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

FFRF victories (Nov. 2019)

Vol. 36 No. 09 November 2019

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

California

A religious song will no longer be a part of graduation ceremonies at Delano Joint Union High School.

A community member reported that Cesar E. Chavez High School’s Titan Choir has performed John Rutter’s 1981 composition “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” at commencement for at least the last 10 years. The song is a prayer set to music, FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell pointed out to the district. The lyrics to this song come directly from the biblical “Priestly Blessing” (Numbers 6:24-26), a biblical benediction of sacred importance in Christian worship.

“This piece will not be a part of future graduation ceremonies,” Superintendent Jason Garcia informed FFRF in a response letter. “Additionally, staff members have been instructed not to use this piece, to select other musical works of appropriate solemnity for this portion of the graduation ceremony and to clear the selection in the future with district administration.”

Colorado

A religious display has been removed from Pomona High School in Arvada after FFRF illuminated the issue.

An area resident reported that a school resource officer at the district displayed a crucifix on the wall of his office. The complainant was made aware of this violation after the Denver Post included a photo of the officer with the crucifix in his office this past June.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line sent a letter to the district urging it to ensure the crucifix is removed and that school officials are not impermissibly endorsing their personal religious beliefs to students. According to a response letter from the district’s attorney, the officer has removed the cross from his office.

Colorado

A Harrison Schools District Two parent reported to FFRF that during a back-to-school event, Sand Creek International Elementary in Colorado Springs handed out packets that depicted students who were wearing various Christian symbols, including a fish with the word “Jesus” and several Latin crosses.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district urging it to refrain from handing out materials that include religious messages or iconography, pointing out the district’s constitutional obligation to protect the rights of conscience of impressionable students. The district responded by email informing FFRF that the issue has been rectified and will not occur again.

Florida

A Florida school district has taken action to address unconstitutional prayer at official staff events following a complaint from FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line.

A district employee reported to FFRF that Jill Kolasa, director of student services at Hernando County Schools, regularly led staff members in prayer at official district meetings and functions. She apparently had acknowledged that she doesn’t know what everyone’s beliefs are, but that she nonetheless asked everyone to bow their heads while she and other staff members led a prayer. The complainant reported that they feared they would be discriminated against if they had left during the prayers or reported this violation themselves. The district’s attorney sent a letter of response to FFRF, assuring that the district has taken appropriate action to address these concerns.

Georgia

The Harris County School District in Georgia has addressed protocol for school visitors after FFRF took issue with a religious leader proselytizing to students during school hours. 

A district parent reported that a man called “Pastor Trey” from Cascade Hills Church was regularly visiting lunchrooms in the district, sitting down with students and asking them about where they go to church and inviting them to attend his youth group. The complainant reported that Pastor Trey makes their child very uncomfortable and that they try not to be noticed by him.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to district Superintendent Roger Couch, informing him that the district cannot allow non-school persons to treat schools as a recruiting ground for their religious mission. Couch assures FFRF that “the appropriate protocols for visitors, parents and volunteers are being addressed to maintain a safe and orderly school climate free of carte blanche access to minors in public schools.”

Iowa

A religious sign has been removed from Bettendorf Police Department property following a complaint from FFRF.

A local resident reported that the department was permanently displaying a bible quote —  “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” — Matthew 5:9” — in its patrol briefing room. This religious display was unveiled on the official Bettendorf Police Department Facebook page.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the department, pointing out the constitutional issues with branding its property with this explicitly Christian message, excluding both staff and community members who do not adhere to these religious beliefs. After receiving the letter, Chief Keith T. Kimball responded to FFRF via email with assurances that the wooden sign along with the accompanying social media post had been immediately removed.

Kentucky

A Harrison County Schools principal has removed a bible quote from his email signature following the advice of FFRF.

A Harrison County Middle Schools parent reported to FFRF that the school principal included the bible passage “Fear of the Lord teaches wisdom; humility precedes honor. — Psalm 15:33” in official emails he sent on behalf of Harrison County Schools.

FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote to district Superintendent Harry Burchett, reminding the district of its obligation to ensure that employees do not use their official position to proselytize to students. The school district’s attorney has since assured FFRF the bible quote has been removed from the principal’s signature.

Louisiana

Future Iberville Parish School Board staff programs will no longer include prayer, thanks to FFRF.

A district community member reported that a school-sponsored graduation ceremony was organized to include an opening prayer from the Rev.Clyde McNell Sr., a pastor at the Pilgrim Baptist Church, and a blessing of food from a district employee.

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover reminded the district that scheduling prayers at district events is unconstitutional. Superintendent Arthur Joffrion responded to FFRF’s complaint.

“The Iberville Parish School Board takes its obligations under the First Amendment seriously,” Joffrion wrote. “As a result, we have carefully reviewed the issues raised in your letter. In light of those concerns, we intend to address the permissibility of future program content with the appropriate program staff.”

Missouri

Prayer has been permanently discontinued at a Licking, Mo., district’s staff meetings after FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line pointed out the constitutional issues with such district-sponsored religious messaging.

A district staff member reported that the district held a staff meeting at Licking High School at which one pastor in attendance was asked to stand in front of the school staff and give a Christian prayer. The school superintendent provided the pastor with a microphone and the pastor requested that staff bow their heads before reciting a prayer. Once the prayer was complete, the superintendent spoke to the staff about the role local pastors played in providing vacation bible school for district students to attend.

The district’s attorney sent a response to inform FFRF that the prayer offered at the beginning of the meeting has been “permanently discontinued.”

Ohio

Claymont City Schools in Dennison, Ohio, will implement a new policy regarding student speeches at graduation after attendees were subjected to a Christian prayer at this year’s commencement.

An area resident and former Claymont student reported that each year Claymont High School includes a prayer as an official part of the graduation ceremony. This year, it was titled “Farewell to Seniors Speech,” but was clearly a Christian prayer with blatantly religious content.

The school’s attorneys informed FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line that while this year’s speech was solely initiated and led by the student speaker, with no previous approval from the district, in the future the content of speeches will need to be submitted and approved by district officials.

Tennessee

FFRF has persuaded Cumberland County Schools in Tennessee to hold a district-wide training event regarding the permissibility of religious displays in schools after getting several complaints from community members.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line has written to the district multiple times about religious displays in schools, most recently regarding bible quotes on a classroom wall at Stone Memorial High School. A student reported to FFRF that a teacher has “Fight the good fight of FAITH — 1 Timothy 6:12,” “I press on toward the goal — Phil. 3:14,” and “Pray, because you are not the center of the universe.”

The district’s attorney sent a response informing FFRF that Principal Scott Maddux instructed the teacher to remove the posters that contained the biblical verses from his room. Additionally, the attorney noted plans to have conducted a training on these issues before the start of this school year.

Wisconsin

A teacher in the La Crosse School District has been reminded of the obligation to remain neutral on matters of religion after FFRF objected to his appearance in a Fellowship of Christian Athletes promotional video.

FFRF was made aware that a Central High School employee appeared in an FCA promotional video, introducing himself as a teacher and coach at the school before discussing his “relationship with Jesus Christ” and his intent to start his own FCA club soon.

FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne wrote to District Superintendent Randy W. Nelson, reminding the district that teachers may not lead student religious groups and asked for written assurances that no employees, including this teacher, will be permitted to found or lead religious student organizations in the school district of La Crosse. Nelson sent a gracious response, thanking FFRF for informing him of the teacher’s involvement in the video.

“Please be assured, while none of our secondary schools currently have FCA clubs, we recognize any formation of such clubs would need to be student initiated and voluntary,” Nelson wrote. “We have followed up with this new employee to ensure that he understands he may not organize, direct or conduct such clubs in the district.”