New Legal Successes
Faith Memorial Church in Lancaster, Ohio, participated in bible study groups in a number of local public schools. The church listed such groups in eight public schools in its vicinity, including four high schools. Most of the clubs met during the schools' lunch breaks and were run by adults, according to the church's webpage (since taken down).
The courts have clearly decided over the years that public schools cannot advance, prefer or promote religion.
FFRF recently received a response from legal counsel for the four districts where the public schools are located. In its reply, the firm told FFRF that in the future any bible study clubs would conform to the law. "Principals are making sure that students leading bible study clubs are conducting those groups within the parameters of the Equal Access Act," the March 2 letter stated.
FFRF has ensured that members of the Interfaith Club at Bob Jones High School will be permitted to hold meetings on any topic of their choosing, after Madison City Schools Assistant Superintendent Robby Parker prohibited discussion of Satanism, the planned topic at one of the club's meetings.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover contacted the district's attorney on Feb. 17, noting that it's unlawful for a school to deny students the right to meet based on the "religious, political philosophical or other content of the speech at such meetings."
The district's attorney responded March 2, saying that administrators and other employees "will take all necessary steps to ensure that schools in the city of Madison comply with the statute."
The Jacksonville City Schools in Alabama has assured FFRF that the district's automated phone system will not again be used to inform parents of religious events.
Last summer, community members reportedly received calls and text messages from the school system to inform them of and invite them to prayer walks being held at the district.
"Future use of this phone system will be appropriate and within the guidelines of the law," Superintendent Mark Peterson wrote in response.
At the Cleveland County School District in Rison, Ark., the district superintendent confirmed to FFRF that the Gideons would no longer distribute bibles to students in classrooms at Rison Elementary School, and that the Gideon representatives would no longer be allowed to speak with students about their mission.
"Courts have uniformly held that the distribution of bibles to students at school is prohibited because it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott. "When a school distributes religious literature to its students, or permits evangelists to do so, it entangles itself with a religious message."
The Plano Independent School District Board of Trustees has dropped Christian invocations from its meetings in favor of "nonsectarian inspirational messages" after hearing from FFRF.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover first wrote on Dec. 7, 2015, informing the board, "It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings."
When an attorney for the school district replied that the district did not intend to change its practices, Grover sent a rebuttal letter on Jan. 22. He pointed out that several courts have held that prayers at school board meetings differ from the legislative prayers that the U.S. Supreme Court has approved of, and that even in the legislative context, legislators themselves are not permitted to lead the prayers as the trustees were doing here.
In a Feb. 26 response, the Plano Board of Trustees attorney maintained his disagreement, but wrote, "Notwithstanding our disagreement, going forward the Plano ISD School Board intends on opening its meetings with nonsectarian inspirational messages delivered by board members."
Shelby County, Ohio, is no longer displaying an Appeal to Heaven flag in a county building after hearing from FFRF.
Members of the Appeal to Heaven movement "honor the Lord by networking elected officials who are believers in Jesus Christ, who regularly attend and display a commitment to an evangelical, Gospel-centered church and who will commit to live and govern based on biblical . . . principles."
"This mission is clearly sectarian, and displaying the flag is a tacit endorsement of evangelical Christianity," wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in a letter to the county.
On Feb. 25, the Shelby County Commissioners notified FFRF that the flag had been removed.
The coach of the Cannon County High School football team in Woodbury, Tenn., will no longer be permitted to conduct religious activities with his students.
The coach previously had taken his team to attend area churches for "team building," and also brought in a speaker to give the team a devotional with "faith-based life lessons" the day before every game.
FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter of complaint to the Cannon County School District on Nov. 24, 2015. The district "cannot allow a nonschool adult access to the children in its charge, and it certainly cannot grant that access to a religious speaker seeking to organize prayer for the students," Markert wrote.
On Feb. 25, Director of Schools Barbara N. Parker responded saying the issues have been resolved.
The Sylvan-Unified School District 299 in Sylvan Grove, Kan., will no longer permit the teaching of creationism.
A student contacted FFRF to relate that a science teacher at Sylvan-Lucas Junior/Senior High School had long been teaching creationism and presenting her biology students with "evidence" against evolution. The teacher's lesson plans listed "Arguements [sic] against Evolution notes" for two class periods, and she showed a video called "Unlocking the Mystery of Life," which claims that the 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. Courts have routinely found that such teachings are religious, despite many new and imaginative labels given to the alternatives," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a Feb. 9 letter to the district superintendent.
On Feb. 22, FFRF received a response from the district. Superintendent Jude Stecklein said the district investigated the situation and informed the teacher that she can no longer teach creationism.
The Columbia Borough School District in Columbia, Pa., will not hold events in church any longer.
Last year, Columbia High School required graduating students to attend a graduation practice in a Christian church to receive caps and gowns, as well as information about the ceremony. FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler objected to the constitutional violation in a July 22, 2015, letter.
After FFRF followed up with the district twice, an acting superintendent for the district informed FFRF that the previous superintendent had recently resigned, and he had only just seen FFRF's letters. He apologized for the district's lack of response, confirmed that the situation had happened as FFRF described, and stated that he immediately directed the high school principal to cease the practice of distributing important graduation information in a church.
FFRF made a Pennsylvania public school discontinue graduation practice inside a church.
Columbia High School last year required its students to receive their graduation caps and gowns and ceremony information within a church.
School districts that have used churches for school functions have had the practice struck down by courts.
"A school's use of a church for school functions is problematic because it sends a message of approval of the church to impressionable students," FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote in a letter last July to Carol Powell, then-superintendent of the Columbia Borough School District.
On receiving no reply, Ziegler followed up with two more letters in November and last month. Finally, FFRF got a response a few weeks ago from Acting Superintendent Ken Klawitter, who took over in December. Klawitter told the organization that he first became aware of the issue through its February letter and acted swiftly.
"I immediately directed the high school principal to cease the practice," he wrote. "In the future, caps and gowns, as well as important graduation information, will be distributed in a secular setting."
Kettle Falls Middle School in Washington has taken down a picture reading "In God We Trust" over the backdrop of an American flag, after FFRF complained.
FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to the Kettle Falls School District on Nov. 23, 2015. "This posting falsely equates patriotism with piety," she contended. "Young, impressionable students are apt to believe that the school endorses the religious message of the poster."
On Feb. 18, the district superintendent informed FFRF that the picture had been removed.
In California, Lake Elsinore Unified School District's "Student of the Month" luncheons with the local Chamber of Commerce will no longer be religious events, and a praying coach has been taken to task.
The monthly lunches that honored students for their academic achievements took place on school property and were attended by school staff and government officials. They also typically included a Christian prayer, and, one year, Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ was given to the honorees.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the school district on July 23, 2015, asking the district to "discontinue prayer and the distribution of religious literature at future school-sponsored activities."
The district replied on Aug. 20, claiming that the Student of the Month events were not sponsored by the district. Seidel rebutted the letter on Sept. 15, pointing out that district employees were "volunteer administrators" and the district was thanked in the programs as a sponsor.
On Feb. 12, the district informed FFRF that changes had been made to the Student of the Month ceremonies. The district is no longer a sponsor, it vowed not to mandate or encourage student participation in prayers, and the chamber agreed to implement a "secular inspirational message" in lieu of prayer.
The district also noted that it had directed the Elsinore High School football coach to refrain from requiring prayer and participating in student prayers.
The La Mesa-Spring Valley School District will no longer include prayers at graduation ceremonies.
FFRF objected to the practice in a Jan. 14 letter. "The Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations," Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the district.
On Feb. 10, the district said that "steps have been taken to ensure that prayers or prayer-like speeches are not held at school-sponsored activities in the future."
FFRF has again ensured that staff at Akron Public Schools in Ohio will not be permitted to wear "Jesus Is My Hero" T-shirts in school. FFRF first dealt with the shirts in 2013, which promoted the Buchtel Community Learning Center's athletic program.
The district notified all staff in October of 2013 that wearing the donated shirts was a violation of policy. "Unfortunately," said Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a letter to the district's attorney, "I'm writing again because our complainant informs us that these T-shirts have made appearances once again, worn by coaches at football practices."
On Feb. 9, the district's attorney told Markert that the district's athletic director and the school principal were notified, and told staff "that, while acting in their official capacity as school officials, they are prohibited from engaging in actions that could be seen as an endorsement of religion, in violation of board policy."
The Morgan County Schools in Alabama have reminded a coach and a band director to keep state and church separate after FFRF stepped in with a written complaint.
A Danville High School student informed FFRF that, after the end of football games, the team's coaches gathered the players together at the center of the field and led both teams in a Christian prayer. In addition, the drum major, on the instruction of the band director, led prayers at the halftime of each game and at practices.
"It is, of course, unconstitutional for public school athletic coaches or band directors to lead students in prayer, participate in student-led prayer, or instruct students to lead prayers," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover in a letter to the district.
An attorney for the school district informed Grover by email on Feb. 8 that the coaches and band director had "been told of their obligations to remain neutral, including that they should not organize or direct students in prayer."
After receiving a complaint from FFRF, the River View Local School District in Warsaw, Ohio, also will no longer permit the Gideons to distribute bibles.
Students were reportedly separated into groups who wanted and did not want to receive bibles. The children who elected not to take one were instructed to wait in a separate line until the Gideons were finished distributing bibles to other students.
"Public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion and to protect the rights of conscience of young and impressionable students," wrote Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a letter originally sent June 5, 2015.
The district finally informed FFRF on Feb. 8 that it would not permit the distribution of bibles on school property.
The public library system in Madison, Wis. decided in February not to close its central downtown branch for a March private event for the Dalai Lama. FFRF, whose office is located across the street from the library, was one of the community voices objecting to the planned event.
"We write to express concerns that granting this proposal would raise the appearance of government-religion entanglement, and also would be a disservice to the local community," said FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in a letter to the library's board of directors.
The board unanimously voted the proposal down on Feb. 4.
FFRF had warned the Duval County School Board in Florida in January that the Seacoast Charter Academy seemed like a thinly disguised religious establishment.
The institution, which was run as part of a private Christian school for almost 20 years, became a kindergarten to fifth-grade charter entity in 2011 for financial reasons.
Also, Seacoast hosted a Veterans Day program inside the academy's auditorium, which features a large Latin cross at center stage and lots of religious iconography. It is also used for Seacoast's chapel services, so it serves the same role as a church.
"We're pleased the school district investigated and issued the default," said FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. "Both the district and FFRF will continue to monitor these schools."
The Holy Land Experience, located in Orlando, painted a mural on a retaining wall that turns the corner from Interstate 4 in the direction of the religious amusement park. This interchange and retaining wall are government property that the Florida Department of Transportation maintains, and Holy Land sought no permits or permission to put up the mural.
The mural featured religious imagery, showing two angels unrolling a scroll that signifies humankind. The message conveyed was that God created us all — an inescapably religious notion, says FFRF.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Florida public officials last November when FFRF was alerted to the mural by its local chapter, the Central Florida Freethought Community.
FFRF has learned that the Holy Land Experience has finally painted over the mural in a neutral tan color.
The superintendent of Dalton Local Schools in Ohio will no longer post religious messages on his official school Twitter feed, after FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote the school district's attorney a letter on Jan. 25, 2016. The tweets called for prayer, encouraged belief in God, and promoted Christian church events. "Anyone viewing this school-sponsored Twitter feed would understand that the superintendent is endorsing his personal religion over all others," said Jayne.
Attorney Susan C. Hastings responded on Feb. 2 informing FFRF that the superintendent would establish a separate Twitter account for personal communications.
The Johnson City Police Department in Tennessee is taking steps to ensure it is abiding by the Constitution regarding its "Adopt-a-Cop" program.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter on Dec. 8 objecting to the program, in which community members "adopt" a police officer, and includes praying for the officer every day.
In a Feb. 2 response, an attorney for the department acknowledged that the department could have done more "to dispel the public's perception that the department itself was operating and 'pushing' this program," and assured FFRF that the department recognized its obligation to separate church and state.
Officials in Itawamba County, Miss., removed a courthouse display of the Ten Commandments in response to a recent letter from FFRF.
"The Ten Commandments display violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution," FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott stated in the Jan. 27 letter. "The religious message of the Ten Commandments is obvious. By placing this display directly inside the county's governmental offices, the county is unmistakably sending the message that it gives the display its stamp of approval."
Elliott added that the government's biblical display was striking a blow against religious liberty, forcing taxpayers of all faiths—and of no faith—to support a particular expression of worship.
On Feb. 1, county supervisors agreed to modify the presentation, according to news reports.
FFRF appreciates the supervisors' decision to get rid of the Ten Commandments, but voiced concerns about the substitution.
"We're pleased that the county's unconstitutional Ten Commandments display will be removed from the courthouse," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "But it's regrettable that the county supervisors sought out another religious statement to replace the Ten Commandments. Elected officials should not use their government position and government buildings as a place for promoting their religious views."
A Michigan public school softball coach will no longer lead team members in prayer.
In May 2015, FFRF sent a letter to North Branch Area Schools Superintendent Thomas English alerting him that high school softball coach Willie Deshetsky was leading his team members in prayer. FFRF sent English photos of Deshetsky's team prayerfully holding hands with him.
"It is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their team in prayer," FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote.
FFRF finally received a response in February informing the organization that the coach had been asked to desist.
"Coach Willie Deshetsky was officially informed he cannot organize, advocate or lead the softball team in prayer," North Branch Athletic Director James Fish said in his reply.
And at West Orange-Stark Elementary School in Orange, Texas, FFRF got involved when it had heard from parents that bibles were being handed out to students.
"There is no excuse or justification for this practice. It is unnecessary, offensive and illegal," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote in a Jan. 6 letter to West Orange-Cove School District Superintendent Rickie Harris.
In a response dated Feb. 1, lawyers for the school district said that they had counseled the school about the rules governing such issues. "We anticipate no further issues in the future," the legal firm stated.
Seniors at the Easton Area Lifestyle Campus in Easton, Pa., will no longer be subjected to prayers by center staff. Previously, staff recited prayers, asked people to join in an "amen" chorus accompanied by piano, and sung Christian hymns.
"Federal regulations prohibit senior centers receiving federal funding to engage in religious activities at government-sponsored functions such as senior lunches," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel on Jan. 12 in a letter to the center.
On Jan. 29, FFRF received a response from the Northampton County Department of Human Services, noting that it had distributed a policy memo to the county's senior centers. The memo said that "all senior centers operated by the county of Northampton, or funded even partially by funds from the [Area Agency on Aging] are, effective immediately, precluded from offering prayers."
FFRF recently got a Kentucky school district to stop a public high school football coach from leading his team in prayer.
Last September, FFRF had sent a letter to the Bowling Green City Schools asking that Coach Kevin Wallace cease from having his team worship before games. The complaint included a photo of Wallace with his students in a prayer circle, as well as his quote in the local paper acknowledging that he was engaged in the practice.
In a follow-up letter last month, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert expressed concern that the school district had failed to take any action.
Finally, FFRF received a response in March from Bowling Green Independent Schools Superintendent Gary Fields acknowledging the receipt of the two letters. "I have addressed the concerns contained in your letters and consider the matter to be resolved," Fields replied.
In response to an FFRF complaint, North Township, Mich., will be careful to avoid all religion in future events it sponsors with religious entities.
On Sept. 11, 2015, the Northfield Township Police Department sent an e-mail to local residents promoting a Kids' Day event. A local church that co-sponsored the event wrote the content of the e-mail, which included religious sentiments like "Christ wishes to save all of us."
"The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits government sponsorship of religious messages," wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in the letter. "The government violates this principle of neutrality."
The township manager responded on Jan. 27, saying that he typically tells the church that co-sponsored events must be free from religion, and would speak with the police chief to make sure it would not happen again.
FFRF has ensured that Gideons will not be allowed to distribute bibles to West Side Elementary School students in Woodbury, Tenn.
In response to a parent’s complaint that a teacher invited the Gideons to distribute bibles and speak to students about the book, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to the Cannon County School District on June 8, 2015. “When a school distributes religious literature to its students, or permits evangelists to distribute religious literature to its students, it entangles itself with that religious message,” said Markert.
FFRF followed up with the district in September, but did not receive a response until Jan. 27, when the director of schools e-mailed a reply saying, “The Gideon bible distribution complaint has been addressed. I am sure there will be no further concerns with this issue.”
The Lee County Sheriff's Office in Alabama will no longer be part of the sponsors page of a Christian memorial book titled "Lift Up Thine Eyes," thanks to FFRF.
The book, which a funeral home provides for the grieving, features colored illustrations of iconic bible stories. "We write to ensure that the Sheriff's Office ceases its sponsorship of this Christian book, which creates the appearance that the office endorses Christianity over all minority faiths and over nonreligion," said FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover in a letter to the Opelika, Ala., law enforcement agency.
Sheriff Jay Jones phoned FFRF on Jan. 26, informing Grover that the wording in the book had been changed to reflect that the sponsorship was made by him personally, and not by the department.
FFRF was able to stop an employee of Meals on Wheels from proselytizing, which then prompted a permanent policy of non-proselytization for California's Contra Costa County division of the group.
FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to the organization's CEO on Jan. 19 to report a Meals on Wheels employee who "aggressively promotes religion while in [a] recipient's home, despite being repeatedly asked to stop because the recipient is not religious."
Jayne pointed out that Meals on Wheels receives federal funding, which means it is subject to regulations prohibiting "inherently religious activities, such as . . . proselytization." Jayne also pointed out that program recipients "are in a vulnerable position and should not be forced to endure religious proselytizing in order to receive benefits."
Meals on Wheels CEO Elaine Clark called FFRF on Jan. 26 and said she was supportive of FFRF's concerns and that proselytizing is very much against the group's policy. Clark placed a disciplinary note in the employee's file, and pledged to fire her if she continued to proselytize. In addition, after noticing that the handbook given to drivers doesn't specifically address proselytizing, Clark said she would update it right away.
After FFRF complained, Wichita Public Schools is taking steps to ensure no further inappropriate bible distributions will happen on its grounds.
On Nov. 1, 2015, several members of the Gideons, a Christian men's group, handed out bibles to East High School students as they got off their buses. "The district may not allow Gideons, or any other religious groups, to enter school property to distribute religious literature," wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a Dec. 3 letter. "In allowing Gideons to distribute bibles to students, the district is impermissibly endorsing religion by placing its 'stamp of approval' on the religious messages contained in the bible."
Seidel acknowledged that the district may have had no prior knowledge of the distribution because Gideons "operate by deliberately avoiding superintendents and school boards. They advise their members to seek permission at the lowest level of authority." In a response on Jan. 22, the district's attorney said that this was the case, and acknowledged that "neutrality commands that the Gideons not be permitted to distribute bibles on school property."
After FFRF stepped in, Alabama's Blount County Schools has stopped having students read a bible verse over the PA each morning.
"A daily bible reading, even by a student, violates the Constitution," said FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in his Jan. 7 letter to the school district's attorney.
In addition, religious messages were regularly posted on the school walls. In response, some freethinking students put up posters saying "God's not real," which were torn down and replaced with further religious posters. "Given the law, and the acrimony caused by this poster battle, the prudent course is to remove all religious and irreligious posters from the school," wrote Seidel.
FFRF's complainant reported on Jan. 13 that the bible readings had stopped and all religious posters were removed. In addition, after students proposed a secular club, the school took the drastic move of banning all non-curricular clubs. In response, students started a science club.
FFRF has gotten the Ten Commandments and other religious displays removed from the walls of Mansfield High School in Mansfield, Ark.
In addition to the decalogue, pictures with bible quotes lined classrooms and hallways. "Courts have continually held that school districts may not display religious messages or iconography in public schools," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott on Jan. 13.
The Mansfield School District's attorney wrote back the next day, saying simply, "The objects you identified have been removed."
Sunset Elementary School in Anadarko, Okla., has taken down a framed picture titled "The First Prayer in Congress" from the school office after receiving a letter from FFRF. The portrait showed members of the Continental Congress with heads bowed in prayer during a September 1774 session.
"This picture depicts an obscure historical event, which makes it seem likely that it was chosen for display because of its religious significance and not its historical significance," wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. "This is especially true if one understands the actual history: that the preacher, Jacob Duché, was a traitor to the revolution who fled to England after slandering the Congress he led in prayer."
Seidel pointed out that the prayer was opposed by the first two chief justices of the Supreme Court because, as John Adams said, "We were so divided in religious sentiments." By Adams' admission, the prayer was approved for its political value, Seidel wrote. In addition, Duché was opposed to American independence, vilifying the Continental Congress and calling soldiers cowards. "Is this really a man to be venerated in a public school or ought he to rank with the other traitor of that era, Benedict Arnold?" Seidel asked.
An Anadarko School District representative informed FFRF on Jan. 12 that the district decided to remove the print.
The Albany High School football team in Minnesota will no longer be subjected to prayers led by their coaches, following a complaint lodged by FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott.
Elliott wrote to Albany Area Schools on Dec. 21, 2015. Citing a litany of cases, Elliott noted that the Supreme Court had repeatedly "struck down school-sponsored prayer because it constitutes a government advancement and endorsement of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment."
Superintendent Greg Johnson responded promptly to notify FFRF he was looking into the matter. On Jan. 11, Johnson thanked Elliot for the letter and assured FFRF that the school district had investigated and "taken appropriate steps to ensure that any coach involvement with prayer activities will not occur."
After FFRF objected to a Vermont board's proposal to give a grant to a church, the church has rescinded its request. The Waitsfield Select Board had voted to place an item on the Town Meeting ballot in March 2016 to give $1,500 to the Waitsfield United Church of Christ.
"The government may not fund projects for religious worship," wrote Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne on Dec. 8. Jayne also pointed out that the Vermont Constitution prohibits funding of places of worship.
A Valley Reporter article published Dec. 24 said that to avoid controversy, the church representatives withdrew their request at the board's Dec. 21 meeting — though not before castigating FFRF's complainant for inviting "this crackpot Midwestern group into the discussion."
In Pennsylvania, the York County prison system's website featured a direct link to the website of Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, a Christian organization, despite the fact that several other organizations operate in the prison. However, the county stopped promoting the group on its website after FFRF got involved.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover contended that posting the link solely to one organization "creates the impression that the county impermissibly favors the ministry's religious message, which violates the Establishment Clause."
FFRF's complainant reported on Dec. 20 that the county had removed the link.
After FFRF sent a complaint, Barnum Public Schools in Minnesota will no longer allow evangelists access to students at school.
Adults affiliated with the evangelical Christian group Campus Life had been permitted to come into the lunchroom weekly to recruit students to come to church events, a Barnum High School student told FFRF. The group states is purpose as to “minister in the name of Jesus.”
“The presence of Campus Life ministers in the school supports their mission of proselytizing,” said Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott in a Dec. 16 letter. “No religious organization should have direct access to students at school. This predatory conduct should raise red flags, especially since these adults are conversing with students without parental knowledge.”
Superintendent David J. Bottem responded promptly on Dec. 18, informing FFRF that the district had severed its relationship with Campus Life, “effective immediately.”
Next holiday season, the city of Belle Plaine, Minn., will not allow a longstanding nativity scene on public land as it previously had. A local church will display it instead.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott and Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne sent the city a letter of complaint on Dec. 15 to protest the nativity display, which the city allowed the Rotary Club to place on the lawn of the police department for at least 60 years. In addition to pointing out the legal issues with the nativity, FFRF requested to put up its own banner if the nativity was not removed. The request was granted, although FFRF's banner was later stolen.
FFRF's local complainant reported on Dec. 17 that the Rotary had been told it would have to move the nativity from 2016 onward.
Teacher-led prayers are no longer part of the lunch hour at Alpha Charter School in Garland, Texas, thanks to action taken by the FFRF.
A parent reported their child's second-grade teacher to FFRF for leading her students in prayer every day before lunch. The school principal had not taken action despite being made aware of the situation.
Public schools "must not promote decidedly religious messages to a captive student audience, thereby isolating and excluding those students who are non-Christian or nonreligious," Staff Attorney Sam Grover told the school. Grover also pointed to FFRF's recent successful lawsuit against praying teachers in Emanuel County, Ga., declaring, "FFRF is committed to defending the rights of students in public schools. Given how young and impressionable these students are, this violation of the law is particularly egregious."
The school responded on Dec. 17, saying that they had investigated the situation and met with the teacher in question, who now "understands her responsibility in regards to separation of church and state."
The Appleton Area School District in Wisconsin is taking steps to ensure that a Christian club is truly student-run.
FFRF learned that Appleton East High School circulated a flyer for a religious student club, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but listed a teacher's school email and cell phone number as the contact. "We are writing to ensure that the FCA is entirely student-initiated and student-run, as required by federal law," wrote Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in a Dec. 7 letter to the school district. "In our experience, adults often organize and participate in FCA events. If the FCA club is not student-initiated and student-run, AEHS should dissolve it."
"School and district administration have met with the FCA supervisor and reviewed FCA meeting practices for club operations," wrote Superintendent Lee Allinger in an emailed reply on Dec. 17. "We also took this opportunity to reinforce legal and district requirements."
Allinger also stated that the objectionable flyers had been removed and future flyers would not contain supervisor contact information, and thanked FFRF for sharing its concerns.
Good News Club meetings will no longer take place during the school day in the Lincoln County School District in Newport, Ore., after FFRF got involved in December 2015.
The Good News Club, an evangelical Christian children's ministry, was previously allowed to meet at several elementary schools during lunch. FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler informed the superintendent, "It is illegal for the district to allow the Good News Club to meet at schools during the school day."
Ziegler pointed to the McCollum Supreme Court case holding that bible classes in public school were unconstitutional, in which the court said, "Here not only are the state's tax-supported public school buildings used for the dissemination of religious doctrines. The state also affords sectarian groups an invaluable aid in that it helps to provide pupils for their religious classes though use of the state's compulsory public school machinery. This is not separation of Church and State."
On Dec. 15, Superintendent Steve Boynton told Ziegler the School Board had revised its rules on community use of school district facilities, and would restrict access to schools by non-school groups during school hours. FFRF's parent complainant confirmed that Boynton presented the changes at the January School Board meeting.
A painted nativity display was removed and replaced with a secular display in the window of the Rupert Post Office in Idaho after FFRF lodged a complaint.
Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler protested the display, which also included the words "Christmas begins with Christ," in a Dec. 4 letter to the postmaster. "United States postal regulations prohibit the display of religious materials, other than stamp art, on postal property," Ziegler wrote. Furthermore, "by displaying a nativity scene and religious statement on its grounds, the Rupert Post Office is illegally demonstrating a preference for religion over nonreligion, and Christianity over all other faiths."
On Dec. 14, FFRF's complainant reported that the religious scene had been removed, and had been repainted with a display reading "Peace on earth, good will toward men." (Maybe next year they'll include women!)
The Alden Post Office in Michigan has removed religious propaganda from the counter in the lobby following a complaint from FFRF. Proselytizing materials subtitled "Evidence for God's Existence and Identity" had been regularly available in the lobby.
Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to Postmaster Lynnette Derror on Nov. 23, quoting postal regulations providing that no literature other than official postal materials could be deposited anywhere on postal premises, and regulations prohibiting the display of religious materials.
On Dec. 3, Derror said she had posted Post Office regulations and "will take steps to insure that there is no literature on the counter daily."
After persuading the Frisco Independent School District in Texas to remove a sign reading "Pray more, worry less" from the Roach Middle School front office in September, FFRF has prompted the district to remove further unconstitutional religious displays from district property.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a complaint to the district on Nov. 19 to object to religious displays in the school district's Student Opportunity Center. One sign read, "The will of God will never take you where the Grace of God will not protect you," while another proclaimed that "Prayer does not change God – it changes me." The office also contained two crosses with scriptural quotes on them. "All students deserve to learn in an environment free from religious proselytization and endorsement," Grover wrote.
The district's attorney informed Grover on Dec. 2 that the displays had been removed, and that all staff had been reminded to ensure there were no religious displays on school grounds.
After years of prayers "in Jesus' name" at Missouri's Montgomery County R-II School District faculty meetings, FFRF has ensured that future meetings will be secular.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott called the prayers "unnecessary and divisive," pointing out that they alienate non-Christian and nonbelieving employees. "Their participation in these mandatory meetings is adversely affected by these types of prayers, which turn them into outsiders in their own community and workplace," he wrote.
An attorney for the school district wrote on Dec. 2, saying the district had taken measures to comply with the law regarding religious endorsement at district events.
A Colorado county clerk has removed an overtly religious poster from the office where citizens, including same-sex couples, get their marriage licenses, following a complaint by FFRF.
The poster was removed the day after FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel asked Elbert County Clerk Dallas Schroeder to put him in touch with his attorney.
"We're glad that the poster, which was meant to intimidate LGBT citizens and promote Schroeder's personal religion, has been removed from government property," Seidel said. "The government must remain neutral on matters of religion and quoting the bible is hardly neutral."
In an email exchange between several county clerks discussing how to handle same-sex marriage licenses, Schroeder wrote on Aug. 9: "It is a picture of a bride standing on a hill with the groom walking up the hill to meet her. On the bottom I have a portion of the verse in I Corinthians where Paul says, 'Each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.' And cite the verse."
But after being sent several letters from Seidel and asking to speak with his lawyer, Schroeder apparently relented and removed the poster, at least from the sight of county constituents.
After receiving a letter from FFRF, Unified School District #436 in Caney Valley, Kan., will ensure that religious material is no longer printed in its yearbooks or newspapers.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter of complaint after a student forwarded a picture of the 2014-15 Caney Valley High School yearbook with a single large Christian cross on its cover. FFRF also complained about a section from the school's newspaper quoting two students and a faculty member selecting their favorite bible verses and recommending Matthew 28:18-20, which is a command to convert "all people in the world" to Christianity.
"School publications, including yearbooks and school newspapers, must remain neutral toward religion," wrote Seidel. The yearbook cross and newspaper section dedicated to bible verses both create "the appearance that the district prefers religion over nonreligion and Christianity over all other religions."
New superintendent Blake A. Vargas thanked FFRF for "bringing to light practices that could be considered a violation of the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause," and assured FFRF that he would review current practices and ensure that the school would be neutral on religion in the future.
The Carver, Mass., post office has removed a religious poster from its bulletin board after FFRF pointed out the sign's illegality.
The poster was titled "The Pledges," and in addition to the Pledge of Allegiance, printed a "Pledge to the Bible" and a "Pledge to the Christian Flag." FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler lodged a complaint with the office on July 22, 2015, pointing out that in addition to being unconstitutional, "United States postal regulations prohibit the display of religious materials, other than stamp art, on postal property."
On Nov. 30, FFRF received word from an interim postmaster that the postmaster to whom the letter was addressed had retired, and the poster on the bulletin board had been removed.
Coleman High School in Coleman, Wis., will not include prayers in future Memorial Day and Veterans Day assemblies after FFRF sent a letter to the superintendent. Ceremonies for the last two years at least have reportedly included religious prayers and videos.
"We ask that you take action to ensure that future assemblies do not include prayer and otherwise remain neutral toward religion," wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in a Nov. 19 letter to Superintendent Douglas P. Polomis.
"We will make every effort to ensure that future assemblies do not include prayer and remain neutral toward religion," Polomis responded on Nov. 30.
Missouri's Iberia Elementary School previously planned on including a recitation of the "biblical meaning" of verses in "The Twelve Days of Christmas" at its Christmas program. However, after receiving a letter from Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott, the school changed the script prior to the concert.
The religious script claimed religious meanings for each of the verses in the popular, secular holiday song, including claims that Jesus is the "true love" referenced in the first day, the two turtle doves represent the Old and New Testaments, and the six geese a-laying are "the six days of creation."
Elliott's Nov. 10 letter informed the Iberia R-V School District that "having young elementary school students recite the purported 'biblical meaning' to a gathering of elementary school students, teachers and parents gives the appearance that the school endorses the religious message." Moreover, "the content of the script is demonstrably false," and thus, "if music instruction in the District is meant to educate, the Christmas program script is doing a disservice by spreading false and unsubstantiated claims."
FFRF's local complainant reported on Nov. 24 that the program's script had been changed to a secular version.
New Lebanon Local Schools in Ohio will no longer fundraise for the Samaritan's Purse, a religious organization headed by Franklin Graham.
FFRF learned that Dixie Elementary School in New Lebanon has asked its students to participate in a donation drive for "Operation Christmas Child," a project of Samaritan's Purse, for at least three years. The school sent home pamphlets to children explaining, "Operation Christmas Child partners with churches worldwide to reach boys and girls with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. After receiving shoebox gifts, many children are discipled through our Bible study course, The Greatest Journey, where they learn to become faithful followers of Christ and share their faith with others." The pamphlet also instructs readers to, "most importantly," pray for the gift recipient.
"While it is laudable for a public school to encourage young students to become active and involved in their community by volunteering and donating to charitable organizations, the school cannot use that goal as an avenue to fund a religious organization with a religious mission," wrote Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a Nov. 19 letter to the school district.
On Nov. 24, Superintendent Greg Williams notified Markert that the school district's attorney "has led district administration to conclude that it is not appropriate to continue with this project."
Thanks to a series of letters from FFRF, tax-funded senior centers in Maryland have been reminded of their duties to not require prayer for the seniors in their care.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent letters to three Maryland senior centers about reports of unconstitutional prayers at mealtimes, typically over a PA system. FFRF's complainant reported feeling as though "kitchen staffers hold our tax-subsidized lunches hostage" until a prayer was said. Seidel also sent letters to the two counties where the three facilities are located, writing to the Baltimore County Department on Aging and the Anne Arundel County Department of Aging and Disabilities. The Maryland Department of Aging also received a letter from FFRF objecting to prayers.
"Government-run or -funded facilities should not host, organize, or facilitate prayers," wrote Seidel. "Not only does scheduling or permitting public prayer to be imposed on all diners at these meals raise concern that the government is endorsing religion, it also violates citizens' rights to be free from religious proselytizing."
FFRF's complainant confirmed that the pre-meal prayers had stopped.
After a complaint by FFRF, Louisville High School in Ohio will no longer include invocations at its annual marching band competition. The 2015 event reportedly began with a minister leading attendees from seven different Ohio public schools in prayer.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to the Louisville School District on Oct. 21. "Federal courts consistently strike down school-sponsored prayer in public schools because it constitutes a government endorsement of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and interferes with the personal conscience of students," Markert wrote.
An attorney for the school district informed FFRF on Nov. 24 that the superintendent had reminded "the appropriate parties" of the law on school invocations.
Pursuant to a Freedom From Religion Foundation complaint, Decatur City Schools in Alabama will ensure that students are not required to recite prayers in the future.
During a grandparents' day event on Sept. 11 at Walter Jackson Elementary, a kindergarten teacher led students in the prayer, "Thank You for the World So Sweet," in front of their assembled guests. The students had been taught the prayer with hand movements to accompany each line.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote Superintendent Ed Nichols on Oct. 29, pointing out that not only have the courts struck down prayers in school, but one court even specifically struck down "Thank You for the World So Sweet" even after the school removed the words "God" and "Amen" from the prayer.
William E. Shinn, Jr., attorney for the school district, admitted that FFRF's account of the prayer was "substantially correct." Shinn said the district would "start by providing principals additional education on constitutional restrictions relating to school prayer," and that the principals would be directed to make a similar presentation to staff members.
A long legal challenge by FFRF Life Member Carole Beaton paid off in November as the City Council in Eureka, Calif., voted unanimously to eliminate prayers to start its meetings as of Jan. 1. Attorney Peter Martin filed a lawsuit in January 2013 on Beaton's behalf to get the council to stop praying and to stop Mayor Frank Jager from using his position and city resources to promote his annual Mayor's Prayer Breakfast.
City officials wouldn't say if the change was due to the suit. "I don't think the city wants to give us the satisfaction of having been right on this one," Martin told the Eureka Times-Standard on Nov. 20.
The city agreed to a September 2014 settlement that barred use of its resources, city seal and the title of mayor to promote or support prayer breakfasts and paid the plaintiff $16,500 for attorney's fees.
Students at Mansfield High School in Mansfield, La., are no longer being subjected to prayer each day at mandatory morning assemblies.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the Desoto Parish School System in August 2015 objecting to the school's practice of selecting a student to lead the prayer, which was projected to all students in the room. Students were also reportedly required to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
"The Supreme Court has continually and consistently struck down prayers offered at school-sponsored events, even when led by students," Grover said. A public school "must not organize a means for students to promote a decidedly religious message to a captive student audience, thereby isolating and excluding those students who are non-Christian or nonreligious."
On Nov. 19, FFRF's complainant confirmed that a moment of silence had replaced the prayers, and no students were being forced to stand for the pledge.
Dallas County Schools in Selma, Ala., took action to end prayers over the loudspeaker before football games after hearing from FFRF.
FFRF sent the district a letter on Sept. 30. "The Supreme Court has specifically struck down invocations given over the loudspeaker at public school athletic events, even when student-led," wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover, citing the 2000 case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe. "Like the prayer practices in Santa Fe, the prayers at Dallas County High School football games are also inappropriate and unconstitutional."
Christmas Y. Green-Williams, Dallas County Schools attorney, wrote a response on Nov. 17, noting that the school had updated its policies to reflect the state of the law. "We appreciate any individual or organization that makes us aware of an alleged violation" of the law, Green-Williams said.
Prosper (Texas) High School Principal Greg Wright will no longer participate in See You At The Pole, an annual Christian student prayer event, after hearing about the issue from FFRF. Wright's involvement in a religious student club is also ending, and a cross and plaque about God displayed by an assistant principal have been removed.
FFRF notified Prosper Independent School District Superintendent Drew Watkins of these constitutional violations in a letter on Sept. 28. "It is important that PISD staff members understand that, as government officers and state actors, their personal rights of free exercise and free speech are not unlimited," said Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. He pointed out that even See You At The Pole's official website acknowledges that it is illegal for adults to lead the gatherings.
In addition, damning admissions on Facebook that Wright was founding a First Priority Club for students meant any claim that the club was student-led as required by law was "disingenuous," said Seidel. Also, "Public schools may not display religious messages or iconography," the letter stated.
On Oct. 14, an attorney for the school district informed FFRF that all complaints had been resolved. Principal Wright will not speak at future See You At The Pole events or form the First Priority Club, and school officials will no longer display religious materials in the school. (See student activist on page 8.)
Geary County Schools in Kansas will no longer allow Gideons to distribute bibles following an FFRF complaint. FFRF first dealt with this issue in 2012, but it resurfaced this year. FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a request for records on distribution policies on Nov. 6. Prompted by the records request, parent action, and an additional complaint from the American Humanist Association, the school district’s attorney sent written assurance on Nov. 13 that the district would “no longer facilitate the Gideons in distributing bibles in our school district.”
The Greece (N.Y.) Central School District Board voted 5-4 against a proposal Nov. 10 to consolidate polling sites from 11 elementary schools to two churches and a fire station. The proposed church sites were at Our Mother of Sorrows Catholic Parish and Hope Lutheran Church.
Linda Stephens, FFRF Life Member and co-plaintiff in Town of Greece v. Galloway, alerted FFRF to the proposal Nov. 10 and spoke against it at the public hearing that night. Four residents spoke against the plan. No one spoke in favor.
A school district release said: "Some were concerned consolidation could make it more difficult for voters to get to the polls; others feared voting at non-school sites could influence the vote."
Stephens commented to FFRF legal staff after the meeting: "Maybe speaking out at public hearings does work sometimes?"
FFRF took no action due to late notice about the proposal and because the board voted it down but will continue to monitor the situation.
Teachers within Plaquemines Parish Schools in Louisiana will no longer force students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance after FFRF wrote two complaints on behalf of a Belle Chasse High School student.
Previously, students who refused to stand had been informed they were required to stand, taken out of class, and punished. In addition, prayers at football games, Veterans Day events, and other school events will not occur in the future.
"Students must not be singled out or punished in any way for choosing not to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance," wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover in a letter on Oct. 1. "The Supreme Court ruled over seventy years ago that compelling a student to recite the Pledge and salute the flag infringed upon a student's First Amendment rights."
Superintendent Denis Rousselle called Grover on Oct. 7 and said that he "took care of the situation" immediately after receiving FFRF's letter. Rousselle said he would not tolerate students being punished for exercising their free speech rights, even though he doesn't agree with the decision.
Grover wrote about the unconstitutional prayers on Nov. 6. "While it is laudable for Belle Chasse High to organize an assembly to honor veterans, it is unconstitutional to allow any religious message or prayer to be part of a school-sponsored event," he said.
Rousselle responded by email on Nov. 9, telling Grover that the district would no longer include prayers at school events.
The Windsor Board of Education in Illinois will no longer pray at its meetings after getting a complaint from FFRF. Local clergy typically led the Christian prayers.
"It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings," wrote Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in a Nov. 2 letter. "Federal courts have struck down school board practices that include this religious ritual."
Superintendent Gavin Sronce told FFRF on Nov. 6 that the school board would not include prayer at its next meeting, and said that although the board had not yet discussed the topic at a meeting, he anticipates the board would permanently cease the practice.
Religious posts from school come down
Facebook posts and pictures promoting a See You At The Pole event at Kings Manor Elementary School in New Caney, Texas, have been removed after FFRF complained in a letter.
One post invited readers to join "us" for See You at the Pole, describing it as a time to "pray with our children." A photo of the event showed adults holding students' hands in a group prayer.
"Any religious events in any of the district's schools must be entirely student-initiated and student-run," Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote in a letter to the New Caney Independent School District. "When a school district promotes religious events to its students, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message."
An attorney for the school district responded on Nov. 9, informing FFRF that the posts had been removed.
Seniors at the city of Chandler Senior Center in Chandler, Ariz., will no longer be subjected to prayers at meals after FFRF got involved. A senior center employee had led the prayers in the past, and later started selecting a member of the audience to do so. “Federal regulations prohibit senior centers receiving federal funding to engage in religious activities at government-sponsored functions such as senior meals,” wrote Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne. “The center cannot engage ‘in inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction, or proselytization.’ ”
FFRF’s complainant reported on Oct. 29 that the center had replaced the prayer with a moment of silence.
A third Prattville Primary School teacher has been stopped from praying with students after FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover ensured that two praying teachers at the school were educated on the Constitution in February. FFRF’s local complainant reported in September that a third teacher was also praying with students before lunch.
“Needless to say, we are concerned about how quickly Prattville Primary has had this same issue resurface,” Grover wrote to the Autauga County School District’s attorney. “Given the district’s earlier representation that Prattville Primary administrators had addressed this issue, we would expect all school employees to be aware of their obligation to remain neutral on matters of religion.”
Attorney James R. Seale wrote back to FFRF on Oct. 26. The principal “addressed your concerns with the staff at Prattville Primary School,” wrote Seale. “I trust that your concerns will have been resolved and I do not anticipate you will receive any additional complaints.”
The McConnellsburg, Pa., school district has banned the Gideons from repeating the unconstitutional distributions of bibles in the future after FFRF alerted the Central Fulton School District of the illegal act.
Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote a letter on Oct. 15 objecting to Gideons roaming the halls at McConnellsburg Elementary with a cart of bibles and Principal Alicia Mellott's statement to students that anyone interested could take a bible.
Superintendent Dixie M. Paruch wrote to Cavell on Oct. 21 saying that the Gideons would not be distributing bibles in the school district in the future.
After receiving a letter from FFRF, a teacher at Indian Springs Elementary in Blountville, Tenn., has removed a sign from her classroom that read, "I can do all things through God who strengthens me."
The Sullivan County Schools District "violates the Constitution when it allows its schools or public school employees to display religious symbols or messages," said Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert on Oct. 6. "This display alienates those nonreligious students, families, teachers, and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted by the school."
Director Evelyn Rafalowski informed FFRF by email on Oct. 19 that the bible verse had been removed.
The Bienville Parish Schools in Arcadia, La., will ensure that schools do not allow Gideons to distribute bibles to students after FFRF alerted the district to the constitutional violation. Members of the evangelical Gideons group passed out bibles to Crawford Elementary School students on Sept. 22, physically placing a bible on each student's desk.
"When a school distributes religious literature to its students, or permits evangelists to distribute religious literature to its students, it entangles itself with that religious message," wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover in a letter to Superintendent William Britt.
Britt assured FFRF on Oct. 19 that he would "meet with school principals/administrators to insure compliance with court decisions regarding the distribution of Bibles in public schools."
On Aug. 26, 2015, Little Elm High School in Texas began a pep rally with a prayer from the pastor of a local church, but it won't happen again after FFRF got involved.
An Aug. 27 letter from Staff Attorney Sam Grover reminded the Little Elm Independent School District that it is unconstitutional for a school to invite a preacher, or anyone else, to lead a prayer at a school event.
Superintendent Lowell Strike told Grover on Oct. 16 that he had discussed the matter with the planners of the pep rally and "ha[d] been assured this will not be repeated in the future."
Audubon Park Elementary School in Florida will no longer coordinate signups for the Good News Club, an evangelical Christian children’s group, after FFRF filed complaints with the Orange County Public Schools, one of the largest school districts in the country.
FFRF has lodged many complaints and even filed a lawsuit against OCPS over the past several years. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent the latest letter on Sept. 23 to the district’s two attorneys objecting to a permission slip from the Good News Club, which directed students to return the form to an assistant principal at the school.
“When school employees collect registration forms for a religious club, that teacher appears to endorse that club,” Seidel said.
Attorney John C. Palmerini informed Seidel on Oct. 12 that the principal would no longer facilitate registrations for the Good News Club.
The Houston County (Ala.) Sheriff's Office has removed Matthew 5:9 "Blessed are the Peacemakers" decals from patrol cars. Staff Attorney Sam Grover informed Sheriff Donald Valenza in late July that the display "undermines the credibility of the sheriff's office in the eyes of the nonreligious and minority religious citizens."
According to an Oct. 8 Dothan Eagle news story, County Administrator Bill Dempsey advised Valenza to remove the stickers. "Of course neither the commission or anyone here supports that request, however we contacted our liability insurance carrier and their attorneys said if we take this to court they said we're going to lose," Dempsey said. "The county would be looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses."
"We're disappointed the county is only doing the right thing to avoid a losing lawsuit, but are very pleased to secure this victory on behalf of our Houston County members and supporters," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State had also lodged complaints.
Several Oregon public schools will no longer be performing during a holiday chorale concert at a Catholic shrine. Local families alerted FFRF in 2013 about numerous public school districts that scheduled students to perform during the Festival of Lights event in Portland at the 62-acre Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, aka "The Grotto."
In his December 2013 complaint letters to 24 school districts, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel said the issue is twofold: "They're taking students to a church, and courts have said schools can't do that. The second reason is that The Grotto is making money off the backs of public school children." The facility, run by the Servite Friars, charges for parking, money which goes to fund religious activities.
"The stage is also flanked by two religious statues, one on either side," noted Seidel. "Murals depict different moments in the life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Via Matris or seven sorrows of Mary, and the massive center mural is named 'the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mother in heaven.' Visitors sit in pews marked with crosses and the building is crowned by a golden dome and cross."
Jollee Patterson, Portland Public Schools general counsel, sent an email to administrators in September: "Even if PPS singing groups perform songs from a variety of religious traditions, the strongly religious setting during the Festival of Lights could create a perception that the school is endorsing and supporting a particular religious tradition."
Of the 24 districts contacted by FFRF, it appears that five (Aberdeen, Bend-LaPine, Longview, Washougal and West Linn-Wilsonville) did not participate in the 2014 concert.
FFRF sent follow-up letters Oct. 23 to districts that have not complied.
A kindergarten teacher at Arab Primary School in Arab, Ala., will no longer lead students in prayer after FFRF sent the superintendent a letter of complaint.
The teacher lined up the students before lunch and made them recite, "God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for this food. By his hands, we all are fed, give us Lord our daily bread. Amen." Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Arab City Schools Superintendent John Mullins on Sept. 25 objecting to this practice. "Public school teachers may not lead their students in prayer, encourage students to pray, participate in student-initiated prayer, or otherwise endorse religion to students."
On Oct. 1, Mullins informed FFRF that "a brief investigation into this matter confirmed the validity of the complaint. We have corrected the situation and educated our kindergarten teachers to assure future compliance with the Establishment Clause."
FFRF reminded the Kenmore High School football coach in Akron, Ohio, about school policies on the promotion of religion after his comments at an event at which the team received a gift of new uniforms.
A complainant alerted FFRF to Coach Kemp Boyd's religious comments such as talking about "honoring God with your abilities."
"These comments raise concerns about Coach Boyd crossing the constitutional line while he's acting in his official capacity as a public school representative," wrote Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in an Aug. 21 letter.
General Counsel Rhonda Porter replied Sept. 29, noting that she met with Boyd and reviewed school policies. "Coach Boyd assured me that he fully understands the importance of keeping his personal religious beliefs separate from his duties as a coach," Porter said.
Bible verses posted by school officials have been removed from Germantown High School in Madison, Miss., following an FFRF complaint.
A note reading "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters. Colossians 3:23" and signed "Your assistant principals Syl Burrell & Nason Lollar" was posted on the high school gym doors.
"This is an egregious violation of the Establishment Clause and of students' rights," wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover. The school district "must ensure its employees are not unlawfully promoting their personal religious beliefs to students by using its schools as a platform to proselytize."
In a letter of response on Sept. 29, an attorney for the school district denied that a constitutional violation had occurred, but noted that the message had been removed and said the district would "monitor any messages left in the school and remove any message that is proselytizing for any particular religion."
The Frisco (Texas) Independent School District removed a display reading “Pray more, worry less” from the Roach Middle School front office after getting Staff Attorney Sam Grover’s letter Sept. 11.
The district informed FFRF on Sept. 25 that the display was removed from public view.
San Diego public libraries, typically open on Sundays, will no longer close on Easter. "Easter is neither a federal holiday nor a California state holiday," wrote Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a June complaint letter. "As a matter of policy, the library should remain open on Easter to continue to provide San Diego residents with library services, as it does on [other] Sundays."
Library Director Misty Jones notified FFRF on Sept. 29 that all San Diego libraries would remain open on Easter Sundays.
A religious poster has been taken down from a sixth-grade teacher's classroom in Texas after FFRF contacted the school district.
A teacher at River Valley Intermediate School in Woodway, Texas, had a large poster in his classroom reading "In God We Trust," which also included a bible verse and a proselytizing advertisement: "If you would like to know Jesus as Lord and Savior, call Need Him Ministry at 1-888-NEED-HIM."
"The District violates the Constitution when it allows its schools to display religious symbols or messages," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover in a letter to the Midway Independent School District. "A poster promoting Christianity violates this basic constitutional prohibition by creating the appearance that the District prefers religion over nonreligion and Christianity over all other faiths."
"The poster in question has been removed from the classroom so that the biblical verse and proselytizing advertisement noted in your correspondence can be removed," wrote Superintendent George E. Kazanas in a Sept. 21 reply.
Prayer will no longer be included in employee meetings in the Dickinson Independent School District in Texas after FFRF sent a complaint letter to the school district.
A district employee informed FFRF that a mandatory teacher in-service training included Dickinson High School principal Billye Smith asking all employees to stand while she prayed.
"Federal courts have held that mandatory meetings for government employees cannot promote religion and specifically that school districts cannot include prayer during teacher in-service trainings," wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover on Sept. 3.
An attorney for the school district informed Grover on Sept. 16 that the district has advised all campus administrators that leading prayer at staff meetings is unconstitutional.
Future "Super Fun Day" events, Special Olympics-style events held at Neal High School in Brewton, Ala., will be free from prayer after FFRF contacted the school district. At the 2015 event, students, staff, volunteers and participants were asked to bow their heads while a prayer was given in Jesus's name.
"It is unlawful for any school-sponsored event to include prayer," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover in a letter to Escambia County Schools Superintendent John J. Knott. "The district has a duty to remain neutral toward religion. By including prayers at an event sponsored for its own students, the district abridges that duty and alienates the one in three young Americans who are not religious."
On Sept. 15, Superintendent Knott informed FFRF that he had directed that future district-sponsored events were not to include scheduled prayer.
Because of a letter sent by FFRF, Teutopolis Community Unit #50 Board of Education will no longer open with a prayer.
In a letter sent Aug. 28, Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote, "It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings. Federal courts have struck down school board practices that include this religious ritual."
Superintendent Bill Fritcher, who often led the prayers, responded on Sept. 15, the entire body of his letter reading: "Teutopolis Unit #50 will discontinue starting school board meetings with a prayer."
After FFRF protested, Haysville Public Schools in Kansas removed a print of Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" from the cafeteria of Nelson Elementary School.
"As you are certainly aware, the display of religious messages in the school setting violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment," Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the school district. "When a district promotes religion over nonreligion, it impermissibly turns non-believing students, parents, and staff into outsiders."
Donna L. Whiteman, attorney for the school district, informed Seidel on Sept. 14 that the print had been removed.
At the Iberia High School (Mo.) graduation in 2015, a reverend gave a heavily Christian invocation and benediction. Thanks to the FFRF, this constitutional violation will not recur.
"The Supreme Court has settled this matter—high school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott. "It makes no difference how many students 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.'"
The Iberia R-V School District published a statement on Sept. 10 acknowledging that, despite the opinions of the board members and administrators, it was obligated as a public entity to "follow the directives of the Supreme Court." The district also noted its duty to be a good steward of its funds, and not use taxpayer funds on unnecessary lawsuits.
A painting of Jesus was removed from Altizer Elementary School, Huntington, W.Va., just five days after Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent the school district a complaint letter. Cabell County Schools Superintendent William Smith informed FFRF on Sept. 8 that the picture had been taken down, adding that the district was conducting a sweep of all facilities “to make sure all are in compliance.”
The city of Ocala, Fla., has in the past used its discretionary fund to give grants to churches. Last year, the Ocala City Council provided a grant to First Presbyterian Church to repair its steeple. This year, St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church requested $10,000.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter to City Attorney Patrick Gilligan, noting that such grants violate the U.S. and Florida constitutions. The Florida Constitution says, “No revenue of the state . . . shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church.”
While maintaining he disagreed with FFRF’s position, Gilligan responded Sept. 8 that the council withdrew funding for St. Paul AME from its budget.
After more than a year of stonewalling, Ward Melville High School, Setauket, N.Y., finally gave a student permission to start a Secular Student Alliance chapter. FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to the district July 23 urging them to stop violating the Equal Access Act and let the club form.
Thomas Sheedy, who had tried for two years to start the club, planned to go to the Three Village Central School District board meeting in September to protest the denial, but got word of the club’s acceptance shortly before the meeting. He attended anyway to thank administrators for approving the group.
Thomas will speak at FFRF’s annual convention and receive the $5,000 Beverly and Richard Hermsen Student Activist Award.
FFRF has ensured that prayers will not be given during future mandatory faculty meetings in the Montgomery Independent School District in Texas. The school district had brought a Christian pastor to give a prayer at an Aug. 18 employee meeting, and the dean of academics also offered a prayer.
"Federal courts have held that mandatory meetings for government employees cannot promote religion," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote. "This type of religious endorsement unfairly isolates non-Christian and nonreligious employees and could also be perceived as workplace harassment."
A response from the superintendent on Sept. 8 said that the district "has addressed these incidents with the appropriate personnel and have taken steps to be proactive in training our administrative staff on the complexities inherent in protecting the constitutional principle of separation between church and state."
A teacher at Colonial High School in Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools will no longer have a leadership role in CONFRA: Hispanic Christian Action, a religious club, following involvement into the issue by FFRF.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote the district on Aug. 27 about the teacher's conduct. She posted on Facebook in Spanish: "I'm super happy and grateful to God because it pleases Him to use me as His instrument, placed in my heart to open a CONFRA at the school where I work . . . For the first meeting I invited 14 young leaders to start and they all came."
"As you know, the district cannot allow its faculty to form religious student groups, or to participate in religious exercises with students," Seidel wrote.
In a Sept. 8 response, OCPS attorney John C. Palmerini told FFRF that the teacher had been informed that she cannot participate in the club's activities.
Texas school's social media secularized
Staff at the Lake Dallas Independent School District will no longer promote religion on official school district social media pages after FFRF contacted the district regarding the issue.
A student reported to FFRF that the school district's Twitter feed had re-tweeted a prayer. "Public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover reminded the district. "The district must make certain that it does not unlawfully endorse religion, either in the classroom or through social media."
"From this point forward, I will ensure that staff is better educated in the subject through more thorough professional development sessions and public school law sessions," wrote Superintendent Gayle Stinson in a Sept. 14 response. "Our goal is to provide an inclusive environment for all students."
A teacher in the school district of Perquimans County in Hertford, N.C., will no longer be permitted to lead her first-graders in prayer after FFRF contacted the district and informed it of the constitutional violation.
Susan Jordan, first-grade teacher at Perquimans Central School, previously led her class in prayer every day before lunch. "Public school teachers may not lead, direct, or ask students to engage in prayer," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott on Sept. 2. "The School District of Perquimans County has an obligation under the law to make certain that 'subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion,'" wrote Elliott, quoting a Supreme Court case.
The school district's attorney, Richard A. Schwartz, promptly informed FFRF on Sept. 4 that the superintendent had investigated FFRF's allegations and met with the teacher. "School officials are confident there will not be any further problems," Schwartz said.
Blount County School District in Oneonta, Ala., did not offer a bible study elective class for the 2015-16 school year after FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel lodged a complaint about the unconstitutional class.
The class was taught by a teacher and a local Baptist pastor. Class topics included "How we got the bible; Doctrine issues and how they apply to the bible; How to find Christ in the Old Testament — How the Old Testament relates to the New Testament." The translation used in the class was described as providing "the most recent evangelical Christian bible scholarship."
Seidel quoted the 1948 Supreme Court case McCollum v. Board of Education, in which the court wrote, "Here not only are the state's tax-supported public school buildings used for the dissemination of religious doctrines. The State also affords sectarian groups an invaluable aid in that it helps to provide pupils for their religious classes through use of the state's compulsory public school machinery. This is not separation of Church and State."
The district's attorney, Donald B. Sweeney, Jr., informed Seidel on Sept. 2 that the class was discontinued for the following school year.
Teachers in the Tishomingo County Schools in Iuka, Miss., have been reminded that they cannot participate in religious activities with students. A parent informed FFRF that on the first day of school this term at Tishomingo County High, faculty joined students at the flagpole to pray. Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter Aug. 21 that quoted a federal court ruling: “If while acting in their official capacities, employees join hands in a prayer circle or otherwise manifest approval and solidarity with the student religious exercises, they cross the line between respect for religion and the endorsement of religion.”
Attorney Nathaniel Clark wrote back Aug. 28 to say that he personally hosted a discussion with high school staff to reiterate that they could not endorse any religious practice while on campus, adding that “mistakes, if any, [were] made in good faith and will be corrected immediately.”
Guthrie Upper Elementary School took down a cross in a classroom after getting Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s Aug. 26 letter to Guthrie (Okla.) Public Schools: “When a school erects crosses on its property, it unconstitutionally promotes a religious message, specifically a Christian message.”
An Aug. 27 response from Superintendent Mike Simpson said the cross had been removed.
The Collinsville (Texas) Independent School District will not schedule prayer at future graduation ceremonies. Staff Attorney Sam Grover in an Aug. 12 letter to the school district said, “Graduations are not the place for personal religious promotion, just as it would taint the occasion if a speaker promoted his or her personal political beliefs while speaking to those assembled.”
An attorney for the school district responded that future graduations would not include invocations or benedictions in order to comply with the law.