Sunday, January 24, 2016

District 227 in Illinois Maintains Discrimination Against Satanists Despite it Being Unconstitutional Amid Cascade of Lawsuits for Other Abuses

Earlier this year in August, I began scanning through my former high school's dress code policies after reading an article about schools targeting young girls with skewed rules. I follow a variety of journals and magazines online that discuss unfair treatment in education so it didn't feel unusual for me to investigate.

But as I was going through what District 227 made public information via their student handbook from 2014-2015, I noticed something shocking. 

6. Gangs and Related Activity: Street gangs, satanic cults, or any display that can be construed as gang affiliation via placement on the body or clothing delineated by left or right is prohibited. Additionally, any color or colorscheme that may be misconstrued as gang identification is not acceptable in the school setting. The wearing of gang insignia or satanic cult paraphernalia or symbols, “flashing” gang signs, drawing gang and/or satanic cult symbols, distribution of gang or satanic cult literature, the use of gang “threats/physical aggression” and related gang and satanic activities are prohibited. In addition, only those student groups that have been approved by Student Council and campus administration are permitted the use of school facilities for meetings and/or activities. Such activities and any other activities that the school administration may deem potentially disruptive to the school climate will not be tolerated and subject to disciplinary action. The disposition for violation of these rules will include a parent conference and may also result in: a. Parent Conference; and/or b. Up to a ten-day-out-of-school suspension; and/or c. Recommendation for expulsion if circumstances warrant; and/or d. Referral to the police

What? Whaaaaaaaaaaaat? 

So, I emailed the principal of Rich East (the public high school I attended) some of my own feedback on these policies, and he stated he would pass them on to the handbook committee. I explicitly stated that this qualifies as discrimination and is considered unconstitutional. After a month or so went by, I still hadn't heard anything from the School Board about voting on changes to the handbook. I have no idea how long it's been in there. Barely anyone reads the dress code, and I feel like someone would have noticed "satanic cult" when I was in attendance, from 2008-2012. But very few copies of student handbooks have been made available online, and even if there is a board meeting full disclosure report or video somewhere, sifting through hundreds of posts may yield nothing - and maybe it isn't going to help to learn when they introduced the discriminatory language. 

Under section 7 titled School Dress, the policy is also that

e. Students may not display and/or wear clothing, jewelry, or tattoos displaying obscenities, gang/satanic cult symbols, or advertising promoting alcohol, drugs, violence or weapons, nor may students display and/or wear clothing or clothing items, jewelry, or tattoos that denigrate others on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or disability, or that are otherwise contrary to the school’s educational mission.

I can say with certainty that no one ever made that policy well-known unless it was about gang signs or related forms of dress, and it has always been selectively enforced. I was once asked to turn my shirt inside out because it read "I'm Going Nucking Futs." Standing next to me was a student on the football team with a shirt clearly advertising Corona, complete with a hyper-sexualized and borderline graphic image of a pin-up-style woman. I pointed that out and the teacher stared me down. Small victories, I guess? (That teacher was later fired for having an inappropriate relationship with a student, roughly 20 years his junior). 

After hemming and hawing for a bit, I contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to get Rich Township to remove the discriminatory language against Satanists from their student handbooks. But I later found evidence of it present in not only their 2014-2015 handbook, but also the handbook for 2015-2016. Which means they had already distributed over three thousand copies of it without any changes made. 

I gave all the documentation I had to Ryan Jayne, a legal fellow at FFRF, and they've updated me throughout the process. My concern is first and foremost the rampant discrimination - every student has the right to express their religion or lack of religion in schools - but also that students who represent other religions, such as Wicca, might be targeted for wearing similar (though different) symbols and clothing. 

The initial formal complaint Ryan Jayne sent, the District ignored. The second formal complaint they ignored for a little over a month, until now. So it's been a total of 5 months (going on 6) of this tedium. 

They just sent a response, and it is factually inaccurate and extremely surprising. For those of you who don't know, Rich Township includes the communities of Matteson, Frankfort, Tinley Park, Country Club Hills, Olympia Fields, Richton Park, Park Forest, and Chicago Heights in Illinois. I am from Park Forest, still visit, and I am acutely familiar with the cultural climate in these areas. It is not known for being a friendly place to LGBTQIA2P+ people or those of minority religions, to say the least.

Before you go further, please understand that there are no religions that are "federally recognized" or "recognized by the state" as religions. No religion is required to go through that process. The United States government pretty much avoids that quandary entirely. They do use IRS tax codes, however, as a basis for recognizing religious nonprofits. With a 501(c)(3) status, that lends a religious institution some benefits (and to some, credibility). However, there exists no standing list of religions that are "recognized." 

The IRS (for nonprofit status) only requires that a) beliefs are truly and sincerely held and b) practices and rituals associated with the religion and beliefs are not illegal or contrary to clearly defined public policy. 

One of the most recent Supreme Court Rulings was made to uphold animal sacrifice, so long as it was part of a religious ritual - and that was in 1993, to protect the rights of an Afro-Cuban religion.  

The legalistic jargon the attorneys employ here is troublesome for two reasons. Either they are completely ignorant of legislation and barely passed the Bar exam or they are willingly lying as a form of intimidation and defense of Rich Township's illegality. 

The letter sent to FFRF from the District reads as follows (and, yes, they spelled Jayne's name wrong multiple times, both in the header and greeting line): 

"Dear Mr. Jaye,

This law firm represents Rich Township High School District 227. We are in receipt of your letters to the District asking the District to remove language from its student handbook prohibiting students from wearing or drawing Satanic paraphernalia or symbols. Our firm has reviewed your request and determined that removal of the language is not required. 

As you know, the First Amendment requires government neutrality with respect to religion and also recognizes the right of every person to practice the religion of their choice. However, in order for an individual to invoke a First Amendment claim, they must first establish that there is an established religion that requires protection. To date, no court in Illinois or the Seventh Circuit has recognized Satanism as a religion protected by the First Amendment. 

Moreover, school authorities have significantly greater control over speech that disrupts or reasonably could be foreseen to disrupt the school environment or that is inconsistent with the school's basic educational mission. See e.g., Gernetzke v. Kenosha Unified Sch. Dist. No. 1, 274 F. 3d 464, 467 (7th Cir. 2001). Even if Satanism were a recognized religion, its promotion of ideas such as hate and violence could reasonably create a substantial disruption in the school environment and jeopardize the safety and security of students, faculty, and staff, making such symbols inconsistent with the basic educational mission of the School District. 

Accordingly, and in furtherance of maintaining a safe learning environment for students, the District will continue to prohibit students from displaying satanic symbols. 

John A. Relias

cc: Antoine Bass, Board President (via email), Ronald Patton, Interim Superintendent (via email)." 

Ryan Jayne reported that he would be drafting a rebuttal in the weeks following their response, but that they might ignore the message without a plaintiff. If they continue to refuse to change the handbook, the attorneys of FFRF will have to choose a new course of action even though this is a slap-in-the-face hardcore violation of the law. 

According to state and federal legislation, there are no fines for discrimination of this nature. There are typically only ever court cases or private compliance when changes are demanded. Even rarer are public apologies. Sometimes the ruling awards compensation for emotional damages to a plaintiff. Basically, the only system of accountability is the judicial branch. FFRF could file a formal complaint to the U. S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights - unfortunately, however, "religion" and "orientation" are not presently categories the OCR accepts complaints for, based on their website. Working with the ACLU is a more viable option, but moving forward a rebuttal will come first. 

In any case, District 227 has a recent history of controversy and overall disturbing shit. So far, at least 5 teachers since 2010 have been fired or removed from the schools for inappropriate relationships with students and sexual abuse or suspicion of inappropriate relationships with students. The most recent case emerged in early December. A "Community Letter" about school safety and the allegations was published on the school website shortly after but removed later within the same month. 

Other issues related to faculty bullying have also made headlines, in addition to a former guidance counselor filing a wrongful termination suit after he wrote a sexually explicit book "that included crude comments about women’s anatomy and how they could please men sexually, and he urged them to be promiscuous." Other reports state that he was also the girls basketball coach of one of the Township schools. This is only what has been documented. Sexual harassment and inappropriate actions toward students could still be taking place or going unreported. 

The gravity of this situation is that without a plaintiff, the District may not be able to be sued in a conventional sense. But if it does go to a trial and there is a student being discriminated against, the case will assist in wiping out funds for both District 227 and be expensive for FFRF (unless another organization steps in).

District 227 has a tenuous position concerning finances. As a student there, I and my peers were once asked to suspend our activities in multiple classes to text and email for a chance to win a sweepstakes offered by Verizon. That doesn't exactly scream "healthy." I often heard teachers discussing our unusually high "transfer out rate" and began to question how my freshman class went from roughly 440 students to just 220 (estimate) in four years, which honestly would have been a bit lower without credit recovery classes. The data pose uncomfortable questions: how can this district have a slightly higher than average graduation rate with such low proficiency in reading and mathematics and such a high dropout rate? Free and reduced lunch programs are funded federally, and teacher's salaries are obviously low. The District reportedly spends roughly $19,692 on each student annually, with a budget of $76,898,000. After student-related deductions, that leaves $7,976,000.

Images taken from Niche

Could a lot of their budget be going toward legal battles? It seems the answer is yes. Unfortunately for community members, District 227 can not actually afford another lawsuit and negative media attention though they are actively encouraging it collectively. Not just because of how teachers are behaving currently (and that pending wrongful termination suit), but also for conflicts on an administrative level that have led to legal hearings.

Former Rich Township Superintendent Leak was fired for transferring students without Board approval to alternative schools and "Published reports at the time indicated Leak was dismissed by the D.227 School Board because of allegations related to her handling of student expulsions and because a school board member was allegedly locked out of a board meeting." Leak "filed a lawsuit seeking $800,000 in damages that claims civil conspiracy, breach of contract and intention infliction of emotional distress." 

According to the Appellate Court 1st District hearing this year, Leak v. Board of Education of Rich Township High School District 227, 2015 IL App (1st) 143202, Leak acted beyond her boundaries. 

Section 10-22.6(b) only allows a superintendent to suspend a student for up to 10 days, thus any length of time exceeding the 10 days is tantamount to an expulsion, requiring a board hearing. 105 ILCS 5/10-22.6(b) (West 2012). Here, there is no evidence in the record to suggest that the students at issue were transferred for 10 days or less. 


It is undisputed that plaintiff administratively transferred students without board hearings for extended periods of time and nothing in the record suggests that these students were given any other form of a meaningful opportunity to be heard. Accordingly, plaintiff acted outside the scope of her authority prescribed in the School Code and the trial court did not err in finding cause for her termination. 


Moreover, even if one were to conclude that the Board defendants had ulterior motives in terminating plaintiff, this does not negate the reasonable basis that existed for her dismissal, making the matter moot.


Finally, plaintiff contends that her due process rights were violated because she did not receive a fair and impartial hearing.


In the case sub judice, it is undisputed that plaintiff received notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard. There is no evidence in the record to suggest plaintiff did not receive an impartial hearing.


Based on the foregoing, we affirm the judgment of the circuit court of Cook County. 

Systemically, District 227 has failed to protect students from administrative abuses of power and yet simultaneously upholds discrimination against its students for rights that are protected by the Constitution. Their stubbornness will continue to negatively impact everyone involved until they make a change and commit to basic ground-level improvements.

People in positions of significant influence from this Cook County school district seem very convinced of what Satanism is without education about it (and their sentiments ring similar to national moral panic and conservative backlash against those who practice Islam) and of it being bad (with zero evidence to back that claim), to the extent that they would be willing to compromise the rights of their students to practice freedom of religion and nonreligion. 

If District 227 does care about its students, they need to understand that policing students' religious expression - in ways that are fundamentally illegal and dangerous - is not protection; it is authoritative control, it is a matter of personal bias interfering with the administrators' ability to do their jobs, and School Board members, along with Board President Antoine Bass and Interim Superintendent Ronald Patton, will have to either step down if they will not comply or ultimately decide to uphold the rights of their students (which is what they should have been doing from the get-go anyway). They also need to recognize that an unnecessary legal battle like this will do far more than hurt their respective reputations. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing discrimination based on your/their religious beliefs or lack thereof, please reach out to Ryan Jayne and additional legal fellows of Freedom From Religion Foundation and call them at 1-608-256-8900. 

To donate to Freedom From Religion Foundation for their efforts in maintaining and protecting church/state separation and advocating for constitutional rights, click here

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Kim Davis: The Hero That Bigots Deserve

Kim Davis: The Hero That Bigots Deserve

            I’m sure I don’t need to explain to anyone who Kim Davis is. But, just in case you’ve been living under a rock, and that rock is on another planet in another galaxy, Kim Davis is a county clerk in Kentucky who has continuously refused to give marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Recently she was arrested and jailed for doing so (for the full story: The formal charge found that she was in contempt of court for defying a judge’s order to start distributing licenses. Even more recently, Davis appealed the charge and was released. The same judge who placed her in jail decided during Davis’s appeal process that she was no longer in contempt because the plaintiffs in the case, a same-sex couple seeking a license, were able to obtain one through her deputy clerks (for that story:

            So, as of now, Davis is a free woman. That is subject to change as the legal system struggles to decide just what the hell to do with her. She’s still not signing any licenses, and she has no plans of resigning. Her term as county clerk isn’t up until 2018. Surely by then she’ll become stale news and we can all go on to being angry and deeply divided as a nation about something else. But, until 2018, the only way for Kim to lose her job is through impeachment. Which, judging by the crowds of people praising her as a martyr who stands against the anti-Jesus agenda of the wicked government, probably isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

            I find Kim Davis and her fan club fascinating. Conservatives who are singing praises in her righteous name do not want to acknowledge the level of moral hypocrisy that Kim is bringing to this mess. She’s been divorced three times and had an affair with her third husband while married to her first husband. The children that resulted from the affair were adopted by her second husband (link: Holidays must be fun for them. Now, let’s see what the Bible has to say about divorce and adultery.

            On divorce:

            “And he said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’” Mark 10:11-12
            “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.” 1 Corinthians 7:10-11
            “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Matthew 19:6

            On adultery:

            “He who commits adultery lacks sense; he who does it destroys himself.” Proverbs 6:32
            “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” Hebrews 13:4
            “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.” Deuteronomy 22:22
            “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” Ephesians 5:5

            So, what gives? I’m curious: why do some Christians think they can cherry-pick the Bible? Why do they think they get to decide what parts of the Bible are super for-real and which they can just shrug their shoulders at? Why is being gay such an affront to God, but divorce and adultery aren’t as terrible? Is there a hierarchy of sins I’m unaware of? Is there a one to one hundred scale of how bad your sins are compared to others? So my being gay is a solid 88 while Kim Davis’s three divorces and adultery are a mellow 36? And many Christians believe the sanctity of marriage is being destroyed by gay people, not by people like Kim Davis?

            I realize that entire paragraph was nothing but questions. My apologies. I’m just genuinely perplexed as to why Kim Davis of all people would be appointed the chief of the morality police by zealous Christians. I feel it’s important to note here that I’m referring to bigoted, fanatical Christians. You know, the Kim Davis type. I have several Christian friends who find her ridiculous, because their interpretation of their faith revolves around tolerance—we are all sinners in the eyes of God, and gay people aren’t any better or worse than anyone else. My closest friend, a devoted Christian, doesn’t even consider being gay a sin.

            The legalities of the Kim Davis situation are also complicated. In attempting to research the subject, I’ve found that many sources interpret existing laws or bits of the Constitution in ways that fit their opinions. Basically, many websites and articles that touch on the legal aspects of Kim Davis’s actions have their own agenda to peddle. The underlying question beneath the murky legal jargon and partisan bullshit is simply: does Kim Davis have the legal right to refuse to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples?

Kim Davis is an elected government official. And, according to an online NBC article, “the Supreme Court has held that while public employees have the right to speak out on matter of public concern, just as any citizen would, their First Amendment rights concerning their jobs are different.” Said the Supreme Court in a 2006 ruling: “When a citizen enters government service, the citizen by necessity must accept certain limitations on his or her freedom.”

            This article ( draws on the expert opinions of a few law professors. One, Professor Steve Vladeck at American University’s Washington College of Law, says, “She waived any right to have an objection to issuing same-sex marriage licenses when she ran for the job.” Another, Professor Jonathan Adler of Case Western University School of Law, says, “Insofar as the state’s definition of an acceptable marriage differs from her own, Davis is obligated to follow the state’s rule so long as she maintains her current office.”

            Currently, the federal definition of legally recognized marriages includes same-sex couples. If Kim is really so upset by how the government that she’s currently working for defines marriage, she should step down. And expressing her own private religious beliefs through her work is infringing upon the rights of others, those same-sex couples who have the legal right to obtain a marriage license, which, according to the state of Kentucky, must be issued by county clerks. Davis’s own personal beliefs have nothing to do with the state’s definition of marriage, nor should they, since legal marriage as defined by the government has nothing to do with any established religion. If the couple getting married wants a religious ceremony, and wants to interpret their marriage in terms of their shared religion, that’s perfectly fine. But that’s the private aspect of a marriage. The public aspect, which is what we are concerned with, is all government-sanctioned benefits and signing licenses. I hate to break it to Kim, but marriage is not an inherently religious institution.

            Speaking of religion and how it has no place in government, the Kim Davis fan club sure does throw the phrases “religious freedom” and “religious liberty” around a lot. What they really mean when they say that is “the freedom I think I have to impose my own privately-held beliefs on everyone around me.” Maybe according to your religion the consumption of alcohol is sinful. Fine. Stay away from alcoholic beverages. But that doesn’t mean I have to avoid drinking just so I don’t offend your religious beliefs. Or maybe your interpretation of your religion prohibits sex before marriage. Stay abstinent then. That doesn’t mean everybody else around you should never have sex ever unless they’ve put a ring on it. The same principle applies to the evil heathen homosexuals like me and our evil heathen marriages. Maybe your take on your religion is that being gay is terrible. Fine. Then don’t have sex with someone of the same gender and don’t get married to someone of the same gender. Regardless of what your perceptions are, people are still going to be gay.

Your beliefs don’t dictate what I get to do with my life because my beliefs are different from your beliefs, is what I’m trying to say here. This is the true definition of religious freedom: each individual having complete autonomy over their own religion and their interpretation of it, or lack thereof. This is what makes America so wonderful: the religion of some is not imposed on all, and we are not a theocracy. And apparently this is also what makes America so terrible, according to the Kim Davis fan club.

            Basically, Kim Davis is a hypocrite whose private religious convictions do not get to define what marriage means in the state of Kentucky. Marriage as an institution isn’t tarnished every time two people of the same sex who love and respect each other take part in it. It’s tarnished when people like Kim Davis respect it so little as to cheat on their spouses or get divorced every time the wind blows. And yes, a person does have the right be a Christian in this country. Nobody is trying to argue against that, contrary to the paranoia of the Kim Davis fan club. What a person doesn’t have a right to do is attempt to take away another person’s rights because their religion says such and such.

For now, it seems that Kim Davis’s fifteen minutes of fame are up (to me it felt more like an hour). The firestorm of constant media updates and comments section rants has died down. But Kimmy still isn’t signing any licenses for same-sex couples and still holds her position as county clerk. Does this mean she’s victorious? Has she bested the oppressive Christian-hating government (which weirdly is made up mostly of Christian politicians)? Who knows? All I know is that Kentucky state law mandates that part of the job description of a county clerk is to sign and distribute marriage licenses. And last I checked, not doing your job is grounds for getting sacked. If jail time is no longer in the cards for Kim, then being impeached should be.