FFRF Victories (August 2020)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

FFRF has Gideons barred from Ga. school district

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

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

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

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

FFRF’s admonitions had their effect.

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

National Day of Prayer ended in Florida town

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

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

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

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

Religious reference removed from email

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

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

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

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

Bible verse taken off Michigan police website

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

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

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

Teacher to stop reading religious stories to class

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

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

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

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

Minnesota district ends baccalaureate service

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

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

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

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

Good News Club gets bad news in North Carolina

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

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

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

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

Oklahoma school takes down religious post

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

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

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

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

Religious content to be removed from website

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

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

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

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

Council prayer replaced with moment of silence

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

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

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

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

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