New Legal Successes
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.
The city of Jonesboro, Ga., ended its unconstitutional involvement in Gospel Fest after getting an FFRF complaint letter. concert. While claiming that it disagreed with FFRF’s position, the city officially “relinquished sponsorship of the concert.”
The event was advertised with Christian imagery on the city’s Facebook page. Residents were encouraged to “enjoy some all night Saturday revelry in anticipation of a feverous day of Sunday worship and prayer.”
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel cited state and federal constitutional restrictions and court precedent that bar city participation.
Steven Fincher, attorney for the city, responded that the city had turned control of the concert over to two ministers’ groups, and noted that the city did not own the property or the stage where the concert was to be held. The city also removed all ads for the festival and informed residents by email of the new hosts.
Jonesboro, in central Georgia, has about 4,600 residents.
An ad for the Christian Community Center’s child care services has been removed from the South Lewis Central School District website. “Advertising for the CCC on the District website crosses the line because anyone viewing [it] would understand that the District endorses any organization given a section of the website,” wrote Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a complaint letter.
Superintendent Douglas Premo responded Aug. 17 that the offending material had been removed.
Keller (Texas) Independent School District’s mandatory employee meetings will not include proselytizing and employees who do not want to attend the meeting, which takes place in a church, can attend remotely.
At the most recent meeting, religious literature was distributed to employees and a pastor was allowed on stage to advertise the church’s ministries and to invite staff to attend services.
“If KISD permits a church to distribute religious pamphlets or gives a pastor time to promote the church’s services to a captive audience of employees during KISD-sponsored events, a reasonable employee will conclude that the district is endorsing religion,” Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote in a complaint letter Aug. 5. FFRF requested that staff meetings not take place in religious settings.
In an Aug. 17 response, school attorney Amanda Bigbee said the district would allow remote attendance for the upcoming meeting and religious speakers would not be allowed to speak or distribute religious literature.
Winchester Community High School in Indiana will no longer perform religious routines after getting an FFRF complaint lodged with the Randolph Central School Corp.
The band’s 2015 performance of “With Trumpets and Cymbals” was based on Psalm 150 and included a narrator reciting “Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary!” Stained glass props served as a backdrop.
“WCHS has a responsibility to ensure that performances by school-sponsored groups do not impermissibly promote religion over nonreligion or Judeo-Christianity over all minority faiths,” wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover.
Steven Murphy, attorney for the school district, “acknowledge[d] the concerns expressed in [FFRF’s] letter” and said that separation of church and state would be “considered and addressed on all future performances.”
The city of Elkhorn, Wis., will not put up a nativity scene on public land this December. Previously, a large nativity was displayed annually in Veterans Park and illuminated at night.
FFRF started objecting to the display in 2012. After FFRF asked to display its own banner this year alongside the nativity scene, Staff Attorneys Patrick Elliott and Sam Grover were invited to meet with attorneys for the city. The city then decided to move the crèche to a location on private property.
In response to the city’s action, FFRF withdrew its request to put up a freethought banner.
Hoover High School in the North Canton (Ohio) City School District can continue to rent space to Mission View Church, but the church will no longer be allowed to leave materials behind after services.
The church had left behind signs, brochures, offering envelopes and ads for a “crisis” pregnancy ultrasound center. “When a school allows a church to leave religious, proselytizing materials displayed on its property, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message, here a Christian message,” Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert reminded the district in a letter.
According to an Aug. 7 reply from attorney Mary Jo Shannon Slick, the superintendent told the church it needed to clean up the area after renting the space.
Murchison Middle School, Austin, Texas, removed religious content from its website after getting an FFRF letter. Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy also will no longer be allowed to host eighth-grade graduation prayer.
Jeff Sanders, Murchison athletic coordinator, had a section on his Austin Independent School District page titled “My Personal Testimony.” In it he wrote of “accept[ing] Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior when I was 9 years old.”
Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter June 9. An attorney for the school district responded July 22 that the district took FFRF’s concerns seriously and said the constitutional issues had been discussed with administrators.
Police Chief Steve Drumm will no longer post religious messages under the banner of the Zavalla, Texas, Police Department. Drumm had posted bible verses and a request for residents to “Pray For Your Pastor.”
“When a government organization or a government employee acting in his or her official role speaks, it is with the voice of the state,” said Staff Attorney Sam Grover in an Aug. 6 letter.
The next day, FFRF’s local complainant informed Grover that Drumm had changed the department’s Facebook page to be a personal page, despite claiming that “the Zavalla PD page has always been my own, and in no representation the city of Zavalla views, and feelings, I used it to keep the city informed on issues.”