Victories (Jan/Feb 2023)
By Greg Fletcher
Mandatory assembly prayer in Indiana ended
A mandatory assembly containing a prayer will not occur again, thanks to FFRF.
On Nov. 11, students at Knox High School in Knox, Ind., were reportedly required to attend an assembly in which a pastor quoted scripture and led the audience in prayer toward the beginning and end of the assembly. The prayers were reportedly overtly religious and delivered in Jesus’ name, leading secular students and family members of the community to feel uncomfortable.
“It is well settled that public schools may not violate the First Amendment rights of students by showing favoritism toward or coercing belief or participation in religion,” FFRF Legal Fellow Sammi Lawrence wrote in a letter to Superintendent William Reichhart.”
The district responded to FFRF, writing, “After careful consideration, we will abandon the past practice and tradition of having a prayer and benediction as part of our Community Veteran’s Day Program at Knox High School.”
Mississippi judge’s religious proselytization reprimanded
FFRF’s complaint to a Jackson, Miss., judge resulted in corrective action.
On July 5, 2022, a judge reportedly invited a chaplain to give a prayer before the court in regard to Mississippi’s controversial abortion “trigger” laws. The prayer asked the court to “seek [God’s] truth, not our own,” and encouraged members of the court to be “blessed and inspired” by the Christian God’s wisdom. The prayer itself is highly unusual, and appears to have violated sections 2A and 3B of the Mississippi Code of Judicial Conduct, stating that a judge should act in a way that promotes public confidence in integrity and impartiality as well as performing duties without bias, respectively.
“The prayer calls for God’s ‘truth,’ not the secular truth of a neutral arbiter,” wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne in a letter to the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance. “It calls on lawyers to address the court ‘with a sense of [God’s] presence,’ implying that God will look disfavorably on those who advocate for abortion.”
In a response to FFRF from Rachel L. Wilson, executive director of the commission, the judge has reportedly been informed of the potential violations, and a corrective resolution occurred. She stated, “As a result of your complaint, the commission has communicated with the respondent judge and has resolved the complaint through informal action.”
Offensive display removed in Texas high school
FFRF persuaded a high school to change a Christian themed display in Harlingen, Texas.
On Aug. 24, 2022, FFRF received information about Harlingen High School, where a room displayed the word “Commitment” painted on the wall with the first “t” represented by the Christian cross. Photographic evidence was provided, showing staff members and students in front of the display.
“The district violates the Constitution when it allows its schools to display religious symbols or messages,” FFRF Equal Justice Works Legal Fellow Kat Grant wrote in a letter to Superintendent Alicia Noyola. “It is well settled that public schools may not show favoritism towards or coerce belief or participation in religion.”
FFRF received an emailed response from Noyola: “In response to your letter dated Sept. 21, 2022, we have responded by adjusting the design of the letter “t” so that it does not resemble a Christian cross.”
Religious conversion attempts ended in Georgia
FFRF took action against frequent unconstitutional religious proselytization at Richards Middle School in Suwanee, Ga.
A concerned resident of Gwinnett County contacted FFRF in regard to a teacher abusing their position to attempt to convert students to their personal religion.
“[The teacher] cannot be allowed to lead or participate in any religious clubs in the district, and must immediately cease [their] efforts to convert students,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote in a letter to Superintendent Calvin Watts.
FFRF received a written response from the law offices of Thompson, Sweeny, Kinsinger & Pereira P.C., representing the Gwinnett County Board of Education and Gwinnett County School District. The law offices confirmed that action had been taken, stating, “My client investigated the allegations and took corrective action to ensure compliance with Gwinnett County Board of Education policy, applicable federal statutes, and constitutional principles.”
School Board prayers ended in a W. Va. county
FFRF put a stop to opening prayers at the school district board meetings in Sutton, W. Va.
A concerned district parent informed FFRF that the Braxton County School District had been opening School Board meetings with a prayer led by board members. The report was then confirmed by official meeting agendas from the school board, listing “Opening Prayer” at the beginning of each meeting.
“The Supreme Court has consistently struck down prayers offered at school-sponsored events,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote in a letter to Board of Education President DeAnna Whipkey in April. “It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings.”
After following up with the school district in early December, FFRF received a reply from the new Board President Evelyn Post. Post confirmed that three new members were admitted to the board in July, as well as the inclusion of a new superintendent. Additionally, “[a]fter receipt of your communication last spring, our Board of Education never placed our nondenominational prayer on our meeting agendas.”
Pregame prayer stopped in West Virginia
FFRF intervened after a high school in West Virginia started a high school football game with a prayer.
A concerned parent notified FFRF that a football game at Wayne High School on Oct. 21, 2022, broadcast a prayer over loudspeakers before the game started. The parent brought their child to their first football game, but did not want or expect to expose their child to religious ideology at a school- sponsored event.
“We write to ask that the district immediately cease opening its football games with school-sponsored prayer in order to uphold the rights of its students,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote in a letter to Superintendent Todd Alexander.
Alexander responded to FFRF in a formal email, informing it of a policy review in regard to religious ceremonies. “It is the district’s intent to comply with the policy which is based upon the case law outlined in your letter,” he wrote.
Religious painting altered in California school
FFRF commends the Chico Unified School District in Chico, Calif., for painting over an inappropriate religious text on a mural at a public school.
A concerned parent reported seeing a mural with the words, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” in Pleasant Valley High School. The parent became aware of the mural through their child’s information, as well as through a first-hand account on back-to-school night.
FFRF received a written response through Kingsley Bogard Attorneys, representing Chico Unified School District. The reply stated that, “The district has determined that it is able to remove the reference to a deity from the display without altering the art piece,” as well as confirming that work on the piece would be conducted shortly after the response was sent.
Religious promotion stopped in Kansas school
FFRF stopped a teacher from punishing a student based on private religious beliefs.
On Nov. 9, a student at Lakewood Middle School in Salina, Kan., reportedly said “god damn” in front of their teacher. The teacher responded harshly by demanding the student to come forward. When the student explained that they did not believe in God, the teacher carried out a discussion about religious beliefs, before singling out the student by removing them from class.
“While teachers can, of course, enforce rules related to cursing or inappropriate language, they cannot impose the rules of their personal religion onto students or argue with students regarding their personal religious beliefs,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Salina USD 305 Superintendent Linn M. Exline.
A response from Exline stated that “I can assure you that the parent’s concerns were taken seriously, were investigated, and that the teacher was reminded that she must refrain from engaging in the business of the district in a way that could be construed as an attempt to impose her own personal religious beliefs on her students.”
Additionally, the district took the position that any discussion of religion is to be strictly limited to serving an academic purpose and must be consistent with approved school curriculum.
Guest speaker prayer in Ohio school reprimanded
FFRF was able to ensure that guest speakers will no longer conduct public prayers at an Ohio middle school.
FFRF was informed by a concerned school district member that on Nov. 10, 2022, Wilson Middle School students attended a mandatory assembly in which a guest speaker instructed students and staff to bow their heads in prayer. The incident occurred at two separate assemblies to the 7th and 8th grade students.
“If guest speakers engage in inappropriate conduct at a school event, then school administrators must intervene,” FFRF Anne Nicol Gaylor Legal Fellow Sammi Lawrence wrote in a letter to Superintendent Mike Holbrook.
FFRF received a written response from Bricker and Eckler Attorneys at Law, representing the Hamilton City School District. The letter stated that administration had not pre-approved nor were they aware of the guest speaker’s plan. “In addition, the School District plans to review the events of Nov. 10 with district-wide building administration as part of regularly occurring professional development. This will include conveying administration’s expectation that guest speakers refrain from leading students in prayer at future school- sponsored events.”