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.”

Town removes biblical display for kids after FFRF intervenes

FFRF has persuaded a Massachusetts town into removing a religious display from a library playground.

A concerned community member contacted FFRF to report that the Ashburnham Library playground featured a turning picture game describing the biblical tale of Noah and the Ark. Each section of the turning game contained a passage from the genocidal tale, which was paraphrased from the book of Genesis in order to be more easily understood by young children. For instance, one section read: “Once there was a man named Noah who was warned by God of a great flood. Noah began to build an ark that was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high.”

Federal courts have held displays of religious symbols on public property to be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, FFRF stressed.

“It is settled that permanent displays on public land are government speech,” FFRF Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler wrote to Ashburnham Board of Selectmen Chair Leo Janssens. “It makes no difference whether this part of the playground was donated to the city. As a permanent fixture, observers understand that the display is sanctioned and approved by the city.”

The display of this vengeful biblical tale on public property conferred government endorsement of religion, FFRF added. It was especially troublesome that this display was aimed squarely at young children using the public library. The government should not be using public grounds to promote bible stories to the most impressionable members of society, FFRF emphasized.

The town must remove this Noah’s Ark display from the playground and refrain from approving any such displays in the future, FFRF insisted.

City officials read FFRF’s message loud and clear.

“Thank you for bringing this matter to the town’s attention,” Ashburnham Town Administrator Brian Doheny recently emailed the state/church watchdog. “In response to your letter, the town has painted over both sides of the display with white paint so that no symbolism is shown (see attached pictures).”

FFRF appreciates the city’s prompt action.

“We’re pleased the town realized that allowing biblical preaching to children at a public institution isn’t in keeping with our nation’s secular ideals,” says Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

FFRF victories roundup (September 2020)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

Alabama

Gideons International — the infamous evangelical association — will no longer be distributing bibles in Autauga County Schools in Prattville.

A concerned district parent reported that a teacher at Daniel Pratt Elementary School used the school’s official communication channels to send a message to all parents: “The Gideons come every year to distribute bibles to any fifth-grade student who wants to have one.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district, urging it to take immediate action to ensure that it no longer facilitates the distribution of bibles to students.

The district’s attorney informed FFRF in a letter of response that the superintendent was made aware of the issue and will “address the inappropriate use of Autauga County Board of Education’s communication’s channels for non-school-related matters, including but not limited to, the distribution of Gideon bibles with all board personnel.

California

A Long Beach Unified School District teacher will no longer be promoting the religious “Good News Club.”

A teacher at Colin Powell Elementary School reportedly founded and was running a Good News Club for first- and second-grade students that met in her classroom. Other adults, at least some of whom are district employees, reportedly also helped to organize the club and “bring the gospel message” to students.

Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Superintendent Chris Steinhauser asking that he inform staff that school-sponsored religious activity, like this club, violates the Constitution as well as the rights of conscience of students.

The district’s attorney has informed FFRF that the teacher leading the Good New Club has been told to stop while in her role as a public school teacher.

Georgia

Thomas County Schools events will no longer contain school-sponsored prayer.

A Thomas County Central High School student alerted FFRF that the school’s 2020 graduation ceremony opened with a scheduled invocation. Everyone in attendance was instructed to rise for the prayer and it was delivered “in Jesus’ name.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district reminding it that the Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events and that, in order to protect the rights of all its students, the district must no longer allow invocations at official events.

The district’s attorney informed FFRF in a letter of response that the district has reviewed the relevant legal requirements and will adhere to them in the future. “The district takes very seriously its responsibility to protect the rights of all students,” the letter reads.

Iowa

School officials in the Logan-Magnolia Community School District will no longer send out religious messages to district families.

In April, the district sent a mass email to parents that endorsed Easter and religion. The email read, in part: “Easter is normally a time of rebirth and bringing together of family. Unfortunately, the coronavirus has thrown our entire world upside down.” The email concluded: “And, in the end, take time to thank God for all your blessings. Your children are a blessing, and now more than ever, you need them to give you hope for the future.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Tom Ridder to ensure that future communications do not include religious messages or endorse religious holidays. Ridder confirmed in a reply email that the district will comply.

Illinois

A religious event has been removed from a Community Unit School District #200 summer activity handout in Wheaton.

A district parent informed FFRF that the district sent out a “Summer Choice Board” handout to parents via email which provided various summer activities for students to participate in. One of these activities, “Summerfest Goes Wild,” was a Christian worship event presented by Highpoint Church. The event began with a woman explaining, “We are here for one reason, and that’s to get to know who God is and his great love for each of us.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Jeff Schuler reminding him that the district may not encourage students to attend a Christian worship event. Schuler informed FFRF in a letter of response that the event has been removed from the handout.

Louisiana

Rapides Parish Schools in Alexandria has addressed several church/state issues raised by FFRF.

A concerned community member reported that Brame Middle School has begun each school year by inviting a local church to its faculty meetings to pray with and preach to teachers and staff. Teachers have reportedly been told they cannot leave during this portion of the meetings. Additionally, teachers and staff at the school had been regularly participating in student Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) meetings, often by signing praise songs with students. Finally, many classrooms throughout the school featured religious displays, including crosses and bible verses.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the district, pointing out the constitutional concerns with each of these reported violations and urging it to immediately cease prayer at faculty meetings, staff participation in student religious practices and display of religious symbols and messages in the classrooms.

The district’s attorney responded to FFRF’s letter with assurances that these complaints were addressed by the school principal.

Michigan

Coaches in Muskegon Public Schools will no longer be leading their athletic teams in prayer.

A district community member reported that the Muskegon High School’s head football coach was leading the team in prayer after games and practices.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Superintendent Matthew Cortez reminding the district that it is illegal for public school coaches to lead their players in prayer and that this practice must cease.

The district’s attorney informed FFRF that Cortez will be directing all coaches to cease prayers with team members. “All coaches will be educated on the constitutional limitations of prayer in public schools,” the attorney noted.

Mississippi

Booneville School District has addressed concerns over an overtly religious flyer that was sent home with students before Christmas last year.

A Booneville community member reported that Anderson Elementary School’s kindergarten teachers sent a letter home with students asking children and parents to “remember the true ‘REASON FOR THE SEASON’” next to a drawing of a Christian nativity scene.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the district’s attorney urging officials to ensure that district employees refrain from spreading messages that promote religious practices in accordance with their First Amendment obligations.

The district informed FFRF has addressed the matter internally.

Nebraska

The Ashland Police Department is doing an audit of its social media page to redress inappropriate religious content.

It was reported that the department was regularly promoting Christianity on its official Facebook page. In March, the department posted an image that depicted fictionalized quotes from Satan and Jesus. Satan said, “I will cause anxiety, fear and panic. I will shut down business, schools, places of worship and sports events. I will cause economic turmoil.” Jesus said: “I will bring together neighbors, restore the family unit, I will bring dinner back to the kitchen table. I will help people slow down their lives and appreciate what really matters. I will teach my children to rely on me and not the world. I will teach my children to trust me and not their money and material resources. AMEN!”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Police Chief Joseph Baudler pointing out the constitutional issue with this post and others like it. FFRF urged the department to remove all social media posts promoting religion and refrain from posting such content in the future.

Baudler informed FFRF via email that the department will be conducting an audit of its Facebook content and has removed the religious posts.

New Mexico

The city of Truth or Consequences has pledged to more closely scrutinize any public recognition of churches after a recent anniversary proclamation crossed the line into religious endorsement.

Earlier this year, the city proclaimed April 26 to be “First Baptist Church 100th Anniversary Celebration Day.” In its proclamation, the city explicitly endorsed the religious mission and views of the First Baptist Church.

The proclamation reads, in part: “Whereas for the past one hundred years the First Baptist Church of Truth or Consequences has faithfully demonstrated the love of God, communicated the Word of God and developed the Family of God.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Mayor Sandy Whitehead pointing out the constitutional issues with the city issuing such a proclamation. While FFRF recognizes the city may acknowledge and honor local organizations for their history and contributions to the community, it cannot explicitly endorse the religious views and mission of the church, presenting the doctrine as true thereby indicating the city’s endorsement of that religious mission.

The city’s attorney sent a letter of response informing FFRF that, while it was not the city’s intention to endorse the church’s religious message, it understands the present constitutional concerns and will exercise further caution in the future.

North Carolina

County bus drivers in Duplin County have ceased playing proselytizing radio stations on the public bus.

A local resident informed FFRF that many of the drivers for the Duplin County Transportation Department had been playing Christian radio stations that included religious music as well as sermons while riders were present. Several of the drivers reportedly also attempted to discuss God and Jesus with their riders.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the department of transportation informing the county that bus drivers may not continue to proselytize to bus riders while working in their official capacity as government employees.

Director of Duplin County Public Transportation Angel Venecia responded to FFRF with assurances that the county would promptly investigate and remedy the issue.

Ohio

LaBrae Local School District meetings in Leavittsburg will no longer begin with prayer.

A district community member alerted FFRF that the May 11 school board meeting opened with a Christian prayer. FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to School Board President Russell Sewell informing him that it is unconstitutional for the board to institute prayers at its meetings and requesting that it immediately refrain from including prayer at board meetings.

Sewell informed FFRF in a letter of response: “Effective with the June 8, 2020, meeting and all subsequent meetings, the LaBrae Local School Board will refrain from including a prayer at the openings of the Board meetings.”

Oregon

A local church will no longer advertise on Salem-Keizer Public Schools property.

A local community member contacted FFRF to report that signs advertising Way of Life Fellowship’s Sunday service have been placed on the grounds of Battle Creek Elementary School. These signs had apparently been on school grounds for over six months, even during times when Way of Life Fellowship is not renting the property.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Superintendent Christy Perry to ensure that, moving forward, Way of Life Fellowship is only using or displaying messages at times when it is actually renting the property.

The district’s attorney informed FFRF that the sign had been left up inadvertently, has since been removed and the church was notified that it cannot let a sign remain on district property.

FFRF Victories (August 2020)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

FFRF has Gideons barred from Ga. school district

A Georgia school district has stopped the Gideons from distributing bibles in a number of schools after FFRF raised several objections.

Many parents reported to FFRF that Ebenezer Elementary School and Marlow Elementary School in the Effingham County Schools system allowed Gideons to enter classrooms, preach to students about the significance of the bible, and distribute bibles to young students, including our complainants’ children. Every child was reportedly given a bible (although they were told that they could return it to the teacher if they didn’t want it).

Gideons International is an association of Christian business and professional men who are members of Protestant/evangelical churches “dedicated to telling people about Jesus . . . by providing Bibles and New Testaments.” Their website openly refers to “students in the fifth grade and above” as prime targets.

It is unconstitutional for public school districts to permit the Gideon Society to distribute bibles as part of the public school day, FFRF Attorney Chris Line emphasized to Effingham County Schools officials.

FFRF’s admonitions had their effect.

“The Board of Education has authorized me to assure that outside adults, including the Gideons, will not be allowed into the classrooms of any of the schools in the school district to proselytize or distribute religious materials,” the school system’s legal counsel recently responded.

National Day of Prayer ended in Florida town

The town of Callahan, Fla. will no longer sponsor a National Day of Prayer.

The town reportedly had been sponsoring and organizing a National Day of Prayer event annually. This year’s event was held virtually and posted on the city of Callahan’s official website. The video was also recorded in the Town Council meeting room.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Callahan Mayor Marty Fontes informing him to refrain from further organization and promotion of religious events, stop having government employees organize the event and stop advertising the event on the official Callahan website.

The town of Callahan’s attorney sent a letter of response informing FFRF that it does not plan to sponsor the National Day of Prayer going forward.

Religious reference removed from email

A staff member at the Protected Species Division of NOAA Fisheries, a federal wildlife conservation organization, has removed a religious reference from its email signature.

FFRF was informed that a government employee in the division was including two bible verses in her email signature on emails sent through her official government email address to members of the public.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Acting Division Director David Bernhart urging him to direct employees to remove religious references from official emails, so as not to create the impression of official endorsement of Christianity.

Bernhart informed FFRF in an email response that the division has established a standardized template for employees to use for their email signatures, free of religious references.

Bible verse taken off Michigan police website

A bible verse was removed from the DeWitt Township Police Department website.

The department had been displaying a verse from the bible, John 15:13, on a page memorializing a fallen officer. The verse read, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”

Former FFRF Legal Fellow Colin McNamara wrote to the department requesting that the verse be removed, which the sheriff’s office has since done.

Teacher to stop reading religious stories to class

A teacher in Fairview Area Schools has been instructed to cease reading religious stories to her class.

A district parent informed FFRF that an elementary school music teacher read her class a story in which a man causes a blind girl to see again by praying and which ends with a moral that “all God’s children should love one another.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to the district superintendent, asking that Fairview remove this story from its curriculum and remind staff of their obligations under the Establishment Clause to remain neutral on matters of religion.

Superintendent Bill Lake assured FFRF in a letter of response that he met with the teacher involved and that this story is not a part of district curriculum. This story or any with similarly religious messages will no longer be given to students in the future.

Minnesota district ends baccalaureate service

Independent School District 728 will make certain that staff are no longer involved in planning, organizing, supervising or carrying out a baccalaureate service in their capacity as district employees.

A district student reported that Rogers High School sponsored and promoted a baccalaureate ceremony that took place online last month. The ceremony was promoted on the school’s official Facebook page and an assistant principal and three teachers participated. The program for the ceremony clearly indicated that these staff members participated in their official capacity as representatives of the school.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Daniel Bittman, informing him that the Establishment Clause prohibits public schools from sponsoring any type of religious practices, including baccalaureate services.

Bittman informed FFRF in a response email that the school district does not permit staff to have any involvement in programs like this one and that “no public resources may be used in planning, organizing, supervising or carrying out such a service.” Bittman added that this information will be part of the district’s back-to-school orientation with school administrators.

Good News Club gets bad news in North Carolina

District officials in Henderson County Public schools will address a religious club run by teachers at Hendersonville Elementary School.

A community member alerted FFRF that elementary school teachers were hosting a Good New Club, a self-proclaimed child evangelism fellowship whose mission is to “evangelize boys and girls with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and establish (disciple) them in the Word of God and in a local church for Christian living.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Bo Caldwell, requesting that the district cease allowing any Good News Clubs in its elementary schools, as such clubs violate the First Amendment.

The district’s attorney responded to FFRF with assurances that he will address the legal issues involved with this club with the district.

Oklahoma school takes down religious post

A religious post has been removed from Hinton Public Schools’ official social media page.

FFRF was informed that a Hinton High School coach recently posted a religious message on the football team’s official Facebook page. In this post, he explained that “in the Hinton Football Program, we want to live by a simple biblical principle ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” He continued, “We don’t all have the same life experiences but the bible doesn’t call us to love only those like us. It calls us to love everyone.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Marcy Derryberry pointing out that, while FFRF agrees with the sentiments of unity and togetherness that the coach promoted in his post, it is in violation of the Establishment Clause for teachers and coaches to endorse a religious message to students.

Derryberry sent a letter of response informing FFRF that the post has been deleted and that employees will be provided training to ensure that such behavior is not repeated. “Our coaching staff and employees have been directed not to utilize school resources or property to engage in religious lessons with students during athletics or at any time they are performing services for Hinton Public School District.” 

Religious content to be removed from website

Religious content will be removed from a video on the Hutto (Texas) Independent School District website.

A local resident informed FFRF that the school posted a video of its Teacher of the Year award on its official Facebook account, which featured a district principal speaking to the awardee: “Scripture tells us that we all have different gifts according to the grace given to each of us,” the principal said. “Your gifts are the gifts of service and the gifts of teaching.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the district, informing it that in order to avoid Establishment Clause concerns, district personnel must not post religious messages to public social media pages on which they represent themselves using their job titles.

The district informed FFRF it is in the process of editing the video to remove the religious content.

Council prayer replaced with moment of silence

Prayer at Norfolk City Council meetings will be replaced with a moment of silence. A local religious leader representing Satanic Norfolk reportedly had their offer to give an invocation at a Norfolk City Council meeting rescinded after the city clerk learned the leader’s religious beliefs did not include belief in the bible. Every invocation at Norfolk’s city council meetings since at least 2017 has been a Christian one.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Norfolk Mayor Kenneth Cooper, pointing out that singling out a religious denomination by denying them a chance to give an invocation, despite allowing similarly situated Christian leaders to offer invocations, amounts to a clear violation of the First Amendment. If a government entity like the City of Norfolk chooses to engage in prayer before its legislative meetings, FFRF pointed out, it may not constitutionally restrict opportunities to give invocations at faith traditions of which the city approves.

City Deputy Attorney Jack Cloud sent a letter of response, informing FFRF:

“After much thought and careful consideration, the city has suspended its practice of inviting community members to give legislative prayers or to engage in the practice of legislative prayer at all. The city now holds a moment of silence instead.”

Parental discretion advised

At last! N.J. county ordered to pay FFRF in church funding case

A year after the Freedom From Religion Foundation won a resounding victory halting millions in tax dollars flowing unconstitutionally to repair churches in Morris County, N.J., a judge finally ruled on May 11 that FFRF and its attorneys are entitled to attorneys’ fees.

FFRF and its local member David Steketee filed suit in December 2015 seeking to stop Morris County from issuing further historic preservation grants to churches after it awarded $4.6 million in tax dollars to repair 12 churches.

More than half of its total trust fund assets had been bestowed on churches, including $1.04 million in allocations to the Presbyterian Church in Morristown to allow “continued use by our congregation for worship services.”

FFRF’s win ultimately may save New Jersey taxpayers millions of dollars, even hundreds of millions over the next decade, since the grants to churches may have proceeded in a similar vein in all 21 counties.

The grants violate Article I, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution, guaranteeing: “nor shall any person be obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary to what he believes to be right.”

The complicated case, with many judicial maneuverings, resulted in a strong unanimous decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court in April 2018, ruling the public funding of churches unconstitutional.

The county sought to appeal that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied its petition in March 2019. Despite this resounding loss at the country’s highest court level, the county then filed an outrageous request in federal court in April 2019, not only seeking to enjoin the plaintiffs from recovering attorneys’ fees, but also to resume the unconstitutional grant program. The district court granted FFRF’s motion to dismiss the county’s legal request in December 2019.

Finally, the Superior Court of New Jersey has ordered a total of $217,949.15 to FFRF’s attorneys, including $124,687.50 to outside counsel Paul Grosswald and $28,875 to constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, who defended FFRF at the Supreme Court level. FFRF was reimbursed the remainder for the work of its staff attorneys Andrew L. Seidel and Ryan Jayne.

Cross removed from Illinois city mural

FFRF was successful in persuading the city of Effingham, Ill., to remove an image of a cross from a mural outside a tunnel under a street overpass facing a school. The removal occurred around May 23, according to the Effingham Daily News.

Painted in 2001, the city mural previously showed an American flag with a white Latin cross with light emanating from it. FFRF sent a letter Dec. 18 to Mayor Mike Schutzbach after hearing about it from a concerned citizen.

Effingham mural without the Latin cross. (Submitted photo)

FFRF victories (June/July 2020)

In Virginia, God’s Pit Crew members show off the “emergency blessing buckets” filled with items for use during a lockdown or school shooting.

Louisiana

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

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

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

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

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

Minnesota

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

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

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

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

Montana

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

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

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

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

Oklahoma

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

Oregon

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

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

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

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

Texas

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

Virginia

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

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

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

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

West Virginia

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

FFRF victories (May 2020)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

Arizona

A menorah has been removed from Chandler Unified School District property.

An area resident reported that Perry High School had been displaying a 7-foot-tall menorah in its front office. This menorah was apparently built by a local club for Jewish teenagers who received permission from the district to display it at Perry High School. The club was also reportedly encouraging more schools in the district to erect religious displays during the next holiday season.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Camille Casteel, informing the district that it is unlawful for public schools to host religious holiday displays, thus endorsing the religious message behind the displays.

Casteel informed FFRF via email that the menorah was removed.

California

Delano Joint Union High School District will no longer recruit teachers as bell ringers for The Salvation Army after FFRF got involved.

A concerned community member informed FFRF that the district sent out a mass email seeking volunteers for The Salvation Army, an overtly Christian ministry. The stated mission of the Salvation Army is “to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in his name without discrimination.”

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote to Superintendent Jason Garcia, pointing out that the Salvation Army’s religious mission makes it a poor choice for a public school charity drive. Garcia informed FFRF that the district will no longer be disseminating volunteer opportunities to staff in the future.

Georgia

FFRF has seen to it that Franklin County Schools will no longer advertise religious events on its social media page.

Franklin County Schools had been advertising a community-wide prayer event that takes place each Friday morning on Facebook. The event had been shared on the district’s official Facebook page, featuring the district superintendent.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Chris Forrer, urging him to discontinue this practice immediately. Using his position as superintendent to promote his personal religious beliefs to students and the community is an egregious violation of the Establishment Clause, Line pointed out.

Forrer clarified in a response post that this weekly program was not an official district event and the district will no longer be promoting the event.

Kentucky

The Daviess County Sheriff’s Office told FFRF it will ensure that it no longer holds fundraisers entangled with religion.

A county resident alerted FFRF to a fundraiser hosted by the sheriff’s office, which raised money for the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church. According to local news, Major Barry Smith said the donations were a “thank you” to the church for hosting a sheriff’s office banquet. The sheriff’s office had also been promoting Christianity on its official Facebook page, including posts that quote the bible and instruct readers to “remember the greatest gift ever given to mankind, the birth of the Christ child.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Sheriff Keith Cain, asking the office to redirect its fundraising efforts to a secular charity, avoid organizing official events in houses of worship and remove all religious posts from its official Facebook page.

Daviess County Attorney Claud Porter informed FFRF in a letter of response that these concerns were addressed and that the office will “ensure all its future fundraising activities, advertisements and acknowledgments meet all constitutional requirements.”

Ohio

Several violations have been remedied in the Ottoville Local School District, thanks to FFRF.

An Ottoville community member reported that the district was holding Catholic religious classes for students each morning. According to the complainant, these religious classes were taught by public school teachers in public school classrooms during the school day. A letter was reportedly sent out to district parents at the beginning of the year encouraging all students to sign up for these Catholic classes so that they do not feel left out by not being with their peers. Additionally, the complainant reported that, on Wednesdays, students were bused to the local church for Mass and that religious packets were distributed to students on school grounds in relation to these events. Finally, the local priest apparently was invited to offer a prayer every year at the graduation ceremony.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Superintendent Scott Mangas, pointing out that this promotion of Christian dogma is patently unconstitutional and cannot continue in any capacity.

Mangas informed FFRF in a letter of response that the district has investigated the reported violations and “taken corrective measures.” He wrote: “Please be advised that currently, the district does not hold any Catholic religious classes, distribute religious packets, encourage students to sign up for Catholic classes, or bus students to Mass. It is the district’s intention that none of these activities will occur in the future.”

Oklahoma

The Fort Gibson Police Department has removed several religious posts, including a bible verse on a department recruitment poster, following a response by FFRF.

The Fort Gibson Police Department Facebook page was promoting Christianity, namely, the cover photo on the page quoted from the book of Isaiah: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom Shall I send? And who will go for us?’ and I said, ‘Here am I. Send me.’” As a result, the department displayed the bible quote on a post advertising a job opening at the Fort Gibson Police Department.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the chief of police pointing out that a recruitment post endorsing Christianity is not only unconstitutional, but could also potentially discourage members of non-Christian faith, or no faith at all, from applying to work at the department. Line urged the department to remove any religious promotion from its social media pages or other promotional materials.

In a letter of response, Fort Gibson Town Attorney Larry D. Moore informed FFRF that religious references have been removed from the department’s pages and the new chief of police assures us it will not happen again in the future.

. . .

A religious social media post has been removed from the Valliant (Okla.) Public Schools social media page after FFRF contacted it.

An area resident reported that Valliant High School’s baseball coach posted a message on the team’s Facebook page informing the team that this year’s season would be cancelled because of the coronavirus. In the post, he explained that he teaches his players that sports should not be in their top three priorities but that their priorities should be “1. God and Faith. 2. Family. 3. Education. 4. Activities and Hobbies.” He went on to instruct all his students to spend this time “praying and educating yourself about God.” He also said that he hopes the community will grow to be more “God like.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Craig Wall, urging the district to ensure that religion is no longer being promoted in any district athletic programs.

The school’s attorney informed FFRF in a letter of response that the superintendent reviewed the post and spoke with the coach concerning the problems with this post and revised the post to remove all references to God.

Pennsylvania

After hearing from FFRF, administrators in the Lackawanna Trail School District have taken several affirmative steps to ensure that students are no longer subject to religious promotion during athletic events.

FFRF was informed that before each Lackawanna Trail High School football game, the team gathered in a prayer circle in which team coaches participated.

FFRF Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler wrote to Superintendent Matthew Rakauskas, reminding the district that it is illegal for public school coaches to sponsor prayers, as doing so constitutes a government endorsement of religion.

The district’s attorney sent a letter of response assuring FFRF that the football coach was directed to cease leading the team in prayers. Rakauskas also issued a directive to all coaches that school-led prayer is not permitted at any school event and held a district-wide training earlier this year, where he specifically instructed staff not to lead or take part in prayer with students.

West Virginia

The Gilmer County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has deleted a religious social media post after receiving a letter from FFRF.

A local citizen reported that the department, in a Facebook post on March 24, stated that “tomorrow is national day of prayer . . . we need to pray really hard for our state and our nation!”

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Director Eric Squires, requesting that the department refrain from issuing such statements in the future. By appearing to be neutral on matters of religion, FFRF pointed out, the department ensures the citizens from which the government derives its power that the department will be evenhanded regardless of their faith tradition or lack thereof.

Squires informed FFRF via email that the post has been removed and that similar messages will not be posted in the future.