FFRF victories (Jan/Feb 2020)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

Arkansas

A Russellville School District teacher has been reminded of his obligation to refrain from proselytizing to students.

A district parent reported that a sixth-grade science teacher at Russellville Middle School has made several claims to his class that are based on his personal religious beliefs, not scientific fact. The complainant reported that this teacher told students that dinosaurs lived only a few thousand years ago, and that humans and dinosaurs coexisted. He also reportedly told students that Earth is only a few thousand years old and that it cannot be as old as the “atheist scientists” claim that it is.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Mark Gotcher urging the district to take appropriate disciplinary and corrective action regarding this unconstitutional conduct. Gotcher responded via phone and assured FFRF that he has spoken with the teacher and this should not be an issue again.

Colorado

Impermissible religious advertisements have been removed from Douglas County School District property after the district heard from FFRF.

A concerned area resident reported that Douglas County High School in Castle Rock rents space to the Front Range Church each Sunday and was allowing the church to park a large trailer with an advertisement for the church service in the parking lot throughout the week. The trailer was apparently easily visible to students or parents in the parking lot.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Thomas S. Tucker, asking the district to ensure that Front Range Church is only using and displaying messages on school property during times when it is actually renting the property.

The district’s attorney responded via email, informing FFRF that school staff removed all signage/advertising on the trailer. “The trailer now includes no reference to Front Range Church or any church services,” the attorney writes.

Florida

After numerous violations, staff in Volusia County Schools in DeLand have been reminded of their obligation to not endorse religion when acting in their official capacity as public school employees.

Multiple complainants, including a Volusia County parent, reported instances of religious promotion occurring within the district. The district’s director of transportation was regularly posting religious content on his Twitter page, where his bio read: “Volusia County Schools Director of Transportation. Follower and Ambassador of Jesus Christ.”

Additionally, a University High School teacher and student government association president posted an endorsement of a “See You at the Pole” gathering on Twitter. It read: “Amazing prayer circle this morning! Thank U to all who had the STRENGTH to show the COURAGE to share HIS word and RESPECT HIS KNOWLEDGE. . . . I felt HIS presence in the energy generated by our praying hearts and was humbled to hear the voices of young people living in HIS grace!”

In response to FFRF Attorney Chris Line’s letter of complaint, any religious content has been removed from the director of transportation’s twitter page and Superintendent Timothy Egnor has reminded the school staff “that they must remain neutral toward religion and must refrain from actively participating, promoting or endorsing religious activities.”

. . .

The Alachua County Public School District’s attorney has reminded district employees that they may not promote religion at school meetings.

A district employee in Gainesville reported that at a working dinner involving many school personnel, Buchholz High School Principal James TenBieg asked an employee to deliver a religious blessing. The complainant felt coerced into bowing their head and participating in this religious exercise because it was at the direction of the principal and they did not want to risk potential backlash.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to Brian Moore, the district’s attorney, to ensure that the district is no longer including prayer as part of employee meetings or events. Moore responded via email, assuring FFRF that district principals will be reminded this is inappropriate.

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A church’s banner has been removed from Miami-Dade Public Schools property.

A local resident reported that Lake Stevens Middle Schools in Miami had been displaying a banner for World Church International on its fence at all times. FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho, reminding the district that the school may not display religious advertisements. If the church rents the property, it may only put up the signs no earlier than when the rental time begins and must take them down when the rental time ends.

The district’s attorney responded via phone call to alert FFRF that the banners had been removed. Per school policy, they must only be up when the church is renting the school. 

. . .

A Bay County School District teacher has removed a religious reference from his email signature as it constituted an inappropriate endorsement of religion.

A district parent reported that a music teacher at Deane Bozeman School in Panama City was sending emails from his school account with a religious message in the signature line. Every email received by the complainant included the message, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Proverbs 3:5-6.”

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district’s attorney asking that the signature be removed so as not to create the impression of school endorsement of religion. The district’s attorney responded to the complaint, informing FFRF that the religious reference has been removed from the teacher’s district email signature.

Illinois

FFRF has secured two victories for state-church separation in the Maroa-Forsyth School District.

A concerned district parent contacted FFRF to report that a local religious ministry and New Life Pregnancy Center were teaching sex education at Maroa-Forsyth Middle School. New Life describes itself as “a Christ-centered ministry committed to upholding the sanctity of human life by demonstrating the love of Christ.”

New Life’s “Sexsanity” curriculum is based on encouraging abstinence largely through shame and fear, rather than providing educational information.

FFRF sent a letter to President Lindsey Wise, urging the district to replace this sex education curriculum with an appropriate, comprehensive and science-based alternative. The district has assured FFRF that it “will not teach that curriculum again. Period.”

FFRF was later informed by the complainant of a trend of Maroa-Forsyth High School promoting religion on social media. The school’s attorney has committed to addressing all state-church issues with district leadership and will ensure these violations do not recur.

Kansas

Teacher-led prayer has been stopped in North Lyon County USD 251 in Americus.

A district parent reported to FFRF that their child’s music teacher recently prayed with students before a concert at North Lyon County Elementary School. The teacher reportedly told students who don’t believe that they can bow their heads and close their eyes or just stare off into space. The teacher then reportedly read verses from the bible as part of the performance.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Mike Mathes, urging him to make certain that none of its employees were unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters.

Mathes responded to FFRF with assurances that the teacher was “instructed to stop leading prayer, encouraging students to pray, or reading the bible during the school day or as part of a school event.”

. . .

Humboldt USD 258 has taken action to address a complaint of coach prayer within its district.

A local resident reported to FFRF that Logan Wyrick, head coach of the Humboldt High School football team, had been leading his team in prayer after games. FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Kay Lewis, urging the district to investigate the alleged complaint and take immediate action to stop any illegal school-sponsored prayer.

In response to FFRF’s letter, Lewis spoke with Wyrick about the district policies and well-established legal precedent that preclude coach-led prayer in the district. The coach agreed this would not happen again. Additionally, the district athletic director will speak with all district coaches and sponsors in regard to this violation at an upcoming in-service.

Kentucky

A coach in the Glasgow Independent School District has been advised not to lead the team in prayer, organize or otherwise advocate for students to lead team prayer.

A community member contacted FFRF to report that after every practice and game, Jeff Hughes, an assistant coach at Glasgow Middle School, led his team in a prayer session when he discussed his Christian faith. Hughes had described his job as teaching “young men about football and more importantly about Jesus!” Hughes is apparently also involved with the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) club.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Superintendent Keith Hale, urging the district to take immediate action to stop any and all prayers occurring in district athletic programs.

Hale sent a letter of response, informing FFRF that “Hughes has been advised not to lead the team in prayer, organize or otherwise advocate for students to lead team prayer.”

Missouri

District administrators in Willard Public Schools have taken corrective action to ensure that inappropriate religious references will not occur in presentations in their classes.

A district parent reported that Willard High School’s choir director invited a former student to talk to his class and then posted on social media about how the guest had spoken about “following God’s plan.”

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to the school’s attorney pointing out the constitutional issues with allowing an outside adult access to impressionable public school students to preach to about “God’s plan.” The attorney informs FFRF that the superintendent and the principal reviewed the issue and discussed the inappropriateness with the choir teacher. The teacher was “directed to refrain from similar presentations in the future” and he “readily agreed.” The social media post has since been removed.

Oklahoma

Administration officials in Blanchard Public Schools have “taken affirmative steps” to address a serious state-church violation in one of its schools.

A district parent reported that a science teacher at Blanchard Middle School had been attempting to discredit evolution. The complainant reported that their child was supposed to learn about evolution through an educational video. Before the lesson, the teacher told students that she is Christian and would be fast forwarding through parts of the video that she found offensive as a Christian, and that she felt would be offensive to others. She then proceeded to fast forward through large portions of the video explaining evolution. The teacher showed a second video because the first was “too offensive.” At one point during the second video, the narrator stated that evolution was a fact, at which point the teacher told students that was not true.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Jim Beckman, pointing out that the teacher’s attempt to undermine what she was teaching is both unconstitutional and pedagogically deplorable. Line urged the district to take appropriate disciplinary and corrective action regarding this unconstitutional conduct.

The district’s attorney responded to FFRF’s letter with assurances that administration is taking action to ensure this does not happen again.

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Edmond Public Schools has made changes to an annual holiday program after complaints that including religious elements violated the constitutional principle of state-church separation.

An Edmond Public Schools community member reported that each year, third-grade teachers at Chisholm Elementary had students rehearse a live nativity scene, which the students then went on to perform at the school’s holiday concert in December. Students who participated apparently played various roles, including Mary, Joseph, etc.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to the school’s attorney, pointing out that teaching students the biblical story of the birth of Jesus and having them regularly rehearse a performance of that story impermissibly entangles the school with the bible’s devotional message. The school’s attorney replied via email, informing FFRF that “changes were made to the program.”

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District leadership in Lone Grove School District No. I-32 has taken action to address a serious state-church violation.

A district parent reported that a first-grade teacher at Lone Grove Primary School led students in prayer before a Thanksgiving meal. The complainant reported that before the meal, the teacher boasted that all of the first-grade classes lead children in prayer every day before snack time. This practice has apparently been taking place at the school for years.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Meri Jayne Miller, urging the district to make certain that none of its employees is unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters by leading prayer, encouraging them to pray, or setting aside time for prayer.

The district’s attorney responded to the letter of complaint, informing FFRF that neither the superintendent nor the school principal was aware this was taking place and that “the administration investigated and has taken affirmative steps to ensure that this does not happen again.”

South Carolina

Coaches in Greenville County Schools have been reminded of their constitutional duty to remain neutral on matters of religion.

A concerned district parent reported that Woodmont High School football coaches prayed with their players on the field after a football game in October. FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the district’s attorney Doug Webb to ensure that Greenville County Schools takes immediate action to stop any and all school-sponsored prayer.

Webb informed FFRF in his response letter that district coaches have “been instructed not to participate in any student-initiated prayer but to instead respectfully observe that prayer so that their actions do not show either endorsement or hostility toward that student expression.”

Texas

A Texas public school district has addressed unconstitutional religious promotion by its basketball coaches.

A concerned community member reported to FFRF that basketball coaches at Connally High School in Pflugerville had been leading their teams in prayer. One of the coaches, Bradley Washington, had also established the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) program at the high school. In an online FCA video, Washington stated that “there was no FCA here, and I’m not gonna apologize for trying to pour it into the young kids’ life. Basketball won’t be a part of your life forever, but Jesus will.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote a letter to Pflugerville Independent School District Superintendent Douglas Killian, urging the district to take immediate steps to end these illegal practices.

The superintendent responded by email to assure FFRF that the district is taking action to correct these violations. Killian reports he has “reached out to the athletic director and deputy superintendent to investigate and correct and shared to get some training in place with our attorney for the coaches and sponsors.”

Washington

A proselytizing retired teacher is no longer volunteering with students in the East Valley School District No. 90 in Yakima.

A district community member reported that East Valley High School was allowing a retired teacher to proselytize to students and act as an FCA representative, even though the school has no student FCA club. The complainant reported that the FCA representative organized monthly coach breakfasts and meetings with student-athletes after practice ends. The coaches at the school had apparently encouraged students to meet with the volunteer after practice.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent John Schieche, urging the district to ensure that outside adults are no longer being given access to students during school activities.

Schieche informed FFRF that he “met with the retired teacher last spring and informed him that the meetings with students were not permissible.” The retired teacher is no longer volunteering in the school or meeting with students.

West Virginia

District staff members in Berkeley County Schools in Martinsburg were instructed to honor their constitutional obligation to remain neutral on religion when acting in their official capacity.

FFRF was informed that Spring Mills High School football coaches prayed with their players midfield after a football game in September. Pastor Mayor Dale Myers was reportedly brought in to lead the football prayer after the football game.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Patrick K. Murphy urging the district to stop any and all school-sponsored prayers occurring in any district programs.

The district responded via e-mail, alerting FFRF of the actions it took to investigate the claims and has addressed the legal issues relevant to this situation at its Athletic Council Meeting. “Athletic directors and principals were instructed on what law requires of district employees who are acting in their official capacity when it comes to prayer at athletic events.”