Outreach & Events - Freedom From Religion Foundation
Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

In a motion filed today, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Indiana are seeking summary judgment in a lawsuit challenging an annual nativity performance at an Indiana public school. 

Each December for nearly half a century, the Performing Arts Department of Concord High School in Elkhart, Ind., has planned, produced, and staged several performances of a large event called the "Christmas Spectacular." One element has remained largely unchanged: School officials ensure that each show closes with a 20-minute depiction by students of the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. Through 2014, during this segment, students at the high school portrayed "the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men, shepherds, and angels, while staff read passages from the New Testament," notes the original complaint. Read the lawsuit here.

In December, a federal judge issued an injunction against the live nativity, ruling that the version performed for nearly 50 years was an unconstitutional religious endorsement. The plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment challenges the nativity enactment as it was modified during the 2015 "Christmas Spectacular," where the school substituted mannequins in place of live student performers. FFRF and the ACLU note that this modified nativity scene is no more legal or appropriate than the original show. "There is simply no support for the proposition that the constitutionality of a religious display or performance turns on a governmental entity's decision to employ live bodies," note the plaintiffs in their motion. Both versions exist solely to promote Christianity during a school-sponsored performance in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

While public schools may recognize and celebrate the secular aspects of winter holidays, they may not endorse or promote religious beliefs. Nor may they use school functions to coercively subject students to religious messages and proselytizing. But that is precisely what the Concord Community Schools system has done. The brave plaintiffs—a student who participates in the Performing Arts Department, three parents who have attended and will attend the event in order to support their performing children, and FFRF, a nonprofit membership organization devoted to maintaining the separation of church and state—are entitled to a permanent injunction barring all versions of the nativity enactment.

While Concord High School changed its performance in 2015, it did not cure the constitutional violations.

"Concord's argument that it has alleviated any appearance of religious endorsement through its passing references to Hanukkah and Kwanzaa is belied by the facts," notes FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover. "In reference to Hanukkah, the school corporation gave a 35-second introduction about the holiday and then had its chamber strings perform an entirely instrumental version of 'Ani Ma'amin', which is a Jewish piece, but not one that pertains to Hanukkah. For Kwanzaa, the introduction was 38 seconds and the song that followed was in a foreign language. By contrast, the portion of the show dedicated to Christmas lasted over 20 minutes and included nine devotional pieces, seven with English lyrics."

FFRF wants people to realize the problems caused by the introduction of religion into public schools.

"Generations in Elkhart have been misled by their school system to believe that it's OK for public schools to promote Christianity," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "The death threats against our plaintiffs and attorney and the community hostility are a direct result."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is dedicated to the separation of state and church, with 23,700 members nationwide, including more than 300 in Indiana.

FFRF has brought the suit in conjunction with the ACLU of Indiana and the national ACLU. Attorneys on the case include Sam Grover and Ryan Jayne of FFRF, Gavin Rose of the ACLU of Indiana, and Daniel Mach and Heather L. Weaver of the ACLU. FFRF v. Concord Community Schools, Case No. 3:15-cv-00463, is in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division.

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation has had an ex-con proselytizer barred from a Florida school district.

"After a national atheist organization issued a complaint, a Fellowship of Christian Athletes employee was permanently banned from Hillsborough County public schools, and all public high school sports coaches will be required to undergo special training next week," the Tampa Tribune reports

Hillsborough County Public Schools had allowed a Fellowship of Christian Athletes representative, David Gaskill, who has a criminal record, to interact and proselytize with its students without restriction. Gaskill had been involved with the district's sports programs since at least 2014 and appeared to be the schools' sports chaplain.

"Public school sports teams cannot employ, even on a voluntary basis, a spiritual leader or chaplain for their teams because public schools may not advance or promote religion," FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Jeff Eakins, superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools. "Furthermore, it is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead or allow someone to lead their teams in prayer." 

FFRF had asked that Gaskill be immediately disallowed from Hillsborough schools. There are serious privacy issues when schools let outside adults pose for "selfies" and pictures with students, including with their arms draped around shirtless students, FFRF contended. The schools also permitted Gaskill to meet with students in "intimate locker room" settings with no other adults present. Seidel's letter mentioned several examples and contained dozens of photos and posts that Gaskill had published on Facebook.

"This is one of the worst violations by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes that we've ever dealt with," Seidel said. "The schools have given Gaskill complete, unsupervised access to proselytize other people's children."

The school district swiftly reacted.

"We have suspended the Fellowship of Christian Athletes access to school campus, games and activities until they undergo a required training," Alberto Vasquez Matos, chief of staff for the Hillsborough County Public Schools system, wrote back to Seidel. "High school coaches will also attend a mandatory training outlining policies and procedures when working with community organizations and volunteers. Additionally, Mr. Gaskill will no longer be permitted on district campuses, games or practice." 

FFRF truly appreciates the school district's bold and decisive response.

"It's a matter of real concern that such a person was given free access to students," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We're satisfied that Hillsborough County Public Schools took immediate remedial action when we alerted the school district."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is dedicated to the separation of state and church, with 23,700 nonreligious members nationwide, including more than 1,200 in Florida and a chapter in the state.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is celebrating a Tennessee city's decision to allow an atheist invocation without interruption.

Back on Jan. 11, when Aleta Ledendecker delivered a secular invocation before the Oak Ridge City Council, she was cut off a little more than two minutes into her delivery. The minimum set time for such speeches is three minutes.

FFRF wrote to the City Council requesting that Ledendecker (an FFRF member) not be discriminated against and that she be allowed to redeliver her full invocation on some other occasion. The best solution, however, FFRF stressed, is to end the practice of legislative prayer altogether.

"Prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch and the City Council in January. "The city of Oak Ridge ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion by inviting religious leaders to give prayers. The prayers exclude the 23 percent of adult Americans, including more than one-in-three millennials, who are not religious." 

But if the Oak Ridge City Council insisted on having prayers at its public meetings, FFRF contended that the nonreligious and members of minority religions must be allowed to participate equally, too. It is illegal for the City Council to give less time to citizens because they are nonreligious or since a City Council member dislikes their message, FFRF said.

The Oak Ridge City Council heard FFRF's request loud and clear, recently informing the nontheistic organization that it was changing the process for selecting the invocation speaker and that Ledendecker would be invited back.

"Formerly, the city permitted the Oak Ridge Ministerial Association to designate who would give the invocation at the beginning of each Council meeting," City Attorney Kenneth Krushenski wrote back to Jayne. "Going forward, the city clerk, Mary Beth Hickman, will be responsible for this task." 

FFRF cheers the change.

"Our preference is for no prayers at all at the City Council meetings," says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. "But if there are to be prayers, then everyone should be treated equally."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a dedicated to the separation of state and church with 23,700 nonreligious members nationwide, including almost 300 in Tennessee.

1CreationMuseum
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is strenuously objecting to public schools in three states that have either made trips or are planning visits to the so-called Creation Museum.

Brookville High School in Dayton, Ohio, is coordinating an outing to evangelist Ken Ham's literalist tribute to the scriptures this Saturday, April 30. Big Beaver Falls Area School District in Beaver Falls, Pa., has approved a high school field trip to the site.  And Jackson City School, a  school in Jackson, Ky., has already undertaken a visit to the venue. 

The "museum" is a Christian homage to creationism with an explicit mission "to point today's culture back to the authority of the Gospel and proclaim the gospel message." At the location, there's a diorama of a human and a dinosaur together, implying that they existed simultaneously. Each display contrasts science with a literalist interpretation of the bible.

"Public schools may not advance or promote religion," FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler writes to Nicholas Subashi, legal counsel for the Brookville Local Schools. "Bringing students on a field trip to a religious venue is a blatant promotion of religion."

Such trips to sectarian institutions also exclude the non-Christian and the nonreligious, FFRF maintains. The fact that participation or attendance on these trips is voluntary is not a valid defense, since courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses constitutional violations.

The religious content of the Creation Museum would not be permitted if taught directly at these schools, since the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down the teaching of "scientific creationism" in public schools. And federal courts have consistently rejected creationism and its ilk in public schools. The organization of an educational trip to a venue propagating a creationist viewpoint therefore doesn't make sense.

FFRF is asking the school districts to cancel their upcoming trips to the Creation Museum and to refrain from scheduling and planning any such trips in the future.

"This is an outrageous misuse of our public schools, which exist to educate, not to miseducate and indoctrinate," says Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of FFRF.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a state/church watchdog organization with 23,700 members nationwide, including more than 700 in Pennsylvania, more than 600 in Ohio and almost 200 in Kentucky.

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Pittsburgh Attractions

1PittsburghAttractionsCheck out all that Pittsburgh has to offer

By Kim and Stephen Hirtle

FFRF is bringing this year's convention to Pittsburgh, Pa., on the weekend of Oct. 7–9, a city that has been garnering national and international attention for its quality of life and unique features.

Recent accolades for Pittsburgh:

  • Listed as one of the best places in the world to visit (Travel + Leisure).
  • Rated as the No. 1 food city in 2015 (Zagat).
  • Offers America's most stunning views (USA Today).
  • Listed as the "coolest American city you haven't been to" (Huffington Post).

Pittsburgh, with a population slightly more than 300,000, is also known for having more bridges than any city in the world, including Venice. The three main rivers — Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio — join downtown at Point State Park. Two inclines (funicular railways) dating back to the late 1800s take tourists and commuters up the side of Mount Washington, just as they did when steel was the main industry.

Downtown Pittsburgh, where the FFRF convention will be held, is known for its striking and varied architecture, notable restaurants and cultural amenities. The Andy Warhol Museum (named for a Pittsburgh native) and the Carnegie Science Center are just across the river on the North Shore. The Carnegie Natural History and Carnegie Art Museums are housed together, a short taxi or bus ride away, in the Oakland neighborhood, which is also home to Phipps Conservatory and two world class institutions: the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University.

Across the street from the Cathedral of Learning is the Carnegie Natural History Museum, known for one the largest collections of dinosaur fossils in the world, including the Diplodocus Carnegii, named in honor of Pittsburgh native and freethinker Andrew Carnegie.
For those seeking outdoor activities, there are bike rental locations downtown, with bike trails throughout the city and along the rivers. Kayak Pittsburgh operates on weekends in October, just a short walk from the hotel, and for a modest fee, you can get out on the Allegheny River for an hour or two of exercise with excellent views of the skyline and stadiums.

FFRF visitors are encouraged to check out Market Square, a large European-style plaza surrounded by 14 restaurants near the hotel.

Those coming to the conference a day early will have the opportunity to visit Fallingwater. Considered to be the most iconic of all of Frank Lloyd Wright's designs, the house was built on top of natural waterfall.

Stephen Hirtle is chair of the FFRF Executive Board and professor of Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Fallingwater Tour

After the tour of Fallingwater, there will be a reception from 3-5 p.m. with workshops and complimentary appetizers. Friday dinner is on your own. The formal program begins at 7 p.m. Friday, ending with complimentary dessert and hot beverages. The convention resumes Saturday morning with an optional Non-Prayer Breakfast at 8 a.m. The morning program starts at 9:30 a.m. After a two-hour lunch on your own, the program resumes at 2 p.m. An optional dinner banquet will be followed by evening speaker/entertainment. Annual meetings of the membership and the state representatives are Sunday morning, ending by noon.

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Photo: Courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Fallingwater

Friday, prior to the start of the convention, FFRF is hosting a tour of the impressive Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Fallingwater site. The $40 ticket includes admission to Fallingwater and round-trip coach bus transportation. There is also an optional, although highly recommended, box lunch available for $12. (The cafeteria is expected to be too busy to accommodate FFRF on this tight schedule.) The 43-mile route to the captivating Fallingwater is through scenic Pennsylvania countryside during the most beautiful time of the year. Buses depart from Wyndham Grand every 30 minutes beginning 7:50 a.m., with returns beginning 2:10 p.m. 

Extra rooms have been set aside at the Wyndham Grand for FFRF members for Thursday night for those interested in going on the tour. FFRF will provide tour times, tickets and other information with mailed convention registration confirmation. 

Important Visitor Guidelines

Site Challenges

The tour involves considerable walking and there are challenges on site, including 100 steps (not all at once) and uneven gravel paths on a 1/4 mile walk from the Visitor Center to the house. If you have concerns about mobility, vision or hearing challenges, please read the following details.

For more details about getting the most out of your visit, please see the Fallingwater website .

Check back soon for updates! Register today!

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