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.