Freethought Today · January/February 2017

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF messes with Texas — and wins: By Molly Hanson

By Molly Hanson

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, through the hard work of Staff Attorney Sam Grover, earned five victories against various Texas municipalities and departments in the past several weeks.

Cross removed

In mid-December, FFRF was able to persuade the city of Longview, Texas, to remove a cross from a Texas fire station's lawn in front of the station's sign. After FFRF heard from an area resident, Grover wrote to Longview Fire Chief J.P. Steelman about the violation. City officials then told the fire department to remove the cross.

"A cross that caused a stir when it was erected a year ago as part of a Longview fire station's Christmas display went up again this year — until city officials asked firefighters to remove it," the Longview News-Journal reports.

"It's our practice to follow what case law has shown throughout the United States," city spokesperson Shawn Hara told the paper. "So that is to not display on our city-owned property displays that are specifically sectarian — things like the cross."

Dress code changed

After FFRF's involvement, Madisonville High School in Texas has made changes to its spiritually discriminatory and unconstitutional apparel policy.

FFRF received a complaint from a student at the high school, who had been told by the school's vice principal, Kathleen Golden, to remove an inverted cross necklace and pentagram ring and was threatened with expulsion if he did not. Golden allegedly told the student that he should "practice his bloody religion somewhere else."

The school dress code had banned attire that could be interpreted as promoting or insinuating demonism, such as satanic symbols. Grover wrote to the Madisonville CISD informing the district that it could not draw a distinction between student religious expression and which religion they choose to express.

On Dec. 1, Madisonville High School Principal Heath Brown called to inform FFRF that the district would remove discriminatory language in its dress code.

Christian flag taken down

A Christian flag displayed in an office window at Stephen F. Austin State University has been removed after FFRF raised concerns.

The flag displayed the image of the Latin cross, the global symbol for Christianity, and was visibly hanging in the office window of the university's processing coordinator for admissions, Dorinda Byly. FFRF's Grover contacted the university president about the constitutional violation in the university's expression of favoritism for Christianity above other religions or no religion.

FFRF received notice on Dec. 16 from General Counsel Damon Derrick that the flag had been removed from the window.

Religious promotion ends

The Gunter Independent School District in Texas has been educated on its obligation to uphold the Establishment Clause of the US. Constitution after violations made by staff members.

FFRF took action after receiving a report that a social studies teacher at Gunter High School, Kerry Clement, had shown his ninth-grade class the trailer for the 1991 movie "Not Without My Daughter" when teaching about Islam. Clement supplemented the trailer with statements that all Muslims have multiple wives and that they are "hateful" and "wife beaters." In contrast, Clement spent two days discussing Christianity with the class and teaching the tenets of Christianity as factual information by presenting a video about the miracles performed by Jesus in the bible.

Grover wrote to the school district asking it to ensure that its employees not promote religious beliefs in the classroom.

On Nov. 29, FFRF received a response from a firm representing Gunter ISD stating that Clement would ensure that all religions are represented in a historically and culturally accurate manner in the future. Christian ad removed

A sign advertising a Christian after-school program, Kids Beach Club, has been removed from the wall of Wester Elementary School in Texas after FFRF took action.

The sign, which read "Making Jesus cool at school!" had been permanently posted on the cafeteria wall of the public elementary school.

Grover expressed the FFRF's objection to the district's appearance of a government endorsement of a religious message to Lubbock Independent School District Berhel Robertson.

"When a school permanently displays a sign on its property advertising a Christian club, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message," wrote Grover.
An attorney representing Lubbock ISD informed FFRF on Dec. 22 that the advertisement had been removed from the school and communicated that the district had agreed that it never should have been put up.

Amit Pal and Madeline Ziegler contributed to this article.

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These schools haven't got a prayer anymore: By Molly Hanson

By Molly Hanson

The Freedom From Religion Foundation was able to get several school districts around the country to eliminate prayers as part of school-sanctioned activities.

No more school prayer

Action was taken by FFRF after it was informed that Hartford (Kan.) High School's mandatory drunk-driving awareness assembly had opened with a prayer, led by the school's Athletic Christian Team sponsor Mike Watkins.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Superintendent Michael Argabright to inform him of the violation.

A response dated Nov. 30 informed FFRF that the principal of the building where the assembly had been held had addressed the issue with Watkins and that the prayer would not happen again.

Coach-led prayers ended

A football coach in Michigan's Millington Community School district will no longer be participating in or leading prayer with student-athletes after FFRF blew the whistle on the unlawful violations.

It was brought to FFRF's attention that after a November football game hosted by Millington High School against Detroit Central High School, both teams joined each other on the field to pray together. This prayer involved Millington head coach Roger Bearss.

FFRF Managing Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert informed Millington Community Schools Superintendent Bruce Martin that it is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer or to permit someone else to.

Martin informed FFRF that the situation had been discussed with Bearss, who had been made aware of the church and state violation regarding coach participating in prayer with student-athletes.

Pre-game prayer ceases

Coaches in an Arkansas public school district will no longer be promoting personal religious beliefs after FFRF presented video evidence of a Harmony Grove School District football coach and a team chaplain leading his team in prayer before a game.

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Daniel Henley, informing him of the dual constitutional violations of district staff praying with students and athletic team chaplains in a public school setting.

In reply, Henley claimed that the prayer had been organized by a student-
athlete and that the coaches did not organize or participate in the prayer. Grover then presented two pieces of video evidence clearly displaying a pastor leading the players and coaches in a team prayer.

On Dec. 12, Henley stated in an email that, after reviewing the video evidence, he had met with the district's athletic director and head football coach and had been assured that coach-led prayer would cease.

Graduation prayer nixed

FFRF's persistent efforts persuaded an Indiana school district to remove prayer from the local high school's graduation ceremony.

Jennings County High School in North Vernon, Ind., had prayers as part of its graduation ceremonies in both 2015 and 2016. FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Jennings County Schools Superintendent Terry Sargent about the violation.

Initially, Jennings County Schools replied in a legalistic manner, but after FFRF sent a number of follow-up letters, it did the right thing.

"Please be advised that Jennings County School Corporation will no longer incorporate prayer as an official aspect of any program," the school district's legal counsel writes in a recent letter.

Prayer breakfast ended

The city of Lakewood, Calif., will no longer be sponsoring a prayer breakfast held annually by the city's mayor.

A concerned city resident informed FFRF about an email that had been sent out inviting residents to congregate with Lakewood Mayor Jeff Piazza and the Lakewood City Council, along with a gathering of religious leaders and groups, in a "celebration of faith, unity and community spirit."

FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote to the city saying the event was a constitutional violation.

On Nov. 22, FFRF learned from the city manager that the city would no longer be sponsoring the prayer breakfast and that the breakfast would no longer be carried out in the name of the city.

Amit Pal and Madeline Ziegler contributed to this article.

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