New Legal Successes
Gideons International representatives will no longer distribute bibles in the hallways of the Vocational-Technical Education Building of Warren High School in Warren, Arkansas, thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
During the 2011-2012 school year, at least two members of Gideon International were passing out bibles in halls of Warren High School. This clear violation of the Establishment Clause occurred during school hours. Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a March 5 letter of complaint to Superintendent Andrew Tolbert. "The Warren School District cannot legally allow its schools to be utilized by overreaching proselytizers. By permitting the distribution of bibles on school grounds the District is placing its 'stamp of approval' on the religious messages contained in the gideon bible," wrote Schmitt.
FFRF claimed victory over this issue on March 6. Assistant Superintendent Marilyn Johnson affirmed, "Our principals and the director of our technical school have been notified to discontinue the practice of Gideon Bible distribution."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has made secularism, not Christianity the "first priority" at West End High School in Gadsen, Ala. The Christian youth organization, First Priority, will no longer be allowed on campus during school hours.
Until FFRF's involvement, West End High School permitted First Priority adult representatives on campus during the school day. First Priority is "On Your Campuses to Reach and Disciple a Generation With the Love and Message of Jesus Christ." First Priority describes itself as "the people of God uniting together to make a positive impact in the lives of this generation." FFRF's complainants noted that the group addressed students on school grounds. West End High School promoted the group to students through its website.
FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to Superintendent Alan Cosby on Feb. 27: "No religious organization should have special access to proselytize during the school day at Etowah County Schools. It does not matter whether students have invited the First Priority ministers; students cannot be allowed to circumvent school policies simply because they desire Christian ministry during their lunch hour."
The School District responded to FFRF's complaint in a March 2 letter: ". . . all activities connected and concerned with the First Priority non-curricular student led group which may have taken place during the hours of school will no longer be allowed to take place during those hours."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has put an end to pre-game school football prayers in Lake Charles, La. No longer will a clergy member be asked to give a prayer over the loudspeaker at Sam Houston High School (SHHS) football games.
FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent an initial letter of complaint to Superintendent Wayne Savoy on Sept. 9, 2011. Schmitt pointed out that public high school events must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students. Since the prayers are announced via the loudspeaker and all in attendance are asked to join, a reasonable Sam Houston High School student would certainly perceive the prayer as school sanctioned.
After receiving an additional letter of complaint on Feb. 9, an attorney for the school district replied on Feb. 29. All school principals were told that they should not sponsor prayers at public high school football games. He also added, "we are confident that any of the situations that gave rise to your concern have been addressed. . ."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has prevented future Trinity High School (Bedford, Texas) classrooms from screening blatantly religious films.
During the month of January several classes viewed the film "Fireproof." It is FFRF's understanding that at least one student objected to the Christian content of the movie before it was shown. "Fireproof" chronicles the life of a Christian man who is forced to save his marriage by showing his wife the love of Christ. Within the movie the protagonist "recommits his life to God and uses God's helping hand to discover what it means to love his wife." In a Feb. 7 advisory letter, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt pointed out the "serious constitutional concerns" associated with the screening of this film to a captive audience of high school students.
FFRF further discovered that "Fireproof" is a product of Sherwood Pictures, the "moviemaking ministry." This production company is run by the Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., and is known for producing "Christian propaganda."
On Feb. 27, FFRF was notified by the school district's superintendent that the teacher was directed not to show the movie again. The superintendent added, "You can be assured that the movie is not part of any district curriculum."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has put a stop to overtly religious assemblies at Greenbriar Public Schools in Greenbriar, Ark.
In early February, Greenbriar High School condoned a Christian-themed assembly featuring speakers from a local rehabilitation facility, Renewal Ranch. FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Superintendent Scott Spainhour on Feb. 8, advising him to "immediately cancel any other scheduled Renewal Ranch assemblies and avoid inviting them into public schools in the future." Renewal Ranch identifies as a Christian organization dedicated to "restoring broken lives through Christ where men with addictions can develop a personal love relationship with Jesus and God will be glorified!"
Through its complainants, FFRF learned that five members of the Renewal Ranch were present at the assembly. The members blatantly used the event as a means to proselytize, making statements such as, "the road to salvation" and "Jesus Christ is the only way."
FFRF received a positive reply from Spainhour on Feb. 17: "In order to insure that the incident is not repeated, the building principal will require that in the future all speakers making presentations to the student body are directed to the school's policy regarding religion and instructed to follow the same."
The San Antonio Independent School District firewall provider, Fortinet, prevented students from accessing atheist and freethought websites on school computers, while allowing students to access religious websites. A student contacted FFRF after attempting to view blocked atheist sites. In a Dec. 9, 2011 letter, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote that this practice amounted to “viewpoint discrimination under the First Amendment because the filter treats information differently precisely because it relates to agnostic and atheistic viewpoints. The Supreme Court ruled school districts may not ban information based on ‘dislike of the ideas.’ ”
The District's Chief Information Officer responded on Feb. 16, in a memo stating, "Fortinet has taken steps to remove atheist websites from the classification of ‘occult’ to other religious or belief classifications." The District says that atheist and agnostic websites are now accessible to all students. It is not known what other sites Fortinet blocks for being categorized as "occult."
Southside High School in Elmira, N.Y., will no longer play religious holiday music during the month of December.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote to Southside Superintendent Joseph Hochreiter on Dec. 19, 2011, warning him of the serious Establishment Clause violation occurring at Southside High School. During the month of December, the high school would play intrusive religious holiday music non-stop in the halls. This practice took place everyday for the entire month. This overtly sectarian program was justified to "lift morale, especially for those underprivileged kids who don't get much of a celebration at home." Even the school's morning news program included carols.
Songs included, "Oh Holy Night, O Come Emmanuel and From a Distance." Even with classroom doors closed, the unlawful Christian music could still be heard from the hallway, and FFRF received complaints from those at the school.
FFRF requested that the practice of "blaring Christmas music in the halls of a public school" not recur in the future.
Hochreiter responded to FFRF's request on Feb. 13, confirming that religious songs would no longer be broadcast over the loudspeaker in December.
Pancho's Mexican Buffet in Euless, Texas, will no longer offer a special discount to patrons who bring in a church bulletin.
Before FFRF issued a complaint, Pancho's was in the habit of offering a 10 percent discount to church-goers. Customers were faced with both a counter and online advertisement of the promotion. Several secular customers were denied the discount without a copy of a bulletin in hand. Stephanie Schmitt, FFRF staff attorney, wrote to Pancho's on Nov. 10, 2011. Schmitt directly referenced the Civil Rights Act: "As a place of 'public accommodation' it is illegal for Pancho's to discriminate, or show favoritism, on the basis of religion."
After sending an additional letter of complaint, FFRF received word on Feb. 13 that the religious promotion signs were removed.
After receiving a series of complaints from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in Fort Myers will no longer deny witnesses their right to be sworn in with a secular oath.
During a March 2011 trial, a FFRF complainant was denied access to a secular affirmation. The witness had previously requested a secular affirmation be given, even though though this option was never offered. After several misunderstandings the witness was asked to "drop the issue" by his attorney for fear of biasing with his testimony. FFRF first took issue with this blatant state/church offense on June 20, 2011, in a letter to Judge Anne Conway. "The U.S. Supreme Court held that 'neither a State nor the Federal Government can constitutionally force a person to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion,'" wrote Stephanie Schmitt, FFRF staff attorney.
Any attempt to force a witness to take a religious affirmation is in direct violation of the Free Exercise Clause.
FFRF wrote two letters following its initial complaint in June. On Feb. 13, Conway replied: "Regarding the issue addressed in your letter, I have reminded the judges of the Middle District of Florida of the provisions of Fed. R. Evid. 603 and the Advisory Committee Notes concerning that rule."