Legal

FFRF silences school’s religious hymns (October 18, 2016)

Thanks to FFRF, the Waikoloa Elementary and Middle School in Hawaii has ended its practice of having students stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing religious songs.

FFRF received a complaint in September that students at the school were being forced to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and stand to sing "The Star Spangled Banner," "America the Beautiful," and "God Bless America," on scheduled days of the week. FFRF was also informed that students who refused to stand had been disciplined by the school's teachers.

"Students have a constitutional right not to be forced to participate in patriotic exercises," wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler to Superintendent Art Souza.

"Students may not be singled out, rebuked, told they must stand or otherwise penalized for following their freedom of conscience."

Ziegler also informed Souza that "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America" were inappropriate songs for the public school to schedule students to sing because of the religious lines in the songs that wrongly equated patriotism with piety.

On Oct. 18, FFRF received a reply from Souza who wrote that students would no longer be participating in singing the problematic songs. FFRF was also assured that teachers at the school had been told that students were not to be forced to stand or participate in the pledge or the national anthem.

Baptism of player by coach leads to change (October 26, 2016)

A football coach at a public high school in Newton, Miss., will no longer be promoting his religious beliefs to student athletes after FFRF objected to the coach's baptism of one of his players.

Coach Ryan Smith reportedly organized and performed a baptism on one of his players in front of the Newton High School football team. Before the ritual, the coach had given religious remarks to the team promoting Christianity. This included telling his players how God was calling to him, what scripture teaches about being a man, and the importance of accepting Christ as a savior.

Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Newton Municipal School District Superintendent Virginia Young on Oct. 13 to ensure the school district investigated the situation. Grover reminded Young that public schools are not to advance or promote religion, nor are they to organize, sponsor, or lead religious activities at public high school events.

"Coach Smith's actions are especially problematic in the context of athletics, given the pressure players feel to conform to their coaches' expectations so as not to disappoint coaches or hurt their standing on the team," wrote Grover.

The Newton School District attorney informed FFRF that Young had met with Coach Smith and that the district did not expect that its staff would promote their personal religious beliefs to students in the future.

District rids classes of religious films (October 26, 2016)

Thanks to FFRF, the Vernon Independent School District in Texas has enacted policies to end the promotion of religious ideologies to students through film.

FFRF received a complaint that teachers in the school district had been promoting their personal religious beliefs to students during class through religious films. FFRF was informed that a teacher at Vernon Middle School had shown a class of sixth-graders the Christian drama film "God's Not Dead." Furthermore, FFRF was told that a former teacher at Vernon High School had shown numerous religious films to his Teen Leadership class.

Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Vernon ISD Superintendent Gary Harrell on Oct. 20 to ask that the district ensure that its employees do not use the classroom to evangelize.
"Teachers have access to a captive student audience due to their position as public educators," wrote Grover. "The district has a duty to prohibit religious proselytizing by teachers in the classroom."

In a response dated Oct. 26, the district told FFRF that the teachers who had shown religious films in class were no longer employed by the school district. The letter also informed FFRF that Vernon ISD had enacted policies to ensure that any film containing religious messages that was to be shown to students in the future would be approved by a campus principal.

Ohio district’s team chaplain, prayer ended (October 24, 2016)

An Ohio school district won't be promoting religion through its coaching staff after FFRF got involved.

A concerned parent notified FFRF that either a coach or a team chaplain had led some of the Warren Local Middle School and High School athletic teams in prayer prior to games. In a letter to the school district, FFRF Managing Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert informed Superintendent Kyle Newton that it is unconstitutional for public school employees, such as coaches, to participate in the religious activities of their students.

Markert also informed Newton that having a spiritual leader for the football team is unconstitutional.

Newton responded in a letter on Oct. 24 informing FFRF that he would instruct the district's coaches that they are not allowed to participate in team prayer or to permit a chaplain or other nonstudents to lead the district's athletic teams in prayer.

FFRF gets religious signs taken down (November 7, 2016)

After FFRF's objection, two religious signs are no longer visible during school days at a public elementary school in Woodbridge, Va.

A community church in the town that rents the school building for its Sunday services was regularly leaving up signs promoting church services in front of Penn Elementary School. The signs were being displayed throughout the school week and were placed near the driveways to the school.

FFRF contacted Prince William County Public Schools Superintendent Steven Walts asking that action be taken to ensure the church signs would not be placed in front of Penn Elementary School.

FFRF was informed by the school system on Nov. 7 that the signs had been removed from school grounds.

Jehovah’s Witness display removed (November 16, 2016)

After FFRF got involved, a Jehovah's Witness display with religious pamphlets has been removed from the side of a commuter bike path in Madison, Wis.

A concerned resident contacted FFRF to report a "sandwich board" display that was standing in Glenwood Park at the side of the bike path. The display held religious literature advertising the Jehovah's Witnesses Christian sect.

In a letter to the Parks Superintendent on Nov. 10, FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne informed the city of the display.

"This religious display stood as an advertisement to bikers and other users of the commuter path," wrote Jayne. "FFRF and our members are concerned that displays at this location will be a hindrance on others' use of the park and bike path."

FFRF received a response on Nov. 16 from the Department of Public Works Engineering Division City Engineer Robert Phillips, who wrote that the sign had been removed and was not permitted by the city.

Bible verse display removed from school (November 7, 2016)

Jumoke Academy, a public school in Connecticut, will be upholding its obligation to keep school and religion separate after a constitutional violation was reported by a school employee to FFRF.

The employee noticed that an academic assistant at the school was displaying a bible verse on her profile outside of one of the school's classrooms.

Managing Attorney Rebecca Markert informed the school board that the display was an unconstitutional display of religion, and especially inappropriate given that nearly 30 percent of Americans and 44 percent of Millennials are non-Christian, either practicing a minority religion or no religion.

"The display alienates those nonreligious students, families, teachers, and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the messages being promoted by the school," wrote Markert on June 24.

FFRF received a response on Nov. 7 from the charter school's executive director, Troy Monroe. Monroe wrote that the employee who had been displaying the bible verse had been met with and the religious display had been removed. Furthermore, Monroe informed FFRF that the school-based leadership team was informed of the expectations to ensure Jumoke Academy stays in compliance with the regulations involving the separation of church and state.

FFRF and ACLU-KY challenge rejection of personalized license plate

FFRF and the ACLU of Kentucky filed suit on November 22, 2016 on behalf of Ben Hart, who was denied a personalized license plate by the State of Kentucky. Hart's request for a personalized license plate reading "IM GOD" was rejected by Kentucky DMV officials who claimed the message was "obscene or vulgar," but then later said that it was because the plate was "not in good taste."

The lawsuit challenges certain portions of the regulations governing personalized license plates as unlawful, namely those that allow government officials to deny plates based on vague notions of "good taste" as well as those barring personalized plates from communicating religious, anti-religious or political messages.

Hart seeks approval of his license plate application, and a finding that certain provisions are invalid to the extent they allow government officials to deny personalized plates solely because they communicate messages about politics or religion.

The case (No. 3:16-cv-00092) is before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky.

Case Documents:
Complaint
Exhibit 1
Exhibit 2
Exhibit 3
Exhibit 4

License plate denial overturned (October 19, 2016)

A short-lived battle over the denial of a license plate has ended successfully for FFRF member Jeff Prebeg of Pennsylvania.

Prebeg wanted one of three license plates: ATHE1ST, NO GOD or N0 G0D. All three of these plates were available, according to the Pennsylvania Bureau of Motor Vehicles' personalized registration plate availability website. However, Prebeg received an Oct. 11 letter stating, "We are unable to process your application because the department reserves the right to deny issuance to any requested personalized plate." Under the enclosures line, it read, "DENIED . . . ATHE1ST, NO GOD, N0 G0D."

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel got involved and sent a letter to Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards. But before Richards had even responded to Seidel's letter, Prebeg found out his first choice for a license plate was approved.

He had heard from TribLive reporter Natasha Lindstrom, who was working with Prebeg on the story. She had contacted the PennDOT to inquire about why Prebeg was turned down. "They told her that it was an employee error and that they've tried calling me and are sending me a letter to tell me they will issue ATHE1ST to me," Prebeg wrote in his blog.

Then he got the official word it had been accepted. "Scott from PennDOT wished to inform me that they noticed I requested a vanity plate, and that after an 'internal review,' they deemed it was denied in error and that my plate would be issued," Prebeg wrote.

Grad prayer ends for kindergarten class (September 8, 2016)

An Indiana public elementary school will stop prayer at its kindergarten graduation ceremonies after FFRF got involved.

The ceremony in May at Springs Valley Elementary School in French Lick, Ind., included a prayer delivered by a kindergartener. The prayer was listed on the schedule.

FFRF reminded the school district that the prayer was unconstitutional and totally inappropriate.

"Including religious rituals, such as prayer, in school-sponsored functions shows school endorsement of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Springs Valley Community Schools Superintendent Tony Whitaker last month.

The practice of prayer is especially egregious when it is delivered to a captive group of impressionable schoolchildren as young as 5 years old, FFRF emphasized. Parents, not public schools, are responsible for the religious upbringing of their children.

Whitaker was convinced by FFRF's reasoning.

"Springs Valley School Corporation will eliminate from any future kindergarten graduation ceremonies the section on prayer and will not allow any prayer at the graduation," he recently replied.

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