All hail FFRF’s victory!

This license plate was eventually allowed by the Alabama Motor Vehicle Division after FFRF intervened.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has obtained a victory for secularism and free speech in Alabama.

An Alabama resident contacted the state/church watchdog after being told that a request for a personalized “S8TAN” plate was “offensive to the peace and dignity of the state of Alabama” and would not be issued. The individual had been given a temporary plate for a couple of months, but then the Motor Vehicle Division in the Alabama Department of Revenue sent a letter refusing the plate.

Alabama’s regulations concerning the wording of personalized plates are unconstitutional, FFRF informed the Alabama Motor Vehicle Division. Just last year, FFRF and the ACLU of Kentucky won a three-year legal battle on behalf of a Kentucky resident who was denied a license plate saying, “IM GOD.” The state of Kentucky was ordered to pay more than $150,000 in attorneys fees as a result of defending its unconstitutional conduct.

“The Motor Vehicle Division’s restriction of the message because of the viewpoint being expressed violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Alabama Motor Vehicle Division Director Jay Starling. “The Supreme Court has continually struck down viewpoint discrimination by the government.”

FFRF recently learned from its complainant that its communication with the state of Alabama had an effect and that a triumph for free speech was indeed achieved.

“My husband and I are members of The Satanic Temple; its fundamental tenets fit with what we believe,” the person emailed FFRF. “The state of Alabama has no business judging us for our or anyone else’s beliefs.”

The Satanic Temple functions as a secular group that works in part to promote the separation of state and church.

“Some of the reasons we choose ‘S8TAN’ are that it represents to us freethinking, standing for rights, opposing injustice, common sense, belief in science, protecting other’s rights, compassion towards others, treating people with dignity and respect,” says FFRF’s complainant.

FFRF is pleased at ensuring equal protection of viewpoints on license plates in Alabama, where religious messages are permitted.

“Our complainant learned that folks at the Alabama Motor Vehicle Division laughed and said that ‘S8TAN’ would never be on a tag in the state of Alabama,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Now look who is having the last laugh.”

FFRF stops prayer by school boards in Indiana and Pa.

School boards in Pennsylvania and Indiana have discontinued injecting religion into their board meetings due to intervention by FFRF.

A concerned Montrose Area School District community member in Pennsylvania alerted the state/church watchdog that the school board had a practice of opening every meeting with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer following the Pledge of Allegiance. Additionally, all nine members of the board were reportedly participating in reciting this Christian prayer, during which students were sometimes present.

And in Indiana, the Griffith Public Schools Board of Trustees opened each of its meetings with a prayer led by a member of the board or a guest, including clergy.

In the Pennsylvania case, FFRF attorney Madeline Ziegler sent a letter to Superintendent Christopher McComb, alerting the district to the unconstitutionality of beginning official district meetings with prayer, especially when students are present.McComb informed FFRF via email that “this practice has ceased and will no longer continue.”

And in Indiana, in an email to FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald, the school board president acknowledged FFRF’s role in the policy change.

“We have concluded that it would be in the best interest of the school district to offer up a moment of silence in lieu of prayer,” wrote School Board President Kathy Ruesken.

The local newspaper reported, “As a reaction to court opinions and a letter from that watchdog group, the board unanimously eliminated the prayer in favor of being neutral with a moment of silence so people can contemplate whatever they wish.”

FFRF Victories (April 2021)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

Religious signatures no longer part of emails

An issue of religious promotion by a teacher and coach has been corrected in the Brighton 27J School District in Colorado.

A district community member alerted FFRF that a biology teacher and coach at Brighton High School was sending emails from his official district account with a religious signature line. One email included the message: “‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not stray from it.’ Proverbs 22:6.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Chris Fiedler, asking him to ensure that religious email signatures are removed so as not to create the impression of school endorsement of religion.

FFRF was assured by the Board of Education that the school principal would address the issue with the teacher.

Football coach won’t proselytize in Montana

In Montana, reports of ongoing proselytizing in the Great Falls Public Schools football program have been addressed by district leadership.

FFRF was informed that the head coach of the Charles M. Russell High School football team had been promoting religion to his players and the public at large through official district communication channels. The coach had been praying with his players and the team’s official Instagram account was regularly posting religious content. One post, which selected “Mary, Mother of God” as the “Beast of the Day” read:

“Mary, mother of Jesus, was a willing servant who trusted God and obeyed His call. While her life held great honor, her calling also required great suffering. Though there was joy in motherhood, there was great pain in the privilege of being the mother of the Messiah. Despite these things, she responded to God with great obedience and submission to his plan.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Thomas Moore, alerting him to this impermissible behavior and urging the district to take corrective action.

Moore informed FFRF in an email response that the issues were addressed with the coach and the religious posts have been permanently removed from the team’s social media page.

Michigan coach won’t pray with students

A public school basketball coach in Michigan has been asked to stop praying with his team after FFRF contacted his school district.

A district parent informed FFRF that a Wyandot Middle School basketball coach had been leading his students in prayer before basketball games. According to the parent, the coach would have the players gather in a circle, make them hold hands and then say a prayer. When he finished saying his prayer, he would ask any of the players if they wanted to say a prayer.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante CH Harootunian sent a letter to Chippewa Valley Schools Superintendent Ronald Roberts urging the district to stop any and all prayers occurring within any school athletic programs.

“Public school coaches must refrain not only from leading prayers themselves, but also from participating in students’ prayers,” Harootunian wrote. “It is unconstitutional for public school employees to participate in the religious activities of their students.”

Assistant Superintendent Adam Blanchard sent a letter of response indicating that the district took this issue seriously and that it has taken steps to ensure coaches are not endorsing or joining in on prayer.

The coach, the district wrote, “has been informed that his involvement in this type of religious activity cannot occur during school or a school event.”

Chicago police won’t join in religious event

The Chicago Police Department has acknowledged its obligation to remain neutral on religious matters.

A local resident informed FFRF that three uniformed police officers on horseback attended the annual Feast of St. Francis Assisi pet blessing service. During the public outdoor service, Pastor Amity Carrubba of Grace Place Episcopal Church recited a Christian prayer and blessed more than 60 pets, including three police horses.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent David Brown, urging the department and its officers to refrain from participating in religious events and avoiding endorsing religion when acting in their official government capacity.

Brown wrote in a response letter to FFRF that the department will “review [its] policies and procedures in an effort to maintain government neutrality and protect the constitutional principles of separation between church and state.”

Religious tweet removed from school’s account

In Missouri, a religious social media post has been removed from the Weaubleau High School Softball Team’s official page.

The team’s official Twitter account posted Christian scripture that read, “With God there is no limit to what YOU can do. There is no obstacle you can’t overcome, through him ALL things are possible! . . . We give God glory for another day to play! #TIGERSTRONG.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald wrote to Superintendent Eric Wilkenm, urging the district to refrain from posting religious messages to official district social media pages as it constitutes an impermissible government endorsement of religion.

Wilken informed FFRF via email that the post has been removed.

FFRF gets N.C. city to nix deal with church

The city of Asheville, N.C., has revoked a proposal to embark on a development deal with a local church.

FFRF was alerted to a proposal under consideration by the Asheville City Council that would have established a partnership between the city and Haywood Street Congregation to build affordable housing.

As part of the deal, through a “separate” nonprofit, the church would have received $1.45 million worth of land for $1 and $1 million in additional funding from the city to develop the land into affordable housing. One of FFRF’s complainants stated that when the Housing and Development Committee considered this proposal last year, Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith noted that she was a woman of faith and that is why she voted to approve this land transfer.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line submitted a public records request to the city and asked for assurances that any deal between the city and Haywood Street Congregation/Haywood Street Community Development would include provisions ensuring that this project would not enrich the church at the expense of Asheville and that the property would not be used for religious purposes.

According to local reporting, the city has pulled the proposal to sell the land to the church.

Sheriff’s religious post on Facebook removed

The Elk County Sheriff’s Office has removed a problematic social media post promoting religion in Ridgway, Pa.

A local resident alerted FFRF that Sheriff Todd Caltagarone posted what amounted to a sermon on Facebook, decrying measures aimed at curbing the pandemic, such as limits on in-person gatherings, as an assault on freedom to worship, and advancing his personal religious belief that the bible says his constituents should sing and praise God in church.

FFRF Staff Attorney Maddy Ziegler wrote to Caltagarone to alert the sheriff to the impermissibility of promoting religion on the department’s official social media page. FFRF asked the sheriff’s office to remove the post, refrain from promoting or posting religious messages on social media, and enforce the laws officers swore to uphold, including laws that will reduce the spread of Covid-19.

FFRF was informed that the Facebook post has been taken down.

Tenn. school district to reassess prayers

A Tennessee district has addressed multiple incidents of school-endorsed prayer in Lexington.

FFRF was informed that a student, with several staff members standing behind him with bowed head, led the audience in a Christian prayer at last year’s Henderson County School District graduation ceremony, which concluded with “and we thank You for sending Your son down to this Earth to die on the cross for our sins. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.” Additionally, FFRF was made aware that a district band instructor led students in prayer at a recent football game.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Director of Schools Steve Wilkinson to inform the district that both these instances of school prayer were constitutionally impermissible as they amounted to government endorsement of religion.

The district’s attorney informed FFRF in a letter of response that the superintendent agreed to “address issues with faculty concerning prayer in school and the violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution” at the next staff meeting.

Religious sign removed from Texas polling place

A religious sign has been taken down from a polling place in Wichita Falls, Texas. FFRF was informed that during early voting for the 2020 election, a County Commissioner building being used as a polling site displayed a sign that read “PRAY FOR PEACE 1 Thess. 3:16.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler wrote to County Clerk Lori Bohannon, asking the county to take action to prevent its facilities, particularly polling places, from displaying religious messages or iconography.

Bohannon notified FFRF via email that the office would be removing the sign.

FFRF humbles Texas school district

Humble Independent School District in Texas has conducted extensive First Amendment training with staff after complaints of a state/church violation from FFRF.

An area resident alerted FFRF that a local religious group called Covenant on Campus Team was granted access to the classrooms in Park Lakes Elementary School to leave messages on the students’ desks. The group was also reportedly allowed to pray over every student’s desk, regardless of the students’ religious affiliation or lack thereof.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the district’s attorney, asking the district to refrain from allowing religious groups privileged access to public schools and spaces occupied by students.

The district’s legal representation informed FFRF in a letter of response that she has reviewed the standards for community groups at school with district leadership. Additionally, Humble ISD has conducted a detailed First Amendment training over the summer with all campus principals and assistant principals, as well as representatives from central office leadership and Human Resources.

Poll site will no longer have religious images

The city of Roanoke, Va., has taken action to address the placement of religious iconography at a polling location during the November 2020 election.

FFRF was informed that during the election, a Roanoke polling place, Christ Lutheran Church, displayed a large portrait of Jesus above the ballot bin. FFRF Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler wrote to City Clerk Cecelia McCoy alerting the city to this problematic infringement on free and fair voting.

Director of Elections and General Registrar J. Andrew Cochran assured FFRF in a letter of response that the city will take action to rectify this. “While there was no ulterior motive in the placement of the ballot bin, it is the impact to the voter that we are focused on in this case,” Cochran writes. “I can assure you all Officers of Election will be trained on the learnings from this concern.”

Church ad taken down in Georgia school district

A church advertisement has been removed from Cobb County School District property in Mariette, Ga.

FFRF was informed that Kennesaw Elementary School, which rents out space on Sundays to HighPoint Church, was permanently displaying two canvas advertisements for the church on the school’s fence.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district’s attorney requesting that the religious display be removed from school grounds any time the property is not being rented by the church.

The district’s attorney sent a letter of reply alerting FFRF that the district “has confirmed that the referenced signage is no longer on display.”

Sheriff’s office removes religious Facebook post

The Pacific County Sheriff’s Department in South Bend, Wash., has taken action to correct religious promotion on its social media page.

Last fall, the sheriff’s office posted a Thanksgiving message on its official Facebook page, which included a photo of a Latin cross with the message, “Blessings” across it.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Sheriff Robin Souvenir illustrating the constitutional and ethical issues which arise when the sheriff department endorses Christianity on an official website.

Souvenir assured FFRF that the post has been removed and has committed to the department being more diligent in the future to ensure it does not promote religion.

FFRF victories (March 2021)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

School to end singing of ‘God Bless the USA

A religious song will no longer be played in Simi Valley (Calif.) Unified School District.

A concerned parent reported that Sycamore Elementary asks its students to sing a new “patriotic song of the month” each month following the Pledge of Allegiance. One month, the song “God Bless the USA” was chosen.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Jason Peplinski, urging the district to cease asking students to sing that song and make only secular selections for future songs of the month.

FFRF was informed in a letter of response from the district’s attorney that the school will not choose “God Bless the USA” as a song of the month in the future and has removed references to it from the school newsletter.

Religious iconography removed from school

Religious iconography has been removed from multiple spots in the International Leadership of Texas Grand Prairie School in Richardson, Texas.

One sign, located in a counselor’s office frequented by students, stated “the Lord is good.” A second wall decoration, located in a third-grade classroom, read “God, thank you for everything.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Eddie Conger, requesting that these signs come down as they constituted the appearance of government endorsement of religion.

The school’s attorney has informed FFRF that both displays have come down.

FFRF intervenes in Texas city’s ‘day of prayer’

The city of Wills Point, Texas, has addressed concerns about a religious proclamation made on behalf of local government.

Multiple Wills Point residents informed FFRF that Mayor Mark Turner declared a “Day of Prayer and Fasting,” which was advertised on the official city Facebook page. In the proclamation, issued in his official capacity as mayor, Turner invited residents to join “Christians of all traditions in prayer,” and urged them to spread the word to others “willing to humble themselves, repent and ask God to heal their land.” Additionally, the proclamation — to which the official Wills Point city seal is affixed — stated “Now therefore we proclaim the healing of the City of Wills Point in Jesus’ name! Amen.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson sent a letter to Turner urging him to discontinue all endorsement of religion in his official capacity as mayor. Government officials are free to worship, pray and participate in religious events in their personal capacities, FFRF emphasized, but may not provide credibility or prestige to their religion by lending a government office or title to religious events.

The city’s attorney informed FFRF via email that the post promoting the event has been removed from the city’s Facebook page and the district will “be more cognizant of [these] concerns in the future.” 

South Carolina school removes framed prayer

A religious display has been promptly removed from a South Carolina school following a complaint from FFRF.

A Palmetto High School community member informed FFRF that a framed prayer was prominently displayed on a table in the school’s front office near the spot tardy students are required to stand and wait for their temperature to be checked before attending class.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson sent a letter to Anderson School District One Superintendent Robbie Binnicker, urging the district to immediately get rid of the religious display, since it constituted an inappropriate government endorsement of religion.

The school district took down the framed prayer from the school office the same day as it received the letter of complaint.

“The sign was removed and the principal dealt with the issue at the school level,” Binnicker informed FFRF via email.

School ceases sending home Christmas items

Anderson School District Two in Honea Path, S.C., has ceased sending home religious materials with students after intervention from FFRF.

A Marshall Primary School parent alerted FFRF that their child was given religious Christmas materials by the school. The parents reported that when they went to the school to pick up essential materials for distance learning, they were given a Christian coloring book, nativity stickers and a candy cane with the message “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” and a bible verse attached.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Interim Superintendent Donald Andrews urging the district to take corrective action and train school and district staff on constitutional requirements.

Andrews sent a letter of response with assurances that this distribution of religious materials was a mistake, does not comply with district policy, and will not happen again in the future.

Bible verse display taken down in Virginia

A Virginia police department has agreed to strip a religious display from its office property.

Multiple South Hill, Va., residents informed FFRF that the South Hills Police Department was prominently featuring a “thin blue line” flag on its side door. This flag was overlaid with a quote of Proverbs 28:1 from the bible, stating “The wicked flee though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Chief of Police Stuart Bowen to request that the department move this and any other religious displays from its premises.

Bowen informed FFRF in a letter of response that he has taken action to remove the bible verse from the office door.

School religious display taken down in Oklahoma

A religious display has been taken down from Achille Public School property in Achille, Okla.

Multiple local residents alerted FFRF that in December, Achille Elementary School was displaying a nativity scene with the message, “Our world needs a stable influence.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Rick Beene to request that the district ensure that the nativity scene, or any other religious displays, will not be displayed in the future.

Beene assured FFRF via email that the display was taken down and he spoke with the person that put it up about the issue.

Michigan coach won’t lead pregame prayers

Coach-led prayer has been stopped in the Clinton Township, Mich., public school district.

A district parent informed FFRF that a Wyandot Middle School basketball coach had been leading his students in prayer before basketball games. According to the parent, the coach would have the players gather in a circle, make them hold hands and then say a prayer. When he finished saying his prayer, he would ask any of the players if they wanted to say a prayer.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian sent a letter to Chippewa Valley Schools Superintendent Ronald Robert urging the district to stop any and all prayers occurring within any school athletic programs.

Assistant Superintendent Adam Blanchard sent a letter of response, alerting FFRF that the coach “has been informed that his involvement in this type of religious activity cannot occur during school or a school event.”

FFRF Victories (Jan/Feb 2021)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

Religious quote removed from Army signatures

Employees of Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri have been instructed not to include religious messages in email signatures from their official Army accounts.

A technical support specialist for Fort Leonard Wood had been including the bible verse “‘With GOD all things are possible’ Matthew 19:26” in the signature block of his official U.S. Army email address.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Fort Leonard Wood Garrison Commander Colonel Jeffrey O. Paine and Command Inspector General Lt. Colonel Mary M. Smith asking that this email signature be changed so as not to create the impression of official military endorsement of Christianity over all other religions or religion over nonreligion.

Employees were instructed, per Army policy, to remove all religious references from their official email signatures.

School staff won’t join in religious event

In Illinois, Roxana Community Unit School District #1 staff have been reminded they may not partake in religious observance during school events.

A local community member informed FFRF that district personnel, including staff and school board members, attended and participated in a “See You at the Pole” event last fall.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Debra Kreuztrager, reminding the district that staff must not plan, promote or participate in any future “See You at the Pole” events nor encourage students to put on such events.

Kreuztrager sent a letter of response with assurances that “expectations will be communicated to ensure that staff remember to serve only in a supervisory role as needed for this event in the future.”

Daily school prayers stopped in La. school

Morning prayers have been stopped in the Washington Parish School System in Louisiana.

A local resident alerted FFRF that Franklinton High School’s student chaplain had been leading the school in prayer each morning before the Pledge of Allegiance.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson sent a letter to Superintendent Frances Varnado asking that the district immediately cease scheduling this prayer as it constitutes illegal religious endorsement on the part of the school.

The complainant has informed FFRF that the daily prayers have stopped.

Boise State downgrades chaplaincy program

One of Idaho’s most prominent educational institutions has listened to the Freedom From Religion Foundation regarding its unconstitutional football chaplaincy.

The national state/church watchdog had written to Boise State University about the football program’s official chaplain, Mark Thornton. Thornton has arranged for post-game prayers on the field with players, led them in chapel the night before games and prayed with players individually before games.

Public schools may not advance or promote religion, FFRF emphasized.

“Government chaplains may only exist as an accommodation of a public employee’s religious beliefs when the government makes it difficult or impossible to seek out private ministries,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Boise State University President Marlene Tromp.

Abolishing the team chaplaincy would not alter student athletes’ ability to pray, but it would prevent some student athletes from feeling coerced into participating in prayers to a deity they may not believe in, FFRF added.

FFRF’s reasoning seems to have scored many points with Boise State, which has pledged to significantly downgrade its chaplaincy program.

“We have been in communication with the Athletic Department to provide some education about this issue and to ensure measures are taken now and in the future to resolve the issue and establish appropriate constitutional boundaries,” the university’s legal counsel recently responded via email. “Mr. Thornton did not travel with the football team to our recent game in Wyoming and the university will no longer include a chaplain in its travel party. Written references to Mr. Thornton as the chaplain of the football team have been or are in the process of being removed and no future references will be made in writing or otherwise.”

Prayer no longer part of fire academy graduation

Kansas City Fire Department staff in Missouri will no longer schedule prayer as part of fire academy cadet graduation ceremonies.

FFRF was made aware that the department scheduled invocations as part of its cadet graduation ceremonies and posted videos of these ceremonies on its official Facebook page. The 2020 winter ceremony prayer, led by one of the department’s firefighters, called on attendees to “bow [their] heads and come together now in prayer.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Fire Chief Donna Lake, pointing out that in addition to violating the Establishment Clause, calling on attendees to pray at fire department events is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of a fire department. FFRF’s letter encouraged the department to respect its pluralistic class of firefighters and cease from including prayer at future official ceremonies and events.

Lake informed FFRF via email that department staff have been directed to “discontinue sponsoring or scheduling an invocation or any other prayer at Fire Academy cadet graduation ceremonies.”

Mo. district nixes prayer from future graduations

A staff prayer issue was resolved in Kirksville R-III School District.

A district community member reported that during a Kirksville High School graduation ceremony, Superintendent Richard Webb included a prayer in his remarks to students.

He said: “And today, which is the Sabbath Day, I pray also that you won’t let memes or social media define the truth for you, but that you’ll instead see you as God sees you. That you will listen to Him when He whispers the truth of a variety of things to you.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Webb requesting that he refrain from abusing his position as superintendent to proselytize. Line pointed out that it is particularly concerning that, as superintendent, Webb is charged with ensuring constitutional compliance in the district, but instead used his position to promote his personal religious beliefs to students.

The district’s attorney informed FFRF in a letter of response 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 or religion.”

Religious displays taken down at public workplace

Religious displays have been removed from government property in Macon County, N.C.

A concerned employee in the Macon County Solid Waste Department reported that religious materials were on display in the workplace at Otto Center. These displays included the Ten Commandments, as well as various other religious postings.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Recycling Coordinator Shaun Cribbs requesting that these materials be removed.

Cribbs responded via email to inform FFRF that the religious materials have been taken down and that a memo was sent to all staff to ensure this does not happen again in the future.

Texas school district gets social media lesson

Pine Tree Independent School District in Texas will train teachers on appropriate usage of the district’s social media pages following its impermissible promotion of a religious event.

A local resident reported that Pine Tree Elementary School used its official Facebook page to promote a “See You at the Pole” event. The post described the event as a “national day of student prayer” and indicated that the event was being hosted by the school.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Steve Clugston to request that the district refrain from endorsing religious events.

The district sent a letter of response indicating that it recognizes this as an “opportunity to educate [its] staff while continuing to support the rights of [its] students and will develop a training for district staff who have control over district social media pages addressing this issue.”

Jesus picture taken down at W.Va. school

An impermissible religious display has been removed from Harrison County Schools property in West Virginia.

A community member informed FFRF that a picture of Jesus was on display at Robert C. Byrd High School.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Dora Stutler reminding the district that it may not advance, prefer or promote religion and therefore must remove this religious photo.

Stutler confirmed in a letter of response the photo has been taken down.

FFRF Victories (December 2020)

Joey Ballard, head coach for Jasper High School’s boys football team, had regularly led his team in prayer until FFRF intervened.

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

FFRF puts a stop to Missouri coach’s prayers

A Missouri school district has ended its football coaching staff’s practice of praying with the student-athletes after FFRF got involved.

Joey Ballard, head coach for Jasper High School’s boys football team, regularly led team prayer, a concerned parent of a player had informed FFRF. During these prayers, student players gathered around Ballard on bended knee, with additional coaching staff surrounding the students while Ballard delivered a Christian prayer and then led the students in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Jasper R-5 School District Superintendent Christina Hess, reminding the district that it is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer.

FFRF’s constitutional advice has been heeded.

“In response to your letter dated Oct. 6, 2020, we write to advise you about the actions the district,” the district’s legal counsel stated. “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. This matter has therefore been resolved.”

No more meeting prayers at Alabama school

Employees of Shelby County School District in Columbiana, Ala., will no longer be subjected to prayer at staff meetings.

A district employee informed FFRF that during a recent mandatory professional development meeting, one teacher began the meeting by delivering a prayer. The complainant reported that the teacher told staff he would make a motion when he began and ended his prayer so that anyone who was offended could mute him.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district to ensure that it no longer includes prayer as part of any employee meeting or events. The reported teacher has been counseled that this was not permitted and the district has initiated additional refresher training for its principals on this subject.

School board prayers ended in Pelham, Ala.

School board prayer in Pelham City Schools in Alabama has been stopped.

A district community member reported that the Pelham City Schools Board of Education opened each of its meetings with prayer. FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to School Board President Rick Rhoades, informing the district of the impermissibility of such prayer at school board meetings.

FFRF received a response from the school board’s attorney. “Please be advised that in a good faith effort to accommodate the various points of view, interests and legal considerations that are implicated by the practice of opening public meetings with invocation, the Board of Education has elected, effective as of its meetings on Oct. 26, 2020, not to include an invocation on its meeting agendas or set aside time for that purpose as part of its official proceedings.”

School church question now more charitable

A homework question promoting religious donations has been removed from the curriculum in Paradise Valley Unified School District in Phoenix.

A concerned district parent alerted FFRF that their student’s personal finance class included an assignment that asked students to evaluate certain personal finance choices and rate them as being either good or bad. The assignment included the statement: “I give $2 at church every week.” The assignment reportedly considered the only correct answer to this statement to be “good,” and that if a student were to rate it as “bad” they would not receive any points for the answer.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent of Schools Jesse Welsh, pointing out that the suggestion that giving money to a church every week, without any additional context, does not promote a “good money habit” but instead encourages students to partake in a common religious practice. Many students, FFRF reminded the district, do not attend church, and suggesting that it would be wise for them to give their money to a church is an advancement and endorsement of religion on the district’s behalf.

The district has changed the question in the assignment to state “charity” instead of “church.”

U.S. Rep. Eshoo stops prayer requests

U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo has stopped including prayer requests in constituent emails in Palo Alto, Calif.

A constituent from California’s 18th congressional district reported that her office regularly sent out prayer requests. One communication said, “Let’s pray for each other, all the firefighters, and all those who have had to evacuate their families.” For a few weeks, her office was also sending a weekly newsletter that also ended with a prayer request.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Eshoo’s office noting that, while the California wildfire crisis is putting immense pressure on leaders to respond to and comfort constituents, as a U.S. representative she represents a diverse population including atheists, agnostics and other nonbelievers. FFRF encouraged Eshoo to stand up for the precious constitutional principle of separation between state and church by refraining from sending prayer requests through official government channels.

FFRF was informed by the complainant that Rep. Eshoo’s more recent weekly newsletters did not include a call for prayer by constituents.

Georgia coach will no longer lead team prayer

Administration in the Fannin County School System in Blue Ridge, Ga., has committed to meeting with all district coaches to address First Amendment obligations.

FFRF was informed that the Fannin High School football coach was regularly leading his team in prayer. FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Michael Gwatney informing the district that it is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer as it constitutes a government endorsement of religion.

The district’s attorney sent FFRF a letter of response with assurances that Gwatney “has met with the high school principal and a plan is in progress to meet with all coaches to discuss issues related to the First Amendment, including the Establishment and Free Exercise Clause.”

FFRF ends constitutional violations in Kansas

Pratt USD 382 in Kansas has remedied multiple constitutional violations in its district following a letter of complaint from FFRF.

A concerned school staff member reported several concerning incidents of religious promotion at Liberty Middle School. The school’s vice principal had been using his position to promote and endorse his personal religious beliefs to students. The complainant reported that on “See You at the Pole Day,” the vice principal announced the event over the intercom, personally invited students to the event and then led students in prayer. He also apparently included religious messages and bible quotes in his official district communications. Recently during morning announcements, he said, “we need to remember to give all the glory to God, whether others agree with it or not, and I don’t care if I offend anyone by saying that.” The vice principal also reportedly played Christian music during class and made religious statements to students, including telling a group of students that “God is sad when you don’t tuck in your shirts. You are disrespecting God.”

The complainant additionally reported that the school’s principal has directed staff members to arrange for the school to participate in “Operation Christmas Child,” which is a charity project sponsored by Samaritan’s Purse (led by Franklin Graham), which describes the program as a “shoebox ministry.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote a letter of complaint to Superintendent Tony Helfrich requesting that the district investigate these serious violations and take immediate action.

Helfrich informed FFRF in a letter of response that the district has investigated and addressed the issues and will see that “the actions in questions are discontinued.” The district has also discontinued its partnership with “Operation Christmas Child.”

Kentucky football team ends religious promotion

Lewis County Schools in Vanceburg, Ky., has addressed concerns regarding promotion of a biblical message by a district coach.

FFRF was made aware that Lewis County High School had chosen an explicitly religious theme, directly from the bible, for its football theme this year. According to an official press release on the school’s Facebook page, “Our team motto this year comes from the story of Nehemiah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its wall.” The story, which comes from the Old Testament, uses “the sword and the shovel” as metaphorical imagery. The school had adopted this imagery for the boys’ football team logo and promotional poster included a student wearing the football team’s jersey while holding a sword and shovel.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Jamie Weddington to ensure that the district no longer impermissibly promotes religion through its football program.

Weddington informed FFRF in an email response that “the post has been removed and your concerns have been addressed.”

Email signatures now standardized at college

A religious message has been removed from a staff email signature at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich.

FFRF was informed that one staff member had a bible verse in the signature block for their official university email address. The signature included: “Faith does not make things easy, it makes them possible.”

FFRF’s then-Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Grand Valley State University President Philomena Mantella urging the university to see to the email signature being changed so as not to create the impression of university endorsement of Christianity over all other religions or religion over nonreligion.

FFRF was informed by the university that administration has standardized email signatures for all staff free from any mention of religion.

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.”

FFRF lawsuit gets Puerto Rico to stop school prayer

A lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation has persuaded Puerto Rico’s education secretary and a proselytizing school principal there to halt unconstitutional school prayer.

FFRF had filed a federal court challenge in March against Secretary of Education Eligio Hernandez Perez and Principal Luz Ramos on behalf of a family subjected to forced prayers and bullying in a public primary school. Since September 2019, in direct contradiction of well-established constitutional law, officials at the Luis M. Santiago School, a public school in Toa Baja, had organized, led and coerced students to participate in mandatory 50-minute Christian prayer sessions on school property every other Monday during the school day. The prayers were broadcast over a microphone and speakers.

FFRF represented two of these children and their mother before the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, along with Humanistas Seculares De Puerto Rico, a leading Puerto Rican secular humanist organization that the mother belongs to. As a secular humanist, she “does not engage in prayer or believe in the power of prayer or . . . want to force any religious ideology” on her children, the legal complaint noted. When she objected to the religious practice, she was told if she removed her children from the prayer, they would be marked for cutting class, which could lower their grade point average. One child was told by a classmate, after a teacher outed the family as nonreligious, that “If you don’t believe in God, like your mother, you will go to hell.”

The plaintiffs sought an injunction prohibiting the defendants from continuing to schedule and host school prayer, as well as a declaration that the defendants’ conduct violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the free exercise rights of the individual plaintiffs.

As far back as 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that “the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people,” FFRF had pointed out.

At a mediation session held on March 9, the defendants said they would immediately and permanently prohibit school-led prayers at Luis M. Santiago School and would undertake all reasonable efforts to ensure an academic school environment free from harassment of the students and their parents. They also consented to remove negative academic marks related to the plaintiff students’ nonparticipation in the prayer sessions.

And importantly, they indicated they would circulate a memorandum on the policy of nondiscrimination and nonsectarian education in public schools to Department of Education employees and conduct a training for all employees of the school regarding their constitutional obligations.

The plaintiffs and FFRF agreed that these actions would resolve the issues raised in their complaint and that upon completion of these actions by the defendants, the lawsuit would be dismissed. On Aug. 7, the court-appointed mediator declared that the mediation process had been completed to the satisfaction of all the parties involved.

This was FFRF’s first court challenge in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. FFRF thanks the brave family for coming forward to fight for freedom of conscience, Secular Humanists of Puerto Rico for its invaluable assistance and Attorney Cintron Garcia for representing the plaintiffs throughout the litigation and mediation process. Toa Baja is a suburb of San Juan with about 89,000 people.

The family brought this action under pseudonyms to protect the mother and her two minor children from social ostracism, retaliation and even physical harm. FFRF Attorneys Samuel Grover and Madeline Ziegler represented the Freedom From Religion Foundation, while local counsel Carlos A. Cintron Garcia represented Humanistas Seculares De Puerto Rico and the plaintiff family.

FFRF victories (October 2020)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

Religious displays removed in California

Religious displays were removed from Eastside Union School District property in Lancaster, Calif., after a resident contacted FFRF.

A community member alerted FFRF that there were religious displays in several locations throughout the district, including in classrooms, staff lounges and the district office.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Superintendent Joshua Lightle, pointing out the impermissibility of such religious displays on public school property.

Lightle responded to FFRF’s letter with assurances that the district has addressed these concerns.

FFRF stops religious signature on email

A Seminole County Public Schools employee in Ovideo, Fla., will no longer be using a religious email signature.

A district community member reported that an administrative secretary at Paul J. Hagerty High School was sending emails from her official district account with a religious message included in the signature line. One email she sent included the message, “Believe. When a believing person Prays, Great things happen. James 5:16.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the school’s attorney, requesting that the email signature be removed so as not to create the impression of school endorsement of religion.

The district’s attorney informed FFRF the religious signature has been removed from the staff member’s email.

No more prayer at
back-to-school meeting

No proselytizing took place at Allen Parish Schools’ (Kinder, La.) back-to-school meeting after last year’s mandatory meeting subjected attendees to prayer.

FFRF was informed that at last year’s mandatory teachers’ meeting at Kinder Middle School, a Catholic priest was allowed to speak to the group and recite a prayer before the meeting. The result was that the school created a public platform for a religious leader to spread his religious views to a captive audience of school employees.

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Kent Reed to ensure that no prayers were scheduled for this year’s meeting, out of respect for the religious and nonreligious diversity of the district’s staff.

Reed informed FFRF in an email response that no prayers took place at the meeting this year.

School’s religious post removed from Facebook

In Tennessee, a religious post has been removed from Alamo City School District’s social media page.

FFRF was alerted that the district had posted a graphic on its official Facebook page encouraging students and parents to “Park & Pray Everyday.” The graphic read: “Driving past a school? Pull in, park and pray for our children, teachers and staff! Driving past an administration building? Pull in, park and pray for our leaders! Driving past a bus lot? Pull in, park and pray for our bus drivers!”

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Director of Schools Reecha Black, requesting that the district cease posting religious content on its official social media pages and that this and any related posts be taken down.

Black informed FFRF that the post has been removed.

FFRF stops prayers at DNR employee meetings

Future Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) employee meetings will not include an opening prayer.

FFRF was informed that, earlier this year, several Wisconsin DNR employees were required to attend an awards ceremony sponsored by the department. During the event, official DNR chaplains led prayers and invoked Jesus Christ.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to DNR Secretary Preston Cole, informing the department that, as a government entity, it has a legal obligation to remain neutral toward religion. Federal courts have held that mandatory meetings for government employees cannot promote religion.

The department’s legal counsel informed FFRF in a thorough response that the DNR agrees such prayer was inappropriate. “In the future, if a member of our Chaplain Program asks to give an opening prayer at a mandatory training meeting, we will deny the request,” the response read.

Prayers discontinued in Tennessee county

Morgan County Schools has discontinued prayers at its school board meetings.

A concerned local resident reported to FFRF that the Morgan County School Board had been opening its meetings with Christian prayer.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Board Chairman Wade Summers, requesting that the board refrain from engaging in prayer at its meetings, as it violates the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Summer responded to FFRF via email with assurances that the request would be met and the board will no longer include prayer at its meetings.

Prayer locker removed from Texas school

A “prayer locker” has been removed from Prairiland Junior High School property.

A local resident alerted FFRF that the school had designated a locker to be used as a “prayer locker” for its students, marked with a Latin cross and a sign that reads: “Drop Prayer Here. Prayer Locker.” The purpose of this locker was apparently to encourage students to submit prayer requests to an outside religious group — Youth for Christ.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Jeff Ballard, informing the district that the First Amendment prohibits government entities like Prairiland Independent School District from promoting religion.

Johnson encouraged the district to remove all prayer boxes from district property. Ballard informed FFRF via email that the prayer locker has been removed.

Religious message taken off school sign in W.V.

A religious message has been removed from a Wayne County Schools (W.Va.) sign.

A local resident reported that the electronic notice board outside of Buffalo Middle School had featured the message “God will carry us” for much of the summer.

This message was accompanied by several footprints on the digital notice board, presumably in reference to the popular Christian poem “Footprints in the Sand.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Todd Alexander, pointing out the constitutional impermissibility of projecting this overtly religious message on public school grounds.

Alexander assured FFRF in an email response that the message has been removed from the sign.

Holy Smoke cartoon

City revokes tax exemption after FFRF protests

The owners of the “San Damiano Friary” in Monona, Wis., are now required to pay taxes on the expensive waterfront property.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is celebrating a victory for taxpayers near its home.

The city of Monona (adjacent to FFRF’s headquarters in Madison, Wis.) had incorrectly classified a nearly 10-acre property on Lake Monona as being exempt from property taxes. Even though the property is generally referred to as the “San Damiano Friary,” it reportedly hadn’t been used for tax-exempt purposes since at least 2015. FFRF had protested this misclassification in December.

“Property that is exempt under Wis. Stat. § 70.11(4) must actually be used by the entity seeking an exemption,” FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott had written to Monona City Administrator Bryan Gadow and the official appraisers. “It is not enough for a religious organization to own the property, it must be ‘used exclusively’ by the organization.”

Wisconsin case law backed FFRF’s argument. In Dominican Nuns v. City of La Crosse, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals ruled that a church property that was being maintained but had been vacated by a religious order was taxable. Any claim to an exemption by the owner here was even worse than in the Dominican Nuns case, since the property was reportedly being rented to tenants, FFRF had added.

The city of Monona seems to have come around to FFRF’s perspective. The latest documents from the city’s assessing agency show that it is being appraised at just under $4 million, and the property owners could end up paying more than $80,000 in taxes annually.

“We’re glad we were able to help end yet another case of religious privilege,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Monona residents will no longer have to compensate for this entity not paying its taxes.”