2013 Press Releases
Legal Complaint: http://ffrf.org/uploads/legal/OCSchools-Distribution-Complaint.pdf
June 13, 2013
Orange County Schools Sued for Double Standard
That Promotes Evangelical Christianity
Orlando, FL—The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) and its local chapter, the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC), filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the Orange County School Board for censorship of their literature distribution on May 2, the National Day of Reason. The CFFC distributed selected items in response to the unfettered distribution of Christian bibles in January by World Changers of Florida (WCF), but the School Board prohibited many of the submitted materials.
WCF is an evangelical Christian organization from Naples which “support[s] the biblical account of creation, including having creation theory taught in our public schools.”
David Williamson, of the CFFC, said, “Since we were unable to prevent the bible distribution in January we expected the School Board would provide us with the equal treatment we deserve. The fact that this was so blatantly denied should alarm all parents and taxpayers in Orange County.”
The School Board heavily censored literature donated by secular organizations including FFRF, American Atheists, Secular Student Alliance, American Humanist Association, and Florida Atheists and Secular Humanists. The Board prohibited the distribution of best-seller Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, The Truth, by Robert Ingersoll, Why I am Not a Muslim, by Ibn Warraq, Jesus is Dead, by Robert Price, and What on Earth is an Atheist?, by Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Also forbidden were several “nontracts” from FFRF: Dear Believer, An X-Rated Book: Sex & Obscenity in the Bible, Why Jesus?, and What Does the Bible Say About Abortion?
The Board prohibited one book because its message that Jesus was not crucified or resurrected "is age inappropriate for the maturity levels of many of the students in high school.” However, the bible that the school approved for distribution claims that Jesus was crucified and resurrected. "Permitting one viewpoint (the crucifixion and resurrection occurred) and censoring the opposing viewpoint (the crucifixion and resurrection did not occur) is unconstitutional," the complaint states.
The CFFC plans to repeat the distribution annually unless the Board adopts a policy that would stop all distributions by outside groups that are unrelated to the students’ education.
Williamson continues: “The notion of our government promoting one religion over another or preferring religion over non-religion by has been settled long ago in the courts, yet violations continue across the country. This will no longer go unchallenged in Central Florida and we will partner with any organization, secular or faith-based, to prevent this in the future.”
Humanists of Florida Association Newsletter
It is no coincidence that the first Thursday in May is not only the National Day of Prayer, but it is also the National Day of Reason. And what better day to share the value of humanism and rational inquiry with everyone? This year, seventeen volunteers with the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC), a local state/church activist group and affiliate of the Humanists of Florida Association (HFA), did just that. They distributed more than 2,000 books, brochures and pamphlets in the same eleven Orange County high schools where fundamentalist Christians distributed Bibles in January. The volunteer team included Dan Barker, Co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) and David Silverman (AA), President of American Atheists.
However, the CFFC, as well as HFA, FFRF, AA, and the event’s other sponsors (Secular Student Alliance, American Humanist Association, and Florida Atheists and Secular Humanists/FLASH) do not want to be in the schools distributing these materials. They all agree that schools should be free from proselytizing by outside groups of any kind (religious and non-religious).
Other than one religious student “Baptizing” the materials with her drinking water and a few schools discarding the materials at some point during the day, there were relatively few challenges during the event. The literature distribution and the Day of Reason Celebration at the First Unitarian Church of Orlando that afternoon were a success. Local TV, radio, and print media coverage was objective and the Interfaith Council of Central Florida event wrote and op-ed piece in support of our efforts to keep religion out of schools.
Unfortunately (or fortunately) several of the materials submitted for distribution were censored. The reasons given for the censorship included claims that the materials would cause a substantial disruption due to the materials’ criticism of religion, questioning the claims of the Bible, and inappropriateness of the material for the age of the students.
It’s a good thing that the organizations involved couldn’t agree more—as long as the Bible is also censored in the exact same way. Perhaps dozens of verses would have to be censored to meet the same criteria we had to meet for our distribution. Stay tuned to this story as we continue to seek a resolution that includes the prohibition of all materials unrelated to education or the direct support the school’s mission—education.
April 30, 2013
Freethinkers Celebrate Day of Reason with
Literature Distribution in Orange County Public Schools
Orange County, FL—Area atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics, and other nonbelievers will distribute freethought literature in Orange County High Schools Thursday, May 2, 2013 to celebrate the National Day of Reason. Titles include What is Wrong with the Ten Commandments?, What is an Atheist?, Why Women Need Freedom From Religion, and The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine.
In January, the School Board allowed Christian Bibles to be distributed at eleven Orange County public high schools. Within a week, the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC), a chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FRRF), submitted materials which are scheduled to be distributed in the same eleven high schools this Thursday.
David Williamson, of the CFFC, said, “We repeatedly explained to the School Board that we wished to prevent religious proselytizing to children in public schools. We prefer that neither bibles, nor our literature is distributed in public schools, unfortunately, the Board is welcoming religious scripture for distribution on campus. Therefore we are obligated to share our own literature and to ensure the campus is truly an open forum for all and not just the privileged majority.”
The School Board censored many of the materials CFFC asked to distribute. Williamson continues, “Since the law requires equal treatment we are concerned that several of our materials have been unconstitutionally censored and we are considering all of our options up to, and including, litigation. Regardless of these concerns we look forward to sharing reason and freethought with the high school students in Orange County.” FFRF Attorney Andrew Seidel is helping with the legal aspects of the distribution and investigating the possibility for litigation.
Books, pamphlets, and brochures were donated by several individuals and freethought organizations including the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists, the Secular Student Alliance, American Humanist Association, the Florida Atheists and Secular Humanists (FLASH), and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.
Several prominent leaders in the secular movement will be available during the day to talk to the media and help distribute materials including Dan Barker, Co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and former evangelical preacher, David Silverman, president of American Atheists, and Teresa MacBain, President of the Humanists of Florida Association and also a former Methodist pastor.
After the distribution, more than a dozen national, state, regional, and local freethought organizations, including local high school and college chapters of the Secular Student Alliance, will celebrate the National Day Reason at the First Unitarian Church of Orlando beginning at 5 PM. (1901 East Robinson Street). First Unitarian is a “freethought-friendly” congregation that welcomes freethinkers into its pews each week.
Humanists of Florida Association Newsletter
Those who remember reciting the original, and rightly indivisible, post-1954 Pledge of Allegiance; you know, the one without the God “clause;” probably also remember when prayer and bible readings were a common part of the public school curriculum. While we are still trying to pry that pesky deity out of the Pledge, the matter of bibles in the schools has long been settled…hasn’t it?
Well, not exactly. It seems that getting bibles out of the hands of teachers during instructional time was only the beginning of the fight. The Gideons have been trying to convert our nation’s youth for many decades. And they’ve often had the blessing of teachers, principals and even school boards to thank for it. This is still going on around the country until parents or administrators learn that they are, in fact, breaking the law by having the kids line up to be handed a copy of the oldest best-seller known to man.
Fortunately, the distribution of religious scripture is prohibited in many jurisdictions due to the hard work of state-church separation activists who have gone before us. Unfortunately, this isn’t in the case in Florida. In fact, courts have decided that so-called “passive” distributions are allowable in public schools if the distribution of other types of non-school-related materials is permitted. Passive simply means that materials are not handed to students and there is no communication with them about the materials. This is where our story begins.
On Monday, January 14th, a member of the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC) was watching the local TV news and learned about a bible distribution planned in Orange County High Schools that was to happen on Wednesday that week. The sponsor was World Changers of Florida, a fundamentalist Christian group from Naples, who has stated objectives on their website that include having biblical Creationism, Christian prayer, and bible reading in public schools. Additionally they claim to speak out against “humanistic views contrary to the Biblically based founding fathers’ Constitutional vision.”
Apparently, this would be their second year doing such a distribution in Orange County on National Religious Freedom Day. The member immediately alerted the CFFC, an affiliate organization of HFA and a chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The distribution was simultaneously reported to FFRF by several members and non-members in the area.
While the World Changers’ political agenda is concerning the most important issues are the group’s intent to indoctrinate public school students and the unequal footing this distribution gives to Christianity above every other religious tradition including non-theism. Public schools should be as secular as any other government agency or activity and should remain neutral on matters of religion—not supporting one religion over another nor supporting religion over non-religion. This is establishment clause 101.
The legal background on this is not as compelling as you might think. In 2010 the World Changers of Florida and their attorneys at the Christian ministry, the Liberty Counsel, obtained a Consent Decree from the Middle District Court in Florida compelling Collier County Schools to allow a bible distribution. This same decree, which cost Collier schools $20,000 in attorney’s fees plus their own legal expenses, was used to intimidate the Orange County School Board and force them to allow a bible distribution even though the decree is not binding on any other school district.
There is hope to be found, however. Schools and other government bodies can remain neutral regarding religion if they avoid “viewpoint discrimination.” This means they cannot discriminate simply because a message is religious. Policies must have wider exclusions that prohibit more organizations and, therefore also prohibit religious ones. This means that more requests to distribute scripture should be expected until school boards decide to set these wider exclusions, a new legal argument can be crafted, or those who bring scripture into schools get tired of their attempts being met by other religions as well as secular organizations.
By the way, student members at three local schools all reported deviations from the passive distribution rules and we are working with the School Board’s General Counsel to address these. Two schools had adults attending the tables and speaking with students and at another school a dry-erase board was placed adjacent to the distribution table for students to answer the question “What is your biggest question about the bible?” (photos provided)
To be sure the media was still paying attention when we joined the conversation, we issued a press release on the same day as the bible distribution. It explained that freethought materials were on their way to Central Florida and permission to distribute in schools had already been granted. As you can see on our public Facebook page (facebook.com/CFLFreethought) the response locally was tremendous. Along with good press from TV, radio, newspaper, and online news sites, the story was most recently featured on the Ask An Atheist podcast and Freethought Radio, the weekly radio program and podcast from FFRF.
Once media interest in the story piqued planning got underway to convince the School Board to prevent future distributions. If that wasn’t possible, then a distribution of our own would be necessary. And to ensure there were enough materials to distribute on short notice we were able to combine materials from FFRF, American Atheists, the Secular Student Alliance and the American Humanist Association. All organizations were eager to help out. They shipped books, brochures, and other materials to help us spread the message of freethought, secular humanism, challenges of the claims of religion, as well as the principle of state-church separation.
The call for volunteers was answered as well. Of the forty people who contacted us to help twenty-five have signed up with Orange County Public Schools as official volunteers. The process of matching those volunteers with the eleven schools where bibles were distributed is underway so we can be ready when a date has been determined. When the time comes, our materials will be placed on tables in common areas with a sign disclaiming the School Board’s support (as with the bibles) and they will be picked up in the afternoon.
During the process of planning the distribution itself we remained hopeful that the School Board would listen to reason. They needed to understand the many problems that are caused by the distribution of ANY religious materials on campus, including the already botched passive distribution mentioned previously. Nearly two weeks after the bible distribution, at a small meeting before the regular bi-monthly meeting we made our case. Then the School Board’s legal team promptly reminded the Board of the Consent Decree and many Board Members cited a need to keep the campuses open for outside groups for various reasons; including many which were unrelated with the passive distribution of literature. In the end, they made it clear they were more concerned about a lawsuit than any concerns the rest of the residents of Orange County might have about religion in schools.
The Board Chairman, Bill Sublette, seemingly agreed with our arguments, yet stated that he “actually wishes a Jewish group would come to us and distribute the Torah and that a group would come and distribute the Koran.” Perhaps the Chairman may have his way soon enough. It is likely that every year on National Religious Freedom Day the Orange County High School “Religion Fair” will attract every religious denomination, sect, and cult to come on campus and spread their particular brand of the “good” word.
One idea worth serious consideration is to ensure that every organization in the country related to humanism, atheism, skepticism, and state-church separation join the party with an individual table of their own alongside the rest. Those of us in the freethought community agree that there should be no “battle” for the souls of our children in public schools. If, however, those in power decide there must be such a battle, then let us also agree that reason and science must be defended. While there will never be clear winners and losers in this fight, non-theistic students must know there is a place for them in our ranks and let’s together welcome them into our community.
January 16, 2013
Local Freethinkers Organize to Distribute
Atheist and Agnostic Literature On Public School Campuses
Orange County, FL—The Central Florida Freethought Community, a chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has obtained consent this week from the Orange County (FL) School Board to distribute materials about atheism, agnosticism, and secular humanism to students in public schools. This permission comes after the School Board allowed a group of Christians to distribute Bibles to students on campus during school hours for Religious Freedom Day on January 16.
David Williamson, of the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC), said, “This group of Biblical Literalists has somehow convinced the School Board that our public schools should be a religious battleground of sorts. This is unacceptable to freethinkers and persons of all religious traditions, including many Christians. But because the school board insists on opening the schools up to Christian proselytizers, we think it’s important that students receive materials countering their religious propaganda.”
Books, pamphlets, and brochures from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists, and the Secular Student Alliance are on their way today to Central Florida and distribution will begin as soon as the promised written permission is received from the School Board and volunteers are cleared to come on campus. Some items being considered for distribution are “An X-Rated Book: Sex & Obscenity in the Bible,” “Ten Common Myths About Atheists,” as well as literature about starting student led secular organizations on campus and books by atheists Dan Barker and Madalyn Murray O’Hair among others.