke Academy stays in compliance with the regulations involving the separation of church and state.
After FFRF's objection, two religious signs are no longer visible during school days at a public elementary school in Woodbridge, Va.
A community church in the town that rents the school building for its Sunday services was regularly leaving up signs promoting church services in front of Penn Elementary School. The signs were being displayed throughout the school week and were placed near the driveways to the school.
FFRF contacted Prince William County Public Schools Superintendent Steven Walts asking that action be taken to ensure the church signs would not be placed in front of Penn Elementary School.
FFRF was informed by the school system on Nov. 7 that the signs had been removed from school grounds.
Thanks to FFRF, the Vernon Independent School District in Texas has enacted policies to end the promotion of religious ideologies to students through film.
FFRF received a complaint that teachers in the school district had been promoting their personal religious beliefs to students during class through religious films. FFRF was informed that a teacher at Vernon Middle School had shown a class of sixth-graders the Christian drama film "God's Not Dead." Furthermore, FFRF was told that a former teacher at Vernon High School had shown numerous religious films to his Teen Leadership class.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Vernon ISD Superintendent Gary Harrell on Oct. 20 to ask that the district ensure that its employees do not use the classroom to evangelize.
"Teachers have access to a captive student audience due to their position as public educators," wrote Grover. "The district has a duty to prohibit religious proselytizing by teachers in the classroom."
In a response dated Oct. 26, the district told FFRF that the teachers who had shown religious films in class were no longer employed by the school district. The letter also informed FFRF that Vernon ISD had enacted policies to ensure that any film containing religious messages that was to be shown to students in the future would be approved by a campus principal.
A football coach at a public high school in Newton, Miss., will no longer be promoting his religious beliefs to student athletes after FFRF objected to the coach's baptism of one of his players.
Coach Ryan Smith reportedly organized and performed a baptism on one of his players in front of the Newton High School football team. Before the ritual, the coach had given religious remarks to the team promoting Christianity. This included telling his players how God was calling to him, what scripture teaches about being a man, and the importance of accepting Christ as a savior.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Newton Municipal School District Superintendent Virginia Young on Oct. 13 to ensure the school district investigated the situation. Grover reminded Young that public schools are not to advance or promote religion, nor are they to organize, sponsor, or lead religious activities at public high school events.
"Coach Smith's actions are especially problematic in the context of athletics, given the pressure players feel to conform to their coaches' expectations so as not to disappoint coaches or hurt their standing on the team," wrote Grover.
The Newton School District attorney informed FFRF that Young had met with Coach Smith and that the district did not expect that its staff would promote their personal religious beliefs to students in the future.
An Ohio school district won't be promoting religion through its coaching staff after FFRF got involved.
A concerned parent notified FFRF that either a coach or a team chaplain had led some of the Warren Local Middle School and High School athletic teams in prayer prior to games. In a letter to the school district, FFRF Managing Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert informed Superintendent Kyle Newton that it is unconstitutional for public school employees, such as coaches, to participate in the religious activities of their students.
Markert also informed Newton that having a spiritual leader for the football team is unconstitutional.
Newton responded in a letter on Oct. 24 informing FFRF that he would instruct the district's coaches that they are not allowed to participate in team prayer or to permit a chaplain or other nonstudents to lead the district's athletic teams in prayer.
A short-lived battle over the denial of a license plate has ended successfully for FFRF member Jeff Prebeg of Pennsylvania.
Prebeg wanted one of three license plates: ATHE1ST, NO GOD or N0 G0D. All three of these plates were available, according to the Pennsylvania Bureau of Motor Vehicles' personalized registration plate availability website. However, Prebeg received an Oct. 11 letter stating, "We are unable to process your application because the department reserves the right to deny issuance to any requested personalized plate." Under the enclosures line, it read, "DENIED . . . ATHE1ST, NO GOD, N0 G0D."
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel got involved and sent a letter to Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards. But before Richards had even responded to Seidel's letter, Prebeg found out his first choice for a license plate was approved.
He had heard from TribLive reporter Natasha Lindstrom, who was working with Prebeg on the story. She had contacted the PennDOT to inquire about why Prebeg was turned down. "They told her that it was an employee error and that they've tried calling me and are sending me a letter to tell me they will issue ATHE1ST to me," Prebeg wrote in his blog.
Then he got the official word it had been accepted. "Scott from PennDOT wished to inform me that they noticed I requested a vanity plate, and that after an 'internal review,' they deemed it was denied in error and that my plate would be issued," Prebeg wrote.
Thanks to FFRF, the Waikoloa Elementary and Middle School in Hawaii has ended its practice of having students stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing religious songs.
FFRF received a complaint in September that students at the school were being forced to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and stand to sing "The Star Spangled Banner," "America the Beautiful," and "God Bless America," on scheduled days of the week. FFRF was also informed that students who refused to stand had been disciplined by the school's teachers.
"Students have a constitutional right not to be forced to participate in patriotic exercises," wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler to Superintendent Art Souza.
"Students may not be singled out, rebuked, told they must stand or otherwise penalized for following their freedom of conscience."
Ziegler also informed Souza that "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America" were inappropriate songs for the public school to schedule students to sing because of the religious lines in the songs that wrongly equated patriotism with piety.
On Oct. 18, FFRF received a reply from Souza who wrote that students would no longer be participating in singing the problematic songs. FFRF was also assured that teachers at the school had been told that students were not to be forced to stand or participate in the pledge or the national anthem.
A New Jersey public school district in the Montgomery Township has revised its policy to remove what appeared to be the promotion of prayer in schools after FFRF stepped in.
Proposed revisions to the Montgomery Township School District’s policy on religion in public schools would have allowed for prayer during classroom time and at graduations and other school events.
In a letter sent on Oct. 14, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel informed the Montgomery Board of Education that the policy was written to unconstitutionally endorse religious practices.
The board responded on Oct. 17 to inform FFRF that the policy wording was adjusted to acknowledge the student’s constitutional rights. The school board adopted a majority of FFRF’s suggested policy on religious expression in public schools.
FFRF has made sure that public school employees in an Indiana school district will not continue to impose prayer during school gatherings.
Back in April, a school guard at the Rise Up Academy (the alternative high school in South Bend, Ind.) delivered a prayer at a school-wide assembly. The prayer included the following: "We thank you for being the alpha and omega, the beginning and end. I want you all to say, 'Thank God! Thank God! Amen!'" The reference to alpha and omega is taken from the New Testament's description of Jesus in several verses and shows the prayer to be specifically Christian.
"The Supreme Court has continually struck down formal school-led prayer in public schools," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to South Bend Community Schools Superintendent Carole Schmidt.
The South Bend school district took FFRF's complaint seriously and launched an investigation.
"The South Bend Community School Corporation has a number of policies in place prohibiting religion in the classroom and in the curriculum," the district's counsel said in a recent phone message. "The issue in question was a spontaneous response by an employee, not part of our curriculum. It was not planned, and we were as surprised by it as anyone else. The issue has been addressed with that employee."
FFRF ensured that two Texas football teams will not have future coach-led prayers.
FFRF was informed that at a football game played on Sept. 16 between New Boston High School and Pewitt High School, coaches had gathered players from both teams and led them in a group prayer. Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the school districts on Sept. 23 regarding the constitutional violation, asking representatives of the schools to not organize, lead or participate in prayer with students.
FFRF received responses from the school districts on Oct. 3 and Oct. 6 and they agreed to ensure prayer is not promoted in the future.
A city-run day care in Edinburgh, Ind., has taken down a display that read "PRAY BELIEVE FAITH."
FFRF received a complaint on Sept. 13 from a parent who was concerned about the display in the main room of an afterschool day care program facilitated by the town's Parks and Recreation Department. The religious message was spelled out with tall wooden block letters and sat on top of kitchen cabinets in the day care.
In a letter sent Sept. 16 to Town Manager Wade Watson, FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote that the display was unconstitutionally promoting religious beliefs and practices on behalf of the town and asked that it be taken down. A letter response on Oct. 3 from the town's attorney informed FFRF that the signage had been removed.
Thanks to FFRF, a California public high school football coach will no longer be hosting "prayer breakfasts" for players.
FFRF received a complaint from a parent of a San Pasqual High School football player that the coach was hosting a "Friday Morning Prayer Breakfast" each week for the athletes at his home. Attendance at these breakfasts was incentivized with free food and speeches from former NFL players.
In a letter sent on Sept. 21, FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler informed Superintendent Steve Boyle that public school athletic coaches who lead their teams in prayer send a message of school endorsement of certain religious practices.
"It is no defense that students voluntarily participate in the prayer breakfast. The potential for subtle coercion is extremely high in the context of high school sports," wrote Ziegler. "Players feel immense pressure to conform to what coaches expect of them so as not to affect their playing time or otherwise lose favor with the coaches."
Boyle responded on Oct. 3 that, after an investigation on the coach, the school district has directed that no coach or staff member should host religious events.
An Arkansas elementary school bus driver has been told to stop playing religious tunes while transporting students.
A worried parent of a student in the Siloam Springs School District informed FFRF that the bus driver was playing music from a local Christian station for students taking the bus to and from school. FFRF objected to the promotion of religious beliefs through music or radio programing.
"Students on the bus are a captive audience and cannot avoid listening to broadcasts that the driver selects," wrote Staff Attorney Patrick Elliot in a letter to Superintendent Ken Ramey. "Given the content of the programming and its proselytizing nature, young and impressionable students can not be forced to listen to such programs."
Ramey responded on Oct. 3 to inform FFRF that strict action had been taken to ensure the bus driver would not play a Christian radio station while transporting students in the future.
An Indiana county has taken a wisely secular action in response to FFRF's complaint.
After opening its courthouse lawn to an FFRF display and a variety of religious panoramas last winter, Franklin County has passed a new ordinance prohibiting all private exhibits on its courthouse lawn. Commissioners cited "interference with the courthouse operations" and the "unexpected undue burden" on county resources as the reasons for closing the forum.
FFRF suspects that the actual motive of the Franklin County commissioners may have been a bit more complicated.
"I assume that the real reason they're closing the forum is because the lawn became such a circus once it became widely known that anyone could place a display there," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Last winter, they tolerated about a dozen Christian exhibits. FFRF's Winter Solstice banner, which was slashed to ribbons and replaced, was actually one of the most season-appropriate displays on the lawn."
"We're pleased to learn that after six years of letter writing and two lawsuits, Franklin County has finally done what we first requested in 2010," notes FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover. "Limiting use of the courthouse lawn to government displays should ensure that the lawn remains an open and welcoming space for all community members to enjoy—regardless of their religious or nonreligious beliefs."
Thanks to FFRF, Arizona's Dysart Unified School District will not plan, promote or participate in "See You at the Pole," a Christian prayer event put on by a religious club. The school district will uphold their constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion.
An email sent from a Valley Vista High School employee asked all school district teachers and staff to join in for "See You at the Pole" on Sept. 28. The email explained that the event was "a day committed to global unity in Christ and prayer for your generation."
In a letter to DUSD Superintendent Gail Pletnick, FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler informed the school district that a public school employee must not lead, direct or encourage students to engage in prayer.
Ziegler informed Pletnick that it is also unconstitutional for public school employees to participate in the religious activities of their students.
FFRF received a response on Sept. 28 from the executive director for human resources at Dysart Unified School District, Patti Buck, who wrote that the school staff had been informed that staff members must not participate in the school religious event.
The Midway Independent School District in Texas has taken steps to ensure that it will stop promotion of a specific religious worldview in its "Shattered Dreams" event to combat drinking and driving.
FFRF received a complaint from a student over the event during which a local pastor addressed the students asking them to bow their heads in prayer. Student "obituaries" were read by the pastor and scripture was cited.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the Midway Independent School District Superintendent Christine Badillo asking that future Shattered Dreams events be free of prayer, religious remarks, and references to scripture.
Badillo responded on Sept. 28 assuring FFRF that future productions of the event would not include references to scripture or contain religious overtones.
The Ponderosa High School staff in California has been told to remain neutral and not participate in an annual Christian prayer event called "See You At The Pole."
A concerned parent of a student at the school contacted FFRF about the prayer event listed on the school's bulletin stating that all students and staff were welcome.
In a letter sent Sept. 26, FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler informed El Dorado Union High School District Superintendent Stephen Weher that the event violated the constitutional obligation of public schools to remain neutral toward religion.
"It is well settled that a public school employee may not lead, direct, or encourage students to engage in prayer," wrote Ziegler. "Staff participation in religious events alienates non-Christian students, teachers, and parents whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted by the school staff, including the one-in-three young Americans who are not religious."
Ziegler reminded Superintendent Weher that any religious event, such as See You at the Pole, must be entirely student-initiated and student-run and that staff members must refrain from participating in religious events.
Weher responded on Sept. 26 informing FFRF that the school had revised the bulletin for the prayer event and would inform staff of their obligation to remain neutral and uninvolved in the event. He also assured FFRF that "See You at the Pole" was student-driven.
An employee at a public school district in Brazoria County, Texas, alerted FFRF about an opening prayer given at an employee general session. At a start-of-the-year meeting, employees were directed to rise and pray in a convocation led by a staff member.
In a letter sent Aug. 5, Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Brazosport Independent School District Superintendent Danny Massey to ensure prayer would not be scheduled or endorsed at future school district events. After receiving no response, FFRF was informed that during a mandatory Brazosport ISD staff meeting on Aug. 15, a religious leader from a Christian group was introduced to lead a "voluntary" prayer.
In a second letter to Massey, Grover addressed the changes the school district had made in its opening prayer and maintained that the practice was still unconstitutional.
Grover also informed Massey that declaring the prayer "voluntary" did not make it so. Employees were still required to be in attendance, and asking non-Christian employees to spotlight their beliefs in an effort to avoid a Christian exercise is inappropriate, Grover wrote.
A legal firm representing the school district responded on Sept. 25 informing FFRF that Massey had been spoken to about the school district's legal obligations regarding the employee convocation and that no further issues were anticipated.
Thanks to FFRF, a church banner on an elementary school fence in Long Beach, Calif., has been removed during school days.
A concerned community member informed FFRF that the MacArthur Elementary School was displaying a church banner on its fences for a church that meets at the school on Sundays. The banner was being left up during the school day when children were present.
"When a school displays a banner on its property advertising a worship service, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message, here a Christian message. This alienates those non-Christian students, teachers, and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the religious messages being promoted by the school," Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to Long Beach Unified School District Superintendent Chris Steinhauser.
Steinhauser responded on Sept. 22 writing that the school had removed the sign and that the school's principle informed the church that posting its signage is only allowed during the church's use of the school facilities on Sundays.
A sermonizing Wisconsin community college professor has agreed to mend his ways following the FFRF's intervention.
Madison College Professor Hiep S. Van Dong, an instructor in the School of Business and Applied Arts, had been encouraging students in his Leadership, Ethics and Development course to add religion to their lives, both verbally in class and via email. Van Dong explained to a student in an email that he has "discovered it isn't about do's and don'ts, it is about a personal relationship with a living God."
"Federal courts have upheld public universities' restrictions on a professor's religious expression in the classroom and other like settings," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in August to Madison College School of Business and Applied Arts Dean Bryan Woodhouse. "These restrictions do not abridge the professor's free speech rights."
Woodhouse recently responded that he had conducted an inquiry and had asked Van Dong to modify his teaching approach.
"Instructor Van Dong and I have discussed that as public servants we cannot take a position of any kind for or against religion, and that our classrooms are filled with persons of all perspectives and that we have a great responsibility to maintain a classroom environment that welcomes all opinions," Woodhouse wrote back.
After hearing from FFRF, a wall displaying the Ten Commandments has been painted over at O'Donnell High School in Texas.
The superintendent of O'Donnell, Dr. Cathy Amonett, released this statement:
"After consultation with legal counsel, community members and students, I have decided as the superintendent of O'Donnell ISD that the Ten Commandment mural will no longer be on display beginning Sept. 16, 2016. Although the district's students and community members strongly support the preservation of the mural as it is, I have decided that its continued display in the commons area of the school is not in the district's best legal interests."
The community showed strong support for the display at a public meeting on Sept. 13, following a legal warning issued by FFRF.
Christian prayers will not be scheduled at future city firefighter academy graduation in Littleton, Colo.
FFRF received a complaint from one of the city's firefighters after attending a graduation ceremony for firefighter recruits. At the end of the ceremony, graduates were invited to participate in a prayer given by a Christian pastor. The graduation was an official city event with attendance from several city officials.
"Including prayer at city events such as graduation ceremonies raises constitutional concerns, particularly if the event includes sectarian or proselytizing devotions. It is a fundamental constitutional principle that publicly funded institutions cannot support, promote, or otherwise endorse religion or engage in religious exercises," wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel to Littleton Fire Rescue Department Chief Christopher Armstrong. '
A response was received on Sept. 8 from a Littleton city attorney informing FFRF that the city has discontinued the practice of scheduling prayer as part of any future firefighter graduation ceremonies.
An Indiana public elementary school will stop prayer at its kindergarten graduation ceremonies after FFRF got involved.
The ceremony in May at Springs Valley Elementary School in French Lick, Ind., included a prayer delivered by a kindergartener. The prayer was listed on the schedule.
FFRF reminded the school district that the prayer was unconstitutional and totally inappropriate.
"Including religious rituals, such as prayer, in school-sponsored functions shows school endorsement of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Springs Valley Community Schools Superintendent Tony Whitaker last month.
The practice of prayer is especially egregious when it is delivered to a captive group of impressionable schoolchildren as young as 5 years old, FFRF emphasized. Parents, not public schools, are responsible for the religious upbringing of their children.
Whitaker was convinced by FFRF's reasoning.
"Springs Valley School Corporation will eliminate from any future kindergarten graduation ceremonies the section on prayer and will not allow any prayer at the graduation," he recently replied.
A Dane County, Wis., judge has ruled that the Catholic Church must pay taxes on a multimillion-dollar lot it owns in downtown Madison.
Dane County Circuit Court Judge Rhonda Lanford decided on Oct. 4 that a 1.3-acre lot in Madison owned by the Catholic Church is not exempt from property taxes. The Church sued the city last year to recover taxes it paid on the lot, which amount to nearly $100,000 per year.
FFRF filed an amicus curiae brief in June supporting the city of Madison. FFRF's brief questioned how St. Raphael's could retain an exemption while it was really just holding on to the lot as a future site of a $50 million cathedral.
"All Madison taxpayers should not have to pay more taxes while St. Raphael's invests in its other property holdings in Madison and holds the St. Raphael's lot for future development," FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote. "It is precisely for this reason that property must be used to maintain an exemption."
The court granted summary judgment in favor of the city of Madison, holding that land that is tax exempt must be "necessary for the location and convenience of buildings" under Wisconsin law. Since there are no church buildings on the lot, it is taxable.
Thanks to FFRF, the Calcasieu Parish Public Schools have resolved two constitutional violations. Westlake High School will no longer broadcast prayers at football games. Vinton Elementary School will not repeat an incident that occurred on Aug. 7, when the community was invited to come to the school for prayer and a tour of the facilities.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover first wrote to the school district in September 2015 about the football prayers, receiving no response despite several follow up letters. Grover wrote again on Aug. 26 about the elementary prayer event. "Hosting a prayer event at a public school alienates non-religious students and families, as well as those who practice a minority religion," he said. "A public school district should seek to be inclusive of all students and families, not just those in the religious majority."
Gregory Belfour, the school's attorney, responded just a few days later this time. He said the superintendent would communicate the "constitutional limitations" on government-sponsored prayer to the Vinton principal, and school administrators at Westlake had been advised to stop promoting prayers at football games.
The Lorain County Board of Commissioners in Ohio is replacing invocations with secular quotations at its meetings after hearing from FFRF.
Christian prayers and bible readings by the commissioners were prior staples of the meetings. "It is coercive, embarrassing, and intimidating for nonreligious citizens to be required to make a public showing of their nonbelief (by not rising or praying) or else to display deference toward a religious sentiment in which they do not believe, but which their Board of Commissioners members clearly do," FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert said in a letter to the board.
Markert explained that unlike the prayers by outside religious leaders approved by the Supreme Court in Greece v. Galloway, federal courts have struck down prayers led by commissioners themselves.
A county attorney said the board disagreed with FFRF's position, but had decided to discontinue the prayers anyway, replacing them with a secular "quote of the day."
FFRF has caused a religious club to be disbanded at a California elementary school.
Club Monarch, an afterschool bible club, was run in part by teachers and routinely given preferential treatment at Mariposa Elementary School in Brea, Calif. The club was mentioned in the weekly newsletter and listed in the school calendar. There were posters around the school exclusively advertising the club. At a back-to-school night, the principal effusively praised and recommended the club.
FFRF reminded the school that this sort of collaboration was unconstitutional.
"It is a well-settled principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion," FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to Brea Olinda Unified School District Superintendent Brad Mason back in March.
After reviewing school records obtained through an open records request, including over 2,500 pages of emails about Club Monarch going back only two years, FFRF wrote a follow-up letter in May stating that its apprehensions had been confirmed.
FFRF has now received confirmation that its advice has been followed. "Club Monarch has ceased to operate at Mariposa Elementary School and does not operate at any other district school sites," the school district's legal firm has written to FFRF.
The Osceola County School District is now limiting church advertising on its property.
The My Grace Fellowship Church holds its services at the Westside K-8 School, and previously was permitted to leave lawn signs promoting the services on the school's grounds. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel objected to this practice in a June 13. "Advancing, preferring, and promoting religion is exactly what a school does when it allows a church to prominently place a permanent advertisement for students, parents, school employees, and anyone passing by to see," said Seidel. "[The church] must put up the signs no earlier than when the rental time begins and take them down when the rental time ends."
An attorney for the school district reported the matter resolved on Aug. 24.
Staff in the Little Rock (Ark.) School District won't be subjected to religious lessons at staff meetings in the future.
At Mabelvale Middle School's Aug. 9 teaching staff meeting, the school invited a Baptist pastor to give a presentation, which included retelling biblical stories and other religious remarks. FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott called out this unconstitutional presentation in an Aug. 18 letter. "By imposing religious messages on its employees at district-sponsored events, the district is violating constitutional limits on government religious endorsement," he wrote.
Replying promptly on Aug. 23, an attorney for the school district acknowledged that part of the presentation could be perceived as an endorsement of religion, and said the superintendent would send a written notice to all district principals "to remind them not to allow presentations at mandatory teacher meetings or in-service training which endorse a particular religious position or message."
The Wasatch County Schools in Heber City, Utah, have reluctantly agreed to stop praying at School Board meetings.
Previously, meetings regularly included Mormon-style prayers delivered by the superintendent, School Board members, and other district employees. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Superintendent Terry Shoemaker and School Board President Mark Davis on May 3. "Federal courts have struck down school board practices that include this religious ritual," he said, citing several cases, including FFRF's recent victory against the Chino Valley (Calif.) Unified School District's praying school board.
Superintendent Paul A. Sweat replied Aug. 23 that he believed the cases FFRF cited were "wrongly decided," but said the board had stopped conducting prayer for the time being. Sweat concluded by expressing his hope that the Supreme Court would soon extend the Greece v. Galloway decision approving of some prayers at meetings of legislative bodies.
FFRF has put a stop to several egregious constitutional violations at a kindergarten graduation ceremony at Valley Elementary School in Pikeville, Ky.
The school's 2016 ceremony included a teacher-led prayer and the students singing, "Jesus Loves Me," which they had reportedly been singing in their music classes for most of the school year. "It is coercive and inappropriate for a teacher to lead a prayer at a school function, and then to order the performance of 'Jesus Loves Me' by the students," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a June 9 letter to the Pike County Schools.
General Counsel Neal Smith wrote back to FFRF on Aug. 23, saying he "cautioned our administration that open prayer at school-sponsored events should not take place and that faculty-led singing of hymns, such as 'Jesus Loves Me,' should also be avoided."
The Christian movie "Facing the Giants" won't be shown to Medina Middle School's seventh-graders in the future, FFRF has ensured.
A parent of a student at the Dyer, Tenn., school brought the issue to FFRF's attention. The film follows a struggling high school football coach who inspires his team to believe in the God and to use faith to win football games.
Showing "Facing the Giants" in a public school "promotes Christianity over all other religions and nonreligion and violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment," FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert informed the Gibson County Special School District.
Eddie Pruett, the district's director of schools, replied that the teacher was reminded that multimedia must be approved by the principal, and was told that "Facing the Giants" was not an appropriate movie to show the class.
An unconstitutional tie-up between a Wisconsin school district and a parochial preschool has been nixed following an FFRF complaint.
In Beaver Dam Unified School District, 3-year-old public school students with developmental delays were often being sent to private preschools. FFRF's complainant, who has an eligible child, was offered only one choice: a Catholic school, St. Katharine's, whose preschool is named God's Little Miracles. To quote the school itself, its "program is based on the theme 'Thank you, God.' "
"It is wildly inappropriate for the School District to send 3-year-old public school students to private schools for religious instruction," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in June to Stephen Vessey, superintendent of the Beaver Dam Unified School District.
The School District investigated the situation and told St. Katharine's what it would have to do to comply with the law and district policy. St. Katharine's decided to stop participating altogether in the 3K program rather than make any changes, revealing that religious instruction was its primary goal.
"After being advised of the changes that would have to be made to the 3K program, [St. Katharine Drexel] School indicated it no longer wished to provide the Early Childhood (3K) program to district students, and the district has accepted the school's withdrawal from participating in the program," Vessey recently replied. "Any students who were enrolled in the school's Early Childhood program by the district for the coming school year have since been moved to a program offered at a different site."
FFRF has gotten an outsider-led lunchtime religious group at an Illinois public school disbanded.
School administrators at Harrisburg Middle School were allowing a Baptist minister to lead a religious session during lunch hour. He offered free pizza and soda to students who joined the group.
It was inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district to offer religious leaders access to befriend and proselytize students during the school day on school property, FFRF stressed. No outside adults should be provided carte blanche access to minors — a captive audience — in a public school.
After waiting for months for a response, FFRF Legal Fellow Jayne sent a reminder letter, and this time Harrisburg School District Superintendent Michael Gauch responded.
"Following the school board's directive, school administration instructed the local minister that he would no longer be allowed to come onto school property and meet with students during the lunchtime or anytime during the instructional day," Gauch wrote.
FFRF has made certain that a Wisconsin religious organization will pay full rental fees at local public schools.
Mission of Hope has held several events at public schools in Waupaca, Wis. Among other activities, the events include a prayer tent staffed by local church members to "pray with and for" visitors. Records that FFRF obtained revealed that the School District of Waupaca forgave Mission of Hope the $180 facility fees and $100 nonprofit kitchen use fees for past such events at the Waupaca Learning Center Elementary School.
FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote earlier this month to Waupaca School District Superintendent Greg Nyen. FFRF's complaint was taken seriously and received an appropriate response.
"I understand your concern regarding the need for separation of church and state," wrote Nyen. "I am hereby providing you said assurance that in the future, charges for facility usage will be applied to Mission of Hope as it would any other outside organization."
After receiving a letter from FFRF last year, West Virginia's Putnam County Schools has finally instructed softball coaches at Buffalo High School to stop praying with students. A photo from the state championship game showed players, coaches and fans holding hands in a circle around the field for a post-game prayer.
"While students may engage in prayer on their own, school staff, including coaches, cannot lead, direct or participate in such religious activities," FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert reminded the district in June 2015.
After FFRF followed up several times, the district replied on Aug. 11 that the incident was addressed by administrators and that the district was obtaining legal training on the Establishment Clause.
Students in the weight room at Tecumseh High School in Tecumseh, Mich., won't be forced to listen to Christian music, thanks to FFRF.
FFRF received a report from a local resident that a physical education teacher played the religious music during workout sessions in the weight room during the summer. "Playing Christian music to an audience of students using the weight room is a violation of student and parental rights," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a letter to the Tecumseh Public Schools superintendent. "It is illegal for a district employee to promote Christianity through religious music while acting in his or her official capacity."
Superintendent Kelly M. Coffin thanked Markert for bringing the matter to the school district's attention and said that the school principal reminded the teacher of "his constitutional duty to remain neutral toward religion while in a public school setting."
Bakersfield High School Principal Connie Grumling will not pray with students in the future. Grumling had met with students to pray at the flagpole.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel lodged a complaint with the Kern High School District in Bakersfield, Calif., in August 2015. "Federal courts have held it is unconstitutional for public school employees to participate in the religious activities of their students," he said. This is "to avoid any perception of government endorsement of religion."
On Aug. 9, Seidel spoke with the district's general counsel, who said that the prayer was an "isolated incident" that had been addressed by the administration.
The Academy for Scholarship and Entrepreneurship in the Bronx, N.Y., will stop including teacher-led invocations in its graduation ceremonies.
The decision was prompted by a July 14 letter from FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, who pointed out that the Supreme Court has specifically struck down prayers at public school graduations. "The district has a duty to remain neutral toward religion," Markert wrote. "By scheduling prayers at graduation, the district abridges that duty and alienates the 35% of young Americans who are not religious."
Carron Staple, superintendent of Bronx High School Districts 8, 9 and 11, responded that the teacher's actions were against New York City Department of Education regulations. Staple said the prohibition had been discussed with the school's administrative staff, who understood the invocation could not recur.
The Ocoee, Fla., Police Department will no longer host a "Prayers for Police" event after FFRF sent a letter of complaint.
The department put on the event in May at a church, listing the purpose on a flier as "a period of unity as police chaplains, community leaders and members of the community join together to pray for the police profession." The event was advertised on social media and hosted on police property. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel notified the department that this entanglement with religion was unconstitutional. "Although we fully support remembering fallen police officers, it is OPD's constitutional obligation to find a religiously neutral means of doing so," said Seidel.
An Ocoee City Attorney responded on Aug. 2, saying the city would no longer host the event.
A bible club at a Nevada middle school will no longer be led by pastors, thanks to FFRF. A parent of a Bob Miller Middle School student contacted FFRF after reading the club's description in the yearbook: "Pastors come to the club every Tuesday and teach the students morals mentioned in the bible."
"It is illegal for public schools to allow adults to lead religious instruction on school property during the school day," wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler in a July 21 letter to the Clark County School District. The Equal Access Act forbids adult participation in student religious clubs.
General Counsel Carlos L. McDade told FFRF on Aug. 2 that administrators were "reminded that the bible club must be student-led and that the club must not be directed, conducted, controlled, or regularly attended by nonschool persons."
After including multiple prayers to Jesus at its 2016 graduation ceremony, Watford City High School in North Dakota has assured FFRF that the constitutional violation will not be repeated.
"High school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students," FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliot wrote to McKenzie County School District Superintendent Steven Holden. "It makes no difference how many students wouldn't want prayer or wouldn't be offended by prayer at their graduation ceremony. As the Supreme Court has said, 'Fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.' "
Holden responded on Aug. 2, explaining that, after consulting with the school board and school district attorney, the district would ensure prayer would not be part of future ceremonies or other school-sponsored events.
A regional freethinkers group has received an apology for discriminatory denial of services during a recent protest at a religious theme park after FFRF sent a letter of complaint.
On June 30, Five Star Septic and Portable Toilet Rentals agreed to send portable toilets to a July 7 demonstration against the Ark Encounter park put on by the Tri-State Freethinkers. But when the company's office called Tri-State Freethinkers to get directions to the site, it asked whether the portable toilets were for the protest. Upon learning that they were, the office denied service, indicating that this was partially because it did not want its name associated with the atheists' protest.
It is unlawful for legitimate businesses to discriminate on the basis of religion, FFRF contended in a formal letter of complaint.
With such short notice, Tri-State Freethinkers had to hastily organize a shuttle caravan to a nearby gas station for the nearly 200 attendees needing to use toilets.
Arwood Waste & Demolition, with which Five Star Septic has been a subcontractor, said sorry to Tri-State Freethinkers and made a pledge that the inappropriate behavior will not recur.
The Cherokee County School District in Centre, Ala., has addressed several church/state violations occurring on the fishing team, after receiving a complaint from FFRF.
A concerned parent informed FFRF that the team's coach had shirts printed depicting an ichthys (Jesus fish) with a Christian cross inside. The school raised funds by selling the shirts, and students had to wear the shirts at competitions. The coach also encouraged students to pray and attend religious events.
The superintendent of the district called FFRF on June 26. He stated that the fishing coach "understands" her constitutional obligations and that the fishing team was approving new, religiously neutral competition shirts and that the problematic shirts would no longer be sold to the public.
The post office in Morristown, Tenn., removed its Sign of the Times magazine rack after FFRF complained to the postmaster.
The rack was placed just outside the building on the post office’s property.
According to its website, the magazine “encourages readers to lead joyful Christian lives as they await the soon return of Jesus.”
Seven weeks later, the postmaster replied that “an investigation was made” and that “proper steps were taken to remove the rack and signage from postal property.
FFRF has complained to other Tennessee post offices about Sign of the Times magazine racks, most recently in Harrison.
The Porum Police Department in Oklahoma has agreed not to redisplay a nativity scene in front of the department's building.
The scene, erected on public property, was displayed in November 2015 and faced Main Street.
"Displaying an inherently Christian message unmistakably sends the message that Porum Police Department endorses the religious beliefs embodied in the display," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a letter to the police chief.
After nearly six months, FFRF received a reply denying that the holiday display was solely a nativity scene but agreed not to display it in the future.
Following an FFRF complaint, the Thunderbird Executive Inn in Arizona has removed the Gideon bibles that resided in all of its rooms.
The hotel is part of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, recently made a unit of Arizona State University. A concerned citizen contacted FFRF.
“Permitting members of outside religious groups the privilege of placing their religious literature in public university guest rooms also constitutes state endorsement and advancement of religion,” explaineFFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler. “Individuals, not the state, must determine what religious texts are worth reading.”
The hotel’s director informed FFRF on July 19 that religious materials would be removed from guest rooms.
The United States Postal Service has responded to an FFRF complaint by promising to prevent Jehovah's Witness literature distribution at the Bay City Post Office in Texas.
A local complainant requested that FFRF take action to end the proselytizing practice. The Witnesses set up chairs, an umbrella and a stand with pamphlets next to the post office entrance.
FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler objected to the situation as a violation of both postal regulations and the United States Constitution. She pointed out that regulations prohibit "tables, chairs, freestanding signs or posters, structures, or furniture of any type... on postal walkways, . . . driveways, parking lots, or other exterior spaces."
FFRF was notified on July 12 that postmaster of the Bay City Post Office has reviewed regulations and that the regulations "will be adhered to in the future."
Williamstown High School will not be returning to the newly opened Ark Encounter in Kentucky.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel complained to the district on July 7 after the school's marching band performed at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Ark Encounter on July 5.
"There are . . . serious constitutional issues with public schools helping a private religious ministry to launch a park meant to convert people and collect a fair bit of money in the process," wrote Seidel. "It is unacceptable to expose a captive audience of impressionable students to the overtly religious atmosphere of Ham's Christian theme parks."
The attorney for Williamstown School District spoke with FFRF on July 18, stating that the there are no current plans for the band or any school group to visit the park in the future and that he would notify FFRF if any came up.
FFRF has persuaded a Tennessee county to stop giving away land to churches.
The Shelby County Board of Commissioners had repeatedly transferred land to churches for nominal sums under a Tennessee provision that permitted this for nonprofits. For example, the county conveyed eight parcels of land to Memphis' Kingdom Fellowship Baptist Church in 2012 and a further four parcels to the same church in 2015.
FFRF informed the county that it was violating both the U.S. and Tennessee Constitutions by its actions, no less than if it directly transferred taxpayer money to churches.
FFRF advised Shelby County that county property should never be transferred to religious institutions for less than fair market value, since this sort of action forces taxpayers of all faiths and of no religion to subsidize a particular expression of worship.
Shelby County heeded FFRF's advice. In a recent response, Kennedy acknowledged that FFRF's letter had made it reassess its actions and that as a result, Shelby County was suspending the land transfers for the time being.
Yucca Valley Elementary School in the Morongo Unified School District in California does not plan to continue its after-school prayer club.
FFRF received a complaint from a local parent that a fourth-grade teacher was leading a Good News Club in her classroom directly after school, having her daughters encourage other students to pray, and using a whiteboard in the staff lounge to advertise her search for finding a new club leader. Additionally, FFRF received reports of teachers participating in the National Day of Prayer at the "old flagpole" on campus. Good News Club is a Christian program for 5-12 year olds with various bible-related activities.
FFRF received a reply from the district's attorneys on July 14. They informed FFRF that the teacher in question was no longer an employee of the district and that administrators across the district had been informed of "the limitations imposed on district employees by the Constitution."
FFRF has convinced a Texas school district to take a harder stance against showing Christian propaganda and anti-evolution movies to students.
In Central Heights High School in Nacogdoches, Texas, two teachers showed their students questionable films. In a ninth-grade health class, an instructor screened "God's Not Dead," a movie blatantly Christian and proselytizing in nature. And in a ninth-grade science class, another teacher, remarking to his students that he didn't believe in evolution, played "Expelled: Intelligence Not Allowed," an intelligent design propaganda work that the New York Times described as "a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry."
FFRF contacted the Central Heights Independent School District in May to alert school officials that the teachers were out of line. FFRF received a letter stating that district staff members will be trained on First Amendment issues to educate them better on the separation of state and church.
FFRF has persuaded an Ohio county commissioner to remove religion from her official email signature.
Crawford County Commissioner Jenny Vermillion used two inappropriate signature lines in her county email address. The first of these was a reference to an Old Testament verse, Jeremiah 1:5, along with the politically charged commentary "Choose LIFE!!" (The actual verse reads: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.") The second was a President Eisenhower quote that promotes religion and disparages atheists.
FFRF requested that Vermillion delete all these references from her email signature.
And she indeed did. In a terse but to-the-point letter a few days ago, Vermillion replied: "Dear Sir or Madame, It has been removed."
A physical education teacher in the Tattnall School District in Georgia will not show "Woodlawn" or other Christian films to his class again after hearing from FFRF.
The film was shown at Reedsville Middle School over two class periods. The movie, produced by a Christian film production company, follows a struggling football team that unites over faith to make a run at the playoffs. It features quotes such as "This is what happens when God shows up," and "I'm asking you to choose Jesus. Can you do that? Will you do that? Right now."
In a letter of complaint, FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote, "When the district allows teachers to show Christian propaganda to middle school students, the district becomes complicit in an egregious constitutional violation and breach of trust."
The superintendent responded on July 5, saying that she had met with the relevant teachers and administrators and that the district would review its procedure for approving classroom-appropriate media.
The North Mac Community Unit School District in Illinois has promised not to promote or fund a religious baccalaureate service for graduating high school seniors. A letter written by FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover prompted the move.
FFRF first contacted the district back in 2014 to complain about the district's promotion of a religious baccalaureate service. At the time, the district replied that the service was organized by the North Mac Ministerial Association and assured FFRF that "no high school staff or administrators attended or participated in the event."
In June 2016, FFRF again contacted the district after a complainant notified FFRF that the district was promoting yet another baccalaureate service on both its website and Facebook page. The service included school-approved speech that quoted from the bible multiple times.
After the service had already occurred, the superintendent informed FFRF that the promotions were taken down.
A Kansas police department has removed religious decals after FFRF complained about them.
The police department in Harper, Kan., had placed a decal on the back of patrol cars stating: "Romans 13:4." The New Testament verse in question reads as follows: "For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil" (King James Version).
Displaying a decal referencing this ominous Christian threat violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, FFRF had maintained. The Harper Police Department's choice of verse to display was particularly disturbing. There was something alarming about an official allusion to a verse that talks about "revengers," "bearing swords" and "executing wrath," when the job of the Harper Police Department is to protect and serve, not to mete out biblical punishments or divine anger.
"Placing decals referencing biblical quotes on the back of a law enforcement vehicle fails to respect either constitutional mandate of neutrality," FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Harper Police Chief Doug Murphy.
With FFRF's letter generating a flurry of media coverage, the city of Harper swiftly backed down.
A California city council nixed a multimillion-dollar grant to a private religious school after FFRF objected.
The Santa Ana City Council was considering a $2.5 million grant to Mater Dei High School, a Catholic institution, for construction of a new building and parking garage. FFRF called attention to the fact that the funding would have been a violation of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the California Constitution.
"The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from supporting religious activities with public funds," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido and City Council members. "The city of Santa Ana violates this principle when it funds the expansion of a private parochial school."
Jayne additionally detailed how the California Constitution prohibits such funding and urged the Santa Ana City Council not to disburse any money to the Mater Dei High School.
After receiving FFRF's missive, the Santa Ana City Council had second thoughts.
"Please be aware that the City Council agenda item referenced in the letter from Mr. Ryan Jayne has been removed," Daniel Soto from the city manager's office responded in an email. "City staff has not suggested that the item be placed back on any future City Council meeting agenda for consideration."
Thanks to an FFRF complaint, travelers on Interstate 69 near Bath Township, Mich., will not have to view a memorial with a Latin cross along the road.
The change proceeds from a letter from FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler in which she wrote, “It is unconstitutional to allow a religious symbol like a Christian cross to be displayed on a public roadside. The cross . . . unabashedly creates the perception of government endorsement of Christianity.”
The Michigan DOT replied on June 17, notifying FFRF that the cross would be removed in a timely manner.