FFRF victories (December 2019)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

Alabama

Auburn City Schools will not allow a teacher to continue promoting bible study in her capacity as a school employee, after hearing from FFRF.

A concerned parent reported that a teacher at Wrights Mill Road Elementary School was advertising a “Fifth Grade Bible Study” to students, distributing flyers about the bible study and using her school email account to manage communications regarding the bible study.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district’s attorney urging leadership to ensure that its staff no longer use their position to promote religious events like bible studies.

The district’s attorney wrote in response, “It is the policy of Auburn City School to ensure the adherence to Establishment Clause jurisprudence, including the refrain of a school or teacher from endorsing religious organizations or groups.”


Alabama

After FFRF intervened, religious leaders will no longer be allowed to use a mandatory school event in the Fort Payne School District to proselytize to students.

A Fort Payne High School parent reported that the school hosted a mandatory camp for marching band members. The school solicited volunteers from the community to provide dinner for the students. The complainant reported that the first group to provide a meal for students was a local church. Church members were allowed to speak with students during the meal about the church and its facilities in an effort to recruit students to attend.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district to ensure that future school-sponsored events do not include church members recruiting, proselytizing or praying with students.

The district’s attorney sent a response, informing FFRF that Fort Payne City Schools and the band director recognize that the church leader should not have been allowed to speak to students at the event and “no further similar statements by religious leaders were made throughout the remainder of the band camp, nor at any other school-sponsored event since that time.”


Arkansas

An Arkansas school district will cease promoting a religious event after receiving a letter from FFRF.

A concerned Greenwood School District parent reported that Westwood Elementary School had been promoting religious events and speakers on its official Facebook page, including a “See You at the Pole” event. Photos indicated that outside religious leaders were participating in this event, as well.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent John Ciesla, informing him that “See You at the Pole” is a Christian-oriented prayer rally organized each year around a bible verse and that for the public school to endorse involvement is unconstitutional.

The district’s attorney responded, informing FFRF that district staff will take appropriate measures to ensure that “neither district personnel nor any third parties other than its students will plan, initiate, organize, promote or participate in such events in the future.”


California

After hearing from FFRF, Santa Clara County has plans to remove a cross from the O’Connor Hospital building.

A Santa Clara County resident informed FFRF that the county recently purchased the hospital building and that it still retains a large Latin cross affixed to the front of the building. The Latin cross is apparently left over from when the building was a Catholic hospital.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Santa Clara County’s Counsel James Williams informing him that, now that the building is government-owned, the religious display must come down.

Williams wrote in a letter of response that the county “has plans to implement a number of updates to the hospital to reflect the change in ownership, one of which includes removal of the Latin cross on the front of the building.”


California

A Chino Valley Unified public school will no longer hold an event inside a local church following an intervention by FFRF.

A concerned parent reported to FFRF that each year Chino Hills High School holds its Senior Awards Night at Inland Hills Church. The district had apparently contracted with Inland Hills Church for this purpose and was paying to use this space.

The use of churches for public school programming is inappropriate and unconstitutional, FFRF Attorney Chris Line pointed out to the district.

FFRF asked the district to no longer host school events at churches and instead select public facilities for all future events. The district’s attorney sent a response to FFRF with assurances that the event has been moved.

“Be advised that Chino Hills High School will not hold its 2019-2020 senior awards night at the Inland Hills Church,” wrote Margaret A. Chidester, the district’s attorney.


Colorado 

St. Vrain Valley School District in Longmont has been directed to investigate a serious pattern of state/church violations at Flagstaff Academy, a charter school in the district.

A Flagstaff Academy parent reported that youth pastors or representatives from area churches had regularly been granted unsupervised access to Flagstaff Academy students during their lunch break. The pastors appeared to be operating in association with Young Life, a Christian organization whose mission is “introducing adolescents to Jesus Christ and helping them grow in their faith.” FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district’s attorney, urging it to discontinue the practice.

The attorney wrote in an email response to FFRF that “if the allegations in the letter are true, the district agrees that they are not acceptable for any school within the district, including a charter school. As such, the district has directed Flagstaff Academy to investigate the allegations, cease allowing such practices if they have occurred, not permit any such practice now or in the future, and update any policies to be consistent with the law, so much so that such activities are not permitted at the school.”


Florida

A Christian ministry, FutureNow, will not be asked back to Nassau County Public School District after it invited students to an event that featured proselytizing and an altar call.

All students at Fernandina Beach High School were instructed to report to the gym during the school day, where FutureNow led an hour-long assembly. FutureNow representatives reportedly discussed drug and alcohol use, bullying and abstinence and repeatedly urged students to “come back tonight” to the evening event to “make plans for their lives.” Students were further enticed to attend the evening event by promises of prize giveaways.

In partnership with the ACLU of Florida, FFRF Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell sent a letter to the district urging it to discontinue allowing a self-proclaimed group of evangelists even one-time access during school hours to recruit students for a religious conversion event.

District Superintendent Kathy Burns responded that district leaders, along with principals, are reviewing and revising procedures for future assemblies and that the district has no plans for FutureNow assemblies.


Illinois

A religious assignment will not be used again in a Barry school following a complaint from the FFRF.

A concerned Western Community School District #12 parent reported to FFRF that their child was assigned to read and respond to “10 Truths Middle Schoolers Should Know.” This list of “truths” includes advice, such as “base your identity on the one thing you’ll never lose — God’s love,” “God made you different for a reason, and what sets you apart plays into His plan for you,” and “Jesus Christ has 12 followers. Adolph Hitler has millions.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Superintendent Jessica Funk, requesting that these materials be pulled from the curriculum, as it demonstrates an unconstitutional endorsement of religion in a public school.

Funk sent a letter of response assuring FFRF that “the usage of ‘10 Truths Middle Schoolers Should Know’ was inadvertent, a one-time occurrence, was not approved by the district and the material will not be used in the future.” The book has been removed from the classroom.


Indiana    

The Northwestern School Corporation in Kokomo took immediate action to ensure that students’ rights of conscience were being honored in its district following an FFRF letter of complaint.

A community member reported to FFRF that coaches from Northwestern Middle School led a prayer circle of students from Tipton Middle School and Northwestern Middle School during a football game between the two schools. According to the complainant, all players were required to be a part of it.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian pointed out to the district that it’s illegal for public schools to lead their teams in prayer, and urged the district to stop all coach involvement in prayers occurring within any district athletic programs.

Superintendent Kristen Bilkey responded to FFRF, outlining actions the district has taken to address the complaint. The director of athletics organized a meeting of all Northwestern School Corporation coaches “to inform and educate about the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”


Kansas

Students in Wabaunsee USD 329 will no longer be required to wear school-distributed clothing that features religious iconography, thanks to FFRF.

A parent reported that Maple Hill Elementary in Alma was donating T-shirts depicting a version of the Latin cross by a Christian organization called Thrivent. The complainant reported that students were instructed to wear these T-shirts on a field trip the next day. The district then posted a photo of its students wearing these shirts, promoting Christianity and a Christian organization on its official Facebook page.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district to ensure that the district will no longer allow its staff to promote and endorse religion by asking students to wear religious imagery a part of school-sponsored activities.

District Superintendent Brad Starnes sent a response letter, informing FFRF that the photo of students wearing the T-shirts had been taken off social media and that district staff were notified of their duty to remain neutral toward religion.


Kentucky

The Clinton County School District in Albany has addressed problematic endorsement of religion within its schools after receiving a complaint from FFRF.

FFRF was alerted to the fact that both Clinton County High School and Clinton County Middle School promoted a recent “Bring Your Bible to School Day” on official district social media pages.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Superintendent Tim Parson urging the district to avoid further Establishment Clause concerns by removing these posts from its social media pages and refrain from posting further religious messages to official school social media pages.

Parson sent a letter of response informing FFRF that the posts have been removed and that “a training has been scheduled on Nov. 26, 2019, to train administrators and staff on First Amendment rights and schools.”


Kentucky

Multiple instances of unconstitutional proselytization have been resolved in Jackson County Public Schools in McKee.

A district parent reported that Jackson County High School contained at least two displays of the Ten Commandments. The parent also reported that the high school allowed Jon Isaacs, a pastor with a local Baptist church, special access to the football team to lead players in a pre-scrimmage devotional.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote a letter of complaint to the district’s attorney Larry Bryson urging it to promptly correct these violations.

Bryson has informed FFRF in a letter that the superintendent has discussed the complaints with the administration. The Ten Commandments displayed have been removed and the local pastor will no longer have access to pray with the football team.


Maryland

The state of Maryland has expanded eligibility requirements for its Protecting Religious Institution Grants to include secular nonprofits.

The state of Maryland had allocated up to $3 million in state funds to be paid directly to religious nonprofit organizations to the exclusion of secular nonprofits.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the Maryland Governor’s Office of Crime Control & Prevention Deputy Director of Grants Mary Abraham pointing out that this program impermissibly excludes nonreligious nonprofits and risks funding religious activities. FFRF requested that the program be opened to all eligible nonprofits — not just religious entities — and that the funding be limited to entirely secular purposes.

The office’s legal counsel sent a letter of response recognizing the validity of FFRF’s state/church concerns.

“We agree that [secular entities] should have the opportunity to demonstrate the risks they face and the need for state assistance in protecting the facilities they use,” Deputy Legal Counsel Christopher Mincher wrote to FFRF. “We have therefore expanded the eligibility for the grants, now named ‘Protection Against Hate Crimes,’ to include all nonprofit organizations and communities at risk of such violence.”


Michigan

The school district in Harper Woods has reaffirmed its district policy regarding religious promotion at staff meetings after intervention from FFRF.

A Chandler Park Academy School District employee reported that district leadership had impermissibly organized and led prayers during staff meetings. The complainant reported that during the first week of the school year, Chandler Park Academy Middle School principal Charles Rencher instructed everyone in attendance to bow their heads and pray to “whichever god we choose” at a mandatory staff breakfast.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Board of Directors President Barbara Wyndler, reminding her of the district’s obligation to remain neutral toward religion.

Wyndler informed FFRF that district employees have been reminded they must adhere to the district’s policy explicitly forbidding proselytizing at staff meetings and events. “Staff members shall not use prayer, religious readings, or religious symbols as a devotional exercise or in an act of worship or celebration,” the policy reads. “The Academy shall not function as a disseminating agent for any person or outside agency for any religious or anti-religious document, book or article.”


Michigan

North Central Area Schools in Powers will no longer allow graduating classes to include an invocation or benediction in their graduation programs.

North Central Area Junior/Senior High School reportedly scheduled two prayers at the class of 2019 graduation ceremony which were both listed in the official program for the event. Legal Fellow Colin McNamara wrote to Superintendent Bruce Tapio, requesting that the district immediately cease scheduling prayer at graduation ceremonies and any other school-sponsored events.

“North Central Area Schools will no longer allow the graduating classes of our high school to include an invocation or benediction,” Wendy Granquist, the school’s business manager, wrote in a letter of response to FFRF. “Our middle/high school principal will meet with the advisors for the class of 2020 to inform them of the letter and the constitutional violation that happened during graduation 2019.”


North Carolina

A religious video has been removed from the driver’s education curriculum in the Johnston County School District in Four Oaks.

A district parent reported that a teacher at South Johnston High School played a video that included religious content for students taking a school-sponsored driver’s education class. The video apparently involved another teacher in the district discussing Christianity and Jesus while telling the tragic story of her daughter’s death in an automobile accident.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district’s attorney asking the district to remedy this constitutional violation. The attorney sent a response assuring he had looked into the complaint and talked with the school principal. The video is subsequently no longer being used in class.


Oklahoma

Any future performers invited to Guthrie Public Schools will be specifically instructed to refrain from proselytizing messages, after getting a warning from FFRF.

A Guthrie Junior High parent reported that the school required students to attend an assembly where they listened to a bluegrass band called Pearlgrace & Co. The group reportedly played several religious songs and spoke to students about spreading Christianity.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Michael Simpson, requesting that Guthrie Public Schools refrain from sponsoring inappropriate and unconstitutional assemblies in the future, and that the district ensures no future assemblies from outside groups contain an underlying proselytizing message or agenda.

The district’s attorney informed FFRF that the district will warn performers about any songs or statements that contain proselytizing messages, and that they must only choose songs that are purely secular in nature.


Tennessee

Campbell County Schools in Jacksboro has discontinued promotion of a bible study release time program.

A district resident informed FFRF that Jacksboro Middle School has been impermissibly promoting a bible study release time program. According to the complainant, the school provided all students with permission slips for their parents to sign allowing them to participate in the program, and promoted the program on the school’s official Facebook page.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Campbell County Director of Schools Jennifer Fields, informing the district it must cease its involvement with the bible study release program, as it constitutes an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

Fields responded to FFRF’s concerns with an email assuring that the school that posted the permission slip and release time reminder on its Facebook page “has been asked to remove the post.”