I’ve often had cause to repeat to myself George Eliot’s quip that “The clergy are, practically, the most irresponsible of all talkers.” But I feel sure if Eliot (née Marian Evans) were alive today, she would have to cede that very few clergymen could be more irresponsible than Bill O’Reilly of Fox News.
O’Reilly practically crowed: “ What is interesting this year is that Hanukkah will be over on Thursday, so there are no more holidays between then and Christmas Day . . . bad day for the secular progressives.” Yet, he’s heard of the Winter Solstice, the real reason for the season, which, after all, takes place before Christmas on Dec. 21. He also ignores the tongue-in-cheek Festivus on Dec. 23.
“On the national front, there are three primary culprits seeking to diminish Christmas,” O’Reilly pontificated. We at FFRF are truly honored to be named among the top three “culprits.” In fact, O’Reilly singled out FFRF:
“The most aggressive is the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which routinely threatens to sue small towns and school districts over Christmas situations if they are dare utter the word ‘Christmas’ or allow choirs to sing carols in the schools.
“They want to banish any mention of Jesus from the public square. They are the oppressors. . . . Why are we allowing anti-Christmas madness?”
O’Reilly then welcomed onto his show the equally irresponsible talker Doug Napier from the $36 million-a-year Religious Right legal operation, the Alliance Defending Freedom. Napier rattled off three cases where schools have banned music “based on misinformation” and blaming FFRF.
While Napier was pretty vague, he seemed to be talking about situations in Wausau, Wis., Rock Hill, S.C., and Bordentown, N.J. Let’s examine these cases one by one.
• Rock Hill, S.C.: Whatever controversy Napier was referring to didn’t involve FFRF. We haven’t sent out any letters there. Coincidentally, however, FFRF is poised to send out a strong letter over the egregious allegation that students in the marching band were routinely cajoled into a “prayer ring” by their music teacher at one of the local high schools. (Practicing, not praying, will produce better music and not violate student rights of conscience.)
• Wausau, Wis.: FFRF would dearly love to take credit for the decision by the school district this fall to limit religious music at holiday concerts. Actually, FFRF probably can claim credit, because we’ve tusseled with the school board there over previous violations, as was reported in the Wausau Daily Herald. In this instance, our involvement was limited to sending a letter from FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott on Oct. 10 on the eve of the board-initiated decision to limit religion in music classes, reminding the board that “religious music at district events has been problematic in the past” and thanking the board for taking proactive steps to “ensure an appropriate music curriculum that does not make religion its primary focus.” ADF contacted the board as well. The board is still formulating a long-term policy on religious music.
• Bordentown, N.J.: A superintendent properly announced that “Religious music should not be part of the elementary programs.” She’d heard complaints about elementary students having to learn and perform a program of devotional songs such as “We Sing Gloria,” “Bring a Torch,” “Los Reyes de Oriente” and “A Song for Hanukkah.” After a backlash led by Alliance Defending Freedom, the superintendent reversed her decision. Immediately, two additional religious songs, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Silent Night,” were added to the program.
FFRF was contacted by distressed parents at this point and wrote the district urging it to “stand firm against religious bullying.” FFRF Staff Attorney Seidel noted that the legality of a practice does not determine its wisdom: “Is the alienation of a single child worth whatever possible benefit there is in forcing children to sing religious songs? Or should we teach some of the countless musical alternatives that include all children, regardless of their religion or lack thereof?” It’s our hope that the superintendent will realize there are reasonable groups out there offering her support. Why not choose neutrality instead of divisiveness?
Seasonal music is one of the more difficult and nuanced public school violations FFRF deals with. Court precedent against school prayer is firm, but is mushier on religious music. FFRF, as the courts do, evaluates each complaint on its merits. It’s our firm conviction that, depending on the lyrics, degree of duress and ages of students, even one religious song may be too many.
I think back to one notorious complaint FFRF took about second graders in a small Wisconsin town being forced by their music teacher, who was also her church’s music teacher, to sing a song that repeated for about 24 choruses, “I’m going to sing when the Lord says sing.” Parents have a right and obligation to protect their 8-year-olds from in-school indoctrination. Such a violation is very different from inclusion of a classical religious chorale piece at the high school level for educational purposes. These cases are fact-dependent.
ADF’s Napier falsely claimed on O’Reilly’s show that courts have never ruled against religious music in schools. In one such case in 2009, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the superintendent of Everett School District No. 2 did not violate a Washington high school student ensemble’s rights in barring them from performing “Ave Maria” (Latin for “Hail Mary”) at graduation. The panel ruled this well-known piece is a Roman Catholic prayer set to music and that its performance at a public school graduation could well be seen as an endorsement of religion. Since this is about setting the record straight, I must point out that FFRF almost never “threatens to sue,” as O’Reilly claimed. First, we try to use reason and court precedent to resolve state/church entanglements.
Nor have we ever threatened to sue a school district for using the word Christmas. FFRF, unlike the Alliance Defending Freedom, doesn’t boast a $36 million annual budget, plus volunteer Religious Right attorneys from all 50 states lined up to help us. Wouldn’t that be nice? Nor do we seek to “banish Jesus.” We’ve never once complained about a nativity scene being where it belongs — on a church lawn. Well, I have to admit that now I’m exaggerating. I’ve frequently been heard to complain to any companion who will listen that I’ve never seen a nativity display on public or private ground that wasn’t perfectly hideous. Have you? In fact, if I were religious, I’d consider crèches downright blasphemous for their hideousness.
Distortions, gloating and putdowns notwithstanding, FFRF is highly flattered to be the subject of so much attention by so many “irresponsible talkers.”
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.
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. She joined the foundation staff as a student clerical employee in September 2008 and started as the full-time bookkeeper in 2009. Unlike many of the Foundation's staff members, Katie is religious and considers herself a practicing Wiivangelical.
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 ANNA 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 received a double minor in Journalism and English. Lauryn manages FFRF's online social media presence, works with news outlets by writing and sending press releases, and frequently updates the website among other things. 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. Her role models include Carl Sagan, Oscar Wilde and Hayao Miyazaki. 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.
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.”