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Action Alert

FFRF asks DeSoto Supt. to retract defamatory comment & to educate, not proselytize

After reading FFRF’s follow-up letter (below), you may wish to contact Supt. Milton Kuykendall to reinforce FFRF’s legal complaint. After FFRF complained about the District’s practice of hosting prayers, mostly Christian, over loudspeakers to begin school sports events, the school board voted Tuesday to follow its 8-year policy of no school prayer. See background information.

But the superintendent has disparaged FFRF, parents are arranging to shout out the Lord’s Prayer en masse at tonight’s high school football match, the town is in a frenzy, and a religious website claims 15,000 have ordered T-shirts, “DeSota County prays.” Help educate!

You may also send letters to the editor to:

Letters to the editor – DeSoto Times (Ms.)

Letters to the editor – Commercial Appeal (Tenn.)

FFRF writes Desoto Superintendent

Aug. 26, 2011

Mr. Milton Kuykendall
DeSoto County Schools
5 East South Street
Hernando MS 38632

Re: Retract your defamatory and untrue comments

Dear Supt. Kuykendall:

It has come to our attention that you have issued widely-disseminated public comments of an untrue and libelous nature about the Freedom From Religion Foundation and our complaint over your District’s long-standing violation of imposing, hosting and broadcasting prayer at school functions.

The DeSoto Times Tribune reported on Aug. 24 that you issued a statement, quoted below:

“In my opinion, most people do not realize that this organization out of Wisconsin doesn’t really care if we have prayer in our schools. They see an opportunity to try and accuse us of breaking the law and therefore give them a chance to sue our district and win a law suit and take millions of our funds. This is money that is needed to pay teachers and educate our students.”

To say that FFRF doesn’t care about school prayer violations, that we opportunistically are looking to “take millions of your funds” needed to pay teachers and educate students is a patently untrue and disparaging statement, whose intent is to harm FFRF’s reputation as a public service organization. We ask for your immediate apology and retraction, and that you cease making such reckless, defamatory and untrue allegations against our organization.

FFRF is a 501(c)(3) educational charity whose vital and laudatory purposes include working to preserve and protect the Constitutional principle of separation between state and church. Since being founded nationally in 1978, we have diligently championed the rights of literally thousands of students and their parents. These cases involve public school districts that have unlawfully taken advantage of their civil authority to impose religion — whether prayer, religious instruction, bible creationism or other endorsements or promotions — upon a captive audience of impressionable and vulnerable students.

FFRF is directly contacted by our complainants, students, parents and residents, who are often afraid, understandably, of reprisal and need help to uphold their rights. FFRF does not go roaming the country looking for such violations. It was only in late 2008 that FFRF in fact was able to afford to hire its first staff attorney. It is our public and oft-stated goal to end all such violations without having to go to court, through education and persuasion. There is no need to reinvent the legal wheel over such clear-cut violations. It is our absolute mantra to public officials not to recklessly and irresponsibly endanger precious public resources by resisting such law, by continuing to misuse civil authority to illegally promote and endorse religion in the public schools.

Our small legal team is deluged with requests for help from students and parents around the country. As of this morning, for example, our small organization has already received more than 50 new complaints just this week about unlawful religion in public schools! That is quite an indictment of the poor job many superintendents and principals around the country are doing to uphold the law and the rights of personal conscience of students.

FFRF does not and has never made money, much less “millions,” in bringing litigation to halt illegal actions by irresponsible public officials who knowingly violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. When FFRF wins a decision in our favor, FFRF may be eligible for reimbursement for attorney fees expended in defending the Constitution, as is proper. FFRF never receives full reimbursement for all of its time, fees and other expenses related to litigation. We do not sue to make money, we sue to uphold the Constitution. We do not take lawsuits to raise money (unlike many religious-right law firms). We raise money in order to bring lawsuits, as a last resort, if we cannot otherwise end constitutional violations. We do not sue for damages (with the exception of one of our litigants, a dad, who once asked for and received symbolic damages of $1 and deserved far more). We do not sue to “take millions” of your funds or any other school funds.

But we consider the funds we must expend on the salaries of our non-litigation attorneys, other staff, and to hire litigation attorneys, when needed, as a necessary and essential investment in upholding the Constitution. We work to preserve Thomas Jefferson’s precious constitutional “wall of separation between church and state.” It is an investment in freedom, in defending the rights of citizens — including most especially students — to be free from government-imposed religion, as our U.S. founders intended.

In addition to requesting your immediate apology and retraction of your disparaging and untrue comments about FFRF, we would expect you to rise to the occasion by taking a leadership role in re-educating your community about the meaning and purpose of the Establishment Clause.

The hysteria greeting a decision by the school board to abide by settled law is a symptom of the fact that students, parents and your community have been victims of miseducation. At fault is your District, for its longstanding practice of scheduling and hosting prayers over the loudspeaker at school sporting events, permitting teachers to encourage students to pray at meals, and scheduling prayers, mostly Christian-based, at high school graduation ceremonies. The District through its example and its unlawful conduct have created a climate of ignorance and contempt for a precious constitutional principle that protects all citizens. The District’s actions, further, have fostered a climate of bigotry, which sends a message to “nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.” Justice O’Connor, Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. at 627.

You should not only be apologizing to our organization for your unwarranted smear, you should be apologizing to past graduates, parents and your community for your clear failure to do your job. The purpose of a public school is to educate, not to proselytize. This should be a “teachable moment,” not an occasion to continue to demonstrate contempt for the law and student rights. Your district should be explaining to students and parents what the law says, and why that law was adopted — to protect their rights of conscience, to ensure that the rights of parents to instruct their children in religion and religious ritual are not usurped, and to avoid the kind of spectacle it appears your community will put on tonight — a defiant spectacle that will intimidate, embarrass and ostracize nonChristians, Jews, other religious minorities, atheists and people who simply respect the need to keep our public schools free of divisive religion.

The courts have continually reaffirmed that the rights of minorities are protected by the Constitution. As the Supreme Court has said, “fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.” Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 304-305 (2000) (quoting West Virgina Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 638 (1943). “The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.” Barnette, 319 U.S. at 638. It makes no difference how many parents in the county want prayers at school events. They are free to pray privately or stop at the church of their choice to and from school events. Schools may not lawfully sponsor prayer. The Barnette ruling assured students and officials that their beliefs would be protected:

"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein." Barnette, 319 U.S. at 642.

May we suggest that you hold an educational assembly on this matter? We would be pleased to provide one of our staff to lead such an assembly. We would also suggest that the District arrange to have the student body watch the Peabody Award-winning documentary, “The Lord Was Not on Trial Here Today,” which was broadcast this year on many PBS stations. This film is about the first landmark Supreme Court decision against religious instruction in the public schools, McCollum v. Board of Education (1948), upon which all other Supreme Court decisions about devotional religion in the schools is based. The film features key players on both sides and shows the toll on school children when school districts improperly take sides on religion — a matter which should be left to parents, not schools.

It is important to realize that litigation against prayer and bible-reading in the public schools was typically brought by religious parents, often Roman Catholics, which was even the case in the Supreme Court’s most recent decision against devotions in schools, Santa Fe v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 308 (2000) challenging sports prayer. If you are going to have devotions, whose devotions? Which denomination, which church, which beliefs will be “blessed” by a school district? Inevitably, such actions exclude many students. In one such early case brought by Roman Catholic parents, Weiss v. District Board, a Supreme Court of Wisconsin justice wisely noted what the brouhaha in your District exemplifies:

“There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state, as religion. Let it once enter our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed. Let it once enter our common schools, they would be destroyed.”

Those who are not impressed by constitutional dictates should perhaps open their bibles and peruse the Sermon on the Mount, which attributes to their god, Jesus, these cautionary words (Matthew 6:5-6):

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

May we hear from you immediately?

Very truly,

Annie Laurie Gaylor

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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