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.”

FFRF stops prayer by school boards in Indiana and Pa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FFRF Victories (April 2021)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

Religious signatures no longer part of emails

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

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

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

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

Football coach won’t proselytize in Montana

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

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

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

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

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

Michigan coach won’t pray with students

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicago police won’t join in religious event

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

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

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

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

Religious tweet removed from school’s account

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheriff’s religious post on Facebook removed

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

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

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

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

Tenn. school district to reassess prayers

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

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

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

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

Religious sign removed from Texas polling place

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

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

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

FFRF humbles Texas school district

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

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

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

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

Poll site will no longer have religious images

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

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

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

Church ad taken down in Georgia school district

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

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

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

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

Sheriff’s office removes religious Facebook post

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

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

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

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

FFRF victories (March 2021)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

School to end singing of ‘God Bless the USA

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

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

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

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

Religious iconography removed from school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Carolina school removes framed prayer

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

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

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

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

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

School ceases sending home Christmas items

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

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

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

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

Bible verse display taken down in Virginia

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

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

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

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

School religious display taken down in Oklahoma

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

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

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

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

Michigan coach won’t lead pregame prayers

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

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

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

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