FFRF Victories (March 2019)
By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey
Here’s a state-by-state look at the numerous victories FFRF has won recently.
Tuba City Unified School District #15 will no longer allow prayer at its graduation ceremonies.
FFRF was informed that Tuba City Junior High School’s 2018 graduation ceremony included an opening prayer led by a student. FFRF Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell wrote to Superintendent Sharlene Navaho, stating that unconstitutional religious rituals should not be part of graduation ceremonies or any other school-sponsored events.
The superintendent responded to FFRF’s complaint with assurances that “religious prayers will not be permitted at [their] graduation ceremonies.
Rocklin Academy Charter School will move an annual field trip from a Christian camp retreat to a secular location in the future.
A concerned parent reported that Rocklin Academy Gateway takes an annual field trip to Alliance Redwoods Conference Grounds (ARCG), an evangelical retreat. ARCG’s mission is to provide a place “where our guests meet the Creator in his Creation,” according to the camp director in a promotional video.
FFRF Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell wrote to the district, outlining the plethora of the religious entanglements associated with taking students to this camp.
The school has put a plan in place to ensure this year’s trip does not include any religious proselytization, including vetting the curriculum and never allowing camp staff to be alone with students without school chaperones present. Next year’s trip will then be moved to a secular location.
FFRF has ensured that Bibb County School District will no longer include prayer in district-sponsored meetings.
A district employee reported that a mandatory employee meeting at Central High School last August began with a prayer that lasted between three and five minutes and invoked Jesus. The complainant also noted that this is not the first time they had been subjected to prayers at BCSD meetings.
FFRF’s Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to the district’s legal counsel, asking the district to refrain from including prayers in meetings.
FFRF received a response from Chief Legal Counsel Randy Howard, indicating that the district has resolved the issue.
The infamous bible-distributing Gideons will not be allowed back in the Filer School District.
FFRF received a complaint that Gideons International, an organization whose mission is to spread Christian doctrine, was allowed to distribute bibles to students at Filer Intermediate School in November. The school also reportedly made a school-wide announcement over the PA system to promote distribution.
FFRF Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell sent a letter to Superintendent John Graham, alerting him to the situation. Cavell reminded the district of its constitutional obligation to remain neutral on matters of religion and to protect both its students’ and parents’ rights of conscience from religious proselytization on school property.
The superintendent has spoken with the staff at Filer Intermediate School and ensured that they would not allow the Gideons back on school property.
FFRF has extracted a pledge from an Illinois school district to curb creationism-promoting events in its schools.
A concerned district parent contacted FFRF after discovering that a fourth-grade math assignment at Central Grade School in Effingham included unconstitutional overt religious instruction.
The assignment consisted of counting the total number of gifts given in the lyrics of the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Completely superfluous to the task, students were given religious metaphors for each lyric in the song. The assignment stated that “the ‘true love’ of the song refers to God,” “The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ,” etc.
FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne wrote to Effingham CUSD #40 Superintendent Mark Doan, citing the unconstitutionality of the math exercise.
The district responded to FFRF’s complaint on Jan. 28, acknowledging that the religious material was inappropriate and assuring that no similar violation will occur in the future.
A public marquee in Wichita Public Schools will no longer advertise an after-school bible club.
FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to Unified School District No. 259’s general counsel, alerting the school to the unconstitutionality of using a school-owned marquee to advertise religious clubs.
The school has adjusted its policy and, in the future, only official school-sponsored activities will be advertised on the sign.
An employee in Hopkins County Schools reported that this year’s “Superintendent’s Day” was rife with religious proselytizing and prayer. “Superintendent’s Day” is a mandatory gathering for all district staff that is ostensibly for team-building and staff development.
The complainant reported several events that were highly religiously charged, including the reading of a biblical passage and a speech given that was based on the biblical story David and Goliath, among others.
The school’s attorney replied to FFRF’s Robert Ingersoll Legal Fellow Colin McNamara’s letter, assuring FFRF that they will “continue to monitor all of these and other issues to ensure compliance with appropriate federal and state law and local Board policy.”
A Christian adventure comedy called “The Star” will not be shown in Pike County Schools again.
A Valley Elementary School parent reported to FFRF that a third-grade science teacher at the school showed a film called “The Star” in class. The movie apparently follows the biblical account of the birth of Jesus. Christian themes are reportedly also portrayed throughout the movie, including a reliance on prayer for guidance and a desire to do God’s will.
FFRF Legal Fellow Colin McNamara wrote the district, requesting that it “make certain that none of its employees is unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters.”
The district’s attorney responded to the letter by letting FFRF know he had spoken with the school’s principal and advised him to speak to his staff about the issue and to refrain from showing this movie or any like it in the future.
FFRF addressed two separate instances of coach-sponsored prayer in Rowan County Schools, prompting the district to remind district employees of their constitutional obligations.
First, a concerned parent of a Rowan County Senior High School band member contacted FFRF to report that the band was subjected to a group prayer as part of a mandatory practice last October. Then, separately, a parent reported that, last December, Rowan County Schools basketball coaches joined hands with players for an on-court prayer circle.
In both instances, FFRF Legal Fellow Colin McNamara wrote to the district, asking that it cease the practice of allowing adults to proselytize to its students.
The district’s response assures FFRF that “school district central office personnel have met with principals, coaches and other school-level personnel to remind them of their obligation to refrain from any actions which have the appearance of endorsing religion, even if unplanned and unintentional, while at the same time refraining from demonstrating open hostility toward the sincerely held religious beliefs of others.”
FFRF received an exemplary response from a school district in Kentwood after reporting a substitute teacher praying with students in Kentwood Public Schools.
A concerned Southwood Elementary School parent contacted FFRF after a substitute teacher led third-grade students in prayer in the classroom. The complainant reported that after the class recited the Pledge of Allegiance, he told the class “when I was in third grade, we prayed.” He then proceeded to pray aloud, with many of the students joining in.
FFRF Legal Fellow Colin McNamara wrote to Superintendent Michael Zoerhoff, outlining the constitutional issues being violated.
Zoerhoff thanked FFRF for bringing this matter to his attention, and directed the district’s human resources department to investigate the incident. The district notified the substitute’s employer, and has enacted a plan to ensure that this violation will not happen again.
A Columbia Public Schools employee has been reminded of his obligation to refrain from leading or participating in religious clubs at school.
A concerned district community member reported that a teacher and basketball coach at Gentry Middle School had been actively leading a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) club at the school for several years. FCA is a Christian organization whose mission is to “lead every coach and athlete into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ and his church.”
FFRF Legal Fellow Colin McNamara wrote to Superintendent Peter Stiepleman, alerting him to this teacher’s unlawful leadership of the club.
The district investigated the matter and spoke with the teacher. “We reiterated the school districts’ position,” the superintendent’s letter read, “that children may form religious clubs, but that teachers/staff, in their capacity as school employees, may not participate in or lead any type of religious clubs.”
Promotions for a religious Todd Becker Foundation event have been removed from Stapleton Public Schools’ website.
Stapleton Public Schools had been promoting and endorsing a religious worship event being put on by the Todd Becker Foundation at North Platte High School.
FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to the district, asking that it remove the unconstitutional religious promotion immediately. Superintendent Howard Gaffney responded quickly, complying with the request and thanking FFRF for bringing the matter to his attention.
A teacher at Marlington High School has been instructed to refrain from leading Youth 4 Christ, a religious club at the school. While the teacher is listed as the “faculty advisor” for this club, the complainant reported that he also organizes and participates in the club’s events and activities.
FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote a letter to ensure that district staff members do not continue organizing or participating in religious student clubs.
The district sent a response letter informing FFRF that Marlington Local Superintendent Joe Knoll has spoken with the club advisor and shared the constitutional concerns presented by FFRF.
A school district in Ohio will no longer assign students to complete religious Christmas projects, thanks to intervention from FFRF.
A concerned parent in the Hillsdale Local School District in Jeromesville reported that Hillsdale Elementary School required its students to complete a religious craft assignment last December. The project included a specifically religious message, “Jesus is the reason we celebrate the season.”
FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote the district to alert it to the unconstitutionality of such an assignment and ensure that, in the future, students are not required to complete explicitly religious projects.
Hillsdale Superintendent Steven Dickerson said in a response letter that “the matter had been addressed and [he] does’ not anticipate anything like this happening again.”
The Midwest City school district is taking steps to ensure it is in compliance with its constitutional obligation to remain neutral on religion.
A parent in the Mid-Del School District reported that Schwartz Elementary School held a Christmas concert last December that included religious worship music. The complainant reported that students sang “Happy Birthday” to Jesus and about how much they love Jesus.
FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote a letter to Superintendent Rick Cobb, who then responded, saying he is “aware of the incident and [they] are taking steps internally to ensure that the practices of our schools and staff are in alignment with state and federal laws.”
A teacher in the Johnston County School District has removed a religious email signature from his school account.
A parent in the district reported that a teacher at South Jackson High School was sending emails from his school email account with religious messages included in the signature line. An email received by our complainant included the message, “What we are born with is God’s gift to us. What we do with it is our gift to God.”
The principal of the school discussed the issue with the teacher and the email signature has been removed.
FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert sent a letter to the borough administrator of Nazareth after a local resident contacted FFRF to report a cross that was displayed on what the complainant understood to be public property. The display has a silhouette of a soldier kneeling next to a Latin Cross on the base of a cannon.
FFRF received a response from the borough explaining that while the property in question is not actually owned by the borough of Nazareth, the cross was removed as it was placed without permission or approval from the Nazareth Borough Council.
The superintendent of Hamblen County Schools has instructed all teachers and administrators to refrain from unconstitutional religious endorsement after a religious prayer was delivered “in Jesus’ name” during an in-school Veteran’s Day event.
FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line sent a letter, lauding the district for organizing an event to honor veterans, but reminding the district that, in order to honor all veterans and their obligation to the Constitution, they may not include religious prayers in school events.
The superintendent assured in his response to FFRF that the district will “be more vigilant in [its] efforts to prevent activities that are unconstitutional or illegal.”
Religious rituals will not be included in district-sponsored meetings in the Denton Independent School District anymore.
A district employee contacted FFRF to report that the district invited a religious leader from Morse Street Baptist Church to give a Christian prayer at the staff Christmas party at Thomas Rivera Elementary. The complainant reported that this was a district-sponsored event and that the school principal made clear to all employees that they were intended to be in attendance.
Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to ensure that no prayer is scheduled at district-sponsored events.
Superintendent of Schools Jamie Wilson responded to FFRF’s letters with assurances that they would investigate the situation and “in doing so all of our employees will be educated that prayers during mandatory training programs and staff meetings presents the message that school district decisively endorses a particular religious position.”
FFRF scored two victories for state/church separation in Quanah ISD. FFRF received records from the district which confirm that Quanah High School had a practice of scheduling prayers and religious remarks at its graduation ceremonies. Each graduation ceremony for the last three years has included a program identifying the event as a “Baccalaureate and Commencement” event. Each program has included a scheduled “invocation,” “scripture reading,” “baccalaureate address,” and “benediction.”
The complainant further informed FFRF that several district employees display Christian crosses on district property, in areas frequented by students and members of the public, including a cross on the wall of the Quanah High School principal’s office.
Associate Counsel Sam Grover sent a letter to Quanah ISD, alerting it to the unconstitutionality of both.
FFRF received a response from the district, stating that future graduation ceremonies will no longer include religious prayers and practices and the religious iconography has been removed from all district property.
A Texas school district will no longer allow the distribution of bibles in its schools after intervention from FFRF. A concerned parent of a district student reported that Van Middle School allowed a group of outside adults access to the campus to distribute New Testament bibles to each fifth-grade student during the school day.
FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Don Dunn to ensure that this sort of illegal bible distribution does not take place in the future.
Dunn responded to FFRF’s letter with assurances that he has addressed the issue with the campus principal and has been assured that this bible distribution will not recur.
Corrective action has been taken to ensure that a Utah school district will no longer recite prayers at school events.
A concerned citizen reported that North Layton Junior High School in Farmington held a Veterans Day Assembly that included a Christian prayer delivered by the principal.
FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line reminded the district that it is unlawful for any school-sponsored event to include prayer and asked that it ensure any future events do not include religion.
The district’s director of education equity sent a response to FFRF.
“Corrective action has been taken to address the situation with [the principal]. The Davis School District Legal Department has reviewed the State and District Policy: Recognizing Freedoms in Public Schools.”
Utah Valley University has reconsidered a continuing education class assignment that centered around creating a nativity scene.
A local Orem resident reported that Utah Valley University’s continuing education program includes a woodcarving class where students will “complete and paint the beginning of a Nativity set: Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.” Our complainant reported that they considered taking the class but were discouraged from doing so because of the religious theme.
FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line reminded Utah Valley University of its obligation to remain neutral on matters of religion and pointed out the exclusionary nature of such an assignment.
The university’s legal counsel responded to FFRF’s letter. “We’re working to ensure inclusive project offerings specifically in the woodcarving course at issue, and hope that the concerned resident you reference will reconsider the course in the near future.”
FFRF wrote to the school board president in the Tomorrow River School District to urge the school not to lease space in St. James and St. Mary of Mount Carmel Church in Amherst for classes as it was considering doing.
After reviewing records related to the selection of classroom space for Tomorrow River, FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne sent a letter urging the board to select one of the alternative secular classroom spaces.
Board President Mark Kryshak said that, at the time of his response, the board does not support leasing the church space and is looking at other options.