Freethought Today · June/July 2012

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF Victories

Vacation bible school takes a holiday

Although kids may be out of school, FFRF knows that the Constitution doesn’t take a vacation.

Hazelwood Elementary School’s summer program in Waynesville, N.C., includes gardening, crafts and games, and religion. This year on June 18-22 and in years past, the school sponsored trips to a local Baptist church’s vacation bible school.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott objected in a letter to Haywood County Schools Superintendent, Anne Garnett. Elliott explained that the school’s summer programming, including its registration forms, program handouts and advertisement on the school website, all served to “facilitate student recruitment for religious indoctrination.”

School attorney Patrick Smathers replied June 21 that he’d advised administrators that in his opinion, such coordination “is improper. Though the Haywood County School System takes pride in complying with all laws involving religion, this matter unfortunately occurred.”

The superintendent “will implement plans to assure that future summer programs . . . will not coordinate or advertise vacation bible school activities,” Smathers said.

FFRF letter ends church endorsement

Granite City, Ill., residents will no longer have to tacitly endorse a church or face a fine, thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The city municipal code required residents to purchase and prominently display sticker permits on their car windows each year. This year’s permit featured a photo of St. John United Church of Christ. Drivers who did not want to showcase the religious building faced up to $100 in fines for each day that the permit was not displayed. A local FFRF member opposed this use of permits and contacted FFRF.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Mayor Edward Hagnauer in late April that the mandatory church stickers violated the First Amendment rights of residents. Citing the Supreme Court case of Wooley v. Maynard, Elliott wrote, “No person can be compelled to display a message that violates her rights of conscience.” The letter also said the stickers give the impression that the city officially approves of St. John UCC.

In response to the complaint, the City Council met May 15 to adopt a resolution allowing residents to refrain from displaying the vehicle permits. The resolution provided that police would not enforce the sticker requirement.

Residents would still have to pay the permit fee, but a receipt would suffice as proof of a permit. The adopted resolution quoted both Illinois and U.S. Constitution religion clauses.

FFRF halts Georgia teacher’s prayers

A May 24 letter of complaint from FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel resulted in the principal of West Forsyth High School, Cumming, Ga., agreeing to stop leading students in prayer.

“We have been informed that, on the morning of May 21, 2012, the graduating class of West Forsyth High School was required to attend a mandatory meeting to receive information about their graduation ceremony,” Seidel wrote. “We were also informed that, prior to dismissing the meeting, Principal Betty Pope asked the students to ‘bow your heads for an invocation before breakfast.’ Our complainant tells us that Ms. Pope then proceeded to give an overtly sectarian prayer to her ‘Heavenly Father’ and ending ‘in Jesus’ name.’ ”

Forsyth County Schools Superintendent L.C. Evans responded May 31 and said the principal “admitted that the prayer had been said, indicated that she did not mean to offend anyone and acknowledged that in the future, prayers will not be delivered in such a setting.”

FFRF tackles coach’s football prayers

An Auburn [Wash.] High School football coach will no longer lead the team in prayer before games, nor will any other school district employees. The prayers took place in the locker room, with team members and coaches bowing their heads and taking a knee. Everyone in the locker room felt obligated to participate, according to FFRF’s complainant.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote May 23 to Timothy Cummings, the school district’s assistant superintendent of human resources, about the illegal prayers and concerns that other schools were allowing staff to lead prayer.

Cummings responded June 1 to say that “the school district’s athletic director has sent a memo to all building athletic directors to desist immediately with organized team prayers by coaches.” He also sent a copy of FFRF’s letter to all administrators and noted that “Principals will need to monitor closely so that staff refrains from leading prayers in school.” The district will also be hosting an in-service on “Constitutionality of Prayer in Public Schools.”

FFRF sacks football prayer in Alabama

Football coaches at Hoover [Ala.] High School will no longer engage in pregame locker room prayers. FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to alert Superintendent Andy Craig to the constitutional violation Jan. 6.

FFRF received confirmation from the school district’s attorney June 4 that coaches would not lead prayer or arrange for other adults to pray before football games in the future.

Bible distribution ended in Tennessee

Tullahoma [Tenn.] City Schools will prohibit bible distribution after receiving an FFRF complaint letter.

Fifth-graders at East Lincoln Elementary School were told by teachers to come up and take a bible in their classrooms. Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt warned Superintendent Dan Lawson in a May 21 letter that “Courts uniformly have held the distribution of bibles to students at public schools during instructional time is prohibited.”

In a May 29 response, Lawson wrote that he would advise principals to prohibit such distribution in the future, assuring FFRF that “we fully adhere to a belief that we are responsible to be neutral in matters of religion.”

Cross removed from Nebraska state park

Indian Caves State Park in Shubert, Neb., removed a large wooden cross from public property after receiving an FFRF letter of complaint May 22.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Ron Stave, chair of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, “No court of final resort has ever upheld the government’s permanent display of a Latin cross on public land as constitutional. The inherent religious significance of the Latin cross is undeniable and is not disguisable.”

Stave replied the next day to say that the cross had been removed.

County ends prayer at training luncheon

Christian prayers by government employees in Mecklenburg County, N.C., were silenced. FFRF acted on complaints from three county employees about prayers at a mandatory training luncheon for the county’s Department of Social Services. In a Feb. 8 letter to DSS Director Mary Wilson, Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt objected to the sectarian prayers. Schmitt wrote an April 18 follow-up letter.

A county attorney responded April 23 that “the matter has been addressed and is resolved. The county and DSS are very much aware of constitutional constraints placed on governmental behavior.”

FFRF letter blocks Texas football prayer

Coaches will no longer encourage students to pray in the locker room at McAllen [Texas] High School. McAllen’s head football coach reportedly asked a student to recite the Lord’s Prayer before each game.

Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote Feb. 1 to Superintendent James Ponce: “The coaches’ apparent organizing and obvious participation in a team prayer constitutes an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.”

Assistant Superintendent Mike Barrera responded after an April 18 follow-up letter, writing on May 9 that the district “has taken steps to orient staff and heighten awareness about the proper procedures involved in student-led prayers at public events.”

No longer will ‘God richly bless you’

Massachusetts’ Health and Human Services and Department of Children and Families will now refrain from making inappropriate religious references in their correspondence. An HHS employee forwarded FFRF an official letter from a DCF employee which included the phrase “may God richly bless you.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt noted in her Jan. 25 complaint letter to HHS Chief of Staff Stacey Monahan that “the U.S. Supreme Court has held that public officials may not seek to advance or promote religion.”

Monahan replied after FFRF sent a March 19 follow-up letter. She said the departments “regret any offense engendered,” and affirmed that they would “caution employees generally regarding inappropriate religious references in communications made in their official capacities.”

School religious materials draw FFRF scrutiny

Lewis County Intermediate School (Hohenwald, Tenn.) will stop teachers from handing out religious materials in the classroom. A local parent contacted FFRF after his fifth-grader came home on separate occasions with a bible and a permission slip for summer vacation bible school.

Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote May 23 to Director of Schools Benjamin Pace to note the constitutional violations. Pace replied June 7 to say that the district would revisit policy on materials that are sent out.

FFRF mutes religious music at school

Preschoolers at Herman Leimbach Elementary School (Elk Grove, Calif.) did not sing “God Bless America” at their June 14 graduation after receiving Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s June 12 letter of complaint to Superintendent Steven Ladd.

“Because this is a graduation for preschool students as young as four years old, Elk Grove United School District must consider how the messages it sends are perceived by its youngest, most impressionable students,” wrote Seidel.

Seidel spoke with FFRF’s local complainant the next day, who reported that the administration agreed to remove the song from both the graduation program and the school’s future repertoire.

FFRF educates pious Texas on Constitution

Byron Nelson High School (Fort Worth, Texas) will no longer mix prayer with school-sponsored assemblies. FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a June 1 letter to Superintendent Karen Rue outlining significant “constitutional concerns” brought on by an end-of-the-year assembly. A prayer was delivered during an event to honor the senior class. A local complainant told FFRF that school officials had full knowledge of the prayer before it was given and that the assembly was mandatory.

An attorney for the school district replied June 18, “The district has recently provided its administrators and educators with in-service training over a variety of issues, including those addressed in your letter.” He added that the district staff was specifically trained on the “ ‘do’s and don’ts’ of religion in public schools.”

FFRF excises AFB’s surgical unit bibles

FFRF put an end to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s practice of placing bibles in the medical center’s waiting rooms.

Prior to FFRF’s complaint, the Wright-Patterson Medical Center displayed Gideon bibles throughout its surgical unit waiting room. These bibles were the only religious materials available to patients at this government-run facility. FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to facility management on April 27, 2012. Schmitt wrote that “providing such material to patients and guests sends the message that they are expected to want to read the religious publications and that the hospital endorses the message found in the material.” She added that “government-run hospitals have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral towards religion.”

Schmitt noted that if a patient desires to read religious material during their hospital visit “they can bring their own.”

A local resident informed FFRF on June 26 that all bibles have been removed from the surgical unit waiting room.

FFRF stops information distribution to church

Bret Harte Union High School (Angels Camp, Calif.) will stop distributing student contact information to and supporting a baccalaureate program at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church.

A Bret Harte student contacted FFRF after receiving an invitation to a graduation Mass at St. Andrew’s. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Superintendent Michael Chimente on June 18 to take issue with this constitutional violation, calling it “shocking that a school, entrusted with the care, education and protection of minors, would give children’s information over to an organization known to harbor and shield sexual predators.”

Seidel emphasized that the “Stockton Diocese, of which Angels Camp is a part, has a sordid history of priests sexually abusing minors (at least 10 priests have been accused of sexual abuse of minors, two recently fled to Ireland).”

One of the most notorious is Fr. Oliver Francis O’Grady, who fled to his native Ireland and has admitted molesting at least 25 children.

Chimente called June 26 to say the school would stop distributing students’ information to religious institutions and stop supporting the baccalaureate at St. Andrew’s.

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