FFRF Victories (April 2020)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

Arkansas

Bible-distributing Gideons will no longer be allowed in Mountain View School District schools.

A concerned parent reported to FFRF that members of Gideons International were allowed into Mountain View Middle School to pass out bibles to students during class. FFRF’s complainant reported that their child’s teacher welcomed the Gideons into the class, thanked them for being there, and took a bible before letting them distribute bibles to students. The complainant’s child reportedly felt very uncomfortable and felt pressured to take a bible because everyone else in the class did.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Brent Howard informing him that it is unconstitutional for school districts to permit the Gideon Society to distribute bibles as part of the public school day. Howard responded to FFRF’s letter by email, informing FFRF that the district’s attorney was made aware of the issue and the matter has been handled.

California

An annual winter concert program in the Merced City School District will be moved to a non-church location in future years.

A district parent reported that last year, Burbank Elementary School held a Christmas concert at a nearby church. According to the parent, the church contained religious iconography including a large cross and a nativity scene, as well as a banner outside the building advertising worship services.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Superintendent RoseMary Parga Duran, pointing out that the use of a church for public school programming is inappropriate and unconstitutional because it sends the message of approval of the church to impressionable students.

In a response letter, the district’s attorney informed FFRF that in consideration of the complaint, the district will “seek out alternative, non-church venues to host such events in the future in order to avoid any misinterpretation that the district is endorsing or promoting any particular religion, or religion in general.”

Colorado

The Vanguard School, a charter school in the Cheyenne Mountain School District in Colorado Springs, will refrain from advertising for and affiliating itself with religious organizations in the future.

A district parent reported that each year, the school holds a “Thanksgiving Baskets” fundraiser for St. Joseph Catholic Church and a “Christmas Blessings Store” in partnership with the Calvary Baptist Church.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote a letter of complaint to the district pointing out that, while it is laudable for the district to encourage students to become active, charitable and involved in their community by volunteering and donating, the school cannot use that goal as an avenue to support churches or religious organizations.

Superintendent Walter C. Cooper sent FFRF a response letter which noted that “Vanguard understands the optics and perception that advertising the events in this manner could be construed as a message of religious endorsement, and will refrain from doing so in the future.”

Florida

A religious sign has been removed from the Orange County Tax Collector’s office inside the West Oaks Mall, which was previously on display to the public.

This sign read, “Faith — it does not make things easy it makes them possible — Luke 1:37.” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line asked the county to remove this sign from county property in recognition that it represents an unconstitutional endorsement of religion over nonreligion.

Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph confirmed the sign was removed in response to FFRF’s complaint.

Illinois

Outside adults, including religious leaders, will no longer be allowed to attend student club meetings in Arcola School District #56.

A student contacted FFRF to report that the Arcola High School Students with a Testimony club’s Tuesday meetings were regularly attended by an outside pastor who came in to spread his religious beliefs to students, promising pizza and soda to attendees. These meetings apparently take place during the school day.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian informed the district that public schools are not an appropriate place for outside adults to proselytize to children. FFRF asked that the district ensure this club is truly student-led, and not facilitated by religious leaders.

FFRF received a letter of response from the district, assuring that only school staff will be allowed to attend student meetings in the future, and that staff will “be present only in a non-participatory capacity.”

Indiana

A constitutionally inappropriate partnership within the Lakeland School Corporation in LaGrange will not continue.

A community member reported that Lakeland Middle School organized a field trip to pack meals for Feed My Starving Children, an overtly Christian charitable organization. During the trip, the group’s staff asked students to pray over the meals they packed, and overtly Christian music was played over the loudspeakers for the duration of the trip.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian alerted the district that this proselytizing partnership is not acceptable for a public school district. Lakeland Superintendent Eva G. Merkel informed FFRF via email that the district’s partnership with this Christian organization will “simply have to cease.”

Kansas

A “See You At The Pole” event will not recur in the Coffeyville Public Schools.

A concerned district staff member reported that other staff organized and endorsed a “See You at the Pole” event. The complainant reports that an email was sent from two district staff members to the rest of the staff promoting the event.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line reminded Superintendent Craig Correll that public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion. Furthermore, Line points out, it is unconstitutional for the district staff to plan, promote or participate in “See You At The Pole” events because doing so alienates non-Christian students, teachers and parents whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted by the school staff.

Craig informed FFRF that “this was an obvious oversight from the teacher and is against board policy.” He has notified the principal to instruct the employee that this cannot happen again in the future.

Kentucky

Religious posts have been removed from the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office official social media page.

A concerned area resident reported that a recent post on the office’s Facebook page concluded with the bible verse Galatians 6:9 — “So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian asked the office to remove all social media posts promoting religion and refrain from uploading such posts in the future. Sheriff Mark Moore informed FFRF in a letter of response that this post has been removed.

. . .

Numerous religious displays have been removed from Letcher County Public Schools property after the school district received letters of complaint from FFRF.

A concerned Whitesburg resident reported to FFRF that Letcher Central High School had a bible verse on display in its locker room. The display said: “But the Lord is with me like a Mighty Warrior. Jeremiah 20:11.” FFRF wrote a letter of complaint to the district, pointing out that this display violated the constitutional principle of state/church separation.

FFRF had first contacted the district after an area resident reported multiple instances of the district promoting and endorsing religious messages. The complainant reported that Fleming Neon Middle School had a display in its hallway that said, “Jesus is my savior. You can’t scare me!” and that Martha Jane Potter Elementary School posted a prayer on its official Facebook page.

In both letters of complaint, FFRF asked the district to remove all religious messaging and iconography from public school property in recognition of its constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion.

Letcher County School District has removed each of these religious displays.

“The bulletin board has been replaced, the Facebook post has been removed, and the locker room has been repainted,” Superintendent Denise Yonts informed FFRF in a response letter.

. . .

Ludlow Independent Schools has deleted religious posts on its official district social media pages.

A district parent informed FFRF that a teacher at Mary A. Goetz Elementary School had been using her official position as a district employee to promote her Christian youth group to students. According to the complainant, the teacher invited students to her youth group on a daily basis, included information on the youth group in a newsletter to parents, and posted flyers promoting this group around the school. The teacher also reportedly organized a prayer walk on school property which the school promoted on its official Facebook page. The Christian youth group and the prayer walk appeared to be affiliated with a local church.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian asked the district to make certain that none of its employees are unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters by encouraging them to pray, recruiting them for religious organizations or activities or otherwise using the district to promote religion.

In a response letter, the district’s attorney informed FFRF that the administration has addressed these matters with the teacher involved and deleted the social media posts corresponding to the event.

Maryland

Staff at Frederick County Public Schools have been reminded of district policy and their legal obligation to refrain from impermissibly endorsing religion.

A district community member informed FFRF of on-field prayer after an October football game between Walkersville High and Catoctin High and what appeared to be the coaches leading and participating in prayer.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the school’s attorney, informing the district that public school coaches must refrain not only from leading prayers themselves, but also from participating in students’ prayers. He urged the district to stop any and all school-sponsored prayers occurring at any district athletic programs.

The district’s attorney has directed principals and the supervisor of athletics and extracurricular activities to remind coaches that, as the board policy states, “school employees, when acting in their official capacities, are representatives of the state and are prohibited by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment from soliciting or encouraging religious activity and from participating in such activity with students.”

Michigan

A Sparta Area Schools coach has been instructed to cease religious proselytizing to his team.

A district parent reported that a Sparta High School football coach used his position to promote a religious event to students and their families. According to the parent, this coach sent a mass Remind App message encouraging students and families to attend a worship event called “FAITH…FIGHT…FINISH!”

This event was listed as taking place at Sparta High School and organized by “The Big Idea — Sparta Elementary School.” The district’s website also had a section entitled “Sparta area churches” that lists the names, addresses, phone numbers, worship times and Sunday school times for several local Christian churches.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian informed Superintendent Pete Bush that the district cannot allow its schools to be used as recruiting grounds for churches.

Bush informed FFRF in a phone call that the football coach has been instructed to refrain from promoting religion and that the church directory on the school’s website was removed.

Missouri

FFRF has prompted Hogan Preparatory Academy in Kansas City to address complaints of a teacher handing out rosaries as “prizes” to students.

A concerned Hogan Academy parent reported to FFRF that, after handing out rosaries, this teacher told students that, if they carry the rosary, nothing bad will ever happen to them. He also reportedly told students a story about two students who were shot while walking home from school. The student not wearing a rosary was killed, while the student who had a rosary survived. Our complainant also reports that he told students that he is followed by “spirits,” and that he has a device that will beep when spirits are near.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Jayson Strickland that he should no longer be allowed to distribute religious items or promote his personal religious beliefs to students.

Strickland sent a letter of response, assuring FFRF that the issue has been addressed.

. . .

FFRF scored a constitutional win against the Missouri attorney general after a school district ignored his advice about football team prayers.

FFRF had sent a letter in October to Cameron R-1 School District Superintendent Matt Robinson about Cameron High School’s head football coach, Jeff Wallace, and assistant coach, David Stucky, holding religious “chapel” services for players before and after football games. The coaches prayed with players and read and discussed bible verses.

In reaction to FFRF’s complaint, Attorney General Eric Schmitt dispatched a missive to the district urging it to disregard FFRF’s concerns, mischaracterizing FFRF’s arguments, even advising the district that the coach’s actions are lawful.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line urged Cameron R-1 School District to take immediate action to stop school-sponsored prayers or religious worship occurring within the district’s athletic programs. The school district recently sent FFRF a note indicating that it is heeding FFRF’s counsel.

“Employees of the district were reminded of the district’s board policy regarding prayer at school or at school-sponsored events and were also instructed not to lead students in prayer, initiate a prayer with students or cause a student to initiate prayer,” stated Robinson. “This matter has therefore been resolved.”

Montana

The Libby School District’s Veteran’s Day assembly will no longer include religious language as part of a flag folding ceremony.

A district community member reported that during last year’s ceremony, student participants were provided with a script that claimed to explain the meaning of each of the 13 folds in the flag. According to the complainant, the script attributed religious meaning to the majority of the folds. This includes assertions that Americans rely on God and his guidance, “glorify the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit” and that one fold “in the eyes of a Hebrew citizen represents the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Superintendent Craig Barringer, asking the district to end promotion of religion at official school events. Barringer responded to FFRF’s complaint with assurances that the script would not be used again in the future.

New Jersey

Multiple signs for church parking have been removed from Matawan city property.

FFRF Staff Attorney Maddy Ziegler wrote to Mayor Joseph Altomonte, after FFRF received a local complaint that three signs, reading “Second Baptist Church Parking Only, 9 a.m.–2 p.m. Sun. & Religious Holidays,” were placed along a public road. FFRF requested that the city remove the signs and ensure that parking enforcement is in compliance with constitutional requirements going forward.

Matawan’s attorney responded to FFRF’s letter with assurances that the signs have been removed and that they had been “posted by entities other than the municipality.”

New York

Holland Patent Central School District has remedied a serious state-church violation.

A concerned district parent recently reported to FFRF that a Holland Patent High School biology teacher began a lesson on evolution by undermining the theory of evolution, denigrating those who understand and accept the fact of evolution.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line sent a letter to Holland Patent Central School District Superintendent Jason Evangelist, pointing out that this teacher’s anti-scientific rant was both unconstitutional and pedagogically deplorable.

The district has taken swift action to address FFRF’s concerns and ensure that Holland Patent students are no longer subject to religious proselytization in its schools.

Ohio

A free concealed-carry permit program has been extended to include all nonprofits rather than just churches in Butler County.

A Hamilton citizen reported to FFRF that the Butler County Sheriff’s Office was offering free concealed-carry weapons training to churches. The classes were reportedly only intended to be open to church security teams in Butler County.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Butler County Sheriff Richard K. Jones, pointing out that extending a free government benefit only to churches, or even solely to houses of worship, is unconstitutional.

The department, along with local media reports, confirmed these classes will now be offered free to all nonprofit organizations.

Texas

The Mesquite Independent School District has conscientiously redressed a serious state/church violation.

A community member reported that Frasier Middle School football players were required to attend a religious meeting in the gym after practice. The meeting was led by an outside group, Men of Honor. Speakers encouraged students to read the bible, pray and join their overtly Christian organization. The meeting then ended with an outside pastor who came in to lead the students in prayer.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson asked the district to refrain from sponsoring inappropriate and unconstitutional religious meetings in the future, and ensure no future assemblies from outside groups contain a proselytizing message or agenda.

Assistant Superintendent Karyn Cummings responded to FFRF with assurances that the district “fully investigated” this matter and that “the employees in question have accepted full responsibility and completely understand that their actions were not acceptable.”

. . .

Staff in the Goldthwaite Independent School District have been reminded of their obligation not to use school resources to promote religion.

A community member reported that the Goldthwaite Lady Eagle Basketball Facebook page was used to promote two religious events — See You at the Pole and Field of Faith. Additionally, the Fields of Faith promotional material listed a school coach as the event contact, suggesting that she was involved in coordination of the event. 

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Ronny Wright, informing the district that district staff may not plan, promote or participate in events like See You at the Pole or Fields of Faith.

Wright informed FFRF that he has “spoken with the employee referenced in [FFRF’s] letter and both district athletic directors, in order to remind them that school resources cannot be used to advertise such events and the appropriate role for school employees in such events.”

Virginia

Religious reading materials have been removed from Arlington National Cemetery’s Administrative Building.

A local resident reported that Arlington National Cemetery had a kiosk displaying Christian material in its administration building where families meet prior to burial. According to the complainant, the administration building only displayed books from the American Bible Society, and did not contain secular grief guides.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian asked Arlington National Cemetery Chairman Lt. Gen. James Peake to respect and honor the wishes of our nation’s minority religious and nonreligious military personnel and veterans by removing the Christian literature from displaying in the ANC administrative building.

Officials informed FFRF that the team at Arlington National Cemetery has removed the display case.