The Freedom From Religion Foundation is pleased to announce that its lawsuit against Shelton, Conn., has been successfully settled after the city halted its discriminatory policy.
FFRF, with local member Jerome Bloom, filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court, Connecticut, in March 2016, after the city refused to allow them to place a nonreligious winter solstice display in Constitution Park. Yet, the city had allowed the American Legion to place a religious display featuring "heralding angels" there every December for at least four years. FFRF sued over impermissible viewpoint discrimination.
The city had even deemed FFRF's proposed display "offensive to many." FFRF's display reads: "At this Season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."
The joint settlement agreement indicates the city agrees not to allow private unattended displays in Constitution Park. The city agreed that anywhere it "allows private parties to erect unattended displays . . . it will allow plaintiffs to erect a display in that park, without regard to the content or viewpoint . . . so long as plaintiffs' display complies with any neutral, written city policies regarding such displays."
It also formally stipulates that Huntington Green, an open space in the city, is a "public forum for private unattended displays."
Late last year, the city disallowed displays in Constitution Park, including the American Legion's angel display. It also permitted FFRF to place its winter solstice display in Huntington Park, where the city also permitted a Christian nativity display. Unfortunately, FFRF's sign was mutilated and destroyed.
The city also agreed to pay FFRF its filing fees and other legal costs of $936.50.
"We are pleased the city of Shelton will no longer discriminate against atheists and other nonbelievers in its public forums, and that it has closed the forum at Constitution Park," says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. Barker indicated that FFRF and Bloom will continue to erect a winter solstice display in Huntington Green as long as religious displays are put up, and added: "We question that it's truly a public forum if dissenting points of view are vandalized. We'll be back in December, but will be asking for additional protection of our display."
FFRF warmly thanks Jerome Bloom for making possible the legal victory.
FFRF was represented by attorney Laurence J. Cohen, of Springfield, Mass., with FFRF Attorneys Elizabeth Cavell and Ryan Jayne, who is FFRF's Eric Stone Legal Fellow, serving as co-counsel.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is cautioning a school board in W.Va. about hiring a theocratic organization to litigate on its behalf.
FFRF filed its first lawsuit of the year last month against Mercer County Schools, W.Va. to end egregiously unconstitutional "Bible in the Schools" classes in the county. The high-profile challenge was recently featured on "CBS This Morning." The Mercer County Board of Education voted this Tuesday to hire the First Liberty Institute as the defending law firm.
In spite of its hyped-up claims, the First Liberty Institute has not fared well when it has tried to represent public schools.
In 2013, FFRF and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed a lawsuit on the behalf of local plaintiffs to seek removal of a portrait of Jesus from Jackson Middle School in Jackson, Ohio. The school district worked with the Liberty Institute, but to no avail. The court ordered the removal of the portrait, and the parties agreed to a financial settlement requiring the school to pay the plaintiffs a combination of damages and legal fees totaling $95,000.
Religious Right legal groups may promise to represent offending school districts free of charge, but taxpayers end up paying costs when the cases are lost.
There is strong likelihood that a similar fate awaits Mercer County. The breach of the First Amendment is obvious in the bible classes.
The curriculum is the equivalent of Sunday school instruction. Goals include developing a "positive attitude" toward biblical literature, "understanding the importance of the Ten Commandments," and "harmonizing the four gospel accounts of the last days of Jesus."
The bible instruction, taught by itinerant teachers who possess "a degree in Bible," begins in first grade. Classes are held in 15 elementary schools, one intermediate school and three middle schools. The classes meet weekly and last 30 minutes in elementary schools and 45 minutes in middle schools.
FFRF has won a court victory before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ending similar bible instruction in Rhea County (Dayton), Tenn., schools in 2004. Supreme Court precedent against such instruction dates back to the landmark McCollum v. Board of Education case decided in 1948.
"Mercer County will end up with a losing hand, whomever it hires to defend this indefensible violation," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "A win-win for all of us — including county residents — would be for officials to acknowledge the unconstitutionality of the bible classes and terminate them."
FFRF v. Mercer County Board of Education was filed on Jan. 18 in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of West Virginia, with Marc Schneider serving as primary litigating attorney and FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott as co-counsel. Joining FFRF as primary plaintiffs in the case filed were Jane Doe, an atheist and member of FFRF, and her child, Jamie Doe. The defendants are Mercer County Board of Education, Mercer County Schools, and Superintendent Deborah S. Akers.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a state/church watchdog organization with more than 26,000 nonreligious members all over the country, including in West Virginia.