A Chilton County, Ala., sheriff will no longer send his constituents an overtly sectarian Christmas card, thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt first wrote to the sheriff on Jan. 20. Schmitt pointed out that his sectarian card was "grossly inappropriate." The card, which depicted the sheriff and his family standing in front of a Christmas tree, and was signed by him and his "family." The card also contained a religious poem that concluded with "The Christmas gift given to us is Jesus Christ's gift of love."
"We strongly urge you to consider your status as one of the highest elected officials in Chilton County and the importance of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state before you send out holiday cards promoting your personal religious beliefs and viewpoints," added Schmitt.
The sheriff spoke with Schmitt on March 19 and assured her that the card will be modified in time for the upcoming holiday season. He had "no intentions of offending anyone."
A Freedom From Religion Foundation complaint has successfully removed a religious display from a Hononegah Community High School (Ill.) hallway.
The phrase "In God We Trust" had been prominently featured on a school letter board for over 10 years. It wasn't until Superintendent Randy Gross received a March 13 letter from FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor that things changed. Gaylor referenced the history of the motto as a "Johnny-come-lately first adopted during the Cold War as a reaction to the purported 'Godlessness' of Communism. American's original motto was purely secular, i.e., 'E Pluribus Unum' ('from many come one'). . ." She pointed out that the poster is offensive to students and parents who don't believe in a god or have beliefs contrary to a monotheistic faith.
"There is no place in a public school for religious messages. The poster at Hononegah Community High School is particularly concerning as it creates an association between faith in god and patriotism," wrote Gaylor.
A representative of the high school responded to Gaylor's letter of complaint on March 16, informing FFRF that "maintenance removed the display."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has put an end to illegal prayer in a Manchester, Tenn., kindergarten classroom.
A Hillsboro Elementary School teacher led her kindergarten students in daily prayers. Students were expected to join their teacher, proclaiming "God is good, God is great. . ." In at least one instance this teacher informed students that rainbows "are a sign from God that he wouldn't flood the world again." FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent an advisory letter to Superintendent Kenny Casteel on Feb. 28: "Instructing kindergarteners to pray violates the U.S. Constitution. Coffee County Schools must take immediate action to stop its teachers from imposing their religious beliefs and practices on their students." Her letter cited constitutional chapter and verse, invoking decades of firm Supreme Court rulings barring such devotional and coercive practices in public schools.
Markert received a positive response from the director of schools on March 12: "The teacher has been reminded of her obligations under the law, and has assured us that no such problems will re-occur. This topic will be brought to the attention of all teachers within the system."
The Washoe County Library System in Reno, Nev., will be open during Easter next year.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, along with a local complainant, took issue with the library's holiday closure policy. Prior to FFRF's involvement all Washoe County Libraries were closed each Easter Sunday, even libraries that had typical Sunday hours. FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Library Director Arnie Maurins on Feb. 16: "Easter is neither a federal holiday nor a Nevada state holiday. It is unconstitutional and inappropriate for a public library system to close on Easter."
FFRF learned that library employees are forced to make up the hours they missed for the mandatory shut-down on Easter by working at another branch or to use their annual leave time. "Government employees should not be inconvenienced or punished so that Christian employees can celebrate a holy day," asserted Markert.
Maurins replied on March 12, assuring FFRF that the policy will change in the future and staff would be directed to "take the necessary steps to enable libraries with Sunday hours to be open on Easter. . ."
Lewis County Schools in Weston, W.Va., cancelled a Christian concert after receiving a letter of complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Both the middle and high school in Lewis County were scheduled to interrupt instructional time to host the Jason Lovins Band, a Christian rock group with a clear mission to "take the focus off themselves and point it to the One they sing about." Lovins has been known to give his own testimony during performances and frequently insists "life begins at conception." Lovins "testifies" that he was conceived as the result of rape and warns students against abortion. The event was sponsored by a student Christian club, Youth Alive.
"We are concerned that this assembly will be utilized by the Youth Alive club and their guest to push their religious agenda and religious values on a captive audience of students," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt in a letter to Superintendent J. Mace.
Schmitt received a response from the school on March 9. A representative of the school district confirmed that the middle school assembly was cancelled. While the high school assembly took place, "no religion was brought into the assembly." The district assured Schmitt that it will "stay within the proper guidelines of separation of church and state."
An eighth grade teacher at Starmount Middle School in Booneville, N.C., will no longer proselytize to her students, thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The teacher said in class that "God is the only creator of the universe" and "evolution is not allowed to be considered." She also used skeletons adorned with T-shirts as teaching aids, including shirts that said "Jesus is my Homeboy" and "Mary is my Homegirl." The Secular Student Alliance sent two emails to the teacher, pushing for the removal of the offensive shirts. A third email went out to the school principal, but garnered no response. FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert intervened on Feb. 28: "Public schools are prohibited from teaching creationism or 'intelligent design.' Courts have routinely found that such teachings are religious and unconstitutional."
Markert argued that the t-shirt display directly violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. She added that schools may not display Christian or other religious messages on school grounds. "It is unconstitutional for the school to promote a Christian message to students through t-shirts put on display by a school official."
In a March 8 letter of reply, Superintendent L. Stewart Hobbs confirmed that the t-shirts had been removed.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has confirmed that the Wichita Falls Independent School District (Texas) will no longer issue a sectarian prayer at mandatory staff events.
On top of condoning public prayer, the school district held its August convocation at the First Baptist Church. Local complainants informed FFRF that School Board President Reginald Blow delivered the sectarian prayer during the staff meeting and invoked the name of "Jesus." All faculty and staff were required to attend this event. FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt initially wrote to Superintendent George Kazanas on Aug. 18, 2011: "It is grossly inappropriate for an official government meeting to be held in a religious place of worship. This practice forces employees, who may be of varying religions or have none at all, to enter a house of worship."
Schmitt sent two more letters of complaint to Kazanas before receiving a reply.
In his March 7 response, Kazanas assured Schmitt that the school district intends to comply with the Constitution and that "future convocations will not include a prayer."
Tullahoma City Schools (Tullahoma, Tenn.) will now prohibit distribution of bibles in its classrooms, after receiving a letter of complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Fifth graders at East Lincoln Elementary School were told by their teachers to come up and take a bible in their classrooms. FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt warned Superintendent Dan Lawson in a May 21 letter that “it is unconstitutional for public school districts to allow the distribution of bibles during the school day. "Courts uniformly have held the distribution of bibles to students at public schools is prohibited.”
In a May 29 letter of 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.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has persuaded the principal of West Forsyth High School (Cumming, Ga.) to stop leading students in prayer.
The principal delivered a sectarian prayer at a mandatory meeting for graduating seniors. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter on May 24 to Forsyth County Schools Superintendent L.C. Evans: “While acting in their official role as public school employees, and while they are present in the classroom or public school, teachers and administrators may not pray with students.”
In a May 31 letter of reply, Superintendent L.C. Evans wrote that the school had investigated the situation and that “in the future prayers will not be delivered in such a setting.”
Thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an Auburn High School (Auburn, Wash.) football coach will not 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 was obligated to participate. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the school district’s Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Timothy A. Cummings on May 23: “The prayers before Auburn High School’s football games constitute an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.”
Seidel also wrote that he was concerned that the prayers were not isolated to Auburn High School and requested that the school district investigate the practices at all of its public schools’ athletic games.
FFRF received a positive response from Assistant Superintendent Cummings on June 1. Cummings reported 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 the "Constitutionality of Prayer in Public 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 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
FFRF President emerita
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.
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 two 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.
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.
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. Unlike many of the Foundation's staff members, Katie is religious and considers herself a practicing Wiivangelical.
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.
WENDY GOLDBERG a retired attorney, volunteers one day a week. She has archived and indexed not only FFRF's many lawsuits, but maintains archives of legal letters of complaint over state/church violations, advises on many matters, and provides clerical and editorial support. Wendy is FFRF Secretary.
Bios start top left. Photos: Brent Nicastro, Lalla Ward
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 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.
Ron Reagan, media commentator, describes himself in a radio ad he taped for FFRF as: “Unabashed atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”
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.”
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.
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!”
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.”
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!”
Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard, is author of The Blank Slate: “I never outgrew my conversion to atheist at 13.”
Oliver Sacks, M.D., the compassionate neurologist and bestselling author, describes himself as “an old Jewish atheist.”
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.”
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.
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.”
Robert Sapolsky, a neurologist, Stanford professor and bestselling author, once suggested FFRF put up a sign at its conventions: “Welcome, hellbound atheists.”
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.
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."
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.”