FFRF Victories (June/July 2021)
By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey
State-church violations remedied in Georgia
FFRF has remedied two state/church violations in Camden County Schools in Kingsland, Ga.
A local community member reported that, earlier this year, students at David L. Rainer Elementary School were required to line up and walk through the lobby of the school where a member of the infamous Gideons International offered them a bible. Students were reportedly told that taking the bible was optional, but that all students were required to stand in line and be offered a bible. This apparently had been occurring annually.
FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent John Tucker, alerting the district to the Gideons’ insidious operating structure to successfully usurp parental power and constitutional limitations on religious promotion in public schools to target young, impressionable students. The district may not, FFRF emphasized, allow the Gideons or any other religious groups to enter school property and distribute religious material.
Additionally, FFRF was recently made aware that teachers at Matilda Harris Elementary School were leading students in daily lunchtime prayers. These prayers were reportedly made “In Jesus’ name.”
Line sent Tucker a second letter of complaint, urging the district to also make certain that none of its employees are unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters by leading prayer, encouraging them to pray, or setting aside time for prayer.
Tucker sent a letter of response to each of FFRF’s complaints, with assurances that the staff members involved have been spoken to about their constitutional obligations surrounding students’ rights of conscience.
“I am confident that staff and volunteers will honor both the letter and the intent of the Constitution, its principles, and applicable statutes,” Tucker wrote.
No more baccalaureate event in N.C. district
A public school district in North Carolina has distanced itself from a religious baccalaureate event after impermissibly entangling with it.
A concerned parent in Lenoir, N.C., reported that the Caldwell County Schools district was organizing and sponsoring a baccalaureate in May 2021. The complainant reported that tickets for the event were being managed by South Caldwell High School and that the event was scheduled to take place in the school’s gym. While the event was apparently not mandatory, the school reportedly told parents and teachers that attendance was “highly encouraged.” The event was also apparently organized by school staff and promoted on the school’s official website.
FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Donald Phipps alerting the district that this type of religious promotion by a public school is impermissible. FFRF asked that the district end all involvement with the baccalaureate service to avoid the perception of school sponsorship of religious activities.
FFRF was informed that the district has moved this event to the local church that is sponsoring the baccalaureate and has stopped promoting it on behalf of the district.
School won’t resurrect religious promotion
Administration in Big Sandy Independent School District in Dallardsville, Texas, has taken action to remedy a serious state/church violation occurring in its school.
A district parent reported multiple instances of religious promotion and endorsement occurring at Big Sandy Elementary School. The parent reported that for Easter, a kindergarten teacher at the school gave students “resurrection eggs,” which were Easter eggs with something related to Jesus inside, and had students color “Jesus is love” pictures that included a large Latin cross. The teacher also reportedly was regularly teaching students about Christianity and their “Lord and Savior.”
FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district asking that it take immediate action to ensure that none of its employees are unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters by giving them religious assignments, teaching about religion, or promoting their personal religious beliefs.
Superintendent Eric Carpenter informed FFRF in a letter of response that it is taking the reports seriously. “To the extent that any employee of BSISD is violating the law, the district will address it with that employee to ensure that no violations occur in the future,” Carpenter wrote.
FFRF stops politicking at church voting site
Polling places in the parish of East Baton Rouge, La., will be reminded of their obligation to refrain from partisan politicking prior to and on election day.
FFRF was informed that during the November 2020 election, Woodlawn Baptist Church was illegally promoting a ballot item while the church was being used as a polling place. While voting was happening, the church displayed a sign on its lawn that read, “Vote Yes on #1,” a constitutional amendment which was on the ballot.
FFRF Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler wrote to county officials urging the county to seriously reconsider allowing area churches to be used as polling places, and at the very least to ensure that churches that are used as polling places are following the law and not promoting any particular political stance.
FFRF received a letter of response from Registrar of Voters Steve Raborn that provided assurances that the leader of the church has apologized for not removing the sign before election day, calling it “an oversight.” More significantly, however, the Clerk of Court’s office in the parish of East Baton Rouge has “agreed to add language to their pre-election letters to all polling places reminding them of state law pertaining to campaign signs at and near polling places.”
Silence is golden at N.C. school meetings
Brunswick County Schools in Bolivia, N.C., has replaced scheduled prayer before meetings with a moment of silence.
A local resident alerted FFRF that the Brunswick County School Board had been opening its meetings with prayer, including references to “our heavenly father.” Meeting attendees, including students, have reportedly been asked to stand for the invocations, which were then led by Board Chair Ellen G. Milligan.
FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Jerry Oates urging the board to refrain from engaging in prayer at its meetings. When a government entity like the school board engages in prayer at its meetings, FFRF’s letter emphasized, it violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by showing preference for religious belief.
In a letter of response from the board’s attorney, FFRF was informed that the board has decided to instead open its meetings with a one-minute period of silence.