Freethought Today · June/July 2017

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF Victories By Molly Hanson

California mayors abandon prayer luncheon

After a warning from FFRF, two California mayors abandoned an official prayer luncheon with a disreputable speaker.

The annual East County Mayors' Prayer Luncheon on May 4 was billed as a chance to meet "mayors from four different cities" and included testimony from past lunches that portrayed it as a chance to lobby and influence local government.

FFRF asserted that lending mayoral titles and possibly city resources to a prayer lunch sent an official message of endorsement of religion over nonreligion that excluded many constituents.

"It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that the government cannot in any way promote, advance, or otherwise endorse religion," FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the mayors of El Cajon, Santee, La Mesa and Lemon Grove.

FFRF also cautioned the mayors about the main speaker, David Barton, a divisive figure who has called AIDS God's punishment for homosexuality. He regularly impugns religious minorities such as Muslims and nonbelievers, saying: "From a societal standpoint, there should be more concern over elected officials who are secularists and will swear an oath on no religious book, than for Muslims who swear on the Quran. After all, secularism presents a greater threat to American traditions and values than does Islam." Barton's book, "The Jefferson Lies," was so riddled with falsehoods that its publisher (which typically publishes bibles) pulled the book from shelves.

FFRF's missive asking the four mayors' offices to disassociate themselves from the prayer luncheon — combined with local public misgiving — made a big impact.

"Mayor Racquel Vasquez of Lemon Grove has sent regrets and will now not be attending the luncheon, Councilmember Jennifer Mendoza informed East County Magazine today," states a local publication in a story about FFRF's communiqué to the mayors. "Mendoza has also cancelled her attendance at the lunch due to Barton's participation. Mayor Mark Arapostathis of La Mesa has also reportedly cancelled his appearance."

FFRF is gratified that it helped change the minds of important government officials.

"These sort of official prayer events are inappropriate to begin with, and this one was made much more offensive due to Barton," says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. "We're glad the mayors heeded our call — and the calls of their conscience."

School abstains from abstinence-only sex ed

FFRF sent out letters in early April to 15 Missouri public and charter school districts objecting to school-sponsored sex education being conducted by Thrive St. Louis. Thrive's "Best Choice" sex education curriculum only promotes abstinence, offering little information other than shame and risks that await sexually active students.

Thrive requires that its employees "be committed Christian[s] who demonstrate a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

FFRF's Elaine and Eric Stone Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne urged that these Missouri public school districts stop using dubious outside materials to teach sex ed to their students. One district has already listened. The Warren County R-III School District has indicated to FFRF that it will revamp its syllabus.

The curriculum "is not consistent with district policy and board-adopted curriculum standards," Superintendent Jim Chandler responded. "Accordingly, the district will halt use of outside consultants with respect to sex education instruction to further review curriculum, effective immediately."

Georgia school won't promote religious group

FFRF has taken on All Pro Dad, a religious organization, once again, this time at a Georgia elementary school.

A concerned parent of a student in the Barrow County School System contacted FFRF about the promotion of All Pro Dad events at Statham Elementary School through the school's website. The website directed visitors to a page that included religious messages and to an online shop that included T-shirts reading, "Pray and Worship Together" and "All Pro Dad."

FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler, who sent a letter to the school district on March 31, noted that this religious promotion created an unnecessary wedge between students of the school. A response was received on April 25 from the superintendent informing FFRF that all mentions of the All Pro Dad program would be removed from the school calendar and that no school resources would be used to promote the program.

Texas school to address religious decorations

McKinney North High School in Texas has been given a secular makeover after FFRF was informed of religious symbols and messages decorating the walls of hallways and classrooms in the school. These messages included a football poster with a biblical quote, a varied collection of crosses, an advertisement for a Christian club, and a large assortment of Latin crosses next to white boards, over entrances to classrooms and behind teachers' desks.

On April 12, FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover reminded the school district attorney, Charles Crawford, of a letter FFRF sent last year to the district outlining why Latin crosses and religious messages are impermissible displays by public school employees. Since the district's employees clearly did not follow through with removing the displays, Grover requested additional assurance that the recurring issue would be, at last, resolved.

On May 1, Crawford responded to Grover's letter informing FFRF that the district superintendent would address the displays.

Florida school ends religious baccalaureate

FFRF took action after being informed that a high school in Pierson, Fla., had scheduled a graduation ceremony at a church.

A member of the Volusia County School District informed FFRF that the T. Dewitt Taylor Middle-High School official website encouraged graduating seniors to attend a baccalaureate at the Community Christian Assembly. The invitation was deceivingly made to appear as if the religious event was a requirement for graduation.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to School Board Attorney Michael Dyer on April 10 denouncing the inappropriate level of school involvement in the religious ceremony.

On May 1, FFRF was informed by a district representative that the school would not sponsor the baccalaureate and that no school employee would be involved in the organization, planning or coordination of the services. FFRF was also assured that the event would not be advertised as being encouraged.

Gideons banned from Michigan school district

FFRF has made sure that the Gideons won't be permitted to distribute bibles in a Michigan school district.

A Union City Community Schools community member contacted FFRF to report that several adult members of Gideons International were allowed into Union City Middle School during the school day, where they distributed a bible and another book, "The Life Book," to each student.

Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in April to Superintendent Pat Kreger.

"I have investigated this claim and found that, without knowledge of the district administration, religious literature was distributed to fifth-grade students," Kreger recently responded.
"Union City Community Schools does not support the distribution of religious material within our schools during the instructional day. Therefore, this practice will not happen again."

South Dakota school keeps graduation secular

Thanks to FFRF, a South Dakota high school kept its May graduation ceremony free of religious influence.

FFRF was informed that Clark High School in Clark, S.D., scheduled prayers by a Catholic priest into its graduation ceremony. The program had included both a Catholic invocation and a benediction as portions of the ceremony.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Clark School District Superintendent Luanne Warren on May 12, urging that the invocation and benediction be canceled and that all references to them be removed from the ceremony program. FFRF was informed on May 13, a day after the scheduled graduation date, that the ceremony was devoid of any religious undertones.

Religious hymns silenced at Connecticut school

Students at John B. Sliney Elementary School in Branford, Conn., will no longer be forced to sing religious songs after FFRF raised its voice in opposition.

It was brought to FFRF's attention that the school's music teacher, Ted Samodel, had been teaching spiritual songs to students. A concerned parent informed FFRF that her child was brought to the auditorium to listen to older students rehearsing for their music class.

One of the songs being performed was "Angels Watching Over Me," which contains pious lyrics.

FFRF Managing Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter to Bradford Public Schools Superintendent Hamlet Hernandez on Feb. 9 requesting that Samodel be instructed to stop teaching young, impressionable students religious hymns.

Hernandez informed FFRF in a letter on May 3 that the district had addressed the issue with the music teacher and gave assurance that the situation would not occur again.

FFRF purges prayer from Georgia school ceremony

After being informed of a prayer scheduled to take place at the Schley County Middle School graduation in Ellaville, Ga., FFRF raised its voice against the constitutional violation.

FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote to Superintendent Adam Hathaway on May 16 reminding him of the school district's obligation to remain neutral toward religion.

On May 18, FFRF received a response from a legal representative of the Schley County School District informing FFRF that no prayer would be scheduled to be part of the graduation ceremony, no prayer was referenced in the graduation program and seniors would not be required to remove their hats during the ceremony.

FFRF protects Texas student's free speech

FFRF took swift action after a student at Lakeview Middle School in The Colony, Texas, contacted the state-church watch group about a teacher requiring that he stand and participate in the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and Texas Pledge.

The student, who identifies as an atheist, objected to taking an oath "under God," wording present in the two pledges. The only way that the student would be allowed to opt out of the pledge would be by presenting a note from his parent or guardian allowing him to do so, which was not possible for the student.

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the Lewisville Independent School District Director of Legal Services Jeff Crownover on May 10 asking that the situation be investigated to ensure that teachers of the district were not violating the free speech rights of students. Crownover replied on May 12 that the student would be permitted to sit silently during the pledges of allegiance at school.

Bible distribution in Texas school to stop

An evangelical group will no longer be invading Liberty High School in Frisco, Texas, after FFRF got involved with the state-church violation.

A parent of a student in the school district informed FFRF that members of Gideons International were permitted to enter the school's cafeteria during the lunch period to distribute bibles. FFRF was told that the Gideons were proselytizing rather aggressively, forcing bibles onto reluctant students.

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Liberty Independent School District Superintendent Cody Abshier on April 24 to ensure that the shocking and illegal bible distribution would not take place in the future.

FFRF received a response on May 4 from Abshier, who wrote that the district had spoken with some staff about the troubling incident. Abshier assured FFRF that there would be training this summer to address the concern districtwide.

Religious poster taken down in Indiana class

A religious poster has been taken off display in Hillcrest High School, in Ammon, Ind. The framed poster of "A Wrestler's Prayer" was hanging on one of the teacher's classroom walls.

FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell sent a letter to Bonneville Joint School District No. 93 Superintendent Charles Shackett, informing the school district that it is a violation of the Constitution to display religious symbols or messages. Public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion.

FFRF received a response from Shackett on May 8, explaining that the Hillcrest High School principal had met with the specified public school employee concerning his wrestling poster and had reviewed the complaint with him. The teacher immediately removed the poster from his classroom wall and placed it in his vehicle to take home.

Indianapolis police to stop promoting religion

FFRF has successfully stopped the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department from promoting religion through its government email server.

FFRF was contacted by a local resident after an email to city employees was sent by IMPD Police Chief Bryan Roach in March promoting an event. The email concluded with a scripture verse for "encouragement and guidance." FFRF's Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne contacted Roach requesting assurance that bible verses would not be included in future emails.

FFRF received notice on May 16 that future emails sent from Roach's government email address would not include religious references.

Florida city's prayer breakfast gets updated

Thanks to FFRF, the city of Winter Haven, Fla., ended its endorsement of religion through the annual Mayor's Prayer Breakfast in May.

It was brought to FFRF's attention that Mayor Steven Hunnicutt planned on hosting the annual Mayor's Prayer Breakfast to recognize the National Day of Prayer on May 4. The conspicuous religious event was being promoted through the official Winter Haven Facebook page, Twitter account and in the city's e-newsletter. Moreover, tickets for the event were being managed and sold through the city clerk's office.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to the Winter Haven commissioners on April 28. On May 8, City Attorney Frederick Murphy responded, writing that the city had taken measures to ensure that its conduct regarding the prayer breakfast was in compliance with the First Amendment.

Georgia teacher to keep God out of classroom

An elementary school teacher in Stantonville, Ga., has been reminded of her constitutional obligation to keep her classroom secular.

A parent of an Echols County Elementary School student informed FFRF that a teacher at the school had a religious sign posted in her classroom which read, "Testing 101: When you are going through something hard and wonder where God is, remember the teacher is always quiet during a test. Trust in the Lord."

FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to an attorney representing the district, Brian Smith, on Dec. 23. Smith responded on May 15, informing FFRF that the district administration had spoken to the teacher regarding the violation and that the sign was removed. Smith also noted that the teacher had been counseled on her duty as a public school employee to remain neutral regarding religion.

Pennsylvania schools end state-church violations

After hearing of multiple shocking constitutional violations occurring within the Wilson School District in Pennsylvania, FFRF took action to warn the district of its duty to keep religion out of its public schools.

FFRF was made aware that Wilson Southern Middle School was regularly advertising religious events. A bible study was being hosted by two Wilson Southern Middle School teachers before school. Teachers handed out flyers promoting the bible study, which was advocated for in the morning announcements. A Christian "See You at The Pole" event was also featured in the school's announcements. And sixth-graders were sent to Camp Swatara Church of the Brethren, a Christian camp.

FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to Superintendent Curt Baker on March 2. On May 11, district administration responded that the issues FFRF raised had been investigated and that the district had taken the necessary steps to address the violations.

FFRF tells Texas school to keep evangelists out

The Pasadena Independent School District in Texas has been warned not to allow religious speakers access to a captive audience of public school students for indoctrination.

The school district had hosted an in-school assembly during the school day featuring a speaker from the evangelical church, Go Tell Ministries. The group was permitted to strongly promote its April 8 Christian event, the "Bay Area Go Tell Crusade." The event was deceptively described to students as a "pizza night."

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent DeeAnn Powell on April 21. On May 12, an attorney representing the school district responded to Grover's letter informing FFRF that the district had been advised on its constitutional obligations related to religion and public schools. He noted that they anticipated no further violations.

Texas teacher gets constitutional lesson

A teacher at Texas' Fannin Middle School will be promoting science rather than Christianity, thanks to FFRF's action.

Eric Sheen, an eighth-grade science teacher at the school, had been promoting anti-science curriculum and Christian propaganda. A concerned parent had informed FFRF that Sheen had showed his class a video clip from Ben Stein's pro-intelligent design film "No Intelligence Allowed," and made repeated references to students about his personal Christian faith. Sheen regularly encouraged students to embrace religion themselves, citing his personal "life-changing" experience with letting God into his life.

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Amarillo Independent School District Superintendent Dana West on April 7, informing the district that teaching creationism or any of its offshoots, such as intelligent design, in a public school is unlawful.

In a response on May 3, FFRF was assured that the situation had been investigated and thoroughly addressed.

Washington yogurt shop ends church discounts

Revelations Yogurt in Edmonds, Wash. will no longer be dishing up its party room free to church groups after FFRF contacted the establishment over its religious discrimination.

FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote to the Revelations Yogurt management on April 27, after a customer gave FFRF the scoop on the business' tasteless deal promotions. The establishment charges $25 for all other nonprofit organizations for use of the party room.

The store manager informed FFRF on May 5 that she had been unaware of the violation and had removed the discounts from the website and store poster in response to Cavell's letter.

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