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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

Lauryn Seering

"Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all" was most certainly not the message being sent by the Concord Community School District in Elkhart, Ind., at its weekend Christmas concerts.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana won a preliminary injunction in early December halting a longtime abuse at the annual "Christmas Spectacular" school concert. It involved a 20-minute enactment by students of the nativity while bible verses were read. FFRF and John and Jack Doe sued scene Concord Community Schools in October, with the help of the ACLU. Jack Doe is involved in the performing arts department and took part in the 2015 concerts.

U.S. District Judge Jon DeGuilio explicitly barred the "live nativity" in his preliminary injunction. So how did the school respond?

It set up a life-sized nativity scene using mannequins. As ABC-57 News reported: "The sold-out crowd at Concord High School erupted with applause following the school's use of statues to keep the nativity scene." Many in the school district are congratulating themselves that they "got around" the judge's ruling.

Unquestionably, the district, in thumbing its nose at the ruling, broke the spirit of the judge's injunction, compounding the violation by including a nativity display at its public school concert, which is also illegal. Imagine the distress of the student plaintiff during the four concerts involving the illegal religious display and eruptions of support for it.

Imagine, too, the discomfort of nonreligious students and non-Christian students when their school goes out of its way to flout the law.

Speculation over the identity of the local plaintiffs has been rife and ugly on social media. It appears the entire community and school district are aligned against one young student.

That's why the Supreme Court, for more than 65 years, has wisely interpreted the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as barring any religious instruction, devotions or rituals in our public schools. Religion in school creates walls between children, accentuates differences, turns believers into favored "insiders" and nonbelievers or minority believers into favored "outsiders" (precisely the way the majority is acting in Elkhart).

Instead of figuring out new and creative ways to violate the Constitution, the Concord Community School District should be honoring the student and student's family for standing up for the First Amendment. It protects us all.

Tomorrow marks Bill of Rights Day, the anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights on Dec. 15, 1791. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights was enacted in part to protect freedom of conscience from the tyranny of the majority. The framers of our secular Constitution knew the only way to preserve true religious liberty was to keep church and state separate.

Concord Community School District officials have dug their hole even deeper with this contemptuous move, and strengthened FFRF's case through their hubris. While we know reason and the law will prevail, district officials deserve the strongest rebukes for their callous manipulation.

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A Freedom From Religion Foundation Winter Solstice banner has been placed in a public park in Manassas, Va., on Monday, Dec. 14.

FFRF received a permit from the city for its "Let Reason Prevail" banner to counter a nativity scene in the public park. It was placed next to the crèche by local FFRF member in Nelson Park. It will be displayed through Dec. 31.

FFRF's 7½-by-3-foot banner states: "At this Season of the Winter Solstice, LET REASON PREVAIL. There are not gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth & superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

"It is our hope that one day government spaces will be free from religious — or irreligious — displays," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "But until then, we will do our best to counter these unlawful displays and remind passersby of the 'real reason for the season' — the Winter Solstice."

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Click photo to enlarge.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is placing a playful message in the centerspread of the popular science section of Tuesday's New York Times, in honor of Bill of Rights Day — the anniversary of its Dec. 15, 1791 ratification.

The colorful 2-page ad is full of gentle seasonal tweaks, saying " 'Tis the Season to Celebrate the Birth . . . of the Bill of Rights." One page features a "nativity scene" drawn by artist Jacob Fortin depicting "three wiser men" (some founding fathers) and the Statue of Liberty gazingly adoring at a manger containing not a fictional baby but the Bill of Rights.

"Unto US a bill is born," the ad quips.

FFRF's ad also urges, "Help achieve true 'Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All," by separating religion from government.

"The framers of our godless and entirely secular Constitution, revering freedom of conscience, wisely created a government free from religion. They understood there can be no religious liberty without the freedom to dissent," the ad proclaims.

Commented FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor: "One of the biggest myths we have to surmount in the United States is this misconception that majority rules over matters of faith. The Bill of Rights places individual liberties and freedom of conscience above the fray of tyranny of the majority. And that is something to truly revere — and celebrate!"

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A northern Illinois school district agreed to stop allowing a high school football coach from leading prayers with players at games after the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter of complaint.

A concerned local resident complained to FFRF that Naperville Central High School head football coach Mark Stine prayed with students during games, a clear constitutional violation.

On Dec. 8, FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne sent a letter to Naperville Superintendent Dan Bridges.

"Coach Stine's conduct is unconstitutional because he endorses and promotes his religion when acting in his official capacity as a school district employee," Jayne wrote. "Certainly he represents the school and the team when he acts in his official role as head coach of the Redhawks."

On Dec. 10, Bridges responded to FFRF and agreed that coaches should not lead prayers.

"Naperville Community Unit School District 203 is aware that a coach led prayer is not appropriate," he wrote. "The head football coach has been instructed that neither he nor his staff may lead his players in prayer."

However, in the statement, it was unclear if Bridges understood that FFRF was requesting that the coach no longer participate at all in the prayer or whether he just meant that the coach could no longer lead the prayers. So FFRF sent another letter to Bridges that day clarifying that the coach should not be involved at all in the prayers.

"It is unconstitutional for public school employees to participate in the religious activities of students," Jayne wrote. "Students are welcome to pray on their own, but school representatives must not participate."

Bridges has not yet responded to that most recent letter.

Some media outlets have misconstrued what Bridges decided and they implied that even the students could not pray before or after games. Students have the right to pray on their own, but FFRF contends the coach (traditionally standing beside them for a pre-game prayer) has "groomed" students to engage in worship as an official part of a school activity.

After hearing of the change of not allowing the coach to lead prayer, the football players put together a letter of support for the coach. "We, as a football team and a family, give Coach Stine our full support," the letter reads. "He is the best coach in the state and cares about each and every one of us more than any other coach cares about his players. We are proud that he is willing to stand up for his faith and for the example he sets for us."

FFRF issued a statement after the team misguidedly praised Stine as "willing to stand up for his faith." A public school coach should pray or promote religion on his own time and dime, and shouldn't misuse his authority to promote his personal religious views upon public school athletes, FFRF added.

"Public schools exist to educate, not indoctrinate," FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote. "This 'tradition' is illegal, coercive and divisive. FFRF fully supports a student's right to their own personal religious beliefs, and to pray on their own. We are confident a coach who cares about every student on the team will understand why it crosses the line to pray with students."

FFRF is a national nonprofit with nearly 23,000 members, including more than 700 in Illinois and a local chapter, FFRF Metropolitan Chicago.

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No more pre-game prayer

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Alyssa Schaefer

ALYSSA SCHAEFER is FFRF’s Program Assistant.  She graduated from The George Washington University in 2014 with a BA in International Affairs, concentrating in Security Policy.   A native of Wisco, she recently moved back to Madison from the east coast. In her free time Alyssa enjoys traveling, exploring the great outdoors, live music, and lazy Sundays with her cat Lola.

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