The following is a selection of recent legal successes achieved by the American Atheists Legal Center. Every year, the AALC responds to countless reports of local, state, and federal government agencies and employees violating the constitutionally mandated separation between religion and government. These reports come from individuals in communities across the country who witness government activity which may violate the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
It’s important to know that not every breach of the wall between religion and government is intentional. In many cases, a government or governmental agency may simply decide to act without realizing that the policy or action has implications on religious and nonreligious beliefs. In those instances, the AALC works constructively with officials to ensure that all involved are aware of their constitutional obligations and work with the agency to develop acceptable and constitutional policies and procedures.
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Hawai'i discontinues use of virtual learning program containing religious material, October 2020
After receiving a letter from the American Atheists Legal Center in September, the Hawai’i Department of Education (HIDOE) promptly conducted a review of Acellus Accelerator, the virtual learning platform utilized by schools statewide during the pandemic. In its final report, HIDOE found that the program should be phased out in all Hawai’i public schools.
In the report, the HIDOE’s Civil Rights Compliance Branch concluded that the Acellus program “contains numerous discriminatory lessons and a showing of gender, cultural, and racial biases.” It also determined that “the religious content in Acellus poses a significant risk of not ensuring the separation of church and state” and announced that “if a DOE classroom teacher was teaching the same material that Acellus presents in his/her classroom, it would be grounds for an investigation by the CRCB and if substantiated, would likely result in disciplinary action likely including a directive to cease any and all religious and/or biased instruction and the use of biased/religious instructional material.”
As a result of these findings, the Hawai’i Board of Education unanimously voted to end the use of the program.
Virtual learning company removes religious content from third grade social studies course, July 2020
After receiving complaints from families in school districts around the country, the AALC contacted the school districts in question and asked them to take steps to ensure that students attending virtual classes during the COVID-19 pandemic were not subjected to religious education. Upon learning of the issue, the content provider, Edgenuity, took immediate steps to rectify the situation and removed the objectionable content for all public school students utilizing its educational services.
Georgia state-run medical facility ceases broadcasting prayers over PA system, July 2020
After receiving a report that a Georgia-based, state-run health care system was regularly broadcasting prayers over its facilities’ public address system, the American Atheists Legal Center sent records requests to several related entities as part of a preliminary factual investigation. Upon receiving our requests for records, the health care provider voluntarily ceased its prayer practice in favor of a policy the respects the rights of all patients, families, and employees.
New Jersey school district reverses plan to donate items to local church, January 2020
New Jersey parents reported that their children’s school planned to donate unclaimed lost-and-found items to a local church. After the AALC informed the school district that the donation would materially benefit the receiving church and potentially limit the ability of individuals in the community to receive much-needed items, the school district did not go through with the donation.
Georgia sheriff's office takes down Facebook page, July 2019
A Georgia resident reported that his local sheriff had deleted comments and blocked him from participating in the public forum on the sheriff’s official Facebook page because he was critical of the sheriff’s violations of the separation between church and state. Based on this complaint, the AALC requested a number of public records from the sheriff’s office. After receiving and producing records responsive to the AALC’s request, the sheriff’s office quietly took down the Facebook page it had been using to explicitly endorse Christianity and censor its critics.
Ohio school district will not include an opening invocation and closing prayer in its high school graduation ceremony, May 2019
After a graduating senior contacted the AALC to report that his high school planned to include both an opening invocation and closing prayer in its upcoming graduation ceremony and that the school had just hosted a religious baccalaureate ceremony, the AALC informed the district of the likely constitutional violation and requested public records relating to prayer in past ceremonies. Although the district merely acknowledged it had received the AALC’s records request and did not respond directly to the substance of the legal issue raised in the letter, school officials nonetheless quietly removed the planned prayers from the ceremony.
Florida college acquiesces to nursing student request for accommodation, May 2019
The American Atheists Legal Center assisted a nursing student in persuading her college to accommodate her sincerely held beliefs by assigning her to a secular health care facility for her clinical training. The school previously assigned the student to a religious hospital system with discriminatory hiring practices. As a result of those practices, the hospital system would have likely refused to hire the student upon her graduation. Had she been forced to continue her clinical training at that facility, the placement could have done lasting damage to her career.
Texas school district will not include a prayer in an elementary school graduation banquet, April 2019
Upon learning from several residents of a Texas school district that one of the district’s elementary schools had included staff-led prayers in their graduation banquets for the past several years, the AALC informed the district of the likely constitutional violation. The school district pledged that the school in question would not include prayers in future graduation banquets.
Indiana school district agrees that faculty and staff will no longer actively participate in future "See You at the Pole" student events, January 2019
After video surfaced of a teacher and a uniformed police officer participating in a student group’s “See You at the Pole” event, the American Atheists Legal Center contacted the local police department and school district. In response, the school district instructed the school’s principal and the teacher in question on how to comply with school district policy on the issue. The district also pledged to provide additional training to its employees in order to prevent such incidents from occurring again.
Indiana city police department agrees officers will not participate in future "See You at the Pole" student events, December 2018
After video surfaced of a teacher and a uniformed police officer participating in a student group’s “See You at the Pole” event, the American Atheists Legal Center contacted the local police department and school district. In response, the police department agree to provide additional training to its officers in order to prevent such incidents from occurring again.
Southern California police department removes interactive Scientology display, August 2018
In response to a complaint from a police department employee, the AALC demanded that a large, interactive display promoting the tenets of Scientology be removed from the lobby of a police precinct. The police department removed the unconstitutional display without objection.
Kentucky school district agrees to additional employee training in order to prevent future prayer circles, August 2018
In response to a complaint that a teacher led a prayer circle at a local high school prior to the start of the academic year, the AALC requested that the school district produce certain necessary public records relating to the event. In a tacit acknowledgement that the event was a violation, the school district admitted that the requested records did not exist and committed to training its employees in proper procedures in order to ensure that no such violations happen in the future.
State lawmaker in Iowa "un-blocks" atheist activist from participating in government Facebook page, July 2018
A constituent of a member of the Iowa House of Representatives informed the American Atheists Legal Center that his lawmaker had deleted his comments and blocked him from participating in her official Facebook page after he criticized her for taking positions that violate the separation between religion and government. The AALC sent the lawmaker a demand letter informing her that the practice of blocking, banning, or otherwise censoring people participating in discussions on government-controlled social media accounts violates the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. In response to the letter, the lawmaker quietly reinstated the user’s ability to participate in discussions on her official Facebook page.
Local police department in Washington State removes cross display from lobby, January 2018
A stained glass shield bearing a Christian cross was removed from the lobby of a local police department in Pierce County, Wash. after American Atheists informed the department that the display violated the Establishment Clause by endorsing a particular religious viewpoint. The American Atheists Legal Center sent the demand letter after it received a complaint from a local resident.
Connecticut city ends annual taxpayer-funded Christmas tree removal service, December 2017
Residents of a Connecticut town are required to contract with a local waste disposal company in order to receive trash pick-up, but the town made one exception: every year, through a taxpayer-funded program, the town provided no-cost tree removal for a single week in early January. After the American Atheists Legal Center submitted a request for public records pertaining to the program, the town ended this special benefit for Christmas celebrants.
Mississippi school district abandons prayer at high school football games, October 2017
In response to a letter from the American Atheists Legal Center, the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) sent out a “reminder” to its member school districts regarding prayers being included in pre-game announcements. After receiving the MHSAA’s reminder, the Jefferson Davis School Board abandoned its prayer policy in favor of a pre-game moment of silence.
Alabama school district ends elementary school principal's prayer circles on school property, September 2017
The American Atheists Legal Center informed an Alabama school district that one of its elementary school principals had invited students, parents, staff, and members of the community to attend a prayer circle on school grounds on the final day of the summer break. The school district reminded the principal of her constitutional obligations and ensured that the principal would no longer use her privileged access to the school to advance her religious views.
Mississippi High School Activities Association reminds schools of constitutional obligations, September 2017
In response to a letter from the American Atheists Legal Center detailing several reports of prayers being broadcast at high school athletic events organized by the Mississippi High School Athletics Association (MHSAA), the MHSAA reminded its member schools of their constitutional obligations when it comes to pre-game announcements and provided the schools with suggested language.
Cambria County, Pennsylvania school district takes steps to prevent inclusion of prayers at district events, July 2017
A resident informed the AALC that several school-district-organized events had included prayers. Student attendance at several of these events was reportedly mandatory. The AALC contacted the school district, which agreed to take steps to ensure that prayers would not be included in future events.
Waverly, Iowa adopted a new, inclusive invocation policy for city council meetings, June 2017
In response to a request from Eastern Iowa Atheists (EIA), the AALC sent a letter informing Waverly city officials of the constitutional standards governing prayer at government meetings. As a result of that letter and EIA’s activism, the City of Waverly announced that it had developed an open invocation policy giving residents an opportunity to deliver an invocation or prayer before city council meetings, without regard to the resident’s religious views.
Oil City, Pennsylvania will remove a bench bearing an inscription disparaging atheist veterans, April 2017
An area resident and visitor to Justus Park, a public park in Oil City, PA, informed the AALC of a bench on display there carrying the inscription: “Men Who Aren’t Governed By God, Will Be Governed By Tyrants.” The AALC contacted the city to point out the unconstitutional nature of the display and offered to pay for the construction and installation of a replacement bench. On April 27, 2017, the Oil City city council voted to remove the bench along with, at the insistence of the local VFW post that donated it to the city in 2003, the rest of the memorial. The memorial was removed on May 3, 2017 and relocated to private property.
Illinois school superintendent will no longer lead students in prayer, March 2017
Parents in Franklin County, IL called the attention of the AALC to a school superintendent/principal organizing and participating in school prayers. At the AALC’s request, the school board investigated the matter and is instituting policies to prevent the superintendent/principal from committing similar violations of students’ constitutional rights in the future.
Pennsylvania school district removes prayer from future Veterans Day assemblies, February 2017
The mandatory Veterans Day 2016 assembly at a secondary school in Jefferson County, Pennsylvania opened and concluded with a prayer. After the AALC informed the school district that parents had voiced objections to the prayers, the attorney for the school district met with school officials and instructed them on the responsibilities imposed on public school administrators by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Georgia teacher and school district remove religious material from AP Spanish course, January 2017
A high school AP Spanish teacher was incorporating her religious beliefs into her lessons. The AALC brought the matter to the attention of the school district, which reminded the teacher of her legal obligations and committed to developing classroom methods that avoided promoting a religious point of view.
Iowa FCA chapter will no longer have special access to public school facilities, December 2016
A Cedar Falls, IA junior high school physical education teacher was using the school’s gym to host Fellowship of Christian Athletes events without authorization. The AALC brought the matter to the school district’s attention through a public records request. The school district proactively took steps to prevent the FCA from receiving privileged access in the future.
Ohio school district investigates potential misuse of school resources, November 2016
After receiving notice from the AALC, the North Olmsted City School District investigated whether a faculty sponsor of the local chapter of the Good News Club was using school resources in violation of policy. The materials provided to us by the district indicate that the school and the faculty member were abiding by the rules outlined by the Supreme Court in Good News Club v. Milford Central School. Our inquiry ensured that the North Olmsted City School District is complying with its constitutional responsibilities, and made it clear that those obligations are taken seriously by the community and that any violation may potentially be met with legal action.
Maryland school commits to following district policy regarding promotional materials, November 2016
Anne Arundel County middle school principal sent students home with materials promoting an event at a local church. In response to the AALC’s inquiry, the school district acknowledged the issue and committed to ensuring that any materials distributed by the school would comply with the school district’s regulations.
Alabama police officer no longer leads bible study while on duty, October 2016
In response to an inquiry from the AALC, the Wetumpka Police Department investigated an incident in which a uniformed police officer led children in a bible study. The police department instructed the officer that she is not to lead children in religious exercise unless out of uniform and off-duty.
Tennessee school no longer requires weekly singing of “God Bless America,” October 2016
In response to a report that students at a Johnson City, TN elementary school were required to sing God Bless America once a week, the AALC contacted the school, which agreed to alter the program to include a rotating repertoire of traditional children’s songs.
Kansas City, MO prevented from providing taxpayer funds to support religious conference, September 2016
Through a lawsuit filed in the federal court for the Western District of Missouri, the AALC succeeded in preventing Kansas City, Missouri from directing taxpayer funds to Modest Miles Ministries in support of the National Baptist Convention, which was held in Kansas City that month.