FFRF stops unconstitutional prayers
By Molly Hanson
In the past month or so, FFRF has recorded several victories in six states against schools or cities regarding unconstitutional prayer. (FFRF’s other recent victories are on page 9.)
After it was reported to FFRF that a second-grade teacher at Ashford Elementary School in Alabama was leading her students in daily prayer before lunch, FFRF took action.
FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to Houston County Schools Superintendent David Sewell on Dec. 4 to remind the district that public school teachers may not lead their students in prayer or otherwise endorse religion to students.
A response was received on Dec. 6 from Sewell informing FFRF that employees had been notified of their obligation to abide by federal and state laws regarding the separation of church and state.
FFRF got involved after being informed that the city of Buena Park, Calif., was hosting an annual Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast.
Although a nonprofit organization was promoted as presenting the prayer breakfast, the city’s website was advertising the event and instructing the public to send RSVPs and payments for tickets to Buena Park City Hall and to call the Office of the City Manager phone number for more information about the religious event.
FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote to the city clerk on Nov. 10, informing the city that the hosting of the prayer breakfast posed serious First Amendment violation concerns. Cavell asked that the city cease all sponsorship and organization of the event, and to disassociate Buena Park and the mayor’s office from the event.
The city attorney responded on Dec. 22 indicating that Buena Park would be handing over more responsibility to the nonprofit organization and discontinuing the city promotion and ticket sales. The city also plans to change the name of the event.
A concerned parent reported to FFRF that the principal of Oskaloosa Junior/Senior High School in Kansas had led students, parents and faculty in a prayer at the 2017 Fall Athletic Banquet, which was held to recognize all of the students who were in sports and activities for the fall semester. Additionally, it was reported that the school’s Veterans Day event included prayer.
In a letter sent on Dec. 15 to Oskaloosa Public Schools Superintendent Jon Pfau, FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line informed the district that it is unlawful for any school-sponsored event to include prayer.
Pfau called Line on Dec. 18 assuring FFRF that there will be no more school-sponsored prayer in the future.
After receiving multiple reports from concerned parents that a Kentucky public elementary school was promoting religion to its students, FFRF got involved. It was brought to FFRF’s attention that a teacher at Valley Elementary School in Pikeville, Ky., was requiring students to say a prayer while they lined up for lunch: “God is great. God is good. Let us thank him for our food. By his grace we are fed. Thank him for our daily bread.”
Additionally, another parent reported to FFRF that as part of a Christmas party, the school planned to take its second-grade students to see “The Star,” a Christian adventure comedy retelling the nativity of Jesus. The plot of the film follows the biblical account of the birth of Jesus.
FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to an attorney representing Pike County Schools on Dec. 14, informing him that public school teachers may not lead their students in prayer, encourage prayer or otherwise endorse religion to students. Line also warned the district that bringing public school students on a field trip to a Christian movie as part of a Christmas party is a blatant and unconstitutional promotion of Christianity.
An attorney informed FFRF in a Dec. 19 phone call that he would discuss the violations with the principal of the school to ensure that the teacher stops praying and that the district makes lawful movie choices in the future.
It was brought to FFRF’s attention that the Little Falls City Council in Minnesota was opening each year’s first meeting with a Christian prayer. Members of the Franciscan Sisters have given the opening invocation in 2016 and 2017, and have been exclusively been given the opportunity to do so.
On June 26, 2017, FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott wrote to Mayor Greg Zylaka informing him that the city must end the practice of having a Franciscan Sister give the yearly invocation because it creates the unlawful appearance that the city endorses Catholicism above other beliefs. Elliott noted that the nonreligious and members of minority religions should be permitted to deliver invocations. FFRF sent a follow-up letter on Dec. 15.
The city administrator responded on Dec. 28 informing FFRF that the city council would no longer place an invocation on the agenda for future council meetings.
On Aug. 17, FFRF wrote to the Tooele County School District in Utah over unconstitutional promotion of religion by the district superintendent.
It was brought to FFRF’s attention that at the 2017 annual and mandatory meeting the district has at the beginning of its school year, Superintendent Scott Rogers talked about the importance of prayer and how it is necessary in education.
He then invited a pastor up on to the podium to deliver a Christian prayer. FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to Rogers warning him against the unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity.
An attorney representing the school district responded on Dec. 20 informing FFRF that Rogers had been advised against having prayer at future meetings.
FFRF was assured that Rogers indicated he would comply with the district policy and constitutional mandate against promoting prayer.