- FFRF sues Texas judge to end courtroom prayer practice
- Illinois staff won’t join in school gospel choir (January 25, 2017)
FFRF filed a lawsuit against Justice of the Peace Wayne Mack on March 21, 2017, due to his refusal to end the practice of opening each of his court sessions with chaplain-led prayer. FFRF is joined by several local plaintiffs, including Jane Doe and John Roe, attorneys who regularly practice before Judge Mack, and Jane Noe, a Montgomery County resident who has appeared in Judge Mack's courtroom for a case.
Judge Mack has his courtroom bailiff announce the prayers and state that anyone may leave the courtroom and their case will not be affected, although the courtroom doors are locked to those outside. Then Judge Mack enters, talks about his chaplaincy program, introduces a chaplain, and gives the name and location of the chaplain's church. While everyone in the courtroom remains standing, the chaplain may give a short sermon, or move directly to a prayer. Attendees report Judge Mack surveying the courtroom during prayers and feeling that their cases may be affected by how they chose to react.
The legal complaint asserts that due to his "considerable influence and power as a justice of the peace, Judge Mack exerts coercive influence over those in his courtroom, effectively compelling their participation in his religious practice." FFRF is seeking a judgment enjoining Mack from opening his court sessions with prayer and declaring his actions a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
FFRF and its plaintiffs are being represented by FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover, with FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell serving as co-counsel. Attorney Patrick Luff of the Luff Law Firm in San Antonio, is serving as local counsel.
An Illinois school district has confirmed to FFRF that its staff members will not remain involved in a school gospel choir.
FFRF initially contacted the Oak Park and River Forest High in December after a local community member informed the organization that there was a gospel choir at the school being led by the school's outreach coordinator.
"It is wholly inappropriate for a public school to teach its students songs of Christian worship," FFRF's Elaine and Eric Stone Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Interim Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams on Jan. 23. In a letter received on Jan. 25, the district informed FFRF that it would adhere to the law.
An Indiana school district has pledged to FFRF that it will not permit the distribution of fundamentalist flyers to its students.
A resident contacted FFRF to inform it that staff at Yankeetown Elementary School in Newburgh, Ind., were distributing ultrareligious flyers to third- and fourth-grade female students. The handouts were a description of POP Girls ("Pearls Of Purity"), a Christian ministry promoting the "wisdom of Christ."
FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Warrick County Schools Superintendent Brad Schneider on Jan. 20, cautioning the school district about disseminating such material.
"This flyer should not have been approved and we will put steps in place to prevent objectionable flyers to slip through the cracks in the future," Schneider responded on Jan. 24. "You have my word that flyers of this nature will not be distributed home in the future."
An Illinois school district has apologized to FFRF for a coach's participation in prayer gatherings at school events.
On Dec. 26, 2016, after a basketball game between Vandalia Community High School and Pana High School, Coach Brian Buscher took part in a prayer circle with students of both teams.
In a letter sent on Jan. 11 to Vandalia Community Unit School District #203 Superintendent Rich Well, FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne reminded him that it is illegal for public school coaches to lead, organize or participate in prayers with their students.
"Please accept our apology," Well emailed back a few days after receiving FFRF's letter. "Our Varsity Boys Basketball Coach Brian Buscher has been notified that no coaches are allowed to participate."
Teachers at an elementary school in Guilford, Maine, have been reminded of their constitutional duty to not promote religion in their public roles as educators.
FFRF received notice that a third-grade teacher at Piscataquis Community Elementary School had handed out a coloring page depicting a pious turkey with wording that read, "Thank You God for everything — for family, friends and fun — but most of all for Jesus, My Savior and Your Son."
FFRF sent a letter to Superintendent Ann Kirkpatrick on Dec. 21, 2016, who responded a month later that the matter had been investigated, and that the teachers understood their obligation to refrain from any religious promotion in the classroom.
A Florida judge says a prayer lawsuit against a high school athletic league should be tossed out. FFRF filed an amicus brief in the case.
U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Amanda Arnold Sansone issued a Feb. 3 recommendation to dismiss a case brought by Cambridge Christian School against the Florida High School Athletic Association. The First Liberty Institute, a theocratic group, filed the suit in September, arguing that the association was mandated to allow Cambridge Christian to deliver a Christian prayer over the PA system at state championship events. Sansone found that Cambridge Christian's request for a preliminary injunction should be denied and its suit should be dismissed.
FFRF was able to get the Upper Arlington City Council in Ohio to amend its rules to comply with the Constitution.
FFRF received a complaint that the council was having government officials lead invocations at the beginning of its meetings when a local minister was not present. FFRF Managing Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to City Council President Donald Leach on Dec. 6, 2016, informing him that not only is prayer at government meetings unnecessary and divisive, but it is illegal for officials to lead prayers at government meetings.
FFRF received a response from City Attorney Jamie Hummer on Jan. 6, who wrote that the council amended their rules to state that neither council members or employees are permitted to conduct the prayer.
Religious artwork hanging on the office wall of Bob Miller Middle School in Henderson, Nev., has been taken down after FFRF took action on a complaint.
The organization received a report that a cross and a reference to Jesus were being displayed on the BMMS Dean of Students' office wall. FFRF's Patrick O'Reiley Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to School District General Counsel Carlos McDade on Dec. 22, 2016, asking that the Christian iconography be taken down.
McDade responded in a letter to FFRF on Jan. 11 writing that the employee had removed the displays of religious symbolism.
The city of Zachary, La., has changed its rules to ensure that its annual "Mayor's Prayer Breakfast" will no longer violate the First Amendment by receiving city endorsement.
The city's website promoted the annual breakfast as a "Christian event," which was held in a church. FFRF's Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to Mayor David Amrhein on Dec. 16, 2016, informing him that the event violated the Constitution.
Amrhein responded on Jan. 17 with a list of changes that the city would make in future prayer breakfasts to avoid city endorsement. Amrhein informed FFRF that the event would take place at a non-city facility, not use city resources or funds, not require mandatory attendance by city employees and not be mentioned on the city's website.
An Auburn, Ala., elementary school assured FFRF that it will not be promoting Christianity or a religious group.
Dean Road Elementary School distributed flyers and used social media postings to promote "All Pro Dad" events, which the school was hosting throughout the school year. All Pro Dad is a group that promotes "family values," along with Christian prayer and worship.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover first wrote to Auburn City Schools Superintendent Karen DeLano on July 16, 2015, about the unlawful flyers. After several interactions, an attorney representing the school district replied to FFRF on Jan. 12 that there would not be any promotion or endorsement by the school of a religious organization.