FFRF victories (September 2019)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

Illinois township calls off Ark Encounter trip

Scheduled trips to the Ark Encounter and other religious venues have been called off by an Illinois township following a letter of complaint from FFRF.

A local resident reported that Frankfort Township recently sponsored a religiously themed trip that included visits to the Ark Encounter Creation Museum in Kentucky. A flier for the event is titled “The Frankfort Township Board Presents Ark Encounter & Creation Museum.”

Another flier advertised a similar religious trip in June, with the Township Board sponsoring a trip to Lancaster County, Pa., to see a performance of “Jesus” at the Millennium Theatre, which describes itself as “Where the bible comes to life on stage.” The Christian theatre group’s stated purpose is “to present the gospel of Jesus Christ and sow the word of God into the lives of customers.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne wrote to Township Supervisor Jim Moustis, pointing out that “sponsoring regular Christian-themed trips shows an endorsement of Christianity on behalf of the township.” This endorsement, of course, “is unconstitutional and excludes the township’s residents, who are being told that they are not part of the township’s favored religious groups,” Jayne adds.

The township’s attorney contacted FFRF and confirmed over the phone that these events were cancelled.

Indiana school district ends graduation prayers

An Indiana school district has discontinued scheduling prayer at graduation ceremonies after a letter from FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne.

A district community member reported that the South Vermillion High School graduation ceremony on May 25 featured a pre-scheduled Christian prayer. The ceremony’s written program included a “class prayer.”

Including religious rituals, such as prayer, in school-sponsored events is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, FFRF reminded the district. The Supreme Court has routinely struck down prayers at such district-backed events, including graduations.

The district’s attorney responded to FFRF with assurances that prayer would not be a part of the official graduation program in the future.

Maryland county grants open to all nonprofits

Any future Montgomery County, Md., grants will be open to all nonprofit organizations regardless of religious affiliation, after FFRF raised concerns with a recent initiative providing grant funds to faith-based facilities.

A concerned taxpayer reported that, earlier this year, the county awarded $200,000 to a variety of faith-based facilities for “security operations.” The county’s solicitation for applications for these grants left no doubt that these taxpayer funds were only available to “houses of worship” and that secular nonprofits would understand that they need not apply, even if they faced plausible threat of hate crimes.

FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne wrote to Montgomery Chief Executive Marc Elrich, noting that while it is laudable for the county to work with at-risk organizations in the community to improve security and safety, offering funds only to houses of worship attaches an unconstitutional religious criterion to the grant program. Jayne requested assurances that future county grant programs will not be offered only to houses of worship.

Montgomery County responded and informed FFRF that any future funding, should it exist, would be made open to all nonprofits with a demonstrated need, “irrespective of any religious affiliation.”

Michigan school districts end ‘Conquerors’ visits

Three Michigan districts will discontinue invitations to the infamous “Conquerors” after complaints that their assemblies amount to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion in public schools.

FFRF Robert G. Ingersoll Legal Fellow Colin McNamara wrote letters to Constantine Public Schools, Schoolcraft Community Schools and Sturgis Public Schools seeking open records pertaining to their hosting of school assemblies featuring The Conquerors Strength Team.

The Conquerors held a “week of ministry” through the Riverside Church in Three Rivers. Throughout its trip, the group performed assemblies at 11 schools in the greater Three Rivers area. In the final performance at Riverside Church on April 13, Mike Benson said that “The Conquerors International Strength Team exists for one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to transform communities worldwide with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

“We request that you refrain from sponsoring inappropriate and unconstitutional assemblies moving forward, and that the district ensures that assemblies from outside groups or speakers do not contain an underlying proselytizing message or agenda,” McNamara wrote to the districts.

All three districts committed to refraining from inviting the Conquerors to any future events and to ensuring that outside groups are not invited to proselytize to students.

Religious signs taken down from Miss. school

In Mississippi, several religious signs have been removed from George County Schools property following FFRF’s intervention.

A district community member reported to FFRF that signs displaying a Christian cross had appeared on several district properties. The signs feature a large cross next to the words “passion, purpose, pride” with “#gcstrong” and “George County Rebels” underneath. At the time of the complaint, these signs were reportedly on display at five district schools and at the district’s Transportation Maintenance & Child Nutrition building.

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to the district to ensure that it cease impermissibly endorsing Christianity through religious displays on school property.

“These religious displays alienate non-Christian and nonreligious students, parents, teachers, and members of the public whose beliefs are inconsistent with the message being promoted by the district,” Grover noted. “This consideration should hold substantial weight for the district, given that fully 47 percent of young Americans are non-Christian, with 21 percent of those born after 1999 — i.e., all of your current students — identifying as either atheist or agnostic.

The religious signs have been removed from district property.

Invocation, benediction removed from ceremony

An annual benediction did not occur at a North Carolina public school graduation ceremony this year, due to a complaint from FFRF. 

An Elkin High School student reported that every year Elkin High School directs students to deliver an invocation and benediction as part of its graduation ceremony. The complainant reported that school officials assign students to deliver the invocation and benediction and that the students’ prayers are then reviewed by the school’s guidance counselor for approval. During the 2018 Elkin High graduation ceremony, the invocation was explicitly Christian and ended with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

FFRF Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Myra Cox, insisting that the district cancel the religious programs at the 2019 ceremony. The district’s legal counsel responded to FFRF’s complaint with assurances that the 2019 ceremony did not include any prayer and that the issues raised by FFRF’s letter were addressed with administrative personnel.

Prayers at Texas school graduation won’t continue

The Seguin Independent School District in Texas has altered its graduation ceremonies, to avoid its tradition of opening and closing with prayers led by students.

A district parent informed FFRF that Seguin High School has a practice of scheduling opening and closing prayers at each of its graduation ceremonies. These prayers are invariably Christian in nature. Last year, for instance, the senior class secretary began the invocation with “Dear heavenly father” and ended with “We ask this in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.” The ceremony ended with the senior class president giving the benediction, which also opened with “Dear heavenly father” and ended with “In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Matthew Gutierrez requesting assurances that the district will no longer schedule prayer at school-sponsored events.

The district’s attorney conferred with district leadership and assured FFRF the titles have been changed from “invocation” and “benediction” to “student prelude” and “student adjournment.”

Religious photo removed from teacher’s desk

A religious photo has been removed from an Illinois public school classroom following FFRF intervention.

A Freeburg Community High School District 77 community member reported that a teacher at Freeburg High displayed a photo in her classroom that urged students to “Seek the Lord,” along with a biblical reference to Isaiah 55:6. The picture was located in a prominent spot on the teacher’s desk in full view of students.

FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne sent a letter to the district, pointing out that it is wholly inappropriate for a public school to display a message that most students would understand to be a suggestion to convert to Christianity.

The photo has been taken down, the district’s legal representation informed FFRF in a response letter.