Freethought Today · March 2017

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF Victories - By Molly Hanson

Illinois staff won't join in school gospel choir

An Illinois school district has confirmed to FFRF that its staff members will not remain involved in a school gospel choir.

FFRF initially contacted the Oak Park and River Forest High in December after a local community member informed the organization that there was a gospel choir at the school being led by the school's outreach coordinator.

"It is wholly inappropriate for a public school to teach its students songs of Christian worship," FFRF's Elaine and Eric Stone Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Interim Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams on Jan. 23. In a letter received on Jan. 25, the district informed FFRF that it would adhere to the law.

No more religious flyers in school district

An Indiana school district has pledged to FFRF that it will not permit the distribution of fundamentalist flyers to its students.

A resident contacted FFRF to inform it that staff at Yankeetown Elementary School in Newburgh, Ind., were distributing ultrareligious flyers to third- and fourth-grade female students. The handouts were a description of POP Girls ("Pearls Of Purity"), a Christian ministry promoting the "wisdom of Christ."

FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Warrick County Schools Superintendent Brad Schneider on Jan. 20, cautioning the school district about disseminating such material.

"This flyer should not have been approved and we will put steps in place to prevent objectionable flyers to slip through the cracks in the future," Schneider responded on Jan. 24. "You have my word that flyers of this nature will not be distributed home in the future."

FFRF gets apology for coach's public piety

An Illinois school district has apologized to FFRF for a coach's participation in prayer gatherings at school events.

On Dec. 26, 2016, after a basketball game between Vandalia Community High School and Pana High School, Coach Brian Buscher took part in a prayer circle with students of both teams.
In a letter sent on Jan. 11 to Vandalia Community Unit School District #203 Superintendent Rich Well, FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne reminded him that it is illegal for public school coaches to lead, organize or participate in prayers with their students.

"Please accept our apology," Well emailed back a few days after receiving FFRF's letter. "Our Varsity Boys Basketball Coach Brian Buscher has been notified that no coaches are allowed to participate."

FFRF reminds Maine school to stay secular

Teachers at an elementary school in Guilford, Maine, have been reminded of their constitutional duty to not promote religion in their public roles as educators.

FFRF received notice that a third-grade teacher at Piscataquis Community Elementary School had handed out a coloring page depicting a pious turkey with wording that read, "Thank You God for everything — for family, friends and fun — but most of all for Jesus, My Savior and Your Son."

FFRF sent a letter to Superintendent Ann Kirkpatrick on Dec. 21, 2016, who responded a month later that the matter had been investigated, and that the teachers understood their obligation to refrain from any religious promotion in the classroom.

Florida judge says to dismiss prayer case

A Florida judge says a prayer lawsuit against a high school athletic league should be tossed out. FFRF filed an amicus brief in the case.

U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Amanda Arnold Sansone issued a Feb. 3 recommendation to dismiss a case brought by Cambridge Christian School against the Florida High School Athletic Association. The First Liberty Institute, a theocratic group, filed the suit in September, arguing that the association was mandated to allow Cambridge Christian to deliver a Christian prayer over the PA system at state championship events. Sansone found that Cambridge Christian's request for a preliminary injunction should be denied and its suit should be dismissed.

FFRF gets Ohio council to change invocation

FFRF was able to get the Upper Arlington City Council in Ohio to amend its rules to comply with the Constitution.

FFRF received a complaint that the council was having government officials lead invocations at the beginning of its meetings when a local minister was not present. FFRF Managing Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to City Council President Donald Leach on Dec. 6, 2016, informing him that not only is prayer at government meetings unnecessary and divisive, but it is illegal for officials to lead prayers at government meetings.

FFRF received a response from City Attorney Jamie Hummer on Jan. 6, who wrote that the council amended their rules to state that neither council members or employees are permitted to conduct the prayer.

Symbols removed from Nevada school

Religious artwork hanging on the office wall of Bob Miller Middle School in Henderson, Nev., has been taken down after FFRF took action on a complaint.

The organization received a report that a cross and a reference to Jesus were being displayed on the BMMS Dean of Students' office wall. FFRF's Patrick O'Reiley Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to School District General Counsel Carlos McDade on Dec. 22, 2016, asking that the Christian iconography be taken down.

McDade responded in a letter to FFRF on Jan. 11 writing that the employee had removed the displays of religious symbolism.

Louisiana city changes prayer breakfast

The city of Zachary, La., has changed its rules to ensure that its annual "Mayor's Prayer Breakfast" will no longer violate the First Amendment by receiving city endorsement.
The city's website promoted the annual breakfast as a "Christian event," which was held in a church. FFRF's Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to Mayor David Amrhein on Dec. 16, 2016, informing him that the event violated the Constitution.

Amrhein responded on Jan. 17 with a list of changes that the city would make in future prayer breakfasts to avoid city endorsement. Amrhein informed FFRF that the event would take place at a non-city facility, not use city resources or funds, not require mandatory attendance by city employees and not be mentioned on the city's website.

Alabama school's Christian promotion ends

An Auburn, Ala., elementary school assured FFRF that it will not be promoting Christianity or a religious group.

Dean Road Elementary School distributed flyers and used social media postings to promote "All Pro Dad" events, which the school was hosting throughout the school year. All Pro Dad is a group that promotes "family values," along with Christian prayer and worship.

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover first wrote to Auburn City Schools Superintendent Karen DeLano on July 16, 2015, about the unlawful flyers. After several interactions, an attorney representing the school district replied to FFRF on Jan. 12 that there would not be any promotion or endorsement by the school of a religious organization.

Angel statue removed from Indiana park

FFRF was informed that a statue of an angel with its hands clasped in prayer had been put up in a public park in Kokomo, Ind. The display conferred government endorsement of Christianity over all other faiths or no faith.

FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to the Kokomo Parks and Recreation Department's superintendent on June 3, 2015, asking that the statue be removed from the park or to a more private location.

After several follow-ups, FFRF was informed on Feb. 6 of this year that the statue had been removed by the city park department's new superintendent.

Kentucky school educated on First Amendment

Educators at Grant County Schools in Kentucky have been reminded of their responsibility to uphold the First Amendment's requirement that they not proselytize religion.

FFRF was alerted to a published nativity display in the high school's newsletter, accompanied with the phrase "Merry Christmas." FFRF Managing Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Superintendent Donald Ruberg on Jan. 17, asking that the school refrain from including religious iconography in their newsletters and that staff be reminded of their constitutional duty to remain neutral toward religion.

On Jan. 19, the attorney for Grant County Schools communicated that the superintendent would meet with the school district's principals and let them know that the newsletter nativity was inappropriate and why.

Religious promotion ended at Texas school

A parent with a child in Victoria School District in Texas contacted FFRF to report instances of religious promotion at Ella Schorlemmer Elementary School. A Christian prayer was part of the school's Veterans Day celebration and a teacher at the elementary school incorporated religious worksheets into a lesson plan.

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Robert Jaklich on Dec. 22, 2016, asking that the school district refrain from including religious rituals during public school assemblies and that teachers not incorporate religious instruction or devotional teachings into their lesson plans.

Jaklich responded on Jan. 24 that steps had been taken to ensure that the violations would not recur.

Louisiana coaches warned about proselytizing

In Louisiana, the Caldwell Parish High School football team's coaches have been warned not to promote religion to the team in the future.

FFRF was informed that a coach had been taking the team to church. The coach had also been exposing the athletes to religious movies and music. The coach had described his efforts to indoctrinate student-athletes into Christianity as "faith-based team building."

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent John Gullatt on Sept. 16, 2016, about the violations.

The school district's attorney responded in writing to FFRF on Feb. 1, that the coaches had been reminded of the district's policies against religious promotion.

Religious program ends at Illinois school

FFRF took action to end a partnership between the Decatur Public Schools District in Illinois and two local churches after learning of a constitutional violation.

The school district had partnered with Glad Tidings Church and Tabernacle Baptist Church for six half-day retreats at the churches. FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to the district's administrators on Dec. 21, 2016, reminding them that public schools may not advance or promote religion.

The school district's attorney contacted FFRF early this February to inform the organization that the partnership program with the churches had been suspended and cancelled for the next year.

FFRF gets Texas coaches to stop prayers

FFRF learned that coaches in Texas' Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City Independent School District were illegally participating in prayers with its student-athletes.

Coaches from Byron P. Steele II High School, Samuel Clemens High School and Ray D. Corbett Junior High School had engaged in prayers.

Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Greg Gibson on Jan. 25 to inform the school district that it is illegal for public school coaches to organize or participate in prayer with their teams.

Gibson responded on Feb. 9 that he worked with the athletic director and health educator to schedule training for all coaches on complying with the Constitution.

Latin cross removed from Texas classroom

FFRF reminded the Lewisville Independent School District in Texas that employees must not endorse their personal spiritual beliefs to students through religious displays.

A community member informed FFRF that a cross was visibly hanging in a classroom of Arbor Creek Middle School promoting the teacher's Christian views to students. On Feb. 8, FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the school district's superintendent, Kevin Rogers, asking that the cross be removed.

Lewisville ISD's legal director called to inform FFRF on Feb. 13 that the cross had been removed from the classroom.

Ohio nativity display banished by FFRF

A nativity display was removed from an Ohio public high school's property after FFRF took action.

It was brought to FFRF's attention that a December nativity scene had been put up for the second year in a row at Buckeye Local High School in Rayland. FFRF Managing Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert informed district officials on Dec. 20, 2016, that the display was unconstitutional because it signaled that the school district preferred Christianity over all other faiths or no religion.

Interim Superintendent Scott Celestin informed FFRF on Dec. 28 that the nativity scene had been taken down after receiving Markert's letter.

Virginia city cancels visit to 'Ark Park'

FFRF has dissuaded a Virginia city's park and rec department from hosting a trip to the infamous "Ark Park" and creationist museum.

A resident informed FFRF that the Christiansburg Parks and Recreation Department was arranging a visit in early April to the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum in Kentucky. The excursion was advertised on the city's website.

FFRF urged the city to refrain from organizing an outing to such overtly religious sites, and the city responded within a couple of days.

"Please be advised that the trip has been cancelled and will be removed from the town of Christiansburg's website," the city's legal counsel wrote.

The Ark Encounter is a Christian ministry run by the creationist Ken Ham, who also built the Creation Museum. Ham has been open about the proselytizing nature of his projects right since the beginning.

"We are eagerly approaching what I believe will be a historic moment in Christendom," he stated in a 2016 letter outlining his motive. "It's the opening of the one of the greatest Christian outreaches of our era."

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