City Hall cross draws secular scrutiny
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a Feb. 6 complaint letter to Mayor Greg Goodnight about an illegal Latin cross cross on the lawn at City Hall in Kokomo, Ind. The cross purportedly was to observe the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
“It is unlawful for the city of Kokomo to display a patently religious symbol such as a Christian cross on public property,” Markert said. “The cross unabashedly creates the perception of government endorsement of Christianity. It conveys the message to the 26% of the U.S. population who are not Christians that they are not ‘favored members of the political community.’ ”
Air Force unit’s new motto slight improvement
FFRF took issue in an Action Alert to members over the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office’s (USAF-RCO) decision to change its Latin motto from “Doing God’s Work, With Other People’s Money” to “Doing Miracles With Other People’s Money.” While FFRF applauded the gesture, it felt the change didn’t go far enough.
In a Feb. 10 letter to Secretary Michael Donley and Gen. Norton Schwartz, FFRF noted that either of the mottos “would be appropriate for a faith healer or a slick televangelist, but neither is appropriate for the U.S. military.”
USAF-RCO made a wise choice when it removed “God” from the motto, but to replace it with “miracles” does nothing to relieve the religious entanglement. “A miracle, by its very definition, recognizes a god that intervenes in human affairs. It is an entirely religious idea that is rejected by rationalists and nonbelievers,” wrote FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor.
FFRF maintains that a group motto should be “something that all members can rally around.”
FFRF lauds airline’s ‘prayer drop’ decision
In late January, Alaska Airlines announced it would, after more than 30 years, stop distributing prayer cards to passengers. Chairman Bill Ayer said eliminating the cards is “the right thing to do in order to respect the diverse religious beliefs and cultural attitudes of all our customers and employees.”
(Practicalities also intervened — Alaska Airlines stopped providing the cards to coach six years ago when meal tray service ended.)
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor commented, “May I say ‘Hallelujah?’ It took 30 years, but Alaska Airlines finally listened!”
As long as Alaska Airlines has been providing the cards, FFRF has been receiving complaints about them and acting on those complaints.
“Back in the mid-1980s, I used to head our ‘Target List,’ ” noted Gaylor, “whereby we would send out monthly or periodic lists of people, columnists or corporations who needed to be educated. A loyal group of highly articulate members participated, and it was always a joy to read copies of their replies. Honestly, I feel our cumulative letters (sent, in those slow-paced days by mail, sometimes arriving weeks after the fact) can take credit for turning at least one Religious-Right columnist into an agnostic, helping to wean an editorial cartoonist (who shall not be named) away from religion, and affecting some major state/church turnarounds.”
Freethought Today’s “Letterbox” also published many articulate complaints from our members. Clara Carlson, one of FFRF’s best-beloved and long-time Washington state members, who died recently at age 102, shared her “open letter to Alaska Airlines” in a 1991 letter. Clara, who due to her location often had to rely on Alaska Airlines, wrote acidly: “The notion that it is necessary to pray, while flying with your line, is disquieting. It seems to indicate that one cannot have confidence in your pilots and mechanics.”
FFRF protests Jesus prayers in Green Bay
FFRF has formally urged the Brown County Board in Green Bay, Wis., to stop “unnecessary” and “inappropriate” prayer before government meetings. Meetings currently open with an overtly Christian prayer that often includes specific references to “Jesus.”
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert called attention to the constitutional violation in a Feb. 6 letter to the board. Soon after receiving the letter, the board met, with the Press-Gazette reporting that Chairwoman Mary Scray opened the meeting with “dear Lord” and ended with “in the Lord, our savior’s name.” She also took it upon herself to bless the reporters and warn them against stirring up any “controversy.”
This is not the first time FFRF has taken action over state/church violations in the Green Bay area. In 2009, FFRF successfully settled a two-year-old legal battle, with the city agreeing not to put back up a nativity scene above the entrance to City Hall every December.
FFRF has also been victorious in ending prayer in neighboring governments. The County Board in Eau Claire, Wis., voted 23-4 to stop invocations before meetings on May 3, 2011. The City Council of Ashland, Wis., followed suit Jan. 10.
Plaque removal not just dentist’s task
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott’s Feb. 7 complaint to Town Manager Brenda Pittman, Newland, N.C., cited constitutional violations in having a Ten Commandments plaque in the Town Hall.
“Anyone entering the building for necessary government business will be confronted by it,” noted Elliott.
“Given the appearance and context of the Town Hall display, any reasonable observer would view it as an endorsement of religion by the town of Newland,” he said. “This display is unmistakably stamped with the town government’s approval, as it is prominently placed directly inside of the town’s central governmental office.”
School needs firewall against ‘Fireproof’
Staff Attorney Stephanie wrote a Feb. 7 complaint to Superintendent Gene Buinger of the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District in Bedford, Texas, about a Christian movie shown in January at Trinity High School. A local complainant reported that the interpersonal studies class watched the film “Fireproof” over several class periods despite objections by at least one student.
The movie depicts a man who is challenged by his Christian father to save his marriage by showing his wife the love that “Christ shows to us.” The protagonist makes a “life-changing commitment to love God, [a]nd with God’s help he begins to understand what it means to truly love his wife.”
“Fireproof” was produced by Sherwood Pictures, the “moviemaking ministry” of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. “This movie is undeniably meant to be Christian propaganda,” Schmitt wrote.
Some fictions kosher, others not in Tenn.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Superintendent Mike Looney on Feb. 3 about violations at Summit High School in Franklin, Tenn. A student contacted FFRF after school officials strongly encouraged him to remove a costume he sported Jan. 30 for Fictional Character Day. Jeff Shott, 17, went to school in a Jesus of Nazareth outfit. Other students wore costumes depicting characters such as Darth Vader, SpongeBob SquarePants and the Mad Hatter. Before first period, the principal and at least two other staff approached Jeff about fictional Jesus. Zeus would have been a better choice, Jeff says the principal told him, and added that it was “controversial and likely to disrupt the learning environment. After that, he felt he no choice but to take off the costume.
A concerned citizen also reported that a 10th-grade science teacher at Summit told students that evolution was just a theory and one she didn’t believe. She allegedly told students that she thinks “we actually come from Adam and Eve.”
A middle school teacher also allegedly made derogatory comments about evolution, Markert said. “We are concerned other teachers in your district are touting creationism over evolution. . . . We question whether a creationist can be qualified to teach a physical science course.”
Regarding the Jesus costume, Markert told the school that “It seems the only ‘disruption’ created was the overrreaction by school officials.”
Bible resolution ‘Holy inappropriate!’
“RESOLVED, That the House of Representatives declare 2012 as the “Year of the Bible” in Pennsylvania in recognition of both the formative influence of the Bible on our Commonwealth and nation and our national need to study and apply the teachings of the holy scriptures.”
FFRF and its members protested the above resolution naming 2012 the “Year of the Bible,” unanimously passed (193-0) Jan. 24 in the Pennsylvania House.
The resolution arrogantly exhorts citizens to “study and apply the teachings of the holy scriptures.” What a discredit to the legacy of William Penn, one of the earliest champions of freedom of conscience, FFRF charged in a joint letter to Speaker of the House Samuel Smith and House Minority Leader Frank Dermody.
The Pennsylvania Assembly is strictly prohibited by the Pennsylvania Constitution from controlling or interfering with “the limits of conscience,” or showing any preference “by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship.”
“It is no more permissible for members of the Assembly to ‘bless’ the bible than it would be for them to endorse the Quran,” wrote FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Our constitution grants sovereignty not to a deity or a ‘holy book,’ but to ‘We, the People.’ ”
‘Holy Inappropriate!’ said the headline on a Philadelphia Inquirer column by John Baer, who knocked the resolution and others like it for wasting legislative time.
Several legislators later backtracked and asked for a revote. Rep. Babette Josephs apologized. Rep. Mark Cohen said the resolution was “buried with a whole bunch of other resolutions at a time when legislators were focused on getting on the ballot and running for re-lection. Had there been a debate there would have been some ‘no’ votes, including mine. But I have no doubt whatsoever that it would have passed overwhelmingly on its own with a debate.”
Suit suits removal of Ten Commandments
Since 2007, FFRF has been contesting a divisive Ten Commandments monument on the City Hall lawn in Bloomfield, N.M.
The dispute started when the City Council adopted a policy to allow the monument to be placed by the city. In June 2007, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote to the city about the disingenuous claims that the monument was “historic,” adding, “It is farcical to pretend that the desire to erect one religion’s particular teaching has anything to do with history. It clearly has to do with placing the imprimatur of government behind one religion, conferring state blessings on some believers, while turning other citizens into outsiders.”
Not until June 2011 did the council vote (without public notice) to place the monument, which was dedicated on July 4. Private funds were used.
FFRF, numerous citizens and the ACLU of New Mexico again objected. FFRF’s letter noted that under less egregious circumstances than here, the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (which has jurisdiction over New Mexico) found that an Oklahoma county’s Ten Commandments monument endorsed religion in violation of the First Amendment. The county’s legal expenses in that case cost taxpayers $200,000.
On Feb. 8, two Bloomfield residents and the ACLU of New Mexico filed a lawsuit challenging the monument. The legal complaint describes how the city gave preferential treatment to the monument’s sponsors and violated its own ordinances and the U.S. and state constitutions in placing it.
FFRF contests Alabama ‘Bible Man’ programs
Monthly “Bible Man” assemblies at North Sand Mountain Elementary School in Higdon, Ala., and other violations drew strong complaints from FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt in a Dec. 29 letter of complaint.
FFRF’s complainant reported an assembly included a display with baby Jesus with Horace Turner Jr., aka Bible Man, speaking about Jesus’ birthday and “Jesus dying on the cross for our sins.” Turner allegedly hands out coins with bible verses on them to children with birthdays in a particular month.
“Our complainant also reports that her child believes attendance is required, and that if the student did opt out, the student’s absence would be obvious and the student would be ostracized,” Schmitt said.
The complaint also detailed singing of religious songs in school and praying over the loudspeaker at every 2011 home game in the school district. A football banquet at the end of the season was held in a Baptist church and featured a pastor preaching to students for half an hour.
According to the Huntsville Times, about 100 people attended a Jackson County School Board meeting Jan. 30 in Scottsboro to support the religious programming. After an hour’s discussion, the board voted not to ban Turner.
State Sen. Shadrack McGill supported Turner. “I don’t believe you keep God out of state. Church represents the body of Christ, Christ being the head of that body. No, I don’t believe in that separation.”
While the board met in closed session, people sang, prayed and shared life testimonies, WAAY reported.
FFRF won’t stand for forced pledge rule
Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote a Feb. 7 complaint to Baker School District Superintendent Ulysses Joseph in Baker, La., about students being forced to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
FFRF’s complainant reported faculty require students to stand during the pledge. The district has a written policy, which states: “[i]f a student, due to a conscientiously and sincerely held religious belief, feels entitled to an exemption to the requirement to recite the pledge, such student shall still be required to stand.” The policy cites a state law as authority: “Discipline of pupils; suspension; expulsion,” inferring that student may be disciplined for not abiding by the policy.
“This is a clear violation of students’ First Amendment rights,” Schmitt said.
“A student should not be singled out, rebuked, told they must stand, or otherwise be penalized for following their freedom of conscience. Nor should students who participate in the pledge, or who volunteer to lead the class in the pledge or to recite it over the intercom, be rewarded or favored over students who do not participate. Furthermore, freedom of conscience does not include only ‘religious belief[s],’ as your policy implies.”