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