The Never-ending Battle Over Separation of Church and State
The Flathead Area Secular Humanist Association actively monitors violations of the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state in Flathead County and the Montana Legislature.
Since Ian Cameron founded the organization in 2011, FASHA has intervened to prevent the placing of a Ten Commandments monument in a high-profile city park, curtailed public-school choirs’ performing Christmas concerts in religious venues, helped kill a bill in the Legislature that would have required the teaching of creationism in public-school science classes, and joined the fight to remove a statue of Jesus from federal land on Big Mountain.
FASHA also works with parents — believers and nonbelievers — who register complaints about Christianity being forced on their children in public schools.
A summary of cases that have reached closure follows. While FASHA doesn’t always win, those who are in a position to violate the doctrine of separation of church and state are aware that they are being watched.
The Lunch Buddies & Stealth Christianity
In February 2016 a parent who is not a member of FASHA expressed concern about the Lunch Buddy program at two elementary schools in Kalispell.
According to a story in the January 11 Daily Inter Lake: “Sixty volunteers recently signed up to be ‘lunch buddies’ at Elrod and Hedges elementary schools. Another upcoming ministry is training for first responders in crisis situations that affect church members.”
The operative word here is “ministry.” While lunch buddies provide much-needed companionship and inspiration to children who might not be getting that TLC at home, the concern was that volunteers from the evangelical Canvas Church would be proselytizing Christianity to vulnerable children.
FASHA addressed this concern to Kalispell School Superintendent Mark Flatau, and a meeting was arranged among parents, FASHA representatives and other school-system parties to ensure that the volunteers would be admonished from preaching Christianity.
While we received assurances that volunteers would be advised to keep their religious beliefs out of the program, we continue to monitor that situation.
Public School Choir Performances at Mormon Church
In the fall of 2013, the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the Mormons — proliferated a four-color brochure and ran full-color newspaper advertisements beckoning, “Please join us in celebrating the birth of our savior Jesus Christ” with a series of Christmas concerts at the Mormon church in Kalispell.
The “us” mentioned in the promotions was not only Mormons and other assorted Christians, but choirs from three public Flathead County high schools: Flathead, Glacier and Whitefish.
These ads raised two red flags for FASHA: The legal issue of Flathead County school administrators and choir directors violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution (which prohibits the endorsement of religion by a government entity), and the social issue of how students who opted out of or refused to participate in the concerts would be treated by intolerant Christianist classmates.
Enlightened Whitefish School District Superintendent Kate Orozco explained that her school choir’s participation in the concert was an extracurricular (i.e., afterschool club’s) activity, thereby making it technically legal. But despite protestations to the contrary by Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Darlene Schottle, performances by the other two choirs were part of the school curriculum and thereby violations of the establishment clause.
FASHA’s eleventh-hour attempt to persuade the recalcitrant school districts to cancel their choirs’ participation in the concert included letters to the superintendent in question; a telephone campaign by FASHA members; letters to the editor by FASHA principals Richard E. Wackrow and Ian Cameron, and FASHA members — and finally, engaging the services of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana and the Freedom from Religion Foundation to intervene.
Once you get past the decidedly right-wing lead of Hilary Matheson’s story in the December 9, 2013, Kalispell Daily Inter Lake (“As Christmas nears, two local school districts find themselves being drawn unwillingly into the battle against religion in the public square ...”), she does a pretty good job of chronicling both positions on the issue.
Despite these efforts, performances of all three choirs went on as scheduled.
In 2014, however, Wackrow approached newly appointed Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Mark Flatau regarding the issue, and Flathead County public school choirs have not performed at the Mormon church since, and FASHA has not received a complaint from a parent about a church-state issue involving Flathead public school choirs.
Ten Commandments Monument
In 2012, the Fraternal Order of Eagles petitioned the Kalispell City Council to move the organization’s Ten Commandments monument from its low-profile location behind the Flathead County Courthouse to a more prominent spot in Depot Park.
Then-FASHA President Ian Cameron’s account of the issue, as published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, follows.
Secular Group Makes a Montana Difference
By Ian Cameron
FFRF Freethought Today / November 2012
Donated by the [Fraternal Order of] Eagles in the 1960s, a Ten Commandments monument sat alone in front of the Flathead County Courthouse in Kalispell, Mont., until 2004. Under threat of legal action, other temporary displays were added, and it was rebranded briefly as an “Evolution of Law” display.
Based on that and a 2005 Supreme Court ruling, the threat of a lawsuit was dropped. In 2005, after a private fundraising campaign by a county commissioner and the Eagles, permanent granite monuments replaced the temporary ones (including the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, Magna Carta and the Mayflower Compact).
For some reason (any guesses?), the name of the display was then changed to the “Cornerstones of Law.” During renovations in 2011, the entire display was relocated to, and remains in, a little noticed nook behind the courthouse. The Ten Commandments monument is considerably larger and sits in the “cornerstone” position.
In early October, the local Eagles group, dissatisfied with the display’s current location, asked the city of Kalispell to ask Flathead County to transfer the monuments to the city for placement at Depot Park, a prominent city park.
At that time, one city councilor stated, “[The monument] isn’t something we want to hide under a bushel basket.” A county commissioner said, “At first blush, I think it is an excellent idea.” Even the city attorney chimed in, stating, he had no legal concern at all about moving the monuments to city property.
The Flathead Area Secular Humanist Association quickly responded with “assertive” letters of opposition to the county commissioners, city councilors and major local newspapers, along with organizing an opposition email campaign.
On Oct. 22, the council met to discuss the request. Several people spoke in favor of the transfer. I was the sole public voice of dissent at the meeting, speaking on behalf of FASHA (and the law), emphasizing the city’s responsibility to follow the Constitution and to remain neutral when it comes to religion.
Two councilors, while supportive of the request by the Eagles, cited FASHA’s opposition letter and legal concerns in deciding against moving forward. Another councilor was strongly opposed, citing the potential for divisiveness in the community.
The mayor, while stating she “believes” in the Ten Commandments, thought the monument should be moved to private land. In the end, the council decided to not pursue the transfer.
This was a huge success for us. Without our opposition, we would likely have had a religious monument in one of our city parks before year’s end (and an ensuing legal battle). The city council should be commended, especially given the predominantly conservative community we live in.
We feel fortunate for everyone involved that we were able to address this proactively and will closely monitor city and county meetings in the future to counter any future assaults on the First Amendment.
FASHA & FFRF vs. Big Mountain Jesus
In 1955, during the McCarthy era, the Knights of Columbus erected a statue of Jesus on Big Mountain, on the Flathead National Forest, outside of Whitefish, Montana. The purpose of the shrine was the pivotal issue in a lawsuit brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation to have the shrine removed.
According to some modern accounts, the statue was erected as a memorial to World War II veterans — rather than as a religious shrine. However, as this story in the February 10, 2011, Flathead (Montana) Beacon says, “While fighting in the Swiss and Italian Alps during World War II, many American soldiers encountered the religious shrines ... that dot the mountains of Europe. Amid war, it’s likely the soldiers drew some reassurance from these unexpected encounters. So upon returning to the Flathead Valley, several Knights of Columbus at St. Matthew’s parish in Kalispell discussed the idea of erecting a similar religious tribute to what they had encountered as soldiers.” This account of the intention of the Knights is corroborated by newspaper stories from the period when the statue was being erected on the mountain.
In February 2012, the FFRF — with the endorsement of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and with the support of the Flathead Area Secular Humanist Association — filed a lawsuit in federal court to have the shrine removed from the mountain. A couple FASHA members later became party to the suit in order to give it standing in the court.
On June 25, 2013, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen dismissed the FFRF lawsuit, ruling that “[the] government neither owns the statue nor exercises control over the property on which it is located. Big Mountain Jesus constitutes private speech reflecting the personal views of its private owners and therefore cannot be seen by the reasonable observer as reflecting government promotion of religion.” His ruling enabled the U.S. Forest Service to issue another 10-year special-use permit allowing the statue to remain on the Big Mountain. That bizarre decision was appealed by the FFRF. See the June 26, 2013, Missoulian.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation appealed this ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. See the February 4, 2014, Kalispell Daily Inter Lake.
In May 2014, The American Legion, represented by Liberty Institute, and Montana Attorney General Tim Fox filed an amicus brief to prevent removal of the monument from Big Mountain. (See the press release.) And on September 1, 2015, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Portland, Oregon, ruled that the Big Mountain Jesus statue would stay. See the story in the Daily Inter Lake.
Teaching Creationism in Montana Public Schools
February 2013 / Updated in 2015
In February 2013, Republican Representative Clayton Fiscus introduced a bill to the House Education Committee of the Montana Legislature that would have required the teaching of creationism (the latest mutation of “intelligent design,” et al.) in Montana public schools.
The bill, HB 183: “Emphasize critical thinking in science education,” was killed in committee as representatives of the National Center for Science Education, the Secular Coalition for Montana, the Flathead Area Secular Humanist Association, and other groups and individuals who care about the education of Montana’s children testified against it. The bill’s only proponent at the hearing was Fiscus himself. Apparently, Fiscus’ idea that the full Montana Legislature would even consider his creationism bill was “only a theory.”
Watch the YouTube video of the hearing, including Fiscus’ comical testimony. Read the National Center for Science Education’s account of the proceedings.
A similar bill failed to make it out of committee in 2015.