New Legal Successes
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.
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.
A large religious message in an Oklahoma public school was taken down after an FFRF complaint.
One of the walls in the teachers’ lounge in East Side Elementary School in Chandler, Okla., had a 5-foot-by-5-foot stenciled message that read: “Miracles alter flow unseen through our lives, so let us remember to thank God for our daily blessings.”
FFRF reminded school officials that this was a violation of the First Amendment.
“As you know, public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion,” FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Wayland Kimble, superintendent of Chandler Public School District.
FFRF asked that the message be removed and the School District reacted swiftly and affirmatively.
“Thank you for informing me of this,” Kimble replied in an email within a day of receiving Seidel’s letter. “We have taken it [the message] down.”
An FFRF complaint about a creationist movie has made sure that it will not be shown again in a Colorado public school.
Carl Christianssen, a science teacher at Dakota Ridge High School, showed a video in class called “Unlocking the Mysteries of Life” that has been endorsed by the Campus Crusade for Christ. The video unequivocally endorses the false opinion that the natural universe “can only be explained by intelligent design.”
Teaching creationism or any of its offshoots, such as intelligent design, in a public school is unlawful, because creationism is not based in fact, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel reminded the Jeffco Public Schools system.
Jeffco Public Schools proved to be responsive to FFRF’s concerns. School officials confirmed FFRF’s account and stated that they’re making certain the video is removed from the classroom.
“The district staff members develop approved list of videos for curriculum content,” McMinimee replied to Seidel. “The video was not on our approved list, and, therefore, we have taken remedial actions designed to ensure that this video is not shown again.”
A Texas school district has made important policy changes in response to FFRF's concerns with the McKinney Independent School District on several issues.
District employees were displaying crosses in a number of rooms at local high schools. A religious poster at a middle school read: "As Believers You Are Saved Forever by Grace through Faith" and continued with other religious description including "Baptized into Christ Jesus" and "Soldiers of Christ."
Additionally, a faculty member at McKinney Boyd High School solicited participation of students to read prayers, recite scripture and sing hymns at an upcoming baccalaureate service. And each year, the graduation ceremony the high school has taken place at in the church sanctuary at the Prestonwood Baptist Church decorated with traditional Baptist Christian symbols.
The School District promised to explore alternatives to the church for McKinney High School's graduation ceremony, and it assured FFRF it would keep the church's religious iconography covered as long as the building was used. The district will no longer organize, sponsor or promote baccalaureate services.
A California school district has taken a number of steps to conform with the U.S. Constitution following an FFRF complaint.
The Turlock Unified School District had a partnership with the Turlock Chaplaincy, a group of ordained ministers. Some of these ministers and other volunteers were labeled “school chaplains” and permitted to work with elementary school kids on school property during the school day.
FFRF raised objections to the partnership.
“It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the School District to offer religious leaders unique access to befriend students during the school day on school property,” FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to Turlock Unified School District Superintendent Dana Salles Trevethan.
An attorney for the school district promptly phoned Ziegler after receiving the letter. He informed FFRF that the training for the program was completely secular, but acknowledged that the name of the program needed to be changed and that the volunteering opportunity needed to be available to everyone, not just religious people.
Trevethan replied in writing to inform FFRF that the School District is making several alterations to the program to make sure that it does not violate the First Amendment. This includes changing the branding (including on volunteers’ shirts) to “Character Coach” from “School Chaplain.” The district will also issue a new Religion in the Schools policy to emphasize neutrality in religion and will provide details of all these changes to the staff and community. Trevethan also assured FFRF that no religious affiliation would be required to participate.
FFRF and its Kentucky chapter have blocked a Christian organization’s infiltration into athletic programs throughout a Kentucky school district.
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes had embedded itself into athletic programs all over the Jefferson County Public Schools system (located in Louisville), including in elementary schools. The group sent adult representatives to lead “voluntary” chapel or religious services during athletic practices at district schools, in some cases with the role of an officially designated “team chaplain.”
In a letter to Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Donna Hargens, FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert requested that the school district investigate the matter immediately and put a stop to such behavior.
In response, Hargens outlined in a letter to the head of the local chapter (Edwin Hensley) a number of steps it has put into place to curtail Fellowship activities in local schools.
Chisholm Public Schools in Kansas will no longer permit teacher-led prayer and has terminated an elementary school bible class thanks to objections from FFRF.
A student notified FFRF that a history teacher at the high school led all the students in praying for a different teacher who had fallen ill.
FFRF also noticed a fourth-grade teacher listing a bible class on his schedule. Seidel asserted, “These bible classes are unconstitutional. Public schools may not provide religious instruction…. The district may not take away from instructional time to indoctrinate students in Christian dogma.”
On June 7, FFRF received a response admitting that the prayer “was not handled appropriately.” The district said it has discontinued the class “to prevent any further confusion.”
The Sylvan-Lucas Unified School District will no longer allow prayer at school-sponsored events following a complaint from FFRF.
A student at Sylvan-Lucas High School contacted FFRF after the class president read a pre-written prayer at prom and a teacher gave an invocation at the school’s award night. The prayer at prom ended with “through Jesus, our lord, we pray. Amen,” and the invocation referenced “our lord Jesus.”
“The district has a duty to remain neutral toward religion,” wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. “By including prayers at school-sponsored events, the district abridges that duty and alienates the 35% of millennials–born after 1981, i.e., your students–that are nonreligious.”
The superintendent replied to FFRF on June 6 saying the principal, teacher and sponsors would no longer allow prayer at school events.
The city of Muncie, Ind., is not listed as a sponsor of ChristFest 2016 after FFRF complained about sponsorship of the 2015 event.
ChristFest is an all-day event meant "to give praise, worship, and honor to the Lord Jesus Christ." It features "praise & worship teams, drama teams, and Christian comedians."
The event, which occurred on Aug. 15, 2015, at the Canan Commons, had the city of Muncie seal and the city's name listed as gold level event sponsors. Gold level sponsors must give a donation of at least $1,500.
"Even if the city of Muncie did not donate funds to ChristFest, it is improper to allow the city seal to appear on the ChristFest website," FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the city.
The city replied that it had not given any money to the event and were already attempting to have the seal removed. The city's name and seal are no longer on the 2016 event website.
A religious public school marquee was quickly taken down after an FFRF complaint.
Morristown Jr./Sr. High School in Morristown, Ind., posted “MAY GOD BLESS YOU” as part of its 2016 congratulatory message for its graduating students. Public schools may not endorse a religious message, FFRF reminded the Shelby Eastern Schools Corporation.
FFRF asked that the message be removed from the school marquee. The school district responded immediately to FFRF’s request.
“Thank you for bringing this to my attention,” Evans emailed the day after receiving FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne’s letter. “The marquee will be changed promptly.”
After FFRF contacted Cincinnati Public Schools, Covedale Elementary School will no longer hold its annual awards ceremony at a local church.
FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert contacted the school district on May 12 to complain about the civil-rights violation. “The selection of Western Hills Church of Christ as the site for the commencement ceremony demonstrates the school’s preference for religion over nonreligion, and more specifically, Christianity over all other faiths,” Markert wrote.
On May 24, FFRF received word that the Covedale principal was advised to identify a different venue for the awards ceremony in future years.
After hearing from FFRF, schools in the Gunter Independent School District in Texas won't be participating in future National Day of Prayer ceremonies
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the district after receiving a report that Gunter High School students participated in a National Day of Prayer event that included prayer and scriptural readings, performing a hymn. The National Day of Prayer is a Christian event originally organized by Billy Graham to "mobiliz[e] the Christian community to intercede for America and its leadership."
In a May 23 response, the superintendent assured FFRF that Gunter ISD would no longer take student groups to perform at the ceremonies.
A Texas school district has assured FFRF that it will stop publicizing private religion-infused baccalaureate ceremonies.
FFRF had contacted the Friendswood Independent School District with its concern that a baccalaureate service in Friendswood High School on May 22 has been advertised on the district's website and in a handout sent home with seniors.
The school district admitted that it had made a mistake in publicizing the event and said it has taken swift measures to rectify the blunder.
"In order to remedy any confusion, Friendswood High School Principal Mark Griffon has sent a memorandum to all senior students indicating that the prior notice was sent in error and that the event is not school-sponsored," the school district's attorney replied.
"Friendswood High School has also removed all references to the event from its calendar."
Athletic directors across the entire Minneapolis Public School District have been reminded not to lead, initiate, require or facilitate prayer with students at any school athletic events.
FFRF lodged its complaint with the district in response to reports that the North Community High School football coach regularly gathered the team for prayer and participated in the prayer.
After more than five months, FFRF finally received a reply. The district sent a memo to all building athletic directors reminding them of their constitutional obligations promised to address the issue at a district-wide preseason coaches meeting.
Spearman High School in Spearman, Texas, is no longer including prayer over the loudspeaker at athletic events. The move follows a Dec. 1 letter sent by FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover.
"The Supreme Court has specifically struck down invocations given over the loudspeaker at public school athletic events," said Grover, referring to the 2000 Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe case.
A lawyer for the school district replied to FFRF on May 19, saying the district "will instruct those individuals providing announcements during football games, and other school sporting events, to refrain from reciting any prayer, Christian or otherwise," and promised corrective action if the instructions were disregarded.
The Denny's restaurant in Hawthorne, Calif., no longer privileges churchgoers with a church bulletin discount after FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell contacted the restaurant on Dec. 18 to complain about the civil rights violation.
Cavell informed the restaurant that the discount, 20% off for bringing in a church bulletin, violated federal and state laws providing that places of public accommodation cannot discriminate on the basis of religion.
A restaurant worker phoned Cavell on May 17 to report that the restaurant would no longer offer the discount.
A fire department in the state of Washington has agreed to stop posting religious messages on its outdoor marquee, following an FFRF complaint.
Grays Harbor Fire District #1 in Oakville had put up a sign last holiday season reading: “Unto us a savior is born, Merry Christmas.” It was temporarily taken down after a citizen complained, but was then put back up. FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler pointed out its inappropriateness and unconstitutionality in a letter to Oakville Fire Chief Kevin Witt in December. The department recently responded that it has complied with FFRF’s request.
“I am pleased to inform you that at the commission’s meeting in January 2016, it is noted in the minutes that there will not be any more religious messages on the Fire Department reader board,” replied Deanna Lindholm, secretary of the Oakville Fire Department. “It reads in the minutes that the Fire Department will uphold the laws of the state of Washington and the Constitution of the United States of America.”
A long-standing tradition of reciting or singing the Lord's Prayer at Ohio's East Liverpool High School's graduation ceremony has been corrected.
A complainant informed FFRF that the prayer has been recited at graduation for the past 70 years. In 2015, the school choir sang the prayer as part of the event's program.
"It is wholly inappropriate to put on performances of songs of worship in a public school setting," said FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a letter to the district. "The song has a devotional, biblical message, and thus would be appropriate in a church setting, but not in a public school. There are a multitude of secular songs that would be far more appropriate."
The Board of Education president shared his view with a news reporter in May. "When I was first on this board I expressed a concern about us singing. The comment made was that 'we know we are breaking the law, we will do it until we get caught.' Well, ladies and gentlemen, we got caught."
On May 16, the superintendent told FFRF that the prayer would not be included in this year's ceremony. Although the valedictorian then led the prayer of his own accord, the prayer was not school-sanctioned or on the ceremony program.
A West Virginia school district changed its policies after FFRF objected to a Christian revival meeting held at one of its schools.
Evangelist Matt Hartley sermonized to students at Mingo Central High School in Williamson, W.Va., preaching to them about Jesus, mulling about whether being gay was a choice, and asserting that "God never made a mistake" in choosing a person's gender.
FFRF contacted the school district after receiving a complaint and the district quickly informed FFRF that it was revamping its policies governing such events.
"Steps have already been taken by the superintendent to ensure that such events will not occur in the future and that all staff are educated regarding the legal obligations of school systems when such issues arise," Denise Spatafore, legal counsel for Mingo County Schools, wrote back to FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott.
An employee at the Eau Claire district attorney's office in Wisconsin has removed an inappropriate religious message from the signature line of her official email address, thanks to FFRF. The signature read, in part, "Joyful, Prayerful, and Thankful – Thessalonians 5:16-17."
"It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district attorney's office or its agents to promote a religious message because doing so conveys government preference for religion over nonreligion," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in a May 10 letter.
The next day, the office's manager replied that the matter had been resolved.
A Nevada school district has agreed to halt several constitutional violations at a local high school after being alerted by FFRF.
Mojave High School Principal Antonio Rael and Grace Point Church Pastor Ty Neal were seen chatting in a video about the church’s “partnership” with the principal. Rael said he felt there was a “kingdom-moving opportunity inside the walls of Mojave.” Rael also spoke about bringing the Young Life organization (a Christian youth outfit) into the school to mentor the students, a move he claimed was “totally legit legally.”
“Principal Rael’s comments in this video raise many constitutional concerns,” FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote late last year to Carlos McDade, legal counsel for the Clark County School District (with a follow-up letter in April).
FFRF had requested that the School District (headquartered in Las Vegas) make certain that Rael abides by the restrictions that the U.S. Constitution places on him as the administrator of a public school. In addition, it asked that Mojave High School no longer permit Young Life or other such groups to preach to students, and ensure that Rael was not involved with student religious groups.
In a recent response, Clark County School District indicated that it had heard FFRF loud and clear.
“At the principal’s request, Grace Memorial Church has removed the video from vimeo.com,” McDade replied. “The Young Life organization no longer accesses the school during instructional time/schooldays but instead rents out space as an outside group. The district has also recently amended its regulation regarding student-led clubs and organizations.”
Following an FFRF complaint, the Modesto City Schools in California will exercise more care in choosing music for students to perform.
One section of a Winter Concert held at La Loma Junior High School was overwhelmingly religious. Most of the songs were devotional Christian songs.
In a May 9 response to FFRF, a school official said that the La Loma chorus director had “agreed to be more careful in the songs he chooses for future concerts. He will ensure there is more variety in the music performed at each concert.”
The Genoa Area Local Schools in Genoa, Ohio, have removed a sign reading "Follow Christ" from Genoa High School, after receiving a letter from FFRF.
"It is unconstitutional for Genoa Area Local Schools to encourage its students to 'Follow Christ,' in effect encouraging non-Christian students to convert," said FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne on April 25.
The superintendent replied on May 5 saying the sign had been removed.
After FFRF lodged a complaint, the Palm Beach County School District in Florida is no longer partnering with a religious sports day camp, SportsTyme.
The group claims that it creates a sports environment that "leaves God in," including bible lessons. Previously, the district permitted SportsTyme to advertise on school grounds and reportedly helped sign up students for the religious camps.
On May 4, the district notified FFRF that SportsTyme updated its website to delete PBCSD schools from their list of "partners" and added a disclaimer noting that it was not affiliated with or endorsed by the school district.
A Tennessee school district is taking steps to ensure that state/church violations do not recur after hearing from FFRF about the violations.
A second-grade teacher at Highland Rim Elementary in Fayetteville, Tenn., helped students construct crosses as a class craft project. She also marked student assignments with a stamp that stated, "God Made You Special."
"Public schools have a duty to ensure that 'subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion' or use their positions of authority to promote a particular religious viewpoint, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Bill Heath, director of Lincoln County Schools.
Lincoln County Schools replied with a letter detailing a five-point action plan that the district is implementing.
A Nevada public school is no longer holding its graduation ceremonies inside a church, following an FFRF complaint.
For at least the past three years, Coral Academy of Science's eighth-grade promotion and senior graduation ceremonies had been performed in The Church at South Las Vegas, and it was scheduled to be the host again this year.
Coral Academy "will endeavor not to hold graduation ceremonies at that facility in the future, and has recently changed the site of its 2016 ceremonies from there to a secular venue on the UNLV campus," said Mark Gardberg, legal counsel for the school.
A Kentucky town will stop displaying an overtly religious nativity scene in response to an FFRF objection.
FFRF had notified the city of Walton a number of times that a Christmas nativity panorama on the City Hall lawn was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
After the December letter and a follow-up in April, FFRF has finally gotten an assurance that the town would take heed of the Constitution.
"I have discussed the legal issues raised in your correspondence dated Dec. 23, 2015, with Mayor Mark Carnahan and advised him accordingly," Walton City Attorney Timothy Noyes wrote back to FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne. "Based on that advice, the mayor indicated that future Christmas displays on city property, if any, will give due deference to existing law concerning separation of church and state."
FFRF has resolved yet another issue in Florida's Orange County Public Schools. The district, the 11th-largest in the country, is FFRF's most-contacted school district.
This time, the district is ensuring that JROTC ceremonies at East River High School will not include prayer. The 2016 JROTC Awards and Change of Command Ceremony included an invocation listed on the agenda. Attendees were asked to bow their heads, although ROTC students were told in advance that a prayer would be given and if they did not believe in "God or Jesus" that they "just need to stand there and be silent."
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to the district's two attorneys, pointing out that even in the context of a state military college with older students, a federal court "held that school officials may not compel students to participate in a religious activity."
OCPS General Counsel and frequent FFRF correspondent Diego "Woody" Rodriguez responded on April 26, confirming that the prayer occurred and that there would be none at future programs.
A West Aurora High School teacher has taken down religious ads she posted around her classroom after FFRF sent a letter of complaint.
One poster advertised "See You At The Pole," a Christian prayer event, that included bible quotes. Another poster advertised the school's student prayer club.
On April 25, the district superintendent informed FFRF that the postings had been removed after hearing from FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne.
The Silver Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees no longer prays at its meetings, thanks to action taken by FFRF.
On April 25, attorneys for the school district “decided to voluntarily discontinue its prior practice” of including invocations, after hearing from FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler.
An Oklahoma school district has assured FFRF that its students will not be attending a moralistic sermon.
The "Spring Tea" is a highly religious annual event in Muskogee. In March, hundreds of middle school girls were preached to on such issues as abstinence, teen pregnancy, sexting and sexually transmitted diseases. Among those attending were students from two public magnet schools in the Muskogee school district.
Last year, FFRF had sent a notice to the district asking them not to have any involvement with the occasion or face legal action. Officials had assured FFRF that the district would abstain, but the organization recently learned that this wasn't the case.
The school district responded that this was all due to a misunderstanding. Drummond explained that the main middle school had explicitly been instructed not to take part, but that the school district had neglected to notify the two public magnet schools. This oversight has now been rectified.
The Christian movie "Facing the Giants" will no longer be shown in South Dearborn Community Schools, thanks to a complaint lodged by FFRF.
The film follows a struggling high school football coach who inspires his team to believe in the Christian God and to use faith to win football games. South Dearborn Middle School reportedly had students watch it as a reward for finishing a test. When FFRF's complainants contacted the school, they were repeatedly told next time students would be allowed to opt out of watching such movies.
"The district may not require students to opt out of a movie screening, intended as a class reward, in order to avoid a school-sponsored religious message," wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne.
The school principal replied promptly, assuring FFRF that the film will not be shown again, and the school would "make sure that any film shown remains neutral toward religion."
FFRF has had an ex-con proselytizer barred from a Florida school district.
Hillsborough County Public Schools had allowed a Fellowship of Christian Athletes representative, David Gaskill, who has a criminal record, to interact and proselytize with its students without restriction. Gaskill had been involved with the district’s sports programs since at least 2014 and appeared to be the schools’ sports chaplain.
FFRF had asked that Gaskill be immediately disallowed from Hillsborough schools. There are serious privacy issues when schools let outside adults pose for “selfies” and pictures with students, including with their arms draped around shirtless students, FFRF contended. The schools also permitted Gaskill to meet with students in “intimate locker room” settings with no other adults present.
Students at David Crockett High School in Jonesborough, Tenn., will no longer be compelled to perform "contemporary Christian concerts" as a part of their public school music instruction after hearing from FFRF.
FFRF received a report that music teacher Kelly Sams conducted blatantly Christian concerts, frequently performed in a church. The concerts consisted mainly of contemporary Christian music.
"These songs have devotional messages that would be appropriate in a church setting, but not in a public school," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a letter to the Washington County Schools.
The county attorney replied to FFRF on April 20, reporting that the superintendent and school principal had met with Sams, advising her that "holding a 'contemporary Christian concert' which contained solely religious songs was not consistent with" school policy.
The Indian River County School District in Florida has instituted changes after FFRF contacted the district with reports of several constitutional violations.
The Vero Beach High School football and baseball teams reportedly employed a chaplain, pastor Joe Moore, who was also the director of the Indian River County Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Football players and cheerleaders participated in prayer breakfasts at First Baptist Church alongside their coaches. The breakfasts frequently involved ministers preaching to students.
In an April 19 response to FFRF, the district's lawyer stated that "the superintendent discovered a few employees who did not understand their duties and obligations regarding student prayer at school, and has corrected those misunderstandings. The superintendent has also reminded all principals at all schools regarding public employee duties and obligations involving student prayer at school."
FFRF recently complained to the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District about the nearly $600,000 in grants it gave in 2013-14 to Ecclesia College in Springdale, Ark., an overtly religious institution.
Of the seven majors the college offers, five are theologically based; of its 14 emphases, nine are Christian. Students are promised they will be taught everything from a "biblical perspective" in a "biblical-based classroom."
FFRF sought assurance that the district would not allocate money in the future to Ecclesia College or other religious outfits. Joe Willis, executive director of the agency, promised in his reply to "make certain" that all future grants "will not be used to advance a religious purpose or cause."
A Wisconsin elementary school principal has been instructed to stop imposing his religious beliefs on staff, students and parents.
The principal of Elm Lawn Elementary School in Middleton, Wis., reportedly prayed in front of teachers, students and parents while addressing disciplinary issues, and gave a devotional book to at least one parent during a student consultation.
FFRF lodged a complaint with the Middleton-Cross Plains School District on Jan. 11.
"It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for district administrators to distribute religious literature or to handle disciplinary issues by praying in front of students," Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne told the superintendent.
On April 14, the superintendent told FFRF that "the principal in question was informed of [the district's] expectations."
Tri County Area School District in Sand Lake, Mich., is making changes to a religious club that was previously run unconstitutionally.
Tri County High School's First Priority club, a Christian club, was often attended by a music teacher and a local pastor, in violation of the Equal Access Act. The music teacher also promoted the club in her classroom, even reportedly distributing fliers to students at lunch and telling them to take a flier because they "need Jesus."
An attorney for the school district wrote back on April 11, telling FFRF that it would ensure staff members would only participate as monitors in student-led religious clubs, and outside persons would not attend the clubs.
A Texas public school district will stop preachers sermonizing during compulsory employee events, following a complaint by FFRF.
The Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District held a mandatory district-wide convocation at First Baptist Church of Euless on Aug. 14. During the event, Scott Sheppard, executive director of 6 Stones Ministries, led the assembled employees in a prayer. Sheppard reportedly admitted that he wasn't supposed to pray in his speech, but said that because "y'all are in my house," he was going to pray anyway.
The district's attorney, Deron Robinson, replied last month to assure FFRF that "the district administration has taken appropriate measures" to make certain future speakers are reminded of the district's policy and practice to not promote a specific religion."
FFRF has stopped a Garrettsville, Ohio, public school teacher from promoting creationism in his classroom.
In January, Garfield High School biology teacher Gregory Walker taught a lesson on creationism/intelligent design as a precursor to a unit on evolution. Walker had four crosses on display during the lesson.
"As a matter of fact, there has never been evidence of macroevolution," he said in a statement. "You can look at any fossil you want. There is no correlation, no go-between, from any organism to another. Ask any scientist."
"Teaching creationism or any of its offshoots, such as intelligent design, in a public school, is unlawful, because creationism is not based on fact," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in a letter last month to Ted Lysiak, superintendent of the James A. Garfield School District.
"It's agreed that Walker will no longer teach intelligent design and the science involved in it," Lysiak writes.
Thanks to persistent action by FFRF, the Kings Canyon Unified School District Governing Board in Reedley, Calif., will no longer pray at its meetings.
FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler first objected to the practice in November 2015.
Superintendent Juan Garza replied on Feb. 24, informing FFRF that the board had passed a new invocation policy. The policy attempted to set up a system like that approved by the Supreme Court for local government bodies in its Greece v. Galloway case, and contained inclusive language, but still allowed for prayer at school board meetings.
"School-sanctioned prayer, even in the new, slightly more removed context, is unconstitutional," wrote Ziegler in a second letter on April 7. "Federal courts ruling on the matter have agreed that school boards fall within the school context, not in the realm of other government meetings."
On May 3, Garza informed FFRF that "the district has decided to discontinue its practice of invocation."
Gideons will now be forced to abide by the same literature distribution rules as all other groups in Georgia's Whitfield County Schools following an FFRF complaint.
A district parent said representatives of the men's ministry handed out bibles to Westside Elementary School students on Nov. 10, 2015.
FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote a letter to the district on March 28, informing the district of the unconstitutionality of the Gideons handing out bibles.
In an April 1 email, Superintendent Judy Gilreath informed FFRF that principals are told each year that they cannot allow Gideons on campus to distribute bibles, but may place a table in their schools where, without discrimination, people and organizations can place literature, unattended, for students to pick up.
After hearing from FFRF, the Conroe Independent School District in Conroe, Texas, has instructed the principal of Vogel Intermediate School to stop proselytizing to her employees.
An employee reported that the principal regularly sent emails with religious content, and even placed notes in each employee's personal mailbox with the message, "Jesus died for you."
On March 29, the district responded, denying all allegations, but stating that the principal had been provided with a guide to religion in the public schools to use during teacher in-service training at the beginning of the next school year, and would reinforce with the staff their obligation to remain neutral toward religion.
FFRF persuaded the central library in Madison, Wis., to serve patrons on Easter Sunday.
FFRF had contacted Madison library staff last year to emphasize that Easter Sunday was neither a federal nor a Wisconsin holiday, and that the library was open otherwise on Sundays.
"It is unconstitutional and inappropriate for city libraries to close on this Christian holy day," FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Library Director Greg Mickells last May.
The library was open on Easter, where it did heavy business, and will remain open in future years.
FFRF has made an Ohio public school teacher stop sermonizing to her students.
Green Middle School teacher Kelli Hunka was assigning religious projects to her students every month. In January, for instance, she had students "write and illustrate a prayer for the new year," while recently she asked students to "illustrate Isaiah 11:6."
"These assignments are not part of a study of comparative religion or the history of religion, but rather provide lessons in Christianity," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in early March.
Hunka "has been instructed not to use any materials containing the religious references mentioned in your letter," Mary Jo Shannon Slick, legal counsel for the schools, recently replied, adding that Hunka had assured Green Local Schools Supervisor Jeff Miller she would abide by the directive.
After an FFRF complaint, the Payson (Ariz.) Unified School District has directed teachers not to promote their personal religious beliefs to their students.
FFRF was notified of the situation by the parents of a local kindergarten student. The student had shared that his music teacher was telling the story of baby Jesus being born and that his homeroom teacher showed a movie about "baby God saving people" and that "he died doing it."
Multiple other issues were also addressed. The school promoted its winter concert with a flier that repeatedly referenced Christmas as "Christ"mas. Additionally, at the end of the concert, all of the teachers sang the hymn "Silent Night" on stage together.
On March 17, the district responded to FFRF that the principal had spoken to the music teacher and that they would amend future district-wide staff training to prevent teachers from promoting religious beliefs to their students.
The Portage Area Regional Transportation Authority in Ohio has agreed to FFRF's request that it cease weekly sponsorship of a religious advertisement in a local paper.
The ad, printed each Saturday in the Record-Courier with text promoting Christianity and a "Scripture Reading" selected by the American Bible Society, listed PARTA as a sponsor. "It is unconstitutional for PARTA to pay for a religious advertisement, or to endorse religion," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in a letter to the organization.
On March 15, PARTA notified FFRF that it had directed the newspaper to ensure that PARTA ads no longer appeared in religion-themed sections.
An inspector from North Carolina's License & Theft Bureau will no longer use a biblical verse as her email signature after FFRF contacted the department.
Her email signature included, "For the one in authority is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. Romans 13:4."
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott called the department's attention to the signature in a letter dated Sept. 18, 2015. The department's human resources director responded March 8, informing FFRF that the employee removed the quote from her email signature.
Shelby County School District in Alabama is taking steps to ensure no further inappropriate religious assemblies occur in its schools.
Presenters from Word of Life Redemption were permitted to hold assemblies at Montevallo High School and Montevallo Middle School on Feb. 12. The group lists its mission as "to influence students in schools and youth groups throughout the nation and to 'make a difference' in today's youth culture through music, drama, and worship that glorifies God and brings people to the cross."
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the district on March 2, and on March 8, Superintendent Randy Fuller responded, noting that the district considered the incident a serious matter and was already addressing it with administrators.