New Legal Successes
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.
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.”