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Lead Us Not Into Penn Station:Provocative Pieces

National Convention

September 15-17, 2017



Published by FFRF

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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

1FriendsSeminary225LogoThe Freedom From Religion Foundation is shining a spotlight on an apparent case of a taxpayer-subsidized religious organization in New York City.

A concerned New York taxpayer contacted FFRF to report that the New York Quarterly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, a New York religious nonprofit, received government funds to expand its secular private school, Friends Seminary. The organization had signed contracts for those funds promising not to use any proceeds from the funds to advance religion. But the New York Quarterly Meeting and the Friends Seminary split into two separate entities in 2015, and, according to documents received by FFRF, the religious organization is now charging the school $775,000/year in order to use the new expansion — money that FFRF understands is being used to further the church's religious mission.

"This arrangement appears to violate both the New York Quaker Meeting's loan agreements and the Establishment Clause," states FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne. "In effect, it appears that the New York Quaker Meeting is using taxpayer-subsidized property as a source of church income." 

FFRF is writing to the two entities that have made bond agreements with the New York Quarterly Meeting — the NYC Industrial Agency and the Phoenix Industrial Development Authority — and to the Charities Bureau of the New York State Attorney General's Office. It is requesting the first two entities enforce their contracts by requiring the New York Quarterly Meeting to stop using proceeds of the bond funds for religious purposes, and FFRF is asking the Attorney General Office to investigate.

As the NYC Industrial Agency and Phoenix Industrial Development Authority are both aware, providing discretionary funds to the New York Quarterly Meeting that are used to advance its religious mission would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, FFRF adds. Government officials have an affirmative obligation to ensure that government funds are not used to advance religion.

"An organization cannot arbitrarily violate the terms of agreement under which it received public subsidies," says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. "Taxpayers of different creeds — and no creed — shouldn't be forced into subsidizing the religious activities of a sectarian church."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 members across the country, including 1,500-plus in New York. FFRF's purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

1FellowshipChristianAthletesLogoThe Freedom From Religion Foundation has made certain that a Wisconsin school district's employees will not take part in a student religious organization.

A concerned member contacted FFRF to report that the School District of Onalaska's employees were participating in the student religious club Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Onalaska High School. Local media reported that Josh Lichty, freshmen football coach and fifth-grade teacher at Northern Hills Elementary, and high school teacher Amanda Steele "participated in the discussions" about prayer with students at a club meeting in Steele's classroom. Lichty reportedly asked students "how and why they prayed," and counseled them that "a big step is praying before an event with your team. Then you as a team are playing for something bigger than a 'W'. What you are doing is showing His light everywhere." Lichty went on to recommend that students pray in the morning rather than getting extra sleep.

It is unconstitutional for district employees to participate in student religious clubs, even if those clubs meet during noninstructional time, FFRF reminded the district.

"It is well settled that public schools may not advance, prefer, or promote religion," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to district Superintendent Fran Finco. "Students are permitted to form religious clubs, but the district may not endorse, or appear to endorse, those clubs." 

To avoid the appearance of endorsing a religious club, the district may not allow teachers or outside adults to be involved in student religious clubs beyond a supervisory capacity, FFRF emphasized. Courts have maintained that "the preservation and transmission of religious beliefs and worship is a responsibility and a choice committed to the private sphere." When Lichty and Steele participated in Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings, they impermissibly appeared to endorse the religious club on behalf of the district.

FFRF asked for assurances that district staff would not organize or participate in any religious student clubs and requested that the club be assigned a new faculty sponsor.

FFRF's missive compelled the district to engage in a course correction.

The school district's attorney, Kirk Strang, called FFRF to say that the district has taken "curative action" by removing Lichty and Steele from their roles in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and instructing the club's new faculty advisors that they may not participate in the club.

FFRF is pleased that its intervention made a difference.

"We're delighted that due to us, the School District of Onalaska is now adhering to the Constitution," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We're always glad to alert officials to such violations."

This is FFRF's second victory in Onalaska this year. Earlier, the constitutional watchdog got a huge prayer display removed from a police station there

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Madison-based national nonprofit organization that works to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church. It represents more than 29,000 members had has chapters across the country, including 1,200-plus and a chapter in Wisconsin.

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