FFRF Victories (May 2021)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

Indiana school district ends meeting prayers

FFRF has persuaded an Indiana school district to cease opening school board meetings with prayer.

A concerned district community member contacted FFRF to report that the Griffith Public Schools Board of Trustees opened each of its meetings with a prayer led by a member of the board or a guest, including clergy. For example, Pastor Freda Scales with Griffith Lutheran was invited to lead the opening prayer during the January 2021 regular board meeting and John Dudlicek, second vice president of the board, led the opening prayer during the November 2020 special board meeting. These prayers were invariably Christian in nature.

The school board is an essential part of the public school system, FFRF pointed out.

“Students, parents, and district employees have the right — and often have reason — to participate in school board meetings,” FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald wrote to School Board President Kathy Ruesken. “While those in the religious majority may view opening prayers as striking an appropriately solemn tone to mark the start of a meeting, the prayers have the opposite effect for those who do not hold the same religious beliefs as the prayer giver.”

The board was engaging in a governmental endorsement of Christianity that excludes the 30 percent of Americans who are non-Christian and are largely nonreligious, FFRF added. Nationally, among millennials and younger Americans — who make up the entirety of the nation’s student population and most students’ parents — about 46 percent are non-Christian, either practicing no religion at all or a minority religion. Including prayer at meetings unnecessarily ostracized this significant, growing portion of the district’s community.

FFRF’s well-reasoned missive had an impact.

“As a reaction to court opinions and a letter from that watchdog group, the board unanimously eliminated the prayer in favor of being neutral with a moment of silence so people can contemplate whatever they wish,” reports the local newspaper. “The letter was written by FFRF representative Joseph McDonald.”

In an email to McDonald, the school board president acknowledged FFRF’s role in the policy change.

“Regarding the letter that I received from Mr. Joseph McDonald, I would like to state that the trustees of the Griffith School Board have reviewed the contents,” Ruesken stated. “We have concluded that it would be in the best interest of the school district to offer up a moment of silence in lieu of prayer.”

FFRF stops school board prayer in Pa. district

A Pennsylvania public school district has discontinued injecting religion into each school board meeting due to intervention by FFRF.

A concerned Montrose Area School District community member alerted FFRF that the school board had a practice of opening every meeting with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer following the Pledge of Allegiance. Additionally, all nine members of the board were reportedly participating in reciting this Christian prayer, during which students were sometimes present.

FFRF sent a letter to Superintendent Christopher McComb, alerting the district to the unconstitutionality of beginning official district meetings with prayer, especially when students are present.

“Students and parents have the right — and often have reason — to participate in school board meetings,” FFRF Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler wrote. “It is coercive, embarrassing and intimidating for nonreligious citizens to be required to make a public showing of their nonbelief or else to display deference toward a religious sentiment in which they do not believe, but which their school board members clearly do.”

FFRF requested the district respect the First Amendment by refraining from scheduling prayers at official board meetings — and its plea had the desired effect. McComb informed FFRF via email that “this practice has ceased and will no longer continue.”

Religious signs removed from school hallways

A state/church entanglement was rectified in Alabama at Blount County Schools after FFRF intervened.

FFRF was informed that staff members at Appalachian Elementary School in Oneonta, Ala., had hung up religious displays in the halls of the school. The messages included: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew within me a right spirit,” from Psalm 51, “Love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself. Mark 12:28-31.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district’s attorney, pointing out that the district violated the Constitution when it allows its schools to display religious symbols and messages. FFRF urged the district to remove the displays immediately. 

FFRF was informed that the matter has been resolved.

FFRF stops school from constitutional violations

Religious displays have been removed from Willard County Schools in Missouri following intervention from FFRF.

A Willard Public Schools parent reported multiple constitutional violations. The teacher was displaying a sign that read “Mrs. B’s Mission Statement” outside of her classroom where the first mission statement was to “Follow Jesus.” Additionally, FFRF was informed that the “God’s Not Dead” club, led by a district employee, had placed posters of Christian bible quotes around the school. 

FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald wrote to Superintendent Matthew Teeter urging the district to remove these religious displays and posters from school property. The religious messaging alienated those nonreligious students, families, teachers and members of the public whose religious beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted by the school, McDonald’s letter emphasized.

The district’s attorney informed FFRF: “The posters with religious messages have been removed. Teachers have been reminded of their responsibility to comply with Board of Education policies. Finally, principals have been directed to monitor their buildings to ensure that similar postings are not made in their buildings.”

Staff told not to join in student-led prayers

Staff in Bison School District in South Dakota have been reminded that they may not participate in student-led prayer.

FFRF was made aware that the Bison High School boys basketball team was concluding every game with a prayer circle. It appeared that, at times, the coaching staff joined the prayer circle, either standing or on bended knee. The team’s coach stated that “the team’s priorities are, in order, faith, then family, then school, and then basketball.” 

FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald wrote to Superintendent Marilyn Azevedo, pointing out that these comments, actions and approach to coaching showed a clear preference for religion and are unconstitutional. FFRF asked that the district commence an investigation into the complaint and take immediate action to stop any and all school-sponsored prayers occurring within any district athletic programs.

The district’s attorney responded to FFRF with assurances that, in response to these revelations, the district will provide specific training for all district coaches regarding students’ right to pray and to remind all personnel that they may not encourage, initiate, lead or participate in student prayer. 

Coaches won’t join in post-game prayers

An issue of religious promotion by the Cumberland County School District in Crossville, Tenn., has been resolved.

FFRF was made aware that the Stone Memorial football coaching staff joined a public prayer with students after a school football game against Christian Academy of Knoxville last fall. Several coaches bowed their heads and held the shoulders of the players. 

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district’s attorney, informing the district that it is illegal for public school coaches to organize or participate in prayer with their teams. 

Cumberland County School Board Attorney G. Earl Patton informed FFRF in a letter of response that the issue has been resolved. “Stone Memorial High School Principal Kelly Smith met with the head coach of the football team and reiterated that public school coaches must refrain, not only from leading prayers themselves, but also from participating in prayers led by students,” Patton wrote.

Additionally, Patton informed FFRF that he gave a presentation to district administration concerning increasing religious diversity and the importance of adhering to religious neutrality. 

Religious groups won’t be allowed student access 

Humble Independent School District in Texas has reviewed expectations and guidelines around remaining neutral on religious issues with administration following a letter of complaint from FFRF.

A local resident reported that a local religious group called the Covenant on Campus Team was granted access to the classrooms in Park Lakes Elementary School to leave messages on the students’ desk, regardless of the students’ religious affiliation or lack thereof. 

Former FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the district’s attorney to request that the district refrain from allowing religious groups privileged access to public schools.

Humble ISD General Counsel Stephanie Maher informed FFRF in a letter that she has reviewed the standards for community groups at school with the principal and the assistant superintendent.