Thanks to FFRF intervention, future graduations at Bremen City High School in Bremen, Ga., will not include prayer. So too, a religious photo of prayer has been removed from the Bremen City Schools Facebook page.
On May 24, Bremen City High School’s graduation ceremony included opening and closing prayers. Each of the prayers lasted several minutes and addressed the Christian, “Heavenly Father, we thank you.”
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter to the District on June 6, pointing to two Supreme Court cases which ensure that: “School officials may not invite a student, teacher, faculty member, or clergy to give any type of prayer, invocation, or benediction at a public high school graduation.” Seidel also cited other recent violations occurring in the same district — including a photo of the football team praying on the district webpage and an elementary school vice president leading a group of kindergarteners in prayer — suggesting “a systemic problem with prayer at Bremen City Schools. It appears that the district staff members are unaware of or blatantly disregarding the law surrounding school prayer.”
The District responded on June 17 to guarantee that, “the phrase ‘invocation’ will not be used in next year’s graduation program.” Additionally, the “Superintendent has removed that photo” in question.
Illegal prayer at football pre-game team meals has been halted at Alexander High School in Douglasville, Ga.
According to reports by a concerned individual, the varsity football team had been supplied pre-game meals by Pray’s Mill Baptist Church. Not only was a pastor of the church present at the meals, but also at most of the practices and games. At the end of the mandatory meals, the pastor would deliver a “pseudo-sermon” and ask those present — the entire team — to bow their heads and participate in prayer. The complainant added that “it makes several non-believer athletes uncomfortable as well, but because they’re students on the team, they can’t just ‘step out’ and not participate or risk banishment.”
On May 27, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Supt. Gordon Pritz of Douglas County School District, censuring them, explaining: “It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for AHS to offer a Christian minister unique access to befriend and proselytize student athletes. Public high school athletic teams cannot seek out a spiritual leader for the team and allow that person to sermonize and pray with students, because public schools may not advance or promote religion.”
Counsel for the District replied on June 17, assuring that Supt. Pritz “has discussed with school administration and appropriate staff members the legal issues that you raised. . . To the extent there existed any issue with a prayer or religious talk being given to students on the team during a team event by local clergy, there will be no such activity during next football season.”
Unfortunately, prayer violations in the Douglasville County School District are perennial. The district was successfully sued by Doug Jager, the son of a longtime FFRF member, over pregame invocations in the late 1980s. Douglas was a member of the marching band. Jager v. Douglas County District prevailed in 1989, when the Supreme Court let stand a ruling in Doug’s favor by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Jacksonville Police Department in Jacksonville, Ala., has removed and will no longer display religious postings on its official Facebook page. The Jackson Police Department posts included a picture reading “Happy Birthday Jesus” with an image of a nativity, a number of bible verses, a picture promoting the “National Day of Prayer for Law Enforcement,” a picture of a man carrying a “Police Officer’s Bible,” and a link to a Christian website with police officers singing a Christian song, among others.
FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert contacted Jacksonville Chief of Police T.L. Thompson on Dec. 31, 2013, regarding the religious postings. In her letter, Markert elucidated, “It is inappropriate for the Jacksonville Police Department (JPD) to indicate a preference for Christianity and religion by quoting the Christian bible, posting prayers, and sharing postings asking people to pray on the official JPD Facebook page. This proselytizing message gives the appearance of government endorsement of Christianity. It also conflicts with personal religious and nonreligious views of many city residents and employees.”
After two follow up letters, Police Chief Tommy Thompson finally replied on July 2: “That post and similar ones were deleted from that account and no new posts of this nature have been posted.”
FFRF has secured the removal of religious symbols from a public park in Clark County, Wash.
In Whipple Creek Regional Park, a Latin cross with a bible verse was installed at the top of Carousel Hill. The plaque read, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Lean not on your understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him. And He shall direct your paths. Proverbs 3:5-6.”
On June 26, FRFF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert alerted Clark County to the constitutional violation, explaining, “The display of this patently religious symbol on public property confers government endorsement of Christianity, a blatant violation of the Establishment Clause.”
The complainant wrote FFRF on July 2 to confirm that employees of Clark County “have removed the cross from Whipple Creek Park.”
Lewis Public Schools USD in Lewis, Kansas, will not allow the Gideon Society to distribute materials during the school day or facilitate such distributions.
A complainant contacted FFRF after a fifth-grade teacher directed her students to cross the street unescorted to receive a bible during the school day. The teacher lined the students up, told them to cross the street to get the bibles, but did not accompany the children because she believed this made her actions legal.
When the complainant’s child refused a bible because the student’s family was not religious, the teacher asked the student, “Do you always do what your parents tell you to do?”
The complainant noted that bible distribution by Gideons at the school has been going on for 30-some years.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter on May 21 to Superintendent Virgil Richie, pointing out why forcing students to accept religious literature is predatory and illegal:
“The arbitrary line the District drew to pretend this bible distribution was acceptable was patently ridiculous. A teacher leading students to the schoolhouse doors during class time, instructing them to leave school property alone to receive a bible, and questioning students who do not wish to participate shows that the District clearly coordinated and facilitated the bible distribution and required students to participate in it.”
On June 10, Superintendent Ritchie responded that it had been decided that “Lewis Elementary School will not allow The Gideon Society to distribute materials during the school day or on school grounds. The teacher mentioned in your letter is no longer employed by the school district.”
Faculty members of Lamar County School District in Miss., will no longer be permitted to proselytize to students.
A concerned student of Sumrall Middle School contacted FFRF regarding proselytizing by faculty in April. Complaints were about a teacher who spoke on “why our country needs God,” and the “war on Christmas.” They were also about another teacher who held an Easter storytelling event invoking the rapture and the antichrist.
Acting on these reports, FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote Superintendent Tess Smith in protest on June 20. In his letter, he noted serious constitutional concerns over the “pervasive culture of proselytization in the district,” citing recent issues with faculty participation in a prayer event at Sumrall Elementary School.
Furthermore, Grover stated: “Teachers have access to a captive audience of students due to their position as public educators. The District has a duty to prohibit religious proselytizing by teachers in the classroom,” and thus school district regulation of teaching materials are “not a violation of the free speech rights of teachers.”
Interim Superintendent Tess Smith responded to Grover’s letter on July 8, and agreed to
“meet with each of the staff members mentioned including a follow up meeting with the school principal” and stated that she is “organizing an inservice for our school principals. . . [to] provide them with the necessary guidance to train their staff in the future regarding constitutional issues.”
There will no longer be teacher-led prayer, or any prayer for that matter, at the end of year banquet for Sarah Scott Middle School students in Terre Haute, Ind.
A concerned family member of a student contacted FFRF with information that, in keeping with ceremonies from previous years, a school-sponsored banquet on May 27 celebrating the top ten students in each grade featured a teacher-led invocation.
“Everyone is expected to bow their heads while a teacher leads the prayer,” reported the complainant, who added: “The school is fairly diverse so I’m sure I’m not the only person that is uncomfortable with the school trying to force everyone to pray.”
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter to Superintendent Daniel Tanoos of Vigo County School Corporation on May 30, declaring that, “The District should make certain that teachers in its schools are not unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters by encouraging them to engage in prayer. Schoolchildren already feel significant pressure to conform from their peers. They must not be subjected to similar pressure from their teachers, especially on religious questions.”
“Considering the young age of the students, concern over religious coercion and proselytization should be especially high in middle schools,” Grover added.
After a July 8 follow-up inquiry, counsel for the District replied on July 17 that, “the School Corporation has informed each building Principal that teacher-led prayer with students present will cease, as it is prohibited by the Constitution and should not be allowed.”
Lakeshore Public Schools in Stevensville, Mich. has assured that its summer marching band camp will no longer engage students in staff-led prayer, display religious iconography, or distribute religious messages of any kind. The camp, a requirement to participate in the Lakeshore High School marching band, took place in past summers at Camp Friedenswald, a site that is at other times a Mennonite Anabaptist camp supported by the Central District Conference of Mennonite Church USA. Distressingly, the camp, run by the Camp Friedenswald religious staff, included prayers before every meal, and some of the students slept in the chapel.
A concerned district family informed FFRF of the constitutional violations, reporting that at least one student “didn’t feel comfortable calling attention to herself by not participating, so she just went along with it.” The complainant added, “I was extremely bothered by this, as I am an atheist and want my daughter to be able to come to her own conclusions about faith, as I was allowed to do by my own parents.”
On March 31, FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert objected to the religious environment of the camp in a letter to Supt. Philip Freeman of Lakeshore Public Schools. She noted that “students who wish to benefit from participating in marching band should not be forced to enter a religious site in order to do so, especially when the selected site espouses a religious ideology or belief to which they do not adhere.”
Furthermore, “Students should not be excluded from full participation on the basis of religion or compelled to observe or take part in religious exercises as part of a public school program.”
After receiving a follow-up letter, counsel for the District replied on July 18, stating it will first “investigate alternative facilities that meet the District’s needs to host its marching band camp. Second, religious symbols adorning Camp Friedenswald will be covered or removed. In the event that a religious symbol cannot be removed or covered, the District will refrain from utilizing the area in which the symbol is located. Third, the District will direct its staff members and volunteers to closely monitor the interactions between [camp] staff members and students, to ensure that no religious messages are given to students. Fourth, the District will direct its staff members not to participate in student-initiated prayer.”
Columbian High School in Tiffin, Ohio, will no longer actively promote a baccalaureate service for its seniors.
The June 7 baccalaureate event occurred at the Trinity United Church of Christ, which coordinated the event with school faculty, including the principal, his secretary and the choir director. The religious service was listed on the school’s graduation checklist, and promoted on the school calendar. Additionally, the graduation FAQ on the school’s website, “encourage[d] graduates and their families to attend.”
On June 12, FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Superintendent Vicki Wheatley of Tiffin City Schools regarding serious constitutional concerns over the district involvement in the baccalaureate ceremony.
In her letter, Markert explained that given the school’s “promotion of the worship service on its school website, students will perceive the baccalaureate service as school-sponsored,” advising that the school “must not specially announce the service through the school website, include it as a part of the graduation checklist, or encourage attendance.”
Wheatley responded on June 25 that, “future District publications regarding a baccalaureate service will include a disclaimer indicating the event is not school-sponsored, it is an optional event, and that the District does not endorse any message espoused.” Moreover, she has “reminded the appropriate District employees of the policies and limitations discussed above, and [has] clarified the District’s expectations.”
Putnam County in Carmel, N.Y., will no longer use county e-mail to promote prayer breakfasts.
The unlawful e-mail, sent by the director of personnel in the fall of 2013, invited county personnel to attend the 22nd Annual Putnam County Leadership Prayer Breakfast. The e-mail also included a Christian invocation: “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselvese [sic], and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive them, and heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:14.”
FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a letter to Putnam County on March 17, highlighting the unconstitutionality of government endorsed religious events. She called it “grossly illegal and inappropriate for the Director of Personnel to be promoting a patently religious event, such as a prayer breakfast.”
Markert added, “In addition, it is grossly inappropriate to include religious references in any email directed at local government employees.”
After May 29 and June 30 follow up letters, counsel for Putnam County responded on July 10 that, “The individual who sent the e-mail in question regarding the Prayer Breakfast event has been advised not to send such notices by County e-mail in the future.”
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.”