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 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.”