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Lead Us Not Into Penn Station:Provocative Pieces

National Convention

October 7-9, 2016

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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

The commissioners of a Tennessee county need to be thanked for stopping the giveaway of land to churches.

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners had repeatedly transferred land to churches for nominal sums under a Tennessee provision that permitted this for nonprofits. For example, the county conveyed eight parcels of land to Memphis' Kingdom Fellowship Baptist Church in 2012 and a further four parcels to the same church in 2015.

When FFRF informed Shelby County that it was violating both the U.S. and Tennessee Constitutions by its actions, county officials heeded FFRF's advice and suspended the land transfers for the time being. County commissioners need to be thanked for being willing to mend their ways, especially since they'll likely get blowback from the Religious Right.

CONTACT

Please contact the Shelby County commissioners to tell them they're doing the right thing. Urge them to make the moratorium permanent

TALKING POINTS

Personalize your statement if possible, or feel free to cut and paste the wording below.

Thank you for halting Shelby County's unlawful transfer of land to religious institutions. The Tennessee Constitution guarantees that no citizens may be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, and you're adhering to the national and state constitutions by halting the gifts of land to churches. The moratarium must be made permanent.

1shelbycountysealThe Freedom From Religion Foundation has persuaded a Tennessee county to stop giving away land to churches.

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners had repeatedly transferred land to churches for nominal sums under a Tennessee provision that permitted this for nonprofits. For example, the county conveyed eight parcels of land to Memphis' Kingdom Fellowship Baptist Church in 2012 and a further four parcels to the same church in 2015.

FFRF informed the county that it was violating both the U.S. and Tennessee Constitutions by its actions, no less than if it directly transferred taxpayer money to churches.

"The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from financially supporting churches," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote last month to Shelby County Chief Administrative Officer Harvey Kennedy. "The Tennessee Constitution also prohibits the county from financially assisting churches." 

FFRF advised Shelby County that county property should never be transferred to religious institutions for less than fair market value, since this sort of action forces taxpayers of all faiths and of no religion to subsidize a particular expression of worship.

Shelby County heeded FFRF's advice. In a recent response, Kennedy acknowledged that FFRF's letter had made it reassess its actions and that as a result, Shelby County was suspending the land transfers for the time being.

"Shelby County has considered the Foundation's request, in its letter to me dated June 15, 2016, for the county to make a change in the eligibility requirements for the conveyance of properties to nonprofit organizations," Kennedy replied. "The county will agree to issue a moratorium on conveying any county-owned property to a nonprofit religious organization until such time that we can obtain an opinion from the Tennessee attorney general's office or the law is more clearly defined to address what constitutes a community development corporation." 

FFRF welcomes the pause.

"We're glad that we were able to educate Shelby County officials on the inadvisability—and unconstitutionality—of donating land to religious institutions," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We urge them to make the moratorium permanent."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nontheist organization with almost 24,000 members all over the country, including more than 300 in Tennessee.

A guide to keeping schools secular.

1advantageacademy

Click here to watch the video. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is calling attention to a publicly funded Texas charter school chain’s multiple violations of the U.S. Constitution.

FFRF is requesting that the Texas Education Agency investigate Advantage Academy and take action to prevent its schools from endorsing Christianity to its students. If Advantage Academy is unwilling to operate as a public school in a manner consistent with the Constitution, FFRF asks that all of its current charters be revoked.

"The Texas Education Agency has an obligation to make certain that publicly funded schools and government subsidized teachers 'do not inculcate religion,' to quote the U.S. Supreme Court," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover writes in a seven-page letter to Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath. "The Supreme Court has recognized that 'families entrust public schools with the education of their children, but condition their trust on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family.'"

Allen Beck is a Christian evangelist and the founder of Advantage Academy. He is also an outspoken zealot who has placed his religious responsibility to proselytize and evangelize ahead of his responsibilities to the state of Texas, the Constitution and his students. He founded Advantage Academy in 1998 in order to bring Christianity and the bible "back" into public schools. He confirmed this view during a sermon at the Brazilian Christian Church last November. In the church's video, Beck describes his religious motivations for starting Advantage Academy and how he has thwarted attempts by the state and the Texas Education Agency to curtail the promotion of religion in his schools. During this sermon, Beck explains that he wants to put "the bible, prayer, and patriotism back into the public school system, legally." But he goes on to describe unconstitutional religious endorsement within the Advantage Academy curriculum. During his speech, Beck continually flaunts how he has deceived the state and the Texas Education Agency for years by claiming that Advantage Academy is not promoting Christianity. (Watch embedded video for details.) 

Beck also admits that Advantage Academy is teaching the bible to students, encouraging students to pray, and spreading misinformation about the foundations of American history based on the writings of widely discredited pseudo-historian David Barton. Additionally, Beck is adamant that Advantage Academy is "God's school" and that he acquired the school by "attacking the educational system."

The main point of his sermon, Beck sums up, is that everyone, no matter their position within the public school system, needs to be incorporating religion into their work and evangelizing.

Beck's sermon serves to substantiate what was already apparent in Advantage Academy's advertisements to parents: Advantage Academy is a Christian school receiving state funding as a public charter school in violation of the Establishment Clause. When Advantage Academy advertises its schools, it uses language and imagery to suggest that its students will receive a religious education.

And the school's actions speak louder than its advertisements or Allen Beck's words. Advantage Academy regularly promotes religious, and specifically Christian, events to students. For example, the school endorses the National Day of Prayer and displays it on the school calendar, endorses a religious baccalaureate service that takes place on the school's campus, and observes the exclusively Christian holiday Good Friday as a school holiday. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the state, and by extension any state-funded public or charter schools, from endorsing religion. All of these actions violate the Constitution.

Ironically, for Constitution Day in 2015, Advantage Academy invited Tim Barton—son of David Barton and representative of WallBuilders, an evangelical Christian group—to speak to its students. This event was also troubling because much of the "history" promoted by WallBuilders is fabricated, inaccurate or intentionally misleading.

In addition, Advantage Academy lists several faith-based organizations on its webpage. Among them is Heart & Home Ministries, a religious nonprofit organization that began a mentoring program called "Partnering Pals" in the spring of 2010. Teachers refer students to the "Partnering Pals" program so that those students can meet with a religious mentor at the school on a weekly or biweekly basis during lunch or another time scheduled with the campus secretary. The alliance between Advantage Academy and Heart & Home Ministries unconstitutionally entangles a public charter school with a religious ministry.

While it may be possible for an evangelical Christian to create and run a charter school that follows the law and remains religiously neutral, Allen Beck has neither achieved this result nor endeavored to do so. From the very beginning Advantage Academy was designed, advertised and operated as a Christian school. This, FFRF asserts, is impermissible.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is dedicated to the separation of state and church, with 24,000 nonreligious members nationwide, including almost 1,000 in Texas.

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