City removes church ad featuring police vehicle
A concerned Tupelo, Miss., resident contacted FFRF to report that a Tupelo Police Department vehicle was featured in a recent advertisement for the Word of Life Church. The ad featured Pastor Tommy Galloway exiting a department vehicle, then quoting the bible as a “warning” to viewers that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus.” He advertised the Word of Life broadcast as a way to “find out more about this free gift.”
On Dec. 4, 2017, FFRF Associate Council Sam Grover wrote Police Chief of Tupelo Police Department Bart Aguirre to issue a complaint about department property being used in a religious advertisement.
On June 8, City Attorney Ben Logan wrote to notify FFRF that the television advertisement for Word of Life Church that used a Tupelo Police Department vehicle was “pulled from the air as of Dec. 12, 2017.”
FFRF discovers hushed victory in district
FFRF was pleased to recently discover a hidden victory for state-church separation in an eastern Texas school district.
Back in 2014, FFRF was informed by a concerned community member of the Mt. Vernon Independent School District that the district was displaying several religious quotes on the walls of its schools. The quotes included both biblical passages and alleged statements attributed to a variety of prominent individuals in American history. After seeking and obtaining an open records request in 2015 for a copy of all records related to the selection and display of the quotes on the district’s walls, FFRF found that a significant portion of the quotes on display were not only unconstitutionally endorsing religion, but also fallacious.
FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to Mt. Vernon Independent School District Superintendent John Kaufman, requesting that the district remove the quotes. Courts have time and again held that public schools may not endorse religious messages — including texts taken from the bible.
The original complainant informed Grover that a new superintendent who was hired soon after FFRF sent its 2015 letter to the district quietly removed the religious quotes over the summer of 2016.
FFRF is thrilled that this assault on the right of conscience of Mt. Vernon students has been rectified.
“We don’t always know the full extent of our impact, but it is vast,” says Grover.
Bible removed from school office in N.C.
FFRF reminded Wayne Country Public Schools that the Establishment Clause prohibits public schools from promoting the Christian bible or taking any action that encourages students to read the bible.
On Nov. 28, 2017, FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott wrote to Dr. Michael Dunsmore, superintendent of Wayne County Public Schools in Goldsboro, N.C., to issue a complaint regarding a bible on display on public school grounds. A parent of a student at Rosewood Elementary school notified FFRF that the school was prominently displaying a bible in the main office of the school where students and any visitors to the office could see it.
On June 7, legal representatives for the district, Richard Schwartz and Laura Crumpler, wrote to FFRF to relate that “the superintendent has inquired about the practice and assures us it has ceased” and “will not be repeated.”
Ohio city moves cross off city property
At FFRF’s behest, the city of Cambridge, Ohio, has moved a Christian cross off of city property. On Aug. 11, 2017, FFRF Legal Fellow Christopher Line wrote to Cambridge Mayor Thomas Orr to request that a Christian cross be moved off city property. The cross also included an image that appeared to be two hands joined in prayer. FFRF wrote to remind Orr that the display of a cross on public property is unconstitutional.
On June 19, William Ferguson, law director for Cambridge, wrote to FFRF to confirm that the cross had been removed.
Texas school stops bible distribution
FFRF has put a stop to a Texas school district’s illegal distribution of bibles. On June 6, FFRF Associate Council Sam Grover wrote to Brian Nelson, general counsel for Corpus Christi Independent School District in Corpus Christi, Texas, to register a complaint regarding several instances of the district inappropriately advancing religion. A concerned district parent reported to FFRF that free backpacks containing supplies and a copy of the bible were being distributed at Gibson Elementary School. Additionally, FFRF was informed that some teachers had been promoting their religious beliefs in the classroom.
On June 11, Nelson responded to FFRF’s complaint, confirming that the backpacks distributed to students did contain bibles and were packed by a local church. Nelson assured FFRF that school district administration “will make certain that any future donors of backpacks and supplies are aware they must not include bibles or any other religious literature.” Additionally, the district will remind employees that religious “statements cannot be made or advanced by school personnel.”
FFRF stops evangelizing Missouri baseball coach
On May 30, FFRF Robert G. Ingersoll Legal Fellow Colin E. McNamara wrote to Aaron Zalis, superintendent of Rolla Public Schools in Rolla, Mo., to issue a complaint against Marty Hauck, coach of the Rolla High School baseball team. Hauck used his position as head coach to promote his religion to his players, and admitted to praying with the team before every game. While Hauck has since stepped down as coach of the baseball team, FFRF wrote to ensure Hauck does not use his other coaching position on the school’s wrestling team to further evangelize Rolla High School student-athletes.
On June 7, Counsel to Rolla Public Schools Thomas Mickes wrote to FFRF to relate that the district’s athletic director has met with Hauck, and will conduct meetings with all district coaches to emphasize First Amendment requirements.
W. Va. football coach ends pregame prayers
FFRF notified a West Virginia school district that it is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer or participate in student prayers.
On May 31, FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott wrote to Superintendent of McDowell Country Schools Nelson Spencer to register a complaint against Mount View High School football coach Larry Thompson, who led his team in prayer at a team meal this past fall prior to the homecoming football game.
On June 6, Spencer replied, assuring FFRF that actions have been taken to correct the constitutional violation. Spencer reported that “all country principals will be scheduled for a professional development session on district adherence to the constitutional expectations of separation between state and church,” in addition to a meeting “with the coach in question and the principal at Mount View High School to discuss [FFRF’s] letter and review the district’s expectations for endorsing or promotion of religion by its staff.”
FFRF gets Florida school to address violation
FFRF has ensured that a Florida public school will not continue to distribute bibles to students.
FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel wrote on Sept. 1, 2017, to Richard Shirley, superintendent of Sumter County School District in Bushnell, Fla., regarding an incident which occurred on Oct. 19, 2016, at Bushnell Elementary School. During said incident, outside adults were invited into a fifth-grade gym class, at which time the students were lined up against the wall and presented with bibles.
A Jewish student, who declined the bible, was subjected to severe bullying by her Christian classmates as a result of the incident. Ultimately, the bullying resulted in the student leaving the school. The Sumter County School District’s inability to follow the law caused this young girl and her family serious financial and emotional distress.
On June 19, Shirley responded to FFRF’s complaint, saying the district is “working to be sure any such potential matters are corrected.”