FFRF victories (Oct. 2022)
By Matt Langer
Tenn. district to end religious commencement
A concerned employee contacted FFRF regarding the religious nature of a graduation ceremony at Jellico High School in Tennessee. The employee reported that the commencement seemed to be a religious ceremony more than a graduation. In a video recording of the ceremony, the podium is shown emblazoned with a Latin cross. Reportedly, the program included a scheduled scripture reading, and the Christian god was referenced throughout the ceremony by many speakers, including the principal.
“The school district has a duty to remain neutral toward religion,” Legal Fellow Karen Heineman wrote to Campbell County Public Schools Director Jennifer Fields. “Commencements are for celebrating the accomplishments of all students, not for excluding some on the unconstitutional basis of religious belief and suggesting that their accomplishments and futures are actually the result of supernatural intervention, not hard work.”
A response from legal counsel assured FFRF that the issue has been addressed with the director of schools. Attorney Dail R. Cantrell responded, “We will make sure to correct for future graduations.”
Displays removed from clerk’s office in Tenn.
A concerned Rutherford County (Tenn.) resident contacted FFRF regarding religious messaging on display in the county clerk’s office. The resident reported seeing the phrase “He is Risen” displayed on an employee’s glass partition. Additionally, behind the counter, there was a sign displayed on the wall facing customers that read, “The joy of the Lord is my strength.”
“By displaying religious messages in the County Clerk’s office, you send an exclusionary message to non-Christians, including the almost 30 percent of the population who are not religious,” FFRF Legal Fellow Karen Heineman wrote to Rutherford County Clerk Lisa Duke Crowell. “It is inappropriate and needlessly divisive to send a message that alienates a significant portion of your constituency, effectively turning them into political outsiders.”
A response from legal counsel notified FFRF that the issue has been resolved. Attorney Nick C. Christiansen wrote, “Please be advised that the items described in your letter have been removed.”
W. Va. school district to halt bible distribution
The parent of a child in a Wood County School District elementary school in West Virginia reported to FFRF that tables with bibles were set up next to each teacher in every 5th-grade classroom across all of the district’s elementary schools. Another parent alleged that a group of teachers at Jefferson Elementary Center set up a box of Gideon bibles during an assembly involving multiple 5th-grade classes. It was also reported that the group of teachers presented and discussed the bibles prior to offering and distributing them to students. A parent also reported that the school has allowed other religious materials to be distributed, specifically flyers from a local church inviting students and their families to an Easter egg hunt.
“Advancing, preferring and promoting religion is exactly what a school does when it distributes bibles and other religious materials to students during the school day,” FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line wrote to Wood County Schools Superintendent Christie Willis. “The actions of the district are especially egregious, as teachers not only distributed bibles, but discussed and promoted them, as well.”
A response from the district assured FFRF that the issue will be addressed.
“It is apparent upon this investigation reacclimating our administrators and teachers to policies and procedures is imperative,” Willis responded. Willis assured FFRF that the issue will be addressed at a district seminar, stating, “The guidance regarding distribution of bibles will be on the agenda and presented to administrators.”
FFRF halts religious music in Oklahoma class
A concerned parent reported to FFRF that a sixth-grade math teacher at Oakridge Elementary was regularly playing Christian music during the class period while students were working. Reportedly, this teacher also told students that “everyone needs a little Jesus in their life.”
“No public school employee may urge religious points of view on students. Elementary school children are especially susceptible to the coercive influence of religious messaging. When teachers promote their own religious beliefs to their students, they usurp parental authority,” FFRF Legal Fellow Samantha Lawrence wrote to Moore Public Schools’ legal counsel Phyllis L. Walta. “Students feel immense pressure to act like their instructors and peers and do as their teachers tell them. Public school staff and administrators should be aware of these concerns and ensure that all students are made to feel welcome in all classrooms.”
A response from Walta acknowledged the district’s violation and assured FFRF that it will not recur. “The teacher has reported that she did, in fact, let the students listen to a Christian station during class but that it will not continue in the future,” Walta wrote.
Ohio school district ends graduation prayer
A concerned district parent reported to FFRF that a teacher had delivered a Christian prayer during Ottawa (Ohio) Elementary School’s eighth-grade graduation ceremony.
“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 Ottawa-Glandorf Local Schools Superintendent Don Horstman.
A response from the district assured FFRF that the issue will be taken care of.
“I want to let you know that I have informed the Board of Education and our administrative team of your email, and I informed all of them that the district has clear guidance and policies against this type of activity,” Horstman responded. “I can assure you this will not be a part of the program at Ottawa Elementary going forward.”
Tennessee school to end prayer at ceremony
A concerned district parent contacted FFRF regarding prayer at the fifth-grade “promotion ceremony” at Ooltewah Elementary School in Tennessee. Reportedly, the school’s principal introduced a pastor to “lead us in our invocation.” The Christian prayer invoked “the Heavenly Father and God.” The pastor asked that God “be honored here tonight as we honor these graduates.”
“Scheduling prayer at Hamilton County School District graduations is unconstitutional and a violation of school policy,” FFRF Legal Fellow Karen Heineman wrote to the district’s legal counsel D. Scott Bennett. “Please take the necessary steps to ensure that the rights of conscience of all participants and attendees will be respected at future district events.”
A response from Bennett acknowledged the district’s violation and assured FFRF that prayer will not be a part of future ceremonies.
“We have discussed your concerns with the principal, and we have confirmed that someone did offer a prayer,” Bennett responded. “The principal understands that federal law and board policy prohibit these prayers, and she has assured us that this same oversight will not recur.”