FFRF victories roundup (October 2018)
By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey
Banners taken down in West Virginia
FFRF has caused Jackson County Commissioners to rewrite their policy on allowing religious banners to be hung on county courthouse property.
In June, FFRF’s complainant reported that a gazebo on the Jackson County Courthouse lawn displayed two banners: one containing a bible verse, and another featuring crosses and announcing a National Day of Prayer in May.
“No legitimate secular purpose was served by the banners’ message,” FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott wrote in his letter to the commissioners.
FFRF received a response from the county’s attorney that those banners had been removed, and that the county has adopted a new policy prohibiting the placement of any banners or signs on the gazebo to avoid any future entanglements.
Religious ads dropped from car hangers
FFRF succeeded in removing religious promotion from the back of mandatory car tags at an elementary school in Tennessee.
Dupont Elementary School in Chattanooga had partnered with Rock Bridge Community Church by displaying an advertisement on the back of the car hangers parents are required to hang from their rearview mirror to be allowed to pick up their children from school. The advertisement displayed the name of the church and a Latin cross, invited parents to book a “VIP visit,” and lists the worship times for the church.
FFRF Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote that the presence of the advertisement “communicates a message of school endorsement of religion and is marked by excessive entanglement between the school district and church.”
The school’s legal representation assured FFRF that it was unaware the tag had a religious message on the back. The school has since distributed new tags free from religious promotion.
Ohio school handbook no longer has prayer
An Ohio school district has removed religious promotion from its Parent Transportation Handbook after FFRF reminded it of the constitutional obligation to remain neutral regarding religion. A concerned parent reported that the handbook contained “A Bus Driver’s Prayer,” an overtly religious appeal to the “Lord.”
“Publishing a prayer in an official publication impermissibly entangles the district with a religious point of view, violating the principle that state and church must remain separate,” wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line in his Aug. 30 letter to the district.
Upon receiving FFRF’s letter, the superintendent ensured the prayer would be removed immediately and reported that new copies of the handbook were redistributed in the beginning of September.
FFRF stops 3 violations in Tennessee schools
The Cumberland County School District in Tennessee has remedied several state/church violations after receiving a letter from FFRF.
FFRF wrote to the district’s legal representation warning them of three constitutional violations.
First, FFRF’s complainant reported that Homestead Elementary School (HES) rents its facilities to a church group called “Plant, Grow, Harvest” on Sundays, but allows the group to advertise at the school during times when they are not renting the school facilities.
Secondly, HES reportedly regularly promoted religious events on its official Facebook page.
Lastly, Stone Memorial High School reportedly posted and shared religious messages on what appears to be an official Twitter account for its boys’ basketball team. Additionally, the school reportedly allowed a pastor to act as a “character coach” for SMHS basketball players.
In a video posted on Upper Cumberland Fellowship of Christian Athlete’s Facebook page, SMHS basketball coach Neil Capps explained that he was approached by FCA about starting a “character coach program.” He wrote that he allowed a pastor named Robert McTurnal to act as a character coach for his team. He acknowledges that the team refers to him as “Coach Robert,” and states that Pastor McTurnal is “a part of our staff now.” Capps admits that McTurnal does a “weekly devotional.”
In the video, McTurnal stated, “I got involved here because I found out that I couldn’t get into this school on my own. So, I found out through the umbrella of FCA, I had an opportunity to come in and serve the basketball team as their character coach.
“Since then it’s been amazing just getting to know the boys, getting to minister them, you know, outside of a church. Meeting them right where they are has been a fantastic opportunity.”
“CCDS cannot allow a non-school adult access to the children in its charge, and it certainly cannot grant that access to a minister seeking to grow his religious ministry by targeting students,” wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line in the letter.
The legal firm representing the district wrote back to FFRF on Sept. 13, ensuring that all three issues have been investigated and that the religious signs have been removed and that the church no longer rents the building, that posting about religious club events will no longer appear to be endorsed by the school, and that both the basketball coach and the “character coach” have been informed that they cannot promote religion to their players.
Religious books removed from university hotel
FFRF convinced Dixie State University in St. George, Utah, to remove religious texts from the DSU College Inn hotel guest rooms.
A concerned hotel guest reported that on one stay at the College Inn, she found two copies of the Book of Mormon in her room. On another stay, in a different room, she found a copy of the bible.
“Regardless of whether the religious texts were donated by a private party, the placement of ‘holy books’ in guest rooms demonstrates government endorsement of religion,” wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line in his letter to DSU President Richard Biff Williams.
FFRF heard from DSU’s general counsel, stating “any religious texts that may have been left in any of the guest rooms have been removed. Further, we have established a procedure of removing any such texts going forward.”
Biblical verses on bulletin boards nixed
FFRF brought two bulletin boards containing religious verses to the attention of a Tennessee school district which have been subsequently taken down.
Midtown Elementary School in Kingston, Tenn., had displayed two bible verses in one of its hallways. One display said “A cord of three strands is not easily broken. Ecc. 4:12.” The other said, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. Ecc. 9:10.”
The superintendent quickly responded to FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line’s letter that the bulletin boards would be swiftly removed.
Cross covered at Iowa VA hospital
A religious display was removed from outside the Out Patient Mental Health Clinic building at the Central Iowa VA Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa, following a letter from FFRF.
FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert wrote to the director of the VA Central Iowa Health Care System after a concerned complainant reported a religious memorial that included a soldier kneeling before a Latin cross.
“FFRF has no objection to veterans’ memorials. Our objection is to the message of endorsement of religion over nonreligion,” Markert wrote in her July 16 letter. “Additionally, this memorial sends a message that the government mainly cares about the deaths of Christian soldiers, not other non-Christian and nonreligious soldiers.”
FFRF received a response from Director Gail Graham stating that the display was carved by a Central Iowa Veteran and the family of the deceased veteran has modified the display to cover the cross.
FFRF stops religious messages on flyers
The U.S. Probation Office in San Bernardino, Calif., will cease the distribution of job posting flyers with religious messaging, thanks to FFRF.
After a probationer reported last September that the flyers he received from his probation officer contained religious verses in them, FFRF Robert G. Ingersoll Legal Fellow Colin McNamara sent a letter first to the head of the U.S. Probation Office in the Central District of California, then eventually directly to the Chief Judge Virginia Phillips, asking for the religious messaging to be removed.
On Aug. 14, Phillips assured FFRF that “all officers will discontinue sending the list until further research is done about the group that compiles it,” and that “if the office resumes sending out these job listings, all religious quotes, attachments and references will be deleted.”
Posters taken down at Arkansas school
Religious posters have come off the walls of a middle school classroom in Jonesboro, Ark., after FFRF sent a letter reminding the district of its constitutional obligation to refrain from endorsing a religion.
A concerned parent reported that a Westside Middle School teacher had decorated classroom walls with multiple bible verses, including “Proverbs 3:5 — Trust in the Lord with all your heart” prominently displayed directly alongside a poster listing “classroom rules.”
On Aug. 23, FFRF Legal Fellow Colin McNamara sent a letter to Superintendent Scott Gauntt, asking that the district investigate these violations and respond in writing with steps the district will take to ensure this violation does not recur.
The legal firm representing Westside Consolidated School District replied on Sept. 7, ensuring that the posters had been removed from the classroom.
Prayer breakfast ad falsely tied to city
FFRF helped end a constitutional violation in Fort Myers, Fla.
FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to the city of Fort Meyers after a complainant reported that the city sponsored and promoted a “Community Prayer Breakfast” on the National Day of Prayer.
FFRF received a response from City Attorney Grant Williams Alley, who reviewed the document, which called the Day of Prayer a city-hosted event. Alley said the publication was incorrect. He further confirmed that the city did not pay for the event and the event organizers paid for the use of all city services and facilities. Alley assured FFRF the city would attempt to correct this advertisement, which is not created by the city, should it happen again in the future.
“Please understand the city of Fort Myers does not want to alienate any people, irrespective of what religion they are or, as you write, the 24 percent of Americans who are nonreligious,” the city’s letter read. “There exists a fundamental separation between church and state in American jurisprudence and the city strives to follow the fluid law as the courts interpret them and your opinions are helpful in this critical endeavor.”