FFRF Victories (June/July 2018)
By Molly Hanson
Kentucky school ends graduation prayer
A concerned parent of a student at Crofton Elementary School in Hopkinsville, Ky., contacted FFRF to report that the school’s sixth-grade graduation on May 23 began with a Christian prayer delivered by a local minister.
FFRF Robert G. Ingersoll Legal Fellow Colin McNamara wrote to a legal representative of Christian County Public Schools on May 24, requesting assurance that the district will not schedule prayer as part of any school events in the future.
Christian County Public Schools responded on June 4, informing FFRF that the district superintendent has counseled the principal at Crofton Elementary School on keeping religion out of public school-sponsored events.
Tennessee school stops state-church violations
FFRF has put an end to multiple state-church violations within a Tennessee school district after receiving a couple of complaints regarding religious promotions.
A Stone Memorial High School student reported to FFRF that the school — part of the Cumberland County School District in Crossville, Tenn. — was displaying overt religious symbols and messages in its library. One display was a picture with a Latin cross, two bible verses and the word “faith” in all capital letters.
Additionally, a faculty member of the district reported to FFRF that in April, Director of Schools Janet Graham sponsored a luncheon that included school administration-led prayer with students, administrators and community members. FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to the school district on May 16 asking that it remove its religious endorsements and take steps to ensure that future district-sponsored events do not include prayer.
On May 29, FFRF was informed by the district that the religious displays have been removed from the library and that future events will include a moment of silence rather than prayer.
New Mexico schools commit to neutrality
FFRF has educated a New Mexico school district on its constitutional obligation to keep religion out of its public schools.
It was brought to FFRF’s attention that the 2018 Shiprock High School graduation ceremony began and ended with scheduled religious prayers. Students delivered the invocation and delivered the closing benediction. FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to Central Consolidated School District on May 22, informing the district that the Supreme Court has struck down prayers at school-sponsored events.
Acting Superintendent Terri Benn responded to FFRF on June 4, writing that the district would be committed to a policy of religious neutrality going forward.
Colorado council allows nonreligious prayers
FFRF has ensured that a Colorado city council will not discriminate against nonbelievers in its council meetings.
FFRF was informed that the Monte Vista City Council decided at a council meeting earlier this spring that it would begin opening its meetings with prayer. Comments made at the meeting by council members and local residents suggested that the council was intending for the prayers to be exclusively religious, prompting FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line to send a letter to Monte Vista Mayor Dale Becker.
In a letter received by FFRF on May 31, the city reported that, while it would be going ahead with its plan to open meetings with invocations, it acknowledged that it may not discriminate in who gives the invocation.
Virginia district stops mandated staff prayer
FFRF has helped end mandatory staff meeting prayers within a school district in Luray, Va.
An employee of Page County Public Schools informed FFRF that Superintendent Donna Whitley-Smith was including prayers during meetings that involved school administrators. During those meetings, meals were served and Whitley-Smith was calling upon the director of human resources to lead employees in saying grace.
FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott wrote to the district on May 11 informing it that, as a government entity, the district has a constitutional obligation not to promote religion.
The district responded on May 23 notifying FFRF that it had ended the prayer practice.
Ohio school district to censor endorsements
It was reported to FFRF that last August, New Philadelphia City Schools in Ohio organized a prayer event and promoted it on its official Facebook page. FFRF wrote on May 30 to ensure the district does not organize or promote religious events.
FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line pointed out that the promotion of religious events alienates those whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being endorsed by the school.
An attorney representing New Philadelphia City Schools responded on June 1, informing FFRF that the district had not organized the event — which was organized by local churches — and had not approved the social media post. The district has provided training to its staff regarding proper use of social media, including issues related to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The post promoting religion has been removed from the district’s Facebook account and, since the incident, the district informed FFRF that it has been monitoring social media activity more closely.
Indiana school ends religious art projects
FFRF has ensured that all lessons being taught at an Indiana elementary school will be free of religious ideology.
Earlier this spring, FFRF sent a letter to the School City of Mishawaka district after a concerned parent contacted the state-church watchdog to report that a first-grade teacher at Liberty Elementary School assigned an art project to students focused on the biblical nativity story. The teacher reportedly taught her class that Christmas was Jesus’ birthday and read a book about it to the class.
“As you are certainly aware, public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion,” wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne to Superintendent A. Dean Speicher.
The district recently assured FFRF that the teacher had been reminded of her obligations to remain neutral in matters regarding religion in her role as a public school teacher and that the promotion of Christianity would not recur.