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Lead Us Not Into Penn Station:Provocative Pieces

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October 7-9, 2016

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Lauryn Seering

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HondoTXsign

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is objecting to religious highway signs that greet people when they enter a Texas city.

Signs proclaiming "Welcome — This Is God's Country Please Don't Drive Through It Like Hell — Hondo, Texas" are displayed prominently by U.S. 90, at the city borders.

"It is inappropriate for the city of Hondo to display religious signs that convey government preference for religion over nonreligion," FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor writes to Hondo Mayor James Danner. "The display of the religious message 'This Is God's Country' on public property violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits public bodies from advancing, supporting, or promoting religion. It is also needlessly divisive, since it sends the message that nonbelievers are not welcome in the city."

Besides, what the city of Hondo is trying to convey through the signs could very well be misconstrued. It needs to find an alternative way to promote safe driving.

"Some people may want to flee 'God's Country' faster than hell," Gaylor adds. "Hondo officials could actually be encouraging drivers to speed with such signs."

FFRF is asking the city of Hondo to immediately remove these signs from public property and refrain from displaying any messages that endorse religion in the future. In a similar instance, the city of Hawkins in Texas last year had to get rid of a public "Jesus Welcomes You to Hawkins" sign after FFRF challenged it.

FFRF is a national organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with 24,000 nonreligious members nationwide, including almost 1,000 in Texas.

NewmanAcademy
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is raising red flags about a publicly funded Texas charter school chain.

Newman International Academy, which has frequently breached the constitutional wall separating state and church, operates a number of charter schools in Texas. In August, it is opening up yet another one inside Walnut Ridge Baptist Church in Mansfield. The charter school sponsor is Saint Servers International, a Christian organization run by the Rev. Lazarus George, who is the husband of Newman International Academy founder Sheba George.

Sheba George is an ardent evangelist. On a website for her proposed Newman George College, George explains that she has a "longing for the strongest spiritual revival the world has ever known." She goes on to elaborate that she "has a strong devotion to the Lord, a gracious spirit toward everyone coupled with a no nonsense, no spiritual compromise attitude." It appears that George's desire for a spiritual revival has warped her treatment of Newman International Academy in constitutionally impermissible ways.

For instance, under her leadership, Newman International Academy has adopted a blatantly religious school song:

May God bless our school
As we march to our tomorrows
And stand tall today with
Love, Faith and Hope
We rise to build our nation
With wisdom, statute and favor,
May God bless our school
Today and forever.

The Academy also promotes and endorses religious events in its schools and on its website. Its 2015-2016 calendar includes a school holiday on March 25 for Good Friday, an explicitly Christian holiday, a See You at the Pole event that the Academy described as "a day committed to global unity in Christ and prayer for this generation," and a schoolwide assembly for the National Day of Prayer. The Academy has also promoted a baccalaureate service for graduating students.

"Courts have consistently held that schools may not demonstrate a preference for religion over nonreligion by endorsing religious messages," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover writes to Commissioner Mike Morath of the Texas Education Agency. "Newman International Academy's school song contains a direct appeal to 'God' to bless the school. This communicates an unambiguous preference for religion over nonreligion and Christianity's 'God' over the god or gods of minority religions." 

Publicly funded charter schools, like public schools, have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion, FFRF points out. Newman International Academy can either receive state funding and operate as a public charter school entity subject to constitutional restrictions on religious promotion, or it can choose to operate as a private Christian school and not receive state funding. But it cannot operate as a state-funded religious institution.

FFRF is requesting the Texas Education Agency to outline the steps it is taking to ensure that Newman International Academy either complies with the U.S. Constitution or no longer receives state funds.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with nearly 24,000 members across the country, including almost 1,000 in Texas.

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