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Freethought Today · April 2016

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF wins several cases over public prayers

In the past month or so, FFRF was able to get many public school officials and coaches and other public entities to end their use of illegal prayer.

Seniors spared from prayers

Seniors at the Easton Area Lifestyle Campus in Easton, Pa., will no longer be subjected to prayers by center staff. Previously, staff recited prayers, asked people to join in an "amen" chorus accompanied by piano, and sung Christian hymns.

"Federal regulations prohibit senior centers receiving federal funding to engage in religious activities at government-sponsored functions such as senior lunches," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel on Jan. 12 in a letter to the center.

On Jan. 29, FFRF received a response from the Northampton County Department of Human Services, noting that it had distributed a policy memo to the county's senior centers. The memo said that "all senior centers operated by the county of Northampton, or funded even partially by funds from the [Area Agency on Aging] are, effective immediately, precluded from offering prayers."

School officials to be neutral

The Morgan County Schools in Alabama have reminded a coach and a band director to keep state and church separate after FFRF stepped in with a written complaint.

A Danville High School student informed FFRF that, after the end of football games, the team's coaches gathered the players together at the center of the field and led both teams in a Christian prayer. In addition, the drum major, on the instruction of the band director, led prayers at the halftime of each game and at practices.

"It is, of course, unconstitutional for public school athletic coaches or band directors to lead students in prayer, participate in student-led prayer, or instruct students to lead prayers," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover in a letter to the district.

An attorney for the school district informed Grover by email on Feb. 8 that the coaches and band director had "been told of their obligations to remain neutral, including that they should not organize or direct students in prayer."

Graduation prayers ended

The La Mesa-Spring Valley School District will no longer include prayers at graduation ceremonies.

FFRF objected to the practice in a Jan. 14 letter. "The Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations," Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the district.

On Feb. 10, the district said that "steps have been taken to ensure that prayers or prayer-like speeches are not held at school-sponsored activities in the future."

Invocations to be nonsectarian

The Plano Independent School District Board of Trustees has dropped Christian invocations from its meetings in favor of "nonsectarian inspirational messages" after hearing from FFRF.

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover first wrote on Dec. 7, 2015, informing the board, "It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings."

When an attorney for the school district replied that the district did not intend to change its practices, Grover sent a rebuttal letter on Jan. 22. He pointed out that several courts have held that prayers at school board meetings differ from the legislative prayers that the U.S. Supreme Court has approved of, and that even in the legislative context, legislators themselves are not permitted to lead the prayers as the trustees were doing here.

In a Feb. 26 response, the Plano Board of Trustees attorney maintained his disagreement, but wrote, "Notwithstanding our disagreement, going forward the Plano ISD School Board intends on opening its meetings with nonsectarian inspirational messages delivered by board members."

Coach won't organize prayers

A Michigan public school softball coach will no longer lead team members in prayer.

In May 2015, FFRF sent a letter to North Branch Area Schools Superintendent Thomas English alerting him that high school softball coach Willie Deshetsky was leading his team members in prayer. FFRF sent English photos of Deshetsky's team prayerfully holding hands with him.

"It is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their team in prayer," FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote.

FFRF finally received a response in February informing the organization that the coach had been asked to desist.

"Coach Willie Deshetsky was officially informed he cannot organize, advocate or lead the softball team in prayer," North Branch Athletic Director James Fish said in his reply.

Coach-led prayers to stop in Illinois

FFRF has been able to get three Illinois public schools districts to stop coaches from leading prayers at school competitions.

The organization had written to Altamont Community Unit School District #10, Pana Community Unit School District #8 and Dieterich School District asking them to cease the practice.

While not acknowledging any wrongdoing, the three school districts responded by stating that they'll make certain this won't happen in the future. The Dieterich School District also sent FFRF a copy of a memo that Superintendent Cary Jackson circulated among all district employees emphasizing the district's need to adhere to the U.S. Constitution.
"We, as a school district, absolutely have a respect for religion, but by federal law, cannot endorse it," the memo reads. "Therefore, when our students choose to participate or initiate a student-led prayer, our employees may not participate in any way."

Kentucky coach to stop prayers

FFRF recently got a Kentucky school district to stop a public high school football coach from leading his team in prayer.

Last September, FFRF had sent a letter to the Bowling Green City Schools asking that Coach Kevin Wallace cease from having his team worship before games. The complaint included a photo of Wallace with his students in a prayer circle, as well as his quote in the local paper acknowledging that he was engaged in the practice.

In a follow-up letter last month, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert expressed concern that the school district had failed to take any action.

Finally, FFRF received a response in March from Bowling Green Independent Schools Superintendent Gary Fields acknowledging the receipt of the two letters. "I have addressed the concerns contained in your letters and consider the matter to be resolved," Fields replied.