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Freethought Today · August 2017

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF Victories By Molly Hanson

By Molly Hanson

FFRF blows whistle on Kansas coach's prayers

A high school wrestling coach in Wichita, Kan., has been reminded to stay in line with the First Amendment after he unconstitutionally led a prayer during a team banquet.

A concerned parent informed FFRF that, this past spring, the Wichita Northwest High School wrestling coach led a prayer for all attendees at the end-of-the-year school-sponsored banquet. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the school district on April 20 to inform school officials that such conduct endorses and promotes personal religious beliefs on behalf of a public school district — which is unconstitutional.

FFRF received notice on May 22 that the school district conducted an investigation into the violation. Several actions were taken to ensure that no promotion of religious belief reoccurs in the future. A newsletter will be sent out before the school year starts this upcoming fall reminding school principals of the constitutional prohibition against employee participation of prayer at school functions. The issue will also be discussed with the district's high school athletic directors.

Senior center reminded to keep meals secular

A North Carolina county senior center will adhere to federal regulations against religious worship after FFRF took action on a constitutional violation over pre-lunch prayers.

A concerned resident of Leon Mann Jr. Enrichment Center — based in Morehead City, N.C. — informed FFRF that a daily lunch prayer was occurring at the publicly funded facility. The prayer was being led by a former preacher, who was attending the center himself. Employees would quiet the crowd and encourage participation in the prayer while members of the center who did not wish to join in were being ostracized for their rejection of the religious ritual.

FFRF sent a letter on May 30 requesting that the center cease its prayers as regulations prohibit senior centers receiving federal funding from engaging in religious activities at government-sponsored functions, such as senior lunches. An attorney representing the center responded on June 6, informing FFRF that no coercion or endorsement of religion would take place at the Enrichment Center and that the prayer did not represent the center.

FFRF terminates prayer at Arizona school

FFRF successfully stopped prayers scheduled into yet another high school's graduation ceremony, this time in Elkins, Ariz.

Last spring, FFRF was informed that the Elkins High School 2016 graduation ceremony opened and closed with a Christian prayer. FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott a letter on June 26, 2016, to the school district, warning against the inclusion of prayer at future school-sponsored events.

Although FFRF did not receive a response from the district, the organization was informed on June 5 that there had been no prayers included in this past spring's 2017 graduation ceremony.

Delaware school cuts prayer from graduation

A Delaware school district agreed to comply with its constitutional obligation to remain neutral regarding religion in its June 5 graduation ceremony, after receiving a letter from FFRF requesting that it cancel scheduled prayers.

It was brought to FFRF's attention that the Woodbridge High School graduation ceremony had scheduled both an invocation and a benediction, and had done so in years past. FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote to Woodbridge School District Superintendent Heath Chasanov on June 1, informing him that the Supreme Court has ruled against prayers at public school events — which includes graduations.

Chasanov responded on June 5 with a copy of the commencement ceremony showing that the prayer had been removed.

South Carolina wrestling prayers silenced

A high school in Honea Path, S.C., has been reminded of its obligation to stay secular after it received a warning from FFRF over an unlawful prayer delivered to the school's wrestling team this past spring.

FFRF was informed that a local pastor was called to lead a prayer at a Belton-Honea Path High School awards event for the school's wrestling team. The pastor called upon Jesus Christ several times throughout the prayer, explicitly undermining the public school's duty to remain secular on matters regarding religion.

FFRF sent a letter on June 2 requesting that the school address and correct the violation. The school district superintendent, Richard Rosenberger, responded on June 7, informing FFRF that the Belton-Honea Path High School principal and athletic director were made aware of the constitutional breach. Rosenberger also informed FFRF that school district faculty would be given a legal briefing on religion in schools.

Florida school to keep Christ out of events

A Florida high school won't be inserting religion into future school-sponsored events after receiving a legal warning from FFRF over a Christian prayer.

It was brought to FFRF's attention that the assistant principal and athletic director at Middleton High School in Tampa, Fla., had called upon a staff member to deliver a Christian prayer at an athletic banquet on school property. The individual had asked his students and their parents to bow their heads as he delivered a prayer, thanking God for the food.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to Hillsborough County Public Schools Chief of Staff Alberto Vazquez on May 30, warning against the unconstitutional school endorsement of religion. Vazquez responded on June 19 to inform FFRF that an investigation had been launched over the violation. The athletic director has been retrained on the district's policy to remain religiously neutral and inclusive.

Oklahoma school will stick to teaching facts

FFRF has stopped an Oklahoma high school teacher from inserting anti-science, religious thought into his anatomy and physiology classes.

It was brought to FFRF's attention that an Owasso High School teacher, Bob Linder, was teaching creationism in his science classes. Linder fallaciously claimed that the biblically based idea of human origin was equivalent to the scientific theory of evolution, which he had made attempts to cast doubt upon. Teaching creationism, or any of its derivatives such as intelligent design, to a captive student audience is unlawful — as federal courts have consistently upheld. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Owasso Public Schools Superintendent Clark Ogilvie on Jan. 31, informing the district of the violation.

"Teaching that there is a scientific controversy about the validity of evolution is akin to teaching astrology with astronomy or alchemy beside chemistry," wrote Seidel. "Representing unconstitutional discarded misconceptions as scientific facts does a great disservice to the scientific literacy of Owasso High School students."

An attorney representing the school district informed FFRF in a letter sent June 20 that Linder had voluntarily retired, and that appropriate actions had been taken by the district to prevent similar violations of staff infusing religious doctrine into curriculum.

Senior center to serve religious-free meals

FFRF has ensured that a senior center in Grants, N.M., will be serving prayer-free meals from here on out.

A concerned member of the Cibola Senior Center informed FFRF that the federally funded institution was instructing its members to pray before receiving meals. Although the center was not directly coercing members to comply with the practice, staff members were singling out individuals who did not pray. This created a divisive atmosphere that ostracized those who chose not to pray.

"Not only does permitting public prayer at these meals cause concern that the government is endorsing religion, it also violates our citizens' rights to be free from religious proselytizing," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a letter to the center's director, Dorie Sandoval, on May 19. Sandoval responded on June 8, informing FFRF that the center had a policy against employees encouraging prayer that would be strictly adhered to.

Indiana school district says no more prayers

An Indiana school district has promised FFRF that graduation prayers will not occur again in its schools.

A concerned Elkhart Community Schools parent contacted FFRF to report that the 2016-17 graduation ceremony at the Roosevelt STEAM Academy began with a prayer. The speaker asked the audience to stand and bow heads, and then led a sectarian Christian prayer, concluding with "In Jesus' name, Amen."
"The Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Elkhart Community Schools Legal Counsel Douglas Thorne last month.

This prayer is especially egregious when involving a captive group of impressionable elementary-age school children, FFRF added. Parents, not public schools, are responsible for the religious or nonreligious upbringing of their children. And courts have continually reaffirmed that the rights of minorities are protected by the Constitution. It makes no difference how many students want prayer or wouldn't be offended by prayer at their graduation ceremony.
The school district has assured FFRF that it will adhere to the First Amendment.

"Our obligation to maintain a status of religious neutrality is communicated to our staff at all levels on a regular basis and I am, by copy of this letter, reminding our building principal on the importance of maintaining this status at all school functions," Thorne responded. "We will continue in our efforts to meet those obligations."

Ohio school will have a Christ-free school year

A school district in Smithville, Ohio, won't be scheduling Christianity into its school calendar or holiday decorating activities anymore.

Green Local Schools District featured a overtly Christian theme on its lunch calendar this past December, listing "Baby in a blanket on a bed of straw" with a "star" on the lunch menu. This was an obvious reference to the birth story of Jesus Christ. The calendar also displayed a picture of a baby in a manger on Dec. 26, paired with the wording "The Best Christmas Gift." FFRF was also made aware that Green Middle School had several classroom doors decorated with nativity scenes and references to the birth of Jesus Christ.

In a letter sent on March 16, FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert informed Superintendent Judy Robinson that a nativity scene is a sectarian Christian symbol, which is unlawful for a public school to display. Markert warned against the constitutional violation of promoting a religious doctrine in a public school. On June 20, FFRF was informed by a school official that the situation had been investigated and corrected.

N.C. sheriff's office complies with FFRF

FFRF recently sent a letter to the Ashe County Sheriff's Office, based in Jefferson, objecting to a "Time of Prayer" event it was scheduled to host on June 24. Highlighting the event was a prayer led by Anne Graham Lotz, the daughter of the celebrity evangelist Billy Graham and sister of Franklin Graham.

FFRF expressed concern that Ashe County officers, and perhaps Sheriff Terry Buchanan, would make an appearance at the event in their official uniforms and might speak using government titles to promote the religious event. This, FFRF reminded the sheriff's office, would have exacerbated the appearance that the sheriff's office endorses Christianity. The Ashe County Sheriff's Office promptly addressed this concern.

"No uniformed officer or deputy will be speaking or participating in the event," wrote an attorney representing the Ashe County Sheriff's Office. "Mr. Buchanan may give a brief introduction of Ms. Lotz, but it would be without introduction of himself and without use of a title or uniform. The only presence of any uniformed officer would be consistent with their normal routine of patrol and other law enforcement duties."

Arizona high school to end assembly prayers

After it was brought to FFRF's attention that an award assembly at an Arizona high school had begun and ended with a Christian prayer, action was taken to ensure the public school remains secular.

During an award assembly this past spring at Harrison High School in Harrison, Ariz., a benediction was scheduled and delivered to students during school hours. FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to the Harrison School District on May 24, informing the superintendent that such school-sponsored religious activities violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Elliott requested that the school refrain from including inappropriate and unconstitutional prayers at future school events.

FFRF received a response May 30 from the interim superintendent, who wrote that all principals had been notified of the violation and assuring the organization that the violation will not occur anywhere in the school district again.

Missouri school changes graduation policy

Thanks to FFRF, a school district in Willard, Mo., has adopted a policy to ensure that religion does not seep into future high school commencement addresses.

During Willard High School's graduation ceremony this past spring, religious remarks and a prayer were given by Willard Public Schools Superintendent Kent Medlin in his address to students. FFRF was informed that Medlin had quoted the bible several times, evangelized the audience by discussing his "savior" and asked the students and their families to pray along with him.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to the school board on May 18 noting that Medlin is infamous for abusing his position of authority to promote his personal religious beliefs in the past. Elliott asked for steps to be taken by the district to comply with constitutional requirements that it remain neutral regarding religion.

An attorney representing the district wrote on May 25 to inform FFRF that the remarks had been against the board's policy. The district has altered its policy on graduation ceremonies to have the Board of Education review future commencement speeches. Furthermore, the school board's policy on religious neutrality will be reviewed with all staff members during the orientation for the upcoming school year.