Freethought Today · September 2017

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF Victories: By Molly Hanson

Ohio county's plan ends over faith-based services

FFRF has stopped an Ohio county's attempt to divert public dollars to exclusively religious organizations.

In August, it was brought to FFRF's attention that Cuyahoga County had issued a "request for proposal" so that it could offer outreach services limited to faith-based organizations or coalitions of faith-based organizations. The request was intended to seek "proposals from faith-based organizations interested in providing outreach and referral activities to drive enrollment in Cuyahoga County's Universal Pre-Kindergarten Program."

In a letter to the county administration, FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line warned the county against the violation of the First Amendment.
The county responded that it would comply with constitutional requirements to be entirely neutral on matters of religion.

FFRF nixes religion from state event

FFRF has ensured that the Wisconsin Department of Health Services will not entangle itself with religion when sponsoring events.

The Aging and Disability Resource Center of Southwest Wisconsin (ADRC) sponsored a dementia workshop on June 15 exclusively for faith community leaders. Religion was advertised in a flyer of the workshop, which indicated that Pastor Carolyn Kennedy led the 15-minute opening worship and that it was held in the United Church of Christ in Barneveld.

In a letter sent to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne requested assurance that future Aging and Disability Resource Center events would not include religious rituals. FFRF also asked that any future events the center sponsors be open to all community leaders, not just clergy.

The Department of Health Services responded on July 26, agreeing that resource centers should not prohibit any interested community leader from attending its informational events.
Wisconsin school ends religious ties

FFRF has snipped the ties between a Wisconsin elementary school and a religious financial firm.

It was brought to the attention of FFRF that Bristol Elementary School in Bristol, Wis., had partnered with Thrivent Financial, a Christian financial services firm that openly discriminates based on religion.

FFRF's Elaine and Eric Stone Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne sent a letter to the Bristol School District asking that it investigate Establishment Clause concerns.

The school and financial firm had collaborated on a "Feed My Starving Children" event. Feed My Starving Children is a Christian nonprofit with a mission to nourish "God's starving children hungry in body and spirit." After the students packed food, they were invited to participate in a Christian prayer over the food. In exchange for the funding, Thrivent transported students to the event. Students all wore T-shirts with the religious firm's logo that includes a Christian cross.

Bristol School District #1 Administrator Michael Juech informed FFRF in an email that the district had contacted Thrivent Financial to let the group know that no future partnerships would take place. Additionally, the school district has taken steps to remove social media posts from the Bristol School District pages highlighting the relationship with Thrivent Financial.

Christian message replaced in Md. school

Thanks to FFRF, an elementary school in Frederick, Md., has agreed to expunge a proselytizing message to its students.

A concerned local resident informed FFRF that Lincoln Elementary had been displaying a religious sculpture in its foyer that had been donated by a Rotary Club. The sculpture was in the shape of a key and included printed advice to students to "be good Christians." FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter on June 21 to the Frederick County Public Schools superintendent objecting to the overt promotion of Christianity on behalf of the school and asking that the sculpture be modified to remove the message.

A representative of the school district responded on July 11 informing FFRF that the principal of Lincoln Elementary school had been advised to remove the word "Christians" from the message. It now contains a secular message to "be good."

FFRF seals up victory in Florida post office

A U.S. post office in Miami, Fla., will no longer be unconstitutionally promoting religion after receiving a letter from FFRF.

FFRF was informed that a poster reading, "To all South Florida District Employees who have been called to serve, our thoughts and prayers are with you. God Bless America" had been on display at the Quail Heights Post Office. On Nov. 4, 2016, FFRF Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler wrote a letter warning the post office that U.S. postal regulations prohibit the display of nearly all religious materials and that the First Amendment prohibits government sponsorship of religion.

Ziegler asked that the post office comply with the constitution and remove the sign. The Quail Heights Post Office district manager responded on July 20, informing FFRF that the sign had been immediately removed following the reception of the warning letter.

Indoctrination removed from hunter training

Due to the FFRF, there won't be any Christian indoctrination permitted during official hunter training in New Hampshire.

The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department facilitates hunter safety classes throughout New Hampshire. A person who contacted FFRF attended a class on April 6-8 hosted by the Heritage Free Will Baptist Church in Laconia, N.H. The complainant reported that everyone who attended the class received religious flyers with prayers and information about church services. A pastor taught this class. The religious materials were enclosed with all of the official hunter's safety documents and study packets.

FFRF learned that the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department will make certain that future classes co-sponsored by the department do not involve the distribution of such religious materials.

FFRF has religion fished out from Illinois contest

An Illinois statewide fishing competition will not be angling for religion, thanks to FFRF.

A concerned Illinois resident informed FFRF that the Illinois High School Association, in conjunction with the Fishing League Worldwide, started this year's 2017 IHSA Bass Fishing State Finals for member Illinois schools with a Christian prayer that included "Thanks for your son Jesus."

This sectarian prayer was inappropriate and unconstitutional, FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne told the association.

The Illinois High School Association responded quickly by ending the prayers.

California post office tosses prayers

A U.S. post office plant in Richmond, Calif., has agreed to end government-endorsed prayers after receiving a letter from FFRF.

At a potluck held by the post office plant in December 2016, a pre-meal prayer was led "in Jesus' name." At a luncheon four days after, the plant manager asked for an employee to lead a prayer. FFRF Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler wrote to the plant manager, Severo Garza, on April 3, warning that the prayer practices had violated the constitutional separation of church and state by imposing prayer on employees and endorsing religion on behalf of the government.

Garza responded in a letter to FFRF on July 21 agreeing that the post office would be in compliance with the First Amendment in the future.

Kansas school agrees to be religiously inclusive

A Kansas school district superintendent has agreed to restrain himself from praying with his employees at school functions.

A concerned employee informed FFRF that at an awards meeting for retiring staff, Independence Unified School District Superintendent Rusty Arnold asked the audience to join him in prayer and to bow their heads. FFRF Legal Fellow Christopher Line sent a letter to Arnold on July 7 warning the school district that imposing prayer on employees at a district-sponsored event violates constitutional limits on government religious endorsement. Furthermore, Line explained to Arnold that such prayers inappropriately alienate non-religious employees, or those who practice a minority religion.

On July 20, Arnold assured FFRF in a letter that he did not want to alienate staff members and would no longer be praying with his employees during school events.
University of Florida program sets it right

FFRF has ensured that a program at the University of Florida in Gainesville will remain neutral regarding religion.

FFRF contacted the university over a mandatory program it planned to implement for all undergraduate students called "UF Quest," which contained aspects that appeared to advance or favor religion. The university's associate provost of undergraduate affairs explained that all students in the program would be encouraged to meditate on their spiritual tradition — which she equated with prayer.

In a letter sent on June 6, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel spotlighted the constitutional state-church concerns with the program and requested that all program curriculum be approached from a secular standpoint. FFRF also asked that the program include all students by representing the nearly 35 percent of millennials who do not identify with religion. The university's attorney responded on July 14, assuring FFRF that the program would not promote religion and that the university would work with FFRF to find humanist or atheist representatives if necessary in the future.

FFRF fixes up Texas school's religion policy

A Texas high school will no longer be using graduation events to unconstitutionally promote Christianity after FFRF contacted the school district over several state/church violations.
FFRF was informed that the graduation events at Big Sandy High School were laced with religion. During a senior banquet prior to the school's graduation ceremony, the principal led a Christian prayer in which he made multiple references to the bible and "warned" about Satan. On the day of graduation, a faculty member gave students a copy of the Christian book "God's Promises for Graduates." The graduation ceremony itself began with a Christian invocation and concluded with the principal asking everyone to stand up to join hands and recite the Lord's Prayer. Moreover, a local religious group was invited onto school property before the ceremony to distribute bibles to students.

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to the school district's superintendent, Jay Ratcliff, on June 22 to remind the district of its duty to remain religiously neutral and protect the rights of conscience of students. Public school graduations, Grover pointed out, are not the place to preach personal religious beliefs. Ratcliff responded on July 27 agreeing that the district would comply with its legal obligation to keep religion out of its schools.

School bus advertising Jesus hits roadblock

A public school bus rolling through Tennessee will no longer be doubling as Christian propaganda on wheels. A concerned resident informed FFRF that a school bus for the Bedford County School District in Shelbyville, Tenn., was showcasing a large bumper sticker that read, "Easter is all about JESUS!" The district violated the constitution by allowing its resources to display religious messages and promote religion. FFRF sent a letter to the district superintendent on May 12 requesting that the bumper sticker be removed.

The school district responded on July 24 that it had immediately complied with FFRF's request and that an in-service training would be provided for drivers to address the violation.
Bible banished from view at Virginia college

The Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine has removed a religious text from a display after receiving a warning letter from FFRF.

An employee reached out to FFRF over a bible being displayed on the table outside the office of the director of the teaching hospital. The bible was placed next to the seating for visitors. FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert sent a letter on July 21 to the university's dean explaining that displaying the bible to visitors of the director's office sends the message that the college endorses the religious text, which is a constitutional violation. A legal representative of the university informed FFRF in a letter sent on July 25 that the bible had been removed from public view.

Michigan town ends school-endorsed prayer

FFRF has taken action to ensure that students in Breitung Township Schools in Kingsford, Mich., will no longer be socially pressured into participating in religious rituals.

This past spring, the district's Eighth-Grade Dinner Dance included a prayer that students were instructed to recite before a meal. The prayer had been organized by Mrs. Hofer, a teacher in the district, who had pressured and shamed students at the event to join in the religious ritual by saying that refusing to do so would be poor manners. FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert wrote to Superintendent Craig Allen on May 25, warning that it is a constitutional violation for public school teachers to involve themselves in prayer.
Allen responded on July 28 that the incident had been discussed with the violator.

FFRF removes dogma from Missouri school

The Parkway School District in Chesterfield, Mo., will not be be teaching misleading, faith-based curriculum in the future after FFRF raised constitutional and health concerns.

A local faith-based organization, Thrive St. Louis, has been teaching sex education in district schools. The group operates "crisis pregnancy centers," which label themselves as general-purpose medical clinics for pregnant women, but in reality spew fallacious advice and provide services that further a religious agenda. Thrive's sex education lessons, called "Best Choice," is made up of scare and shaming tactics to discourage students from using contraception, choosing to have sex or having an abortion — all of which crisis pregnancy centers oppose for purely religious reasons. The group's employment policy clearly aims to spread Christian dogma.

"It would be inappropriate and irresponsible for a public school district to encourage students to visit a crisis pregnancy center, much less invite such a group to teach sex education," wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in a letter to the Parkway School District on April 7.

On July 31, the district superintendent responded that beginning with the 2017-18 school year, all sexual health instruction would be delivered by the district's certified health educators.

Pennsylvania manor gets secular makeover

The Palmyra Interfaith Manor in Lebanon, Penn., has removed a large collection of Christian iconography that had decorated its common areas.

A resident of the manor reported to FFRF that Latin crosses, angels and depictions of Mary, Joseph and Jesus decorated the lobby and community room, making the resident feel alienated in her own home. Because the manor is funded by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, the religious displays raised constitutional concerns. FFRF Legal Fellow Christopher Line sent a letter on June 29 asking that the decorations be removed from the common areas of the residency to avoid the promotion of Christianity.
The housing authority responded on Aug. 1 informing FFRF that the religious items had been removed.

Missouri school steps away from religion

A community member contacted FFRF over a promotion of religion at Cole Camp High School in Missouri during the school's Senior Awards Night, and FFRF promptly took action. A school staff member had promoted a religious baccalaureate service scheduled immediately after the school-sponsored award ceremony.

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to Cole Camp School District administration to ensure that religious services were not being organized or promoted by the district and reminding the public school district of its constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion.

Superintendent Tim Rolling responded on Aug. 9 to inform FFRF that the district would review all policies and practices to ensure that the school district employees would not promote any religious activity.

Banners removed from Georgia school

The Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Ga., will not be promoting an evangelical group or displaying Christian symbols in its cafeteria after FFRF sent a letter over a constitutional violation.

FFRF was informed by a troubled parent that two large, seemingly permanent banners showcasing Christian iconography and ideology were affixed to either side of the stage in the school cafeteria. The banners were for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes' Southeast Georgia Chapter, which includes a prominent Latin cross in its logo. The group's mission is to give coaches and athletes "the challenge and adventure of receiving Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, serving Him in their relationships and in the fellowship of the church." FFRF Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell wrote to a representative of Lowndes County Schools on June 19, warning the district that displaying religious symbols or promoting religious organizations with a clear evangelical mission is a constitutional violation.

FFRF was informed on July 31 that the school had complied with its request that the banners be removed.

FFRF turns off Georgia school's Christian music

FFRF has ensured that a teacher at Whitewater Middle School in Gainesville, Ga., has changed his tune and will keep religion out of his classroom.

A parent of a student attending the middle school informed FFRF that an eighth-grade science teacher, Matthew Mundock, was playing Christian music in his classroom during his examinations. When the student informed Mundock that the music was distracting, he suggested the student go to the library. FFRF Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler sent a letter to Fayette County Public Schools on June 30 warning that it is illegal for public school employees to promote Christianity by playing religious music in classrooms. FFRF requested that Mundock be directed to cease exposing students to Christian music.

On Aug. 3, the school district responded that Mundock had been made to understand that playing Christian music unconstitutionally endorsed religious messages and that he would only play secular instrumental music going forward.

FFRF ends prayers at Michigan school

After learning of a state/church violation that occurred at Delton Kellogg Schools in Michigan, FFRF took action to ensure religious rituals are kept out of school events.
FFRF was informed that the district held a Veterans Day concert in November 2016 at Delton Kellogg High School. The event included a prayer led by a middle school student. In a letter sent on Nov. 22, 2016, FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert wrote that while it was laudable for the school to honor veterans, it is unconstitutional to allow a religious message or prayer to be a part of a school-sponsored event. FFRF asked for confirmation that future school assemblies would not include prayer.

A legal representative of the school district responded on Aug. 3 that the district would comply with the law going forward.

Idaho school district complies with FFRF

FFRF has ensured that a school district in Twin Falls, Idaho, will keep religion out of its assemblies.

A district parent reported to FFRF that in February all district secondary schools in the Twin Falls School District held a mandatory student assembly featuring a guest inspirational speaker who referenced God and prayer as her source of support. Her presentation to students included a slide with a bible verse, Philippians 4:13. While FFRF Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell lauded the school district's goal of motivating students, she reminded the district in a letter sent July 26 of its First Amendment obligations to neither advance nor promote religion as the speaker did.

The district assured FFRF that it would comply with the First Amendment and refrain from sponsoring assemblies with religious content in the future.

Christian radio station on bus gets turned off

FFRF commends a Wisconsin school district for turning off a Christian broadcasting station on a school bus.

Early in the spring, FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne sent a letter to the Stevens Point Area Public School District due to concerns over a bus driver who was incessantly playing devotional Christian music on a bus taking students to P.J. Jacobs Junior High School.

The school district responded with a brief, but laudable, response: "The practice has ceased."
Correction
In the August issue in the FFRF Victories section, there were two instances in which a state was erroneously identified. The FFRF victories occurred in Elkins, Ark., and Harrison, Ark.

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