Freethought Today · June / July 2016

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF legal victories

Evangelist barred from Florida schools

FFRF has had an ex-con proselytizer barred from a Florida school district.

Hillsborough County Public Schools had allowed a Fellowship of Christian Athletes representative, David Gaskill, who has a criminal record, to interact and proselytize with its students without restriction. Gaskill had been involved with the district's sports programs since at least 2014 and appeared to be the schools' sports chaplain.

FFRF had asked that Gaskill be immediately disallowed from Hillsborough schools. There are serious privacy issues when schools let outside adults pose for "selfies" and pictures with students, including with their arms draped around shirtless students, FFRF contended. The schools also permitted Gaskill to meet with students in "intimate locker room" settings with no other adults present.

No more Christian revivals in school district

A West Virginia school district changed its policies after FFRF objected to a Christian revival meeting held at one of its schools.

Evangelist Matt Hartley sermonized to students at Mingo Central High School in Williamson, W.Va., preaching to them about Jesus, mulling about whether being gay was a choice, and asserting that "God never made a mistake" in choosing a person's gender.

FFRF contacted the school district after receiving a complaint and the district quickly informed FFRF that it was revamping its policies governing such events.

"Steps have already been taken by the superintendent to ensure that such events will not occur in the future and that all staff are educated regarding the legal obligations of school systems when such issues arise," Denise Spatafore, legal counsel for Mingo County Schools, wrote back to FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott.

OK! Students no longer sent to 'Spring Tea'

An Oklahoma school district has assured FFRF that its students will not be attending a moralistic sermon.

The "Spring Tea" is a highly religious annual event in Muskogee. In March, hundreds of middle school girls were preached to on such issues as abstinence, teen pregnancy, sexting and sexually transmitted diseases. Among those attending were students from two public magnet schools in the Muskogee school district.

Last year, FFRF had sent a notice to the district asking them not to have any involvement with the occasion or face legal action. Officials had assured FFRF that the district would abstain, but the organization recently learned that this wasn't the case.

The school district responded that this was all due to a misunderstanding. Drummond explained that the main middle school had explicitly been instructed not to take part, but that the school district had neglected to notify the two public magnet schools. This oversight has now been rectified.

Kentucky town to discontinue nativity display

A Kentucky town will stop displaying an overtly religious nativity scene in response to an FFRF objection.

FFRF had notified the city of Walton a number of times that a Christmas nativity panorama on the City Hall lawn was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
After the December letter and a follow-up in April, FFRF has finally gotten an assurance that the town would take heed of the Constitution.

"I have discussed the legal issues raised in your correspondence dated Dec. 23, 2015, with Mayor Mark Carnahan and advised him accordingly," Walton City Attorney Timothy Noyes wrote back to FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne. "Based on that advice, the mayor indicated that future Christmas displays on city property, if any, will give due deference to existing law concerning separation of church and state."

District won't promote religious ceremonies

A Texas school district has assured FFRF that it will stop publicizing private religion-infused baccalaureate ceremonies.

FFRF had contacted the Friendswood Independent School District with its concern that a baccalaureate service in Friendswood High School on May 22 has been advertised on the district's website and in a handout sent home with seniors.

The school district admitted that it had made a mistake in publicizing the event and said it has taken swift measures to rectify the blunder.

"In order to remedy any confusion, Friendswood High School Principal Mark Griffon has sent a memorandum to all senior students indicating that the prior notice was sent in error and that the event is not school-sponsored," the school district's attorney replied.

"Friendswood High School has also removed all references to the event from its calendar."

Tennessee schools to address violations

A Tennessee school district is taking steps to ensure that state/church violations do not recur after hearing from FFRF about the violations.

A second-grade teacher at Highland Rim Elementary in Fayetteville, Tenn., helped students construct crosses as a class craft project. She also marked student assignments with a stamp that stated, "God Made You Special."

"Public schools have a duty to ensure that 'subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion' or use their positions of authority to promote a particular religious viewpoint, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Bill Heath, director of Lincoln County Schools.

Lincoln County Schools replied with a letter detailing a five-point action plan that the district is implementing.

District cracks down on religious promotion

A Texas school district has made important policy changes in response to FFRF's concerns with the McKinney Independent School District on several issues.

District employees were displaying crosses in a number of rooms at local high schools. A religious poster at a middle school read: "As Believers You Are Saved Forever by Grace through Faith" and continued with other religious description including "Baptized into Christ Jesus" and "Soldiers of Christ."

Additionally, a faculty member at McKinney Boyd High School solicited participation of students to read prayers, recite scripture and sing hymns at an upcoming baccalaureate service. And each year, the graduation ceremony the high school has taken place at in the church sanctuary at the Prestonwood Baptist Church decorated with traditional Baptist Christian symbols.

The School District promised to explore alternatives to the church for McKinney High School's graduation ceremony, and it assured FFRF it would keep the church's religious iconography covered as long as the building was used. The district will no longer organize, sponsor or promote baccalaureate services.

Violations ended in Florida school district

The Indian River County School District in Florida has instituted changes after FFRF contacted the district with reports of several constitutional violations.

The Vero Beach High School football and baseball teams reportedly employed a chaplain, pastor Joe Moore, who was also the director of the Indian River County Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Football players and cheerleaders participated in prayer breakfasts at First Baptist Church alongside their coaches. The breakfasts frequently involved ministers preaching to students.

In an April 19 response to FFRF, the district's lawyer stated that "the superintendent discovered a few employees who did not understand their duties and obligations regarding student prayer at school, and has corrected those misunderstandings. The superintendent has also reminded all principals at all schools regarding public employee duties and obligations involving student prayer at school."

California school board drops prayer

The Silver Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees no longer prays at its meetings, thanks to action taken by FFRF.

On April 25, attorneys for the school district "decided to voluntarily discontinue its prior practice" of including invocations, after hearing from FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler.

Tennessee school's choral program secularized

Students at David Crockett High School in Jonesborough, Tenn., will no longer be compelled to perform "contemporary Christian concerts" as a part of their public school music instruction after hearing from FFRF.

FFRF received a report that music teacher Kelly Sams conducted blatantly Christian concerts, frequently performed in a church. The concerts consisted mainly of contemporary Christian music.

"These songs have devotional messages that would be appropriate in a church setting, but not in a public school," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a letter to the Washington County Schools.

The county attorney replied to FFRF on April 20, reporting that the superintendent and school principal had met with Sams, advising her that "holding a 'contemporary Christian concert' which contained solely religious songs was not consistent with" school policy.

FFRF gets Christian movie removed from school

The Christian movie "Facing the Giants" will no longer be shown in South Dearborn Community Schools, thanks to a complaint lodged by FFRF.

The film follows a struggling high school football coach who inspires his team to believe in the Christian God and to use faith to win football games. South Dearborn Middle School reportedly had students watch it as a reward for finishing a test. When FFRF's complainants contacted the school, they were repeatedly told next time students would be allowed to opt out of watching such movies.

"The district may not require students to opt out of a movie screening, intended as a class reward, in order to avoid a school-sponsored religious message," wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne.

The school principal replied promptly, assuring FFRF that the film will not be shown again, and the school would "make sure that any film shown remains neutral toward religion."
Illinois teacher takes down religious ads

A West Aurora High School teacher has taken down religious ads she posted around her classroom after FFRF sent a letter of complaint.

One poster advertised "See You At The Pole," a Christian prayer event, that included bible quotes. Another poster advertised the school's student prayer club.

On April 25, the district superintendent informed FFRF that the postings had been removed after hearing from FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne.

FFRF resolves another issue in Orange County

FFRF has resolved yet another issue in Florida's Orange County Public Schools. The district, the 11th-largest in the country, is FFRF's most-contacted school district.

This time, the district is ensuring that JROTC ceremonies at East River High School will not include prayer. The 2016 JROTC Awards and Change of Command Ceremony included an invocation listed on the agenda. Attendees were asked to bow their heads, although ROTC students were told in advance that a prayer would be given and if they did not believe in "God or Jesus" that they "just need to stand there and be silent."

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to the district's two attorneys, pointing out that even in the context of a state military college with older students, a federal court "held that school officials may not compel students to participate in a religious activity."

OCPS General Counsel and frequent FFRF correspondent Diego "Woody" Rodriguez responded on April 26, confirming that the prayer occurred and that there would be none at future programs.

After wavering, school board drops prayer

Thanks to persistent action by FFRF, the Kings Canyon Unified School District Governing Board in Reedley, Calif., will no longer pray at its meetings.

FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler first objected to the practice in November 2015.
Superintendent Juan Garza replied on Feb. 24, informing FFRF that the board had passed a new invocation policy. The policy attempted to set up a system like that approved by the Supreme Court for local government bodies in its Greece v. Galloway case, and contained inclusive language, but still allowed for prayer at school board meetings.

"School-sanctioned prayer, even in the new, slightly more removed context, is unconstitutional," wrote Ziegler in a second letter on April 7. "Federal courts ruling on the matter have agreed that school boards fall within the school context, not in the realm of other government meetings."

On May 3, Garza informed FFRF that "the district has decided to discontinue its practice of invocation."

Religious email signature removed

An employee at the Eau Claire district attorney's office in Wisconsin has removed an inappropriate religious message from the signature line of her official email address, thanks to FFRF. The signature read, in part, "Joyful, Prayerful, and Thankful – Thessalonians 5:16-17."

"It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district attorney's office or its agents to promote a religious message because doing so conveys government preference for religion over nonreligion," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in a May 10 letter.

The next day, the office's manager replied that the matter had been resolved.

'Follow Christ' sign taken down at Ohio school

The Genoa Area Local Schools in Genoa, Ohio, have removed a sign reading "Follow Christ" from Genoa High School, after receiving a letter from FFRF.

"It is unconstitutional for Genoa Area Local Schools to encourage its students to 'Follow Christ,' in effect encouraging non-Christian students to convert," said FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne on April 25.

The superintendent replied on May 5 saying the sign had been removed.

Florida district dissociates from religious camp

After FFRF lodged a complaint, the Palm Beach County School District in Florida is no longer partnering with a religious sports day camp, SportsTyme.

The group claims that it creates a sports environment that "leaves God in," including bible lessons. Previously, the district permitted SportsTyme to advertise on school grounds and reportedly helped sign up students for the religious camps.

On May 4, the district notified FFRF that SportsTyme updated its website to delete PBCSD schools from their list of "partners" and added a disclaimer noting that it was not affiliated with or endorsed by the school district.

School to be more careful in music selection

Following an FFRF complaint, the Modesto City Schools in California will exercise more care in choosing music for students to perform.

One section of a Winter Concert held at La Loma Junior High School was overwhelmingly religious. Most of the songs were devotional Christian songs.

In a May 9 response to FFRF, a school official said that the La Loma chorus director had "agreed to be more careful in the songs he chooses for future concerts. He will ensure there is more variety in the music performed at each concert."

Texas school district withdraws from prayer event

After hearing from FFRF, schools in the Gunter Independent School District in Texas won't be participating in future National Day of Prayer ceremonies

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the district after receiving a report that Gunter High School students participated in a National Day of Prayer event that included prayer and scriptural readings, performing a hymn. The National Day of Prayer is a Christian event originally organized by Billy Graham to "mobiliz[e] the Christian community to intercede for America and its leadership."

In a May 23 response, the superintendent assured FFRF that Gunter ISD would no longer take student groups to perform at the ceremonies.

California Denny's no longer discriminates

The Denny's restaurant in Hawthorne, Calif., no longer privileges churchgoers with a church bulletin discount after FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell contacted the restaurant on Dec. 18 to complain about the civil rights violation.

Cavell informed the restaurant that the discount, 20% off for bringing in a church bulletin, violated federal and state laws providing that places of public accommodation cannot discriminate on the basis of religion.

A restaurant worker phoned Cavell on May 17 to report that the restaurant would no longer offer the discount.

FFRF silences loudspeaker prayer at Texas school

Spearman High School in Spearman, Texas, is no longer including prayer over the loudspeaker at athletic events. The move follows a Dec. 1 letter sent by FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover.

"The Supreme Court has specifically struck down invocations given over the loudspeaker at public school athletic events," said Grover, referring to the 2000 Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe case.

A lawyer for the school district replied to FFRF on May 19, saying the district "will instruct those individuals providing announcements during football games, and other school sporting events, to refrain from reciting any prayer, Christian or otherwise," and promised corrective action if the instructions were disregarded.

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