FFRF victories roundup (September 2020)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

Alabama

Gideons International — the infamous evangelical association — will no longer be distributing bibles in Autauga County Schools in Prattville.

A concerned district parent reported that a teacher at Daniel Pratt Elementary School used the school’s official communication channels to send a message to all parents: “The Gideons come every year to distribute bibles to any fifth-grade student who wants to have one.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district, urging it to take immediate action to ensure that it no longer facilitates the distribution of bibles to students.

The district’s attorney informed FFRF in a letter of response that the superintendent was made aware of the issue and will “address the inappropriate use of Autauga County Board of Education’s communication’s channels for non-school-related matters, including but not limited to, the distribution of Gideon bibles with all board personnel.

California

A Long Beach Unified School District teacher will no longer be promoting the religious “Good News Club.”

A teacher at Colin Powell Elementary School reportedly founded and was running a Good News Club for first- and second-grade students that met in her classroom. Other adults, at least some of whom are district employees, reportedly also helped to organize the club and “bring the gospel message” to students.

Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Superintendent Chris Steinhauser asking that he inform staff that school-sponsored religious activity, like this club, violates the Constitution as well as the rights of conscience of students.

The district’s attorney has informed FFRF that the teacher leading the Good New Club has been told to stop while in her role as a public school teacher.

Georgia

Thomas County Schools events will no longer contain school-sponsored prayer.

A Thomas County Central High School student alerted FFRF that the school’s 2020 graduation ceremony opened with a scheduled invocation. Everyone in attendance was instructed to rise for the prayer and it was delivered “in Jesus’ name.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district reminding it that the Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events and that, in order to protect the rights of all its students, the district must no longer allow invocations at official events.

The district’s attorney informed FFRF in a letter of response that the district has reviewed the relevant legal requirements and will adhere to them in the future. “The district takes very seriously its responsibility to protect the rights of all students,” the letter reads.

Iowa

School officials in the Logan-Magnolia Community School District will no longer send out religious messages to district families.

In April, the district sent a mass email to parents that endorsed Easter and religion. The email read, in part: “Easter is normally a time of rebirth and bringing together of family. Unfortunately, the coronavirus has thrown our entire world upside down.” The email concluded: “And, in the end, take time to thank God for all your blessings. Your children are a blessing, and now more than ever, you need them to give you hope for the future.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Tom Ridder to ensure that future communications do not include religious messages or endorse religious holidays. Ridder confirmed in a reply email that the district will comply.

Illinois

A religious event has been removed from a Community Unit School District #200 summer activity handout in Wheaton.

A district parent informed FFRF that the district sent out a “Summer Choice Board” handout to parents via email which provided various summer activities for students to participate in. One of these activities, “Summerfest Goes Wild,” was a Christian worship event presented by Highpoint Church. The event began with a woman explaining, “We are here for one reason, and that’s to get to know who God is and his great love for each of us.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Jeff Schuler reminding him that the district may not encourage students to attend a Christian worship event. Schuler informed FFRF in a letter of response that the event has been removed from the handout.

Louisiana

Rapides Parish Schools in Alexandria has addressed several church/state issues raised by FFRF.

A concerned community member reported that Brame Middle School has begun each school year by inviting a local church to its faculty meetings to pray with and preach to teachers and staff. Teachers have reportedly been told they cannot leave during this portion of the meetings. Additionally, teachers and staff at the school had been regularly participating in student Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) meetings, often by signing praise songs with students. Finally, many classrooms throughout the school featured religious displays, including crosses and bible verses.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the district, pointing out the constitutional concerns with each of these reported violations and urging it to immediately cease prayer at faculty meetings, staff participation in student religious practices and display of religious symbols and messages in the classrooms.

The district’s attorney responded to FFRF’s letter with assurances that these complaints were addressed by the school principal.

Michigan

Coaches in Muskegon Public Schools will no longer be leading their athletic teams in prayer.

A district community member reported that the Muskegon High School’s head football coach was leading the team in prayer after games and practices.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Superintendent Matthew Cortez reminding the district that it is illegal for public school coaches to lead their players in prayer and that this practice must cease.

The district’s attorney informed FFRF that Cortez will be directing all coaches to cease prayers with team members. “All coaches will be educated on the constitutional limitations of prayer in public schools,” the attorney noted.

Mississippi

Booneville School District has addressed concerns over an overtly religious flyer that was sent home with students before Christmas last year.

A Booneville community member reported that Anderson Elementary School’s kindergarten teachers sent a letter home with students asking children and parents to “remember the true ‘REASON FOR THE SEASON’” next to a drawing of a Christian nativity scene.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the district’s attorney urging officials to ensure that district employees refrain from spreading messages that promote religious practices in accordance with their First Amendment obligations.

The district informed FFRF has addressed the matter internally.

Nebraska

The Ashland Police Department is doing an audit of its social media page to redress inappropriate religious content.

It was reported that the department was regularly promoting Christianity on its official Facebook page. In March, the department posted an image that depicted fictionalized quotes from Satan and Jesus. Satan said, “I will cause anxiety, fear and panic. I will shut down business, schools, places of worship and sports events. I will cause economic turmoil.” Jesus said: “I will bring together neighbors, restore the family unit, I will bring dinner back to the kitchen table. I will help people slow down their lives and appreciate what really matters. I will teach my children to rely on me and not the world. I will teach my children to trust me and not their money and material resources. AMEN!”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Police Chief Joseph Baudler pointing out the constitutional issue with this post and others like it. FFRF urged the department to remove all social media posts promoting religion and refrain from posting such content in the future.

Baudler informed FFRF via email that the department will be conducting an audit of its Facebook content and has removed the religious posts.

New Mexico

The city of Truth or Consequences has pledged to more closely scrutinize any public recognition of churches after a recent anniversary proclamation crossed the line into religious endorsement.

Earlier this year, the city proclaimed April 26 to be “First Baptist Church 100th Anniversary Celebration Day.” In its proclamation, the city explicitly endorsed the religious mission and views of the First Baptist Church.

The proclamation reads, in part: “Whereas for the past one hundred years the First Baptist Church of Truth or Consequences has faithfully demonstrated the love of God, communicated the Word of God and developed the Family of God.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Mayor Sandy Whitehead pointing out the constitutional issues with the city issuing such a proclamation. While FFRF recognizes the city may acknowledge and honor local organizations for their history and contributions to the community, it cannot explicitly endorse the religious views and mission of the church, presenting the doctrine as true thereby indicating the city’s endorsement of that religious mission.

The city’s attorney sent a letter of response informing FFRF that, while it was not the city’s intention to endorse the church’s religious message, it understands the present constitutional concerns and will exercise further caution in the future.

North Carolina

County bus drivers in Duplin County have ceased playing proselytizing radio stations on the public bus.

A local resident informed FFRF that many of the drivers for the Duplin County Transportation Department had been playing Christian radio stations that included religious music as well as sermons while riders were present. Several of the drivers reportedly also attempted to discuss God and Jesus with their riders.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the department of transportation informing the county that bus drivers may not continue to proselytize to bus riders while working in their official capacity as government employees.

Director of Duplin County Public Transportation Angel Venecia responded to FFRF with assurances that the county would promptly investigate and remedy the issue.

Ohio

LaBrae Local School District meetings in Leavittsburg will no longer begin with prayer.

A district community member alerted FFRF that the May 11 school board meeting opened with a Christian prayer. FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to School Board President Russell Sewell informing him that it is unconstitutional for the board to institute prayers at its meetings and requesting that it immediately refrain from including prayer at board meetings.

Sewell informed FFRF in a letter of response: “Effective with the June 8, 2020, meeting and all subsequent meetings, the LaBrae Local School Board will refrain from including a prayer at the openings of the Board meetings.”

Oregon

A local church will no longer advertise on Salem-Keizer Public Schools property.

A local community member contacted FFRF to report that signs advertising Way of Life Fellowship’s Sunday service have been placed on the grounds of Battle Creek Elementary School. These signs had apparently been on school grounds for over six months, even during times when Way of Life Fellowship is not renting the property.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Superintendent Christy Perry to ensure that, moving forward, Way of Life Fellowship is only using or displaying messages at times when it is actually renting the property.

The district’s attorney informed FFRF that the sign had been left up inadvertently, has since been removed and the church was notified that it cannot let a sign remain on district property.