Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

FFRF victories (August 2019)

Vol. 36 No. 06 August 2019

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

California

A California school district has taken steps to ensure scheduled prayer does not persist at school athletic events following intervention from FFRF.

A concerned San Ramon Valley Unified School District parent reported that the two most recent California High men’s lacrosse banquets opened with a prayer led by a parent. The school’s principal and athletic director were reportedly first notified about this issue via email after the spring 2018 men’s lacrosse banquet, and the current athletic director indicated that the issue would be addressed prior to this year’s banquet. Despite this assurance, a prayer was again led by a parent at the 2019 banquet, and the banquet program specifically listed a “blessing” as part of the event.

FFRF Associate Counsel Liz Cavell wrote to Superintendent Rick Schmitt, alerting him to the unconstitutionality of such school-sponsored prayer.

Schmitt responded to FFRF’s letter with a detailed account of the actions the district has taken to keep this prayer from continuing in the future, including explaining the legal guidelines surrounding school prayer to the athletic directors and coaches in the district.

“Please rest assured we have taken steps to ensure this does not take place again, not only at California High School, but across the district,” Schmitt wrote.

Colorado

Loudspeaker prayers at sporting events have been interrupted in Colorado by a letter of complaint from FFRF.

A concerned resident reported that a Colorado High School Activities Association baseball game between Monarch High School and Regis Jesuit High School, as part of the Colorado High School Baseball Tournament on May 18, began with an adult leading attendees in prayer over the loudspeaker.

FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to Colorado High School Activities Association Commissioner Rhonda Blandford-Green, reminding the association that it may not include loudspeaker prayer as part of events, as it constitutes an illegal government endorsement of religion.

Blandford-Green agreed that this inclusion of prayer was inappropriate and should not have happened. She assured FFRF that she will reiterate to the athletic directors that they may not go off-script and include religious endorsements in loudspeaker announcements.

Georgia

A Cedartown High School coach and an official team chaplain will cease leading prayers with the football team following a letter of complaint from FFRF. 

In March, Cedartown High School football coach Doyle Kelley delivered an alarming sermon at the Georgia Statehouse, where he discussed how people who do not adhere to his particular brand of religion would be tortured in hell for eternity. Given that Kelley abused his position as “chaplain of the day” to promote his personal religion, FFRF submitted an open records request to find out if he was similarly abusing his position at Cedartown High School. The records confirmed FFRF’s concerns, indicating that Cedartown High School has an official team chaplain, the Rev. Wayne Benefield, who prays with the team.

FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to district Superintendent Laurie Atkins: “We further request that all coaches be reminded that they may not promote religion while acting in their official capacity, nor enlist an outside adult to do the same.”

The district has taken action to inform the coach and the school principal that the chaplaincy program is to “cease immediately.” Additionally, Atkins has ensured that “district and school personnel have a clear understanding that no staff member, nor non-school-affiliated adult, is allowed to promote or endorse religion to students.”

Idaho

Supervisors and principals in the Post Falls School District have been reminded by FFRF that religious groups are not permitted to advertise on school property.

A concerned parent informed FFRF that Real Life Ministries, a local church group, came to River City Middle School’s eighth-grade “End-of-Year Celebration” and supplied field games for students to play. The parent informed us that each game station had a banner on display advertising the church’s logo and times when its middle school youth group meets. Per Real Life Middle School’s Facebook page, it maintains a “close relationship with the school and its administration.” Real Life also hosted end-of-year celebrations at Post Falls Middle School and Timberlake Junior High.

In a letter to Superintendent Jerry Keane, FFRF Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell reminded the district it cannot allow its schools to be used as recruiting grounds for churches.

Keane responded to FFRF’s letter with assurances that the district “advised the principal of River City Middle School that religious groups are not allowed to advertise on any campus or recruit students in any way.” Additionally, Keane will “reiterate this information with all of [the district’s] principals and supervisors.”

Illinois

A city-sponsored basketball league in Charleston has been opened up to all men regardless of their religious affiliation, after FFRF complained about its exclusionary religious requirement.

A local resident reported that the city of Charleston was offering a men’s church basketball league. The posting on the city website about the league stated that the league was only open to men who were affiliated with a religious congregation or church. A stated purpose of this league was to promote “fellowship,” a term often associated with religious activity. Because of this religious requirement, our complainant felt isolated and excluded from the league.

In a letter to City Attorney Rachael Cunningham, FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne pointed out the exclusionary nature of the league.

Cunningham responded to FFRF’s letter of complaint with positive news that the basketball league “will be offered to all members of the community and not exclusively members of congregations or religious citizens.” Additionally, the league has been renamed the “Men’s Slow Break League Basketball.”

Michigan

After receiving a complaint letter from FFRF, a Michigan public school coach has pledged to cease including prayer at official school events.

An Okemos Public Schools parent reported that a cheerleader awards banquet sponsored by the district began with a student delivering a prayer after being introduced by the coach. FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to the district urging it to discontinue scheduling prayer at official district programs.

Okemos Public Schools Superintendent John Hood responded to FFRF’s letter of complaint with assurances that the situation had been investigated. “The athletic director spoke with the cheer coach, who was not aware of the impact of these actions,” Hood wrote. “The cheer coach stated that she would discontinue the practice. I fully anticipate that the complained-of situation has been addressed.”

Missouri

A Missouri community college has reaffirmed its responsibility to uphold First Amendment rights after FFRF intervened.

A concerned Metropolitan Community College of Kansas City employee reported to FFRF that Chancellor Kimberly Beatty’s inauguration ceremony, held on Aug. 24, was rife with preaching and prayer. Attendance at this event was apparently mandatory for all staff. The complainant reported that several speeches were highly religiously charged, including two long sermons delivered by Southern Baptist preachers. One of these preachers reportedly instructed the audience to join in prayer. Additionally, Betty also reportedly stated that she’d been selected as chancellor by “divine providence.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Colin McNamara wrote to the college’s legal representation detailing the liability associated with injecting staff events with religion.

Metropolitan Community College Chief Legal Officer Sandra Garcia responded with assurances that the “office is working with institutional leadership to assure that future events include prayer only to the limited extent that such prayer is constitutionally permissible.”

Oklahoma

Both the Claremore Police Department and Claremore Fire Department will no longer use official time and resources to fundraise for the Salvation Army after FFRF pointed out the unconstitutionality of such practices.

A local Claremore resident informed FFRF that multiple police officers rang bells for the Salvation Army during the 2018 holiday season. The Claremore Police Department reportedly competed with the Rogers County Sheriff’s Office and the Claremore Fire Department to fundraise for the religious ministry.

FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne wrote to Chief of Police Stan Brown and Fire Chief Sean Douglas to inform them of the explicitly religious nature of the Salvation Army. “The Salvation Army is not merely a charity or chain of thrift stores — it is a church denomination with an evangelical mission,” Jayne wrote.

Claremore City Attorney Bryan Drummond responded to FFRF’s complaints with assurances that the fundraising will not continue.

“I have spoken with the fire chief and police chief and informed them that no fundraising activities can take place during duty time or in an official uniform,” Drummond wrote. “I have also informed them that if individual members of either department or their unions want to do fundraising activities for the Salvation Army, it must be done on non-duty time and not in their official uniforms. Both chiefs have assured me that they will ensure this does not happen again.”

Oklahoma

A religious message has been removed from the Webbers Falls Public Schools Facebook page and website after intervention from FFRF.

Multiple area residents reported that district Superintendent Dixie Swearingen posted a religious message on the district’s social media in response to catastrophic flood damage in the area.

“Personally, this I know, God will be glorified! He takes devastation and turns it into not just restoration but glorification. He takes the broken and makes all things new,” Swearingen wrote. “He is the creator and the deliverer. I trust in Him!” The message continued for two more paragraphs.

FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to the district expressing our sympathy for the devastation facing the district and the greater Webbers Falls community, but pointing out that using an official district social media page to spread a religious message is both divisive and unconstitutional.

“The letter has been removed from the school website and Facebook page,” Swearingen responded. “Thank you for your concern for the children of Webbers Falls. I will ensure that no other posts of this nature are on any of our social media.”