CHANUTE, Kan. – A portrait of Jesus Christ had been hanging in a hallway at Royster Middle School in Chanute, Kansas for more than 50 years.
Amazingly, all it took was one threatening letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin to have it removed.
“Last week, when Superintendent Richard Profitt was contacted by a lawyer representing the Freedom From Religion Foundation with a letter that called the picture ‘an egregious violation of the First Amendment,’ he realized it could not longer hang in the school’s hallways,” read an excerpt from an NBC news report.
“So down it came.”
Profitt was obviously convinced that the Freedom From Religion folks were correct about the legality of the portrait.
“The attorneys were very clear that it was a violation of the Establishment Clause in the way that it was hanging,” Profitt told was quoted as saying.
That scenario is a typical example of how the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and several similar organizations, manage to bully school administrators into removing all references to Jesus Christ specifically, or Christianity in general.
There are many other examples of school districts around the nation that receive threatening letters from the FFRF and give up without a fight.
A school district in Orange County, Florida cancelled plans to allow an outside group to distribute free Bibles to students on Religious Freedom Day after the FFRF threatened to hand out pamphlets promoting atheism.
A school in Jackson County, West Virginia had crosses removed from a memorial honoring a popular teacher who was killed in a car accident after the FFRF complained.
A school in Jackson City, Ohio agreed to move a portrait of Christ that had been hanging since 1947 from school property and pay a $95,000 fine for allowing it in the first place, after the FFRF complained and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit.
A school in Muskegon County, Michigan agreed to back away from participation in a graduation baccalaureate ceremony at a local church after the FFRF sent a letter of complaint.
The list of bullied school districts that have bowed to the wishes of the FFRF goes on and on, but it doesn’t have to be that way, according to Matthew Clark, senior counsel for digital advocacy at the American Center for Law and Justice in Washington, D.C.
“What they intend to do is bully these localities,” Clark said. “They go after the smaller (local governments or school districts), that don’t have the legal or financial resources to defend themselves and stand up against these threats.
“They will send a very threatening letter that’s written in a way that makes it sound like maybe this is the really the current state of the law. It sounds threatening. It sounds ominous.
“That leaves local officials saying, ‘We can spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on legal fees, or just stop the prayer or whatever it is that’s being challenged.’”
What local officials don’t realize is that much of the time, the FFRF attorneys are bluffing, Clark said.
For one thing, the FFRF will often send threatening letters to schools or local governments without having a potential plaintiff – someone who’s been hurt or offended. There can be no lawsuit without a party claiming damages, he said.
Usually when local schools or government stand up to the FFRF and refuses to cooperate, the organization will disappear, like a typically bully, Clark said. Occasionally the group will have a live plaintiff and take its complaint to court, but have limited success in imposing their will, he said.
“The reality is when they actually take these cases to court, they almost always lose,” Clark said. “We’ve been involved in numerous cases against this organization.
“They challenged the national motto ‘In God We Trust and lost. They challenged a war memorial statue of Jesus and lost. They challenged a Star of David at a Holocaust Museum, a day of prayer, and prayer proclamations and lost.
“(Local officials) have an absolute right to defend themselves. When they receive a letter, they don’t have to comply with it. What it takes is for somebody on the school board or city council to say ‘No, we can’t just cave in and fall over.’”
But what do schools do when they refuse to be intimidated, and the FFRF finds an actual client and files a lawsuit?
For one thing, they can contact the ACLJ, Clark’s organization, which will consider the circumstances and may be willing to represent the defendant pro bono.
At the very least, schools or municipal governments are encouraged to contact the ACLJ when they received a threatening letter, to gain insight into whether the FFRF may have a case.
“What we will typically do when we find out about these cases, we will send our own letter and let them know what the actual state of the law is,” Clark said. “We’ll tell them, ‘we understand you received a letter from Freedom From Religion,’ but what they said is not the case. Here’s what the law says.
“They are misapplying the law. The have an agenda, to eradicate every vestige of Christian heritage from our society. Anything that has any semblance of our Judeo-Christian heritage, they will attack. They will use any language from any case to make it seem like the situation is problematic.
“It’s really a matter of equal access (for Christians on public property). They will try to make it sound like what you’re doing is establishing a church, or doing some form of governmental missionary work, and that’s almost never the case.”