FFRF legal victories (April 2018)

Bible verse on T-shirts banned from band

FFRF has remedied several state/church violations within a Missouri public school after receiving multiple complaints from area residents regarding school employees at Buffalo High School promoting religion.

It was reported that the band director of the school’s marching band included a bible verse on the official band T-shirts in the past. Last year, T-shirts for the Buffalo High School girls’ basketball team also included a bible verse. Furthermore, a parent reported that in recent years there have been prayers given over the loudspeaker before Buffalo High School football games.

FFRF wrote to the Dallas County R-1 School District on Jan. 9, informing Superintendent Timothy Ryan that it is a violation of the U.S. Constitution for schools to promote a religious message to students, or to sponsor religious messages at school athletic events.

On Jan. 19,  Ryan responded, informing FFRF that the district would perform an investigation into the alleged violations to ensure they would not recur.

Oklahoma football team doesn’t have a prayer

FFRF has remedied a constitutional violation taking place within an Oklahoma City school district.

It was reported to FFRF by a concerned area resident that Putnam City High School had been including religion in its football program. The Rev. Mike Keahbone was allegedly leading the team in prayers. Keahbone had explained that his goal, in coordination with his church, was to proselytize players, having stated, “If the Lord opens the door, we’ll share the Gospel with them.”

In a letter sent to City Schools Superintendent Fred Rhodes, FFRF informed the district that it can neither allow a non-school adult access to the children in its charge nor can it grant that access to a religious speaker seeking to proselytize students.

“Public school football teams cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain, because public schools may not advance or promote religion,” wrote FFRF Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow Chris Line. “Similarly, it is illegal for a public school or school-appointed volunteer to organize, sponsor or lead prayers at public high school athletic events.”

FFRF emphasized that school endorsement of Christianity is particularly troubling given that almost half of young Americans are non-Christian. FFRF requested that the district end the chaplaincy program and take action to stop coaches and other school representatives from organizing, leading or participating in prayers with student athletes.

A legal representative of Putnam City Schools recently informed FFRF that the district had investigated the incident and discovered that Keahbone had been allowed into the team’s locker room to interact with students and offer prayer. FFRF was assured that new procedures had been put into place and that the athletic staff has been instructed that the practice of allowing access to students and engaging in prayer before any game would cease immediately.

“Religion is divisive and has no place in a football team locker room,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We’re pleased that the school district has taken corrective action to honor their students’ rights of conscience and create a more inclusive team atmosphere.”

With one stroke, FFRF removes N.C. painting

FFRF has gotten a brazenly religious work of art removed from a North Carolina courthouse.

A Cleveland County resident informed FFRF that a large painting had been installed in the main corridor of the Cleveland County Courthouse depicting a Latin cross and an ichthys, also known as the Jesus fish. The Elizabeth Baptist Church donated the piece.

The religious significance of the Latin cross is unambiguous and indisputable, FFRF reminded county officials, since an overwhelming majority of federal courts agree that the Latin cross universally represents the Christian religion — and only the Christian religion.

“The Supreme Court has long recognized that the First Amendment ‘mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,’” FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to Cleveland County last November. “Displaying paintings that promote Christianity fails to respect either constitutional mandate of neutrality. A majority of federal courts have held displays of Latin crosses on public property to be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.”

Plus, this painting conveyed a message to the nearly 30 percent of Americans who are not Christian, including the 23 percent of Americans who are not religious, that they’re not “favored members of the political community,” to quote the U.S. Supreme Court. The cross’ exclusionary effect made non-Christian and nonbelieving residents of Cleveland County political outsiders, FFRF asserted.

FFRF requested the county to immediately take down the painting from the Cleveland County Courthouse. County officials have acceded to the request.

“The large painting in the main corridor of the Cleveland County Courthouse that depicts a Latin cross and fish has been removed from the location inside the courthouse,” the county recently replied.

FFRF is appreciative of the move.

“It’s gratifying that once we enlightened Cleveland County officials, they took out such obviously Christian artwork from a judicial building that serves a secular purpose — and the needs of a religiously diverse population,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Emergency! Crosses come off rescue vehicles

A concerned resident reported to FFRF that Palm Beach County in Florida had been displaying Latin crosses on its fire trucks and ambulances to commemorate fallen firefighters and EMTs. FFRF wrote to the county on Jan. 19 emphasizing that while it has no objection to memorializing emergency responders, it is unlawful for a county government to display patently religious symbols.

“Our objection is to the message of endorsement of religion over nonreligion,” wrote FFRF Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow Chris Line. “These crosses send a message to minority religions and nonreligious emergency responders that their service is less valuable than that of their Christian co-workers.”

An attorney representing Palm Beach County responded on Feb. 6 informing FFRF that the fire rescue squad would be removing the cross stickers from their emergency vehicles.

Club discontinued in Arkansas district

A concerned parent of a Bentonville Public Schools student informed FFRF that a woman, Esther Seim, was leading a Fellowship of Christian Athletes group for students of Osage Creek Elementary School and Creekside Middle School in Bentonville, Ark. FCA was reportedly organized and run entirely by Seim, who was advertising the group to fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders, whom she bribed to attend with food, games, prizes and “new friends.”

Seim vocalized her intentions for the group, saying it existed for “spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ in our public school community.”

FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott wrote to the district on Oct. 25 warning against the public school’s unconstitutional appearance of endorsing religion over nonreligion by showing preferential treatment to an outside religious club.

An attorney for the district confirmed on Feb. 9 that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes had been discontinued.

FFRF coaches schools on coach-led prayer

FFRF stopped constitutional violations that nearly took place in three high schools in a Florida school district. It was reported to FFRF that the Gainesville High School, Eastside High School and Buchholtz High School football teams were scheduled to attend a Fellowship of Christian Athletes football camp this summer.

The camp includes daily church services and its stated mission is to “present to coaches and athletes, and all whom they influence, the challenge and adventure of receiving Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, serving Him in their relationships and in the fellowship of the church.” Furthermore, the head football coach of Gainesville High School described the camp in part as a team building activity to “emphasize faith” and stated that “everyone can benefit from learning some Christian values and fellowship.” The coaching staff, and, occasionally, students were also leading the team in prayer before meals and coaches were leading the team in prayer before and after games.

FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel wrote to Alachua County Public Schools last year informing the district that the prayers and the camp were illegal. The district responded on Feb. 6, communicating to FFRF that the coaches of the teams have been instructed to refrain from any religious activity.

FFRF stands up for New Jersey students

FFRF has protected students’ rights of conscience at a New Jersey high school. A student reported to FFRF that an East Brunswick High School teacher singled the student out to talk about why they were not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance, and threatened to report the student to the grade level administrator for not standing.

In a letter sent on Oct. 30, FFRF Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler informed the district that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that compelling a student to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance infringes upon students’ First Amendment rights.

A legal representative of the district responded on Feb. 12 assuring FFRF that all school staff members, including the specific staff member who had committed the violation, are not legally required to participate in the pledge.

Texas school gets versed in Constitution

It was reported to FFRF that a teacher at a Texas elementary school was regularly quoting bible verses to his students. At Stafford Elementary’s fourth-grade graduation ceremony last June, the teacher allegedly took the microphone and announced that he regularly was telling his students that “they can do all things through Christ.”

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to Stafford Municipal School District Superintendent Robert Bostic on Jan. 30, reminding the district that public school teachers may not endorse religion to students.

“The Supreme Court has continually struck down bible promotion and other forms of proselytization in public schools,” wrote Grover.

FFRF was informed on Feb. 12 by an attorney representing the school district that the violation was addressed with the teacher and that the school principal planned to address the issue with the entire school staff during an upcoming meeting.

Florida district removes unsightly plaques

Thanks to FFRF, religious messages have been removed from a Florida school. It was brought to FFRF’s attention that plaques had been posted in all school buildings in the Dixie County Schools District listing four district goals, the last of which is to “Serve with a good attitude, as to the Lord and not to men. Ephesians 6:7.”

FFRF wrote to the district on July 25 explaining that courts have continually held that school districts may not display religious messages or iconography in public schools.

“While the display of plaques containing bible verses in a public school would be constitutionally prohibited under any circumstance, the DCSD’s plaques are especially egregious because the displayed bible language is portrayed as official school policy,” wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel.

An attorney representing Dixie District Schools responded on Feb. 15, informing FFRF that the religious signage had been removed by the school.

Texas Good News Club gets bad news

A concerned family member of a student of Wichita Falls Independent School District in Irving, Texas, reported to FFRF that there was a prominent display advertising the Good News Club — a religious club — in Fain Elementary School. The advertisement indicated that the club has scheduled meetings within the school each Tuesday.

FFRF wrote to the district informing it that it violated the U.S. Constitution if religious clubs were being granted special access to advertise to students and families.

“As you are aware, it is a well-settled constitutional principle that public schools may not advance, prefer, or promote religion,” wrote FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover.

An attorney representing the district responded on Feb. 19 assuring FFRF that the Good News Club would not be granted special access to advertising.

FFRF gets cancellation of graduation invocation

FFRF has ended unconstitutional invocations at a California high school.

A community member reported to FFRF that the Wasco Union High School graduation program had included an invocation in 2017. FFRF Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell wrote to Wasco Union High School District Superintendent Lori Albrecht on Jan. 19, warning the district that the Supreme Court has struck down prayers at school-sponsored events time and again — including public school graduations.

FFRF was informed on Feb. 13 that the district will not be including an invocation as part of its 2018 commencement program.

One more stop: Utah bus driver ends proselytizing 

A concerned parent reported to FFRF that a bus driver for Helen M. Knight Elementary School, part of the Grand County School District on Moab, Utah, passed out proselytizing gifts to students on her bus. The gifts included candy and bookmarks with bible quotes on them. These presents came from “Scripture Candy,” a company that wraps candy in scriptures, which it advertises as “a great way to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line wrote to the district on Dec. 19 to ensure that its bus drivers do not proselytize students on their buses. Line underlined that public school bus drivers are agents of the school district and are subject to the same constitutional restrictions as other district staff and may not legally promote Christian or other religious messages to students.

On Feb. 16, FFRF received word that the district had investigated the issue and that action had been taken to rectify the violation.

FFRF tackles coach-led prayers in Alabama

FFRF has ensured that a coach at a school in Bayminatte, Ala., will no longer be leading his team in prayer.

FFRF was informed that this past September, a football player was injured during an Elberta High School football game. Following the injury, Coach Kenny Thomason called all of the players to the sideline, asked them to remove their helmets and demanded that they “take a knee” while he led them in prayer. FFRF notified Baldwin County Public Schools on Sept. 12 that Thomason’s actions were inexcusable.

“Coaches may not use an injury as an opportunity to force students to participate in a religious exercise,” wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line to Superintendent Eddie Tyler. “It is illegal for public school athletic coaches to lead their teams in prayer.”

The district responded on Feb. 21 to inform FFRF that the coaching staff had been reminded of their constitutional obligation not to pray with players.

FFRF gets school to run away from prayer walk

After a concerned parent contacted FFRF about religious promotion at a school in Mendenhall, Miss., action was taken to remedy the violation.

It was reported that the principal of Mendenhall Jr. High School used a recorded message before the start of the school year to invite district families to join him at the school for a prayer walk and to ask that everyone pray for the upcoming school year. The school also advertised the prayer walk event on its homepage. FFRF wrote to Simpson County School District on Aug. 31 to ensure that it did not allow its employees to organize or participate in future religious events in their roles as district representatives.

“Prayer walks unconstitutionally entangle school personnel with an exclusively religious message,” wrote FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover to Superintendent Greg Paes.

Paes responded on Feb. 28, informing FFRF that no plans would be made for religious events going forward nor would such events be posted on the school website.

Bad Axe High School chops religious club

FFRF has reminded a Michigan school of its obligation not to promote or endorse religion after being alerted that a teacher at Bad Axe High School was hosting a Christian “breakfast club” in her classroom every Thursday morning.

A Facebook page for the club, which was managed by two teachers in the Bad Axe Public Schools district, described the weekly meetings as “Food for your bellies and food for the soul!” (The page was also used to promote other youth-oriented Christian events.) Students were enticed to attend the meetings with free food in exchange for exposure to Christian teachings. FFRF Robert E. Ingersoll Legal Fellow Colin McNamara wrote to the district on Nov. 28 asking that it immediately remove the group from Bad Axe High School.

An attorney representing the district responded on Feb. 28, writing that the superintendent had reminded participants of the club that the meetings must be student initiated and led.

Assembly not required: Prayers ended in school

FFRF has remedied unconstitutional Christian proselytization at a South Carolina high school.

In December, Fox Creek High School in Columbia, S.C., held an assembly for all boys in the school in response to vandalism incidents. A school janitorial staff member — who is also a minister — spoke during the assembly and led all students in a long Christian prayer. The prayer was allegedly offered “in Jesus Christ’s name” and made specific reference to a bible passage relating to spreading god’s word. The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down school-sponsored prayer time and again.

FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott wrote to South Carolina Public School District on Dec. 27, reminding it of its constitutional obligation to refrain from advancing or endorsing religion. On March 5, an attorney for the district responded informing FFRF that the principal of the school had reviewed the legal issues related to prayer in public schools with school staff and made a commitment that unconstitutional prayer would not be permitted in the future.

See You at the Pole? Not if you work for school 

FFRF has reminded a Louisiana school district of its legal obligation to refrain from promoting religion.

A concerned Ouachita Parish School System member contacted FFRF to report that East Ouachita Middle School in Monroe, La., hosted a “See You at the Pole” event — a Christian-oriented prayer rally organized each year around a bible verse — last fall.

The event included adults playing live music, prayer by an adult and participation by school faculty — including the principal. Additionally, FFRF was informed that a pastor from an area church that has “adopted” East Ouachita Middle School was permitted to deliver a Christian prayer last August at a ribbon cutting ceremony for the school.

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Don Coker on Oct. 26, asking that district staff cease scheduling and advertising religious events, or allowing outside adults to participate in religious events on campus with students. Grover also pointed out that no school-sponsored event can include clergy-led prayer.

The district responded on Feb. 7, notifying FFRF that the East Ouachita Middle School principal was reminded that school employees may not participate in student events such as “See You at the Pole.”

The school administrative staff has also been cautioned against promoting personal religious beliefs to students.