FFRF Victories (November 2020)
North Carolina school district drops FCA
In Kenansville, N.C., Duplin County Schools teachers and staff will be reminded of their obligation not to proselytize students.
FFRF received reports that Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) Area Director Ken Lovell had been repeatedly granted access to the district’s student-athletes, particularly the football team, during school-sponsored events.
FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the district’s attorney, reminding the district that coaches may not grant outside adults access to school-sponsored activities to preach religious messages to students.
The district’s attorney informed FFRF in an email response that he has discussed the issue with the Duplin County Schools superintendent. “He has, and will again, emphasize to principals and athletic directors that outside groups like FCA may not proselytize to students,” the attorney writes.
District removes video with religious message
A video containing religious messages has been removed by the Marion (Ark.) School District.
A district parent reported that the district recently produced and distributed a video titled “Welcome Back, MSD Faculty and Staff” that included several prayers and a bible reading. The video begins with messages from the mayor and a state representative and then features two preachers who deliver prayers.
FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Glen Fenter with a reminder that it is unlawful for the district to promote religion by including prayer in an official school-sponsored video that was shared with staff, students and parents.
The district’s attorney informed FFRF in a letter of response that the video has been removed.
FFRF gets county to take down Jesus sign
In California, the San Bernardino County Clerk’s Office has addressed a complaint about an impermissible religious display on county property.
A San Bernardino County citizen alerted FFRF that there is a sign stating “Jesus Christ is Lord of All” displayed in the customer service window on the first floor of the county clerk’s office.
FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to County Clerk Bob Dutton asking that the sign be removed and that employees be reminded of their obligation to remain neutral toward religion while serving in their official capacity as public employees.
Dutton sent a letter of response informing FFRF “[these] concerns had been addressed.”
No more ‘God Bless America’ at school
A Capistrano Unified School District school in California has ceased playing a religious song after the Pledge of Allegiance.
A district parent alerted FFRF that during distance learning at Reilly Elementary Schools, teachers were playing an audio recording of “God Bless America.” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Kirsten Vital, asking the district to immediately stop this divisive practice.
The district’s attorney informed FFRF in a letter of response that the district will no longer play “God Bless America” at events.
Graduation prayers end in Kentucky district
A Kentucky school district will no longer subject graduation attendees to prayer.
FFRF was informed that the July 2020 Pikeville High School graduation program included three student-led prayers. These prayers were explicitly Christian in nature, including language such as “Oh Heavenly Father,” “In your son’s name, we pray,” and thanks to the “Lord and savior, Jesus Christ,” as well as warnings of the “war on the Christian faith.”
FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent David Trimble, informing him that this inclusion of prayer at a public school graduation ceremony is impermissible and encouraged the district to ensure that future ceremonies remain secular.
The school district’s attorney informed FFRF in an email response that he has advised the school’s principal to “refrain from religious prayer at future graduations.”
Missouri coach won’t lead team in prayer
In Missouri, a coach in the Jasper R-5 School District has been advised to cease proselytizing students.
FFRF was informed that Jasper High School’s head football coach was regularly leading his team in prayer. During these prayers, student athletes knelt around the coach, with additional coaching staff surrounding the students as he gave a Christian prayer and then led the students in reciting the Lord’s prayer.
FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Christina Hess, reminding the district that it is illegal for public school staff to lead students in prayer.
The district’s attorney alerted FFRF in a letter of response that the district has investigated the incidences of staff-led prayer and that “employees of the district were reminded of the district’s board policy regarding religion at school and were also instructed not to lead students in, or promote, prayer.”
Religious language taken off Facebook in S.C.
The Myrtle Beach mayor’s office in South Carolina has agreed to avoid language that shows endorsement of a specific religion and make sure social media posts are free of such religious bias.
A Horry County citizen alerted FFRF that Myrtle Beach’s Facebook page was periodically promoting events for religious worship. Last summer, one post urged citizens not to miss out on Sunday Celebrations, “a free concert series” with “good music and a great message.” This promotion lacked any information or disclaimer about the organization putting on the event, Ground Zero Ministries, which has a self-professed strategy to utilize “high-energy events and unforgettable experiences to capture the attention of teenagers and introduce them to Christ.” The city continued to promote several other religious events.
FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Mayor Brenda Bethune, asking the city government to refrain from promoting events for religious worship, as these promotions venture into the “perilous ground of mingling state and religion.”
Bethune informed FFRF in a letter of response that the city will be more careful in the future to “avoid language which might tend to imply support or endorsement for a religious belief.”
Texas district removes graduation prayer
The Orangefield Independent School District in Texas has removed scheduled prayer from its graduation ceremony.
A community member informed FFRF that the Orangefield High School graduation program included an invocation and benediction, during which students lead the audience in a prayer through the microphone on the graduation stage. This practice occurred at the May 2019 graduation ceremony and remained in place, traditionally enforced by the superintendent.
FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Kevin Weldon, informing the district of the unconstitutionality of prayer, invocation and benediction at school-sponsored events.
The district’s attorney informed FFRF in a letter of response that the district “changed all references to invocation and/or benediction to opening and closing remarks, respectively, in its 2020 graduation programs. Additionally, the Orangefield High School Yearbook for the 2019-2020 year did not refer to invocation or benediction.”
Texas schools to follow the First Amendment
Pasadena Independent School District in Texas will be considering its legal obligations with regard to student speeches at graduation ceremonies.
A concerned citizen informed FFRF that the Pasadena Independent School District high schools have been including prayers at their graduation ceremonies. Video shows that multiple district graduation ceremonies began and ended with prayer. This had apparently been an established practice at several schools for years.
FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the district’s attorney, urging the district to refrain from endorsing, promoting or otherwise encouraging prayer at their graduation ceremonies.
FFRF was informed in a letter of response that the attorney is “advising the district on its legal obligations” and that the district “is committed to following the requirements of the First Amendment when it comes to student speech, both at graduation ceremonies and elsewhere.”
Police won’t participate in prayer events in W.V.
In West Virginia, Morgantown police officers will no longer participate in prayer events in uniform.
A local Morgantown resident reported that a local police officer and pastor at New Life Ministries appeared in uniform and delivered a prayer at a National Day of Prayer event. Several other uniformed officers reportedly also participated in this prayer event, including joining in a prayer circle with citizens while in uniform.
FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Interim Police Chief Ed Preston to ensure that no department members participate in religious events in their official capacities as public servants.
Powell sent FFRF an email response with assurances that he has addressed the matter with the officer and “advised him to not participate in any further activities while in uniform.”