Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Columbia Chapter

Reports on Local Issues

For national issues click here.

People may think there are no church/state issues in our area. While we may not be in the epicenter of such issues, they do arise here. Below are brief reports on issues that have arisen in Oregon or S.W. Washington.

Report an Issue

If you know of a local issue, please contact us at:

Prayer at Clark County, Washington Commissioners’ Meetings
Evangelist Ministers to Hillsboro H.S. Football Players
Good News Clubs in the Salem-Keizer School District
Prayer at City Council Meetings in Damascus, Oregon?
Christian Image at School Assembly
Sing a Christian Hymn at Graduation in a Public School?
Teachers Wearing Religious Clothing in Oregon Schools
Parents Used Prayer to Treat Dying Son
Pulling Students Out of Class for Religious Instruction
Taking Action in Sherwood Schools
Aumsville Should Remove “Belief in God” From its City Website -Updated
Oregon Senate Bill 519 Worker Freedom Act Passed 2009
Oregon Inmate Sues Over Involuntary Exposure to Religion
Special Parking Rules for Portland Churchgoers?
Defy the Law? Oregon Clergy Say NO!
Jefferson School District Rejects Intelligent Design
A Bible Verse for a Senior Class Motto?

Court Orders that Violate Religious Beliefs
Sisters School Board Fires Teacher
Oregon HB 2893 Religious Indoctrination Meetings
Oregon HB 2947 Religious Topics and Founding Documents in Our Schools
Saying “NO” to Intelligent Design in Hillsboro Schools
Busted for Praying In School?
Sisters School District Must Repay $1,200,000
The Academy of Character and Ethics
Prayer at City Council Meetings – By AU Member Gary Dielman
Misuse of “Faith Based” Money by the Northwest Marriage Institute
Bible Study Group during Lunch Period at Middle School
Atheists, Scouts, and Recruiting in Public Schools

Prayer at Clark County, Washington Commissioners’ Meetings – March 22, 2013

We Objected. Commissioners Approved Prayers Anyway.

When we found out that the Clark County Board of Commissioners was going to vote on a proposal to begin their meetings with prayer, we took action. Several of our chapter leaders and members sent emails to the commissioners to express their concern. Five people from our chapter testified at their meeting. We thank everyone who participated in this effort! It was good for you to work with our chapter’s Clark County members and friends on this issue. However, in spite of our efforts, the commissioners approved the prayer proposal by a vote of 2 to 1.

This is not end of the story. Federal courts have been clear that if prayers are offered, they must be nondenominational and send a signal of welcome rather than exclusion. This is a standard that has been surprisingly difficult to live up to and often leads to bruised feelings, misunderstandings and legal action. This fact reinforces our belief that there should not be any prayer in government meetings. We will continue to follow this issue.

To see articles about this in The Columbian newspaper, and to comment, click here, here, and here.

Evangelist Ministers to Hillsboro H.S. Football Players – Oct. 2012

Public School Coaches Should Not Encourage Religion

The Oregonian published a story about an evangelist who, with the encouragement of their coaches, was praying with Hillsboro High School football players before games. We were disturbed about this, so we contacted the District superintendent and, when he took no action, we referred the matter to AU’s legal department. They sent a letter asking the district to stop the prayers, but by then the football season was over. We will be watching to see what happens next football season.

Robyn Parnell wrote a Guest Opinion, declaring that the Christian ministry was out of bounds.

Good News Clubs in the Salem-Keizer School District - Posted Mar. 16, 2012

Teachers Should Not Be Asked to Hand out Religious Fliers

When Lisa Godwin found out that teachers in her child’s school had been asked to hand out fliers promoting a Good News Club, she became concerned. She knew that Good News Clubs are not school programs, but that they operate in public schools with the goal of recruiting impressionable young children into their special fundamentalist type of Christianity. They are often allowed to meet in our schools, right after the children are dismissed. The close proximity of these "clubs" to regular school activities can blur the line between the school and religion.

However, under current law, if a public school rents space to any outside groups, they must treat all groups alike, even those groups that promote religion. Since these are outside groups and not part of the school program, the schools may not endorse or promote them.

Lisa complained about teachers handing out fliers to students and was assured that it would not happen again. However, it happened again the following year, so Lisa complained again and the Salem Weekly newspaper published an article about Lisa and her efforts.

We are happy to report that the District finally responded by adopting a policy to assure that the schools would not disseminate information about the “clubs.” We thank Lisa for bravely pushing for the new policy and we are glad that the District addressed her concerns.

If you have a concern about a church/state separation issue in your area, we invite you to send us an email and tell us about it.

Prayer at City Council Meetings? - Posted Mar. 5, 2011

Citizens in Damascus, Oregon Say No!

Steve Spinnett, the newly elected mayor of the City of Damascus surprised city council members by proposing that they start all council meetings with a prayer. We do not think it is a good idea to start public meetings with prayer so, when local citizens contacted us we obtained a copy of his proposal. It is six pages long and is replete with legal references. To read it, click here and scroll down to the last six pages.

We also found that Mayor Spinnett has started a website, on which he explains his prayer proposal and assures everyone that “The Alliance Defense Fund… has committed to defend the City of Damascus at no charge.” We were concerned about this prayer proposal but beyond that, it appears he plans to use his office to promote his religious views in other ways too.

Our contacts in Damascus assured us that they were organizing for the council meeting. We attended the meeting, and it was packed. When the time came to discuss the prayer proposal, approximately 30 people addressed the council. A clear majority spoke against the prayer proposal and we were impressed by their commitment and the quality of their testimony.

After the public testimony was finished, the decision was made not to vote on the proposal at this meeting. Then Mayor Spinnett read a Bible passage about Saul on the road to Damascus and said that was how the city of Damascus got its name. He concluded by saying that if this motion failed, that might mean the city would have to change its name!

To read a report about the meeting on Oregonlive, click here and scroll down to the part about
this issue.

Of course we planned to address the prayer issue at the following council meeting. However,
we found that it was not on the agenda and that there are no specific plans to consider it in
the future. We hope this means that the Mayor listened to the citizens and will discontinue his
attempts to use his office to advance his religious views.

Christian Image at School Assembly - Posted Jan. 29, 2011

Veterans Day Is About Honoring Veterans, Not About Religion.

A controversy arose over two videos that were shown at a Veterans Day Assembly at Tigard High School on November 5, 2010.

The first of the videos was of a speech given by Oliver North at a meeting of the National Rifle Association. In that speech he makes the point that our soldiers are motivated by their religion. He says, “…they know that some of them are liable not to come back and they do it because they have faith.” We do not doubt that some soldiers and veterans are motivated by their religion, but others are not. In fact, some are not religious at all. We should honor all veterans regardless of their religion.

The focus of the controversy however, is the other video. It is a series of powerful photos of soldiers, death, and people mourning, and is accompanied by the song “Heaven Was Needing a Hero.” As the song ends, the screen turns black and we see a picture of Jesus in the clouds, welcoming a soldier to Heaven. This was so inappropriate that it caught the attention of the news media. The Times (of Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood) and The Oregonian ran short articles about the assembly and we decided to investigate.

We contacted the principal of Tigard High School who told us that the picture of Jesus had been shown by accident. He explained that the student leadership group runs the assemblies and that the video depicting Jesus was shown by mistake. To be fair, there are two very similar videos on YouTube one that does not include the picture of Jesus, and one that does. It is confusing. In fact, posted a link to the wrong video and only later changed the link to the correct video.

However, mistake or not, this video was clearly out of line. We went to a school board meeting and told the board that this had been an opportunity lost. Once the picture was shown, the principal should have immediately informed the students that a mistake had been made and that the picture of Jesus was out of place in a public school assembly. If this had been done, it would have demonstrated a commitment to respect the boundaries between church and state. We asked the board to take action to assure that Tigard -Tualatin administrators will respond quickly if a similar event ever happens again. In such cases, the students need to know immediately where the District stands on church-state issues.

One of the factors in this debacle was that the videos had been chosen by students. Students have the right to express themselves, but that does not mean that anything goes. We spoke with the Superintendent, who agreed that even when students plan assemblies, the District is still responsible for the content.

Sing a Christian Hymn at Graduation in a Public School? Sept. 17, 2010

The Bill of Rights Cannot Be Overruled By Circulating Petitions

Students in Pleasant Hill, Oregon circulated a petition to sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” during the 2010 graduation ceremonies at the high school.

Some students and parents were concerned that singing the hymn would be a church/state violation because it is so overtly Christian. (Click here to read the lyrics.) So, when it appeared the principal was going to allow the hymn to be sung, they appealed to the school board, which did not overrule the principal.

At that point, one of the concerned students contacted us. Our chapter president, Bruce Adams, drove to Eugene and met with the student and his mother. They pointed out that the hymn is filled with religious lyrics and said it had been a significant part of graduation ceremonies in the past. Bruce assured the student and his mother that they were right to be concerned and that they could count on our chapter for support. We agreed that our first step would be for the mother to have a private conversation with the superintendent to tell him about her concerns and to mention that she had spoken with us.

When she went in to talk with the superintendent, however, he told her that they had decided that the hymn would not be sung. It took a while, but the school district made the right decision!

We often hear that issues like this are not very important. We disagree. Issues like this must be challenged. In this situation, some students and parents understood that the Bill of Rights cannot be overruled by circulating petitions and they were brave enough to speak up. We commend them for that.

Teachers Wearing Religious Clothing in Oregon SchoolsApr. 12, 2010

Oregon Workplace Religious Freedom Act

HB 3686 was introduced in the February, 2010 special legislative session to allow teachers to wear religious clothing at work. On February 5th the House Education Committee held a hearing at which our chapter president, Bruce Adams, gave written and oral testimony on behalf of our national organization and our chapter,

Bruce testified against the bill because, while Americans United strongly supports free exercise, it must be partnered with safeguards to prevent the appearance of favoritism or approval of religion by schools. Therefore he urged committee members to vote against the bill as written. The committee voted in favor of the bill, as did the House and Senate and Governor Kulongoski signed it. The law does not take effect until after the 2011 legislative session, however.

Click here for more information on our special chapter meeting on this issue.

Parents Used Prayer to Treat Dying Son - Posted March 29, 2010

Convicted of Criminally Negligent Homicide, Sentenced to Prison

Several Oregon children have died when their parents have not provided medical care because of their religious beliefs, so in 1999 Oregon enacted a law which eliminated the religious freedom defense in some cases.

Jeff and Marci Beagley are members of the Followers of Christ Church, which believes in faith healing. In June of 2008 their 16-year-old son died from a congenital urinary tract blockage that doctors say could have been treated successfully. However, the parents prayed rather than seek medical treatment. Under the 1999 law, they were found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and were sentenced to 16 months in prison, followed by probation for three years.

Pulling Students Out of Class for Religious Instruction Posted Nov. 1, 2009

Released Time Programs in Sherwood, Oregon Schools

Released time programs pull students out of class for off-campus religious instruction. They are not school programs but, in Oregon, the school has no choice but to release the students to these programs. In the greater Portland area these programs are run by a group called PREP4Kids. They decided to launch their released time program in all five Sherwood elementary schools in the 2009-2010 school year.

Although the Sherwood School Board was initially caught off guard by this program, they took action to assure that the District’s curricular and instructional programs would be the District's primary focus. They asked PREP4Kids to reschedule their program so that students would be pulled out of school during lunch and recess time. They reviewed their procedures to be sure the District was following the law and treating PREP4Kids with strict neutrality and that no school resources would be used to support it.

The article below describes the efforts and successes of two Sherwood parents who wanted to be sure that their children and their schools would not be negatively impacted by this program.

To read more about this in The Oregonian, click here.
To visit PREP4Kids’ website, click here.
To read about our chapter meeting on this topic, click here.

Taking Action in Sherwood, Oregon Schools

One Mother’s Point of View

By Dani Tofte

I was invited by an acquaintance to attend a discovery meeting for PREP4Kids, a self-described “evangelical ministry” that was organizing to provide “Released Time” for my son’s elementary school in Sherwood. PREP has been around for 25 years and was already operating in 30 Portland-area schools. I was surprised I’d never heard of this before. I invited another friend, Mona Bodo, to attend with me.

We learned that in 1952 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schools may allow students to be released during school hours for religious instruction without being marked as absent, and be allowed to make up the work missed. In 1960, Oregon took this a step further and declared that schools must allow Released Time.

This is very unpopular with teachers. They must take time out every week to go over make-up assignments with the children, talk to parents about make-up work, and ensure that the children understand the lesson lost. Teachers understand that they are ultimately responsible for how students perform on the state assessment tests, whether they receive in-class instruction or not.

PREP4Kids is abusing this law, using it not to ensure religious literacy of their own children, but to proselytize. They are very clear in their literature, and very open about the fact that their primary mission is to reach unchurched families through their children. PREP insists that the program be during school hours as opposed to before or after school, because of the transportation issue. It is the children of unchurched parents that typically aren’t willing to transport their child. Every week, they encourage children to invite their friends, new children receive prizes, and all of the children receive treats.

Mona and I worked with the Center for Inquiry’s legal council to draft a letter to the school board with our concerns and to come up with a strategy to minimize the impact. With his experience as an educator and with church/state issues, Bruce Adams was instrumental in helping us craft our letter and strategies.

Mona and I spoke at the school board meeting, and Kerri Russ spoke about the added concern that PREP might have a huge impact on the Sherwood Charter School, where attendance in this program may be high due to the religious environment in this particular school.

We had discovered that Oregon law states that schools may dictate the time of day that Released Time occurs. We made the recommendation that the recess/lunch block be used as Released Time, and gained agreement from school administrators. Policies were updated and administrative rules enacted that prohibit any proselytizing on school grounds.

PREP4Kids states in their literature that contacting the school is the very last step in enacting a new program, after everything else has been put in place. They contact the school after the first week, one principal at a time. We were able to give our school board and principals a “heads up” so that they could be prepared to discuss PREP’s program from the school’s point of view when PREP contacted them.

We are fortunate that some key school administrators opposed to Released Time are also active members of the church allowing PREP4Kids to use their facility, making this not about religion, but about education--about separation of church and state.

Aumsville Should Remove “Belief in God” From its City Website

Statement does not belong on city website – Posted Oct. 15, 2008, last updated Aug. 8, 2009.

In June of 2008 the Aumsville, Oregon City Council had a vacancy and needed someone to fill it. Andy Antonson considered applying. To get more information, he attended a city council meeting and went to the city’s website. There, he discovered a section about the city’s “Mission Statement” and “Team Values.” One of the values listed was “Belief in God.”

Andy is a practicing Buddhist and, like most Buddhists, he does not have a belief in God. However, like most Americans, he believes in separation of church and state. So, he wondered if the city was violating the law. He also wondered if they posted that "value" so people like him would know they were not welcome.

Andy found our chapter’s website and contacted us. We shared his concern and supported his plan to contact the city. Andy sent the city administrator an email and about a month later, he sent her a letter. Both times he said the statement on the website “…supports a single view regarding faith and excludes those who do not share this view. Additionally, it provides for government advocacy of a particular religious doctrine which is a violation the separation of church and state.”

The city did not reply to Andy, so, our chapter called the city administrator, Maryann N. Hills, and followed up with a letter, asking her to remove the statement about “Belief in God.” Then, on October 23, 2008 we received an e-mail from Ms. Hills saying: “Based on your letter and conversations with the city attorney I will have staff take the Staff Team Values off the website.”

A few days later we visited the website and the statement had been removed. We took the city at their word and assumed that was the end of it, so we did not visit the site again for quite a while. However, when we did visit it again, the statement had re-appeared with this disclaimer added: “The city of Aumsville is an equal opportunity employer. These are the personal values esteemed by some, and maybe not all city employees. They are solely the values and belief of staff individuals.” This disclaimer does not address the basic question of why any governmental entity needs to determine their employees’ religious beliefs, let alone publish that information on their official website.

We called the Mayor, Harold White, who essentially denied responsibility. He said the employees, decided to put the statement back up and that he and the city council had no role in the decision. This is, of course beside the point. The city government owns the website and is responsible for its content.

Mayor White refused to remove the statement. Since this is not acceptable, we will have more to say about this issue in the future.

(To view the city’s statement go to the Aumsville website and scroll down the home page to the AUMSVILLE STAFF TEAM VALUES…Faith/Religion section.)

Helen Lipson Comments

Some Aumsville City Employees Believe in God - by Columbia Chapter Member Helen Lipson

Public employees deserve as much religious freedom and freedom of expression as every other American. But when Aumsville, Oregon’s, employees’ “belief in God” is publicized on that city’s website, it’s a clear violation of the separation of church and state.

In this case, moreover, there is not even any legitimate social value—like the aesthetic virtues or cultural significance of Christmas carols, or the power of prayer to energize a football team—that defenders of this violation can point to in their defense. To be sure, the website does reassure Aumsville’s God-fearing citizens that the city’s workers’ share their faith—but such reassurance is simply unconstitutional. Not only does it favor believers over non-believers, but the mention of “God” seems to favor the dominant monotheistic religions, as opposed to Hinduism and other faiths with multiple deities, and still other belief systems, including Buddhism, whose notions of the supernatural do not involve anything or anyone comparable to Judeo-Christian-Muslim “God.”

“Belief in God,” moreover, is especially troubling in the context of the other “team values” on the list.

Most of that list is simply good PR: Your public servants are honest and trustworthy, it tells Aumsville’s residents; you can count on us to treat you fairly, to exercise good judgment, and to put community service ahead of personal gain. We have, moreover, the adaptability, the creativity, and the courage to respond effectively to changing circumstances or unforeseen challenges. And if you’re considering a job with the city, you’ll be happy to know that we have a sense of humor, and that we support a healthy balance between our work and our personal lives. In the context of these other values, however, it’s a fair question how belief in God affects staff behavior. Do the dictates of Jesus, or Moses, or St. Paul ever trump civil law? Will natural disasters be written off as God’s will, and city workers’ responses just a little less urgent than they should be? If there’s an opening, would a non-believer be comfortable working there?

On that last question, at least, the city tries to be reassuring. A “disclaimer” at the bottom of the list (added after previous complaints about the site) states that the city is an equal opportunity employer, and that the values listed are “esteemed by some, and maybe not all city employees. They are solely the values and belief [sic] of staff individuals.” But if so, why list a “team mission statement” at all? And does this disclaimer mean that some city employees lack “integrity,” “insight,” or a commitment to “thinking outside the box”?

All in all, the closer you look at Aumsville’s homepage, the more urgent it becomes that “belief in God” be removed from the city’s website.

Update: After our chapter issued a press release on this issue, the Statesman Journal published an article titled "Religious Reference Generates Complaint" in their August 7th, 2009 edition. To see the article, click here.

Also on Aug. 5th, Americans United posted a piece about this on the national web site, under the title: "Of Corn And The Constitution: Aumsville Celebrates The Former, But Not The Latter." To see this posting, click here.

Religious Accommodation in the Workplace– Posted July 5, 2009

Oregon Senate Bill 519 Worker Freedom Act Passed 2009

Saying “NO” to Employer Religious Indoctrination Meetings

SB 519 prohibits employers from taking adverse employment action against employees who decline to attend meeting or participate in communication concerning the employer's opinion on religious or political matters.

If an employer attempts to communicate ideas about religion or politics to their employees, the employees cannot be forced to listen.

(Note, a similar bill was proposed in 2007 but did not pass. See the posting on HB 2893, below.)

Oregon Inmate Sues Over Involuntary Exposure to Religion – Posted July 5, 2009

Refusing to Live at the Eugene Mission While on Parole

The Eugene Register-Guard reports that Jason Dwain Davies, a prison inmate from Eugene, has filed a lawsuit from his cell, claiming that his civil rights were violated by parole officers who tried to require him to live at the Eugene Mission, a “fundamentally religious facility,” which requires residents to attend daily gospel services. Davies was held in prison for a total of 319 days for refusing to stay at the mission on several occasions.

Go to The Register-Guard to see the article.

Special Parking Rules for Portland Churchgoers?Posted March 23, 2009

Lesson this Sunday morning – government should treat all citizens fairly.

It is not often a mayor suggests favoring those citizens who attend church on Sunday, but Portland’s Mayor Sam Adams did. He wants to raise money by charging for on-street parking in downtown Portland on Sundays. Raising revenue is part of his job, but, according to, he said the charge would not apply on Sunday until 1 P.M. “…to avoid charging people coming downtown for church.”

Maybe Mayor Adams should be applauded for his honesty, but he seems to be unaware that government decisions should not be made for the purpose of favoring religion. In this case, favoring people who worship downtown on Sunday mornings, not those who worship on other days or at other times, or who ride the bus.

Even in situations like this when it might be nice to give some Sunday churchgoers a special break, the First Amendment does not allow government to play favorites. We thought making this point was at least worth a short chat with the mayor, so we called his office and briefly explained our concern to his answering system. We also asked for a call back, which we have not received yet.

Defy the Law? Oregon Clergy Say NO!Posted Nov. 12, 2008

“Pulpit Freedom Sunday” a Bust in Oregon

The Alliance Defense Fund invited pastors across the United States to illegally endorse candidates from the pulpit on Sept. 28, 2008, “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

To their credit, many pastors actively opposed this bad idea. Most others wisely just preached about religion, not politics that day. In fact, only 31 pastors in the nation volunteered to openly defy the law. Just one of them was in Oregon.

According to the Alliance Defense Fund, the only Oregon pastor volunteering to break the law was a pastor in Fossil (pop. 470).

Under the IRS code, churches and other religious groups may apply for tax exempt status. However, they may lose that status if they engage in partisan politics. “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” was designed to challenge the code.

As a non-profit organization, Americans United is not allowed to engage in partisan politics either. However, like most churches and religious organizations, we respect and follow the law. We also support vigorous enforcement of the IRS code.

For more information on “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” go to and look in the November 2008 issue of Church and State magazine.

Jefferson School District Rejects Intelligent Design

Science Classes will not include Intelligent Design – Posted Aug. 29, revised Sept. 9, 2008.

Several months ago, in the Jefferson (Oregon) School District, a local pastor challenged what was being taught in geology class. He objected to the scientific explanation that the earth is billions of years old. He questioned class materials and wanted to invite a speaker to present an opposing point of view to the class.

This is a strategy employed by the proponents of Intelligent Design (ID) and Creation Science. They attempt to insert their religious views into science classes by arguing that it is only fair to present divergent points of view. Oregon state standards and rules, however, stipulate that only science be taught in science class. (Of course students may be taught religious interpretations in churches and at home.)

The teacher held her ground and wisely said no to ID being presented in her classroom. At that point, School district administrators should have made it clear to the pastor that they supported the teacher and that only science will be taught in science class, and that should have been the end of it.

However, after months of negotiating and delay, the pastor was emboldened. He attended the August 11, 2008 school board meeting and spoke publicly about his proposals. He still wanted to have the speaker on “ID” come to the class and he still challenged materials used in the class.

Rather than clearly support state law at the board meeting, the superintendent and two of the five board members announced that they believed in Intelligent Design! The superintendent even went on to say to the teacher: “Who knows, you may end up having to teach it in your class.”

When we heard about this, our chapter president put in a call to both the superintendent and the school board chairperson. Neither of them returned his call, but soon after that the superintendent told the teacher they should meet to resolve the issue.

Two of our chapter members accompanied the teacher to the next school board meeting, where the superintendent finally laid out the Oregon Department of Education’s (ODE’s) position that ID must not be taught in science classes. This information was available when this issue first came up, of course, but the superintendent did not act on it then, like he should have.

Meanwhile, the teacher was left feeling unsupported for seven months! When the school board received the information about ODE’s position, they realized they had to act. They asked the teacher to make one very minor change in a teaching material she had used and sent a letter to the pastor indicating the issue was closed.

A Bible Verse for a Senior Class Motto?

The McKenzie, Oregon School District Says “No.” Feb. 2008

The senior class at the small, rural McKenzie High School was recently involved in a controversy involving the separation of church and state. The students chose their senior class motto: "They that believe shall mount up with wings as eagles". The administration, realizing this was actually a bible verse with some changes, told the students to find another motto.

One of the students objected to that decision. She pointed out that the motto was not the same as the bible verse, which reads “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles.” She said they had changed it so that it was not religious. Besides, the school’s mascot was an eagle. The district stood its ground and the debate could have ended there. However, the student wrote a “Guest Viewpoint” which was published in the Eugene Register Guard. The Guard also published an article and several letters to the editor, many of which disagreed with the district’s decision.

Students don’t like to have their decisions overruled and they may not entirely understand the reasons. This can seem like such trivial matter, but the administration made the right decision. Separation of church and state is one of the fundamental principles of our country, a principle that needs to be supported. We hope that this episode has made the students more aware of this principle.

Court Orders that Violate Religious Beliefs

The Importance of Reporting Violations - September 2007

A few months ago, a man called our chapter to report that he had been ordered by an Oregon court to attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. He informed the court that he was an Atheist and that AA meetings had religious content. He refused to attend. Instead, he requested the court to find an organization that would not violate his religious rights. Our chapter does not have the resources to deal locally with legal issues, so we referred him to the national AU Legal Department.

Meanwhile, a similar situation arose in a Hawaiian court. A man objected to compulsory participation in AA, citing his Buddhists beliefs. The issue worked its way up to the 9th Circuit Court which, while acknowledging the important work done by AA, ruled in favor of the man. (The case is Inouye v. Kemna, Sept. 7, 2007)

The situation here in Oregon did not lead to this decision, but it is a reminder that court cases can begin anywhere. It takes just one person to take a stand for separation of church and state by reporting a violation.

Sisters School Board Fires Teacher

Religion Will Not Be Taught in Science Class - March 2007

Part time Biology teacher Kris Helphinstine was fired March 14, 2007 by the Sisters, Oregon School District after only eight days on the job.

Rather than following the text book to teach the theory of evolution to his freshman and sophomore biology students, Mr. Helphinstine relied mostly on supplemental materials, some of which were from the web site. This web site promotes the concept of creationism and is "dedicated to enabling Christians to defend their faith, and to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively."

He also showed students pictures of Nazi concentration camps and made outrageous connections between the theory of evolution, eugenics and Nazis!

Oregon education standards clearly require the teaching of evolution.

The federal government also has a policy about teaching about scientific theory and religious beliefs in schools:

"Schools may teach about explanations of life on earth, including religious ones (such as 'creationism'), in comparative religion or social studies classes. In science class, however, they may present only genuinely scientific critiques of, or evidence for, any explanation of life on earth, but not religious critiques (beliefs unverifiable by scientific methodology)."

Mr. Helphinstine’s actions blatantly violated these policies. His actions created a furor which was covered by several newspapers. They thrust the Sisters School Board into an unwelcome controversy. However, to their credit, the Board responded courageously and quickly. Their action delivered a clear message that they intend to teach science, not religion to the students in the Sisters School District.

Religious Indoctrination Meetings

Columbia Chapter Supports Oregon House Bill 2893 - March 16, 2007

Our chapter took a position of support of Oregon House Bill 2893, the Worker Freedom Act and asked our members to write to their representatives in support of the bill.

The bill relates to mandatory workplace communications to employees about the employer's opinions. It will give employees the freedom to walk away from political, anti-union, and religious indoctrination meetings, and would bar employers from firing or disciplining workers who choose not to attend or who report unlawful forced meetings.
Public hearings on the bill were held in the House Business and Labor Committee.

Then, on May 8, 2007 the Oregonian reported that all references to “religious matters” had been dropped from the bill. This was done because members of the legislature had concerns “…that the bill could have a chilling effect on the convocations that start each floor session.”

Apparently they chose to object to the bill rather than to the convocations!

(Even with the changes, the bill died in committee, but a similar bill passed in 2009. See the posting on SB 519, above.)

Religious Topics and Founding Documents in Our Schools

Columbia Chapter Opposes Oregon House Bill 2947 - March, 2007

HB 2947 implies our public schools do not currently allow students to read historic documents or study religious topics. Our chapter asked our members to write their legislators, asking them to vote NO.

HB 2947 would let students study and report on topics that are religious in nature. The measure also would require schools to encourage students in all grades to read documents like the Mayflower Compact, the Federalist Papers, the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem. Note that these examples all are document that contain religious references.

This is an idea in search of a problem. Religious topics may currently be studied in our schools. Teachers understand that students and their parents have a variety of religious beliefs and they carefully make professional judgments about how best to deal with religious topics. This is as it should be. Teachers do not need a new law to tell them what to do.

The bill was referred to the Education Committee and did not emerge for a vote.

Saying “NO” to Intelligent Design in Hillsboro Schools

The Hillsboro School Board Does the Right Thing! - March 2007

In January of 2007, a citizen presented a proposal to a citizens advisory committee of the Hillsboro, Oregon, School District. The proposal would require science teachers to teach specific objections to evolutionary theory and then ask the students to decide. The committee did not want to take action on it and suggested he present the proposal to the School Board.

The proposal looked like Intelligent Design to us, so we wrote a letter advising the District to reject the proposal. We told Board members that, even if they found the proposal to be intriguing, it does not follow that it should be adopted into the curriculum. We said Hillsboro students should continue to study accepted scientific ideas as they are taught to K-12 students throughout the United States. We advised the Board to continue to follow Oregon Department of Education guidelines and to avoid miring the District in controversy

Nothing happened for a while, but we continued to monitor the situation. Finally the citizen asked for time to present his proposal at the Board’s March 20th meeting.

We sent an email to the Board, suggesting they deny the request. When the Board would not schedule time for the proposal on the agenda, the citizen came to the meeting anyway and spoke during the brief audience time. The Board simply listened and thanked him, but took no action.

We applaud them for that and hope this episode is now over.

When public agencies handle difficult issues well like this, it is easy to wonder why we need to get involved. But, of course, as issues emerge we do not know what course they will take. When we write a letter or take other action, the agency knows they will have our support if they stand up for church/state separation. We should not wait for little issues to become big issues before we get involved!

Busted for Praying In School?

Praying Is Allowed But Does Not Confer Special Rights - April 2007

For about a week in March 2007, a group of students at Heritage High School, near Vancouver Washington, made a practice of praying before school in the commons, a busy area of the school. They formed a circle, held hands, and prayed, some silently, some aloud. Saying the prayer sessions blocked traffic, school officials asked the group to pray in a less crowded area such as a classroom.

The students cited their right to pray at school. The administration agreed, but insisted they had a responsibility to maintain order. On March 1st, the administration warned the students that if they did not desist, they would be punished. The next day the group ignored the warning and the administration disciplined twelve students.

This situation was covered in an even-handed manner by The Columbian and The Oregonian newspapers. Both cited experts who said students have a right to pray in schools and that school officials have a right to enforce school rules.

We agree. We support the students’ right to pray. However, praying does not confer special rights. It does not exempt students from school rules.

We do not agree with those who seized on this issue as more proof that public schools are hostile to Christians! However, within days a Google search revealed several web sites exploiting this issue, incorrectly citing it as proof that prayer is not allowed in public schools.

Since this happened in their area, the Clark County, Washington chapter of Americans United responded by writing letters to the editor. They also reserved a meeting room and invited the public to attend a discussion of the law regarding prayer in public schools. Over sixty people attended; a full house! The chapter also reports that currently the students are having a prayer circle outside before school and that there has been no interference by students or faculty. We congratulate the Clark County Chapter for their response to this incident.

Sisters School District Must Repay $1,200,000

Public Money Used to Benefit a Religious Institution - September 2006

We commend the Oregon Secretary of State’s Audit Division for exposing illegal use of public money by the Sisters School District. In a summary of their audit, they say:

The district’s homeschool program took place on the premises of Sonrise Christian School. The overwhelming majority of students the homeschool program “tutors” taught were Sonrise students. This is contrary to a 1973 Oregon Court of Appeals decision, which held that programs in which parochial school students are enrolled in public schools and also receive education from public school teachers in a parochial building violate the constitutional prohibition on use of public money to benefit a religious institution.

The district employed 15 homeschool tutors for the Sonrise site during our audit period. Twelve of these tutors were employed concurrently as teachers by Sonrise Christian School. Moreover, three of the tutors we interviewed stated that the curriculum they used did not change after the district employed them.

Clearly this is an issue of church/state separation. The district billed the Department of Education for the students as if they were attending a district program, not a religious school. This resulted in an overpayment of $1,200,000, a very large sum for a small district like Sisters. Now the Department of Education wants the money back!

We commend both the Audit Division and the Department of Education for investigating and for demanding the money be repaid. Strong action serves notice that education programs must not violate the law!


A concerned citizen notified the Secretary of State’s office or there might not have been any investigation. After the investigation, one of our members alerted us. Each of us can make a difference if we choose to get involved.

The Academy of Character and Ethics

A Church’s Proposal for a Charter School

The Mt. Olivet Baptist Church submitted a proposal for a charter school to be called the Academy of Character and Ethics (ACE). It would be run by the church, located in Jefferson High School and paid for by the Portland Public School District!

Our chapter held a meeting on April 17, 2006 to discuss this issue and to consider what action to take. We decided to contact the Portland Public School District to get information about the process and to let them know we were interested in this issue.

At various points in this process several Portland newspapers ran small articles on the proposal.

But suddenly, the proposal was withdrawn.

Then, in the next school year the proposal reappeared! However, it was now significantly different. A nonprofit organization had been formed to run the school, which would now be located at the Holy Cross Catholic Church. Even with the changes, we still saw significant church/ state issues.

We contacted the school district and signed up to speak about ACE at a board meeting. In preparation, we attended a board subcommittee meeting which was considering charter school proposals. At that meeting the subcommittee voted unanimously to recommend that the board reject the ACE proposal.

However, the request never came before the board; suddenly it was withdrawn again! All we know is that this is no longer an issue at this time.

Unfortunately, President Bush's "faith based initiative" gives the impression that separation of church and state is no longer the law! We want to deliver a clear message that this is not the case. You can help. If you know of anything in our area that should be brought to our attention, please contact us at

Prayer at City Council Meetings – By AU Member Gary Dielman

After 120 Years, Baker City Council Begins Council Meetings with Prayer

I was elected to the city council of Baker City, Oregon in 1998. I started attending city council meetings and was surprised to see that meetings began with prayer. No other city council in Baker County began their meetings with prayer, nor did Baker County Commission meetings. In fact, Baker City council didn't begin meetings with prayer for its first 120 years.

As a city councilor I could not condone asking citizens to stand and pray with city council before hearing their requests and concerns with its obvious element of coercion. For a year I tried behind the scenes to convince my fellow city councilors to drop prayer from the agenda.

My concerns were "outed" by a local newspaper person, to whom a city councilor had given copies of my emails. (The emails were not confidential and I had no problem with anyone seeing them.) Once the controversy became public, letters to the editor pro and con flew back and forth for several months, especially after a petition was circulated to recall me from city council.

To shorten the story, I was recalled with a year left on my four-year term. I continued my efforts with limited success. The mayor invited rather than told citizens to stand for the invocations. When city council would not stop "Jesus" prayers, I complained to Americans United, which sent to city council a threat to sue if it did not stop sectarian prayers. Within a month and a turnover in mayors, city council stopped its sectarian prayers. City council still begins with an invocation led by a staff member, but the prayers are brown bag; I put them in the category "Dear Lord, please bless this food. Amen and pass the potatoes."

In January 2007, five of the old city councilors will step down and five newly-elected councilors will join two present councilors. I'm hoping the new city council will entirely do away with mixing religion into its meetings.

For more information, click here.

Gary Dielman can be contacted at

Misuse of “Faith Based” Money by the Northwest Marriage Institute

Taxpayer Money Promotes a Christian Fundamentalist View of Marriage

The Clark County (Washington) Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) became aware, through an article in the local paper, that the Northwest Marriage Institute, a religious organization, was being supported by tax dollars. Nancy McCarter, chapter president and others launched an investigation and found that “faith based initiative” money was being used to promote a thoroughly Christian fundamentalist view of marriage.

They also learned the Northwest Marriage Institute received two federal grants totaling $97,750 in 2005. A $50,000 grant came from the Compassion Capital Fund, a type of “slush fund” that the White House uses to dole out “faith-based” grants to religious organizations and a $47,750 sub-grant from the Institute for Youth Development, a non-profit organization that has also accepted federal funding.

Chapter leaders realized this information had national implications, so they contacted AU headquarters.

On September 12, 2006, AU filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to block taxpayer funding of the Institute. The suit was filed on behalf of 13 residents and taxpayers of Washington State, among them a Unitarian-Universalist minister. Other plaintiffs identify themselves as Presbyterian, Buddhist, Baptist, Protestant and Secular Humanist.

The lawsuit has important national implications because the Bush administration is promoting massive federal funding for marriage programs.

Additional information on this issue was published in the January Issue of Church and State, AU’s excellent magazine, which can be viewed at

Update: In March, 2007, a judge ruled the Institute had altered its mission and no longer offers Bible-based marriage workshops and dismissed the lawsuit.

Bible Study Group during Lunch Period at Middle School

May Not be Led by Minister

October 2005, AU learned that a minister was leading a meeting of a Bible-study group at Bandon Oregon’s Harbor Lights Middle School in during the school lunch period. We wrote a letter to school officials informing them that allowing a minister to hold religious meetings at a public school during the school day violates the Establishment Clause. We explained that, although the federal Equal Access Act permits student-led religious clubs to meet during non-curricular times, the Act bars outside persons from leading or attending student-club meetings. In her response to our letter, the school-district superintendent stated that she was unaware that a minister had been leading student-club meetings and that she has informed the school principal that regular visits by a minister or any other visitor to student-club meetings are prohibited.

Atheists, Scouts, and Recruiting in Public Schools

After Ten Years of Litigation -- the Oregon Supreme Court’s Decision

Ten years ago, the Portland Public Schools assisted the Boy Scouts in recruiting members at school on school time. Remington Powell, a first grader, was told atheists could not join. His mother, Nancy Powell, did not think the school should allow the scouts to recruit because they discriminated based on religious beliefs. She tried to address this with the school district but was not satisfied by their response, so she sued.

The case was argued by the ACLU on the basis of discrimination, not church/ state separation.

After working its way through the legal system, the case finally reached the Oregon Supreme Court. On Sept. 8, 2006 the court announced the decision. It was based on an extremely narrow reading of the law, and found that what the school district had done was not illegal.

Nancy Powell lost the case. However, in an editorial after the decision, The Oregonian said:

Last week, officially anyway, atheist Nancy Powell lost her battle. Yet in the intervening decade, she has more than made her point. Powell alone didn't trigger changes in recruitment for children's organizations in the schools, but she helped to trigger such changes.

We Agree. Nancy Powell could have let the situation pass but she (and Remington) had the courage to take action, an example to us all.

For more information, search the web for the case: Powell v. Bunn.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU)

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

The Columbia Chapter of AU is based in the greater Portland/Vancouver area, and is the only chapter in Oregon and S.W. Washington.

You may join our chapter or be on our email list no matter where you live. Contact us:

last updated 2/23/2013