Employees at Peach County Senior Citizens Center, Fort Valley, Ga., were regularly leading residents in prayer before meals, playing Baptist hymns on the piano, and reading from the bible to celebrate any event or special day, according to a senior citizen complainant.
On July 26, 2012, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter to the director of the center explaining that, because it receives federal funds, it is subject to federal law which “is explicit and unequivocal in its prohibition on religious activities. . .” Even though it is a private center, the federal government attaches secular strings to its funding to protect client freedom of conscience.
The center responded on August 9 that “we have reminded staff or our Agency’s position… at all times, our agency intends to fully comply with regulations. . .” The center added that “we have discussed this matter with the participants to educate them that our staff cannot/will not initiate, encourage, or participate in any religious based activity. Any participant that observes staff promoting religion in any way has been made aware of the Agency’s grievance policy. . .”
Thanks to an FFRF complaint, a coach at Hutto High School in Texas will no longer be allowed to play an active role in the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter.
The high school coach was the Christian group’s faculty advisor, but he actively participated in the organization, sending emails to the staff and faculty promoting FCA events and listing himself as the contact person on event advertisements.
FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt in wrote a letter on Feb. 17, 2012, noting that this Christian student organization was not actually student-initiated or student-run. “A reasonable Hutto High School student would presume that this Christian club is sponsored by the school.”
FFRF received a response from the attorney for the school district on August 8. He assured FFRF that the district would be provided training on the Constitutional issues raised and that the “district will also ensure that this club is truly student initiated and student run.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has stopped a high school teacher in Raymond, Miss., from proselytizing and distributing bibles in her classroom.
A U.S. history teacher brought “Truth for Youth Bibles” to class for students to take and distribute. The same teacher asked students in her classroom to raise their hands if they “believe that women who have abortions are going to hell.” While the teacher was present and during class, a student was permitted to ask all students who were “saved” to raise their hands.
In a May 23, 2012, letter, FFRF staff attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote to Superintendent Stephen Handley, “It is unconstitutional for Hinds County School District to allow employees to facilitate the distribution of religious materials during the school day.” Schmitt also warned, “Public schools have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral towards religion.”
In an Aug. 8 response, Handley assured FFRF that “the teacher was given instruction and counseling on her role as a teacher in our district and the requirement of neutrality with respect to religious issues.”
FFRF received a complaint that the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) hosted a soccer tournament that included prayer. Video footage revealed that a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes delivered an invocation at the Athens versus Chelsea girls soccer championship.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter on July 31, 2012, to remind the AHSAA that even student-initiated and student-led prayers at public school events are unconstitutional, and has been specifically barred by the Supreme Court. Students may not be subjected to religious ritual as the price of attending or participating in school sporting events. Any reasonable observer would perceive that the school was endorsing the religion espoused in the prayer.
AHSAA responded on August 6 that “we certainly appreciate your concerns and take very seriously our duties and obligations under federal and state law. To that end, we intend to fully comply with all constitutional mandates.”
Thanks to a letter from FFRF, the Rocky River Municipal Court will now offer secular alternatives to Alcoholics Anonymous.
As part of a rehabilitation program in Rocky River, which is just west of Cleveland, the court required some offenders to either attend Alcoholics Anonymous or face jail time. An atheist complainant reported that the probation conditions were unworkable and said, “all I want is a viable alternative to AA other than jail.”
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote a March 16, 2012, letter to the court’s probation department, pointing out that courts have consistently found AA and other 12-step programs to be “religious programs for purposes of First Amendment analysis.” Therefore, requiring attendance at one of the programs violates the Establishment Clause because “it coerces offenders to attend religious programming in violation of their conscience.”
The Chief Probation Officer Judy Nash responded on August 1 to report that the Rocky River Municipal Court will now offer offenders options for other support. Nash also said that the court will make available information on Rational Recovery and Secular Organizations for Sobriety.
When it comes to public school assemblies, evangelists need not apply. Thanks to a letter from Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, Signal Mountain Middle/High School is on notice that future school assemblies cannot use warnings about alcohol as pretext for Christian proselytization.
Our complainant alerted us to an assembly at Signal Mountain Middle/High School (Chattanooga, Tenn.) that featured a speech by Dave Walton. The school brought in Mr. Walton to speak of the dangers of alcohol but a cursory search of his website, www.braggingforjesus.org, reveals his ulterior motives. In her July 26, 2012, letter to the school district, Markert wrote that “given the speaker’s over and primarily Christian message, it is troubling that the district would schedule this speaker for the assembly.” She identified such assemblies as “subvert[ing] constitutional mandates” with the purpose of “inject[ing] Christianity into students.”
Markert’s powerful letter demanding positive action garnered a quick response. The attorney for Hamilton County Schools wrote on Aug. 1 that many faculty members were also concerned that the presentation was inappropriate and that the presentation resulted from a “gross failure” to screen the speaker. Hamilton County Schools have acknowledged the grave error and their attorney calls this “a good story for training.”
Performances from proselytizing groups will no longer be allowed in Joshua Independent School District, thanks to an FFRF complaint.
A North Joshua Elementary School assembly was hosted by KidStand, a Christian ministry group that stages school performances to convert children to Christianity. KidStand targets children under age 14 “to reach children with the Gospel of Christ before the window of opportunity diminishes greatly.” KidStand veils their religious agenda by claiming their school assemblies address secular topics such as bullying and drugs, but they admit that they perform in hopes that “kids will bring their families to the Community Family Festival where we can teach they can be all they are created to be through Jesus.”
A Feb. 1, 2012, letter from FFRF staff attorney Stephanie Schmitt warned “recruitment for religious programming as part of a school assembly is in violation of the Establishment Clause.”
An attorney for the District agreed in a response on July 30 that the KidStand performance was against the policy of the District, and that disciplinary action was taken. The District confirmed, “this type of assembly will not occur in the future at Joshua ISD.”
The outgoing recorded message of the License Office in Rolla, Mo. no longer includes an endorsement of religion.
The Rolla License Office voice mail greeting, which played when the line was busy and during non-business hours, ended “God bless you.”
In a July 11, 2012, letter, FFRF staff attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote that this message amounts to a government endorsement of religion “thereby alienating non-believers by turning them into political outsiders in their own community.”
On July 28, FFRF learned that the outgoing message had been changed to replace “god bless you” with “have a wonderful day.”
The Tishomingo County School District will no longer allow teachers to lead students in prayer.
Teachers at Iuka Elementary School in Iuka, Miss., were leading their students in prayers before heading to lunch. The prayers became a normal daily routine, with teachers encouraging students to volunteer to lead the class in prayer before lunch.
FFRF staff attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote in a May 3, 2012, letter, “It is well settled that a public school teacher or administrator may not lead, direct or ask her students to engage in prayer.”
On July 23, Superintendent Ben McClung responded, stating “we understand that teachers cannot encourage students to pray or lead students in prayer.” He assured FFRF that these issues would be addressed with faculty and staff before the school year begins.
An invocation and benediction were given at the 2012 Mercer County High School graduation ceremony in Frankfort Ky. Both prayers, also listed in the official program for the ceremony, made references to Jesus Christ and one ended with a genuflection.
FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to the school district on June 8, 2012, reminding it that "the Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations." Markert requested "written assurances that the Mercer County High School and Mercer County Schools are taking the appropriate steps to ensure that religious rituals are not part of graduation ceremonies or any other school-sponsored events in the future."
On July 20 the school district's attorney wrote, "I have advised that there should not be any prayers as part of the ceremony." He added, "While planning for the graduation ceremony in the Spring of 2013 has not yet occurred, it is my understanding the School District representatives intend to make the necessary changes to next year's graduation so that this is no longer an issue."
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.
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.
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.”