Another Legal Victory

Our legal team’s latest church-state victory comes from Missouri, where a federal court ruled in our favor in a case involving a school district that has been sending students on field trips to a Christian ministry. The American Humanist Association sent a complaint letter to the Joplin School District two years ago, but the district refused to acknowledge that the field trips were unconstitutional. We ended up in court, and justice was delivered on Friday. More on the story here.

 

Not All Soldiers Are Christians

We sent a letter from the AHA’s legal center this morning to the mayor of Roselle Park, New Jersey, to complain about a memorial on public property portraying a Christian cross. Mayor Carl Hokanson reportedly purchased the display himself and had city employees install it in front of the community’s library. The display, which depicts a soldier kneeling in front of a grave marker shaped as a Christian cross, is apparently intended as a tribute to fallen soldiers.

The problem is that not all soldiers are Christians, and the cross is not a universal symbol for those who have fought and died. The AHA won an Establishment Clause lawsuit in California in 2014 over a similar display, and will most likely litigate this one if Roselle Park does not remove the display. As I told one reporter, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, and Hindu soldiers are not honored when a government erects a memorial that use the cross. There are better, religiously neutral ways to pay respect to fallen soldiers.

Louisiana Student Confronts School Over Pledge Policy

Our office assisted a Louisiana student in his efforts to sit out the Pledge of Allegiance last week. The student, Raymond Smith, shown here on KATC News, was badly mistreated by his teacher for opting out, and the school’s administration seemed unconcerned about the mistreatment, so Raymond asked the AHA’s legal center to assist him. We sent a letter to the school complaining about the situation, and it looks like the school is now responding. The school says it is reviewing its pledge policy, and in the meantime the student is being allowed to sit out.

Screenshot above from KATC

‘Undisputed’

"Undisputed"

“Undisputed”

I’ll be traveling for the next week and unable to post much. In the meantime I thought I’d send along the AHA’s latest meme, which includes a quote from a court ruling this week on one of our cases. The federal judge, in ordering a defendant school district to pay our attorneys fees on a church-state case we won in Mississippi, declared . . . well, you can read the meme. Quotes like this don’t come often, so it makes sense that the AHA is getting mileage from it. While they’re at it, I guess I will too.

 

Challenging School Board Prayer in Texas

Our American Humanist Association Appignani Humanist Legal Center is challenging the prayer practices of a school board in Birdville, Texas. When attorneys for the school board were unsuccessful in their motion to dismiss the lawsuit, they filed an appeal with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. This week we filed our brief with the appellate court.

The school board in question invited young elementary school children to each of its meetings to conduct an opening prayer, with the board members even participating in the prayer with the child. This is a blatant church-state violation. School board members are claiming that they are personally immune from liability for the alleged violations. Needless to say, we strongly disagree. The complete AHA brief can be found at this link.

Is Your Public School Hyper-Religious?

Newest informational/promotional video on behalf of the AHA’s legal center, reaching out to kids who attend public schools that are dominated by conservative Christians. Unfortunately, we see many such students in the course of our work, kids who attend schools where administrators, teachers, coaches, and fellow students assume that the school culture can be defined by conservative Christianity. Unconstitutional prayer, biblical verses, privileges for the Christian club — all of these things are commonplace in many public schools across the country. As the video says, the AHA is here to help.

Christian Victimization In Indiana

On the surface the controversy was fairly unremarkable, just another minor skirmish in the culture wars. We at the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center had sent an email to a school district in Indiana objecting to coaches participating in prayer circles at sporting events. The issue was brought to our attention by a concerned citizen, and we had a photograph (shown above) to prove it.

It was such a mundane matter that we decided to refrain from any publicity. We frequently send out press releases when we complain about church-state violations because the stories tend to catch the attention of local media. That news coverage, in turn, helps raise awareness of the issue at hand while also letting the public know that the AHA stands ready to assist in such matters. Here, however, we really just wanted to correct the problem without raising a fuss. The law is very clear, and we assumed that the parties involved were just being careless and not intentionally stomping on the rights of religious minorities who don’t want coaches engaging in Christian prayers, so we thought we’d ask for the situation to be corrected without calling any public or media attention to it.

And fortunately, the school complied. Officials responded to our email complaint almost immediately, within about an hour, by thanking us for pointing out the problem and assuring us that it would be quickly corrected. We couldn’t have been more pleased. It’s always nice when everyone involved in a minor dispute acts maturely and responsibly, thus solving the problem with little difficulty or disruption. The kids could still pray after their basketball games if they wish, but we just won’t have the coaches joining them to create an environment that makes the prayer seem like a team activity, where kids might see participation in the exercise as something they should do to please the coach.

That should have been the end of the story. With no publicity being done, no media attention would be brought to the story. Or so we thought.

The next morning at work, however, our phone began ringing. Reporters were calling about the “prayer controversy” in Indiana. Apparently local social media was exploding with anger, as someone connected with the schools had leaked out the story about how coaches were being told to refrain from participation in the prayer circles. This was apparently an attack on Christianity, and the public was enraged. We received one nasty email after another telling us how horrible we were. Here’s one that came in that morning:

THIS COUNTRY WAS FOUNDED ON THE BELIEF OF GOD! IF YOU HATE GOD SO MUCH GO WHERE THEY WILL APPREACATE YOUR BELIEFS! HELL! STOP TRYING TO PUT GOD IN THE BACK GROUND !

In my experience as AHA legal director I’ve discovered that the all-caps format is common among angry Christians. I call it the biblical font. (Hope you “appreacate” the humor.)

For a story that was never promoted by a press release, the Indiana prayer circle “controversy” had incredible legs. Not only did it catch the attention of local media, then Indianapolis media, but it eventually was picked up by national press, including ABC NewsUSA Today, and even in the United Kingdom via the Daily Mail.

Though I can’t call much of the coverage unfair, it’s interesting that almost nowhere within the stories (and even less so in the comments from members of the public) do we find much concern about the underlying reason that the law doesn’t want coaches praying with students: the coercive atmosphere that it creates for religious minorities (whether it be atheists, agnostics, humanists, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or something else) who would prefer that coaches on the public payroll not endorse the Christianity of the majority.

Instead, public attention seems to focus on what is incorrectly seen as the “religious freedom” of those involved. This is strange, considering nobody is challenging the kids’ right to pray. As for the coaches, they simply don’t have the right to make religious minorities uncomfortable and out of place by joining a group of praying students at a school event. Sorry, coach, you can pray in groups at church or at home or anywhere else, but not while on the job. When you’re on the clock on the public payroll, don’t create an environment that endorses a particular religious view. Coaches don’t become victims when we ask them to do that. It’s called doing your job.

When Church-State Separation is “Anti-Christian”

Our American Humanist Association legal center sent a letter last week to the mayor of Stockton, California, criticizing him for sponsoring a prayer rally. In the aftermath, we can get an interesting glimpse at the mentality of religious conservatives via an article appearing in Christian Today. The article tells readers: “A group of atheists has once again made an anti-Christian move by condemning the mayor of Stockton, California, for hosting a prayer rally after a six-year-old girl was shot.”

But wait a second: Anti-Christian?

If you think about it, the allegation that our objections are “anti-Christian” essentially proves our argument. That is, the article is implicitly conceding that the mayor’s activities were in fact pro-Christian. (If objecting to the activities is “anti-Christian,” then the activities themselves must be pro-Christian, right?) This, in turn, is basically an admission that the mayor was violating the Establishment Clause, which forbids governmental activities that have a purpose or effect of promoting a particular religion.

Nevertheless, not surprisingly, the article is highly critical of the AHA for objecting to the mayor’s Christian favoritism. I guess we shouldn’t let the Constitution get in the way of that good old-fashioned Christian privilege. If you don’t like your tax dollars being used to promote Christianity, the answer is simple: move out of Stockton!

What the good folks at Christian Today don’t realize is that the AHA has no objection to prayer rallies when they are sponsored and conducted by churches or private parties. It’s governmental sponsorship of prayer rallies that becomes problematic. That seems like such a simple distinction, but we repeatedly see conservative Christians failing to grasp the concept.

 

Pastafarian Wins Right to Wear Colander

A Massachusetts Pastafarian (a follower of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) won the right to wear a colander in her driver’s license photograph after enlisting the assistance of our attorneys at the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. Lindsay Miller was issued her license yesterday.  Full story here.

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Court allows our church-state lawsuit against Texas school board to go forward

Our AHA legal team has scored a victory in Texas, where a Fort Worth federal court has refused to dismiss our church-state case against a local school board. The suit alleges that the Birdville School District’s policy and practice of opening meetings with prayers violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. After the AHA team filed the suit, the defendants responded with a motion to dismiss, which we opposed. The judge’s ruling denying the motion means the case will now go forward. Stay tuned. More on the story here.