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Legal Advocacy Victories

Prayers before the annual homecoming parade halted in Texas (February 5, 2020)

Prayers before the annual homecoming parade have been stopped in the Conroe School District.

A Conroe community member reported that last year’s homecoming parade began with a prayer being read over the loudspeaker in Moorhead Stadium. This prayer was reportedly overtly Christian as it involved multiple invocations of the Lord. Some students were apparently required to attend this event.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the district’s general counsel and reminded the district that prayer at school-sponsored events is against the law. In a letter of response, the school’s attorney assured FFRF that it will forgo prayer at future parades, which historically had been held off campus by the parent booster club.

“Next year there will be no prayer at the Homecoming Parade, regardless of whether it occurs on or off school property,” the letter says. “If the booster club wants to solemnize the event, they can begin the event with a moment of silence.”

Coach-led prayer addressed in West Virginia (February 4, 2020)

Mineral County Schools in Ridgeley has committed to addressing complaints of coach-led prayer in the district.

A concerned district parent contacted FFRF to report that Frankfort High School Football coaches prayed with their players on the field after a game. FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Troy Ravenscroft reminding him that this conduct is unconstitutional and that the district has an obligation to remain neutral on religion.

Ravenscroft sent a letter of response, thanking FFRF for informing him of this violation and alerting FFRF that the district views this “as an opportunity to work with staff and athletic coaches on observing and upholding the First Amendment, its boundaries and its requirements.”

School will no longer have invocation in Louisiana (February 4, 2020)

Lafayette School District administrators have been reminded of district legal policies governing religion in schools after a student was scheduled to lead an invocation.

A district member reported to FFRF that Broussard Middle School scheduled a student to lead an invocation at its end-of-the-year ceremony. This student was apparently listed as the “master of ceremonies” on the event program and delivered a prayer that was Christian in nature, directed to “God” and ending with “Amen.”

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to the Interim Superintendent Irma Trosclair, urging the district to discontinue scheduling religious invocations at any future school-sponsored events.

The district’s Chief Administrative Officer Jennifer W. Gardner sent a letter of response to FFRF with assurances that the district has taken action to address the complaints.

Religious display removed from Texas public school (February 4, 2020)

A religious display has been removed from Montgomery Independent School District property.

A district community member informed FFRF that the receptionist at Montgomery High School had a Christian cross and a sign reading “pray, trust, wait.” on display in the school’s front office, a space frequented by students and community members.

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Beau Rees, requesting that the district make certain employees are not impermissibly endorsing their personal religious beliefs through religious displays on district property.

Rees informed FFRF in a letter of response that the display has been removed.

Council replaces prayer with secular message (January 30, 2020)

A West Virginia city council has replaced a routine prayer before meetings with a secular alternative following a complaint from FFRF.

A concerned Wheeling citizen reported to FFRF that each Wheeling City Council meeting began with a prayer. These prayers were reportedly led by City Council members, except one led by an outside minister.

FFRF wrote to Wheeling City Council drawing attention to the unconstitutionality of these invocations, since this amounts to an illegal endorsement of religion. Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals precedent prohibits government-led prayer of the sort that was practiced at Wheeling City Council meetings, FFRF pointed out.

“Prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive and the best solution is to discontinue invocations altogether,” FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Wheeling Mayor Glenn F. Elliott Jr. “Council members are, of course, free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way, but they should not worship on taxpayers’ time. The prayers exclude the 26 percent of Americans who are not religious.”

FFRF urged the City Council to refrain from starting meetings with prayer in order to demonstrate its respect for the diverse range of religious and nonreligious citizens living in Wheeling.

“We urge you to concentrate on civil matters and leave religion to the private conscience of each individual by ending the practice of hosting prayers at your meetings,” Johnson concluded.

On Jan. 30, the council heeded FFRF’s suggestion and removed the religious references in the invocation.

According to local news, “Wheeling City Council will shift to secular prayers before opening meetings.” At a recent meeting, one council member read a secular reflection before the meeting was called to order. Johnson also received confirmation from the city solicitor that the language of the invocation would not reference God moving forward.

“We commend the city council for taking seriously this recommendation,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor comments. “A local city body ought not to lend its taxpayer-funded time to religion by starting meetings with a sectarian prayer.”

Texas remedies violation at public high school (January 24, 2020)

A Texas public school district will properly charge a religious ministry for the use of its property per FFRF’s recent advice.

A concerned community member reported to FFRF that an event called “Fields of Faith” has been repeatedly held at the Sulphur Springs High School football stadium. This event is reportedly sponsored by a group called Illuminate Student Ministry.

FFRF submitted an open records request to probe this ministry’s entanglement with Sulphur Springs public schools. District policy seems to mandate that any outside group be charged a fee of $250 per use and that the group be required to sign a written agreement with the district. But since the district’s response included no applications, contracts or payment history between the ministry and the district, it appears that the Illuminate Ministry had been using district facilities free of charge without any written agreement, in violation of district policy.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the district urging it to address this violation. It is well-settled law that public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion. When a district allows a group special treatment on account of its religious leanings, it amounts to a clear statement of government endorsement of religion, FFRF pointed out.

“Public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion,” Johnson wrote. “Preferential treatment of faith groups unconstitutionally entangles the district with a religious message — here, a Christian message. This alienates those non-Christian students, teachers and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the religious messages being promoted by the church.”

If a public school district allows a religious group to use its property outside of official school time, it must require the ministry to pay to use the property as it would any other group. FFRF recommended that the district charge Illuminate Student Ministry the policy-mandated $250 per event and that it collect rental fees from the group for any instance it has used the property without paying.

In a letter of response, the district indicated to FFRF that it would follow its recommendations.

“We will retroactively charge Sulphur Springs First Baptist Church the appropriate fee, $250, for the 2019 Fields of Faith Event,” Superintendent Michael Lamb responded. “Furthermore, if the church or any other entity chooses to use our facilities to host this or any other event in 2020 or thereafter, we will execute a proper facility use agreement and charge the appropriate fee as listed in our schedule.”

FFRF commends Sulphur Springs Independent School District for swiftly taking action to remedy this issue.

Virginia public high school has removed a large prayer display (January 23, 2020)

A high school in the Wythe County Public School District in Max Meadows has removed a large prayer display from its lunchroom.

A concerned community member reported that Fort Chiswell High School was displaying a religious prayer on a large placard in its cafeteria that read: “Our Father: We thank thee for this food. Bless it to the nourishment of our bodies and our lives to thy service. Amen.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Wythe County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Jeffries, urging him to remove this sign. The school’s general counsel informed FFRF the placard had been removed in response to the complaint.

Poster advertising a religious camp in Minnesota removed (January 8, 2020)

A poster advertising a religious camp has been removed from public school property in Fergus Falls, Minn.

A district parent reported that a teacher at Fergus Falls Middle School had been promoting and endorsing a Christian camp to his students. The camp is called Camp Castaway and is run by a Christian youth ministry called Young Life. According to the complainant, the teacher had a poster promoting the camp hanging in his classroom, and regularly mentioned to students that he is a leader at the camp.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote a letter to Superintendent Jeff Drake, pointing out that displaying a poster for Young Life camp in a district classroom and promoting a Christian camp to students impermissibly creates the impression that the district is encouraging students to participate in this religious camp and gives the appearance that the district prefers religion over nonreligion and Christianity over other faiths.

Drake responded by email, informing FFRF that the district met with the teacher regarding the issue and that the poster has been “permanently removed from his classroom.”

Public school employees will remain neutral on religion in Texas (January 7, 2020)

The Lovejoy school district in Allen, Texas, has reaffirmed the need for employees to remain neutral on religious matters after a district parent reported that a school board members opened an official event with a prayer.

A district parent reported to FFRF that the Board of Trustees hosted a celebration and award ceremony for students from three of the district’s elementary schools. To open the event, then-Vice President Robbin Wells led the assembled students and their families in prayer. Attendees were reportedly instructed to bow their heads, before directing a prayer to Wells’ personal god — who, she made a point of clarifying, is Jesus.

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to Lovejoy Superintendent Michael Goddard and Board of Trustees President Chad Collins, reminding the district that it is unlawful for a school district to schedule prayer at school-sponsored events like this ceremony.

The district’s attorney responded in January to FFRF’s letters with assurances that the district “is committed to ensuring that any potentially inappropriate religious prayer sponsorship by Lovejoy ISD employees does not happen in the future.”

Religious display in Texas public high school removed (January 6, 2020)

A religious display has been removed recently from public high school property in Montgomery, Texas.

A district community member reported to FFRF that the receptionist at Montgomery High School had religious iconography on display at the school’s front office. Students and community members reportedly had business requiring them to approach the display, where they saw a Christian cross and a sign reading “pray, trust, wait.”

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to Montgomery ISD Superintendent Beau Rees, urging the district to cease impermissibly endorsing their personal religious beliefs through religious displays on district property.

The district sent a letter of response informing FFRF that the religious display has been removed.

“We want to assure you that the Montgomery Independent School District is committed to following the requirements of the First Amendment when it comes to the separation of church and state,” Rees wrote.