Freethought Today · June / July 2016

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF News

Kentucky's rejection of license plate challenged

FFRF contacted the state of Kentucky on behalf of state resident Ben Hart after his application for a personalized license plate was rejected. Hart had the "IM GOD" license plate in Ohio, from where he recently moved to Kentucky.

FFRF asserts that the reasons cited for the Kentucky DMV rejection of "IM GOD" do not hold water. There is no legal precedent for the refusal, FFRF contends. The state has thus far defended the rejection on the basis that it doesn't meet a "standard of good taste and decency."

"The 'good taste and decency' restriction is plainly unconstitutional," FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Todd Shipp at the Kentucky Office of Legal Services.
The Kentucky Department of Transportation added that the "IM GOD" plate "would create the potential of distractions to other drivers and possibly confrontations." But the state can't impose a heckler's veto against speech with which some may disagree, FFRF says.

Summary judgment sought in nativity suit

FFRF, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Indiana are seeking summary judgment in a lawsuit challenging an annual nativity performance at an Indiana public school.

Each December, the Performing Arts Department of Concord High School in Elkhart, Ind., has planned, produced, and staged several performances of its "Christmas Spectacular." Each year the show closes with a 20-minute depiction by students of the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.

However, in December 2015, a federal judge issued an injunction against the live nativity, ruling that the version performed for nearly 50 years was an unconstitutional religious endorsement.

The school then modified the nativity enactment for the 2015 performance, using mannequins in place of live student performers. FFRF and the ACLU note that this modified nativity scene is no more legal or appropriate than the original.

The plaintiffs — a student who participates in the Performing Arts Department, three parents who have attended and will attend the event in order to support their performing children, and FFRF — are entitled to a permanent injunction barring all versions of the nativity enactment.

No windfall for FFRF in lawsuit settlement

FFRF is going to see a little reimbursement as part of its legal victory over the Chino Valley School Board in California.

U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal ruled on Feb. 18 that the School Board's prayers violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Of the $200,000-plus that Bernal fined the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education for violating the U.S. Constitution, FFRF will be receiving a bit more than $40,000 as reimbursement for all the hard work that Staff Attorneys Andrew Seidel and Rebecca Markert put in. The rest will go to attorney David Kaloyanides, who litigated the case in California for the organization, and his law clerk Roda Torres.

If the School Board pays up, which could depend on the appeal, FFRF will simply be recouping the cost of having Seidel and Markert work the case, not reaping a windfall. The Chino Valley School Board has taken the legally and constitutionally unwise step of appealing the decision, so it'll likely be a while before FFRF sees any of the reimbursement.

However, the fees are an important deterrent against other governmental bodies behaving similarly.

"Sadly, these fees are important," Seidel explains. "Not because they generate income for FFRF, but because they deter other school districts from violating the law and strengthen FFRF's ability to resolve future cases without litigation, which is always our goal."

Michigan city's behavior questioned, decried

Doug Marshall, a resident of Warren, Mich., secured the right last year to set up a Reason Station in the city hall after a hard-fought court battle in which FFRF, the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State assisted him. On May 5, the city observed the National Day of Prayer on the building's lawn. Marshall, who had a permit reserving space in the indoor atrium, was booted out with less than 24 hours notice and without explanation. Upon questioning by FFRF, the city claimed that "the atrium will be set up as an alternate site in the case of rain or poor weather."

FFRF asserts that this behavior on the part of the city is unjustified and that it is punishing Marshall for his views. Added evidence for FFRF's contention is that the weather forecast for the day predicted no chance of rain. The city lacks any written criteria for revoking approval of a permitted event, which allows the Reason Station to be restricted at the whim of city officials.

FFRF challenges church school trip

FFRF strongly objected to an Arkansas school district's church trip to celebrate the National Day of Prayer.

The Jessieville Public School District organized an excursion of students from the local high school to the Village Church of Christ. The outing was during the school day.

FFRF points out that such blatantly religious activities would not be permitted to take place inside public schools during the school day. A school district-organized visit to a church is no more permissible.

Non-Christian and nonreligious students are made to feel like outsiders when a school district coordinates a trip for prayer to a church, FFRF asserts. And the fact that participation and attendance is optional is no pretext, as courts have repeatedly ruled.

FFRF: Investigate adult-run student club

FFRF is questioning adult involvement in an Indiana public school religious club.

The Foundation of Christian Students chapter at Riverside Intermediate School in Fishers, Ind., has extensive adult participation, FFRF has been informed. The meetings are led by adults, including four teachers. The sessions include adult-created religious lessons and prayer.

"Public schools may not advance or promote religion," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne writes to Allen Bourff, superintendent of Hamilton Southeastern Public Schools. "Even when student religious clubs are permissible, it is inappropriate and unconstitutional for district staff to lead or organize a student religious club. Teachers may be present to make sure that students are not violating school rules, but may not participate."

FFRF is asking that the matter be investigated. If the Foundation of Christian Students chapter on campus hasn't in fact been student-initiated, it would be in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and should be dissolved. The students may reconstitute the club without adult direction.

Chicago-area principal should lose his job

FFRF wants a Chicago-area public school principal to be dismissed for his active promotion of religion.

Rich South High School Principal Michael McGrone regularly boosts religion, according to media reports and FFRF local members. He has brought in a woman to pray with the students in the cafeteria, the Chicago Tribune reports. In a Facebook posting, McGrone wrote: "This is how we 'stop the killing': Allow God back in school!! Prayer works." He has also said, "Is (prayer) considered crossing the line? I would agree in part, but in so many ways I cannot deny who I am and what got me to become principal."

McGrone's behavior is illegal and unconstitutional, as courts have consistently ruled.

There is no doubt that McGrone is promoting Christianity to the students under his care. (He reportedly makes frequent references to Jesus, in addition to his other utterances and actions.) McGrone's stated goal of getting "God back in school" shows a complete disregard for his constitutional obligations, and he has admitted to promoting religion despite knowing it's illegal to do so.

Proposed school bible class opposed by FFRF

FFRF is opposing a proposed bible class in an Arkansas school district.

Bentonville School Board member Brent Leas has recommended adding an elective academic bible study class to the 2017-18 curriculum. He is justifying it under Arkansas Act 1440, which was passed three years ago.

FFRF contends that such classes violate the notion that public schools should not play favorites when it comes to religion.

And they are legally problematic under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Arkansas Constitution.

The Christian bias in such a course proposal is obvious. If the Bentonville School District feels that its students will benefit from a deeper understanding of different belief systems, why has it not proposed classes on the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita or, indeed, Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion"?

Certainly in theory, a bible course may be permissible as part of a public high school curriculum, but, in practice, such classes are rarely taught in a legal manner, FFRF asserts. Southern Methodist University Professor Mark Chancey did a study in 2013 of bible classes that Texas had introduced six years before and found that many of them "are blatantly and thoroughly sectarian, presenting religious views as fact and implicitly or explicitly encourage students to adopt those views."

Religious ROTC creeds should be changed

FFRF is objecting to the injection of religion into U.S. Army programs.

Specifically, FFRF is taking issue with the JROTC and the ROTC's cadet creeds. The JROTC belief principle ends: "May God grant me the strength to always live by this creed."
Not only does this strike the tone of a Christian prayer, it also adds the requirement that every JROTC cadet believe in a deity and actively seek its assistance.

The ROTC creed suffers from the same problems, since it concludes with: "May God give me the compassion and judgment to lead and the gallantry in battle to win." This, too, mimics a prayer and makes the cadet give an active appeal to God in order to participate.

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