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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

A North Carolina appeals court has handed a big victory to the First Amendment.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation had signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief filed in 2015 with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asking the court to strike down the Rowan County Board of Commissioners' practice of coercing citizens to participate in Christian prayers at its meetings. Since at least November 2007, Rowan County officials opened their meetings with Christian prayers nearly 100 percent of the time. These Christian prayers, by the commissioners themselves, repeatedly referenced "Jesus" and "the Savior."

The commissioners also instructed attendees to join in those prayers.

U.S. District Court Judge James A. Beaty in May 2015 had ruled that Rowan County's prayer practice was a constitutional problem. The commissioners appealed that decision, and a three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled in their favor last year. But on Friday, July 14, the full bench of the 4th Circuit Appeals court resoundingly ruled 10-5 that the Rowan County commissioners were violating the Constitution

"We conclude that the Constitution does not allow what happened in Rowan County," states the ruling. "The prayer practice served to identify the government with Christianity and risked conveying to citizens of minority faiths a message of exclusion. And because the commissioners were the exclusive prayer-givers, Rowan County's invocation practice falls well outside the more inclusive, minister-oriented practice of legislative prayer described in Town of Greece. Indeed, if elected representatives invite their constituents to participate in prayers invoking a single faith for meeting upon meeting, year after year, it is difficult to imagine constitutional limits to sectarian prayer practice."

The court's judgment closely followed the language of the brief that secular groups filed.

In the recent Supreme Court case Greece v. Galloway, upholding legislative prayer in some cases, "the court did not write [local] governments a blank check to impose religion on unwilling citizens," the brief opened. The commissioners' practices "put intolerable pressure on citizens — including religious minorities and nonbelievers — to violate their conscience by participating in Christian religious exercises."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State authored the brief. In addition to FFRF, it was joined by the American Humanist Association, Anti-Defamation League, Center for Inquiry, Interfaith Alliance Foundation, Sikh Coalition, Union for Reform Judaism and Women of Reform Judaism.

"We are overjoyed that the 4th Circuit gave a constitutionally correct ruling," says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. "With the Rowan County commissioners being so blatant in their violations, it could have been no other way."

FFRF is a national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 nonreligious members and chapters all across the country, including 600-plus and a chapter in North Carolina. Its purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.

Due to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, there won't be any Christian indoctrination permitted during official hunter training in New Hampshire.

The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department facilitates hunter safety classes throughout New Hampshire. A person who contacted FFRF attended a class on April 6-8 hosted by the Heritage Free Will Baptist Church in Laconia, N.H. The complainant reported that everyone who attended the class received religious flyers with prayers and information about church services. A pastor taught this class. The religious materials were enclosed with all of the official hunter's safety documents and study packets.

These proselytizing handouts were demeaning to non-Christians and nonbelievers, FFRF pointed out. Such a misuse of a state function for sectarian purposes was unacceptable.

"It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that a government entity cannot in any way endorse religion," FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote to Glenn Normandeau, executive director of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. "Allowing churches to distribute their religious literature through a class co-sponsored by New Hampshire Fish and Game constitutes government endorsement and advancement of religion." 

FFRF urged the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department to make certain that future classes co-sponsored by the department not involve the distribution of such religious materials.

FFRF's missive got an ample amount of media coverage, and the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department took due notice.

"I want to assure you that we do take the complaint seriously, and have confirmed that materials were in fact provided to participants that were unauthorized and outside of the approved curriculum," Normandeau recently wrote back. "We have taken corrective action in the matter, and are reaffirming with all of our instructors that no materials should be distributed in any class other than those which are part of the approved curriculum." 

FFRF is proud to have played a pivotal part in ending a constitutional violation.

"These sorts of transgressions often slip under the radar," says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. "We're thrilled that due to us such practices will not happen again in the state of New Hampshire."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 members across the country, including in New Hampshire. Its purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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