More pomp, fewer religious circumstances

By Paul Epland

FFRF was able to persuade numerous public schools around the country to end their religious prayers, remarks and handouts during graduation ceremonies. Here is a round-up of FFRF’s successful outcomes.

Brimfield, Ill.

FFRF’s objection to an Illinois high school’s religious graduation ceremony has made certain that there won’t be any further imposition of religion in the district.

A concerned community member contacted FFRF to report that the Brimfield High School graduation ceremony on May 20 included two separate Christian prayers. A copy of the ceremony’s written program includes both an “invocation” and “benediction.” Students were reportedly told to vote on whether there would be a prayer, then administrative staff instructed the valedictorians to select who among them would deliver the prayers during the ceremony.

FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne wrote to Brimfield CUSD #309 Superintendent Robert Richardson, outlining why the imposition of religion was unconstitutional. The school district was convinced by Jayne’s arguments.

“Brimfield CUSD #309 confirms to you that there will not be scheduled or approved prayer at district-sponsored events,” Richardson recently emailed the state/church watchdog.

Dekalb County, Ga.

A concerned resident reported to FFRF that a Dekalb County School Board member had been using her position to promote her religious beliefs to students and staff, including religious remarks she made at the 2017 Arabia Mountain High School graduation ceremony and the 2017 Dekalb County Schools Convocation.

On April 12, FFRF Legal Fellow Christopher Line wrote Dekalb County School District’s Chief Legal Officer, Jennifer Hackenmeyer, to notify the district that no public school representative may urge religious points of view on students, including telling them that they should “magnify the Lord,” “exalt his name,” or “put God first” — all things the board member had said during school functions.

An attorney representing the district replied to FFRF’s complaint on June 26, writing that the district “does not sponsor religious speeches” and has “provided a secular script for board members during the 2018 graduation.”

Great Bend, Kan.

FFRF ensured that employees within a Kansas school district will not be promoting their personal religious beliefs to students. On May 23, FFRF’s Christopher Line wrote to Khris Thexton, superintendent of Great Bend public school district in Great Bend, Kan., to issue a complaint against Principal Tim Friess of the Great Bend High School. Friess made religious remarks to students and parents at the 2018 Great Bend High School graduation, beginning his remarks by “thank[ing] God for the beautiful day that he has blessed us with” before relating a religious anecdote and concluding his remarks with “may God bless each of you.”

On June 8, Mark Rondeau, a legal representative for the school district, wrote to FFRF to report that Thexton had spoken with Friess, telling him that his religious comments were not in accordance with school policies. Friess assured the superintendent these comments would not be repeated.

Pottsville, Pa.

FFRF has helped put an end to prayer at a Pennsylvania high school’s graduation ceremonies. A senior at Pottsville Area High School informed FFRF that a prayer was scheduled at the high school’s graduation ceremony, and that the school sponsored a baccalaureate ceremony during the school day.

On June 6, FFRF Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler wrote to Superintendent Jeffrey Zwiebel to ensure that the prayer at Friday’s graduation was cancelled.

On June 9, the Republican-Herald, a local Pottsville newspaper, published a story detailing FFRF’s complaint against the school and the school’s subsequent decision to cancel the graduation prayer.

Shelby, Ohio

A concerned Ohio resident has reported that Shelby High School in Shelby, Ohio, had been advertising and promoting a baccalaureate service as part of its graduation events. An advertisement for the baccalaureate service, which typically includes prayer or worship, was published on the front cover of the Shelby High School graduation program and on the school’s website.

On May 18, FFRF’s Christopher Line wrote Tim Tarvin, superintendent of Shelby City Schools, to ensure that Shelby City Schools does not sponsor or advertise baccalaureate programs for its students.

On June 21, Melissa Martinez Bondy, a legal representative for the district, wrote to FFRF assuring it that the public school will no longer have any part in “controlling, organizing, and publicizing the baccalaureate service,” and that “the board will remove notice of the baccalaureate service from all graduation materials and announcements and will not directly or indirectly publicize the event.”

Goldsboro, N.C.

After FFRF intervened, Wayne County Public Schools in Goldsboro, N.C., will not conduct prayers at school functions. On Nov. 22, 2017, FFRF Senior Council Patrick Elliott wrote to Wayne Country Public School Board Chairperson Don Christopher West to register a complaint regarding prayers at Spring Creek High School graduation ceremony and school board meetings after a local complainant informed FFRF that Wayne County Schools has repeatedly engaged in practices that violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

On June 7, legal representatives for the district, Richard A. Schwartz and Laura E. Crumpler, wrote FFRF to confirm that “Wayne Country Public Schools has ceased both of the practices” — prayer at high school graduation and board meetings.

Hicksville, Ohio

FFRF has stopped Christian commencement handouts at Hicksville High School in Hicksville, Ohio. FFRF’s Christopher Line wrote to Keith Countryman, superintendent of Hicksville Exempted Village School, on May 31 to issue a complaint about a religious packet distributed to students during the high school’s commencement practice.

A concerned student notified FFRF about the constitutional violation, reporting that every graduating student received a packet containing materials that promoted Christianity, including a copy of “Evolution vs. God,” an anti-evolution film and a religious tract titled, “Are you a Good Person?” The packet also included a letter titled, “Hicksville High School Class of 2018,” which included religious messages and a bible verse.

An attorney representing the school contacted FFRF on June 21 to communicate that FFRF’s concerns had been addressed by the school and no such illegal action will be taken or allowed by the Hicksville school district in the future.