FFRF Victories (December 2020)
By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey
FFRF puts a stop to Missouri coach’s prayers
A Missouri school district has ended its football coaching staff’s practice of praying with the student-athletes after FFRF got involved.
Joey Ballard, head coach for Jasper High School’s boys football team, regularly led team prayer, a concerned parent of a player had informed FFRF. During these prayers, student players gathered around Ballard on bended knee, with additional coaching staff surrounding the students while Ballard delivered a Christian prayer and then led the students in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Jasper R-5 School District Superintendent Christina Hess, reminding the district that it is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer.
FFRF’s constitutional advice has been heeded.
“In response to your letter dated Oct. 6, 2020, we write to advise you about the actions the district,” the district’s legal counsel stated. “Employees of the district were reminded of the district’s board policy regarding religion at school and were also instructed not to lead students in, or promote, prayer. This matter has therefore been resolved.”
No more meeting prayers at Alabama school
Employees of Shelby County School District in Columbiana, Ala., will no longer be subjected to prayer at staff meetings.
A district employee informed FFRF that during a recent mandatory professional development meeting, one teacher began the meeting by delivering a prayer. The complainant reported that the teacher told staff he would make a motion when he began and ended his prayer so that anyone who was offended could mute him.
FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district to ensure that it no longer includes prayer as part of any employee meeting or events. The reported teacher has been counseled that this was not permitted and the district has initiated additional refresher training for its principals on this subject.
School board prayers ended in Pelham, Ala.
School board prayer in Pelham City Schools in Alabama has been stopped.
A district community member reported that the Pelham City Schools Board of Education opened each of its meetings with prayer. FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to School Board President Rick Rhoades, informing the district of the impermissibility of such prayer at school board meetings.
FFRF received a response from the school board’s attorney. “Please be advised that in a good faith effort to accommodate the various points of view, interests and legal considerations that are implicated by the practice of opening public meetings with invocation, the Board of Education has elected, effective as of its meetings on Oct. 26, 2020, not to include an invocation on its meeting agendas or set aside time for that purpose as part of its official proceedings.”
School church question now more charitable
A homework question promoting religious donations has been removed from the curriculum in Paradise Valley Unified School District in Phoenix.
A concerned district parent alerted FFRF that their student’s personal finance class included an assignment that asked students to evaluate certain personal finance choices and rate them as being either good or bad. The assignment included the statement: “I give $2 at church every week.” The assignment reportedly considered the only correct answer to this statement to be “good,” and that if a student were to rate it as “bad” they would not receive any points for the answer.
FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent of Schools Jesse Welsh, pointing out that the suggestion that giving money to a church every week, without any additional context, does not promote a “good money habit” but instead encourages students to partake in a common religious practice. Many students, FFRF reminded the district, do not attend church, and suggesting that it would be wise for them to give their money to a church is an advancement and endorsement of religion on the district’s behalf.
The district has changed the question in the assignment to state “charity” instead of “church.”
U.S. Rep. Eshoo stops prayer requests
U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo has stopped including prayer requests in constituent emails in Palo Alto, Calif.
A constituent from California’s 18th congressional district reported that her office regularly sent out prayer requests. One communication said, “Let’s pray for each other, all the firefighters, and all those who have had to evacuate their families.” For a few weeks, her office was also sending a weekly newsletter that also ended with a prayer request.
FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Eshoo’s office noting that, while the California wildfire crisis is putting immense pressure on leaders to respond to and comfort constituents, as a U.S. representative she represents a diverse population including atheists, agnostics and other nonbelievers. FFRF encouraged Eshoo to stand up for the precious constitutional principle of separation between state and church by refraining from sending prayer requests through official government channels.
FFRF was informed by the complainant that Rep. Eshoo’s more recent weekly newsletters did not include a call for prayer by constituents.
Georgia coach will no longer lead team prayer
Administration in the Fannin County School System in Blue Ridge, Ga., has committed to meeting with all district coaches to address First Amendment obligations.
FFRF was informed that the Fannin High School football coach was regularly leading his team in prayer. FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Michael Gwatney informing the district that it is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer as it constitutes a government endorsement of religion.
The district’s attorney sent FFRF a letter of response with assurances that Gwatney “has met with the high school principal and a plan is in progress to meet with all coaches to discuss issues related to the First Amendment, including the Establishment and Free Exercise Clause.”
FFRF ends constitutional violations in Kansas
Pratt USD 382 in Kansas has remedied multiple constitutional violations in its district following a letter of complaint from FFRF.
A concerned school staff member reported several concerning incidents of religious promotion at Liberty Middle School. The school’s vice principal had been using his position to promote and endorse his personal religious beliefs to students. The complainant reported that on “See You at the Pole Day,” the vice principal announced the event over the intercom, personally invited students to the event and then led students in prayer. He also apparently included religious messages and bible quotes in his official district communications. Recently during morning announcements, he said, “we need to remember to give all the glory to God, whether others agree with it or not, and I don’t care if I offend anyone by saying that.” The vice principal also reportedly played Christian music during class and made religious statements to students, including telling a group of students that “God is sad when you don’t tuck in your shirts. You are disrespecting God.”
The complainant additionally reported that the school’s principal has directed staff members to arrange for the school to participate in “Operation Christmas Child,” which is a charity project sponsored by Samaritan’s Purse (led by Franklin Graham), which describes the program as a “shoebox ministry.”
FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote a letter of complaint to Superintendent Tony Helfrich requesting that the district investigate these serious violations and take immediate action.
Helfrich informed FFRF in a letter of response that the district has investigated and addressed the issues and will see that “the actions in questions are discontinued.” The district has also discontinued its partnership with “Operation Christmas Child.”
Kentucky football team ends religious promotion
Lewis County Schools in Vanceburg, Ky., has addressed concerns regarding promotion of a biblical message by a district coach.
FFRF was made aware that Lewis County High School had chosen an explicitly religious theme, directly from the bible, for its football theme this year. According to an official press release on the school’s Facebook page, “Our team motto this year comes from the story of Nehemiah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its wall.” The story, which comes from the Old Testament, uses “the sword and the shovel” as metaphorical imagery. The school had adopted this imagery for the boys’ football team logo and promotional poster included a student wearing the football team’s jersey while holding a sword and shovel.
FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Jamie Weddington to ensure that the district no longer impermissibly promotes religion through its football program.
Weddington informed FFRF in an email response that “the post has been removed and your concerns have been addressed.”
Email signatures now standardized at college
A religious message has been removed from a staff email signature at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich.
FFRF was informed that one staff member had a bible verse in the signature block for their official university email address. The signature included: “Faith does not make things easy, it makes them possible.”
FFRF’s then-Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Grand Valley State University President Philomena Mantella urging the university to see to the email signature being changed so as not to create the impression of university endorsement of Christianity over all other religions or religion over nonreligion.
FFRF was informed by the university that administration has standardized email signatures for all staff free from any mention of religion.