FFRF keeps up pressure on constitutional violations

This T-shirt was worn by members of the marching band at a Texas high school.

By Molly Hanson

It’s been another busy (and productive!) month for the FFRF legal staff. Since the last issue of Freethought Today came out, FFRF has earned more than two dozen new legal victories, signaling that a school or other public entity has told us that it will discontinue its unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

While oftentimes many of FFRF’s legal wins are in a handful of states (most notably Florida and Texas), this month FFRF was victorious in 22 separate states, literally all across the country.

Here is a roundup of those victories (by state):

Alabama

Where: Opp High School in Opp.

Violation: A baccalaureate service was held in the auditorium and the school principal led the seniors in prayer during the service. Also, at the high school’s graduation ceremony, a prayer was listed on the graduation program and was delivered by a student.

Outcome: On Jan. 5, the district’s attorney responded, informing FFRF that the superintendent had instructed Opp City Schools faculty that there would be no school sponsored prayer or faculty involvement in future religious services.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Associate Counsel Sam Grover.

Arkansas

Where: Glen Rose High School in Malvern.

Violation: The high school used its official Facebook page to endorse the Christian-oriented prayer rally, “See You at the Pole,” that took place this past fall.

Outcome: On Jan. 8, Superintendent Tim Holicer informed FFRF that he had met with personnel responsible for the social media posts and addressed the First Amendment violation.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Robert Ingersoll Legal Fellow Colin McNamara.

California

Where: Dixie School District in San Rafael.

Violation: The district was planning a field trip for all its fifth-graders to Alliance Redwoods Conference Grounds, a religious location. The management of the site states that its mission is to provide a place “where our guests meet the Creator in his Creation.” The organization touts itself as “the perfect way to reconnect with God.”

Outcome: District Superintendent Jason Yamashiro replied to FFRF: “Thank you for your letter, and both the research and intent behind it. Our team has discussed the content and decided not to attend Alliance Redwoods.”

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell.

Colorado

Where: Palisade High School.

Violation: An invocation led by a pastor was scheduled for its 2018 graduation ceremony and the district was endorsing a baccalaureate service for graduating seniors.

Outcome: On Jan. 2, in a letter from an attorney representing the school district, FFRF was assured that Palisade High School would discontinue the invocation portion of its graduation ceremony and that the principal of the high school was reminded of the district’s policy regarding graduation exercises.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow Christopher Line.

Florida

Where: Auburndale.

Violation: The mayor’s office held an event for the National Day of Prayer at the Auburndale Civic Center. The city organized the event, distributed advertisement flyers and sold tickets.

Outcome: In a response received Jan. 30, the city assured FFRF that it would refrain from organizing and promoting the National Day of Prayer in the future.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel.

Georgia

Where: Rome High School.

Violation: The school’s marching band chose a Christian worship theme for 2017. The performance was called “Alleluia!” It featured stained-glass church windows as props and included flags with the names of multiple books from the bible written on them. The musical selection included biblically inspired songs.

Outcome: Rome City Schools notified FFRF that, because of FFRF’s involvement, the marching band has since modified its halftime performance to remove the religious props and add in secular music.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Christopher Line.

Illinois

Where: East Alton-Wood River High School in Wood River.

Violation: Football coaches were regularly participating in prayers with their students. A Facebook post from this past September pictured several coaches praying during a football game with players from both East Alton-Wood River and Dupo high schools with the caption, “E. Alton Woodriver asked our boys (Dupo) to pray with them after the game.”

Outcome: Superintendent John Pearson responded on Jan. 19, informing FFRF that the coaching staff would be told that participating in prayer with players is a constitutional violation.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Staff Attorney Ryan D. Jayne.

Iowa

Where: Des Moines County.

Violation: The County Board of Supervisors was planning to vote on waiving a property tax exemption deadline for Harmony Bible Church. (It was also reported that Board Chairman Bob Beck said, “I’ve never gotten in trouble for saying it, but I wish our judges would hand out statements saying instead of going to jail, you have to take your family and go to Sunday school.”)

Outcome: After receiving FFRF’s letter, it was reported by local media that the county board  canceled its vote because it no longer believed that it had the authority to ignore the deadline.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Ryan D. Jayne.

Kansas

Where: Trego Community High School in WaKeeney.

Violation: An all-school assembly was held for the Christian evangelical group, the Todd Becker Foundation.

Outcome: An attorney representing the school district responded on Jan. 5, informing FFRF that there are no plans to hold a Todd Becker Foundation event in the future.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott.

Kentucky

Where: South Hopkins Middle School in Nortonville.

Violation: An individual within Hopkins County Schools handed out bibles to students at the middle school during lunch.

Outcome: An attorney representing the school district informed FFRF in a response on Jan. 11 that steps had been taken to ensure that there would be no more handing out of bibles in the future.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Christopher Line.

Louisiana

Where: Washington Parish.

Violation: Sheriff Randy Seal regularly invoked Christian scripture in his official statements as sheriff, statements that were reflected on the Washington Parish Sheriff’s official Facebook page.

Outcome: The department’s legal counsel recently informed FFRF that the bible verses and highly religious posts have been deleted from the official Facebook page.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Andrew Seidel.

Missouri

Where: Smith-Hale Middle School in Kansas City.

Violation: A seventh-grade science teacher was reportedly teaching creationism.

Outcome: Superintendent Yolanda Cargile replied to FFRF: “All teachers are expected to teach prescribed curriculum and are not allowed to develop and teach curriculum outside of what has been approved by the school district. The test questions you highlighted in your letter are not aligned with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education standards and consequently are not acceptable and will not be utilized in our schools.”

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Christopher Line.

Nebraska

Where: Blair High School.

Violation: During an end-of-the-season banquet this past October, two cross country coaches delivered a Christian prayer as a blessing for the food.

Outcome: Blair Community Schools Superintendent Rex Pfei responded to FFRF’s concern on Feb. 5, reporting that he had addressed the banquet prayer violation and educated the coaches and school administrators on the law.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Colin McNamara.

New Mexico

Where: New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs.

Violation: The college displayed numerous crosses in public spaces, including the main reception area of the school’s student center and in several offices.

Outcome: College President Kelvin Sharp recently responded, informing FFRF that the violations had been addressed and the crosses have come down.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Christopher Line.

Ohio

Where: Celina High School.

Violation: The high school football team and its coaching staff prayed with the St. Mary’s High School football team after a game this past fall. Celina High School’s head coach, Brennen Bader, encouraged his players to participate.

Outcome: On Jan. 10, an attorney representing the district informed FFRF that the violation would not be repeated.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Colin McNamara.

Ohio

Where: Portage County Courthouse in Ravenna.

Violation: A nativity scene, which was visible from the city’s main street, consisted of wooden cutouts depicting bible characters Jesus, Mary and Joseph. There was also a star and sign, which quoted a bible passage.

Outcome: Mayor Frank Seman responded on Jan. 9 expressing agreement that the nativity scene should not have been allowed on government property and that the city was already planning on better handling of holiday decorations for 2018.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Legal Director Rebecca Markert.

Pennsylvania

Where: Cocalico and Solanco school districts in Lancaster County.

Violation: After a football game between the two schools this past November, the coaches gathered their teams together in the middle of the field to say a prayer.

Outcome: FFRF was informed on Jan. 9 that the Cocalico athletic director sent a letter to district coaches, noting that as employees of a public school system, they may not participate in prayer at an athletic event.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Legal Intake Attorney Madeline Ziegler.

South Carolina

Where: Woodmont High School in Greenville.

Violation: The school had scheduled “worship night” on a Sunday evening as part of “spirit week” activities. The event had been coordinated and promoted by school staff members.

Outcome: On Jan. 19, an attorney representing the school district informed FFRF that the event had been canceled.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Patrick Elliott.

Tennessee

Where: Bradley Central High School in Cleveland, Tenn.

Violation: Prayers were being broadcasted over the loudspeaker prior to football games.

Outcome: The district attorney responded by phone on Jan. 21 informing FFRF that he told the athletic board he would be retraining school administrators regarding their constitutional duty to remain neutral on matters of religion.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Christopher Line.

Tennessee

Violation: A county Circuit Court judge was conducting a Christian church service in the county juvenile detention facility. He is one of only two juvenile court judges in the county, and many of the children in the facility are serving a sentence that the judge imposed.

Outcome: On Jan. 31, the judge  called McNamara to report that he agreed with FFRF’s concerns and would no longer be involved in preaching in the juvenile facility. (See page 3 for story.)

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Colin McNamara.

Texas

Where: Gregory-Portland High School in Portland and Roy Miller High School in Corpus Christi.

Violation: Football players and coaches from the two schools recited the Lord’s Prayer at a  game between the two schools this past fall.

Outcome: FFRF received a response from Gregory-Portland Independent School District Superintendent Paul Clore on Jan. 5, telling FFRF that administration would inform the district coaching staff that they should not lead, encourage, promote or participate in prayers with students.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Sam Grover.

Texas

Where: Sunray Independent School District.

Violation: The district hosted a Christmas open house that featured elaborate holiday-themed wall decorations throughout the building, including hallway walls and classroom doors.

Outcome: Superintendent Marshall Harrison recently responded, assuring FFRF that Sunray ISD employees will be briefed on not promoting religion.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Sam Grover.

Texas

Where: Amarillo High School.

Violation: The school’s marching band had been issued T-shirts featuring a white staircase ascending to heaven with the words “Lifted” above “Amarillo High School Band 2017-2018.”

Outcome: On Jan. 29, FFRF received word that the district had complied with its request to investigate the situation and remove the religious shirts from use.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Sam Grover.

Virginia

Where: Dominion High School in Ashburn.

Violation: The school was regularly listing the worship services of Grace Covenant Church on the school calendar of events.

Outcome: The district responded on Jan. 16 informing FFRF that church services were removed from the school calendar of events.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Patrick Elliott.

Washington

Where: Waitsburg High School.

Violation: The boys’ basketball coach, Matthew Wyatt, was shown in a Facebook post kneeling and bowing his head in prayer with the team. Wyatt posted the photo with the caption, “My favorite thing about practice each day.”

Outcome: The district responded on Jan. 8 reporting to FFRF that it had taken appropriate action to ensure that coaching staff is aware of the law and their obligation to remain religiously neutral.

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Elizabeth Cavell.

West Virginia

Where: Page Jackson Elementary School in Charles Town.

Violation: A kindergarten class was directed  to cut, color and assemble a manger scene during the school day. It was reported that the school also instructed students on the myth of the biblical birth of Jesus Christ.

Outcome: In a response received on Jan. 2, Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson informed FFRF that the lesson plan and corresponding violation would be addressed with the staff to ensure future compliance with the First Amendment. 

FFRF attorney who handled the case: Patrick Elliott.