FFRF Victories (December 2018)
By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey
School board opts for invocation revocation
A school district in California has ceased scheduling invocations before board meetings after receiving a letter of complaint from FFRF.
FFRF Associate Counsel Liz Cavell initially sent a letter to the Ceres Unified School District Board of Trustees last October after a community member reported that the Board of Trustees opens its regular meetings with prayer. The district’s attorney sent a response letter, declaring that the board disagreed with the conclusion of a federal district court in California that the legislative prayer analysis in Marsh v. Chambers and Town of Greece v. Galloway is inapplicable to prayer practices in public school board meetings.
FFRF sent a second letter to the district after FFRF’s Chino Valley victory against school board prayer came down from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court.
“Since the time of your letter, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has joined the 3rd and 6th Circuits in holding that a school board’s prayer practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” Cavell wrote.
FFRF received a response from the district stating that the board has decided to suspend placing an invocation on its agenda for meetings.
Loudspeaker prayers ended in West Virginia
In August, FFRF contacted a West Virginia school district regarding a report that the high school in Logan County was broadcasting a Christian prayer over the loudspeaker prior to a football game.
“The prayers at district football games are inappropriate and unconstitutional,” FFRF Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote in his letter. “Not only is the district endorsing these prayers by allotting time for them at the start of games, but it is also providing the prayer-giver with the public address system needed to impose these prayers on all students and community members at the games.”
FFRF received notice that loudspeaker prayers have ceased at the football games. Later, subsequent violations were reported in the district and FFRF is pursuing these issues.
Wisconsin VA distances itself from religion
After getting a letter from FFRF, the Milwaukee VA Medical Center will take measures to ensure that no future events appear to be entangled with religious sponsorship.
A Milwaukee resident contacted FFRF to report that the Medical Center co-sponsored and advertised a “Bike Blessing” event in June. Posters advertising the event indicated that it was co-sponsored by the VA Chaplain Service and included the VA seal at the bottom, along with text that said, “U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs / Veterans Health Administration / Milwaukee VA Medical Center.”
“Setting aside the VA chaplaincy itself, any Medical Center promotion or organization of a religious event poses serious constitutional concerns,” FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote in his Sept. 5 letter to the medical center. “Advertising this event and including the VA seal on those advertisements sends the message that the VA endorses the blessing ceremony’s religious message.”
FFRF received a response from the VA stating that, in the future, “there will be no marketing that would imply VA sponsorship of the event, and [it] will additionally ensure that marketing materials clearly state that any religious aspects of the event are not sponsored by the VA.”
Texas district addresses numerous violations
A Texas school district has addressed multiple state/church violations after hearing from FFRF.
A community member contacted FFRF to report that employees of Whitney Middle School in Plano have promoted multiple religious events to students this year. Teachers reportedly used the school’s public address system to remind students about “Bring Your Bible to School Day.” Other events promoted by the school include a Christian revival event called “Fields of Faith” and the Christian-oriented prayer rally “See You at the Pole.” School employees also apparently have participated in these events alongside students. All of these events appeared to have been promoted, in part, at the request of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), which is a private club operating at the school.
“We write to ensure that the district does not allow its employees to organize, promote or participate in future religious events while acting on behalf of the district,” wrote FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover in his Oct. 30 letter to the legal firm representing the district. “Additionally, the district must take steps to disassociate itself from the FCA and ensure that its employees are not promoting their personal religious beliefs to students.”
The district’s attorneys replied, assuring FFRF that all of the complaints had been addressed by the schools. The superintendent passed on the message that both “Bring Your Bible to School Day” and “See You at the Pole” events are not to be officially promoted or endorsed by the school. Additionally, the FCA webpage was taken off the school website.
VA Medical Center in Florida removes cross
Thanks to FFRF, a cross was removed from the lobby of a Florida VA Medical Center.
A volunteer at the medical center reported that a large cross display was put up in October at the Malcolm Randall VA Medical Center in Gainesville. The display also featured a religious prayer.
FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert sent a letter to the center, alerting it to the unconstitutionality of such a display and also pointing out that the display is exclusionary of non-religious service members.
“Veterans are frequently compelled to come to the center to receive medical care and other services,” Markert wrote. “The over 23 percent of military personnel who either express no religious preference or are atheists should not be made to feel offended, excluded, and like ‘outsiders, not full members of the political community’ because the center, a government facility, contains prominently placed religious statements.”
FFRF received a call from the center that the display has been removed from the lobby.
Cereal killer: City ends ties to prayer breakfast
The city of Noblesville, Ind., has separated itself from a prayer breakfast after FFRF pointed out the unconstitutionality of a city-sponsored religious event.
A concerned Noblesville citizen contacted FFRF to report that Mayor John Ditslear had, in his official capacity, sponsored, promoted and participated in a prayer breakfast. The self-described “prayer and worship service” included the community’s “men and women of faith glorifying God and asking his blessing on our community, schools, families, public services and churches.”
Judge Steven R. Nation was the keynote speaker and shared “how faith has guided his life.”
The mayor’s official Twitter account was reportedly used, in addition to the city’s website, to promote this religious event.
FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne sent a letter to the mayor asking that the city cease promotion and coordination of this prayer breakfast.
FFRF received a response email from the Mayor’s Office stating that the city has “taken steps that will take the city out of the prayer breakfast. The 2019 prayer breakfast will be hosted by a local nonprofit who will manage the entire event. City funds have not been used for this event.”
Texas coach counseled after FFRF intervenes
After intervention from FFRF, a tennis coach at a Texas high school has been instructed to cease pressuring students to participate in religious activities.
A local parent contacted FFRF after a tennis coach at Friendswood High School reportedly encouraged students to attend a prayer breakfast in September. As FFRF understands, the coach told his players that while he couldn’t “force them to attend,” he would be “checking to see who attended” and that he wanted the whole team there “in solidarity.”
At least one student reportedly felt pressured to attend the prayer breakfast because the student feared punishment if he/she were to forego the event. FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover sent a letter to the district’s legal representative to assure that coaches are not pressuring students to attend or participate in religious events.
“Athletic coaches are entrusted with a tremendous amount of power and influence over their players,” Grover wrote in his Oct. 29 letter. “Using this influence to encourage players to attend religious events is unacceptable and unconstitutional in the public school context. It appears that [the coach] coerced the students in his care to participate in the prayer breakfast.”
The legal firm representing the school sent a response to FFRF, stating that the coach has been “counseled on this matter and now full recognizes that he cannot encourage student attendance to religious events.” Additionally, before the upcoming spring prayer breakfast, coaches will again be reminded they may not in any way encourage or endorse participation in the breakfast.
Averse to the verse: School removes quote
A bible verse was removed from a Veterans Day tribute wall in a Missouri public school after the school received an FFRF complaint.
When a local resident contacted FFRF concerned that Seymour R-II School District was displaying a bible verse as part of a Veterans Day display, FFRF Robert Ingersoll Legal Fellow Colin McNamara sent a letter asking that the bible verse be removed from the display.
“This religious display is especially inappropriate given that about 38 percent of Americans born after 1987 are not religious,” McNamara writes. “The display alienates those nonreligious students, families, teachers and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted by the school.”
The district superintendent quickly responded to FFRF with assurances that the bible quote was promptly removed.
Texas school grows a spine, ends book deal
A Texas elementary school has severed a partnership with a religious group after hearing from FFRF.
A concerned district community member reported that several teachers at Bridge City Elementary School had partnered with a religious group and allowed them to minister directly to students through donated books. In one class, students received a book, sent to them by their “prayer partner,” that contained personalized, proselytizing notes. Additionally, Bridge City Elementary publicly thanked these “prayer partners” on its official Facebook page.
“Providing students with age-appropriate reading materials is of great benefit to many families, but Bridge City Elementary cannot pursue that goal through a partnership that advances the mission of a religious organization,” wrote FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover. “The district may only accept donations that are free from the condition that the school promote a religious message.”
The district’s legal representation responded to FFRF’s letter of complaint, stating that the administration was unaware the books contained personal religious messages.
“Appropriate disciplinary action was taken as well as discussion of district policy and practice of non-affiliation with religious organizations,” the firm wrote to FFRF. “The district expects that this will resolve the issue but will ensure compliance by staff.”
Religious promotion ends at Georgia school
Religious promotion in a Georgia school will cease, thanks to a letter from FFRF.
A local resident alerted FFRF to the fact that Providence Elementary School in Gainesville, Ga., was promoting on the school’s official Facebook page a church service and a “prayer walk” hosted by the church.
FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to the district to ensure it remove such social media posts and refrains from promoting any future religious events.
“It is illegal and inappropriate for Carroll County Schools, and Providence Elementary School in particular, to create an event on Facebook for a worship service and an accompanying prayer event,” Line wrote in his letter to the district’s legal representation. “To do so shows that the district is ‘appear[ing] to take a position on questions of religious belief.’”
The district’s attorney responded with assurances that the posts have been removed from the school’s official Facebook page and the administration has reviewed with their staff the obligation to avoid any appearance of public school endorsement of or participation in religious events.
Colorado school backs out of ministry event
FFRF commends a Colorado school district for cancelling its attendance at a sermonizing session that an evangelical group is a key part of.
The Todd Becker Foundation, a Christian ministry, was scheduled to appear at a Burlington Middle School assembly on Nov. 28. FFRF sent letters to the Burlington School District and several area school districts that were scheduled to attend the event, warning them that it will involve members of the Todd Becker Foundation reading from the bible and praying with students, which is in violation of the Establishment Clause. The school systems that were slated to be present at the event included Cheyenne County School District, Hi-Plains School District, Kit Carson School District and the Arriba-Flagler School District.
However, the Cheyenne County School District, after hearing from FFRF, did not send its students to this religious assembly.
The Todd Becker Foundation travels throughout the Midwest and the Rocky Mountain states putting on assemblies in public schools with the explicit purpose of converting students to its brand of evangelical Christianity. Oftentimes, it infiltrates public schools under the guise of offering a secular presentation, despite its purpose being laid out in no uncertain terms on its website.
Ohio district stops loudspeaker prayers
FFRF has brought an end to school-sponsored prayer over the loudspeaker prior to sporting events in an Ohio school district.
After a local resident reported that Green High School in Franklin Furnace was broadcasting a prayer over the public address speaker before its football games, FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line sent a letter alerting Green Local School District to the unconstitutionality of such a practice.
An attorney representing the district sent a response informing FFRF that the district will no longer schedule school-sponsored prayers to occur at events sponsored by the district and that district-owned equipment will no longer be used to project prayers to the public at events sponsored by Green Local School District.