An FFRF complaint over religious plaques at two North Texas schools has many Texans in a theocratic tizzy. Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the Midlothian Independent School District in June after receiving a complaint about the plaques.
A plaque at Mountain Peak Elementary says: “Dedicated in the Year of our Lord 1997 to the education of God’s children and to their faithful teachers in the name of the Holy Christian Church. Soli Deo Gloria [Glory to God alone].”
A similar plaque is at Longbranch Elementary. The plaques were part of the buildings’ dedications 17 years ago.
In response, school district attorney John Hardy promised FFRF that the plaque would be removed from Mountain Peak Elementary. Both plaques were then covered with duct tape. But in late August, a vandal removed the coverings.
Nearly 100 people attended a rally at the administration building to protest removal of the plaques. NBC-5 Fort Worth interviewed one protester, Lisa Huski, who said her daughter carries a bible to class: “It’s not about a plaque. It’s about God being in our children’s schools. It’s about us standing up for the fact that God’s in our school.” On Aug. 28, Superintendent Jerome Stewart announced the plaques would remain uncovered while the district seeks legal advice. Stewart earlier had said they’d have to be replaced because of their “questionable constitutional nature.”
NBC-5 reported that the Liberty Institute in Plano, infamous for defending the bible banners used by cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas, is involved. Liberty Institute’s Hiram Sasser claimed “the school district created a limited public forum for plaques relating to the topic of the building dedication,” which he further claimed cannot be censored “simply because of its religious viewpoint.”
“The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment stands for the principle that the state must remain separate from church, from religion,” FFRF attorney Grover said. “This is a public school district, so it represents the state, and therefore it can’t take a position on religion.”
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor pointed to more than 65 years of firm Supreme Court decisions protecting chidren from religious proselytizing and rituals in public schools.
“What makes this case especially egregious is the fact that these religious plaques hang on elementary schools where a captive audience of very young students are being sent a theocratic message. What a lesson in abuse of authority and our secular school system,” Gaylor added.
FFRF’s office has fielded a number of crank calls from Texas and reported one threat to police.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation recently ended a series of violations in public schools in Orange County, Fla., as well as invocations at City Commission meetings in Winter Garden.
The commission voted Sept. 5 to replace prayers with a moment of silence, following a controversy in which Mayor John Rees ejected a citizen from the meeting simply because he wouldn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter of complaint Aug. 29 in support of the citizen, “John Thoreau,” a member of FFRF and the Central Florida Freethought Community, FFRF’s local chapter.
As documented in a video recorded by Thoreau, Rees told everyone present to rise for the invocation and the pledge. As the prayer began, Rees interrupted, pointing at the seated Thoreau and saying, “We’re waiting for everyone to rise.” Thoreau repeatedly asserted he did not have to and remained seated. The sectarian prayer, given by a commission member, continued.
When Thoreau also refused to stand for the pledge, Rees ordered Police Chief George Brennan to “either escort him out or have him stand for the pledge.” Rees continued, “This is just not fair to our troops and people overseas, sir.” Brennan asked Thoreau whether he would stand or leave. He answered, “I guess I’m leaving” and was escorted out in front of the nearly 100 people in the room.
Rees claimed the refusal to stand was disrespectful, telling the Orlando Sentinel, “I did not make him stand for the prayer, but the pledge? Even school kids stand. So I told him, ‘You have two choices: You can stand or go outside.’ ”
Seidel, in a follow-up letter, asked the commission to “get rid of prayer altogether” and asked Rees to explain at the next meeting “that citizens are within their rights to remain sitting for the pledge and that it does not reflect a lack of patriotism.”
The commission held a special meeting Sept. 5 and voted 3-2 to substitute a moment of silence for an invocation. (Rees voted no.) Four chapter members and chapter leader David Williamson spoke against the prayers.
FFRF Co-President Dan Barker praised the decision, noting that it’s a major coup to persuade a city to drop prayers.
Orange County Schools
Orange County Public Schools in Orlando agreed in late August to end a variety of state/church violations. This is the district that, following a federal lawsuit, is now permitting FFRF and other nonbelievers to distribute freethought literature on the same date that evangelists “passively distribute” bibles. FFRF has had to contact the district about more than 10 violations in the past 18 months.
Following a March complaint letter from Seidel, the district is abolishing athletic chaplaincies for its teams and removing bible verses from sports venues and apparel. Other violations included using religious music on game footage.
The district’s August memo from the Office of Legal Services stated: “Having a team chaplain is not permitted as it is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion in the same manner as a school employee participating in prayer with students. In this area the law is very clear.”
Regarding staff praying with students, the memo said: “On this issue the matter is well decided that school personnel ‘cannot participate in a visible way with the players’ during student-led prayer. . . . Please make sure to educate the staff at this and other schools that active participation by any School Board employee and/or non-faculty coach in student-led prayer must not occur as it is contrary to established case law.”
The school also properly got rid of the bible verses on team signs and apparel. “While the signs themselves may be permitted,” the memo said, “the reference or citation to a particular bible verse is deemed to be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.”
The school also agreed with FFRF about banning religious music in videos: “The usage of religious lyrics could be seen as an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.”
Of course, these sensible actions were met with near hysteria on Fox News. Bobby Bowden, retired Florida State University football coach, noted during one interview that he didn’t care about the Constitution or the First Amendment: “I want to be spiritually correct.”
Extremely conservative Fox columnist Todd Starnes, not known for his accuracy or balance, reported that one chaplain would stay but be renamed as a “life coach.” He also charged that FFRF is trying to “eradicate Christianity in the public marketplace of ideas.”
“If this ‘life coach’ nonsense is accurate, Orange County can’t avoid this issue with creative wordplay,” responded Seidel.
FFRF still has outstanding complaints, including school-sponsored baccalaureates, holding school events in churches and forcing students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
Dan Courtney, an FFRF Life Member and engineer who’s active with the Atheist Society of Rochester and is past president of the Free Thinkers of Upstate New York, delivered the first atheist invocation at a town board meeting in Greece, N.Y., after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in May that said Greece’s practice of allowing sectarian prayer was OK as long as the town didn’t discriminate.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor came from Wisconsin to lend moral support (and promptly sat down during the “under God” part of the Pledge of Allegiance). The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reported more than 100 people and 14 news cameras were present.
Courtney said he was surprised by all the media attention. “I would like it to get to a point where this would not be news at all, but at the same time, I appreciate the attention because this is important in a society that to a large extent doesn’t respect nonbelief.”
Many in the audience held supportive signs such as “I Stand for Secular Values.” A protester held a “JESUS SAVES. Ye must be BORN AGAIN” sign and said he felt “compelled” to come. He wouldn’t identify himself, the paper reported.
Lisa Gleason of Greece wore a shirt that said “I’m an atheist because . . . I have read it” on the front and “1 Corinthians 14:34 Women should remain silent in the Churches” on the back.
“I think this will spur people across the country to push harder,” she said.
Dan Courtney, Greece, N.Y. City Council, 7-15-14
Thank you, members of the Town Board. Thank you, Supervisor Rielich, for allowing me to offer the invocation.
Freethinkers, atheists, nonbelievers, whatever label you wish, this group comprises a significant part of our population. I am honored to be providing an invocation on their behalf and on behalf of all the citizens of the town of Greece.
On July 4, 1776, the 56 men who pledged their lives to the document that changed the course of history, agreed to the central tenet that, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
More than 238 years later, the central premise still echoes, however faintly, from the town hall to the white-columned halls of Washington. Yet this premise, this foundation necessary for a free and flourishing society, is today, more than ever, under assault. This central pillar of a free society; this notion that is deeply heretical to authoritarian culture, proclaims that it is from the people that moral authority is derived. It is that within us, the citizens, that knowledge and wisdom must emerge.
The preservation of this premise does not come from accepting the status quo, but by asserting our rights and exercising our duties. That this premise still endures testifies to its truth, and we can say with confidence that it is in seeking the counsel of our conscience that we find the beginning of wisdom. It is in the exercise of our duty as citizens that we find the beginning of knowledge.
We, as citizens, the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega of our destiny, are not, as the great philosopher Immanuel Kant warned, mere means to the ends of another, but we are ends in ourselves.
This basic premise, this profound idea, guides us such that we need not kneel to any king, and we need not bow to any tyrant.
So I ask all officials present here, as guarantors of our Founders’ revolutionary proclamation, to heed the counsel of the governed, to seek the wisdom of all citizens, and to honor the enlightened wisdom and the profound courage of those 56 brave men.
Linda Allewalt, Secular invocation, Shelbyville, Ky., City Council, 7-17-14
Good evening. As this is a secular invocation and not a prayer, there is no need to stand during my presentation. Tonight I would like to have us think about “blessings.”
Last year the council passed a set of resolutions outlining their new program for including invocations in city council meetings. In the resolutions, the council stated that the main purpose of an opening invocation was “for the benefit and blessings of the council.”
The word “blessings” drew my attention because it is a word heard often in our society in differing contexts. I wondered what the term really means. The origins of the word “bless” are from Old English and its meaning is connected to a human action. It refers to the action of sprinkling blood on a pagan altar. I don’t think that is what the council had in mind.
But what did they have in mind when using that term? It appears from reading the resolutions and how the invocation system is set up that they feel the source of blessings comes exclusively from a divine entity. But is that true? And what do “blessings” have to do with the realm of government?
The founders of our country provided us with a clue in this paragraph. “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The founders did not mention a divine source for their “blessings,” but a human one. . . we the people. We the people take the actions and make the laws to secure our blessings for ourselves and for future generations. Following these words are the contents of our Constitution . . . a vehicle to assist us in securing our blessings of liberty. The Constitution makes no mention of a deity in creating this vehicle, and its authors chose not to invoke blessings from a divine entity during their deliberations.
I would appeal to the council and those in attendance here to consider this:
In government, blessings are the actions we take and the decisions we make out of our common human desire to form communities and make them successful. The council’s blessings come from working with fellow council members in trying to fulfill their roles as representatives of all the people. They also come from the citizens who take the time to attend and offer their advice, their expertise, and even their criticism. These blessings do not need to be invoked. They are at your fingertips every day.
So I would encourage the council and all those who make the efforts to ensure the success of our community to consider these observable and measurable blessings --— to consider their true source, and to never forget to count them!
I wish you a peaceful and productive meeting.
Editor’s note: Linda adds that since she followed up her invocation with a statement during the public comments section of the meeting advising the council to shut the discriminatory program down, “I think this is my first and last invocation!”
Linda Stephens (with NOW sign) at a rally she organized at the Federal Building in Rochester, N.Y., protesting a Catholic group which was protesting the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate. “The theme of both of our protest and theirs was ‘Support Religious Freedom,’” Linda said. “Of course, we each defined that term differently. I had signs printed up that read ‘Religious Dogma, Bad For Your Health.’ ”
Name: Linda Stephens.
Where I live: Greece, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester.
Where and when I was born: Battle Creek, Mich., Nov. 16, 1942.
Family: Kathryn Gibson (mother, 91) and five younger siblings, one deceased.
Education: B.A. in English (Western Michigan University), M.A. in English (SUNY-Brockport), master of library science (SUNY-Geneseo), Ed.D. (Syracuse University).
Occupation: Retired librarian.
How I got where I am today: By reading, traveling, observing life and thinking.
These are a few of my favorite things: Poetry, flowers, indie films, travel, Bruce Springsteen.
These are not: Fox News, anti-abortion protesters, religious bigots.
A quotation I like: “Come, come my conservative friend, wipe the dew from your spectacles and see that the world is moving.” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton)
My doubts about religion started: In my high school years, but they solidified in 1962 when I was 19 and attended a symposium titled “Is there a God?” at Albion College in Michigan.
Where I’m headed: To England in the fall to visit “Hardy Country.” A writer for The New Yorker called Thomas Hardy “God’s Undertaker,” and Hardy made no bones about the fact that he was a nonbeliever. In fact, one of Hardy’s most famous poems is titled “God’s Funeral.” In it, he describes a procession carrying the corpse of the “man-projected Figure . . . whom we can no longer keep alive.”
Before I die: My wish list includes a woman president in the White House, passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, early retirements by Justices Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Roberts and the death of racism. (A few pipe dreams in there, I know.)
Ways I promote freethought: I was the atheist plaintiff in the Town of Greece v. Galloway Supreme Court decision. I am an event organizer for the Atheist Community of Rochester (ACoR). I am the vice president and web administrator for the Rochester chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. I was vice chair of Monroe Citizens for Public Education and Religious Liberty before it disbanded.
Other activism: I am past president of the Greater Rochester chapter of the National Organization for Women.
Person in history I admire and why: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, lead author of the “Declaration of Sentiments,” which was presented at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and which kicked off the first women’s rights and women’s suffrage movements in the United States.
I also admire Elizabeth because she believed that “The heyday of woman’s life is the shady side of fifty.”
Max Nielson spoke May 3 at the Freedom From Religion in the Bible Belt conference sponsored by FFRF in conjunction with its chapter, the Triangle Freethought Society, in Raleigh, N.C. Max had previously received a student activist award at FFRF’s 2012 annual convention in Portland, Ore.
That year he became lead plaintiff in FFRF’s federal lawsuit to stop graduation prayers in his school district. The issue is largely resolved, but FFRF, Max and two other plaintiffs (Dakota McMillan and Jacob Zupon) are still challenging prayer by their school board.
Max received a second honor in Raleigh, the Allen P. Wilkinson Student Activist Award of $1,000, generously endowed by FFRF member Allen P. Wilkinson. He asked that it go to the student who “best exemplifies qualities of FFRF and dares to speak up and engage in enlightening high school students and others in the community.”
I was raised secular with the Unitarian Universalist Church in Columbia, S.C. So when I was confronted with the issue of school prayer at my high school, I didn’t really know what to do at first. I didn’t know that I could do anything until I found out that a similar issue had already been settled with help from FFRF in my state through the complaint of Harrison Hopkins.
District 5, where I lived, had a policy on the books that a majority of graduating seniors would vote on whether or not to have a prayer at graduation. It is kind of ridiculous. Rights are not to be voted on. And every part of that graduation prayer ceremony process was facilitated by school officials. It was a clear violation of church and state across the board.
Since I last spoke at the FFRF convention about my case, I’ve gone on to found the Secular Student Alliance at the College of Charleston and interned in D.C. with the Secular Coalition for America. I began work as their social media specialist, in which I have helped launch Openly Secular, which has been a lot of fun. This year I continued to lead the Secular Student Alliance in Charleston. This summer I am interning with the Center for Inquiry in Buffalo, N.Y.
The opportunity FFRF has given me to become involved with this movement I never even knew existed has probably been one of the most profoundly impactful moments of my life. I am very grateful for the opportunity. But my co-plaintiff, Dakota, is still in high school. Dakota and my other co-plaintiff, Jacob, having just graduated, didn’t have all of those opportunities.
Something that stands out since I last spoke was that Dakota was handed a note by one of her friends, who said — I can quote directly from it — he was discussing the issue of the lawsuit with his mother. He was basically given the ultimatum of agreeing that there should be a graduation prayer or not living in the household. It was that stark.
The way Dakota got this note was that she was wondering why this friend suddenly had stopped talking to her. It is horrifying. It is a scary thing to have happen to her.
I went through my deposition with the attorneys. The first half of it was very intense. They were asking all sorts of questions about my history with the Boy Scouts of America or any time I would have encountered public prayer of any sort.
It relaxed after Aaron, my fantastic lawyer, cut in and informed them I am only suing for nominal damages. Even the lawyers on the other side understand that the school prayer issue is pretty much settled.
Since then, as mentioned, the case has grown to encompass the school board prayers, and at those events they oftentimes have pastors come in from neighboring churches. And there are events at the school board meetings where students are invited and actively attend. I think on that issue we will see some change.
As Annie Laurie mentioned, they have changed the school policy from voting on graduation prayer to directly parroting the South Carolina Student-led Messages Act. Which I am OK with. It basically says the school can appoint a student speaker, and then they are done. That is it. They do not have any influence on what that speaker says. If that speaker wants to pray, that is within the purview of their free speech. I am much more comfortable with that than a specifically sponsored graduation prayer event.
I am happy to see how far this has come, and I am very grateful for this award and the opportunities FFRF has given me. Thank you.
FFRF is pleased to announce that it has awarded a $1,000 scholarship to Kelvin Manjarrez, a graduate from Gardena High School, Calif., who will be attending El Camino College in conjunction with Black Skeptics Los Angeles’ 2014 First in the Family Humanist Scholarships.
Kelvin has been a volunteer for Reading Partners Los Angeles and a translator in the 2014 primary election. He identifies as an atheist and aspires to be an English professor. “I have always been passionate about our educational system. A wise man once said that: ‘Humanity’s greatest fear is the unknown,’ “ Kelvin wrote in his essay. “This accounts for contrived religions of all sorts, a simple explanation to the unexplained.
“Citizens who are better educated can better distinguish between right and wrong. This, in turn, generates understanding and unity amongst different groups of people who would have otherwise segregated, fought and killed one another. It is of no coincidence that some of the brightest minds in history have been social activists as well as advocates for a better pedagogical system: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson, just to name a few.”
The BSLA scholarships focus on outstanding South Los Angeles students who are undocumented, in foster care, homeless, LGBT or atheist youth. BSLA is the first atheist organization to specifically address college pipelining for youth of color.
“If current prison pipelining trends persist the Education Trust estimates that only one of every 20 African American kindergartners will graduate from a four-year California university in the next decade,” noted BSLA activist Sikivu Hutchinson.
“We’re delighted to be partnering with BSLA on such a worthwhile and needed endeavor, and are impressed with Kelvin’s essay and aspirations,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
FFRF first launched a student scholarship essay competition shortly after it began as a national group in 1978. FFRF now offers three contests: one for college-bound high school seniors, one for ongoing college students and a third for graduate students and/or students age 25-30. Last year FFRF awarded over $34,000 in essay scholarships to a diverse range of students.
FFRF also offers student and youth activist awards, several endowed by generous individual FFRF members. This year so far, FFRF has already awarded $7,000 to secular student activists.
BSLA’s other scholars this year are: Jamion Allen, Hugo Cervantes, Elizabeth Hernandez and Tiare Hilland. They received $500-1,000 scholarships toward their college expenses.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor introduced Kalei and Ben Wilson at the Freedom From Religion in the Bible Belt conference in Raleigh, N.C., on May 2:
Kalei is one of our younger student activist awardees, but we’ve actually had honorees as young as 11. Kalei is 15. She and her brother Ben were thwarted in trying to start a freethought club at their high school in a smaller town in North Carolina. Kalei is receiving the memorial that I started in honor of my father, who was the principal volunteer for the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He died three years ago. It’s called the Paul J. Gaylor Memorial Award of $1,000. He would have been very touched by her plight.
Ben, who started this challenge at the school, is 17. He’s going to say a few words. He tried to start a secular club during the fall semester, then he moved on to community school. He is the debut recipient of the Cliff Richards Memorial Student Activist Award of $1,000. You’re going to be hearing about this award because one of our members who got ill very abruptly with stage 4 cancer called me up and said he wanted a bequest to go to the perpetuation of our student activist awards.
We have received a $140,000 in his name this spring for these awards. He was very excited about the activism of younger people and freethinkers. He was from Wisconsin, ended up in Washington state, where he made use of the death with dignity law. He would have been very, very impressed with Ben Wilson.
By Ben Wilson
Wow! Well, it started out at my first year at the school, a big bible belt school, bunch of country people, Christians. We wanted to start a club because I knew a couple people who weren’t “out” atheists but were not religious. So I started talking the club up, talked to the Secular Student Alliance, got all the paperwork completed and went into the principal. She actually told me “no” — at first. She said it was because they didn’t want an atheist group in the schools. I came back to her with the law that said if she had Christian groups, she’s going to let me have a secular group.
She then postponed our meeting for two weeks, I guess hoping I’d forget about it. Postponed it for two weeks — not even researching about what the club was about, which she promised she would do.
I came in again and was like, “Hey, I need to get moving on this.” She goes, “Oh, I haven’t even looked it up.” I was like, “Well, let’s do that now.” And so we looked it up. She reads the definition of atheist from Wikipedia, I think, and goes, “I think this a satanist group.”
I was — completely confused! “I think you’ve got the wrong definition of atheism. Theists are known as believers, and atheists are nonbelievers.”
So we went on about that. She ended up saying stuff like, “It’s like if you’re gay, you go to Asheville and not stay here.” So confused.
Then we took it to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. They helped us out a lot, but then I ended up getting out of school, going to Haywood Community College, and then Kalei took over. She ended up getting the harsh end of the deal because a lot of kids turned on us. Friends just said we’re not going to be your friends anymore. People destroyed her projects at schools with bibles.
But, thank y’all. I love being up here, I love you y’all. This is awesome. It’s nice to have a community now. Better than Christians.
FFRF has awarded Josh a $1,000 Cliff Richards Memorial Student Activist Award. He was FFRF’s complainant in Orange County, Fla.
My name is Joshua Flashman and I am 14 years old. This past year while in the eighth grade at Southwest Middle School in Orlando, Fla., I fought for the right of our students to sit during the Pledge of Allegiance.
Our school had a policy of forcing students to stand and recite the pledge, regardless of a person’s beliefs. When I tried explaining that I believed I was allowed to sit quietly during the pledge, I got in trouble with the deans. I worked with FFRF to get this to be allowed. The school now allows students to sit quietly during the pledge and has posted a notice saying so.
Even after we were finally allowed to sit during the pledge, I still faced many repercussions from the deans and principal. They were not happy that I made them change. But it was worth it because I knew I was helping other students who would have been too scared to stand up for their rights and beliefs.
Next year at my new high school, I am creating a Secular Student Alliance club with a dedication and determination to advance secular rights. I expect to run into some trouble and bullying, but I feel this is important and will continue to press on.
My main interests are in computers, and I am also joining the high school ROTC program in High School. I hope to go to college (MIT would be my choice) to study computer programming so I can join the military as an information warfare officer.