Victories (Jan/Feb 2022)

By Casandra Zimmerman

District won’t use email to promote religion

School district employees in Socorro, Texas, are no longer able to promote their religion through emails to staff, students and families after receiving a letter from FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald.

A concerned district employee informed FFRF that several district employees have promoted religion in emails that have been sent by representatives of the HR department.

Superintendent Marta Carmona responded by saying that the district will address the employees and direct that they refrain from using district-provided email systems to promote religion.

Missouri choir director sings a different tune 

A Willard (Mo.) High School choir director has stopped posting religious material on a Facebook group page he administers for Willard High School Choirs and can no longer use it.

“To avoid further Establishment Clause concerns, school employees must understand the limits of what they may post on social media when they do so in their official capacities,” wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Karen Heineman. 

The choir director was instructed that school messages cannot be posted on his private social media account and that it should not be an issue going forward.

Religious rituals won’t be part of school events

A concerned local community member reported to FFRF that cadets from the JROTC program at Sonora High School in California participated in a religious flag-folding ceremony as part of a Veterans Day event held in La Habra. The community member reported that as the cadets folded the flag, their JROTC instructor narrated using strong religious language: “The flag-folding ceremony represents the same religious principles on which our great country was originally founded.”

After FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Steve McLaughlin, the district agreed to inform staff members that religious rituals are not to be included as part of school activities.

Church trailers removed from school parking lot

Church trailers have been removed from a Virginia public high school after FFRF intervened.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote a letter to Loudoun County Public Schools legal counsel after a concerned community member reported that the district allows Terraforma Church, a church currently operating out of Independence High School, to store multiple trailers in the school’s parking lot at all times.

In a response from the school’s legal counsel, FFRF was informed that the trailers were planned to be removed from the Independence High School parking lot.

Principal removes bible quote from email signature

A concerned Midwood High School (N.Y.) community member reported that Principal Michael McDonnell had been using a religious email signature in his official communications. McDonell included a bible verse that read, “The truth shall set you free, John 8:32” in his official email signature.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris line asked that the school take the appropriate steps to ensure that employees, including McDonnell, are aware of their constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion while acting in their official capacity.

McDonnell had immediately removed the quote from his signature upon receiving FFRF’s letter.

‘See You at the Pole’ no longer being held

A Georgia Elementary school is no longer holding any “See You at the Pole” events after receiving a letter from FFRF educating them as to why it goes against the Establishment Clause.

A concerned Walker County District parent has reported that Cherokee Ridge Elementary School hosted and promoted a “See You at the Pole” event in September 2021. 

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote in a letter to the district that it cannot organize, promote or endorse religious events like See You at the Pole and that any such events held at a public school must be entirely student-initiated and student-run with no participation from staff members or outside adults.

Superintendent Damon Raines said the situation was immediately addressed with the administration.

Wisconsin district addresses violation 

A lunchtime proselytization has stopped after FFRF Legal Fellow Karen Heineman wrote a letter to the Racine School District in Wisconsin.

A concerned parent of a student at Starbuck Middle School contacted FFRF to report that an adult, believed to be a teacher, was recruiting for a school religious club during lunchtime in the school cafeteria.

The superintendent assured FFRF that appropriate follow-up steps will be taken to ensure that the volunteer has a clear understanding that he cannot continue proselytizing.

Christian radio no longer being played at school

After receiving a letter from FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line, the Harrison County School District in West Virginia has stopped playing Christian worship music in its hallways.

A concerned district employee reported that Robert C. Byrd High School played Christian worship music in its main hallway at all times. The letter to Superintendent Dora Stutler reminded the district that allowing such a practice is a violation of the Establishment Clause.

In a response to FFRF’s letter, Stutler reported that radio has been removed and the issue had been resolved.

Pastor no longer at school district’s convocation

A Texas school district is no longer employing a Christian pastor for its annual convocation after FFRF got involved.

In a letter to Venus (Texas) ISD, FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line explained to Superintendent James Hopper that while individuals are certainly free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their way, calling upon district employees to participate in prayer is coercive and beyond the scope of a secular employer.

In a call from Hopper, he informed FFRF that the prayers from the Christian pastor will not happen again.

University stops endorsing religion at games

Georgia Southern University has agreed to stop promoting and endorsing Christianity at its football games.

An area resident previously reported that Georgia Southern University was promoting and endorsing Christianity and that GSU appeared to be sponsoring a religious event called “Sermon on the Court,” and that the university allows an outside religious leader to act as an official chaplain for its football team. 

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Kyle Marrero, president of GSU, regarding the matter.

In a response from the university’s legal counsel, FFRF was assured that “the institution has taken appropriate follow-up action . . . to ensure that this type of unauthorized activity does not take place again.”

Coach won’t hold pregame devotionals

Ouachita Parish School District in Louisiana has stopped a head coach from giving a pregame devotional after a letter was sent by FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line. 

A concerned district community member informed FFRF that Richwood High School’s head football coach had offered a “pregame devotional at Richwood High School,” and that “an invitation to know Jesus as Lord and Savior,” appeared on the Northeast Louisana’s FCA’s Facebook page. 

In a response from the school’s legal counsel, the school board will seek to comply with its obligations under the First Amendment, while at the same time acknowledging the individual religious freedoms of its students. 

Tennessee district stops Christian proselytization

A Tennessee school has stopped a Christian fellowship group from proselytizing its baseball players after receiving a letter from FFRF Legal Fellow Karen Heinema.

Upper Cumberland Fellowship of Christian Athletes was being given special access to Warren County Schools baseball team, handing out bibles and talking with the players. 

In response from the legal counsel for the school district, FFRF was notified that the school had taken the necessary steps to stop all constitutional violations.

Religious info removed from school giveaways 

An Ohio school district has stopped giving out religious materials after FFRF’s intervention. 

The school had originally sent out emails to parents at Hazelwood Junior High School that turkey dinners were provided by Graceland Baptist Church. The email listed the items to be included in the giveaway, including “religious materials.

FFRF Legal Fellow Karen Heineman wrote a letter to the distinct asking it to ensure that the turkey dinner giveaway is completely secular.

The school’s legal representative responded by ensuring FFRF that the religious materials would be removed before getting handed out in the giveaway.

FFRF scores win over Iowa school district

FFRF has stopped an Iowa public school coach from propagating a Christian message to his football players.

FFRF Legal Fellow Karen Heineman wrote to the school district informing Pella Community School District that religious promotion by the Pella Middle School football coach violates the school’s obligation to remain neutral while acting in official capacities. 

In a response from the school district, FFRF was informed that the principal met with the coach to ensure that he will no longer be encouraging or promoting religion. The school district will also consider staff training, if needed, in the future.

FFRF Victories (December 2021)

By Casandra Zimmerman

Religious language removed from website

A teacher is no longer spreading religious messaging after a concerned citizen reported to FFRF that a Kansas City School District employee had posted her biography, which included a “Spirit Walk” section and “Wants God to receive the glory for every success and triumph,” on the district website.

In a letter written by Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald, FFRF asked that these specific posts be taken down, as they could create the impression of endorsement of religion. 

McDonald went on to say “We understand, of course, that the district cannot monitor every statement made by employees. But we do ask that it take the appropriate steps to ensure that employees are made aware of their constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion while acting in their official capacity.”

The response came from Kelly Wachel, chief marketing and communications officer of Kansas City Public Schools, who informed FFRF that the religious language was taken down and steps had been taken to avoid it in the future.

 

‘God bless America’ display removed from park

A “God bless America” digital sign was removed from a Florida city park after a concerned Pompano, Fla., resident reported that it had been on display for several weeks in August on the entrance sign to Pompano Community Park.

FFRF explained that when this phrase is proclaimed by the government, it “amounts to a declaration of orthodoxy in religion that falsely equates patriotism with piety,” and urged the city to recognize its obligation to provide all residents with an environment free from city-sponsored religious messages. 

The city assistant manager responded to report that the digital sign was removed from the park.

No more bible verses on social media posts

The superintendent of Glen Rose ISD in Texas has stopped using bible verses in social media posts after receiving a letter from FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line. A concerned resident reported that on Sept. 1, the superintendent posted a bible verse on the district’s official Facebook page. The post informed parents and students about the junior high campus closing but also included “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind. 2 Timothy 1:7.”

Line informed the superintendent that district employees and administrators can worship, pray or quote any religious text they wish when acting in their capacities. But they are not permitted to use their position as public school employees to promote and endorse their personal religious views. 

A response from the superintendent indicated that he will not do it again.

City won’t use religious pamphlet in bills 

A Minnesota city has stopped including religious promotions in their bills to residents after FFRF intervened.

A concerned Saint Clair resident reported that in July 2021, the city included an insert with a sign-up for a summer bible school in its June/July 2021 monthly newsletter and utility bill. The insert promoted “Divine Nature Camp,” a vacation bible school program.

After hearing from FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line, the city agreed that it will only include inserts appropriate for a government entity.

No more prayer meetings for players in Oklahoma 

A high school in Tecumseh, Okla., is no longer proselytizing football players and students after FFRF intervened.

A concerned community member reported that on Aug. 29, Tecumseh High School football players were required to attend a team prayer meeting on the football field while district coaches organized and led prayer at the school-sponsored event. A post on the Tecumseh Savage Football Facebook page confirmed that there was an official team prayer event held to “say a prayer over our players, cheerleaders, band members, students, coaches, and fans. 

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote a letter to Tecumseh Public Schools asking that it investigate and take action to make sure coaches and employees no longer lead students in prayer, participate in prayer with students or organize team prayer events.

Tecumseh Superintendent Robert Kinsey instructed the removal of the religious message on the school’s Facebook page, and spoke with coaches to ensure that prayers are student-led, voluntary and held off district property.

School district dress code won’t discriminate 

An Alabama school district revised its discriminatory dress code after receiving a letter from FFRF. A parent reported that the latest edition of Shelby County Schools’ Student Code of Conduct prohibited students from wearing “any sign, symbol, logo or garment, which has become synonymous with any gang, cult, Satanism, or unauthorized club or activity.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote that “A school policy that targets a particular form of religious belief, in this case, ‘Satanism,’ violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The prohibition on any sign, symbol, logo, or garment that has become synonymous with Satanism must be removed immediately.”

The school district responded to the letter saying that they are revising the Code of Conduct to address FFRF’s concerns and expect the revisions to be approved at the district’s next board meeting.

Virginia school board ends prayer at meetings

A Virginia school is no longer scheduling prayers during meetings after hearing from FFRF. 

A letter was sent to Russell County Public Schools to inform the chairman that it is unconstitutional for the board to institute prayers at its meetings. FFRF requested that the board immediately refrain from scheduling prayers as part of future school board meetings to uphold the rights of Russell County residents under the First Amendment.

The school board later let FFRF know that it no longer includes prayer on its meeting agenda and no longer leads or orchestrates a public prayer as part of its meeting.

Bible verse removed from university locker room

A Tennessee university removed a bible verse from a football locker room after FFRF’s intervention. 

It was reported that the Tennessee Tech University football locker room displayed the bible verse, “Let us not be weary in doing good, for in due season we shall reap a great reward. Galatians 6:9.”

In a letter sent to the president of Tennessee Tech University, Philip Oldham, FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line made it clear that it was “inappropriate for the university to display this religious message because it conveyed government support for religion.” 

General counsel for Oldham responded by saying that the bible verse had been removed from the locker room.

Scheduled graduation prayer ended in W.Va.

An annual student-led prayer has ended in Roane County, W.Va., after the school received a letter from FFRF.

Roane County High School used to have student-led prayers each year at the graduation. The prayers were a planned part of graduation ceremonies and were included in the official graduation program. 

Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district to let them know that by “scheduling prayers at graduation, the district abridges that duty and alienates the 38 percent of younger Americans who are not religious.”

The director of the school, LaDonna McFall, received the letter, had a conference with the principal and assured FFRF that the prayers would no longer be included in the graduation ceremonies.

District stops “See You at the Pole” events

Conroe Independent School District in Texas has stopped proselytizing students after FFRF wrote a letter to the school district. Teachers and staff members were participating in a “See You at the Pole” event at Birnham Woods Elementary School on Sept 22. 

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line reminded the district that “it cannot organize, promote, or endorse religious events like See You at the Pole.” 

In a response from the general counsel for the district, it was reported to FFRF that training has been provided to all new administrators regarding “See you at the Pole” and other similar situations in which they could encounter religious activities in the school setting. 

School-sponsored prayer ended in Louisiana 

Athletic and staff meetings at Lafourche Parish School District in Louisiana will no longer include prayer after a parent reported that the district regularly opened school-sponsored events with Christian prayer, including athletic events and staff meetings. 

On Aug. 4, the district invited a Catholic priest to pray over a staff meeting at Central Lafourche High School. The school then posted about this prayer on its official Facebook page. 

In a letter to the district, FFRF explained that a prayer taking place at a “regularly scheduled school-sponsored function conducted on school property” would lead an objective observer to perceive it as state endorsement of religion. 

Superintendent Jarod W. Martin responded and assured FFRF that the issue had been addressed and resolved.

FFRF Victories (November 2021)

By Casandra Zimmerman

Michigan district gets rid of Christian displays 

After hearing from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Michigan school district has gotten rid of unconstitutional religious iconography from its schools. 

A concerned Pewamo-Westphalia Community Schools student reported to FFRF multiple instances of religious promotion by district staff members at the middle and high school. The displays ranged from a paperweight that displayed “WWJD” or “What would Jesus do” to a cross on paper displayed with a bible quote. Teachers at the school sometimes also reportedly discussed their religious beliefs with students.

“It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Jeff Wright. 

FFRF’s missive led to official religion disappearing from Pewamo-Westphalia Community Schools — in keeping with constitutional precepts.

The superintendent met with staff and instructed them to remove “non-curricular religious displays from the classrooms and to discontinue any practices of promoting personal religious views during the school day,” an attorney for the school district informed FFRF. The superintendent also planned to do a walkthrough to make sure everything has been removed, FFRF was told.


FFRF ends Ohio school’s coach-sponsored prayer

An Ohio public high school football coach has stopped praying with players after the FFRF intervened.

According to a concerned community member, the head coach of the Liberty-Benton High School football team was requiring players to lead prayers at team meals, leading students in the Lord’s Prayer before games and leading students in post-game prayer.

“The Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools,” FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line wrote to Liberty-Benton Local Schools Superintendent Mark Kowalski. “In each of these cases, the Supreme Court struck down school-sponsored prayer because it constitutes a government advancement and endorsement of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

FFRF asked the district to take immediate action to stop any school-sponsored prayers from occurring within any district athletic programs — and that had the desired effect. Kowalski wrote back to FFRF that he will be meeting with various faculty and coaches to “discuss the sensitivities surrounding school employees being involved in prayer with students on school grounds and on school time.”


Teacher stops handing out Buddha statues

A teacher in Cincinnati Public Schools is no longer passing out Buddha statues in his classroom after FFRF contacted the district. The teacher is not Buddhist, but was passing out the statues to students as “comfort” or “good luck” items. 

FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line wrote a letter to Superintendent Daniel Hoying, reporting that not only is giving out Buddha statues unconstitutional, it could be offensive to Buddhist students, parents or staff members.

The First Amendment prohibits government entities like Walnut Hills High School from promoting or denigrating religion.

In a response from Hoying, FFRF was informed that the teacher agreed to remove the Buddha statues from his classroom and assured that he would not “repeat the passing out of a Buddha before an exam.”


Tennessee county removes religious display

A religious display containing a Latin cross with the message “The Lord bless you and keep you” was removed from the counter where residents go to renew their auto tags at the Hardin County, Tenn., Courthouse Annex building.

A concerned Hardin County resident informed FFRF of the cross. Staff Attorney Christopher Line wrote a letter to  County Clerk Paula Robinson Wilhite. In it, Line informs her that many court cases have upheld that the First Amendment “mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,” and that having the cross display creates the perception that the government is endorsing Christianity. 

In response, Wilhite sent a photo that showed the office without the cross and wrote, “My employee’s cross has been removed.”


Iowa superintendent to stop proselytizing

In Iowa, South Hardin Community Schools Superintendent Adam Zellmer will stop proselytizing through official district email after FFRF contacted him.

A concerned district employee reported to FFRF that the superintendent had been discussing “religious beliefs, quoting bible verses, and sermons” through emails to the school staff. Some examples include: “The pastor at my brother’s church had an amazing message on Sunday that tied in directly with the State Wrestling Tournament,” and “My faith in Jesus Christ is the foundation on which I strive to not only follow, but also lead from.”

Staff Attorney Christopher Line sent a letter to the superintendent, telling him that when a superintendent uses official channels to promote personal religious beliefs, it creates the impression in the minds of nonreligious district employees that they are “outsiders, not full members of the political community,” as well as to immediately quit preaching his beliefs to district staff members through official district channels. 

Zellmer reassured FFRF that he would be more cognizant of writing to his staff and consider their rights and freedoms.


Counselor will no longer lead graduation prayer

A concerned Iberville Parish Schools (La.) community member has reported multiple instances of religious promotion through a teacher-led prayer at a graduation ceremony and a speech given by a preacher that invoked Christian scripture and called on the Christian god at White Castle High School. 

These activities go against the Constitution and can alienate students, parents and teachers who are not Christian, FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line wrote to Superintendent Arthur M. Joffrion. Line urged him to no longer host baccalaureate services and discontinue scheduling prayer at future school-sponsored activities. 

Joffrion responded to FFRF to report that he had spoken with White Castle High School’s principal to remind him that the school has certain obligations under the First Amendment. He also specifically let the principal know that the scheduled prayer and holding of any religious school events are unacceptable under the Constitution. 


Coaches stop participating in student-led prayer

Coaches that participate in a student-led prayer are violating the Constitution, FFRF told the superintendent of the Poyen School District in Arkansas. 

After photos were posted showing the football team standing together with its coaches in prayer, FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald wrote a letter to  Superintendent Ronnie Kissire, pointing out that the Supreme Court has continually struck down school-sponsored prayer in public schools and that the district must stop the school-sponsored prayers immediately.

Kissire responded to let FFRF know that the school no longer anticipates any further concerns.

FFRF victories (Oct. 2021)

By Casandra Zimmerman

N.D. basketball coach stops praying with team

In North Dakota, a Mott/Regent School District basketball coach will no longer participate in his team’s prayers after games. 

A district resident informed FFRF that the Mott/Regent basketball team concluded every game with a prayer, and that the coach had been a participant. 

FFRF’s Patrick O’Reilly Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald sent a letter to Superintendent Willie Thibault, informing him that a coach participating in prayer in their official capacity can equate to the school’s endorsement of religion. 

Rachel A. Bruner, representing the Mott/ Regent School District, wrote to FFRF assuring that no coach would engage in prayer with students at a public event and that all coaches will be reminded of the implications of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Texas school board ends prayers at meetings

The school board in Duncanville, Texas, has stopped opening its board meetings with prayer after FFRF got involved.

A concerned Village Tech Schools parent contacted FFRF stating that the board had been opening each meeting with a prayer, which was included on the meeting agenda. FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line wrote a letter to Chairman Daniel Price, requesting that, instead of a prayer, a moment of silence “would allow the board’s meetings to come to order without ostracizing portion of those in attendance.” 

Joseph Hoffer, attorney for Village Tech Schools, responded to FFRF’s letter, stating that the school took immediate action in getting rid of the prayer and replacing it with “moment of inspiration.”

FFRF gets grad ceremony changes made in S.D.

Unconstitutional prayer at a South Dakota graduation and school sponsorship of baccalaureate ceremony will not happen again, the superintendent of Menno Public School District insists.

A letter from FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald was sent to Superintendent Tom Rice after a district parent contacted FFRF. The letter stated that “the school’s role in hosting the baccalaureate on school property, scheduling it immediately before graduation, and live-streaming the two events together would cause any reasonable graduating senior or parent to conclude that the district endorses the religious messages espoused at these services.”

A response from Rice included how the school would conduct graduation ceremonies in the future to not violate the Constitution and plans to move the baccalaureate ceremony somewhere other than school property. 

Invocation, benediction removed from ceremony

Invocations and benedictions are no longer included in Orville (Ohio) City School District’s graduation ceremonies.

A student’s parents notified FFRF that their daughter’s graduation ceremony contained multiple state/church violations, such as an invocation, a benediction, and a commencement address given by a local pastor, who said, among other things, “You are either heading toward God or away from God. Please remember today that prayer and faith will always point you in God’s direction. Do your best not to go in the wrong direction.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald wrote in a letter to Superintendent Jon Ritchie that “The court stated that in this context, ‘Regardless of the listener’s support for, or objection to, the message, an objective . . . student will unquestionably perceive the inevitable . . . stamped with her school’s seal of approval.’” 

Ritchie responded by quoting the Board of Education’s policy manual and affirming that the ceremony will include neither benediction nor invocation. Student remarks will also be reviewed beforehand to ensure they follow the policy and the law.

Ky. school will not use ‘prayer lockers’ anymore

A Carter County middle school in Kentucky is no longer implementing a program that involved “prayer lockers,” in which students were informed of four lockers that a prayer team would check and would be “honored to take your concerns to Our Heavenly Father on your behalf!” 

FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line sent a letter to the Superintendent Ronnie Dotson. In the letter, Line asked the district to remove all prayer lockers from district property, as “the district serves a diverse student body that consists of not only Christians, but also minority religious and nonreligious students.”

Ryan Tomolonis, director of personnel, responded and said that after talking with both Dotson and the East Carter Middle School principal Aaron Baldwin, that the program would no longer be implemented.

School to train faculty on state/church issue

A school-sanctioned invocation and prayer at Loftis Middle School in Hamilton, Tenn., are not going to happen again after FFRF sent a letter to Scott Bennett, counsel for the school. 

Principal Mary Gaitlin had instructed students and parents to “bow their heads and pray,” and later a student recited a prayer that ended “in Jesus’ name.” FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald reminded Bennett in the letter that “The Supreme Court has settled this matter — graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students.” 

Bennett responded, letting FFRF know that the school will hold training for all the faculty on the separation of state and church. 

Texas school won’t post bible studies on Facebook

Amarillo Independent School District in Texas has stopped promoting bible studies and other religious activities on its Facebook page.

A concerned parent contacted FFRF to report that South Georgia Elementary School had been promoting different bible study groups on its Facebook page. FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line sent a letter to Superintendent Doug Loomis, informing him that posting bible clubs on the school’s page can amount to the promotion of religion. 

FFRF received a response from attorney Andrea Slater Gulley, who informed Line that after reviewing standards for appropriate use of district-operated social media, it was decided that the accounts would only be used “for promoting campus announcements.”

FFRF Victories (August 2021)

By Stephanie Dyer

Large cross removed from Kentucky courthouse

The city of Elkton, Ky., has removed a large cross display from its courthouse after FFRF intervened.

Last year, FFRF was informed that the city had a large Latin cross overlaid with the design of the American flag on display in a window at the Old Todd County Courthouse.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Mayor Arthur Green, informing him that it was inappropriate and unconstitutional for a government-owned building to include a religious display, and requesting that the cross be removed from the courthouse.

City attorney Jeffrey B. Traughber informed FFRF that this issue has been resolved. “The cross display was not sanctioned by the city and is no longer on display to the public,” Traughber wrote. 

Tenn. district removes baccalaureate item

Roane County School District in Kingston, Tenn., has apologized and taken action to remedy a recurring state/church violation in the district.

A member of the community contacted FFRF to report that Rockwood High School once again was promoting a baccalaureate service on the school calendar. FFRF had previously written to the district about this issue in 2018 and 2019 and had been assured that the inclusion of the baccalaureate service on the school calendar was a mistake and would not happen again.

In his letter to the director of schools, FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald reminded the district of these past issues and recommended that school staff receive further training on the Establishment Clause.

Director of Schools LaDonna McFall followed up with the school principal, who apologized and removed the event. She will also be meeting with school staff to clarify what can and cannot be put on the school calendar. McFall also said that she will “re-train principals regarding what is appropriate and inappropriate in terms of separation of church and state before the 2021-2022 school year resumes.”

Louisiana school removes religious display

The East Baton Rouge Parish School System in Louisiana has removed a religious display after being reminded of its constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion.

A concerned member of the community reached out to FFRF to report that Glen Oaks Park Magnet School displayed a religious plaque outside the principal’s office. The plaque reads: “Pray More, Worry Less.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line wrote to the district’s superintendent and requested that the inappropriate and unconstitutional religious display be removed. “Courts have continually held that school districts may not display religious messages or iconography in public schools,” Line wrote, emphasizing public schools’ constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion.

In a phone call with a representative of the school system, FFRF was informed that the religious plaque has been removed. 

Commissioners stop prayers at meetings

The Franklin County (Wash.) Board of Commissioners in Pasco has stopped scheduling a time of prayer for its board meetings.

FFRF was informed that the Board of Commissioners recently began opening its meetings with prayer and were considering making this a permanent practice for the Board.

FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line wrote to the commissioners, urging them to reconsider the prayer practice, noting that “prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate, and divisive.”

Franklin County Administrator Keith Johnson responded to FFRF’s letter and reported that, after discussion and obtaining legal advice, the commissioners discontinued the time of prayer. “We recognize the separation of church and state that must prevail in public meetings,” Johnson wrote. 

Florida school district ceases religious club

A public school district in Florida has addressed concerns about a religious club operating in a local secondary school. 

A member of the community reported to FFRF that Milwee Middle School Pre-Engineering Magnet in Sanford has a Fellowship of Christian Athletes club that is run by a local pastor.

FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line wrote to the attorney for Seminole County Public Schools reminding them that schools cannot allow outside adults to “regularly participate, organize or lead” religious student organizations, and any teacher involvement cannot exceed a supervisory capacity.

The attorney for Seminole County Public Schools responded and informed FFRF that they spoke with the school principal and addressed our concerns. 

FFRF discovered that the school had also removed the FCA club’s listing on the school’s website.

Okla. coach told to remove preachy videos

An athletics coach for Arapaho-Butler Public Schools in Arapaho, Okla., was told to remove religious videos from social media that were filmed on school property without permission. 

A local community member contacted FFRF to report that Matt Oakes, a softball coach and teacher at Arapaho-Butler High School, was using his position to preach to students. Oakes helped found a sports-based ministry called “Crossing Home” that he used, along with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, to promote his religious beliefs to students. Coach Oakes and other school staff have been seen proselytizing in videos posted on the Crossing Home’s Facebook and YouTube pages. These videos were filmed on the high school’s athletic field.

FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line wrote to Superintendent Jay Edlen, requesting that the district investigate this issue and take action to ensure school coaches and teachers are not using their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to students. 

Superintendent Edelen responded, informing FFRF that the videos seen on the Crossing Home’s social media accounts were done without the school’s knowledge, and the district requested that the videos be taken down. “It is the policy of Arapaho-Butler Public Schools that no teacher or coach should use their position to promote or endorse their religious beliefs on students,” Edelen wrote. 

Colorado school district ends church’s access

A Colorado school district has ended a church’s access to a local school.

A concerned Eagle County Schools community member had informed FFRF that Redeemer Eagle Valley, a Christian church that rents facilities from Brush Creek Elementary School, was advertising and distributing bibles to elementary school students. The church had a display up during school-sponsored summer school that included a Latin cross and which promoted bibles to students along with a sign reading “FREE BIBLES !!!”     

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Eagle County Schools Superintendent Philip Qualman: “Courts have continually held that school districts may not display religious messages or iconography in public schools.” Nor may bibles be distributed to public school students. 

The school district responded to FFRF in a respectful manner.

“I’m grateful to know that organizations like FFRF exist, and can advocate on behalf of those who feel the separation of church and state is at risk,” the superintendent emailed back, after detailing the steps that Brush Creek Elementary has taken to make certain that the constitutional violations won’t recur. 

Staff instructed to stop promoting religion

The Lee County School District in Mississippi has taken action to ensure teachers won’t violate their students’ rights.

A district parent reported to FFRF that a kindergarten teacher at Saltillo Primary School in Tupelo was decorating her classroom with religious displays, including images of Bethlehem, a painting of Jesus in the manger with the three wise men and a wooden cross, and that she was frequently promoting her religious beliefs to students. The teacher had reportedly told students that she believed in Jesus and instructed them to complete religious assignments, like making a painting of Bethlehem that included “Jesus, mom, dad, and the three wise men.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald wrote to the superintendent of Lee County Schools, alerting him to the constitutional violations occurring in the district. 

The superintendent informed FFRF that the school principal investigated the allegations and has communicated with school staff the importance of not using their position to promote their own personal religious or other beliefs. FFRF was also informed that the teacher in question had resigned, and the principal will continue to remind staff not to promote or endorse religion in the classroom.

New Jersey post office removes cross display

A cross display has been removed from a post office in Pine Brook, N.J. FFRF received a complaint from a member of the community that a Christian rosary was displayed on the wall of the post office. 

FFRF Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler wrote to the postmaster and reminded him that was a violation of the U.S. Constitution and post office regulations. She asked that the rosary be immediately removed from postal property. 

The district manager for the Northern New Jersey District and an attorney for the Postal Service’s Northeast – New York Law Office both responded to the letter and advised that the rosary, apparently a lost item from a customer, had been removed. 

FFRF wins court case vs. Texas Gov. Abbott

FFRF’s Bill of Rights nativity

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has been granted relief in its six-year lawsuit challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s censorship of its Winter Solstice display in the Texas Capitol.

On May 6, U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel ruled in favor of FFRF in its federal challenge of censorship of its freethought display in the Capitol in 2015. Yeakel ordered declaratory and injunctive relief to ensure that Abbott and the State Preservation Board will not violate FFRF’s free speech rights in the future.

“This is a great victory for free speech rights, especially of minority viewpoints, including nonreligious citizens whose voices must be equally respected,” says FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert.

The court, after officially rendering its verdict in favor of FFRF’s First Amendment freedom-of-speech claim, granted it protection from future viewpoint censorship and issued an injunction and this declaration: “It is further ordered and declared that defendants violate the Foundation’s First Amendment rights and engage in viewpoint discrimination as a matter of law when they exclude the Foundation’s exhibit based on the perceived offensiveness of its message.”

FFRF, with help from members and with requisite sponsorship by a legislator, had placed a Winter Solstice display in the state Capitol in December 2015 as a response to a Christian nativity. FFRF’s whimsical display depicted the Founders and the Statue of Liberty celebrating the “birth” of the Bill of Rights (which was adopted on Dec. 15, 1791). 

Abbott, as chair of the Texas State Preservation Board, while permitting the Christian exhibit, ordered FFRF’s display removed only three days after it was erected, lambasting it as indecent, mocking and contributing to public immorality.

FFRF initially won its lawsuit at the district court level, which ruled that Abbott and the State Preservation Board had violated FFRF’s free speech rights. In April 2020, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that FFRF was entitled to more permanent, lasting relief than the district court initially awarded, and sent the case back to that court. On May 6, the district court granted FFRF prospective relief by enjoining Abbott and the board from censoring FFRF’s speech in the future.

Gaylor notes that the fastest-growing segment of the population are the “Nones” — religiously unaffiliated Americans. FFRF has almost 1,500 members in Texas.

FFRF’s relief was greatly delayed, thanks to a stunt pulled by the State Preservation Board. 

Two weeks before the parties’ briefs were due to the district court, the board made slight adjustments to its exhibit policies, including a dubious declaration that all future exhibits in the Capitol would be considered “government speech.” In its subsequent briefing to the district court, FFRF successfully argued that these surface-level changes did not alter the true nature of the forum for citizen speech in the Texas Capitol. The court rejected the state’s argument that FFRF’s lawsuit no longer involved a live controversy and that the case was thus moot.

FFRF is represented by Associate Counsel Sam Grover and Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott, with attorney Rich Bolton of Boardman and Clark LLP serving as litigation counsel.

FFRF wins lawsuit against praying Texas judge

Wayne Mack

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has won its court challenge to stop a Texas judge from conducting courtroom prayer.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt ruled May 21 in favor of plaintiffs FFRF and local attorney “John Roe.” They had sued Montgomery County Judge Wayne Mack over his divisive and unconstitutional practice of opening each court session with chaplain-led prayer. Mack, as a justice of the peace, has jurisdiction over minor misdemeanor offenses and lesser civil matters. Montgomery County is north of Houston, and its county seat is Conroe.

The decision reads: “The court is of the view that the defendant violates the Establishment Clause when, before a captured audience of litigants and their counsel, he presents himself as theopneustically inspired, enabling him to advance, through the chaplaincy program, God’s ‘larger purpose.’ Such a magnanimous goal flies in the face of historical tradition, and makes a mockery of both religion and law.”

FFRF welcomes this judgment declaring at long last that Mack cannot continue abusing his authority to coerce attorneys, litigants and other citizens into participating in his courtroom prayers.

“A courtroom is not a church, and a judge’s bench is not a pulpit,” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Today’s ruling is a victory for the constitutional rights of all Americans and for equal justice under the law.”

FFRF and Roe, who originally challenged the courtroom prayers in March 2017, due to various technical reasons, refiled the case against Mack in 2019.

Mack, a formerly ordained minister who attended Jackson College of Ministries, made the unprecedented decision to solicit chaplains to open his court sessions with prayer, a practice not replicated by any other court in the country. Despite numerous complaints regarding the practice, Mack insisted on opening his court session with chaplain-led prayer. Attendees have reported Mack surveying the courtroom during prayers, causing concern that their cases would be affected if they did not participate. Mack’s bailiff announced the prayers, stating that anyone could leave during the prayer, but then locked the courtroom doors. Mack entered, talked about his chaplaincy program, introduced a chaplain, and gave the name and location of the chaplain’s church. While everyone in the courtroom remained standing, the chaplain, who was almost always Christian, delivered a prayer, with no guidelines regarding permissible content.

Since entering the lawsuit, Roe has regularly declined business in order to avoid appearing in Mack’s courtroom. On some matters, where a district court has concurrent jurisdiction with Mack’s court, Roe elected to bring claims in the district court instead of Mack’s court, despite the higher filing fees, higher service fees and the generally slower docket, in order to avoid Mack’s prayer practice. These decisions, motivated by a desire to avoid government-prescribed prayer, are not choices that any attorney or private litigant should have to make, FFRF argued in its briefings.

FFRF’s suit asserted that Mack’s prayer practice is unconstitutionally coercive, with a primary purpose and effect of promoting religion. FFRF noted that Mack’s practices cannot be compared to legislative prayer. Unlike legislative prayer, Mack’s courtroom chaplains directed their prayers to the audience, not the judge. And in the courtroom setting many of the audience members are compelled, under threat of a warrant issuing for their arrest or other ordered penalties, to appear in the courtroom. Judge Hoyt agreed that the prayers were coercive.

While this latest decision resolves the case, the court issued a ruling on March 25 granting FFRF and its plaintiff Roe default judgment against Mack in his official capacity as a judicial officer. Because the state of Texas elected not to defend the lawsuit, plaintiffs Roe and FFRF moved for, and were granted, a default judgment declaring: “Judge Mack’s courtroom prayer practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” Plaintiffs plan to seek recovery of their attorneys’ fees and costs against the state.

“In a time where the wall of separation between state and church is continually chipped away, this decision is welcomed for its straightforward and accurate interpretation of the Establishment Clause, noting the prayer practice ‘flies in the face’ of our traditions,” comments FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert.

FFRF and Roe are being represented by FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover, with FFRF Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell and Attorney Ayesha Khan of Washington, D.C., serving as co-counsel.

FFRF Victories (June/July 2021)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

State-church violations remedied in Georgia

FFRF has remedied two state/church violations in Camden County Schools in Kingsland, Ga. 

A local community member reported that, earlier this year, students at David L. Rainer Elementary School were required to line up and walk through the lobby of the school where a member of the infamous Gideons International offered them a bible. Students were reportedly told that taking the bible was optional, but that all students were required to stand in line and be offered a bible. This apparently had been occurring annually.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent John Tucker, alerting the district to the Gideons’ insidious operating structure to successfully usurp parental power and constitutional limitations on religious promotion in public schools to target young, impressionable students. The district may not, FFRF emphasized, allow the Gideons or any other religious groups to enter school property and distribute religious material. 

Additionally, FFRF was recently made aware that teachers at Matilda Harris Elementary School were leading students in daily lunchtime prayers. These prayers were reportedly made “In Jesus’ name.”

Line sent Tucker a second letter of complaint, urging the district to also make certain that none of its employees are unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters by leading prayer, encouraging them to pray, or setting aside time for prayer. 

Tucker sent a letter of response to each of FFRF’s complaints, with assurances that the staff members involved have been spoken to about their constitutional obligations surrounding students’ rights of conscience.

“I am confident that staff and volunteers will honor both the letter and the intent of the Constitution, its principles, and applicable statutes,” Tucker wrote.

No more baccalaureate event in N.C. district

A public school district in North Carolina has distanced itself from a religious baccalaureate event after impermissibly entangling with it. 

A concerned parent in Lenoir, N.C., reported that the Caldwell County Schools district was organizing and sponsoring a baccalaureate in May 2021. The complainant reported that tickets for the event were being managed by South Caldwell High School and that the event was scheduled to take place in the school’s gym. While the event was apparently not mandatory, the school reportedly told parents and teachers that attendance was “highly encouraged.” The event was also apparently organized by school staff and promoted on the school’s official website.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Donald Phipps alerting the district that this type of religious promotion by a public school is impermissible. FFRF asked that the district end all involvement with the baccalaureate service to avoid the perception of school sponsorship of religious activities.

FFRF was informed that the district has moved this event to the local church that is sponsoring the baccalaureate and has stopped promoting it on behalf of the district. 

School won’t resurrect religious promotion   

Administration in Big Sandy Independent School District in Dallardsville, Texas, has taken action to remedy a serious state/church violation occurring in its school. 

A district parent reported multiple instances of religious promotion and endorsement occurring at Big Sandy Elementary School. The parent reported that for Easter, a kindergarten teacher at the school gave students “resurrection eggs,” which were Easter eggs with something related to Jesus inside, and had students color “Jesus is love” pictures that included a large Latin cross. The teacher also reportedly was regularly teaching students about Christianity and their “Lord and Savior.” 

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district asking that it take immediate action to ensure that none of its employees are unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters by giving them religious assignments, teaching about religion, or promoting their personal religious beliefs. 

Superintendent Eric Carpenter informed FFRF in a letter of response that it is taking the reports seriously. “To the extent that any employee of BSISD is violating the law, the district will address it with that employee to ensure that no violations occur in the future,” Carpenter wrote.

FFRF stops politicking at church voting site 

Polling places in the parish of East Baton Rouge, La., will be reminded of their obligation to refrain from partisan politicking prior to and on election day. 

FFRF was informed that during the November 2020 election, Woodlawn Baptist Church was illegally promoting a ballot item while the church was being used as a polling place. While voting was happening, the church displayed a sign on its lawn that read, “Vote Yes on #1,” a constitutional amendment which was on the ballot.

FFRF Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler wrote to county officials urging the county to seriously reconsider allowing area churches to be used as polling places, and at the very least to ensure that churches that are used as polling places are following the law and not promoting any particular political stance. 

FFRF received a letter of response from Registrar of Voters Steve Raborn that provided assurances that the leader of the church has apologized for not removing the sign before election day, calling it “an oversight.” More significantly, however, the Clerk of Court’s office in the parish of East Baton Rouge has “agreed to add language to their pre-election letters to all polling places reminding them of state law pertaining to campaign signs at and near polling places.”

Silence is golden at N.C. school meetings

Brunswick County Schools in Bolivia, N.C., has replaced scheduled prayer before meetings with a moment of silence. 

A local resident alerted FFRF that the Brunswick County School Board had been opening its meetings with prayer, including references to “our heavenly father.” Meeting attendees, including students, have reportedly been asked to stand for the invocations, which were then led by Board Chair Ellen G. Milligan. 

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Jerry Oates urging the board to refrain from engaging in prayer at its meetings. When a government entity like the school board engages in prayer at its meetings, FFRF’s letter emphasized, it violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by showing preference for religious belief. 

In a letter of response from the board’s attorney, FFRF was informed that the board has decided to instead open its meetings with a one-minute period of silence.

FFRF lawsuit ends voter religious test

Citizens can now opt out of
‘so help me God’ on Alabama’s form 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has attained a huge constitutional victory for secular voters in Alabama.

FFRF sued the Alabama secretary of state last October on behalf of four Alabama citizens who encountered and objected to a religious test to register to vote.

Now that the state of Alabama has amended all its voter registration forms to allow citizens to opt out of the religious oath, both online and in printed forms, FFRF has voluntarily dismissed its federal lawsuit challenging the uniquely Alabamian mandatory religious voter registration oath.

“The Alabama secretary of state excludes Alabama citizens from being able to vote if they are unable to swear a religious oath,” stated the suit. “The secretary of state’s official policy is to hinder the registration of voters who are unable to swear ‘so help me God.’ This policy violates the rights of the plaintiffs and others under the First and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution.”

As part of a settlement, Alabama Secretary of State John H. Merrill has amended all of the voter registration forms to allow voters to avoid swearing a religious oath. The new “mail in” form provides a check box that says, “Optional: Because of a sincerely held belief, I decline to include the final four words of the oath above.”

Shortly after the suit was filed, the secretary of state began implementing other changes. In November, the office adopted a new administrative rule that allows voters to strike out “so help me God” and provided guidance to county registrars (who add voters to the 

rolls) saying that voters could cross out the language.

The lead plaintiff, Randall Cragun, an atheist, had sought to register to vote in Alabama since November 2019. However, voters submitting this registration form in Alabama had to sign the voter declaration, beginning “I solemnly swear or affirm” and concluding with “so help me God.” The director of elections informed Cragun: “There is no legal mechanism to register to vote in Alabama without signing the oath as it is stated.”

The state of Alabama has dramatically changed its posture, thanks to FFRF’s lawsuit.

FFRF’s plaintiffs Chris Nelson and Heather Coleman (who are married) were able to register using the new form in March. Both of their registrations were accepted by the Shelby County registrars. “We are glad that the state has — at least, begrudgingly — made some concessions to support state-church separation, and that freethinkers in Alabama will continue to push for these reforms,” they say.

The other plaintiffs have expressed their appreciation for no longer being forced to pose as religious in order to exercise such a basic right.

“Because of this suit, I will finally be able to register to vote in Alabama,” says Cragun. “It is disappointing that the state prevented me from voting in the 2020 elections, but I am looking forward to participating in the future, and I now have a better appreciation of the value my voice and other individual voices contribute to shaping the state.”

Adds co-plaintiff Robert Corker, “I am proud to have been a part of this effort to secularize voting in the state of Alabama. I relish more opportunities to foster inclusiveness for nonbelievers in this state.”

Cragun thanked FFRF for stepping in where others wouldn’t. 

“I am so grateful to FFRF for pursuing this case,” he said. “Before FFRF took on the case, I spent a few months contacting attorneys and made no progress. I became discouraged by the idea that the state could infringe on my rights without me having any hope of doing something about it. I have heard people accuse FFRF of coming in from out of state to interfere with local matters, and I think anyone who has taken that rhetoric seriously should know that FFRF is helping protect the rights of its members like me. I never thought that I had much power to protect my rights until FFRF helped give me a voice.”

FFRF is honored to play its part of securing voting access for all Alabama residents.

“The secretary of state was consciously discriminating against nonbelieving voters,” says FFRF Senior Litigation Counsel Patrick Elliott. “We obtained our goal of ensuring equal voting rights.”

The lawsuit had been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, Southern Division. Steven P. Gregory of the Birmingham-based Gregory Law Firm was serving as co-counsel. FFRF Senior Litigation Counsel Patrick Elliott and FFRF Associate Counsel Liz Cavell were also attorneys in the case. The defendant was Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill.

FFRF litigation to correct state/church entanglements is made possible thanks to kind donations designated to FFRF’s legal fund.

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.”