Victories (April 2019)
By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey
Here is a state-by-state look at the numerous victories FFRF has won recently.
Bob Jones High School in Huntsville will update its dress code to remove a discriminatory rule regarding religion in next year’s policy.
A concerned local resident reported that the current student dress code prohibits students from wearing “T-shirts, clothing, or other personal items bearing a reference to alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, drugs, drug-related slogans, death, the occult . . .”
“The occult” is commonly used — often derisively — to refer to certain neo-pagan belief systems (e.g. Wicca), as well as the various forms of Satanism, FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line points out.
“The district cannot permissibly draw a distinction between student religious expression based on which religion they choose to express,” Line wrote to Madison City Schools’ attorney.
The district’s attorney has assured FFRF that the school’s policy has been updated to be consistent with the current systemwide dress code as set out in the school board’s policy and that the discrepancy will be remedied in the handbook for the 2019-20 school year.
The name of a Cobb County Police Department-sponsored public event series has changed from “Faith Forums” to “Community Forums” after pressure from FFRF.
Multiple community members in Marietta, Ga., informed FFRF that CCPD was sponsoring “Faith Forums,” which apparently function as community forums intended to address issues of teen violence and gangs in the community. The goals of the forums include “developing results-oriented relationships with institutions of faith” and to “allow pastors or associate pastors an opportunity to have an open discussion with the [police] chief.” According to local media, nearly 300 local law enforcement representatives “dined with religious leaders” in order to discuss further participation “in one another’s events, such as officers attending church events or smaller gatherings at the house of worship.”
FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne wrote to the police department, pointing out that “while it is laudable for the CCPD to work with the community to prevent teen violence and gang activity, holding a ‘Faith Forum’ that is only open to ‘pastors’ sends an impermissible message of exclusion to nonreligious community members.”
One complainant has now reported that the event’s name has been changed to “Community Forum” on a recent advertisement.
Future events in the Dalton City School District will be relocated from a nearby church after a district parent reported their child was forced to perform at the nearby First Baptist Church of Dalton.
Brookwood Elementary School held a chorus concert at the church, where students performed under a giant Latin cross. FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to the district’s attorney, alerting them to the unconstitutional nature of holding public school events at a religious venue.
The district’s attorney responded to FFRF’s concern, assuring that, whenever possible, future events will be moved to other locations.
A Georgia school district will not continue religiously pressuring its high school football team after FFRF interceded.
FFRF had contacted Toombs County Schools in October after a resident informed it that coaches and an outside pastor were praying with the high school football team and that religious propaganda was being posted on official social media. A video posted on Facebook showed coaches making religious statements and initiating a religious chant with students after the game. In the video, each coach made a statement before reciting the phrase, “God is good,” to which the students responded: “All the time.” Each coach then said, “All the time,” and the students responded: “God is good.” This was repeated a dozen times.
FFRF reminded the school district that such conduct was blatantly breaching the U.S. Constitution.
“The Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools,” FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to Toombs County Schools Superintendent Barry Waller.
FFRF has persuaded the school district to mend its ways.
“It was agreed that staff of the Toombs County School System should not be participating in any form of religious activity with students, on school property, and, likewise, should not be posting any form of religious statements on school-related social media,” the school’s legal counsel recently wrote back.
A parent contacted FFRF to report that an elementary school principal in Alton was forcing a young student to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance. Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne contacted the district superintendent and received assurances that the student would be allowed to sit quietly in the future.
Decatur Public Schools students will no longer be subjected to religious promotion in school after a district parent reported a concerning partnership between E.J. Muffley Elementary School and Calvary Baptist Church. The parent reported numerous instances where, during the school day, Muffley Elementary teachers led students across the street to events at the church, at times facilitating the course of events.
Students were taken to the church and given free shoes and bags with “religious gospel tracts” inside. Another day, students were ushered to a “Trunk or Treat” event in the church parking lot and were given candy out of volunteers’ cars. Finally, the school reportedly held a “Winter Program” inside the church, where students were brought into the main sanctuary of the church where religious iconography lines the walls, including large Latin crosses, a Ten Commandments wall display, a nativity scene, a chalkboard with the message “Jesus thinks you are special” written on it, among other things.
FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne wrote to the school district’s attorney, reminding him that public school teachers “may not use their position to facilitate the church adopting the school as religious recruiting grounds, such as by bringing students to an ostensibly secular event and allowing the church to give students religious literature.”
The school’s attorney responded to FFRF, stating that the students will no longer be allowed to enter the sanctuary as part of a school-sponsored event, and, in any other room, religious iconography will be removed or covered up if the school uses the room.
Fayette County Public Schools has assured FFRF that future constitutional violations will not occur after FFRF Legal Fellow Colin McNamara wrote to the district about multiple issues.
A parent of a Beaumont Middle School student reported that a teacher at the school and the faculty adviser for the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes club had organized two “See You at the Pole” prayer rallies. The teacher reportedly advertised both events over the school’s PA system. Additionally, this teacher reportedly regularly proclaimed her personal Christian beliefs in class, praising students who expressed concordant beliefs and making disparaging remarks about atheists.
McNamara wrote to Fayette County Schools’ attorney, reminding the school of its obligation to remain neutral on matters of religion and ensure that any religious events are truly student-initiated and student-run. Additionally, FFRF’s letter urged the district to ensure its employees are complying with their constitutional duties and “remind district staff that public school classrooms are no place for advertising one’s religious beliefs, nor for criticizing minority religious or nonreligious beliefs.”
The district complied with FFRF’s requests and confirmed in a letter that no such violations will continue.
The Benton County School District has affirmed its commitment to protecting its students’ First Amendment rights, thanks to FFRF.
A local parent reported that teachers at Hickory Flat Attendance Center instructed students to read from the bible and to complete religious assignments as part of “Bring your Bible to School Day.” The school advertised the religious event on its Facebook page and made an additional post the day of the event showing pictures of kindergarten students reading bibles at the instruction of a teacher. Additionally, students were reportedly assigned to complete religious crafts during the day, such as coloring pages depicting bible stories with bible verses printed on them. Separately, the parent reported that teachers have also adopted the practice of leading students in prayer before lunch.
FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to district Superintendent Steve Bostick asking that the district investigate both issues and take steps to prevent employees from promoting their personal religious beliefs to their students.
“While I do believe there was no intent to cause harm or distress, I have placed the utmost importance on the requirement we, as a district, must avoid promoting or appearing to promote any religious preference in a public setting,” Bostick wrote. He further informed FFRF that all staff will be required to attend training and review sessions regarding the separation of church and state, and that the district is reviewing its policies for individual school monitoring at the district level.
A New Hampshire VA hospital has opted for a more inclusive “missing man” table display after FFRF intervened.
A concerned veteran and patient of the Manchester VA Medical Center contacted FFRF to report that the center’s “missing man” table display honoring POW/MIA soldiers included a Christian bible. FFRF took action to ensure that non-Christian service members were being equally honored.
FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to the Medical Center’s Public Affairs Officer, Kristin Pressly, asking that the VA remove the bible from the display in order to eliminate any appearance of religious favoritism.
FFRF’s complainant confirms the bible has been moved from the display.
The Duplin County School District has taken action to address concerns over constitutional violations in its district after FFRF received reports that the Wallace-Rose High School football coach led his team in prayer during team activities.
FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott wrote to Superintendent Austin Obasohan asking that the district take prompt action to stop all school-sponsored prayers occurring within any of its athletic programs.
The district’s attorney has informed FFRF that, “among other things, the district’s principals will be advised of the applicable laws, rules and policies regarding religious activities in public schools at the next principal’s meeting. Principals, in turn, will share this guidance with athletic directors and coaches across the district.”
A Meigs County school has assured FFRF that unconstitutional religious programs will not continue after a complaint that its former coach was promoting religion to players.
FFRF wrote to Meigs Local School Superintendent Scot Gheen after a concerned parent reported that the high school football coach was taking his team to devotionals at a church before every football game and was playing Christian music during football practice.
The parents reported that players felt as though they had to attend these preaching sessions in order to be allowed to play.
FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line urged that the district investigate these investigations and take immediate action to stop all coach-led religious activities occurring within any district athletic programs.
The coach in question has since resigned but the district writes that it will “be sure that future coaches are aware of the board’s policy, practices and expectations related to First Amendment freedoms.”
Loudspeaker prayer will not continue in United Local Schools after FFRF alerted the district to the unconstitutionality of such school-sponsored religious endorsement.
A concerned parent reported that a prayer was broadcast over the loudspeaker prior to a United High School basketball game. The complainant reports that an announcer asked everyone to remain standing following the national anthem, and then a student led everyone in prayer. The parent understandably felt isolated during this prayer as coaches, referees and school officials took part in this religious ceremony.
FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Lance Hostetler, urging the district to “take immediate action to end the practice of scheduling prayer at school-sponsored events and end the use of district equipment to project prayers to the public.”
The district responded to FFRF and committed to investigating the issue and, if it is found to have happened as described, terminating any practice that occurred. The district also pledged to ensuring that staff and faculty “understand that they may not initiate, direct or lead prayer at school-sponsored events.”
Student athletes in Panama City Schools will not be exposed to religious promotion during official school events, following intervention from FFRF.
The Panama High School football team reportedly attended a football “team” camp at Hackett High School in Arkansas. At the camp, the players were subjected to religious “testimony” by evangelist Tyson Simon, an area representative for the Western Arkansas Fellowship of Christian Athletes. According to local news, “Hackett was the destination, Simon was the vehicle, and God was definitely the focus, the message, and the reason.”
FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to remind the district of the unconstitutionality of subjecting students to overt religious proselytization at an official team event and to request that the district “not allow its football program to be used as a captive audience for evangelists.”
The district’s new superintendent noted in a response to FFRF that coaches have been made aware of the situation and assured that such religious promotion will not occur at future team events and that each athletic camp will be pre-approved by an administrator and/or athletic director.
Staff members at Soddy Daisy High School in Hamilton County will be reminded of their obligation to remain neutral on religious matters after FFRF brought a serious violation to the administration’s attention.
A district parent reported that a school staff member has been praying with students as part of high school ROTC events.
At one event, the district employee reportedly told students and parents that they didn’t have to participate if they didn’t want to, then proceeded to lead the students in prayer. At another event, he reportedly prayed with students, including the complainant’s child, before a competition.
FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to the district’s attorney and urged the district to make certain that school programs do not include prayer and that none of its employees is unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters.
The attorney responded, confirming that the employee has been reminded of the First Amendment requirements and has been directed to cease praying with students. Additionally, the principal has committed to sending out correspondence reminding teachers and staff to “remind everyone of the constitutional issues at play.”
A Hardin County officer has removed a cross pin from his uniform after FFRF brought the issue to the attention of the sheriff’s office.
A concerned Hardin County resident reported that a deputy in the sheriff’s office wears a religious pin on his official uniform; a Christian cross stylized with a star and a blue stripe. FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to the sheriff’s office, urging Sheriff Mark Davis to ensure the rights of conscience of all citizens in Harding County are being honored.
“As you are aware, citizens interact with and rely on law enforcement officers during some of the most urgent and vulnerable times of their lives,” Grover wrote. “These citizens should not be made to feel excluded, like political outsiders because the local government they support with their taxes oversteps its authority by prominently displaying a religious symbol on their uniform. Nor should the sheriff’s office turn religious citizens into ‘insiders.’”
Davis replied, informing FFRF that unauthorized pins or patches on officer uniforms are not allowed. The department has addressed the issue with the employee to ensure compliance.
An unconstitutional, teacher-led religious club was disbanded in a Texas district following FFRF’s persistent interference.
A local community member reported that a teacher at C.C. Hardy Elementary School had been organizing, promoting and leading “Kats for Christ,” an explicitly Christian club, at the school.
In addition to multiple staff members being involved in starting and organizing the club, the school’s official Twitter account has been used for its promotion.
FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Tim Harkrider, reminding him that the district must not allow teachers to use public schools to proselytize. “Given that the ‘Kats for Christ’ club was conceived of by district employees and that district employees run the club on campus, the club is far too entangled with the school to be allowed to continue,” Grover noted.
Our complainant has since reported that the club has been disbanded at the school and is no longer meeting.