Judicial Update August 2016

(Presented by our member organization, the American Humanist Association.)


Court: Parent in FFRF suit has standing to challenge Ten Commandments monument

 On August 9, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that an FFRF member who is a parent of a high school student has legal standing to challenge a Ten Commandments monument in front of a Pennsylvania school.

The court ruled in favor of Marie Schaub, finding that a district court dismissal of the case against the New Kensington-Arnold School District last year was improper. The three-judge panel unanimously found that Schaub's removal of her daughter from Valley High School due to the Ten Commandments monument, and prior contact with it, were sufficient for her to bring the case.

"The District Court appeared to read the direct, unwelcome contact standard to include a frequency requirement," Judge Patty Shwartz, writing for the panel, said of the legal test applied by the district court. "This is incorrect."

The court noted the ability of plaintiffs to bring Establishment Clause cases, even when they have not changed their behavior. "A community member should not be forced to forgo a government service to preserve his or her ability to challenge an allegedly unconstitutional religious display or activity," Schwartz said. "Thus, a community member like Schaub may establish standing by showing direct, unwelcome contact with the allegedly offending object or event, regardless of whether such contact is infrequent or she does not alter her behavior to avoid it."

The court also highlighted the unique parental rights involved, writing that Schaub "has an interest in guiding her child's religious upbringing and has standing to challenge actions that seek to ‘establish a religious preference affecting' her child."

The court reversed and remanded for further proceedings on Schaub's claims and remanded for consideration of whether FFRF has standing on the basis that Schaub was a member when the suit was filed.

For more information, see FFRF's news release: https://ffrf.org/news/news-releases/item/27311-court-parent-in-ffrf-suit-has-standing-to-challenge-ten-commandments-monument#sthash.A4kZbXOb.dpuf


Atheists Reach $41,000 Settlement with Tennessee County Sheriff

On August 11, 2016, American Atheists and Bradley County and the Bradley County Sheriff's Office reached a settlement in a federal lawsuit alleging First Amendment violations of the U.S. Constitution by Bradley County and Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson.

As part of settlement agreement, the new official Bradley County Sheriff's Department Facebook page will not be used to "promote or further any religion, religious organization, religious event or religious belief." Additionally, the sheriff's office has decided to not allow any comments on this Facebook page, making it an informational Facebook page only. The office's original Facebook page was deactivated earlier this year and will be permanently deactivated.

While the county and sheriff admit to no wrongdoing under the agreement, the county will pay a total of $15,000 in damages to American Atheists and the local plaintiffs, Joshua Stevens and Jane Doe, and $26,000 in attorney's fees.

Sheriff Watson will be allowed to maintain a personal Facebook page that is clearly marked as containing only his personal opinions and not those of the department.

The lawsuit arose in May after Sheriff Watson posted an explicitly religious Easter message on the sheriff's office's official Facebook page. American Atheists sent a letter to the sheriff advising against such religious messages on a government-sponsored social media site. The sheriff responded by telling a local newspaper that he intended to use his position as sheriff to proselytize. After posting the local newspaper article on the sheriff's office's Facebook page, commenters began criticizing the sheriff's statements. The sheriff and employees of the sheriff's department began deleting and blocking critical comments and users who were critical of the sheriff while leaving favorable comments on the governmental Facebook page.

For more information, see American Atheists' news release: http://news.atheists.org/2016/08/11/atheists-reach-41000-settlement-with-tennessee-county-sheriff/

FFRF sues Lehigh County, Pennsylvania over cross on county seal

 In a federal lawsuit filed August 16 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) and several local members sued Lehigh County in Pennsylvania to remove a Latin cross from the county seal and flag.

FFRF is a plaintiff, as are members residing in the county who have encountered the religious symbol on governmental property and documents, such as on letterhead, numerous official county forms and reports, the county's website, a display in the Board of Commissioners meeting room and even on flags prominently displayed at the entrance of county buildings.

FFRF complained to the county in November 2014 and again in January 2015. Following several meetings about the controversy, the Board of Commissioners sent a reply on March 25, 2015, noting: "The cross, one of more than a dozen elements, was included to honor the original settlers of Lehigh County, who were Christian."

FFRF's local members find the presence of the cross on a seal representing the entire county to be exclusionary and offensive, as the cross endorses Christianity and does not reflect the diversity of the population. By adopting and displaying a seal and flag with a Latin cross, the county is violating the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Plaintiffs contend the purpose is religious, not secular, and "has the primary effect of both advancing religion and expressing defendant's preference for Christianity above all other religions and nonreligion."

For more information, see FFRF's news release: https://ffrf.org/news/news-releases/item/27336-ffrf-sues-pennsylvania-county-over-cross-on-seal.

Americans United & American Atheists sue Pennsylvania House of Representatives

 On August 26, 2016, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and American Atheists jointly filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Pennsylvania House of Representatives' discriminatory policy of barring people who do not believe in God from offering pre-meeting invocations.

The Pennsylvania House has a longstanding tradition of opening invocations, which are often delivered by guests from the community. Over the last two years, several non-theists who requested to deliver opening invocations before the House were deemed ineligible on the grounds that they are "non-adherents or nonbelievers."

The plaintiffs in the case include Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, its president Brian Fields, and member Joshua Neiderhiser; Dillsburg Area Freethinkers, its chief organizer Paul Tucker, and member Deana Weaver; and Lancaster Freethought Society and its president Scott Rhoades.

Read more about the lawsuit here: https://www.au.org/media/press-releases/pa-house-of-representatives-can-t-discriminate-against-non-theists-americans




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