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Lead Us Not Into Penn Station:Provocative Pieces

National Convention

October 7-9, 2016



Published by FFRF

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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

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Tombstone created outrage in 1906

James C. Jewell, instructor at Illinois Valley Community College in Oglesby, Ill., wrote this in the late 1980s regarding Martin Jenners' grave marker:

"One of the most frequently visited graves in Indiana is that of Martin P. Jenners in Spring Vale Cemetery. Visitors come to the Tippecanoe County gravesite to see what Laurie Jensen, writing in the Lafayette Journal and Courier, called the inscription that is 'his unique legacy.'

"Jenners' 'My only objection to religion is that it is not true' is a defiant declaration of his beliefs. Jenners' statement created an outrage in turn-of-the-century Lafayette when his headstone was erected in 1906.

"Thirteen years before his death, Jenners had his headstone erected at Spring Vale Cemetery.

"In addition to his statement of objection to religion, Jenners had two biblical references inscribed on his stone. The first, 1 Cor. XV, 52, from the New Testament, reads, 'In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.'

"Apparently Jenners used the second biblical quotation, Is. XXVI, 14, from the Old Testament, to reveal a conflict in biblical teachings. The quote is as follows, 'They are dead, they will not live; they are shades, they will not arise; to that end thou hast visited them with destruction and wiped out all remembrance of them.'

"Jenners' stone ends with the almost alliterative command that 'No preaching, no praying, no psalm singing permitted on this lot.'

"Martin P. Jenners remains as unique and eccentric in death as he was in life."

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Meet a member: Stephen Gay

Name: Stephen Gay.

Where I live: Fountain Hills, Ariz., and part-time in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Where and when I was born: Houston in July of 1957.

Family: I am single, but have a wonderful sister, Patricia Williams and her family in Sonoma County. My deceased brother's wife and daughter live in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where I grew up. I moved my mom out to California four years ago as she is almost 90.

Education: Graduated from American Graded High School in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1975. Graduated from University of Texas with a degree in accounting in 1979.

Occupation: Airbus A320 Captain for American Airlines.

How I got where I am today: My father was a CPA with Price Waterhouse in Sao Paulo. I lived there until going off to college. Growing up in Brazil, I became fluent in Portuguese and have a passing knowledge of Spanish. I also became a big fan of soccer, and saw Pele play live on many occasions.

The other big advantage of growing up abroad was seeing another culture up close and how the "other half" truly lives. One of our homes was in a very nice neighborhood, but we had a small slum immediately on the other side of our property. (Zoning laws need not apply!) We came back to the U.S. every two years or so, and I came to appreciate why a lot people want to move here.

I followed in my dad's accounting footsteps, but my heart just wasn't in it. Dad, on the other hand, loved accounting like Mozart loved music. So I went and found something I liked doing and settled in on computer sales.

Flying has been my passion since I was a kid. Flying to the U.S. on Pan Am's iconic 707 Clipper Jets, and a fortuitous meeting with a Continental Airlines captain revived the dream after a few successful years in computer sales.

I finally made the break in 1989 and left to become a professional pilot. My path included five years as a flight instructor and charter pilot, followed by three years flying for a small regional airline. In 1997 I was hired at a Phoenix-based airline called America West, which through two mergers became American Airlines.

I have been a captain on the narrow-body Airbus fleet for 12 years now, and with American may have the opportunity to fly wide-body aircraft overseas.

Where I'm headed: With just six years until retirement, I plan to move permanently to Santa Rosa, buy a Piper Cub and give Sonoma Coast/Bay Area aerial tours along with taildragger flight instruction. I also plan to start a Freethinker/Atheist Meetup group and grow it to regional prominence.

Person in history I admire and why: Anybody who has had the courage to stand up and make a difference. There are countless of those through history, of course. This includes almost every freethinker of note, especially up to the 18th century, where speaking out could and often did cost you your life.

If I could be indulged with two choices from the recent era, I would pick Steve Jobs and Christopher Hitchens.

During my time in computer sales, I saw Jobs introduce a stunning array of products and life-altering ideas — things like typesetting fonts for the common man, the mouse and the computer/cell phone for the masses. Most people forget the Apple Newton, which started the whole PDA revolution and preceded the Palm Pilot.

I admired Christopher Hitchens for his intellect and sheer breadth of knowledge. His anthology of essays "And Yet . . . Essays" and "The Portable Atheist" are required reading in my book. I could listen to him speak for hours and not get bored. Hitchens made atheism respectable and fun. I was really sad to see him go so soon.

A quotation I like: "Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been." — David Bowie

These are a few of my favorite things: Flying, of course, and photography. My subjects are generally aviation-related and nature, mostly flowers. I make greeting cards, fine art and wall-size prints with my various Epson printers. I have won awards for my photography, and have been occasionally published, including in USA Today.

I recently took up guitar after a 40-year hiatus, and enjoy that immensely.

Despite not having kids, I absolutely adore them for their innocence and joy. The most enjoyable part of my job is giving cockpit tours to kids. One dad filmed his two kids getting a tour from me, and the YouTube video he posted has received over 25,000 views.
I am godfather to three wonderful kids.

I read a lot of books on atheism and freethinking. I also devour political coverage on TV (MSNBC, mainly) and on the web, with a fondness for state-church issues.

Like Sam Harris, I practice and find great value in meditation. I was attracted to Zen because of its totally nontheistic, nonspiritual and nonreligious approach to seeing the world as it is, without stories or filters. Zazen (seated meditation) is a liberating practice because nothing that arises in your mind during those 30 minutes of silence is judged bad or good. By simply observing and releasing what arises without judgment, our unending torrent of random thoughts gradually loses its grip on us. What is left is the inherent kindness in reality, or what is actually going on.

These are not: Creationists, fundamentalists of any stripe, authoritarians, but above all else, people who don't use reason to reach conclusions and who remain rigid in their thought process. Birthers and climate change deniers rank right up there.

My doubts about religion started: Pretty early. I remember asking my mom in third grade about a Jewish classmate of mine. I asked if he was going to hell because he didn't believe in Jesus. When she said yes, something shifted for me at a very deep level. There was no reason why Howard should go to hell just because he was Jewish. He hadn't done anything wrong! He was a wonderful kid!

From then on the contradictions just kept growing, like barnacles on the underside of a ship. The home stretch began when I read "Who Wrote the Bible?," by Richard Elliott Friedman, a professor at San Diego State University. That's where I learned about real biblical scholarship. It absolutely blew my mind.

Before I die: Have kids late in life like Larry King?

Ways I promote freethought: As often as I can, I mention I'm an atheist, and I have a small group of freethinkers in the pilot group I correspond with.

As we all know, it's not always the best course of action to bring up lack of belief because of people's deep fears and misconceptions. I really try and keep it out of the cockpit because I wouldn't want the other pilot to rattle on about their Mormonism or fundamentalist beliefs.

I find the best way is to throw out nuggets every so often, and use humor as often as possible.

My cousin (who is on the ragged edges of faith already) knows I'm an atheist but had never heard about Elisha and the bears in 2 Kings. As I was telling the story, I said something like, "Elisha was being teased about his bald head by some 8-year-olds, so what was his only option? He picked up the Bat-Phone and told God to take care of those merciless kids. Pronto!" The moment I said "Bat-Phone" she broke out into one of those uncontrollable, unstoppable bouts of laughter, which caused me to join in. We haven't laughed together that hard in years. I'm pretty sure she will never forget Elisha and the bears!

Freethinking activist Justin Scott has been busy these past few months. As we noted in January's Freethought Today, Scott met with all the then-candidates for president at various town hall meetings in Iowa. Since then, he has given a secular invocation (see transcript on page 21) and was able to get Iowa City to proclaim a Day of Reason.

Scott says that Iowa City is the third city in Iowa to accept a Day of Reason proclamation. The others were Cedar Rapids and Waterloo.

Scott sent out emails to 28 cities asking them for a Day of Reason proclamation.
"There have been a handful of cities that have refused to issue this proclamation with very little reason, without stating the specific reason, although they informed me that they have no actual procedure in place for proclamation requests," Scott said. "One mayor told me they 'don't want to stick their neck out there,' another told me they 'only like to work out of their comfort zone' on issues, and another told me that they would only issue this proclamation if '20 or so other cities did it first' because their city doesn't want to be the only one to do it."

Scott said Davenport has been one of the most difficult to work with, even though the city has had Days of Reason in 2008 and 2011.

"I finally spoke to the mayor on the phone, after not responding to me for nearly a month," Scott said. "His initial hesitation was whether or not the proclamation had to include the word 'atheist' and that because two out of the 10 council members objected to it, the proclamation was considered 'controversial' and 'would require a majority vote of support' from the council. One Davenport council member even suggested that next year I collect signatures in support of my proclamation despite the fact that the city clerk, who has worked in the office for nearly 30 years, advised me that no other group has ever had to collect signatures to have a proclamation be issued."

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Importance of religion in U.S. drops

Only 53% of Americans now say religion is very important in their lives, according to a recent Pew Research Center report.

This figure has declined since 2007, when 56% said religion was very important in their lives. Americans are in the middle in terms of importance of religion when compared with people from other countries.

The share of Americans who say religion is very important is close to the global median of respondents who say this in a separate Pew survey.

U.S. residents place less importance on religion in their lives than do people in a many countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Almost all Ethiopians (98%), Senegalese (97%) and Indonesians (95%) say religion is very important, as do most Nigerians (88%), Filipinos (87%) and Indians (80%).

Meanwhile, religion is considerably more important to Americans than to residents of many other Western and European countries, as well as other advanced economy nations, such as Japan.

Metro areas less religious

Nearly 70% of Americans consider themselves Christians. But some of the nation's biggest metropolitan areas have a very different look.

Only about half of the residents in the Seattle (52%) and San Francisco (48%) areas identify as Christians, as well as less than 60% of those living in Boston (57%) and New York (59%).

The Pew Research Center's 2014 Religious Landscape Study looked at the religious affiliations of Americans overall as well as those in all 50 states and the 17 largest metropolitan areas in the country. While Christians make up between 65% and 75% of adults in most of those metro areas — and people with no religious affiliation generally make up roughly 20-25% of the population — some cities stand out.

Seattle, San Francisco and Boston are notable not only because they have relatively few Christians, but also for their considerable populations of religious "nones" (atheists, agnostics and those who say their religion is "nothing in particular"). A third or more of people in each of those metropolitan areas (37% in Seattle, 35% in San Francisco and 33% in Boston) are religious "nones."

How religious is your state?

Mississippi, Alabama and other Southern states are among the most highly religious states in the U.S., while New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine are among the least devout, according to Pew's Religious Landscape Study.

Pew used four common measures of religious observance: worship attendance, prayer frequency, belief in God and the self-described importance of religion in one's life.

What does it mean to be "highly religious"? In Pew's analysis, it includes any adult who reports at least two of those four highly observant behaviors, while also not reporting a low level of religious observance in any of these areas, such as seldom or never attending religious services, seldom or never praying, not believing in God and saying that religion is "not too" or "not at all" important in their life.

Islam vs. government

The Muslim world is sharply divided on what the relationship should be between the tenets of Islam and the laws of governments. Across 10 countries with significant Muslim populations surveyed by Pew Research Center in 2015, there is a striking difference in the extent to which people think the Quran should influence their nation's laws.

In Pakistan, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Malaysia and Senegal, roughly half or more of the full population says that laws in their country should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. By contrast, in Burkina Faso, Turkey, Lebanon and Indonesia, less than a quarter agree. And in many of these countries where non-Muslims make up a significant portion of the population, there are strong disagreements between major religious groups on this issue.

For example, a 42% plurality of Nigerians think laws should not be influenced by the Quran, while 27% think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, among Nigerian Muslims, 52% say national laws should conform to Islamic law, compared with only 2% among Nigerian Christians.

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FFRF sues to remove Florida park cross

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, along with the American Humanist Association, filed suit against the city of Pensacola, Fla., to challenge a 25-foot-tall Christian cross in a public park.

According to the lawsuit filed May 4, the white Christian cross dominates Bayview Park, where it is maintained by the city. The cross is also the site of numerous Easter Sunrise services, frequently co-hosted by Christian churches. A plaque specifically referencing Easter sits at the base of a platform near the cross.

"There are tax-free churches throughout Pensacola where this pinnacle symbol of Christianity may be appropriately displayed," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

"But when a city park serving all citizens — nonreligious, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian — contains a towering Latin cross, this sends a message of exclusion to non-Christians, and a corresponding message to Christians that they are favored citizens."
But not everyone understands this.

Florida state Rep. Matt Gaetz, who is a candidate for the U.S. House, wrote an op-ed in the Pensacola News Journal on May 15.

"We need leadership in Washington that understands America is a Christian nation founded on Christian values," an ill-informed Gaetz writes. "I hope you will join me in praying for the courts to make the right decision and dismiss the lawsuit."

Gaetz also seems to think that majority rule should trump the Constitution.

"The extremist groups that filed this lawsuit . . . as well as liberal Amanda Kondrat'yev, who is running [against Gaetz] for the 1st Congressional District, make a mockery of the right to religious freedom. They do not share the values of Northwest Florida."

Kondrat'yev is one of the four individual plaintiffs in the suit. Gaetz has challenged her to a debate over the cross. No date has been set.

"The way I see it, having a cross in a park that's supposed to be for everybody is obviously showing preference to one religion over another," Kondrat'yev writes. "If it were a satanic symbol or a Muslim symbol, they would be livid. . . . The cross towers above the trees and it's a clear violation of our constitutional rights. My grandfather and father are both U.S. military veterans, and this is not what they fought for at all."
The Pensacola News Journal itself took a stand against the lawsuit, using bizarre logic in its editorial on May 6.

"The Bayview Cross is not a government endorsement of religion," the editorial states. "It's simply there, and that's why it ought to be left alone."

But Brian Curtis, who commented on the online article, called the newspaper on its faulty reasoning.

"We'll see a good demonstration of just how religious it is as soon as the suggestion is made to take it down," he writes. "Suddenly the air will be filled with cries of 'war on Christianity!'"

For at least the past 15 years, the city has received requests from citizens to remove the cross. In July 2015, FFRF and AHA sent warnings to the city that the public display and maintenance of the cross was a form of religious endorsement by the government. The city did not respond to these complaints. The local plaintiffs are nonbelievers who feel marginalized and excluded by their government's display of a large Christian symbol.

The federal lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, Northern District of Florida, Pensacola Division, asks the court to declare that the Bayview cross is unconstitutional. It also asks the court to require the city to remove the Bayview Cross and to prohibit displaying Christian crosses on public land in the future.

FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert and Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler represent the plaintiffs, along with AHA Legal Director David Niose and Senior Counsel Monica Miller.

The case, no. 3:16-cv-00195, sits before Judge Roger Vinson, a Ronald Reagan appointee.

The case of a Ten Commandments monument on school property is back in court.

A three-judge panel in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on May 19 heard oral arguments in a challenge to the monument in front of a high school in the New Kensington-Arnold School District in Pennsylvania.

FFRF and Marie Schaub, who is a parent of a student, appealed a district court decision last year ruling they didn't have standing to bring the case against the district. But now her daughter is in high school, so it is likely that standing will be granted in the case.

"I believe so, and the district would have a decision to make," district lawyer Anthony Sanchez told the panel, as reported by Brian Bowling of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

In its brief, FFRF points out that the plaintiffs were forced either to have "contact with an unwelcome religious exercise" or assume the burden of avoiding such contact. The plaintiffs had encountered the 6-foot, 2,000-pound monolith while attending school events prior to enrollment. Schaub ultimately refused to enroll her child at the high school because of the prominent monument in front of the school.

"Parents and students who have been injured by a school's religious practices must have access to the courts," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We look forward to this case proceeding so that the school will be welcoming to nonreligious students."

Bowling reports that Superintendent John Pallone, an alumnus of Valley High School (now Valley Junior-Senior High School), said he "probably walked by the monument twice daily as a student and frequently since then as a school official." Despite the substantial size of the monument, Pallone embarrassingly called it "innocuous."

"Until this lawsuit was filed, I never even knew that monument was there," Pallone said. "It's so innocuous that I can't even believe that there's an issue about that monument."
Last year, a similar federal court challenge by FFRF and local parents and students ended with a court decision in FFRF's favor and removal of an identical Ten Commandments monument from a junior high school in nearby Connellsville Area School District.

Schaub will be speaking about this case at FFRF's annual convention, held Oct. 7-9, in Pittsburgh.

FFRF has once again received a stellar assessment from the country's premier nonprofit charity rating organization.

For the sixth consecutive year, FFRF has gotten four stars, the highest ranking from Charity Navigator in its just-released annual survey. Four stars indicate that the state/church watchdog organization is collecting and spending donation money in an exemplary way.

FFRF scores very well as compared to its peers in a number of categories. In the Human and Civil Rights category, for instance, it has an overall score of 97.17, much higher than the average. Its revenue growth and program growth are three times the average, as is its net revenue for the year.

Similarly, in the Advocacy and Education category, FFRF's overall score of 97.17 is once more much higher than the average. Its revenue and program growth are again three times the average.

And FFRF does superbly in comparison to other charities based in its home state, since its overall score is way higher than the Wisconsin average. And still again, its revenue growth and program growth are many times that of its peers.

In other key areas, its numbers are lower (better) than its fellow nonprofits. Its CEO compensation is tens of thousands of dollars less than that for its counterparts in all three categories. Its fundraising expenses as a portion of its budget are a tiny fraction of the average.

"Charity Navigator issues the gold standard of nonprofit ratings, and so we are delighted that we've been rated 24 karat," says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.

"This sends an important message to all our members and donors that their donations are going to work for intended purposes and not for fundraising bells and whistles," Barker added.

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Kentucky's rejection of license plate challenged

FFRF contacted the state of Kentucky on behalf of state resident Ben Hart after his application for a personalized license plate was rejected. Hart had the "IM GOD" license plate in Ohio, from where he recently moved to Kentucky.

FFRF asserts that the reasons cited for the Kentucky DMV rejection of "IM GOD" do not hold water. There is no legal precedent for the refusal, FFRF contends. The state has thus far defended the rejection on the basis that it doesn't meet a "standard of good taste and decency."

"The 'good taste and decency' restriction is plainly unconstitutional," FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Todd Shipp at the Kentucky Office of Legal Services.
The Kentucky Department of Transportation added that the "IM GOD" plate "would create the potential of distractions to other drivers and possibly confrontations." But the state can't impose a heckler's veto against speech with which some may disagree, FFRF says.

Summary judgment sought in nativity suit

FFRF, 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, the Performing Arts Department of Concord High School in Elkhart, Ind., has planned, produced, and staged several performances of its "Christmas Spectacular." Each year the show closes with a 20-minute depiction by students of the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.

However, in December 2015, 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 school then modified the nativity enactment for the 2015 performance, using 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.

The 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 — are entitled to a permanent injunction barring all versions of the nativity enactment.

No windfall for FFRF in lawsuit settlement

FFRF is going to see a little reimbursement as part of its legal victory over the Chino Valley School Board in California.

U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal ruled on Feb. 18 that the School Board's prayers violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Of the $200,000-plus that Bernal fined the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education for violating the U.S. Constitution, FFRF will be receiving a bit more than $40,000 as reimbursement for all the hard work that Staff Attorneys Andrew Seidel and Rebecca Markert put in. The rest will go to attorney David Kaloyanides, who litigated the case in California for the organization, and his law clerk Roda Torres.

If the School Board pays up, which could depend on the appeal, FFRF will simply be recouping the cost of having Seidel and Markert work the case, not reaping a windfall. The Chino Valley School Board has taken the legally and constitutionally unwise step of appealing the decision, so it'll likely be a while before FFRF sees any of the reimbursement.

However, the fees are an important deterrent against other governmental bodies behaving similarly.

"Sadly, these fees are important," Seidel explains. "Not because they generate income for FFRF, but because they deter other school districts from violating the law and strengthen FFRF's ability to resolve future cases without litigation, which is always our goal."

Michigan city's behavior questioned, decried

Doug Marshall, a resident of Warren, Mich., secured the right last year to set up a Reason Station in the city hall after a hard-fought court battle in which FFRF, the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State assisted him. On May 5, the city observed the National Day of Prayer on the building's lawn. Marshall, who had a permit reserving space in the indoor atrium, was booted out with less than 24 hours notice and without explanation. Upon questioning by FFRF, the city claimed that "the atrium will be set up as an alternate site in the case of rain or poor weather."

FFRF asserts that this behavior on the part of the city is unjustified and that it is punishing Marshall for his views. Added evidence for FFRF's contention is that the weather forecast for the day predicted no chance of rain. The city lacks any written criteria for revoking approval of a permitted event, which allows the Reason Station to be restricted at the whim of city officials.

FFRF challenges church school trip

FFRF strongly objected to an Arkansas school district's church trip to celebrate the National Day of Prayer.

The Jessieville Public School District organized an excursion of students from the local high school to the Village Church of Christ. The outing was during the school day.

FFRF points out that such blatantly religious activities would not be permitted to take place inside public schools during the school day. A school district-organized visit to a church is no more permissible.

Non-Christian and nonreligious students are made to feel like outsiders when a school district coordinates a trip for prayer to a church, FFRF asserts. And the fact that participation and attendance is optional is no pretext, as courts have repeatedly ruled.

FFRF: Investigate adult-run student club

FFRF is questioning adult involvement in an Indiana public school religious club.

The Foundation of Christian Students chapter at Riverside Intermediate School in Fishers, Ind., has extensive adult participation, FFRF has been informed. The meetings are led by adults, including four teachers. The sessions include adult-created religious lessons and prayer.

"Public schools may not advance or promote religion," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne writes to Allen Bourff, superintendent of Hamilton Southeastern Public Schools. "Even when student religious clubs are permissible, it is inappropriate and unconstitutional for district staff to lead or organize a student religious club. Teachers may be present to make sure that students are not violating school rules, but may not participate."

FFRF is asking that the matter be investigated. If the Foundation of Christian Students chapter on campus hasn't in fact been student-initiated, it would be in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and should be dissolved. The students may reconstitute the club without adult direction.

Chicago-area principal should lose his job

FFRF wants a Chicago-area public school principal to be dismissed for his active promotion of religion.

Rich South High School Principal Michael McGrone regularly boosts religion, according to media reports and FFRF local members. He has brought in a woman to pray with the students in the cafeteria, the Chicago Tribune reports. In a Facebook posting, McGrone wrote: "This is how we 'stop the killing': Allow God back in school!! Prayer works." He has also said, "Is (prayer) considered crossing the line? I would agree in part, but in so many ways I cannot deny who I am and what got me to become principal."

McGrone's behavior is illegal and unconstitutional, as courts have consistently ruled.

There is no doubt that McGrone is promoting Christianity to the students under his care. (He reportedly makes frequent references to Jesus, in addition to his other utterances and actions.) McGrone's stated goal of getting "God back in school" shows a complete disregard for his constitutional obligations, and he has admitted to promoting religion despite knowing it's illegal to do so.

Proposed school bible class opposed by FFRF

FFRF is opposing a proposed bible class in an Arkansas school district.

Bentonville School Board member Brent Leas has recommended adding an elective academic bible study class to the 2017-18 curriculum. He is justifying it under Arkansas Act 1440, which was passed three years ago.

FFRF contends that such classes violate the notion that public schools should not play favorites when it comes to religion.

And they are legally problematic under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Arkansas Constitution.

The Christian bias in such a course proposal is obvious. If the Bentonville School District feels that its students will benefit from a deeper understanding of different belief systems, why has it not proposed classes on the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita or, indeed, Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion"?

Certainly in theory, a bible course may be permissible as part of a public high school curriculum, but, in practice, such classes are rarely taught in a legal manner, FFRF asserts. Southern Methodist University Professor Mark Chancey did a study in 2013 of bible classes that Texas had introduced six years before and found that many of them "are blatantly and thoroughly sectarian, presenting religious views as fact and implicitly or explicitly encourage students to adopt those views."

Religious ROTC creeds should be changed

FFRF is objecting to the injection of religion into U.S. Army programs.

Specifically, FFRF is taking issue with the JROTC and the ROTC's cadet creeds. The JROTC belief principle ends: "May God grant me the strength to always live by this creed."
Not only does this strike the tone of a Christian prayer, it also adds the requirement that every JROTC cadet believe in a deity and actively seek its assistance.

The ROTC creed suffers from the same problems, since it concludes with: "May God give me the compassion and judgment to lead and the gallantry in battle to win." This, too, mimics a prayer and makes the cadet give an active appeal to God in order to participate.

FFRF cautiously welcomes a Texas city's decision to deed a piece of public land with a cross to a church, but is skeptical about the terms of the sale and the future of the site.

The Port Neches City Council sold a portion of Riverfront Park containing a 10-foot Latin cross to the First United Methodist Church for only $100. FFRF had written letters to Mayor Glenn Johnson in November and January objecting to the cross on public property as an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

"The City Council's move does show the local government fully realizes that you can't have religious symbols on public land," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "However, the means by which the city divested itself of the cross raises concerns."

FFRF questions whether the city's motives are secular, given that the community outcry against FFRF's complaint was led by the mayor. He showed up at a rally held by supporters of the cross in November and spoke against FFRF's "attack" on "our cross," vowing, "We may lose . . . but I'm just telling you this: When we come out of the fight, [FFRF] will have two black eyes, a broken leg, and a broken arm. . . . And we may look worse, but they'll know they have been in a fight."

The low sale price could mean that the church was given preferential treatment, and a close watch needs to be kept, FFRF says, on how the church's plot will be differentiated from the adjacent taxpayer-funded park.

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert tells the Beaumont Enterprise that a "reasonable person" should be able to see where the park ends and the church property begins and suggests that it be marked with signs as church property and fenced off.
United Methodist Church pastor Wesley Welborn says the church has no intention to make any changes to the land around the cross.

"We're not going to put a fence up, for certain," he tells the Enterprise. "There are no plans right now to put any signs up. Our plans are to leave it as-is."

FFRF even presented Port Neches with a better deal for the land, offering $2,000 for that 400-square-foot parcel.

"In these times of fiscal austerity and municipal bankruptcies, we are trying to ensure that a city has resources to provide essential public services to its residents," says Gaylor. "$2000 will make that 20 times more certain than $100."

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FFRF legal victories

Evangelist barred from Florida schools

FFRF has had an ex-con proselytizer barred from a Florida school district.

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.

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.

No more Christian revivals in school district

A West Virginia school district changed its policies after FFRF objected to a Christian revival meeting held at one of its schools.

Evangelist Matt Hartley sermonized to students at Mingo Central High School in Williamson, W.Va., preaching to them about Jesus, mulling about whether being gay was a choice, and asserting that "God never made a mistake" in choosing a person's gender.

FFRF contacted the school district after receiving a complaint and the district quickly informed FFRF that it was revamping its policies governing such events.

"Steps have already been taken by the superintendent to ensure that such events will not occur in the future and that all staff are educated regarding the legal obligations of school systems when such issues arise," Denise Spatafore, legal counsel for Mingo County Schools, wrote back to FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott.

OK! Students no longer sent to 'Spring Tea'

An Oklahoma school district has assured FFRF that its students will not be attending a moralistic sermon.

The "Spring Tea" is a highly religious annual event in Muskogee. In March, hundreds of middle school girls were preached to on such issues as abstinence, teen pregnancy, sexting and sexually transmitted diseases. Among those attending were students from two public magnet schools in the Muskogee school district.

Last year, FFRF had sent a notice to the district asking them not to have any involvement with the occasion or face legal action. Officials had assured FFRF that the district would abstain, but the organization recently learned that this wasn't the case.

The school district responded that this was all due to a misunderstanding. Drummond explained that the main middle school had explicitly been instructed not to take part, but that the school district had neglected to notify the two public magnet schools. This oversight has now been rectified.

Kentucky town to discontinue nativity display

A Kentucky town will stop displaying an overtly religious nativity scene in response to an FFRF objection.

FFRF had notified the city of Walton a number of times that a Christmas nativity panorama on the City Hall lawn was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
After the December letter and a follow-up in April, FFRF has finally gotten an assurance that the town would take heed of the Constitution.

"I have discussed the legal issues raised in your correspondence dated Dec. 23, 2015, with Mayor Mark Carnahan and advised him accordingly," Walton City Attorney Timothy Noyes wrote back to FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne. "Based on that advice, the mayor indicated that future Christmas displays on city property, if any, will give due deference to existing law concerning separation of church and state."

District won't promote religious ceremonies

A Texas school district has assured FFRF that it will stop publicizing private religion-infused baccalaureate ceremonies.

FFRF had contacted the Friendswood Independent School District with its concern that a baccalaureate service in Friendswood High School on May 22 has been advertised on the district's website and in a handout sent home with seniors.

The school district admitted that it had made a mistake in publicizing the event and said it has taken swift measures to rectify the blunder.

"In order to remedy any confusion, Friendswood High School Principal Mark Griffon has sent a memorandum to all senior students indicating that the prior notice was sent in error and that the event is not school-sponsored," the school district's attorney replied.

"Friendswood High School has also removed all references to the event from its calendar."

Tennessee schools to address violations

A Tennessee school district is taking steps to ensure that state/church violations do not recur after hearing from FFRF about the violations.

A second-grade teacher at Highland Rim Elementary in Fayetteville, Tenn., helped students construct crosses as a class craft project. She also marked student assignments with a stamp that stated, "God Made You Special."

"Public schools have a duty to ensure that 'subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion' or use their positions of authority to promote a particular religious viewpoint, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Bill Heath, director of Lincoln County Schools.

Lincoln County Schools replied with a letter detailing a five-point action plan that the district is implementing.

District cracks down on religious promotion

A Texas school district has made important policy changes in response to FFRF's concerns with the McKinney Independent School District on several issues.

District employees were displaying crosses in a number of rooms at local high schools. A religious poster at a middle school read: "As Believers You Are Saved Forever by Grace through Faith" and continued with other religious description including "Baptized into Christ Jesus" and "Soldiers of Christ."

Additionally, a faculty member at McKinney Boyd High School solicited participation of students to read prayers, recite scripture and sing hymns at an upcoming baccalaureate service. And each year, the graduation ceremony the high school has taken place at in the church sanctuary at the Prestonwood Baptist Church decorated with traditional Baptist Christian symbols.

The School District promised to explore alternatives to the church for McKinney High School's graduation ceremony, and it assured FFRF it would keep the church's religious iconography covered as long as the building was used. The district will no longer organize, sponsor or promote baccalaureate services.

Violations ended in Florida school district

The Indian River County School District in Florida has instituted changes after FFRF contacted the district with reports of several constitutional violations.

The Vero Beach High School football and baseball teams reportedly employed a chaplain, pastor Joe Moore, who was also the director of the Indian River County Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Football players and cheerleaders participated in prayer breakfasts at First Baptist Church alongside their coaches. The breakfasts frequently involved ministers preaching to students.

In an April 19 response to FFRF, the district's lawyer stated that "the superintendent discovered a few employees who did not understand their duties and obligations regarding student prayer at school, and has corrected those misunderstandings. The superintendent has also reminded all principals at all schools regarding public employee duties and obligations involving student prayer at school."

California school board drops prayer

The Silver Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees no longer prays at its meetings, thanks to action taken by FFRF.

On April 25, attorneys for the school district "decided to voluntarily discontinue its prior practice" of including invocations, after hearing from FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler.

Tennessee school's choral program secularized

Students at David Crockett High School in Jonesborough, Tenn., will no longer be compelled to perform "contemporary Christian concerts" as a part of their public school music instruction after hearing from FFRF.

FFRF received a report that music teacher Kelly Sams conducted blatantly Christian concerts, frequently performed in a church. The concerts consisted mainly of contemporary Christian music.

"These songs have devotional messages that would be appropriate in a church setting, but not in a public school," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a letter to the Washington County Schools.

The county attorney replied to FFRF on April 20, reporting that the superintendent and school principal had met with Sams, advising her that "holding a 'contemporary Christian concert' which contained solely religious songs was not consistent with" school policy.

FFRF gets Christian movie removed from school

The Christian movie "Facing the Giants" will no longer be shown in South Dearborn Community Schools, thanks to a complaint lodged by FFRF.

The film follows a struggling high school football coach who inspires his team to believe in the Christian God and to use faith to win football games. South Dearborn Middle School reportedly had students watch it as a reward for finishing a test. When FFRF's complainants contacted the school, they were repeatedly told next time students would be allowed to opt out of watching such movies.

"The district may not require students to opt out of a movie screening, intended as a class reward, in order to avoid a school-sponsored religious message," wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne.

The school principal replied promptly, assuring FFRF that the film will not be shown again, and the school would "make sure that any film shown remains neutral toward religion."
Illinois teacher takes down religious ads

A West Aurora High School teacher has taken down religious ads she posted around her classroom after FFRF sent a letter of complaint.

One poster advertised "See You At The Pole," a Christian prayer event, that included bible quotes. Another poster advertised the school's student prayer club.

On April 25, the district superintendent informed FFRF that the postings had been removed after hearing from FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne.

FFRF resolves another issue in Orange County

FFRF has resolved yet another issue in Florida's Orange County Public Schools. The district, the 11th-largest in the country, is FFRF's most-contacted school district.

This time, the district is ensuring that JROTC ceremonies at East River High School will not include prayer. The 2016 JROTC Awards and Change of Command Ceremony included an invocation listed on the agenda. Attendees were asked to bow their heads, although ROTC students were told in advance that a prayer would be given and if they did not believe in "God or Jesus" that they "just need to stand there and be silent."

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to the district's two attorneys, pointing out that even in the context of a state military college with older students, a federal court "held that school officials may not compel students to participate in a religious activity."

OCPS General Counsel and frequent FFRF correspondent Diego "Woody" Rodriguez responded on April 26, confirming that the prayer occurred and that there would be none at future programs.

After wavering, school board drops prayer

Thanks to persistent action by FFRF, the Kings Canyon Unified School District Governing Board in Reedley, Calif., will no longer pray at its meetings.

FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler first objected to the practice in November 2015.
Superintendent Juan Garza replied on Feb. 24, informing FFRF that the board had passed a new invocation policy. The policy attempted to set up a system like that approved by the Supreme Court for local government bodies in its Greece v. Galloway case, and contained inclusive language, but still allowed for prayer at school board meetings.

"School-sanctioned prayer, even in the new, slightly more removed context, is unconstitutional," wrote Ziegler in a second letter on April 7. "Federal courts ruling on the matter have agreed that school boards fall within the school context, not in the realm of other government meetings."

On May 3, Garza informed FFRF that "the district has decided to discontinue its practice of invocation."

Religious email signature removed

An employee at the Eau Claire district attorney's office in Wisconsin has removed an inappropriate religious message from the signature line of her official email address, thanks to FFRF. The signature read, in part, "Joyful, Prayerful, and Thankful – Thessalonians 5:16-17."

"It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district attorney's office or its agents to promote a religious message because doing so conveys government preference for religion over nonreligion," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in a May 10 letter.

The next day, the office's manager replied that the matter had been resolved.

'Follow Christ' sign taken down at Ohio school

The Genoa Area Local Schools in Genoa, Ohio, have removed a sign reading "Follow Christ" from Genoa High School, after receiving a letter from FFRF.

"It is unconstitutional for Genoa Area Local Schools to encourage its students to 'Follow Christ,' in effect encouraging non-Christian students to convert," said FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne on April 25.

The superintendent replied on May 5 saying the sign had been removed.

Florida district dissociates from religious camp

After FFRF lodged a complaint, the Palm Beach County School District in Florida is no longer partnering with a religious sports day camp, SportsTyme.

The group claims that it creates a sports environment that "leaves God in," including bible lessons. Previously, the district permitted SportsTyme to advertise on school grounds and reportedly helped sign up students for the religious camps.

On May 4, the district notified FFRF that SportsTyme updated its website to delete PBCSD schools from their list of "partners" and added a disclaimer noting that it was not affiliated with or endorsed by the school district.

School to be more careful in music selection

Following an FFRF complaint, the Modesto City Schools in California will exercise more care in choosing music for students to perform.

One section of a Winter Concert held at La Loma Junior High School was overwhelmingly religious. Most of the songs were devotional Christian songs.

In a May 9 response to FFRF, a school official said that the La Loma chorus director had "agreed to be more careful in the songs he chooses for future concerts. He will ensure there is more variety in the music performed at each concert."

Texas school district withdraws from prayer event

After hearing from FFRF, schools in the Gunter Independent School District in Texas won't be participating in future National Day of Prayer ceremonies

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the district after receiving a report that Gunter High School students participated in a National Day of Prayer event that included prayer and scriptural readings, performing a hymn. The National Day of Prayer is a Christian event originally organized by Billy Graham to "mobiliz[e] the Christian community to intercede for America and its leadership."

In a May 23 response, the superintendent assured FFRF that Gunter ISD would no longer take student groups to perform at the ceremonies.

California Denny's no longer discriminates

The Denny's restaurant in Hawthorne, Calif., no longer privileges churchgoers with a church bulletin discount after FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell contacted the restaurant on Dec. 18 to complain about the civil rights violation.

Cavell informed the restaurant that the discount, 20% off for bringing in a church bulletin, violated federal and state laws providing that places of public accommodation cannot discriminate on the basis of religion.

A restaurant worker phoned Cavell on May 17 to report that the restaurant would no longer offer the discount.

FFRF silences loudspeaker prayer at Texas school

Spearman High School in Spearman, Texas, is no longer including prayer over the loudspeaker at athletic events. The move follows a Dec. 1 letter sent by FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover.

"The Supreme Court has specifically struck down invocations given over the loudspeaker at public school athletic events," said Grover, referring to the 2000 Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe case.

A lawyer for the school district replied to FFRF on May 19, saying the district "will instruct those individuals providing announcements during football games, and other school sporting events, to refrain from reciting any prayer, Christian or otherwise," and promised corrective action if the instructions were disregarded.

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