Freethought Today · September 2016

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF state/church victories

District to stop showing religious films

FFRF has convinced a Texas school district to take a harder stance against showing Christian propaganda and anti-evolution movies to students.

In Central Heights High School in Nacogdoches, Texas, two teachers showed their students questionable films. In a ninth-grade health class, an instructor screened "God's Not Dead," a movie blatantly Christian and proselytizing in nature. And in a ninth-grade science class, another teacher, remarking to his students that he didn't believe in evolution, played "Expelled: Intelligence Not Allowed," an intelligent design propaganda work that the New York Times described as "a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry."

FFRF contacted the Central Heights Independent School District in May to alert school officials that the teachers were out of line. FFRF received a letter stating that district staff members will be trained on First Amendment issues to educate them better on the separation of state and church.

Lord's Prayer removed from ceremony

A long-standing tradition of reciting or singing the Lord's Prayer at Ohio's East Liverpool High School's graduation ceremony has been corrected.

A complainant informed FFRF that the prayer has been recited at graduation for the past 70 years. In 2015, the school choir sang the prayer as part of the event's program.

"It is wholly inappropriate to put on performances of songs of worship in a public school setting," said FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a letter to the district. "The song has a devotional, biblical message, and thus would be appropriate in a church setting, but not in a public school. There are a multitude of secular songs that would be far more appropriate."

The Board of Education president shared his view with a news reporter in May. "When I was first on this board I expressed a concern about us singing. The comment made was that 'we know we are breaking the law, we will do it until we get caught.' Well, ladies and gentlemen, we got caught."

On May 16, the superintendent told FFRF that the prayer would not be included in this year's ceremony. Although the valedictorian then led the prayer of his own accord, the prayer was not school-sanctioned or on the ceremony program.

Apology given for denial of service

A regional freethinkers group has received an apology for discriminatory denial of services during a recent protest at a religious theme park after FFRF sent a letter of complaint.

On June 30, Five Star Septic and Portable Toilet Rentals agreed to send portable toilets to a July 7 demonstration against the Ark Encounter park put on by the Tri-State Freethinkers. But when the company's office called Tri-State Freethinkers to get directions to the site, it asked whether the portable toilets were for the protest. Upon learning that they were, the office denied service, indicating that this was partially because it did not want its name associated with the atheists' protest.

It is unlawful for legitimate businesses to discriminate on the basis of religion, FFRF contended in a formal letter of complaint.

With such short notice, Tri-State Freethinkers had to hastily organize a shuttle caravan to a nearby gas station for the nearly 200 attendees needing to use toilets.
Arwood Waste & Demolition, with which Five Star Septic has been a subcontractor, said sorry to Tri-State Freethinkers and made a pledge that the inappropriate behavior will not recur.

Email signature now in compliance

FFRF has persuaded an Ohio county commissioner to remove religion from her official email signature.

Crawford County Commissioner Jenny Vermillion used two inappropriate signature lines in her county email address. The first of these was a reference to an Old Testament verse, Jeremiah 1:5, along with the politically charged commentary "Choose LIFE!!" (The actual verse reads: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.") The second was a President Eisenhower quote that promotes religion and disparages atheists.

FFRF requested that Vermillion delete all these references from her email signature.

And she indeed did. In a terse but to-the-point letter a few days ago, Vermillion replied: "Dear Sir or Madame, It has been removed."

FFRF gets religion off of fishing team

The Cherokee County School District in Centre, Ala., has addressed several church/state violations occurring on the fishing team, after receiving a complaint from FFRF.

A concerned parent informed FFRF that the team's coach had shirts printed depicting an ichthys (Jesus fish) with a Christian cross inside. The school raised funds by selling the shirts, and students had to wear the shirts at competitions. The coach also encouraged students to pray and attend religious events.

The superintendent of the district called FFRF on June 26. He stated that the fishing coach "understands" her constitutional obligations and that the fishing team was approving new, religiously neutral competition shirts and that the problematic shirts would no longer be sold to the public.

Teacher won't show Christian film again

A physical education teacher in the Tattnall School District in Georgia will not show "Woodlawn" or other Christian films to his class again after hearing from FFRF.

The film was shown at Reedsville Middle School over two class periods. The movie, produced by a Christian film production company, follows a struggling football team that unites over faith to make a run at the playoffs. It features quotes such as "This is what happens when God shows up," and "I'm asking you to choose Jesus. Can you do that? Will you do that? Right now."

In a letter of complaint, FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote, "When the district allows teachers to show Christian propaganda to middle school students, the district becomes complicit in an egregious constitutional violation and breach of trust."

The superintendent responded on July 5, saying that she had met with the relevant teachers and administrators and that the district would review its procedure for approving classroom-appropriate media.

Band won't return to Ark Encounter

Williamstown High School will not be returning to the newly opened Ark Encounter in Kentucky.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel complained to the district on July 7 after the school's marching band performed at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Ark Encounter on July 5.

"There are . . . serious constitutional issues with public schools helping a private religious ministry to launch a park meant to convert people and collect a fair bit of money in the process," wrote Seidel. "It is unacceptable to expose a captive audience of impressionable students to the overtly religious atmosphere of Ham's Christian theme parks."

The attorney for Williamstown School District spoke with FFRF on July 18, stating that the there are no current plans for the band or any school group to visit the park in the future and that he would notify FFRF if any came up.

Proselytizing ends in school district

After an FFRF complaint, the Payson (Ariz.) Unified School District has directed teachers not to promote their personal religious beliefs to their students.

FFRF was notified of the situation by the parents of a local kindergarten student. The student had shared that his music teacher was telling the story of baby Jesus being born and that his homeroom teacher showed a movie about "baby God saving people" and that "he died doing it."

Multiple other issues were also addressed. The school promoted its winter concert with a flier that repeatedly referenced Christmas as "Christ"mas. Additionally, at the end of the concert, all of the teachers sang the hymn "Silent Night" on stage together.

On March 17, the district responded to FFRF that the principal had spoken to the music teacher and that they would amend future district-wide staff training to prevent teachers from promoting religious beliefs to their students.

FFRF sees end to school prayer club

Yucca Valley Elementary School in the Morongo Unified School District in California does not plan to continue its after-school prayer club.

FFRF received a complaint from a local parent that a fourth-grade teacher was leading a Good News Club in her classroom directly after school, having her daughters encourage other students to pray, and using a whiteboard in the staff lounge to advertise her search for finding a new club leader. Additionally, FFRF received reports of teachers participating in the National Day of Prayer at the "old flagpole" on campus. Good News Club is a Christian program for 5-12 year olds with various bible-related activities.

FFRF received a reply from the district's attorneys on July 14. They informed FFRF that the teacher in question was no longer an employee of the district and that administrators across the district had been informed of "the limitations imposed on district employees by the Constitution."

Coach prayers to end in Minneapolis

Athletic directors across the entire Minneapolis Public School District have been reminded not to lead, initiate, require or facilitate prayer with students at any school athletic events.

FFRF lodged its complaint with the district in response to reports that the North Community High School football coach regularly gathered the team for prayer and participated in the prayer.

After more than five months, FFRF finally received a reply. The district sent a memo to all building athletic directors reminding them of their constitutional obligations promised to address the issue at a district-wide preseason coaches meeting.

Jehovah's Witnesses won't be at post office

The United States Postal Service has responded to an FFRF complaint by promising to prevent Jehovah's Witness literature distribution at the Bay City Post Office in Texas.

A local complainant requested that FFRF take action to end the proselytizing practice. The Witnesses set up chairs, an umbrella and a stand with pamphlets next to the post office entrance.

FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler objected to the situation as a violation of both postal regulations and the United States Constitution. She pointed out that regulations prohibit "tables, chairs, freestanding signs or posters, structures, or furniture of any type... on postal walkways, . . . driveways, parking lots, or other exterior spaces."

FFRF was notified on July 12 that postmaster of the Bay City Post Office has reviewed regulations and that the regulations "will be adhered to in the future."

City removes itself as ChristFest sponsor

The city of Muncie, Ind., is not listed as a sponsor of ChristFest 2016 after FFRF complained about sponsorship of the 2015 event.

ChristFest is an all-day event meant "to give praise, worship, and honor to the Lord Jesus Christ." It features "praise & worship teams, drama teams, and Christian comedians."

The event, which occurred on Aug. 15, 2015, at the Canan Commons, had the city of Muncie seal and the city's name listed as gold level event sponsors. Gold level sponsors must give a donation of at least $1,500.

"Even if the city of Muncie did not donate funds to ChristFest, it is improper to allow the city seal to appear on the ChristFest website," FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the city.

The city replied that it had not given any money to the event and were already attempting to have the seal removed. The city's name and seal are no longer on the 2016 event website.

Church land transfers stopped for now

FFRF has persuaded a Tennessee county to stop giving away land to churches.

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners had repeatedly transferred land to churches for nominal sums under a Tennessee provision that permitted this for nonprofits. For example, the county conveyed eight parcels of land to Memphis' Kingdom Fellowship Baptist Church in 2012 and a further four parcels to the same church in 2015.

FFRF informed the county that it was violating both the U.S. and Tennessee Constitutions by its actions, no less than if it directly transferred taxpayer money to churches.

FFRF advised Shelby County that county property should never be transferred to religious institutions for less than fair market value, since this sort of action forces taxpayers of all faiths and of no religion to subsidize a particular expression of worship.

Shelby County heeded FFRF's advice. In a recent response, Kennedy acknowledged that FFRF's letter had made it reassess its actions and that as a result, Shelby County was suspending the land transfers for the time being.

Post office removes religious literature

The post office in Morristown, Tenn., removed its Sign of the Times magazine rack after FFRF complained to the postmaster.

The rack was placed just outside the building on the post office's property.
According to its website, the magazine "encourages readers to lead joyful Christian lives as they await the soon return of Jesus."

Seven weeks later, the postmaster replied that "an investigation was made" and that "proper steps were taken to remove the rack and signage from postal property.

FFRF has complained to other Tennessee post offices about Sign of the Times magazine racks, most recently in Harrison.

Nativity scene won't be redisplayed

The Porum Police Department in Oklahoma has agreed not to redisplay a nativity scene in front of the department's building.

The scene, erected on public property, was displayed in November 2015 and faced Main Street.

"Displaying an inherently Christian message unmistakably sends the message that Porum Police Department endorses the religious beliefs embodied in the display," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a letter to the police chief.

After nearly six months, FFRF received a reply denying that the holiday display was solely a nativity scene but agreed not to display it in the future.

Publicly run hotel rids itself of bibles

Following an FFRF complaint, the Thunderbird Executive Inn in Arizona has removed the Gideon bibles that resided in all of its rooms.

The hotel is part of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, recently made a unit of Arizona State University. A concerned citizen contacted FFRF.

"Permitting members of outside religious groups the privilege of placing their religious literature in public university guest rooms also constitutes state endorsement and advancement of religion," explained FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler. "Individuals, not the state, must determine what religious texts are worth reading."

The hotel's director informed FFRF on July 19 that religious materials would be removed from guest rooms.

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