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Freethought Today · November 2015

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF legal victories

Bible class discontinued at Alabama school

Blount County School District in Oneonta, Ala., did not offer a bible study elective class for the 2015-16 school year after FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel lodged a complaint about the unconstitutional class.

The class was taught by a teacher and a local Baptist pastor. Class topics included "How we got the bible; Doctrine issues and how they apply to the bible; How to find Christ in the Old Testament — How the Old Testament relates to the New Testament." The translation used in the class was described as providing "the most recent evangelical Christian bible scholarship."

Seidel quoted the 1948 Supreme Court case McCollum v. Board of Education, in which the court wrote, "Here not only are the state's tax-supported public school buildings used for the dissemination of religious doctrines. The State also affords sectarian groups an invaluable aid in that it helps to provide pupils for their religious classes through use of the state's compulsory public school machinery. This is not separation of Church and State."

The district's attorney, Donald B. Sweeney, Jr., informed Seidel on Sept. 2 that the class was discontinued for the following school year.

Classroom prayers nixed in North Carolina

A teacher in the school district of Perquimans County in Hertford, N.C., will no longer be permitted to lead her first-graders in prayer after FFRF contacted the district and informed it of the constitutional violation.

Susan Jordan, first-grade teacher at Perquimans Central School, previously led her class in prayer every day before lunch. "Public school teachers may not lead, direct, or ask students to engage in prayer," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott on Sept. 2. "The School District of Perquimans County has an obligation under the law to make certain that 'subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion,'" wrote Elliott, quoting a Supreme Court case.

The school district's attorney, Richard A. Schwartz, promptly informed FFRF on Sept. 4 that the superintendent had investigated FFRF's allegations and met with the teacher. "School officials are confident there will not be any further problems," Schwartz said.

No prayers at school employee meetings

FFRF has ensured that prayers will not be given during future mandatory faculty meetings in the Montgomery Independent School District in Texas. The school district had brought a Christian pastor to give a prayer at an Aug. 18 employee meeting, and the dean of academics also offered a prayer.

"Federal courts have held that mandatory meetings for government employees cannot promote religion," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote. "This type of religious endorsement unfairly isolates non-Christian and nonreligious employees and could also be perceived as workplace harassment."

A response from the superintendent on Sept. 8 said that the district "has addressed these incidents with the appropriate personnel and have taken steps to be proactive in training our administrative staff on the complexities inherent in protecting the constitutional principle of separation between church and state."

Teacher kicked out of religious club

A teacher at Colonial High School in Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools will no longer have a leadership role in CONFRA: Hispanic Christian Action, a religious club, following involvement into the issue by FFRF.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote the district on Aug. 27 about the teacher's conduct. She posted on Facebook in Spanish: "I'm super happy and grateful to God because it pleases Him to use me as His instrument, placed in my heart to open a CONFRA at the school where I work . . . For the first meeting I invited 14 young leaders to start and they all came."

"As you know, the district cannot allow its faculty to form religious student groups, or to participate in religious exercises with students," Seidel wrote.

In a Sept. 8 response, OCPS attorney John C. Palmerini told FFRF that the teacher had been informed that she cannot participate in the club's activities.
Texas school's social media secularized

Staff at the Lake Dallas Independent School District will no longer promote religion on official school district social media pages after FFRF contacted the district regarding the issue.

A student reported to FFRF that the school district's Twitter feed had re-tweeted a prayer. "Public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover reminded the district. "The district must make certain that it does not unlawfully endorse religion, either in the classroom or through social media."

"From this point forward, I will ensure that staff is better educated in the subject through more thorough professional development sessions and public school law sessions," wrote Superintendent Gayle Stinson in a Sept. 14 response. "Our goal is to provide an inclusive environment for all students."

Last Supper has last day at Kansas school

After FFRF protested, Haysville Public Schools in Kansas removed a print of Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" from the cafeteria of Nelson Elementary School.

"As you are certainly aware, the display of religious messages in the school setting violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment," Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the school district. "When a district promotes religion over nonreligion, it impermissibly turns non-believing students, parents, and staff into outsiders."

Donna L. Whiteman, attorney for the school district, informed Seidel on Sept. 14 that the print had been removed.

Graduation prayer taken off the schedule

At the Iberia High School (Mo.) graduation in 2015, a reverend gave a heavily Christian invocation and benediction. Thanks to the FFRF, this constitutional violation will not recur.

"The Supreme Court has settled this matter—high school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott. "It makes no difference how many students want prayer or wouldn't be offended by prayer at their graduation ceremony. As the Supreme Court has said, 'fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.'"

The Iberia R-V School District published a statement on Sept. 10 acknowledging that, despite the opinions of the board members and administrators, it was obligated as a public entity to "follow the directives of the Supreme Court." The district also noted its duty to be a good steward of its funds, and not use taxpayer funds on unnecessary lawsuits.

No more prayer at 'Super Fun Day'

Future "Super Fun Day" events, Special Olympics-style events held at Neal High School in Brewton, Ala., will be free from prayer after FFRF contacted the school district. At the 2015 event, students, staff, volunteers and participants were asked to bow their heads while a prayer was given in Jesus's name.

"It is unlawful for any school-sponsored event to include prayer," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover in a letter to Escambia County Schools Superintendent John J. Knott. "The district has a duty to remain neutral toward religion. By including prayers at an event sponsored for its own students, the district abridges that duty and alienates the one in three young Americans who are not religious."

On Sept. 15, Superintendent Knott informed FFRF that he had directed that future district-sponsored events were not to include scheduled prayer.

School employees don't have to hear prayers in meetings

Prayer will no longer be included in employee meetings in the Dickinson Independent School District in Texas after FFRF sent a complaint letter to the school district.

A district employee informed FFRF that a mandatory teacher in-service training included Dickinson High School principal Billye Smith asking all employees to stand while she prayed.

"Federal courts have held that mandatory meetings for government employees cannot promote religion and specifically that school districts cannot include prayer during teacher in-service trainings," wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover on Sept. 3.

An attorney for the school district informed Grover on Sept. 16 that the district has advised all campus administrators that leading prayer at staff meetings is unconstitutional.

Illinois school district ends school board prayer

Because of a letter sent by FFRF, Teutopolis Community Unit #50 Board of Education will no longer open with a prayer.

In a letter sent Aug. 28, Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote, "It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings. Federal courts have struck down school board practices that include this religious ritual."

Superintendent Bill Fritcher, who often led the prayers, responded on Sept. 15, the entire body of his letter reading: "Teutopolis Unit #50 will discontinue starting school board meetings with a prayer."

Religious posters removed from classroom

A religious poster has been taken down from a sixth-grade teacher's classroom in Texas after FFRF contacted the school district.

A teacher at River Valley Intermediate School in Woodway, Texas, had a large poster in his classroom reading "In God We Trust," which also included a bible verse and a proselytizing advertisement: "If you would like to know Jesus as Lord and Savior, call Need Him Ministry at 1-888-NEED-HIM."

"The District violates the Constitution when it allows its schools to display religious symbols or messages," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover in a letter to the Midway Independent School District. "A poster promoting Christianity violates this basic constitutional prohibition by creating the appearance that the District prefers religion over nonreligion and Christianity over all other faiths."

"The poster in question has been removed from the classroom so that the biblical verse and proselytizing advertisement noted in your correspondence can be removed," wrote Superintendent George E. Kazanas in a Sept. 21 reply.

School officials done with National Day of Prayer

FFRF has ensured that Georgetown Independent School District in Texas will not send administrators to participate in the Georgetown National Day of Prayer in their official capacities.

After explaining that the National Day of Prayer is a sectarian Christian event founded by Billy Graham, FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote, "Government officials can worship, pray and participate in religious events in their personal capacities. But they are not permitted to provide credibility or prestige to their religion by lending a government office and government title to religious events."

On Sept. 23, Superintendent Fred Brent assured Grover "that the District is committed to following the requirements of the First Amendment when it comes to the separation of Church and State," and said that the administrator did not know he would be expected to speak at the prayer event. "I can assure you that if the District is invited to attend this or similar events in the future, and we do send someone to attend, it will not be in a leadership or participatory role as a district official," Brent said.

Florida school adds freethought quotes

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a complaint letter last April to the University of Florida at Gainesville about a biblical quote inscribed at the newly erected Heavener School of Business. The quote chosen by donor James W. Heavener from Micah 6:8 says, "He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?"

Now the public university has announced it will add three quotes from secular sources to be part of an "ethical portal" highlighting the importance of ethics in business. One quote chosen, from freethinking deist Thomas Paine, was suggested by Seidel: "My country is the world, and my religion is to do good." ("The Rights of Man" 1791)

The two other quotes were contributed by a faculty member who teaches ethics:

• "To restrain our selfish[ness], and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature." (Adam Smith, "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" 1759)
• "Wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else." (Aristotle, "Nicomachean Ethics")

The portal includes a plaque that states, in part, "Scholars and students of ethics derive universal ethical principles from a wide range of sources, secular and religious, whether or not any particular scholar or student ascribes to religious beliefs."

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor commented, "In an ideal world, there would be no religion or irreligion inscribed on public university property, but we think this compromise is acceptable, given that the biblical engraving was a fait accompli. We extend our appreciation to the university for its thoughtful response. Many people do not realize that Adam Smith was a freethinker in his own right, saying in 'The Wealth of Nations' that 'Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.' "

Texas students freed from praying more

The Frisco (Texas) Independent School District removed a display reading "Pray more, worry less" from the Roach Middle School front office after getting Staff Attorney Sam Grover's letter Sept. 11.

The district informed FFRF on Sept. 25 that the display was removed from public view.

School steered toward religious neutrality

The Avon (Ind.) Community School Corp. has taken corrective action regarding an inappropriate religious assembly that students were required to attend.

A Sept. 9 assembly titled "Stay In Your Lane" was mandatory for Avon High School sophomores. Two speakers from the group "Steered Straight" told their stories of recovering from drug addiction, stories that were laced with religion.

One speaker told students, "Someone wanted me on this Earth" while pointing to the ceiling and discussed angels watching over him. The other said, "I pray to God that you get this message." The wife of one of the speakers also reportedly told students that "God has a purpose for you."

Staff Attorney Sam Grover's Sept. 17 letter noted: "Steered Straight's Facebook page has several spiritual posts that should have alerted the district to the potential religious nature of [the] presentation. Regardless of the motives of the presenters or those who invited them, allowing an organization access to your student body to promote a religious message gives the appearance that the district endorses that message."

In a Sept. 24 reply, Superintendent Margaret Hoernemann said the district would discuss separation of state and church with administrators "as a timely reminder of our commitment to remaining neutral toward religion."

FFRF ends longtime grotto violations

Several Oregon public schools will no longer be performing during a holiday chorale concert at a Catholic shrine. Local families alerted FFRF in 2013 about numerous public school districts that scheduled students to perform during the Festival of Lights event in Portland at the 62-acre Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, aka "The Grotto."

In his December 2013 complaint letters to 24 school districts, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel said the issue is twofold: "They're taking students to a church, and courts have said schools can't do that. The second reason is that The Grotto is making money off the backs of public school children." The facility, run by the Servite Friars, charges for parking, money which goes to fund religious activities.

"The stage is also flanked by two religious statues, one on either side," noted Seidel. "Murals depict different moments in the life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Via Matris or seven sorrows of Mary, and the massive center mural is named 'the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mother in heaven.' Visitors sit in pews marked with crosses and the building is crowned by a golden dome and cross."

Jollee Patterson, Portland Public Schools general counsel, sent an email to administrators in September: "Even if PPS singing groups perform songs from a variety of religious traditions, the strongly religious setting during the Festival of Lights could create a perception that the school is endorsing and supporting a particular religious tradition."
Of the 24 districts contacted by FFRF, it appears that five (Aberdeen, Bend-LaPine, Longview, Washougal and West Linn-Wilsonville) did not participate in the 2014 concert.

FFRF sent follow-up letters Oct. 23 to districts that have not complied.

FFRF curbs coach's religious comments

FFRF reminded the Kenmore High School football coach in Akron, Ohio, about school policies on the promotion of religion after his comments at an event at which the team received a gift of new uniforms.

A complainant alerted FFRF to Coach Kemp Boyd's religious comments such as talking about "honoring God with your abilities."

"These comments raise concerns about Coach Boyd crossing the constitutional line while he's acting in his official capacity as a public school representative," wrote Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in an Aug. 21 letter.

General Counsel Rhonda Porter replied Sept. 29, noting that she met with Boyd and reviewed school policies. "Coach Boyd assured me that he fully understands the importance of keeping his personal religious beliefs separate from his duties as a coach," Porter said.

Godly decals removed from sheriff's cars

The Houston County (Ala.) Sheriff's Office has removed Matthew 5:9 "Blessed are the Peacemakers" decals from patrol cars. Staff Attorney Sam Grover informed Sheriff Donald Valenza in late July that the display "undermines the credibility of the sheriff's office in the eyes of the nonreligious and minority religious citizens."

According to an Oct. 8 Dothan Eagle news story, County Administrator Bill Dempsey advised Valenza to remove the stickers. "Of course neither the commission or anyone here supports that request, however we contacted our liability insurance carrier and their attorneys said if we take this to court they said we're going to lose," Dempsey said. "The county would be looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses."

"We're disappointed the county is only doing the right thing to avoid a losing lawsuit, but are very pleased to secure this victory on behalf of our Houston County members and supporters," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State had also lodged complaints.

San Diego libraries to stay open on Easter

San Diego public libraries, typically open on Sundays, will no longer close on Easter. "Easter is neither a federal holiday nor a California state holiday," wrote Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a June complaint letter. "As a matter of policy, the library should remain open on Easter to continue to provide San Diego residents with library services, as it does on [other] Sundays."

Library Director Misty Jones notified FFRF on Sept. 29 that all San Diego libraries would remain open on Easter Sundays.