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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

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Vote no Nov. 8 on Oklahoma ballot measure

On Election Day, please vote no on a ballot measure that would entangle the state with religious promotion.

State Question 790 carelessly proposes that the state remove Article 2, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution, which prohibits public money or property from being used to benefit any religious institution. Nearly every other state constitution protects religious liberty by barring direct funding of churches. State citizens should reject this gutting of their state constitution on Nov. 8!

The question the state ballot asks has been deceivingly written to suggest that a "yes" vote will simply ensure the return of the Ten Commandments monument to the Oklahoma Capitol grounds, which is disturbing in and of itself. But the vote on Nov. 8 reaches beyond this one monument, encroaching into dangerous territory where the state actively subsidizes religion.

If passed, State Question 790 threatens citizens' right to religious freedom by funneling taxpayer dollars into religious monuments, religious propaganda, private religious schooling and other state-endorsed promotion of religious doctrine.

State Question 790 undermines the constitutional protection that no citizen should be taxed to support a place of worship.

Act to preserve the wall between church and state that is guaranteed by Article 2, Section 5, as well as the U.S. Constitution. Vote NO on State Question 790 on Nov. 8! Please also use social media and timely letters to the editor to educate Oklahomans on the danger of this bill and the need to protect true religious liberty.


1ccsshieldThe Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed an amicus brief against a Florida Christian school that wants to broadcast pregame prayers at state championship football games.

Cambridge Christian School in Tampa, Fla., filed a federal lawsuit last month targeting the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA), a state entity, asking that it provide access to a public-address system so that the school's prayers could be heard loud and clear before games. The case stemmed from a Dec. 4, 2015, game where the school's request to use the public-address system for prayers was declined by the association, which manages game announcements. The association recently asked a Florida district court judge to toss out the lawsuit. FFRF and its local chapter, Central Florida Freethought Community, have filed friends-of-the-court briefs asserting that Cambridge Christian has no case to make.

"Cambridge Christian wants to force a state agency to promote its Christian message through a mechanism limited to conveying government speech," FFRF states in the brief. "The Florida High School Athletic Association has rightly declined to do so because it would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment." 

Students who participate in the association's athletic championship competitions or attend the competitions cannot be the subjects of publicly broadcast prayer by the association, FFRF contends. This remains true even when private Christian schools participate. Under the Establishment Clause, the government may not endorse religion, and there is no exception to be made for when most members of the audience would be receptive to the religious message. The Florida High School Athletic Association cannot be the mouthpiece of religious organizations or be used to gather event attendees to engage in a communal expression of Christian religious worship.

FFRF also argues that a ruling in favor of Cambridge Christian would harm the public.
"In this case, an injunction would be adverse to the public interest because it would violate the rights of participants, spectators and those who view the game broadcast," it says.

The Central Florida Freethought Community agrees. "We hope the court will see that this is not a matter of censorship, but the appropriate use of a public facility for a secular sporting event," says Director Jocelyn Williamson.

FFRF and the Central Florida Freethought Community are asking the court to rule against Cambridge Christian's motion for an injunction.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is an organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with has a national enrollment of 23,000 nonreligious members, including more than 1,000 in Florida.


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FFRF objects to coach’s student baptism

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is raising objections to a Mississippi public school football coach's baptism of a student-athlete.

On Sept. 21, Newton High football Coach Ryan Smith organized and performed a baptism, using a big utility tub, of one of his football players. The entire team was present. Prior to performing the ritual, Smith made religious remarks to the team about how "God" was calling out to him, what the scripture says about being a man, and proclaimed that accepting Jesus Christ as one's savior is "a decision that a man is supposed to make."

"It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Newton Municipal School District Superintendent Virginia Young. "It is illegal for coaches to organize or participate in religious activities with students, including baptisms. Federal courts have specifically held public school coaches' participation in religious activities with their players unconstitutional." 

FFRF asserted that Coach Smith's actions go well beyond the behavior held illegal by federal courts—including the 5th Circuit, the controlling court of appeals in Mississippi—since he organized a religious ritual and sermonized his players. His actions are especially problematic, since players in such a setting feel the need to conform to their coaches' expectations so as not to hurt their standing on the team.

By his actions, Smith sends the message that the coaching staff, and, by extension, the school district value Christian players above those who practice a minority religion or no religion at all. Newton and its schools are home to a diverse array of families, including parents and students who are non-Christian and nonreligious. The district has an obligation to make its activities welcoming and nondiscriminatory for all, not just its Christian majority.

FFRF requested that the Newton Municipal School District take appropriate steps to ensure that there are no further illegal events, such as baptisms, during school-sponsored events. It also asked that coaches and school staff be instructed that they can't organize or participate in religious activities with students while acting in their official capacity.

"Talk about 'pray to play,'" said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. "Coaches who can't control their proselytizing impulses should not be employed by public schools."

Since receiving FFRF's letter, the school district's superintendent released an initial statement that highlights what it considers to be mitigating factors that justify Coach Smith's actions. But Grover says that those factors do not resolve the constitutional issue. Since the statement was released, Newton's attorney has been in communication with Grover and has resolved to discuss the state of the law with Superintendent You. "We are hopeful that the school district will decide on a course of action soon," Grover notes.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nontheist organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with more than 23,000 members all over the country, including in Mississippi.

Update: On Oct. 26, Newton Municipal School District attorney Robert Logan communicated to FFRF that this issue has been addressed. Superintendent Young met with Coach Smith and all other district personnel to explain the importance of abiding by the Establishment Clause. The district does not expect that its faculty or staff will promote their personal religious beliefs to students in the future.

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

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