Freethought Today · September 2012

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF Legal Victories

Church trailer removed from school

FFRF filed a complaint in July to Maury County Public Schools (Columbia, Tenn.) about a trailer from WellSpring Christian Church that was permanently parked next to the sign for Spring Hill Elementary. The church uses the school for Sunday worship servicesy.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote that it “is inappropriate for the District to permit advertisement of religious organizations or churches, especially a permanent advertisement, on school property. Even if allowed to rent district facilities to churches, a public school should not allow any activity that would give the appearance of promoting or supporting religion.”  

A school attorney responded July 19 that “The church has been informed that this trailer, along with any other advertisement it utilizes, may only be upon school grounds immediately before and during the time in which the church utilizes the school facilities.”

 

FFRF ends Kentucky graduation prayer

An invocation and benediction were given at the 2012 Mercer County High School graduation ceremony in Frankfort, Ky. Both prayers, also listed in the official program, made reference to Jesus Christ and one ended with a genuflection.  

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote June 8 to remind the school that “the Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations.”

On July 20, the school district’s attorney wrote, “I have advised that there should not be any prayers as part of the ceremony.”  He added, “While planning for the graduation ceremony in the spring of 2013 has not yet occurred, it is my understanding the School District representatives intend to make the necessary changes to next year’s graduation so that this is no longer an issue.”

 

FFRF letter halts Christian assemblies

Thanks to a July 26 letter from Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, Signal Mountain Middle/High School, Chattanooga, Tenn., is on notice that future school assemblies cannot use warnings about alcohol as a pretext for Christian proselytization. 

FFRF’s local complainant detailed an assembly speech by Dave Walton, allegedly an expert on substance abuse. But a cursory search of his website, braggingforjesus.org/, reveals ulterior motives.

The attorney for Hamilton County Schools wrote Aug. 1 that many faculty members were also concerned that the presentation was inappropriate and that the presentation resulted from a “gross failure” to screen the speaker. The attorney called the situation “a good story for training.” 

 

Georgia school bans football prayer-giver

On behalf of a local complainant, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote May 23 to Dougherty County Schools, Albany, Ga., to point out constitutional violations by a Fellowship of Christian Athletes member who gave postgame prayers for football teams in Albany. 

FCA rep Bill Cox gathered the team and coaches told them to kneel. Prayers included several references to Jesus’ crucifixion “fiction,” including “Thank you Lord Jesus for dying on the cross to save us from our sins.”

Superintendent Joshua Murfree replied Aug. 23 that Cox’s activities “are inconsistent with the practices of the school system, and I have issued instructions that, because of his activities, Mr. Bill Cox is not to be permitted to come upon school property or to attend school-sponsored functions.”

Murfree “reiterated to our athletic employees our practice of not permitting prayer at athletic functions.”

 

FFRF stops Alabama graduation prayers

A graduating senior who’s an atheist reported to FFRF that East Limestone High School in Athens, Ala., had graduation prayers listed in the program for which the student leading the invocation and benediction asked everyone to bow their heads and pray.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel first wrote the school board June 4 and sent two follow-up letters. The superintendent replied Aug. 21 that schools “have been informed of the law and have taken appropriate steps to ensure that religious prayers will not be scheduled or endorsed as a part of the graduation ceremonies or any other school-sponsored events.”

 

Georgia bible distribution halted

Thomas County School District, Thomasville, Ga., stopped allowing Gideons to distribute bibles after a March 23 letter from Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt. A middle school principal had announced over the intercom that the bibles were being handed out.

Superintendent George Kornegay Jr. replied July 16 that bible distributions “will not occur in the future in the Thomas County Schools.”

 

Senior center agrees to obey law

Employees at Peach County Senior Citizens Center, Fort Valley, Ga., were regularly leading residents in prayer before meals, playing Baptist hymns on the piano and reading from the bible to celebrate any event or special day, according to FFRF’s senior citizen complainant.  

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter July 26 to the center director noting that because it receives federal funds, it is subject to federal law which “is explicit and unequivocal in its prohibition on religious activities.”

The center responded August 9: “[W]e have discussed this matter with the participants to educate them that our staff cannot/will not initiate, encourage, or participate in any religious based activity. Any participant that observes staff promoting religion in any way has been made aware of the Agency’s grievance policy.”

 

FFRF blocks school soccer prayer

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a complaint letter July 31 about the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) hosting a soccer tournament that included prayer. Video showed a Fellowship of Christian Athletes member praying.

AHSAA responded Aug. 6 that “we certainly appreciate your concerns and take very seriously our duties and obligations under federal and state law. To that end, we intend to fully comply with all constitutional mandates.”

 

FFRF stops daily prelunch prayers

The Tishomingo County School District will no longer allow teachers to lead students in prayer.

Iuka Elementary School teachers in Iuka, Miss., will stop leading students in prayers before lunch. Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote the school May 3 about the illegal practice.

Superintendent Ben McClung wrote July 23 to say “we understand that teachers cannot encourage students to pray or lead students in prayer.”

 

Texas FCA adviser played active role

A coach at Hutto High School in Texas can no longer play an active role in the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter. The coach/club adviser was sending emails to staff promoting FCA events and listing himself as the contact person. 

Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt complained in February. On Aug. 8, a school attorney replied that the district would offering training on constitutional issues and “will also ensure that this club is truly student-initiated and student-run.” 

 

Complaint gets cross taken down

FFRF received a complaint last spring from a New Yorker who reported that a science teacher at Public School 76 in Queens displayed a cross on the wall next to the blackboard. The display included the words “love god.” Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a letter of complaint May 8 to the principal. The principal responded July 18 that “the item has been removed.”

 

FFRF stops Community College violation 

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote April 4 to the Peralta Community College chancellor in Oakland, Calif., about a staff member using “BY GRACE ALONE THROUGH FAITH ALONE IN CHRIST ALONE” as his email signature. The staffer had sent a system email to all district employees inviting them to join a “prayer at the pole” event.

The college’s general counsel responded Aug. 22 to say that the employee is no longer sending emails with religious content.

 

FFRF stops Ohio graduation prayer

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert’s three letters of complaint about 2011 graduation prayer in Mogadore, Ohio, have borne fruit. The prayer given by the class treasurer was listed in the program.  

The district has responded that “Field High School will not have prayer at graduation ceremonies and has enacted policies prohibiting prayer at graduation.” The letter included a copy of the new policy.

 

Pregame prayers halted in South Dakota

The Castlewood [S.D.] School District will no longer hold pregame prayers after an FFRF complaint May 23 and follow-up letters by Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. A video posted on YouTube showed school personnel leading prayers before sporting events. 

Superintendent Keith Fodness responded Aug. 14: “Our coaching staff has been briefed on the case law pertaining to prayer as it relates to the situation described in your letter and have been instructed to act within those guidelines.”

 

Florida probes ‘In God We Trust’ plates

In May, FFRF contacted four Florida state agencies about an apparent “scam in God’s name” involving a policy allowing drivers to buy specialty license plates for an additional fee which goes to the group sponsoring the plate.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel noted in several letters that the “In God We Trust Foundation” had collected over $630,000 and distributed nothing to a charity for children which it claimed to be supporting.  

The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles replied Aug. 27: “Our department is aware of the alleged noncompliance regarding the distribution of funds from sales of the In God We Trust specialty license plate. As this is an ongoing investigation, we are not at liberty to divulge related information.”

The letter added that due to the probe, “our department has not distributed any funds to the IGWT Foundation.”

Did ‘man in sky’ see complaint coming? 

FFRF’s objection about a teacher at a Mandarin language immersion elementary school in the San Mateo/Foster City [Calif.] School District was successful.

A local complainant told FFRF that the teacher told students that the “man in the sky can see everything you do, but you can’t see him because he is camouflaged.”

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the district May 22 about the allegation of proselytization of a captive audience of children.

The school district informed FFRF Aug. 16 that it “has reminded its employees of the District’s policy of not [teaching] religion in schools.” 

Court now offers
12-step options

After an FFRF letter, the Rocky River [Ohio] Municipal Court will offer secular alternatives to Alcoholics Anonymous. The court had required some offenders to either attend Alcoholics Anonymous or be jailed.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote on  March 16 to the court’s probation department, pointing out that courts have consistently found AA and other 12-step programs to be “religious programs for purposes of First Amendment analysis.”

Chief Probation Officer Judy Nash responded Aug. 1 that the court will offer offenders other options, including information on Rational Recovery and Secular Organizations for Sobriety.

 

God hates divorce
in Missouri?

FFRF received a complaint about a Missouri pastor who appeared to hijack required Family Court educational programs on divorce in Jackson County by talking about himself and his faith for most of the three-hour period. The pastor also handed out fliers offering his religious services outside of class, which were held in his church.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the court July 16 to ask for correction of the theological bent of the secular class.

The court responded a month later that the minister was told that “the issue of his religious faith and his ministry have no place in the teaching of this curriculum and we have instructed him to discontinue references to his background such that gives the appearance that the Court is promoting religion over nonreligious beliefs.” The court will “monitor this issue with all” of its instructors.  

The response noted that the court is also “actively looking for locations outside of church property where we can hold classes.” 

FFRF stops prayer at Michigan school

Hastings Area School District in Michigan refrained from including a prayer in its 2012 high school graduation ceremony after receiving an April 13 complaint letter from Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt. For at least 10 years, Hastings High School has included an illegal invocation in its official graduation program and selected a student to lead the prayer.

In a July 17 reply, Superintendent Todd Geerlings assured FFRF that, “there were no prayers said at the Hastings High School graduation ceremony on May 25, 2012.”

Mississippi teacher oversteps bounds

A U.S. history teacher in Raymond, Miss., who brought “Truth for Youth Bibles” to class for students to take will no longer do so after a May 23 letter from Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt. The teacher also asked her students to raise their hands if they “believe that women who have abortions are going to hell.” 

While the teacher was present, a student was allowed to ask classmates who were “saved” to raise their hands. 

Superintendent Stephen Handley replied Aug. 8 that “the teacher was given instruction and counseling on her role as a teacher in our district and the requirement of neutrality with respect to religious issues.”

 

FFRF deletes religious recording

The recorded message of the License Office in Rolla, Mo., no longer ends in “God bless you.” Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt’s letter resulted in it being changed to “Have a wonderful day.”

Indiana discovers the Constitution!

According to publicity, Indiana Dunes State Park appeared to be hosting and co-sponsoring a 5-kilometer event with St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, with proceeds going to the church’s school. In a March 15 letter, Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt chastened state officials.

A June 29 response confirmed that while a flier mistakenly stated the event was co-sponsored, the Division of State Parks did not sponsor it. The church was required to obtain a special event permit to use the park.

 

FFRF stops Alabama religious emails

An Alabama Medicaid Agency employee used her official email account to ask recipients to help ban an upcoming film depicting Jesus as a homosexual. Her email included a quotation from the bible and urged recipients, “Let’s stand for what we believe and stop the mockery of Jesus Christ our Savior.”  

Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent the agency a letter June 20.

Acting Commissioner Stephanie McGee Azar agreed in a July 13 letter that the employee violated policy, adding that “appropriate disciplinary action” was taken against her.
Religious narrative out in Ohio

The Antwerp [Ohio] School District  will no longer include religious messages in school assemblies after a complaint last fall from Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt.

A Veterans Day assembly had included recitation of “The Meaning Behind the Folding Ceremonies of the Flag,” a discredited religious narrative which explains the “meaning” of each of the 12 folds of the flag. The “meaning” of the 12th fold, e.g., is to represent and glorify “God the Father, The Son, and Holy Ghost.”

On Aug. 9, school attorney Kimball Carey told FFRF that the principal who organized the assembly wasn’t aware of the content of the presentation, and said it wouldn’t happen again in Antwerp schools.

 

‘Faith & Family Night’ fan draw dismal

California University of Pennsylvania, a public school in the borough of California, Pa., agreed after getting Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt’s complaint that it’s unconstitutional to offer reduced admission to basketball games for those who mention their church affiliation.

“Faith and Family Night” last Jan. 6 offered $3 admission for people who mentioned their church affiliation. Churches also were allowed to set up informational tables in the new basketball arena. 

Legal University counsel Jacqueline Morrow replied Aug. 20 that she told administrators on the day of the event that the promotion was unconstitutional. “The University administrators responsible for the event were apologetic, and because the game had already been advertised, we decided that the available cure would be to make sure that everyone that attended the event would be charged the same, lower price.”

Morrow added, “Not only was the plan unconstitutional, it was not successful. Attendance was low.” 

 

God’s help out in San Francisco

The San Francisco Assessment Appeals Board removed “so help me God” from the oath used to swear in parties testifying at board hearings after getting Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt’s February letter and follow-up letters.

Board Administrator Dawn Duran wrote on Aug. 14 that the religious oath is out and has been replaced by, “Do you solemnly swear or affirm that the testimony you are about to give will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” 

 

Census unlinks to Catholic ‘research’

FFRF was contacted by a curious researcher in November 2011 who “wanted to look up religion statistics and tried www.census.gov/,” the U.S. Census website.  The census stopped collecting religious statistics in 1936, but provides links to “more information.” These links included the Hartford Seminary and the Glenmary Research Center (GRC).

The link to the GRC in fact linked to Glenmary Home Missioners, a missionary organization “dedicated to establishing a Catholic presence in rural areas and small towns of the United States where the Catholic Church is not yet effectively present.”

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Census Bureau Director Robert Groves on May 22 about the links. Several follow-up letters and phone calls ensued. Seidel suggested the Pew Forum on Religion & the Public Life would be a better source.

The Census’ Web and Social Media Branch reviewed all the links to religious information, and as of July 2, removed them all. The Census also now links to the Pew Research Center.  

 

Football prayers forced to ‘take a knee’

FFRF was victorious against pregame football prayer at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, where sectarian prayer led by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes had been a home game staple since 2010. 

Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt initially wrote to UTC Chancellor Roger Brown on May 15: “While students, athletes, and athletic event attendees may choose to gather privately in prayer, a public university has no place in encouraging or endorsing religious ritual.” 

Schmitt also noted that a 1997 decision, Chaudhuri v. State of Tenn., by the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held that sectarian prayers at public university events violate the Establishment Clause. 

After several months of indecision, Brown announced Sept. 10 that “the right decision for the university” was to offer a moment of silence in lieu of prayer. 

Brown told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that “we need to make sure there is never anybody that goes away from our campus, our stadium, our arena or classroom or work, that feels like they have been excluded or feel uncomfortable in any way.”

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