FFRF Victories (Jan/Feb 2021)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

Religious quote removed from Army signatures

Employees of Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri have been instructed not to include religious messages in email signatures from their official Army accounts.

A technical support specialist for Fort Leonard Wood had been including the bible verse “‘With GOD all things are possible’ Matthew 19:26” in the signature block of his official U.S. Army email address.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Fort Leonard Wood Garrison Commander Colonel Jeffrey O. Paine and Command Inspector General Lt. Colonel Mary M. Smith asking that this email signature be changed so as not to create the impression of official military endorsement of Christianity over all other religions or religion over nonreligion.

Employees were instructed, per Army policy, to remove all religious references from their official email signatures.

School staff won’t join in religious event

In Illinois, Roxana Community Unit School District #1 staff have been reminded they may not partake in religious observance during school events.

A local community member informed FFRF that district personnel, including staff and school board members, attended and participated in a “See You at the Pole” event last fall.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Debra Kreuztrager, reminding the district that staff must not plan, promote or participate in any future “See You at the Pole” events nor encourage students to put on such events.

Kreuztrager sent a letter of response with assurances that “expectations will be communicated to ensure that staff remember to serve only in a supervisory role as needed for this event in the future.”

Daily school prayers stopped in La. school

Morning prayers have been stopped in the Washington Parish School System in Louisiana.

A local resident alerted FFRF that Franklinton High School’s student chaplain had been leading the school in prayer each morning before the Pledge of Allegiance.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson sent a letter to Superintendent Frances Varnado asking that the district immediately cease scheduling this prayer as it constitutes illegal religious endorsement on the part of the school.

The complainant has informed FFRF that the daily prayers have stopped.

Boise State downgrades chaplaincy program

One of Idaho’s most prominent educational institutions has listened to the Freedom From Religion Foundation regarding its unconstitutional football chaplaincy.

The national state/church watchdog had written to Boise State University about the football program’s official chaplain, Mark Thornton. Thornton has arranged for post-game prayers on the field with players, led them in chapel the night before games and prayed with players individually before games.

Public schools may not advance or promote religion, FFRF emphasized.

“Government chaplains may only exist as an accommodation of a public employee’s religious beliefs when the government makes it difficult or impossible to seek out private ministries,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Boise State University President Marlene Tromp.

Abolishing the team chaplaincy would not alter student athletes’ ability to pray, but it would prevent some student athletes from feeling coerced into participating in prayers to a deity they may not believe in, FFRF added.

FFRF’s reasoning seems to have scored many points with Boise State, which has pledged to significantly downgrade its chaplaincy program.

“We have been in communication with the Athletic Department to provide some education about this issue and to ensure measures are taken now and in the future to resolve the issue and establish appropriate constitutional boundaries,” the university’s legal counsel recently responded via email. “Mr. Thornton did not travel with the football team to our recent game in Wyoming and the university will no longer include a chaplain in its travel party. Written references to Mr. Thornton as the chaplain of the football team have been or are in the process of being removed and no future references will be made in writing or otherwise.”

Prayer no longer part of fire academy graduation

Kansas City Fire Department staff in Missouri will no longer schedule prayer as part of fire academy cadet graduation ceremonies.

FFRF was made aware that the department scheduled invocations as part of its cadet graduation ceremonies and posted videos of these ceremonies on its official Facebook page. The 2020 winter ceremony prayer, led by one of the department’s firefighters, called on attendees to “bow [their] heads and come together now in prayer.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Fire Chief Donna Lake, pointing out that in addition to violating the Establishment Clause, calling on attendees to pray at fire department events is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of a fire department. FFRF’s letter encouraged the department to respect its pluralistic class of firefighters and cease from including prayer at future official ceremonies and events.

Lake informed FFRF via email that department staff have been directed to “discontinue sponsoring or scheduling an invocation or any other prayer at Fire Academy cadet graduation ceremonies.”

Mo. district nixes prayer from future graduations

A staff prayer issue was resolved in Kirksville R-III School District.

A district community member reported that during a Kirksville High School graduation ceremony, Superintendent Richard Webb included a prayer in his remarks to students.

He said: “And today, which is the Sabbath Day, I pray also that you won’t let memes or social media define the truth for you, but that you’ll instead see you as God sees you. That you will listen to Him when He whispers the truth of a variety of things to you.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Webb requesting that he refrain from abusing his position as superintendent to proselytize. Line pointed out that it is particularly concerning that, as superintendent, Webb is charged with ensuring constitutional compliance in the district, but instead used his position to promote his personal religious beliefs to students.

The district’s attorney informed FFRF in a letter of response that “employees of the district were reminded of the district’s board policy regarding religion at school and were also instructed not to lead students in, or promote, prayer or religion.”

Religious displays taken down at public workplace

Religious displays have been removed from government property in Macon County, N.C.

A concerned employee in the Macon County Solid Waste Department reported that religious materials were on display in the workplace at Otto Center. These displays included the Ten Commandments, as well as various other religious postings.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Recycling Coordinator Shaun Cribbs requesting that these materials be removed.

Cribbs responded via email to inform FFRF that the religious materials have been taken down and that a memo was sent to all staff to ensure this does not happen again in the future.

Texas school district gets social media lesson

Pine Tree Independent School District in Texas will train teachers on appropriate usage of the district’s social media pages following its impermissible promotion of a religious event.

A local resident reported that Pine Tree Elementary School used its official Facebook page to promote a “See You at the Pole” event. The post described the event as a “national day of student prayer” and indicated that the event was being hosted by the school.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Steve Clugston to request that the district refrain from endorsing religious events.

The district sent a letter of response indicating that it recognizes this as an “opportunity to educate [its] staff while continuing to support the rights of [its] students and will develop a training for district staff who have control over district social media pages addressing this issue.”

Jesus picture taken down at W.Va. school

An impermissible religious display has been removed from Harrison County Schools property in West Virginia.

A community member informed FFRF that a picture of Jesus was on display at Robert C. Byrd High School.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Dora Stutler reminding the district that it may not advance, prefer or promote religion and therefore must remove this religious photo.

Stutler confirmed in a letter of response the photo has been taken down.