By Andrew L. Seidel
Staff Attorney and Constitutional Consultant
Freedom From Religion Foundation
I'm proud to be an American. This is not some blind, jingoistic, nationalist pride—it's not my country right or wrong (I only adopt that attitude during the World Cup and the Olympics). I'm proud because this nation, despite its faults and missteps, was the first to separate state and church. That "wall of separation" as Jefferson put it, is an American original.
This is not to say the idea is necessarily an American invention, but it was first implemented in the "American Experiment," as Madison put it. Until then, no other nation had sought to so full protect the ability of its citizens to think freely. No people had sought to divorce the terrible power religion holds over the supposed afterlife, from the power government has in everyday life. Until then, the freedom of thought and even the freedom of religion, could never have truly existed.
There can never be true freedom of religion, without a government that is free from religion. Daniel Carroll, a Catholic representative to the Constitutional Convention from Maryland, put it best when he said that, "the rights of conscience will little bear the lightest touch of the governmental hand." Whenever the government puts the weight of every citizen—"We the people"—behind one particular religion, it violates the rights of conscience of us all. The First Amendment is designed to protect those rights—to "unshackle the conscience from persecuting laws."
So this Fourth I will do what Jefferson did when he wrote his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists on New Year's Day, 1802. I will "contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."
No matter what this country has gotten wrong over the years, this Fourth, we can all be proud of the country that invented the separation of state and church.
This is a guest post by FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel at the Friendly Atheist Blog.
The long overdue celebration over the decision that makes gay marriage just marriage overshadowed an important piece of news for the secular movement. On June 25, the ACLU announced that it would no longer support the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—the federal law Hobby Lobby used to successfully challenge the contraception provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
FFRF has been opposed to this law for some time because, as Ms. Melling writing for the ACLU put it, "religious liberty doesn't mean the right to discriminate or to impose one's views on others." In April, FFRF asked Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, both of whom expressed opposition to Indiana's law, to repeal their own state-RFRAs. We even ran ads in the New York Times asking for a repeal of the federal RFRA. And until Indiana tried to pass a particularly malicious RFRA and companies like SalesForce, Apple, GenCon, and even the NCAA joined the fight, FFRF was waging a lonely battle. There were a few notable exceptions, such as Katha Pollitt, writing for The Nation, and the groups that signed on to our Hobby Lobby brief. [Ms. Pollitt sits on FFRF's honorary board.] Our brief to the Supreme Court, singled out by Peabody Award-winng Supreme Court website SCOTUSblog as a "bold challenge," was the only one of more than 80 in the Hobby Lobby case to argue that RFRA is unconstitutional.
How important is this? Well, very. One popular counterargument FFRF has faced in its battle, which is becoming less lonely by the day, is that when RFRA was passed, everyone, from the Religious Right to the ACLU, supported it. And to this day, everyone, from the Baptist Joint Committee, to the religious ministry/law firm Alliance Defending Freedom, to the media highlights that fact. They all point to RFRA as a miracle that crossed party and religious divides. The ACLU's support of RFRA gives, or, as we must now say gave, these laws credence.
Undercutting this popular argument in favor of RFRAs is important. But perhaps the most important impact of this announcement will be that the ACLU's courageous stand will encourage other secular and human rights groups to follow suit. This could be a tipping point.
And isn't it time? These insidious laws are one of two things. They are either completely superfluous because our First Amendment already protects religious freedom, or, a legal justification for discrimination. The First Amendment already protects the freedom of religion and, under its mantle, every species of religion has flourished in this country. RFRAs are therefore unnecessary, unless they have another purpose. The Religious Right is now using these laws to justify discrimination in the name of a god. They make that argument over and over again. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, has been explicit. He argues that these laws allow discrimination in the name of religious belief, citing the example of Baronnelle Stutzman, the Christian who refused to provide flowers for a gay wedding. But even if no court ever buys the "religious freedom as a defense to discrimination" argument, why would we keep laws that justify discrimination—especially when the First Amendment protects what these laws purport to defend?
The ACLU is calling for "Congress to amend the RFRA so that it cannot be used as a defense for discrimination." But we don't think that goes far enough to protect citizens. Unlike the First Amendment, the terms of RFRA only give protection to religion and therefore religious citizens. As of now, that protection is not extended to nonreligious citizens (who now make up 23% of the population). Favoring religion over nonreligion, which the Supreme Court has repeatedly said is unconstitutional, will always be problematic. That's why FFRF has long been arguing that RFRA is unconstitutional and should be either repealed or, like the bans on gay marriage, struck down in federal court.
"As Oklahoma’s highest law enforcement officer you ought to be saying 'good riddance' to the bad rubbish this monument represents, not promising to repeal part of Oklahoma’s law."
By Andrew L. Seidel
Freedom From Religion Foundation
Dear Mr. Pruitt:
We've tangled several times before. Once regarding a Christian men's club using Oklahoma public schools to distribute their particular version of the bible, an illegal act that you publicly defended. And then regarding your demand to see documents relating to the IRS and FFRF settling a lawsuit that are publicly available on FFRF's website, www.ffrf.org. Perhaps you were so upset by the news that the IRS would enforce the rules by which it is governed that you missed all the documents. If so, here they are.
I write this letter to correct yet another misunderstanding, this time regarding the Ten Commandments. After the Oklahoma Supreme Court declared the decalogue monument on capitol grounds unconstitutional, you said, "Quite simply, the Oklahoma Supreme Court got it wrong. The court completely ignored the profound historical impact of the Ten Commandments on the foundation of Western law."
That assertion is indefensible. There is not a single legal principle that is either unique or original to the Ten Commandments that significantly influenced American law.
First, let's identify which set of Ten Commandments that were allegedly part of our foundation. Is it the set in Exodus 20 or Exodus 34? Or perhaps it's the sets in Deuteronomy 5 or Deuteronomy 27? For the sake of argument, I'll assume it's the set on the Oklahoma capitol lawn.
This is a big assumption because, as anyone who's familiar with the bible will realize, the wording on the capitol monument is heavily edited. The monument's precepts appear to come from Exodus 20, but apparently the original version was too barbaric (or perhaps the monument authors simply know better than god.) Either way, the monument strays heavily from the original.
For instance, the monument leaves out some integral language from the second commandment—the prohibition on graven images. The original includes, "for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation..." Please tell me, Mr. Pruitt, is punishing innocent children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren for the crimes of their parents what you meant by "foundation of Western law?"
If not, then perhaps you were referring to the implicit blessing of that most holy institution, slavery, which is referenced in both the fourth and tenth commandments (but is again omitted from or altered on this monument)? The tenth commandment also treats women as property, lumping them in with cattle and slaves, something the monument authors did not think worth changing.
Punishing innocent children, blessing slavery, denigrating women—as Oklahoma's highest law enforcement officer you ought to be saying "good riddance" to the bad rubbish this monument represents, not promising to repeal part of Oklahoma's law.
Surely you can't mean that the first four commandments, which have nothing to do with morality and actually prohibit the free exercise of religion, are the basis of western law? Nor could you mean that prohibitions on coveting—commandments 9 and 10 on the monument—are the foundation of western law because they amount to criminalizing thought. And as you must know, freedom of thought is protected absolutely under our First Amendment.
The process of elimination tells me that you must be referring to the prohibitions on murder, theft, lying, and adultery. But these commandments are not original or unique to Judeo-Christianity. These are universal, human principles that virtually every successful society has implemented. Even the Ten Commandments were not telling the Israelites something new. Surely you aren't contending that the chosen people thought murder, theft, and lying perfectly acceptable before a burning bush told them otherwise?
If you are arguing that your particular brand of religion is responsible for the universal prohibitions of these rather obvious wrongs, then your religiously motivated arrogance has gotten the better of you.
Which of the Ten Commandments are, as you claimed, the basis of Western law? I eagerly await your response.
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, Life Driven Purpose: How an atheist finds meaning, was published by Pitchstone Press in 2015. 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 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.
KATHERINE PAIGE graduated magna cum laude from Wichita State University in 2010 with a B.A. in History, Political Science, and French. She attended law school at the College of William & Mary where she received her Juris Doctor in 2014. Katherine became FFRF’s first Legal Fellow in September 2014, specializing in faith-based government funding.
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 since May 2012, starting as a legal intern/extern, and currently works as a law clerk and legal publicist.
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.
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. She was born in Wausau, Wis. 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 received 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.
DAYNA LONG is an administrative assistant at FFRF. Originally from Illinois, she attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received a degree in English. She has been with FFRF since July 2013. She spends her free time volunteering for the Wisconsin chapter of the National Organization for Women. She also enjoys reading, cooking, and admiring her beautiful cats.
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.
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.”
- Oliver Sacks, M.D., the compassionate neurologist and bestselling author, describes himself as “an old Jewish atheist.”
- 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.”