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Freethought Today · April 2016

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF legal victories

Superintendent pulls back on Twitter

The superintendent of Dalton Local Schools in Ohio will no longer post religious messages on his official school Twitter feed, after FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote the school district's attorney a letter on Jan. 25, 2016. The tweets called for prayer, encouraged belief in God, and promoted Christian church events. "Anyone viewing this school-sponsored Twitter feed would understand that the superintendent is endorsing his personal religion over all others," said Jayne.

Attorney Susan C. Hastings responded on Feb. 2 informing FFRF that the superintendent would establish a separate Twitter account for personal communications.

No religion for Adopt-a-Cops

The Johnson City Police Department in Tennessee is taking steps to ensure it is abiding by the Constitution regarding its "Adopt-a-Cop" program.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter on Dec. 8 objecting to the program, in which community members "adopt" a police officer, and includes praying for the officer every day.

In a Feb. 2 response, an attorney for the department acknowledged that the department could have done more "to dispel the public's perception that the department itself was operating and 'pushing' this program," and assured FFRF that the department recognized its obligation to separate church and state.

Library open during Dalai Lama event

The public library system in Madison, Wis. decided in February not to close its central downtown branch for a March private event for the Dalai Lama. FFRF, whose office is located across the street from the library, was one of the community voices objecting to the planned event.

"We write to express concerns that granting this proposal would raise the appearance of government-religion entanglement, and also would be a disservice to the local community," said FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in a letter to the library's board of directors.
The board unanimously voted the proposal down on Feb. 4.

FFRF again gets rid of 'Jesus is My Hero' shirts

FFRF has again ensured that staff at Akron Public Schools in Ohio will not be permitted to wear "Jesus Is My Hero" T-shirts in school. FFRF first dealt with the shirts in 2013, which promoted the Buchtel Community Learning Center's athletic program.

The district notified all staff in October of 2013 that wearing the donated shirts was a violation of policy. "Unfortunately," said Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a letter to the district's attorney, "I'm writing again because our complainant informs us that these T-shirts have made appearances once again, worn by coaches at football practices."

On Feb. 9, the district's attorney told Markert that the district's athletic director and the school principal were notified, and told staff "that, while acting in their official capacity as school officials, they are prohibited from engaging in actions that could be seen as an endorsement of religion, in violation of board policy."

FFRF wins two battles in California district

In California, Lake Elsinore Unified School District's "Student of the Month" luncheons with the local Chamber of Commerce will no longer be religious events, and a praying coach has been taken to task.

The monthly lunches that honored students for their academic achievements took place on school property and were attended by school staff and government officials. They also typically included a Christian prayer, and, one year, Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ was given to the honorees.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the school district on July 23, 2015, asking the district to "discontinue prayer and the distribution of religious literature at future school-sponsored activities."

The district replied on Aug. 20, claiming that the Student of the Month events were not sponsored by the district. Seidel rebutted the letter on Sept. 15, pointing out that district employees were "volunteer administrators" and the district was thanked in the programs as a sponsor.

On Feb. 12, the district informed FFRF that changes had been made to the Student of the Month ceremonies. The district is no longer a sponsor, it vowed not to mandate or encourage student participation in prayers, and the chamber agreed to implement a "secular inspirational message" in lieu of prayer.

The district also noted that it had directed the Elsinore High School football coach to refrain from requiring prayer and participating in student prayers.

'In God We Trust' picture taken down

Kettle Falls Middle School in Washington has taken down a picture reading "In God We Trust" over the backdrop of an American flag, after FFRF complained.

FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to the Kettle Falls School District on Nov. 23, 2015. "This posting falsely equates patriotism with piety," she contended. "Young, impressionable students are apt to believe that the school endorses the religious message of the poster."

On Feb. 18, the district superintendent informed FFRF that the picture had been removed.

Grad info session moved from church

The Columbia Borough School District in Columbia, Pa., will not hold events in church any longer.

Last year, Columbia High School required graduating students to attend a graduation practice in a Christian church to receive caps and gowns, as well as information about the ceremony. FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler objected to the constitutional violation in a July 22, 2015, letter.

After FFRF followed up with the district twice, an acting superintendent for the district informed FFRF that the previous superintendent had recently resigned, and he had only just seen FFRF's letters. He apologized for the district's lack of response, confirmed that the situation had happened as FFRF described, and stated that he immediately directed the high school principal to cease the practice of distributing important graduation information in a church.

Kansas district drops creationism

The Sylvan-Unified School District 299 in Sylvan Grove, Kan., will no longer permit the teaching of creationism.

A student contacted FFRF to relate that a science teacher at Sylvan-Lucas Junior/Senior High School had long been teaching creationism and presenting her biology students with "evidence" against evolution. The teacher's lesson plans listed "Arguements [sic] against Evolution notes" for two class periods, and she showed a video called "Unlocking the Mystery of Life," which claims that the universe "can only be explained by intelligent design."

"Teaching creationism or any of its offshoots, such as intelligent design, in a public school is unlawful, because creationism is not based in fact. Courts have routinely found that such teachings are religious, despite many new and imaginative labels given to the alternatives," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a Feb. 9 letter to the district superintendent.

On Feb. 22, FFRF received a response from the district. Superintendent Jude Stecklein said the district investigated the situation and informed the teacher that she can no longer teach creationism.

'Appeal to Heaven' flag removed

Shelby County, Ohio, is no longer displaying an Appeal to Heaven flag in a county building after hearing from FFRF.

Members of the Appeal to Heaven movement "honor the Lord by networking elected officials who are believers in Jesus Christ, who regularly attend and display a commitment to an evangelical, Gospel-centered church and who will commit to live and govern based on biblical . . . principles."

"This mission is clearly sectarian, and displaying the flag is a tacit endorsement of evangelical Christianity," wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in a letter to the county.
On Feb. 25, the Shelby County Commissioners notified FFRF that the flag had been removed.
Religious mural on wall painted over

The Holy Land Experience, located in Orlando, painted a mural on a retaining wall that turns the corner from Interstate 4 in the direction of the religious amusement park. This interchange and retaining wall are government property that the Florida Department of Transportation maintains, and Holy Land sought no permits or permission to put up the mural.

The mural featured religious imagery, showing two angels unrolling a scroll that signifies humankind. The message conveyed was that God created us all — an inescapably religious notion, says FFRF.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Florida public officials last November when FFRF was alerted to the mural by its local chapter, the Central Florida Freethought Community.

FFRF has learned that the Holy Land Experience has finally painted over the mural in a neutral tan color.

Ohio bible study groups adhere to law

Faith Memorial Church in Lancaster, Ohio, participated in bible study groups in a number of local public schools. The church listed such groups in eight public schools in its vicinity, including four high schools. Most of the clubs met during the schools' lunch breaks and were run by adults, according to the church's webpage (since taken down).
The courts have clearly decided over the years that public schools cannot advance, prefer or promote religion.

FFRF recently received a response from legal counsel for the four districts where the public schools are located. In its reply, the firm told FFRF that in the future any bible study clubs would conform to the law. "Principals are making sure that students leading bible study clubs are conducting those groups within the parameters of the Equal Access Act," the March 2 letter stated.

Florida charter school gets default notice

FFRF had warned the Duval County School Board in Florida in January that the Seacoast Charter Academy seemed like a thinly disguised religious establishment.

The institution, which was run as part of a private Christian school for almost 20 years, became a kindergarten to fifth-grade charter entity in 2011 for financial reasons.

Also, Seacoast hosted a Veterans Day program inside the academy's auditorium, which features a large Latin cross at center stage and lots of religious iconography. It is also used for Seacoast's chapel services, so it serves the same role as a church.

"We're pleased the school district investigated and issued the default," said FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. "Both the district and FFRF will continue to monitor these schools."