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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.

1Hillsborough
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.

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

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