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Hastings Area School District in Michigan refrained from including a prayer in their 2012 high school graduation ceremony after receiving a letter of complaint from FFRF.

For at least the past 10 years Hastings High School has included an illegal invocation in its official graduation program and selected a student to lead the prayer.

FFRF staff attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote in an April 13, 2012, letter, “The Supreme Court has settled this matter — high school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students.”

In a July 17 reply, Superintendent Todd Geerlings assured FFRF that, “there were no prayers said at the Hastings High School graduation ceremony on May 25, 2012.”

In response to a complaint from FFRF, California University of Pennsylvania agreed that it was impermissible and unconstitutional to offer reduced admission to basketball games for those who mention their church affiliation. CalU, a public university, offered a "Faith and Family Night" on Jan. 6, 2012, and promoted $3 admission for those who mentioned their church affiliation. Churches were also granted permission to set up informational tables at the new basketball arena.

Having received a complaint from a member of the CalU community, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote University President Geraldine Jones on June 18 about the unlawful promotion.

University Legal Counsel Jacqueline Morrow replied and said that she informed University administrators on the day of the event that the promotion was unconstitutional. She wrote on Aug. 20, "The University administrators responsible for the event were apologetic and because the game had already been advertised, we decided that the available cure would be to make sure that everyone that attended the event would be charged the same, lower price." She said, "The University now understands clearly that it cannot use tax dollars to provide a benefit to one group over another based on church membership, or any other basis for that matter, whether or not the First Amendment is implicated. . . Not only was the plan unconstitutional, it was not successful. Attendance was low." 

Irish Fest organizers in Milwaukee announced on Aug. 16, 2012, that they were dropping a promotion that violated civil rights laws by rewarding Mass attendance, in response to a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Irish Fest will now offer everyone who drops off a food donation by 11 a.m. free admittance.

Elliott sent his first letter of complaint about the discount in 2010, when officials refused to address the discount.
He sent a follow up letter on Aug. 9, 2012, and received an Aug. 14 response from an attorney representing Irish Fest stating that they would not end or amend the discount.

Prior to FFRF's involvement, Irish Fest's website said, "Guests who donate nonperishable food items prior to the liturgy are admitted to the festival free of charge after the Mass." Elliott suggested a simple solution to the problem would be for all attendees to be able to donate items for free admittance at 11 a.m. or at any time of entry.

FFRF received a complain about a local pastor/ class presenter appearing to hijack required educational programs for families about divorce in Family Court in Jackson County, Mo., to talk about himself and his faith. FFRF was told that for the three-hour course, a minister “spent two of the three required hours talking about himself, how he came to the priesthood, how he moved from congregation to congregation,” and generally about “his path to the church.” He “also handed out fliers to the class offering his religious service outside of class.” The complainant reported that “he made religious quotes and references throughout the class, and some were included in the slideshow.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the court on July 16, 2012, asking it to investigate and correct the theological bent of the secular class. Seidel questioned the minister’s credentials to lead this course, and also asked that the class be moved out of the church where he is pastor. The court took the allegations seriously and phoned to notify FFRF that an investigation is underway.

In the August 16 written reply, the court wrote that it has instructed the minister that “the issue of his religious faith and his ministry have no place in the teaching of this curriculum and we have instructed him to discontinue references to his background such that gives the appearance that the Court is promoting religion over non-religious beliefs.” The court will “monitor this issue with all” of its instructors.

The response noted that the court is also “actively looking for locations outside of church property where we can hold classes” and “will assure that participants are aware of different options for attending classes and that attendance at a classroom located on church property is not mandatory and that other options exist.” 

FFRF took a complaint that a teacher at a Mandarin immersion elementary school in the San Mateo Foster City School District, Calif., had told students that the “man in the sky can see everything you do, but you can’t see him because he is camouflaged.” Apparently the teacher used two fingers to point to her eyes and then the same fingers to point at the children to emphasize the fact that the “man in the sky” is watching them.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter to the district on May 22, 2012, alerting it to the allegation against proselytization of a captive audience of young children. As complainant put it, these children are of “such a sensitive age,” and such action “robs children of growth and experience and [the right to make] up their own mind when capable of doing so.”

Seidel pointed out the legal problems with teaching young schoolchildren about religious themes, and also wrote: “Public school staff and administrators, particularly in a school with a diverse population of students, should ensure that all students are made to feel welcome in all programs. School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents that they are outsiders.”

In its August 16 response letter, the school district informed FFRF that it “has reminded its employees of the District’s policy of not [teaching] religion in schools.”

Readers may want to look up Ricky Gervais’ “The Invention of Lying” movie for a funny take on ‘the man in the sky’? 

The San Francisco Assessment Appeals Board removed “so help me god” from the script used for swearing-in parties before Board hearings in response to an FFRF complaint. Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to the Board in February 2012 indicating that the complainant felt compelled to take the oath “for fear that any comment might negatively affect the outcome of the hearing.”

After receiving several follow-up letters, Board Administrator Dawn Duran wrote on Aug. 14: “Please be advised we have implemented procedural changes that have eliminated the use of a religious oath effective as of today.” The script now says, “Do you solemnly swear or affirm that the testimony you are about to give will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” 

Castlewood School District, S. Dak., will no longer hold pre-game prayers, following a complaint by FFRF. A video posted on YouTube showed school district personnel leading and participating in prayers before sporting events.

On May 23, 2012, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the district informing them that public school officials, including coaches, cannot lead, organize, or participate in prayers with their students. The student-coach relationship is naturally coercive and students are trained to follow the lead of coaches.

After FFRF sent several follow-up letters, Castlewood Superintendent Keith Fodness responded on August 14: “Our coaching staff has been briefed on the case law pertaining to prayer as it relates to the situation described in your letter and have been instructed to act within those guidelines.”

FFRF was informed by a parent that two schools in Iberville Parish Schools (Plaquemine, La.) hosted teachers and pastors who delivered illegal prayers at two graduation ceremonies in May. The prayers were listed in the commencement programs.

Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote a May 23, 2012, letter to the Edward Cancienne, superintendent, to request an end to the invocations and benedictions that took place at high school graduation ceremonies.

On Aug. 10, the Iberville Parish School Board’s attorney replied, “Dr. Cancienne advised that he has instructed faculty and staff of the Iberville Parish School System that prayer is not allowed at any school organized or sponsored events.”

“It is encouraging to see that schools are making changes and are agreeing to follow the Constitution,” said Schmitt. 

The West Michigan Whitecaps baseball team acknowledged after receiving a complaint from FFRF that any publication would suffice to qualify for an “All Faiths Day” promotion. The team had promoted the discount saying, “keep your church bulletins and bring them with you when you get your tickets because you get half-priced box and reserved seat tickets!” Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to the team president on July 18, 2011, notifying him that the bulletin discount was discriminatory. Schmitt sent several follow-up letters.

An attorney for the team responded on Aug. 9, 2012, saying that the team website said that the promotion was available for those who “show a worship or community bulletin.” The attorney said, “In actual practice, the Whitecaps accept any secular publication, such as school newsletters, community recreation department fliers, apartment and home association newsletters, municipal newsletters, and trade association newsletters and publications. . . If a patron brought a FFRF newsletter, they would be given the same discount as a patron bringing a church bulletin.” 

The Antwerp Local School District in Ohio will no longer include religious messages in school assemblies thanks to a complaint from FFRF.

The District hosted a Veterans Day assembly, which included a flag folding ceremony and a recitation of “The Meaning Behind the Folding Ceremonies of the Flag,” a discredited religious narrative which explains the “meaning” of each of the twelve folds of the flag. This narrative includes blatant Christian dogma, such as the “meaning” of the twelfth fold, which is said to represent and glorify “God the Father, The Son, and Holy Ghost.”

In a Nov. 17 letter, FFRF staff attorney Stephanie Schmitt warned, “religious messages as part of a school-sponsored activity are illegal and inappropriate.” She also argued that the reading “further perpetuates the myth that there are no ‘atheists in foxholes’ and that the only veterans worth memorializing are Christians.”

On Aug. 9 Kimball Carey, attorney for the school district, informed Schmitt that the principal who organized the assembly did not realize the content of the narrative. Carey assured FFRF that their complaint was heard and understood, and this would not happen again in the Antwerp Schools. 

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