Freethought Today, the only freethought newspaper in North America, is published 10 times a year (with combined issues in January/February and June/July). Edited by PJ Slinger, Freethought Today covers timely news related to state/church separation and includes articles of interest to freethinkers. To read select articles please click on the "Recent Issues" menu on the right.
In a legal twist, FFRF's success in getting a West Virginia school to stop its "Bible in the Schools" program was the reason a judge dismissed its lawsuit to permanently ban the practice.
In May, the Mercer County School District voted to suspend its "Bible in the Schools" classes for the following school year after FFRF sued in January over the unconstitutional program. Because the school was no longer teaching those classes (due to the board's action in response to FFRF's lawsuit), the court said the case was not "ripe" and declared the case moot.
FFRF filed a suit on behalf of four plaintiffs against Mercer County Schools, the Board of Education, the superintendent and a school principal. Senior U.S. District Judge David A. Faber's dismissal on jurisdictional grounds was without prejudice, meaning that the case can be refiled if the school system resumes any bible classes.
The lawsuit has received national attention, including a segment on "CBS This Morning" and coverage in the Washington Post. The "Bible in the Schools" program, which was offered in 15 elementary schools and three middle schools, is financed by donations, but administered by the school system.
FFRF and its plaintiffs are considering an appeal of the ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott, serving as co-counsel, noted that the school district has given no assurances it will not resume the inappropriate indoctrination.
The case has solid legal grounds.
Two of the plaintiffs, Elizabeth Deal and her anonymous child, "Jessica Roe," suffered harm due to the bible classes. Deal had to move Jessica out of the school system to end harassment at the hands of her classmates. Deal discussed her daughter's mistreatment on the "CBS This Morning" news segment.
"They taunted her about it," she told CBS on Feb. 8. "They told her that she was going to hell, that I was going to hell, that her father was going to hell."
Deal removed Jessica from Mercer County Schools to avoid the divisiveness, sending Jessica to a neighboring school district. The "Bible in the Schools" program and the treatment Jessica received as a result of not participating in the classes were a major reason for her transfer to a new school, according to FFRF's amended complaint.
"FFRF is fighting on behalf both of the Constitution and real-life human beings, including the youngest and most vulnerable students," FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor notes.
Bible indoctrination classes were taught in Mercer County Schools for more than 75 years until the FFRF lawsuit. The curriculum is the equivalent of Sunday school instruction.
FFRF's legal complaint lists examples of the proselytizing curriculum. Lesson 2 promotes creationism by claiming humans and dinosaurs co-existed.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled such instruction unconstitutional in the landmark McCollum v. Board of Education case in 1948. FFRF won a court victory before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ending similar bible instruction in Rhea County (Dayton), Tenn., schools in 2004.
FFRF legal fellow got job despite missing deadline
Name: Colin Edward McNamara
Where and when I was born: May 14, 1991, in Niskayuna, N.Y. As a nerdy kid, I thought it was super-cool that I share a birthday with George Lucas; as a nerdy adult, I think it's super-cool that I share a birthday with the Constitutional Convention.
Education: Bachelor of Arts degree in creative writing and philosophy from SUNY-Oswego; JD from the University of Richmond.
Family: My mom and dad both live in upstate New York. I have one older sister and three step-sisters.
How I came to work at FFRF: It's a bit embarrassing, actually. I didn't find out about the fellowship until two days after the application deadline passed! I was devastated. Believe it or not, there's not a lot of opportunities to do Establishment Clause legal practice straight out of law school. I told my girlfriend about this great fellowship opportunity that I just missed out on, and she just said, "But you're going to apply anyway, right?" So I said, "Honey, the deadline's already passed." She just stared at me and repeated, slowly, "But you're going to apply anyway . . . right?" I took the hint. I sent off my resume with an email basically saying, "I know this is late, but I couldn't forgive myself if I didn't at least try." A few weeks later, I had the gig! Best gamble I've ever made.
What I do here: I'm the Robert G. Ingersoll Legal Fellow, which basically means that I'm a lawyer with a really cool title.
What I like best about it: Talking with our complainants. I know as well as anyone that being the village atheist can be isolating, and the people who contact us often feel ostracized in their communities for their nonbelief. It's good to hear from them, address their problems, and let them know that they're not alone.
What gets old about it: Having some knucklehead tell me that "separation of church and state is NOT in the Constitution!!!!!" for the millionth time.
I spend a lot of time thinking about: In a perfect world? Life, the universe, and everything. Lately? The constant, looming threat of nuclear holocaust. 2017, amirite?
I spend little if any time thinking about: Football. Don't get me wrong, I like sports. I just don't get why everyone obsesses over football so much.
My religious upbringing was: I was brought up in what was ostensibly a Baptist church, but seems to have had more in common with the modern evangelical tradition — the bible is the inerrant word of God, the Earth is 6,000 years old, evolution is a damnable lie from the Pit of Hell . . . all that good stuff.
My doubts about religion started: I struggled with belief almost from the beginning. When I was 9 or 10, a family member that I love and respect asked if I'd ever accepted Jesus as my savior. I said I hadn't, but that I would like to. We closed our eyes, clasped our hands, prayed together and . . . nothing happened. I realized that I didn't feel any different. That was when I suspected that this religion business was all a bunch of make-believe. I haven't seriously looked back since.
Things I like: Reading and writing fiction, playing guitar, being with my girlfriend and our puppy, and devouring irresponsible amounts of sushi. If I could do all four in a 24-hour span, that would be the perfect day.
Things I smite: Olives, country music and authoritarianism. Not necessarily in that order.
In my golden years: I'd like to live out my latter days in a peaceful cabin in the Adirondacks with a good book in one hand, a whiskey snifter in the other, and a shotgun at my side to frighten people who step on my porch.
There are many ways you can donate to FFRF, including directly through our website (ffrf.org/donate).
Ways to give include the Combined Federal Campaign for federal employees, matching gifts, AmazonSmile, estate planning, stock transfer and IRA charitable rollover gifts, which apply to seniors 70½ or older.
Combined Federal Campaign
If you are a federal employee, you may make donations to FFRF through the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) until Jan. 12, 2018. The CFC code to designate your contribution is 32519.
It is recommended that all CFC donors check the box to include their name and mailing address with the donation. Donors will receive an acknowledgment from FFRF when we receive pledge notification (throughout the year).
FFRF has been a CFC charity since 2007. Freedom From Religion Foundation Inc. appears in the listing of "National/International Independent Organizations," which is published in each local campaign charity list.
Matching grant donations have become a significant boost to FFRF in recent years. Many companies offer to match (fully or a percentage) their employees' donations to charitable organizations.
Membership dues and donations are tax-deductible contributions and may be submitted to matching gift programs upon organization approval.
FFRF receives Charity Navigator's highest 4-star rating. Donations to FFRF are deductible for income-tax purposes.
IRA charitable rollover
If you are age 70½ or older, you may donate up to $100,000 to FFRF as a qualifying 501(c)(3) charitable organization directly from your Individual Retirement Account (IRA). The distribution will not be treated as taxable income, provided the distribution is made directly.
To qualify, contributions must come from a traditional IRA or Roth IRA, and they must be made directly to FFRF. Additionally, the donor may not receive goods or services in exchange for the donation and must retain a receipt from FFRF.
The IRA rollover became permanent in December 2015, which is very good news for senior citizens. The donation benefit had been allowed to expire in 2008 and then renewed temporarily by Congress several times at the last minute, creating uncertainty and confusion.
Because it is available to taxpayers whether or not they itemize their tax returns, the rollover helps older Americans, who are more likely not to file itemized returns.
FFRF will send a "non-tax" letter receipt that documents your lovely charitable rollover gift!
AmazonSmile is a simple and automatic way for you to support FFRF every time you shop, at no cost to you. When you shop at smile.amazon.com, you'll find the exact same prices, selection and shopping experience as Amazon.com, with the added bonus that Amazon will donate a portion of the purchase price to your favorite charitable organization. Visit our AmazonSmile donation designation page and select the Freedom From Religion Foundation to donate 0.5 percent of eligible purchases to FFRF.
The AmazonSmile Foundation is a 501(c)(3) private foundation created by Amazon to administer the AmazonSmile program. All donation amounts generated by the AmazonSmile program are remitted to the AmazonSmile Foundation.
In turn, the AmazonSmile Foundation donates those amounts to the charitable organizations selected by customers. Amazon pays all expenses of the AmazonSmile Foundation; they are not deducted from the donation amounts generated by purchases on AmazonSmile.
Leave a freethought legacy in your name that will significantly help carry forward the vital work of FFRF.
Arrange a bequest in your will or trust, or make the FFRF the beneficiary of an insurance policy, bank account or your IRA. It's easy to do.
For related information or to request a bequest brochure, please phone Annie Laurie Gaylor or Lisa Strand at 608-256-8900.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation was an official sponsor of Barry Lynn’s retirement after 25 years of leading Americans United, at a shindig Nov. 2 at the posh (but dark!) National Geographic building in Washington, D.C. The dinner party and evening of speakers also celebrated American United’s 70th anniversary year.
Many FFRF’ers were at the event, including Life Member Ellery Schempp (plaintiff in Abington v. Schempp), State Representative and Life Member Margaret Downey, Life Member Tom Schottmiller, and Life Member and sculptor Zenos Frudakis.
The event was emceed by comedian Lewis Black, who lent a light-hearted air. Speakers included Cecile Richards (video tribute), Terry O’Neill, immediate past president of National Organization for Women, Wade Henderson, immediate past president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Rabbi David Saperstein. Also speaking was Barry’s congressional representative and state-church supporter, Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland’s 8th District.
Former board member stays busy helping others: by Nora Cusack
Name: Nora Cusack
Where I live: Madison, Wis.
Where and when I was born: Born in State College, Pa., in 1952 to grad student parents. Grew up in California; moved to New York at age 13 and graduated high school there; started college in Madison and never left.
Family: Husband of almost 45 years, Brent Nicastro, age 72, retired photographer. Elderly cat, Touza.
Education: I started at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1969, but never got a degree. I earned an associate degree from Madison Area Technical College in printing, was hired immediately and embarked on a 25-year career in graphic arts. I'm a lifelong learner.
Occupation: Retired from paid work. I am a former small-business owner. After my business partner and I sold our graphic arts company in 1996, I have primarily been doing volunteer work, save for a five-year stint as a staffer for FFRF in the 2000s. Past volunteer experiences have included: elementary school reading tutor; permanency plan reviewer for kids in out-of-home placement; helping the Wisconsin Supreme Court produce the first statewide compilation of Volunteers in the Courts; past board member of FFRF, Wisconsin Women's Network, NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, Community Shares of Wisconsin. Currently co-administrator/treasurer of the Women's Medical Fund, an all-volunteer statewide nonprofit abortion fund. I've also been an election poll worker for many years.
Military service: None. My husband served in the Army during the Vietnam era.
How I got where I am today: After my business partner and I sold our business, I discussed with my husband taking time out from the paid workforce and volunteering for a couple of years. A couple of years has turned into 20-plus years. Volunteering for social justice causes is sometimes frustrating but usually very satisfying work. I like being not only a witness but a participant in democracy.
Where I'm headed: Continuing to work for social justice.
Person in history I admire and why: All the women, famous and not, who have worked for reproductive justice.
A quotation I like: "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament." — Gloria Steinem/Florynce Kennedy.
These are a few of my favorite things: Reading, politics, cooking, gardening, watching UW basketball.
These are not: Hypocrites who are opposed to government interference in all things except women's autonomy over their own bodies. Religious folks who want to impose their personal beliefs on others.
My doubts about religion started: I've never had religious belief. I am a second-generation atheist. Both my parents earned Ph.D.s in the sciences, so I grew up with a rational scientific view of the world.
Before I die: I'd like to see social justice achieved. I'd like election gerrymandering to end so that democracy can be restored.
Ways I promote freethought: Being out as an atheist, without proselytizing. I like people to get to know me, see that I am a nice, moral, honest person, then find out that I'm an atheist. Maybe change some stereotypes.
Why are you a member of FFRF? Because atheists need an effective defense against violations of state/church separation and an organization that educates about atheism. Too many people have negative judgements of atheists and think they have never met one. I'll borrow a saying from abortion activists ("Everyone loves someone who has had an abortion") and say, "Everyone loves someone who is an atheist."
14 groups have signed amicus brief in support of judge's decision
FFRF's legal action to remove an unconstitutional and massive Christian cross from a Florida city park has received a major boost.
More than a dozen organizations have filed an amicus brief in support of FFRF's lawsuit to remove a 34-foot Latin cross towering over Pensacola's Bayview Park. Americans United for Separation of Church and State is the main group writing the brief, with 13 other organizations joining in, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Anti-Defamation League, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Center for Inquiry, Muslim Advocates and the Sikh Coalition.
On the opposing side, 14 states previously filed a friend of the court brief siding with the city of Pensacola in its appeal to keep the Bayview Park cross. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi joined 13 other state attorneys general in signing on to a brief written by Alabama Attorney General Steven Marshall's office.
FFRF and the American Humanist Association earned a major legal victory this past summer when Senior U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson ruled that "the Bayview Cross can no longer stand as a permanent fixture on city-owned property." Vinson ordered the cross removed within a month.
Regrettably, the city appealed the case to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. FFRF and AHA and their co-plaintiffs in November filed an appeals brief asking the appeals court to affirm the lower court's decision. The amicus brief — and the heft of the 14 other organizations behind it — greatly bolsters the secular case with its persuasive arguments.
"When government displays a towering symbol of one religion on public land, it communicates an impermissible message of favoritism and exclusion that stigmatizes nonadherents while also demeaning the faith of many adherents," the brief states.
The brief powerfully lists the many problems with the cross.
"The official display of the Latin cross — the pre-eminent symbol of Christianity — sends divisive and harmful messages that are directly contrary to this fundamental objective: It tells members of other religions, or of no religion, that they are excluded, second-class citizens," it says. "It co-opts the Latin cross's spiritual content for governmental purposes, offending many Christians. And it divides communities along religious lines."
It compellingly concludes, "The judgment here is thus not only doctrinally compelled but also historically justified and critically important to prevent religiously based civil strife that would intrude on our fundamental commitment to religious freedom for all."
The other groups signing on to the brief are: the ACLU of Florida, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Union for Reform Judaism, and Women of Reform Judaism.
The plaintiffs in the case are Amanda Kondrat'yev, Andreiy Kondrat'yev, David Suhor and Andre Ryland. The case was brought by both FFRF and AHA, and handled by FFRF staff attorneys Rebecca Markert and Madeline Ziegler and AHA's senior counsel Monica Miller and legal director David Niose.
FFRF is expected to raise a first-of-its-kind flag — honoring atheism and freethought — to protest a New Hampshire town's Ten Commandments display.
FFRF will sponsor the raising of an "A" flag in Somersworth, N.H. The flag will be up in the "Citizen's Place" traffic island Jan. 2 through January to honor freethinkers. It was supposed to fly in December, but the city has postponed the date.
This year, the city installed two flagpoles near a contentious Ten Commandments monument at the traffic island for community groups to celebrate events. The addition of something other than a Judeo-Christian symbol is an attempted gesture by the city to get around legal precedent against stand-alone Ten Commandments markers on public property.
Two City Council members rightly objected to the entire concept.
"This plot of land can't truly be a place for all citizens as long as it exclusively focuses on a religion not shared by all citizens," Jessica Paradis said.
"That is why we have laws that are supposed to separate church and state."
Jennifer Soldati reinforced her fellow council member's assertion.
"The optics of that little traffic island when you drive through now, especially since we have flagpoles, are further poking the eye of the Constitution," Soldati said. "According to eight out of 10 court decisions, it does promote Christianity and it is in violation of the Constitution."
FFRF agrees with the council members' eloquent reasoning and has asked for several years that the Ten Commandments monument be removed. Meanwhile, FFRF wants to even it out with a freethought perspective.
"We believe the town needs to 'honor thy First Amendment,'" says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "With such a religious shrine glaringly on display, we have to present our viewpoint."
After FFRF's historic victory against the clergy housing tax allowance, the judge's next move is eagerly awaited. U.S. District Judge Barbara B. Crabb, who in October ruled the clergy privilege unconstitutional, now must decide how to implement her ruling.
Crabb, seated in the Western District of Wisconsin, ruled in favor of a tax-code challenge by FFRF, saying it demonstrates "a preference for ministers over secular employees."
In a fascinating twist, both FFRF and the government are urging Crabb to nullify this provision, rather than extend the benefits to others.
That provision, enacted in 1954 to reward "ministers of the gospel" for carrying on "a courageous fight against [a godless and anti-religious world movement]," permits churches to pay ministers with a "housing allowance." The unique allowance is not a tax deduction but an exemption, allowing clergy to subtract major portions of their salaries from taxable income.
While ruling in FFRF's favor, Crabb left open the remedy, giving FFRF, the U.S. government and religious intervenors the opportunity to file supplemental briefs.
The options include an injunction requiring the IRS to extend the benefits to FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, who have been designated a housing allowance by FFRF, or to nullify the entire statute. The IRS has denied the pair a housing allowance. FFRF argues that allowing clergy this benefit while denying it to similarly situated heads of a nonreligious group is discriminatory.
FFRF is asking Crabb to prospectively nullify the statute, to order the IRS to refund the plaintiffs' housing allowance and to award plaintiffs legal costs. Nullifying the law would mean that Section 107(2) could no longer be used to provide favorable tax treatment to clergy and churches.
This is FFRF's second time in front of Crabb over this particular inequity in the tax code. Crabb ruled in FFRF's favor in 2014, creating near hysteria by the clerical press.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, ruled that Gaylor and Barker lacked standing to sue because they had failed to apply for a refund.
FFRF's lawsuit against the Chino Valley Unified School District board for regularly praying is entering a new stage.
On Nov. 8, the case was heard before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, Calif. FFRF is asking the appeals court to sustain a lower court ruling in its favor.
A district court in February 2016 granted summary judgment in favor of FFRF and its 22 plaintiffs, declaring the school board's prayer an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. The decision also ruled that the school board policy and custom of reciting prayers, bible readings and proselytizing violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. After FFRF's victory, the school board voted to appeal the decision in a controversial 3-2 vote at a contentious meeting.
Chino Valley board meetings feature adults — board members, staff or clergy, nearly always Christian — delivering a prayer.
For example, board member James Na told the audience at one meeting that "God appointed us to be here." Another board member, Andrew Cruz, told the audience at a meeting that the board had a goal: "And that one goal is under God, Jesus Christ." Cruz then read from the bible, Psalm 143:8.
The school board argues that it is similar to a legislative board, invoking two decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that permit, under narrow circumstances, governmental prayer. But, FFRF contends in its brief, "The meetings of the school board can only be seen as school functions."
FFRF asserts that the board's conduct clearly violates the Constitution — and that the judicial system will concur.
"We hope the 9th Circuit will agree with our contentions," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Public school boards can't engage in such outrageously religious behavior and get away with it."
David Kaloyanides is representing FFRF and the individual plaintiffs. The judges are Circuit Judges Stephen Reinhardt and Kim Wardlaw as well as Judge Wiley Daniel, a senior district judge of the U.S. District Court for Colorado.
FFRF has filed an amicus brief in the famous case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court about whether a baker can refuse a cake to a gay couple.
Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission seeks to radically redefine "religious freedom" as the right to impose one's religious beliefs on others. Commercial businesses seeking exemptions from anti-discrimination laws are a prime example of this alarming argument. A Colorado baker refused to bake a cake for a gay marriage, contending his rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment let his place of public accommodation discriminate against gay customers.
The Supreme Court has historically rejected free exercise challenges to neutral laws that regulate action, especially actions that harm other citizens.
There is no logical or practical way to draw a line between religiously motivated racial discrimination and racial discrimination motivated by nonreligious beliefs.
The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment does not mean that anyone with a religious objection be permitted to disregard this religiously neutral anti-discrimination law.
Elevating religion and actions based on religious beliefs above the law by granting them exemptions to general and neutrally applicable laws will create chaos and have far-reaching effects, FFRF maintains.
Discrimination against atheists will increase. The bakery admits that its owner refuses to design custom cakes that "promote atheism," along with those that promote "racism, or indecency." Given that the company regards selling any wedding cake to a gay couple as "promoting gay marriage," it's easy to see how a desire not to "promote atheism" might similarly result in a refusal of service based on a customer's atheism.
FFRF's interest in this case arises from the fact that most of its members are atheists or nonbelievers, as are the members of the public it serves FFRF's Managing Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert is the Counsel of Record on the brief, with principal writing by FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell.
A federal judge has ordered a Pennsylvania county to get rid of its seal that prominently features a Latin cross. The order follows up on a major court victory the FFRF obtained against Lehigh County in September.
"The Lehigh County seal adopted by the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners on Dec. 28, 1944, and all subsequent adaptations and versions of it that are currently being used or displayed and that feature the Latin cross (collectively the 'Lehigh County Seal') violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution," says the order issued by U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith.
In his decision, the judge noted that the Christian cross, which both parties agree is "the pre-eminent symbol of Christianity," dwarfs other symbols on the seal and therefore shows unconstitutional county endorsement of a particular religion.
The seal is on documents, letterhead, many official county forms and reports, the county's website, in a display in the Board of Commissioners meeting room and even on flags displayed prominently at the entrance of county buildings.
The board adopted the imagery that appears on the seal in 1944. Allentown, the third-largest city in Pennsylvania, is located in Lehigh County, with a population of about 350,000.
Smith prohibited any use or display of the seal by Lehigh County after 180 days. However, the 180-day timeline will not start until any appeal by the county has concluded.
The judge also awarded nominal damages to each plaintiff in the amount of $1. During the appeal, the county is prohibited from implementing any new uses of the seal beyond those that are currently being practiced.
The litigation is being handled by Marcus B. Schneider of Pittsburgh, with assistance from FFRF Staff Attorneys Patrick Elliott and Elizabeth Cavell.
FFRF thanks its four local plaintiffs who made possible the lawsuit: John Berry, Stephen Meholic, David Simpson, and Candace Winkler.
By Molly Hanson
A couple of community members contacted FFRF to report that two constitutional violations took place within the Corpus Christi Independent School District. After a Miller High School football game in Corpus Christi, Texas, players and coaches had congregated in the middle of the field to recite the "Lord's Prayer."
FFRF was also informed that teachers at Woodlawn Elementary took students on a field trip to a pumpkin patch at Asbury United Methodist Church. After exploring the patch, the students were gathered for a proselytizing storytime session, led by a church volunteer who read books that included pictures of pumpkins decorated with the Latin cross and a "Jesus fish." Students were told that the cross represented Jesus, that Jesus died on the cross for everyone's sins, that Jesus is "our Messiah" and other Christian stories.
In a letter to the school district, FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover warned the district superintendent against the constitutional violations.
On Nov. 13, a letter from a legal representative of the district informed FFRF that the principals and administrators had been reminded of the policies and laws of the school district.
Religious decor removed from elementary school
Religious decor is no longer on display in Ricardo Elementary School in Kingsville, Texas, thanks to FFRF. Action was taken after FFRF received a complaint from a concerned parent that a wreath with a Latin cross on it was hanging on the school's office door.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the district superintendent asking that the district investigate the situation and ensure that its employees were not impermissibly promoting personal religious beliefs while acting on behalf of the district.
A legal representative of the school district informed FFRF on Nov. 20 that the wreath had been taken down.
Coaches no longer will See You at the Pole
FFRF learned that a football and track coach at Anna High School in Texas had participated in a See You at the Pole event on school property in September, which opened with prayer. Additionally, the school was advertising a See You at the Pole event in the banner of its webpage.
See You at the Pole is a Christian-oriented prayer rally organized each year around a bible verse. FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Pete Slaughter on Oct. 27, informing him that the high school created the appearance that the district unconstitutionally endorses the event's Christian message. Furthermore, the coach's actions violated the Equal Access Act, which mandates that school staff may not participate in religious events with students.
Slaughter responded on Nov. 3 writing that he had addressed the violation with the coach.
FFRF nixes Jesus from Texas school
A parent of a student in the Weatherford Independent School District in Texas reported to FFRF that a religious club called "Kids Beach Club" was permitted to set up a table to advertise during a recent open house event at Crockett Elementary.
The table had information, fliers and a banner reading, "Make Jesus Cool at School." The club describes itself as a ministry "established to mobilize the church to go outside its walls in order to take the message of Christ in into the heart of its community."
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Jeffrey Hanks in a Nov. 7 legal letter.
"It should not be abused by outside organizations as an opportunity to proselytize children and promote private clubs to families, many of whom do not subscribe to Kids Beach Club's religious message," Grover stated.
A legal representative of the school district responded on Nov. 20, saying the district had retrained its administrative staff on board policies.
FFRF halts Texas school prayer walk
It was brought to FFRF's attention that Summer Creek High School in Houston hosted a "prayer walk" on Sept. 10 at the school to commemorate its recent merger with Kingwood High School. The official Summer Creek High School page had promoted the event under the slogan "Two Schools. One God."
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the school district on Oct. 11, informing the district that prayer walks entangle public schools with a religious message.
An attorney representing the district responded on Oct. 23, informing FFRF that the two Facebook posts advertising the event were removed from the Summer Creek High School newsfeed and that action had been taken by administrators to address the violation.
Standing up for a right to remain seated
A concerned student contacted FFRF to report that teachers within Earl Warren High School in San Antonio had been singling out students who chose not to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance and forcing them to stand during the recitation. FFRF wrote on Nov. 10 asking the district to tell its employees that they cannot force students to observe the pledge.
Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Administration Stephen Daniel responded on Nov. 17, saying the situation would be resolved immediately.
By Molly Hanson
FFRF has had prayer struck from a performance at an Arkansas elementary school.
FFRF learned that students at Westside Elementary School in Jonesboro, Ark., were going to perform in a Thanksgiving-themed program with music and poetry. Students were sent home with a list of lyrics to memorize, including one assigned piece featuring a prayer that read:
"Thank you for the world so sweet, thank you for the food we eat, thank you for the birds that sing, thank you, God, for everything."
FFRF took swift action to remedy this intermingling of secular schooling and religion. In a letter sent to the school district, FFRF asked that the prayer and any other religious messages be removed from the school's Thanksgiving performance.
Teaching a prayer to students is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause, and imposing a prayer as part of a holiday celebration is no defense, FFRF contended.
Furthermore, FFRF noted in its letter that inducing young and impressionable children to give thanks to God is a usurpation of parental authority. It is not a public school's role to direct a child's religious or nonreligious upbringing — that right is reserved for parents only.
"Such a practice alienates the students, teachers, and members of the community whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted by the school," wrote FFRF Robert G. Ingersoll Legal Fellow Colin McNamara to Superintendent Scott Gauntt. Gauntt responded promptly, informing FFRF that he had investigated the reported violation and, after finding it to be true, had the prayer removed from the program.
FFRF serves up law to pizza joint
A local patron of Johnny Brusco's New York Style Pizza in Bentonville, Ark., informed FFRF that the restaurant was offering and promoting a 10 percent discount on Sundays to customers presenting a church bulletin.
FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote to the manager to inform him that the deal favored religious customers and denied customers who did not attend church the right to "full and equal" enjoyment of the pizza joint, a violation of the Civil Rights Act. The discount also violated Arkansas state law.
FFRF received a phone call on Nov. 17 from the manager, who communicated that the discount was not being offered anymore.
No more proselytizing at elementary school
It was reported to FFRF that Westside Elementary School in Jonesboro, Ark., hosted a presentation by a Christian minister this September in the school gymnasium.
During the presentation, the children were given rubber bracelets from the local Philadelphia Baptist Church that read, "PBC Living God, Serving Others, Go Warriors." At the end of the assembly, the children received free tickets to a pizza party and church services at PBC scheduled that same night.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter on Oct. 18 to the school district superintendent informing the district that it is inappropriate to take away educational time from students to expose them to a Christian proselytizing group.
On Oct. 27, FFRF received a written promise from Superintendent Scott Gauntt that the violation would not recur and that additional training would be provided to building principals as to the law in public school and religion matters.
By Molly Hanson
FFRF has stopped some Oklahoma middle school kids from being forced to regularly listen to Christian music during the school day.
A concerned parent informed FFRF that teachers at Adair Middle School in Adair, Okla., were playing Christian music during class. One teacher reportedly played KXOJ, the local Christian radio station, whenever students were working on assignments and she wasn't actively teaching. Another teacher occasionally played Christian music in class and sang along with it.
It is inappropriate for a public school teacher to promote religion during class, FFRF informed Adair Public Schools.
"Federal courts have consistently rejected the promotion of religious viewpoints in the classroom," FFRF Legal Fellow Christopher Line wrote to Adair Public Schools Superintendent Mark Lippe.
FFRF emphasized that public school teachers should be inclusive of all students, particularly considering that about 35 percent of young Americans, those born after 1981, are religiously unaffiliated, while more than 43 percent are non-Christian. Demonstrating a religious preference to students is fraught with legal and moral peril, including the risk of ostracizing students, which may lead to bullying, FFRF underlined.
FFRF requested that the district take appropriate steps to ensure that the two teachers weren't impermissibly promoting religion to students by broadcasting Christian music and recommended that the district remind its staff that they must refrain from promoting their personal religious beliefs to students.
The school district took FFRF's recommendations seriously and moved accordingly.
"It is the policy of Adair Public Schools that no sectarian or religious doctrine shall be taught or inculcated into the curriculum or activities of the school," Lippe wrote back.
"During the middle school October staff meeting, the staff was trained on school policy concerning sectarian or religious doctrine in the curriculum or activities of the school. School employees will not utilize religious music in classrooms unless such use serves a pedagogical purpose related to a lesson plan in band or choir."
Baseball coaches cease prayers
After a community member reported to FFRF that coaches for the Oktaha High School baseball team in Oktaha, Okla., had been praying with the team, FFRF's Patrick O'Reiley Legal Fellow Christopher Line wrote to Superintendent Jerry Needham to ensure that the district coaches end unlawful endorsements and promotions of religion to district students and employees.
Line informed Needham that public school athletic coaches cannot lead teams in prayer, encourage students to pray or participate in student-initiated prayer. On Oct. 23, an attorney representing the district responded to Line's letter, informing FFRF that Needham had spoken with all the coaches regarding the prayer violation and had instructed coaches not to participate in student prayers.
FFRF ends school's violations
After it was reported to FFRF that numerous constitutional violations were taking place at Chandler Junior High School in Chandler, Okla., action was promptly taken. FFRF was informed that the dress code — which had been posted by the school on Facebook — prohibits clothing or jewelry that suggested support of "Satanism." The school's principal reiterated this code to students. It was also reported to FFRF that a teacher in the school had a Latin cross on display in her classroom, and that the school was selling official school shirts with an image of a soldier kneeling before a Latin cross.
FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to the school district on Sept. 19, requesting that the constitutional violations cease. Line noted that displaying a Latin cross sends a message to students that the district endorses Christianity, as does selling shirts that depict prayer before a cross. This unlawfully entangles the school with a religious viewpoint. Line also informed the district that it is illegal to prohibit students from wearing a particular religion's symbols, such as satanic symbols.
The school district informed FFRF on Nov. 9 that the cross in the classroom has been removed, the T-shirts with a cross on them would not be required to be worn by band members and the dress code policy has been changed to comply with the Constitution.
Christian messages axed
It was reported to FFRF that a principal at Little Axe Middle School in Norman, Okla., gave a Christian invocation at a staff dinner this past August asking Jesus "to inspire" the new teachers. FFRF was also informed that the school's baseball coach had given out team luggage name tags with bible verses on them. FFRF wrote to Superintendent Jay Thomas, reminding the district that, as a government entity, it has a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion. Both the Christian invocation and the coach's promotion of a religious message on district athletic equipment had endorsed religion over nonreligion.
FFRF received a letter from the superintendent on Nov. 14 indicating that instructions had been given to all athletes to remove the bible verse tags and that all administration had been instructed to not allow prayer in any future district sponsored events.