Freethought Today · June/July 2012

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF Victories

Vacation bible school takes a holiday

Although kids may be out of school, FFRF knows that the Constitution doesn’t take a vacation.

Hazelwood Elementary School’s summer program in Waynesville, N.C., includes gardening, crafts and games, and religion. This year on June 18-22 and in years past, the school sponsored trips to a local Baptist church’s vacation bible school.

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott objected in a letter to Haywood County Schools Superintendent, Anne Garnett. Elliott explained that the school’s summer programming, including its registration forms, program handouts and advertisement on the school website, all served to “facilitate student recruitment for religious indoctrination.”

School attorney Patrick Smathers replied June 21 that he’d advised administrators that in his opinion, such coordination “is improper. Though the Haywood County School System takes pride in complying with all laws involving religion, this matter unfortunately occurred.”

The superintendent “will implement plans to assure that future summer programs . . . will not coordinate or advertise vacation bible school activities,” Smathers said.

FFRF letter ends church endorsement

Granite City, Ill., residents will no longer have to tacitly endorse a church or face a fine, thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The city municipal code required residents to purchase and prominently display sticker permits on their car windows each year. This year’s permit featured a photo of St. John United Church of Christ. Drivers who did not want to showcase the religious building faced up to $100 in fines for each day that the permit was not displayed. A local FFRF member opposed this use of permits and contacted FFRF.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Mayor Edward Hagnauer in late April that the mandatory church stickers violated the First Amendment rights of residents. Citing the Supreme Court case of Wooley v. Maynard, Elliott wrote, “No person can be compelled to display a message that violates her rights of conscience.” The letter also said the stickers give the impression that the city officially approves of St. John UCC.

In response to the complaint, the City Council met May 15 to adopt a resolution allowing residents to refrain from displaying the vehicle permits. The resolution provided that police would not enforce the sticker requirement.

Residents would still have to pay the permit fee, but a receipt would suffice as proof of a permit. The adopted resolution quoted both Illinois and U.S. Constitution religion clauses.

FFRF halts Georgia teacher’s prayers

A May 24 letter of complaint from FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel resulted in the principal of West Forsyth High School, Cumming, Ga., agreeing to stop leading students in prayer.

“We have been informed that, on the morning of May 21, 2012, the graduating class of West Forsyth High School was required to attend a mandatory meeting to receive information about their graduation ceremony,” Seidel wrote. “We were also informed that, prior to dismissing the meeting, Principal Betty Pope asked the students to ‘bow your heads for an invocation before breakfast.’ Our complainant tells us that Ms. Pope then proceeded to give an overtly sectarian prayer to her ‘Heavenly Father’ and ending ‘in Jesus’ name.’ ”

Forsyth County Schools Superintendent L.C. Evans responded May 31 and said the principal “admitted that the prayer had been said, indicated that she did not mean to offend anyone and acknowledged that in the future, prayers will not be delivered in such a setting.”

FFRF tackles coach’s football prayers

An Auburn [Wash.] High School football coach will no longer lead the team in prayer before games, nor will any other school district employees. The prayers took place in the locker room, with team members and coaches bowing their heads and taking a knee. Everyone in the locker room felt obligated to participate, according to FFRF’s complainant.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote May 23 to Timothy Cummings, the school district’s assistant superintendent of human resources, about the illegal prayers and concerns that other schools were allowing staff to lead prayer.

Cummings responded June 1 to say that “the school district’s athletic director has sent a memo to all building athletic directors to desist immediately with organized team prayers by coaches.” He also sent a copy of FFRF’s letter to all administrators and noted that “Principals will need to monitor closely so that staff refrains from leading prayers in school.” The district will also be hosting an in-service on “Constitutionality of Prayer in Public Schools.”

FFRF sacks football prayer in Alabama

Football coaches at Hoover [Ala.] High School will no longer engage in pregame locker room prayers. FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to alert Superintendent Andy Craig to the constitutional violation Jan. 6.

FFRF received confirmation from the school district’s attorney June 4 that coaches would not lead prayer or arrange for other adults to pray before football games in the future.

Bible distribution ended in Tennessee

Tullahoma [Tenn.] City Schools will prohibit bible distribution after receiving an FFRF complaint letter.

Fifth-graders at East Lincoln Elementary School were told by teachers to come up and take a bible in their classrooms. Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt warned Superintendent Dan Lawson in a May 21 letter that “Courts uniformly have held the distribution of bibles to students at public schools during instructional time is prohibited.”

In a May 29 response, Lawson wrote that he would advise principals to prohibit such distribution in the future, assuring FFRF that “we fully adhere to a belief that we are responsible to be neutral in matters of religion.”

Cross removed from Nebraska state park

Indian Caves State Park in Shubert, Neb., removed a large wooden cross from public property after receiving an FFRF letter of complaint May 22.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Ron Stave, chair of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, “No court of final resort has ever upheld the government’s permanent display of a Latin cross on public land as constitutional. The inherent religious significance of the Latin cross is undeniable and is not disguisable.”

Stave replied the next day to say that the cross had been removed.

County ends prayer at training luncheon

Christian prayers by government employees in Mecklenburg County, N.C., were silenced. FFRF acted on complaints from three county employees about prayers at a mandatory training luncheon for the county’s Department of Social Services. In a Feb. 8 letter to DSS Director Mary Wilson, Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt objected to the sectarian prayers. Schmitt wrote an April 18 follow-up letter.

A county attorney responded April 23 that “the matter has been addressed and is resolved. The county and DSS are very much aware of constitutional constraints placed on governmental behavior.”

FFRF letter blocks Texas football prayer

Coaches will no longer encourage students to pray in the locker room at McAllen [Texas] High School. McAllen’s head football coach reportedly asked a student to recite the Lord’s Prayer before each game.

Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote Feb. 1 to Superintendent James Ponce: “The coaches’ apparent organizing and obvious participation in a team prayer constitutes an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.”

Assistant Superintendent Mike Barrera responded after an April 18 follow-up letter, writing on May 9 that the district “has taken steps to orient staff and heighten awareness about the proper procedures involved in student-led prayers at public events.”

No longer will ‘God richly bless you’

Massachusetts’ Health and Human Services and Department of Children and Families will now refrain from making inappropriate religious references in their correspondence. An HHS employee forwarded FFRF an official letter from a DCF employee which included the phrase “may God richly bless you.”

FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt noted in her Jan. 25 complaint letter to HHS Chief of Staff Stacey Monahan that “the U.S. Supreme Court has held that public officials may not seek to advance or promote religion.”

Monahan replied after FFRF sent a March 19 follow-up letter. She said the departments “regret any offense engendered,” and affirmed that they would “caution employees generally regarding inappropriate religious references in communications made in their official capacities.”

School religious materials draw FFRF scrutiny

Lewis County Intermediate School (Hohenwald, Tenn.) will stop teachers from handing out religious materials in the classroom. A local parent contacted FFRF after his fifth-grader came home on separate occasions with a bible and a permission slip for summer vacation bible school.

Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote May 23 to Director of Schools Benjamin Pace to note the constitutional violations. Pace replied June 7 to say that the district would revisit policy on materials that are sent out.

FFRF mutes religious music at school

Preschoolers at Herman Leimbach Elementary School (Elk Grove, Calif.) did not sing “God Bless America” at their June 14 graduation after receiving Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s June 12 letter of complaint to Superintendent Steven Ladd.

“Because this is a graduation for preschool students as young as four years old, Elk Grove United School District must consider how the messages it sends are perceived by its youngest, most impressionable students,” wrote Seidel.

Seidel spoke with FFRF’s local complainant the next day, who reported that the administration agreed to remove the song from both the graduation program and the school’s future repertoire.

FFRF educates pious Texas on Constitution

Byron Nelson High School (Fort Worth, Texas) will no longer mix prayer with school-sponsored assemblies. FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt sent a June 1 letter to Superintendent Karen Rue outlining significant “constitutional concerns” brought on by an end-of-the-year assembly. A prayer was delivered during an event to honor the senior class. A local complainant told FFRF that school officials had full knowledge of the prayer before it was given and that the assembly was mandatory.

An attorney for the school district replied June 18, “The district has recently provided its administrators and educators with in-service training over a variety of issues, including those addressed in your letter.” He added that the district staff was specifically trained on the “ ‘do’s and don’ts’ of religion in public schools.”

FFRF excises AFB’s surgical unit bibles

FFRF put an end to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s practice of placing bibles in the medical center’s waiting rooms.

Prior to FFRF’s complaint, the Wright-Patterson Medical Center displayed Gideon bibles throughout its surgical unit waiting room. These bibles were the only religious materials available to patients at this government-run facility. FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to facility management on April 27, 2012. Schmitt wrote that “providing such material to patients and guests sends the message that they are expected to want to read the religious publications and that the hospital endorses the message found in the material.” She added that “government-run hospitals have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral towards religion.”

Schmitt noted that if a patient desires to read religious material during their hospital visit “they can bring their own.”

A local resident informed FFRF on June 26 that all bibles have been removed from the surgical unit waiting room.

FFRF stops information distribution to church

Bret Harte Union High School (Angels Camp, Calif.) will stop distributing student contact information to and supporting a baccalaureate program at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church.

A Bret Harte student contacted FFRF after receiving an invitation to a graduation Mass at St. Andrew’s. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Superintendent Michael Chimente on June 18 to take issue with this constitutional violation, calling it “shocking that a school, entrusted with the care, education and protection of minors, would give children’s information over to an organization known to harbor and shield sexual predators.”

Seidel emphasized that the “Stockton Diocese, of which Angels Camp is a part, has a sordid history of priests sexually abusing minors (at least 10 priests have been accused of sexual abuse of minors, two recently fled to Ireland).”

One of the most notorious is Fr. Oliver Francis O’Grady, who fled to his native Ireland and has admitted molesting at least 25 children.

Chimente called June 26 to say the school would stop distributing students’ information to religious institutions and stop supporting the baccalaureate at St. Andrew’s.

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, The Good Atheist: Living a Purpose-Filled Life Without God, was published by Ullysses Press in January, 2011. 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

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FFRF President emerita

Anne Nicol Gaylor
Photo by Brent Nicastro.

ANNE NICOL GAYLOR is a founder and president emerita of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. She served as executive director from 1978 to 2005, and is now working as a consultant to the Foundation. Born in rural Wisconsin, she is 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 has done 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. She has more than 25 years of experience in nonprofit (primarily association) management, including 15 years as executive director of the Wisconsin Library Association. She 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.

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.

SCOTT COLSON, technology manager, webmaster and production editor, is a 2007 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who majored in philosophy. Scott joined the Foundation staff in May 2008. He enjoys playing bass, talking politics or economics and brewing beer.

KATIE DANIEL is the bookkeeper/executive assistant/staff baker at FFRF. She was born in California and has lived in Pennsylvania, Alabama and Missouri. She moved to Madison in 2005 to attend UW-Madison and graduated in 2009 with a BA in Gender & Women's Studies and a Certificate in LGBT Studies. She joined the foundation staff as a student clerical employee in September 2008 and started as the full-time bookkeeper in 2009. Unlike many of the Foundation's staff members, Katie is religious and considers herself a practicing Wiivangelical.

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 is the publicist & assistant editor at FFRF. She was born in Wausau, Wisconsin and has also lived in Nagasaki, Japan. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stout in 2012 with her B.S. in Professional Communications and Emerging Media, concentrating in Technical Communication and International Studies. She also received a double minor in Journalism and English. Lauryn moved to Madison in January 2013 and enjoys reading about astrophysics, basking in the sun like a turtle and creating art at coffee shops. Lauryn is a practicing Pastafarian

DAYNA LONG is an administrative assistant at FFRF. Originally from Illinois, she attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received a degree in English. She has been with FFRF since July 2013. She spends her free time volunteering for the Wisconsin chapter of the National Organization for Women. She also enjoys reading, cooking, and admiring her beautiful cats.

FFRF Volunteers

Phyllis Rose
Foundation officer and volunteer Phyllis Rose.
Photo by Dan Barker

PHYLLIS ROSE is a retired library administrator from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has been volunteering 3 afternoons a week at the FFRF office since 2000. A Lifetime Member, Phyllis provides oversight, clerical and editorial support. Phyllis serves as an officer on the Foundation's governing body.

FFRF Honorary Board

honoraryboardmembers

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.”
  • Oliver Sacks, M.D., the compassionate neurologist and bestselling author, describes himself as “an old Jewish atheist.”
  • 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.”

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