FFRF Victories (November 2021)
By Casandra Zimmerman
Michigan district gets rid of Christian displays
After hearing from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Michigan school district has gotten rid of unconstitutional religious iconography from its schools.
A concerned Pewamo-Westphalia Community Schools student reported to FFRF multiple instances of religious promotion by district staff members at the middle and high school. The displays ranged from a paperweight that displayed “WWJD” or “What would Jesus do” to a cross on paper displayed with a bible quote. Teachers at the school sometimes also reportedly discussed their religious beliefs with students.
“It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Jeff Wright.
FFRF’s missive led to official religion disappearing from Pewamo-Westphalia Community Schools — in keeping with constitutional precepts.
The superintendent met with staff and instructed them to remove “non-curricular religious displays from the classrooms and to discontinue any practices of promoting personal religious views during the school day,” an attorney for the school district informed FFRF. The superintendent also planned to do a walkthrough to make sure everything has been removed, FFRF was told.
FFRF ends Ohio school’s coach-sponsored prayer
An Ohio public high school football coach has stopped praying with players after the FFRF intervened.
According to a concerned community member, the head coach of the Liberty-Benton High School football team was requiring players to lead prayers at team meals, leading students in the Lord’s Prayer before games and leading students in post-game prayer.
“The Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools,” FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line wrote to Liberty-Benton Local Schools Superintendent Mark Kowalski. “In each of these cases, the Supreme Court struck down school-sponsored prayer because it constitutes a government advancement and endorsement of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
FFRF asked the district to take immediate action to stop any school-sponsored prayers from occurring within any district athletic programs — and that had the desired effect. Kowalski wrote back to FFRF that he will be meeting with various faculty and coaches to “discuss the sensitivities surrounding school employees being involved in prayer with students on school grounds and on school time.”
Teacher stops handing out Buddha statues
A teacher in Cincinnati Public Schools is no longer passing out Buddha statues in his classroom after FFRF contacted the district. The teacher is not Buddhist, but was passing out the statues to students as “comfort” or “good luck” items.
FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line wrote a letter to Superintendent Daniel Hoying, reporting that not only is giving out Buddha statues unconstitutional, it could be offensive to Buddhist students, parents or staff members.
The First Amendment prohibits government entities like Walnut Hills High School from promoting or denigrating religion.
In a response from Hoying, FFRF was informed that the teacher agreed to remove the Buddha statues from his classroom and assured that he would not “repeat the passing out of a Buddha before an exam.”
Tennessee county removes religious display
A religious display containing a Latin cross with the message “The Lord bless you and keep you” was removed from the counter where residents go to renew their auto tags at the Hardin County, Tenn., Courthouse Annex building.
A concerned Hardin County resident informed FFRF of the cross. Staff Attorney Christopher Line wrote a letter to County Clerk Paula Robinson Wilhite. In it, Line informs her that many court cases have upheld that the First Amendment “mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,” and that having the cross display creates the perception that the government is endorsing Christianity.
In response, Wilhite sent a photo that showed the office without the cross and wrote, “My employee’s cross has been removed.”
Iowa superintendent to stop proselytizing
In Iowa, South Hardin Community Schools Superintendent Adam Zellmer will stop proselytizing through official district email after FFRF contacted him.
A concerned district employee reported to FFRF that the superintendent had been discussing “religious beliefs, quoting bible verses, and sermons” through emails to the school staff. Some examples include: “The pastor at my brother’s church had an amazing message on Sunday that tied in directly with the State Wrestling Tournament,” and “My faith in Jesus Christ is the foundation on which I strive to not only follow, but also lead from.”
Staff Attorney Christopher Line sent a letter to the superintendent, telling him that when a superintendent uses official channels to promote personal religious beliefs, it creates the impression in the minds of nonreligious district employees that they are “outsiders, not full members of the political community,” as well as to immediately quit preaching his beliefs to district staff members through official district channels.
Zellmer reassured FFRF that he would be more cognizant of writing to his staff and consider their rights and freedoms.
Counselor will no longer lead graduation prayer
A concerned Iberville Parish Schools (La.) community member has reported multiple instances of religious promotion through a teacher-led prayer at a graduation ceremony and a speech given by a preacher that invoked Christian scripture and called on the Christian god at White Castle High School.
These activities go against the Constitution and can alienate students, parents and teachers who are not Christian, FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line wrote to Superintendent Arthur M. Joffrion. Line urged him to no longer host baccalaureate services and discontinue scheduling prayer at future school-sponsored activities.
Joffrion responded to FFRF to report that he had spoken with White Castle High School’s principal to remind him that the school has certain obligations under the First Amendment. He also specifically let the principal know that the scheduled prayer and holding of any religious school events are unacceptable under the Constitution.
Coaches stop participating in student-led prayer
Coaches that participate in a student-led prayer are violating the Constitution, FFRF told the superintendent of the Poyen School District in Arkansas.
After photos were posted showing the football team standing together with its coaches in prayer, FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald wrote a letter to Superintendent Ronnie Kissire, pointing out that the Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools and that the district must stop the school-sponsored prayers immediately.
Kissire responded to let FFRF know that the school no longer anticipates any further concerns.