Hastings Area School District in Michigan refrained from including a prayer in their 2012 high school graduation ceremony after receiving a letter of complaint from FFRF.
For at least the past 10 years Hastings High School has included an illegal invocation in its official graduation program and selected a student to lead the prayer.
FFRF staff attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote in an April 13, 2012, letter, “The Supreme Court has settled this matter — high school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students.”
In a July 17 reply, Superintendent Todd Geerlings assured FFRF that, “there were no prayers said at the Hastings High School graduation ceremony on May 25, 2012.”
In response to a complaint from FFRF, California University of Pennsylvania agreed that it was impermissible and unconstitutional to offer reduced admission to basketball games for those who mention their church affiliation. CalU, a public university, offered a "Faith and Family Night" on Jan. 6, 2012, and promoted $3 admission for those who mentioned their church affiliation. Churches were also granted permission to set up informational tables at the new basketball arena.
Having received a complaint from a member of the CalU community, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote University President Geraldine Jones on June 18 about the unlawful promotion.
University Legal Counsel Jacqueline Morrow replied and said that she informed University administrators on the day of the event that the promotion was unconstitutional. She wrote on Aug. 20, "The University administrators responsible for the event were apologetic and because the game had already been advertised, we decided that the available cure would be to make sure that everyone that attended the event would be charged the same, lower price." She said, "The University now understands clearly that it cannot use tax dollars to provide a benefit to one group over another based on church membership, or any other basis for that matter, whether or not the First Amendment is implicated. . . Not only was the plan unconstitutional, it was not successful. Attendance was low."
Irish Fest organizers in Milwaukee announced on Aug. 16, 2012, that they were dropping a promotion that violated civil rights laws by rewarding Mass attendance, in response to a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Irish Fest will now offer everyone who drops off a food donation by 11 a.m. free admittance.
Elliott sent his first letter of complaint about the discount in 2010, when officials refused to address the discount.
He sent a follow up letter on Aug. 9, 2012, and received an Aug. 14 response from an attorney representing Irish Fest stating that they would not end or amend the discount.
Prior to FFRF's involvement, Irish Fest's website said, "Guests who donate nonperishable food items prior to the liturgy are admitted to the festival free of charge after the Mass." Elliott suggested a simple solution to the problem would be for all attendees to be able to donate items for free admittance at 11 a.m. or at any time of entry.
FFRF received a complain about a local pastor/ class presenter appearing to hijack required educational programs for families about divorce in Family Court in Jackson County, Mo., to talk about himself and his faith. FFRF was told that for the three-hour course, a minister “spent two of the three required hours talking about himself, how he came to the priesthood, how he moved from congregation to congregation,” and generally about “his path to the church.” He “also handed out fliers to the class offering his religious service outside of class.” The complainant reported that “he made religious quotes and references throughout the class, and some were included in the slideshow.”
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the court on July 16, 2012, asking it to investigate and correct the theological bent of the secular class. Seidel questioned the minister’s credentials to lead this course, and also asked that the class be moved out of the church where he is pastor. The court took the allegations seriously and phoned to notify FFRF that an investigation is underway.
In the August 16 written reply, the court wrote that it has instructed the minister that “the issue of his religious faith and his ministry have no place in the teaching of this curriculum and we have instructed him to discontinue references to his background such that gives the appearance that the Court is promoting religion over non-religious beliefs.” The court will “monitor this issue with all” of its instructors.
The response noted that the court is also “actively looking for locations outside of church property where we can hold classes” and “will assure that participants are aware of different options for attending classes and that attendance at a classroom located on church property is not mandatory and that other options exist.”
FFRF took a complaint that a teacher at a Mandarin immersion elementary school in the San Mateo Foster City School District, Calif., had told students that the “man in the sky can see everything you do, but you can’t see him because he is camouflaged.” Apparently the teacher used two fingers to point to her eyes and then the same fingers to point at the children to emphasize the fact that the “man in the sky” is watching them.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter to the district on May 22, 2012, alerting it to the allegation against proselytization of a captive audience of young children. As complainant put it, these children are of “such a sensitive age,” and such action “robs children of growth and experience and [the right to make] up their own mind when capable of doing so.”
Seidel pointed out the legal problems with teaching young schoolchildren about religious themes, and also wrote: “Public school staff and administrators, particularly in a school with a diverse population of students, should ensure that all students are made to feel welcome in all programs. School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents that they are outsiders.”
In its August 16 response letter, the school district informed FFRF that it “has reminded its employees of the District’s policy of not [teaching] religion in schools.”
Readers may want to look up Ricky Gervais’ “The Invention of Lying” movie for a funny take on ‘the man in the sky’?
The San Francisco Assessment Appeals Board removed “so help me god” from the script used for swearing-in parties before Board hearings in response to an FFRF complaint. Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to the Board in February 2012 indicating that the complainant felt compelled to take the oath “for fear that any comment might negatively affect the outcome of the hearing.”
After receiving several follow-up letters, Board Administrator Dawn Duran wrote on Aug. 14: “Please be advised we have implemented procedural changes that have eliminated the use of a religious oath effective as of today.” The script now says, “Do you solemnly swear or affirm that the testimony you are about to give will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”
Castlewood School District, S. Dak., will no longer hold pre-game prayers, following a complaint by FFRF. A video posted on YouTube showed school district personnel leading and participating in prayers before sporting events.
On May 23, 2012, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the district informing them that public school officials, including coaches, cannot lead, organize, or participate in prayers with their students. The student-coach relationship is naturally coercive and students are trained to follow the lead of coaches.
After FFRF sent several follow-up letters, Castlewood Superintendent Keith Fodness responded on August 14: “Our coaching staff has been briefed on the case law pertaining to prayer as it relates to the situation described in your letter and have been instructed to act within those guidelines.”
FFRF was informed by a parent that two schools in Iberville Parish Schools (Plaquemine, La.) hosted teachers and pastors who delivered illegal prayers at two graduation ceremonies in May. The prayers were listed in the commencement programs.
Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote a May 23, 2012, letter to the Edward Cancienne, superintendent, to request an end to the invocations and benedictions that took place at high school graduation ceremonies.
On Aug. 10, the Iberville Parish School Board’s attorney replied, “Dr. Cancienne advised that he has instructed faculty and staff of the Iberville Parish School System that prayer is not allowed at any school organized or sponsored events.”
“It is encouraging to see that schools are making changes and are agreeing to follow the Constitution,” said Schmitt.
The West Michigan Whitecaps baseball team acknowledged after receiving a complaint from FFRF that any publication would suffice to qualify for an “All Faiths Day” promotion. The team had promoted the discount saying, “keep your church bulletins and bring them with you when you get your tickets because you get half-priced box and reserved seat tickets!” Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to the team president on July 18, 2011, notifying him that the bulletin discount was discriminatory. Schmitt sent several follow-up letters.
An attorney for the team responded on Aug. 9, 2012, saying that the team website said that the promotion was available for those who “show a worship or community bulletin.” The attorney said, “In actual practice, the Whitecaps accept any secular publication, such as school newsletters, community recreation department fliers, apartment and home association newsletters, municipal newsletters, and trade association newsletters and publications. . . If a patron brought a FFRF newsletter, they would be given the same discount as a patron bringing a church bulletin.”
The Antwerp Local School District in Ohio will no longer include religious messages in school assemblies thanks to a complaint from FFRF.
The District hosted a Veterans Day assembly, which included a flag folding ceremony and a recitation of “The Meaning Behind the Folding Ceremonies of the Flag,” a discredited religious narrative which explains the “meaning” of each of the twelve folds of the flag. This narrative includes blatant Christian dogma, such as the “meaning” of the twelfth fold, which is said to represent and glorify “God the Father, The Son, and Holy Ghost.”
In a Nov. 17 letter, FFRF staff attorney Stephanie Schmitt warned, “religious messages as part of a school-sponsored activity are illegal and inappropriate.” She also argued that the reading “further perpetuates the myth that there are no ‘atheists in foxholes’ and that the only veterans worth memorializing are Christians.”
On Aug. 9 Kimball Carey, attorney for the school district, informed Schmitt that the principal who organized the assembly did not realize the content of the narrative. Carey assured FFRF that their complaint was heard and understood, and this would not happen again in the Antwerp Schools.
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 FFRF. Other books include Godless (Ulysses Press, 2008), The Good Atheist: Living a Purpose-Filled Life Without God (Pitchstone Publishing, 2011), Life Driven Purpose: How an Atheist Finds Meaning, Pitchstone Press (2015) and GOD: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction (Sterling Publications, 2016). 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 FFRF’s musical CDs, "Friendly Neighborhood Atheist," "Beware of Dogma,” and “Adrift on a Star." He joined FFRF's staff in 1987, serving as public relations director. He was first elected co-president in November 2004, speaks widely and has engaged in more than 100 debates about religion.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, a third-generation freethinker, co-founded FFRF with her mother Anne Gaylor as a college student in 1976. She served as editor of Freethought Today, FFRF’s newspaper, from 1985 to 2009. Her book, Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So, first published by FFRF in 1981, is in its 4th printing. In 1988, FFRF published Betrayal of Trust: Clergy Abuse of Children, the first book documenting widespread sexual abuse by clergy. Her 1997 anthology, 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 University of Wisconsin-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 first joined the FFRF staff in 1985. She has been co-president since 2004. In the late 1970s, her student protest ended commencement prayers at the UW-Madison. She has been plaintiff in or overseen many state/church lawsuits and actions by FFRF. Dan and Annie Laurie have appeared on a variety of TV news shows, including “Oprah,” “O’Reilly,” “Good Morning America,” Univision, CNN and FOX news segments, CBS Evening News and ABC World News Tonight.
Photo: Timothy Hughes
FFRF President emerita
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.
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.
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.
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.
ALYSSA SCHAEFER is FFRF’s Program Assistant. She graduated from The George Washington University in 2014 with a BA in International Affairs, concentrating in Security Policy. A native of Wisco, she recently moved back to Madison from the east coast. In her free time Alyssa enjoys traveling, exploring the great outdoors, live music, and lazy Sundays with her cat Lola.
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 and three kids.
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.
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.
AMITABH PAL is the Communications Director of FFRF. Prior to joining in February 2016, he was the Managing Editor of The Progressive magazine for more than a decade. He was also the editor of the Progressive Media Project, an affiliate of The Progressive that sends out op-eds through the Tribune Wire Service to hundreds of newspapers in the United States and other countries. Pal has appeared on C-SPAN and BBC and television and radio stations all over the United States and abroad. His articles have been published in school and college textbooks in the United States and Australia. Pal teaches a course at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. He has a Master's in Journalism from the University of North Carolina and a Master's in Political Science from North Carolina State University.
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!”
- 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.”