FFRF Victories (November 2022)
By Matt Langer
Texas school district to end invocation
FFRF put a stop to a sectarian prayer in a Texas school district’s in-service training for faculty and staff.
A concerned Frenship Independent School District employee contacted FFRF about the religious invocation. Reportedly, a state legislator also spoke during the in-service training, who claimed that a history teacher in the district must “inform students that their rights come from God, their creator, not the government,” and that “the government serves only to uphold what God put in place.”
“Prayers and religious messages at employee meetings inappropriately alienate district faculty, staff and students who practice a minority religion, as well as those who are part of the almost thirty percent of the American population who are not religious,” FFRF Legal Fellow Samantha Lawrence wrote to Superintendent Michelle McCord. “Their participation in employee meetings is adversely affected by these prayers and religious messages, which turn them into outsiders in their workplace. Additionally, the mandatory nature of in-service training and many other District meetings means that District employees essentially have no choice but to subject themselves to a coercive and offensive religious exercise that violates their right of conscience.”
A response from the district’s legal counsel, David P. Backus, assured FFRF that this violation will not occur in the future.
“Although it was not the superintendent who introduced the invocation, she has reviewed its in-service practice of allowing an invocation during its in-service and determined to cease such activities in the future,” Backus wrote. “The congressman’s remarks were not previously reviewed or approved by the district or its administration. Consequently, the remarks that the congressman made to the teachers were not endorsed in any way by the district.”
FFRF gets chaplain to resign from Texas district
After FFRF contacted a Texas school district over the unconstitutional use of a Christian chaplain as a “mental health interventionist,” the chaplain was placed on leave before resigning.
It was reported to FFRF by multiple members of the Trinity Independent School District that the chaplain had been spreading his personal religious beliefs to students. He reportedly told students who were depressed or suicidal that it was because they do not have a good relationship with God. It was also reported that he told LGBT students that they were going to hell. In addition to these remarks, the chaplain reportedly distributed Christian literature to students that presented the “absolute truth” about issues that young people are confronted with, including “sexual purity,” “evolution,” “abortion,” and “homosexuality.”
“The district cannot employ an official chaplain, and it must make certain that none of its employees are unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters by handing out religious materials or promoting their personal religious beliefs,” FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line wrote to Superintendent John Kaufman. “We ask that the district immediately investigate this situation and ensure that [the chaplain] either fully complies with the Establishment Clause and stops violating the rights of students and their parents, or is removed from his position within the district.”
A response from Kaufman confirmed that the chaplain is no longer employed by the district. “[The chaplain] was placed on administrative leave effective Jan. 14 and remained on administrative leave until his resignation from the district on July 28,” Kaufman wrote.
Ohio school district to end graduation prayers
FFRF was able to put an end to prayers at an Ohio high school graduation ceremony after being alerted to the constitutional violation by a concerned citizen.
During the 2021 graduation ceremony, the principal of Barnesville High School reportedly invited a student to the stage “to lead us in prayer.” The student, who identified himself as the class president, started the Christian prayer with “Let us pray. Dear Lord, thank you for this day.” The prayer ended with “May they always turn to you for direction. We ask this in your name. Amen.”
During the 2022 graduation ceremony, the principal reportedly asked the audience to “please rise” and to “remain standing for the invocation.” He then called up a student “who will lead us in prayer.” The prayer began with “Heavenly Father” and ended with the wish to “Please keep us safe . . . as we continue our destinies. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”
“Requiring nonreligious students and attendees to make a public showing of their nonbelief by not participating in a prayer or else to display deference toward a religious sentiment in which they do not believe is coercive, embarrassing, and intimidating,” FFRF Legal Fellow Karen Heineman wrote to Barnesville Schools Superintendent Angie Hannahs. “Barnesville Schools students and families have the right to a prayer-free celebration . . . The district has a duty to remain neutral toward religion. By scheduling prayers at graduation, the district abridges that duty and alienates non-Christians, including the almost 30 percent of the population who are not religious.”
A response from Hannahs assured FFRF that this issue has been addressed. “I have investigated the matter,” Hannahs wrote. “[T]he Barnesville School District will not schedule prayers at school graduations in the future.”