Freethought Today · May 2012

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF cries ‘Mayday!’ on multiple public prayer events

Pious mayors, governors and other public officials prayed in record numbers in early May across the land for national and state Day of Prayer events and local prayer breakfasts.

FFRF’s legal staff headed by Senior Attorney Rebecca Markert sent letters of objection to Govs. Scott Walker (Wisconsin), Steve Beshear (Kentucky), Mike Beebe (Arizona), Jerry Brown (California), and Rick Scott (Florida). Letters were sent to mayors in Carmel, Ind., Biddeford, Maine; Zephryrhillis, Fla.; Bentonville, Ark.; Tampa, Fla.; and Florence, Ala. A complaint also went to the federal Bureau of Reclamation. Other letters went to:

• Mayor Larry Melton, Odessa, Texas. An open records request showed the city’s public information coordinator promoted the mayor’s prayer event with a press release and scheduled many interviews promoting it. The city secretary, Norma Aguilar, coordinated the prayer logistics, signed the contracts, etc. This year’s keynote speaker, Rev. Don Piper, author of “90 Minutes in Heaven” and “Heaven is Real,” charged a $2,500 honorarium plus expenses. The city actively solicited sponsorships, apparently during the business day.

• Rogers, Ark. Mayor Greg Hines’ Prayer Breakfast was organized and sponsored by the Mayor’s Office with tickets sold at City Hall.

• Springdale, Ark. Tickets for the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast could be purchased at the Mayor’s Office. Markert noted that while Greg Sprouse could attend a privately sponsored event in his personal capacity, “It is absolutely unlawful, inappropriate and unseemly, under the First Amendment to host such an event or work in tandem with event organizers to put on the breakfast.”

FFRF received some editorial support for its view, including from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on May 14:

“The cities should not be seen as contributing in any way to the organization of these prayer breakfasts which, while open to everyone, are obviously Christian-oriented events (the one in Rogers was held at Cross Church). A city employee using time on the clock to sell tickets or perform other work related to the breakfasts is crossing the line. Someone else can do this kind of work strictly on a volunteer basis without using resources bought by the taxpayers. That might satisfy the group from Wisconsin, but more importantly, it’s the right thing to do.”

FFRF keeps fighting nativity nonsense

The Ellwood City, Pa., nativity saga in response to an FFRF complaint continues. In April, the Citizens Nativity Location Committee submitted a plan to create a public forum in front of the Municipal Building.

The forum, consisting of one lot, would only allow displays from Dec. 5 through Jan. 15 and be assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. Nonresidents would have to wait 30 days before submitting applications. Borough Councilman John Todorich admitted to the Ellwood City Ledger that the purpose of the policy is to keep out FFRF: “We need to make it tight enough that we don’t have off-the-wall groups come in here and force our hand.”

Nativity Committee Vice Chairman Mike Parisi’s Facebook comments were illuminating: “This proposal will allow us to keep the Nativity Display right where its [sic] at.”

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott, with research and drafting assistance from Andrew Seidel, FFRF constitutional consultant, sent a follow-up letter to the borough’s solicitor explaining the pitfalls of the open forum policy:

“Other local governments have opened forums to encourage nativities with disastrous results. Santa Monica, Calif., was swamped with controversial displays and a cumbersome lottery system after opening a public forum. Loudoun County, Va., opened a forum, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Jedis, and atheists raised displays next to a crèche. Both Loudon County and Santa Monica are considering closing the forums they opened less than three years ago.”

Citing Supreme Court precedent, the letter hammered home the fact that “government may not grant the use of a forum to people whose views it finds acceptable, but deny use to those wishing to express less favored or more controversial views.”

The letter also cited a string of court precedents to show that ”freedom of speech cannot be burdened, inhibited, or contingent upon residency.”

The Borough Council has not voted on the proposal and no vote is scheduled.

Town welcomes signs of biblical proportions

FFRF is working to cement what looked like a victory in Sylvania, Ala., but has stalled after the cooperative mayor was forced to resign in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct.

The town of about 2,000 features four “Welcome” signs which include bible verses, erected at public expense in various locations. A week after FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott’s letter of complaint April 17, Mayor Mitchell Dendy agreed to paint over the unconstitutional endorsements of religion.

Then, a few days later, Dendy got a pink slip from DeKalb County Sheriff Jimmy Harris, who fired him as the county’s chief jail administrator, the Fort Payne Times-Journal reported. The Town Council accepted Dendy’s resignation as mayor May 1. Citizens have also petitioned to rename Dendy Road.

Harris said Dendy was fired for repeated violations of departmental policy and procedure directives related to alleged sexual misconduct, improprieties and harassment.

The council called a special meeting May 8 and, without discussion, voted 5-0 to put the verses back on the signs. Council member Tony Goolesby claimed that Dendy never told the council about FFRF’s letter or his decision to blot out the verses because the town couldn’t afford a legal battle.

“The council doesn’t feel like it is a violation,” Goolesby said. The quotations are now back on signs.

FFRF would like to sue if the quotes aren’t removed, said Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Legally, this is sort of a slam dunk.”

FFRF requests probe of Illinois bishop

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter April 20 to the Internal Revenue Service to alert the agency to political comments by Catholic Bishop Daniel Jenky in his April 14 sermon at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, Ill.

Jenky sharply criticized President Barack Obama and referred to the 2012 presidential election, stating, “Hitler and Stalin, at their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open, but would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services, and health care. In clear violation of our First Amendment rights, Barack Obama, with his radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda, now seems intent on following a similar path.

“Now things have come to such a pass in America that this is a battle that we could lose, but before the awesome judgment seat of Almighty God, this is not a war where any believing Catholic may remain neutral. This fall, every practicing Catholic must vote, and must vote their Catholic consciences, or by the following fall our Catholic schools, our Catholic hospitals, our Catholic Newman Centers, all our public ministries — only excepting our church buildings — could easily be shut down.”

Markert’s letter to the IRS Exempt Organizations Examination Office in Dallas noted that such speech is illegal campaign intervention for a tax-exempt organization, according to IRS regulations which ban participation in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

While leaders of religious groups may express opinions on political matters as individuals, they are precluded from making “partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions of the organization.”

The letter identified key factors the IRS uses to determine if advocacy is political campaign intervention. Whether the statement:

• Identifies one or more candidates for a given public office.

• Expresses approval or disapproval for one or more candidates’ positions and/or actions.

• Is delivered close to the election.

• Makes reference to voting or an election.

• Addresses an issue distinguishing candidates for a given office.

• Is part of an ongoing series of communications on the same issue that are made independent of any election.

• Is related to a nonelectoral event such as a scheduled vote on specific legislation by an officeholder who also happens to be a candidate for public office.

The letter added, “Despite not saying specifically ‘Vote against Barack Obama,’ the bishop’s comments make it abundantly clear that he is opposed to Barack Obama as a candidate. Given that he gave these partisan comments at an official church function — the ‘Call to Catholic Men of Faith’ service — Bishop Jenky violated the 501(c)(3) tax-exempt rules, which prohibit electioneering.”

The letter requested an immediate investigation and action to remedy any violations.

FFRF Co-Presidents

DAN BARKER and ANNIE LAURIE GAYLOR are co-presidents of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and co-hosts of Freethought Radio. A former minister and evangelist, Dan became a freethinker in 1983. His books, Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children and Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher To Atheist (1992) are published by the Foundation. His newest book, Life Driven Purpose: How an atheist finds meaning, was published by Pitchstone Press in 2015. His previous book, the autobiographical Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists, was published in 2008. A graduate of Azusa Pacific University with a degree in Religion, Dan now puts his knowledge of Christianity to effective freethought use. A professional pianist and composer, Dan performs freethought concerts and is featured in the Foundation's musical cassettes, "My Thoughts Are Free," "Reason's Greetings," "Dan Barker Salutes Freethought Then And Now," a 2-CD album "Friendly Neighborhood Atheist," and the CD "Beware of Dogma." He joined the Foundation staff in 1987 and served as public relations director. He was first elected co-president in November 2004.

Annie Laurie was also editor of Freethought Today from 1984 to 2009, when she became executive editor. The paper is published 10 times a year. Her book, Woe To The Women: The Bible Tells Me So, first published in 1981, is now in its 4th printing. In 1988, the Foundation published her book, Betrayal of Trust: Clergy Abuse of Children, the first book documenting widespread sexual abuse by clergy. Her 1997 book, Women Without Superstition: 'No Gods, No Masters'is the first collection of the writings of historic and contemporary women freethinkers. A 1980 graduate of the UW-Madison Journalism School, she was an award-winning student reporter and recipient of the Ken Purdy scholarship. After graduation, she founded, edited and published the Feminist Connection,a monthly advocacy newspaper, from 1980-1985. She joined the Foundation staff in 1985. She has been co-president since 2004. She co-founded the original FFRF with Anne Gaylor (see below) as a college student. Photo: Timothy Hughes

See Dan's bio »
See Dan's online writings »

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See Annie Laurie's bio »
See Annie Laurie's online writings »
Contact Annie Laurie »

FFRF President emerita

Anne Nicol Gaylor
Photo by Brent Nicastro.

ANNE NICOL GAYLOR was a founder and president emerita of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. She served as executive director from 1978 to 2005, and worked as a consultant to the Foundation. Born in rural Wisconsin, she was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She owned and managed successful small businesses and was co-owner and editor of an award-winning suburban weekly newspaper. A feminist author, she did substantial volunteer work for women's rights (including serving as volunteer director of the Women's Medical Fund). Under her leadership the Freedom From Religion Foundation has grown from its initial three Wisconsin members to a national group with representation in every state and Canada.

Slideshow of Anne Gaylor & FFRF activism
See Anne Gaylor's online writings.

Director of Operations

LISA STRAND is director of operations of FFRF. Previously, she was the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Library Association. She has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, both as a staff member and volunteer leader, including having served as board president of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives and the Community Action Coalition of South Central Wisconsin. She has a B.A. from the University of Minnesota. Lisa is married with a daughter, as well as three cats, a guinea pig and an untended garden that will someday be beautiful.

FFRF Legal

REBECCA S. MARKERT attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and received her B.A. in political science, international relations and German in 1998. After graduating from UW–Madison, Rebecca spent one year working as a legislative fellow at the German Parliament in Bonn, Germany. In the fall 1999, she returned to the United States and began working as a legislative correspondent and assistant to the chief of staff for United States Senator Russ Feingold in Washington, D.C. In 2002, she returned to Madison, Wisconsin, to work on Senator Feingold’s 2004 re-election campaign. After the campaign, Rebecca attended Roger Williams University School of Law and received her Juris Doctor in 2008. She joined the Foundation staff in October 2008.

Rebecca is the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s first staff attorney and primarily works on Establishment Clause cases. She is a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin, Dane County Bar Association, and is admitted to practice in the United States District Court for the Eastern and Western Districts of Wisconsin.

PATRICK ELLIOTT, the Foundation's second staff attorney, hails from St. Paul, Minn. Patrick received a degree in legal studies and political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005. He attended the University of Wisconsin Law School and received his Juris Doctor in 2009. While in school, Patrick took an interest in the First Amendment and constitutional law. He joined FFRF as a staff attorney in July 2010, after working part-time for the Foundation since February. Patrick is a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin, and is admitted to practice in the United States District Court for the Western and Eastern Districts of Wisconsin.

ANDREW SEIDEL graduated cum laude from Tulane University with a B.S. in neuroscience and environmental science and magna cum laude from Tulane University Law School, where he was awarded the Haber J. McCarthy Award for excellence in environmental law. He studied human rights and international law at the University of Amsterdam and traveled the world on Semester at Sea. In May of 2011, Andrew completed his Master of Laws at Denver University Sturm College of Law with a 4.0 GPA and was awarded the Outstanding L.L.M. Award. He has written a book on International Human Rights Law and his essay on the role of religion in government and the founding of our nation placed second in the FFRF's 2010 graduate student essay contest. Andrew is a former Grand Canyon tour guide and accomplished nature photographer; his work has been displayed in galleries in Colorado, Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and Maryland. He joined the FFRF staff as a constitutional consultant in November 2011.

ELIZABETH CAVELL received her B.A in English from the University of Florida in 2005. After college, Elizabeth spent a year as a full-time volunteer in AmeriCorps*NCCC. She attended Tulane University Law School and received her Juris Doctor in 2009. After law school, she worked as a deputy public defender in southern Colorado. She joined the Foundation as a staff attorney in January 2013, after working for the Foundation part-time since September 2012.

SAM GROVER received his B.A. in philosophy and government from Wesleyan University in 2008. He first worked for FFRF in 2010 as a legal intern while attending Boston University School of Law. In 2011, his article on the religious exemptions in the Affordable Care Act’s individual health insurance mandate was published in the American Journal of Law and Medicine. After receiving his J.D. from Boston University in 2012, Sam worked as a law clerk for the Vermont Office of Legislative Council where he drafted legislation on health care, human services, and tax issues. He returned to work as a constitutional consultant for FFRF in the fall of 2013. Sam has written a paper on counterterrorism and the law that was published by the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism in Oklahoma City and has traveled to southern Africa to work under Justice Unity Dow of Botswana’s High Court.

MADELINE ZIEGLER graduated magna cum laude from the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse in 2011 with a B.A. in English Literature and Political Science. She attended the University of Wisconsin Law School and received her Juris Doctor in 2014. She has worked at FFRF in some capacity since May 2012, starting as a legal intern/extern, and currently works as a legal fellow.

CALLAHAN MILLER graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin — Madison in 2014 with a B.A. in Sociology and Legal Studies and a certificate in Criminal Justice.  She received a Distinction in the Major for Legal Studies and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Alpha Kappa Delta.  For the majority of her time as an undergraduate, she was a leading member of UW’s ground-breaking Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics student organization.  She joined the FFRF team as an official staff member in January of 2015 after having previously been an intern and intends on going to law school herself in a few years.

RYAN JAYNE received a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Honors College in 2007. After graduating, Ryan taught piano and chess lessons while working as a financial advisor until 2012, when he began law school at Lewis & Clark in Portland, Oregon. In law school he focused on intellectual property and animal law, serving as an associate editor for the Animal Law Review at Lewis & Clark and co-founding the Pacific Northwest’s first Secular Legal Society. Ryan graduated cum laude in 2015, began working with FFRF in January of 2015, and became a Diane Uhl Legal Fellow in September, 2015, specializing in faith-based government funding.

FFRF Staff

JACKIE DOUGLAS is the office manager at the Foundation. She graduated in 2002 from the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Human Development and Family Services. Jackie is happily married, owns a home on the east side of Madison, and has a black cat named Lucky.

PJ SLINGER is editor of Freethought Today. A Green Bay native, he has a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has worked as a sports reporter, news reporter, copy editor, web editor and photo editor in newspapers in Marshall (Minn.), Mankato (Minn.) and Madison (Wis). Prior to coming to FFRF in 2015, he worked for 15 years at The Capital Times in Madison. He has a wife (Jana) and three kids (Cassidy, Zach, Dane).

BILL DUNN is the editor of Freethought Today. He has a degree in history and mass communications (journalism emphasis) from the University of South Dakota and has worked as a reporter, copy editor and editor in South Dakota and Wisconsin since 1980. Bill joined the Foundation staff in July 2009. He has two daughters, Kaitlin Marie and Jamie Lee.

LAURYN SEERING is the publicist, assistant webmaster & communications coordianator. She was born in Wausau, Wis. and studied abroad in Nagasaki, Japan. Lauryn graduated from the UW-Stout in 2012 with her BS in Professional Communications and Emerging Media, concentrating in Technical Communication & International Studies. Lauryn moved to Madison in 2013 and enjoys reading about space stuff, biking and creating art at coffee shops. 

JAKE SWENSON started as FFRF’s first graphic designer in 2015. He was born in Rockford, Illinois, and graduated with a degree in fine art from the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. He enjoys music, cycling, photography, traveling, and coffee.

LISA TREU is our Director Of First Impressions at FFRF.  She comes to us after working in broadcasting for iHeart Radio in Madison, Wisconsin.  She hosted various radio programs for fifteen years.  Lisa and her husband ran their own Birdhouse/Birdfeeder manufacturing company called Northwoods Mfg., Inc. during the 1990’s where she had her own line of decorative birdhouses that she designed and painted herself.  Lisa is the wife of Harry and is the mother of twin daughters Katrina and Karinthia.  In her spare time she enjoys reading, painting, gardening, feeding the birds, getting silly with her daughters and lounging with her two cats.

ELEANOR MCENTEE has over a decade of experience as a nonprofit bookkeeper and is very dedicated to nonprofit organizations.  In her free time, she journals, spends time with her cats Steven and MacNcheez, and rides her Harley all over Wisconsin and more!

FFRF Honorary Board


The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to announce the formation of a new FFRF Honorary Board of distinguished achievers who have made known their dissent from religion.

The FFRF Honorary Board includes Jerry Coyne, Robin Morgan, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Ernie Harburg, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Christopher Hitchens, Susan Jacoby, Mike Newdow, Katha Pollitt, Steven Pinker, Ron Reagan, Oliver Sacks, M.D., Robert Sapolsky, Edward Sorel and Julia Sweeney.

“We are so pleased that these outstanding thinkers and freethinkers have agreed to publicly lend their endorsement to the Foundation, and its two purposes of promoting freethought and the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause,” said Dan Barker, Foundation co-president.

  • Jerry Coyne, Ph.D., professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, is author of the popular book 'Why Evolution is True' and the blog of the same name.
  • Richard Dawkins, probably the world’s most famous contemporary atheist and a distinguished evolutionary biologist, is Oxford professor emeritus. In his blockbuster book, The God Delusion, Dawkins writes: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.”
  • Daniel C. Dennett is Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Tufts, and author of the bestselling book about religion, Breaking the Spell. In a newspaper article about his nonbelief, Dennett once wrote: “I’ve come to realize it’s time to sound the alarm.”
  • Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments For the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction and a research associate in Harvard’s psychology department, is FFRF Freethought Heroine of 2011. Goldstein is a 1996 MacArthur Fellow (the “genius” award). She has taught at Barnard and in the Columbia MFA writing program and the Rutgers philosophy department. She’s been a visiting scholar at Brandeis and at Trinity College in Hartford.
  • Ernie Harburg, a retired research scientist, is president of Yip Harburg Foundation and co-author of Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz? Ernie has dedicated his retirement to furthering the lyrics, music, memory and progressive views of his freethinking father, the lyricist Yip Harburg, author of classic songs such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and of Rhymes for the Irreverent, recently republished by FFRF.
  • Jennifer Michael Hecht, poet, historian and author of the acclaimed Doubt: A History and The End of the Soul, told the FFRF 2009 convention audience: “If there is no god — and there isn't — then we [humans] made up morality. And I'm very impressed.”
  • Susan Jacoby, bestselling author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, and program director of the Center for Inquiry-New York City, told FFRF convention-goers in 2004: "[President] Kennedy had to speak about his religion because he was suspected of insufficient dedication to the Constitution's separation of church and state. Today's candidates are suspect if they display too much dedication to secular government."
  • Robin Morgan, feminist pioneer, global activist, author of the groundbreaking "Sisterhood is Powerful" and more than 20 books, was formerly Ms. Magazine editor and consulting editor. She is the co-founder of the Feminist Women's Health Network and Women's Media Center and currently hosts "Women's Media Center Live" the radio "talk-show with a brain."
  • Mike Newdow is working pro bono to challenge such violations as the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. He told the U.S. Supreme Court during oral arguments: “I am an atheist. I don't believe in God. And every school morning my child is asked to stand up, face that flag, put her hand over her heart, and say that her father is wrong.”
  • Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard, is author of The Blank Slate: “I never outgrew my conversion to atheist at 13.”
  • Katha Pollitt, “Subject to Debate” columnist for The Nation, author and poet, has spoken out regularly and energetically as a freethinker, in such columns as “Freedom From Religion, Sí!”
  • Ron Reagan, media commentator, describes himself in a radio ad he taped for FFRF as: “Unabashed atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”
  • Robert Sapolsky, a neurologist, Stanford professor and bestselling author, once suggested FFRF put up a sign at its conventions: “Welcome, hellbound atheists.”
  • Edward Sorel, satiric cartoonist and irreverent illustrator who is a regular contributor to The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and whose caricatures have been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, has been a Foundation member since the 1980s.
  • Julia Sweeney, comedian and actress, is writer/performer of the play, “Letting Go of God”: “How dare the religious use the term 'born again.' That truly describes freethinkers who've thrown off the shackles of religion so much better!”

In Memoriam 

  • Christopher Hitchens, the iconoclastic journalist, is author of the bestselling God Is Not Great: “Since it is obviously inconceivable that all religions can be right, the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong.”
  • Oliver Sacks, M.D., the compassionate neurologist and bestselling author, describes himself as “an old Jewish atheist.”

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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