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

FFRF victories (June/July 2020)

Vol. 37 No. 05 June/July 2020
In Virginia, God’s Pit Crew members show off the “emergency blessing buckets” filled with items for use during a lockdown or school shooting.                                                         

Louisiana

St. Mary’s Parish Sheriff’s Department has removed a religious post from its official Facebook page.

A Franklin, La. resident informed FFRF that St. Mary’s Parish Sheriff’s Office posted a “special Easter message from Sheriff Blaise Smith,” including a video over 2 minutes in length that largely amounted to a sermon by a government official. In this video, Smith stated:

“Jesus Christ has risen. Hallelujah. That’s what we need to be thinking about. The one thing we need to be thinking about is that we’re in a relationship with God . . . What a better time to come to the Father than today on Easter Sunday?” Below the video, the post stated that the sheriff’s office “prays that you will find hope and comfort in these words.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Smith requesting that the sheriff’s office refrain from posting messages and videos that proselytize or endorse religion.

Smith has informed FFRF via email that the post has been removed and no such messages will be posted in the future.

Minnesota

A video featuring a Fergus Falls Public Schools teacher at a religious service has been removed from the district’s online learning platform.

A district parent reported that after a student posted a video of the teacher leading a religious worship at a church service, he encouraged students via the online learning platform to watch the video and to share the video with their friends outside of the class.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Jeff Drake, reminding the district of its duty to “ensure that ‘subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion’ or use their positions of authority to promote a particular religious viewpoint.”

A response from Drake explained that the video has been removed and, while it was originally posted by a student, the teacher involved understands the content should not have been allowed to remain viewable on the district’s online learning portal.

Montana

A preaching Townsend School District #1 teacher has been reined in after routinely proselytizing to her elementary school students. 

A district parent reported that a music teacher at Townsend Elementary School had been initiating conversations with her second-grade students about God by asking them to each name “one good thing about God” and used those answers as a launching pad for larger discussions about God and her religion, including discussions about bad people burning in hell. Many of these discussions apparently happened during practices for school concerts.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Superintendent Erik Wilkerson, urging the district to make certain that none of its employees are unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters by leading impressionable elementary students in discussions about God and religion.

Wilkerson responded via email with assurances that the situation was addressed with the teacher and that the district takes the letter and the separation of state and church seriously.

Oklahoma

Juveniles who appear before the Grove Municipal Court will no longer be coerced into praying and memorizing bible quotes by Judge Richard James.

A local resident who was recently in James’ courtroom informed FFRF that during a regular session of his court, James hosted a panel of religious leaders in the courtroom. He reportedly had a table set up at the front of the room with several Christian chaplains seated at it. After entering the courtroom, James introduced each chaplain by name and said they were there so people could live correctly based on “what the Lord says.” He told those present that “we use them instead of fines, if the offenders choose them.”

The complainant reported that as juvenile offenders came before James, he would conduct a normal judicial hearing that he concluded by giving them a choice: pay civil fines and do community service or learn chapters from the bible and the Ten Commandments. If the juvenile offender chose the latter, James directed them to the panel of Christian chaplains who gave them religious materials for memorization.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line filed an ethics complaint on James, pointing out that coercing juvenile offenders to support or participate in any religious exercise is a serious violation of their civil liberties.

“Giving juvenile offenders the option to study the bible and Ten Commandments rather than civil fines or community service appears to any reasonable observer an endorsement of Christianity,” Line wrote. “This is exactly the type of government endorsement of, and entanglement with, religion that is prohibited by our Constitution.”

The Oklahoma Council on Judicial Complaints informed FFRF in a letter of response that, going forward, “any option for offenders to select memorization over another form of punishment will exclusively feature secular texts for such memorization.”

. . .

Guthrie Public Schools officials have taken measures to ensure school-sponsored prayer will not continue in its schools.

A district parent alerted FFRF that an official Guthrie Junior High event opened with a prayer that was scheduled as part of the event and appeared on the program.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district’s attorney and asked that the district make certain scheduled prayer is not a part of future events.

The district’s attorney informed FFRF in a letter of response that “this matter has been addressed by the highest levels of district administration and that the district will redouble its efforts not to allow prayers to be a scheduled part of any school-sponsored event. Further, the superintendent will address this issue with administrative personnel at an upcoming administrative staff meeting.”

Oregon

No future Gresham-Barlow School District student performances will take place in the churches.

A concerned district parent reported that the Deep Creek Damascus Middle School choir once again performed at a church that contained graphic religious iconography and required parents to pay the venue in order to see their children perform.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Superintendent A. Katrise Perera, informing the district that the use of churches for public school programming is inappropriate and unconstitutional. A school’s use of a church for school functions is problematic, FFRF points out, because it sends a message of approval of the church to impressionable students.

Executive Director of K-12 Education John Koch informed FFRF that no future performances will take place in churches.

Texas

A religious display has been removed from Montgomery Independent School District property.

A district community member informed FFRF that the receptionist at Montgomery High School had a Christian cross and a sign reading “pray, trust, wait.” on display in the school’s front office, a space frequented by students and community members.

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Beau Rees, requesting that the district make certain employees are not impermissibly endorsing their personal religious beliefs through religious displays on district property.

Rees informed FFRF in a letter of response that the display has been removed.

. . .

Public funds will no longer be spent on erecting religious displays in Val Verde County, Texas.

A local resident informed FFRF that the Val Verde County Commissioners Court approved allocation of $4,000 of county money to purchase rebar in order to build crosses to be placed over approximately 200 unmarked graves in Val Verde County.

Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the court, urging it to refrain from using taxpayer money to purchase materials to put up crosses, and instead choose a more inclusive method of memorializing unmarked graves.

Judge Lewis Owens responded via email to inform FFRF that public money will not be spent on building these crosses.

Virginia

In Virginia, bibles have been removed from “emergency blessing buckets” in Danville Public Schools.

A Danville community member reported to FFRF that the district had partnered with God’s Pit Crew, a Christian organization, to stock its classrooms with “blessing buckets.” Each “blessing bucket” is filled with various emergency supplies and each bucket contains a bible.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Stanley Jones, urging the district to cease allowing its schools to be used for recruiting grounds for churches or as a conduit for spreading religious literature.

The school’s attorney informed FFRF that Danville Public Schools removed all bibles from the “blessing buckets” after receiving the letter of complaint.

West Virginia

Preston City Schools has removed a “prayer locker” from school property.

A concerned citizen alerted FFRF that Terra Alta/East Preston School had established a “prayer locker” for its students, marked with a Latin cross and sign that read: “Prayer Locker. Write your prayer request on an index card and slip it into the locker. We will be happy to pray for you! All prayer requests remain confidential.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Steve Wotring, informing him that the district has a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion.

Wotring sent assurances via email that school administration has assured him that the “prayer locker” has been removed and that he discussed the incident with them “to ensure that no such designation would occur in the future.”

. . .

A bible verse will be removed from Wood County Schools property.

A local resident reported that the Parkersburg South High School prominently features a bible verse, Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”), painted above one of the doors in its gymnasium. This display is apparently quite visible during school hours as well as during school athletic events.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent William Hosaflook requesting that the religious display, and any others like it, be removed from district property.

Hosaflook confirmed that the display will be removed once custodians are permitted to re-enter the building under COVID-19 quarantine protocol.