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FFRF earns several constitutional wins in Ohio

A nativity scene located on city property in Dover, Ohio, will be relocated in future years.

By Molly Hanson

FFRF Legal Fellow Christopher Line, who handles legal cases in Ohio, has had much success recently in getting schools to stop violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.   

Line has gotten three school districts and one city to end their constitutional violations. Below is a recap of those Ohio victories.

Group washed away

FFRF initially wrote in early March to Indian Creek School District about a March 19 event at Hills Elementary School in Wintersville, Ohio, where representatives from Samaritan’s Feet were scheduled to give shoes and socks to students and then wash the students’ feet.

The washing of feet is a ritual steeped in religious significance, FFRF pointed out. The act is modeled after John 13:1–17 in the New Testament, in which Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and instructs them to wash each other’s feet. Samaritan’s Feet is a Christian missionary organization.

If the district allowed these outside adults to have this “spiritual” interaction with students, then Samaritan’s Feet would have essentially bought access, at a school-sponsored event, to proselytize the children in the district’s care, FFRF underlined.

“It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion,” Line wrote to Superintendent T.C. Chappelear. “In Lee, the Supreme Court extended the prohibition of school-sponsored religious activities beyond the classroom to all school functions, holding prayers at public high school graduations an impermissible establishment of religion. Even if this shoe giveaway takes place outside the normal school day, it still violates the Constitution as a school-sponsored religious activity.”

The district cancelled the event as a result of FFRF’s reasoning.

Evangelism ends

The Indian Creek School District also will not be imposing religion on its students after FFRF received a report on a serious First Amendment violation.

It was brought to FFRF’s attention that Indian Creek Middle School had been allowing a local pastor onto its campus during the school day to proselytize to students. The pastor and president of the Valley Youth Network, which says it seeks “to reach out to area students with the gospel of Jesus Christ,” was proselytizing to students every Friday during lunch. Line wrote to the district on March 9, informing it that it is unconstitutional to offer religious leaders access to befriend and proselytize to students on school property during the school day.

The district responded on March 16, telling FFRF that the district would ensure that the pastor would not lead or attend student group activities or proselytize to students.

Prayer exterminated

FFRF has also ended unconstitutional prayers in the Sidney, Ohio, school district.

After receiving multiple complaints that Sidney City Schools was regularly scheduling and promoting prayer at school-sponsored events and activities, FFRF took action to end the violations.

It was reported that the district’s football coach had been leading his team in prayer for the past decade, and that there is scheduled prayer at graduation and other school events. The local newspaper reported that in March, Sidney City Schools invited a religious leader from Sidney First Methodist Church to lead students in prayer at two school assemblies. Line wrote to the district on March 21 informing it that such conduct is unlawful.

The district responded that day in an email assuring FFRF that future assemblies will not include prayer.

No more coach prayers

An Ohio high school basketball coach will no longer be leading his team in pre-game prayers thanks to FFRF.

It was brought to FFRF’s attention that Unioto High School basketball coach Matt Hoops was leading his team in prayer before games. An article in a local paper detailed how Hoops prayed with his team before a game early in March. Hoops reportedly began the prayer with “Dear Lord,” and closed it in “Jesus’ name.”

Line wrote to Union-Scioto Local School District on March 20 informing the district that it is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer.

On March 22, a legal representative of the district responded assuring FFRF that the superintendent contacted Hoops and reminded him of the district’s policy prohibiting coach-led prayers.

Structures removed

A concerned area resident reported to FFRF that each year during the holiday season, the city of Dover, Ohio, was displaying a nativity scene along with a large Latin cross on city property.

FFRF was also informed that there is a Ten Commandments monument that is located on city property near a local church.

“It is unlawful for the city of Dover to maintain, erect or host a holiday display that consists solely of a nativity scene, thus singling out, showing preference for and endorsing one religion,” wrote Line in a letter to the mayor on Jan. 26. “The Supreme Court has ruled it is impermissible to place a nativity scene as the sole focus of a display on government property.”

Line also requested that the Ten Commandments display be moved to private or church grounds.

The city responded on April 3 informing FFRF that Dover will not display the cross as part of its seasonal display and will have the Ten Commandments monument moved from city property.