Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

This award presentation and speech was given on October 25, 2015, at FFRF's 37th annual national convention at the Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles.

ANNIE LAURIE GAYLOR [Naming Linda Stephens and Susan Galloway as FFRF's Freethinkers of the Year for contesting government prayer in Greece, N.Y.]: Susan Galloway is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has worked mostly in long-term care, including helping people with Alzheimer's. She's a social justice activist and first advocated for separation between church and state when as a fifth grader she refused to sing in her school's Christmas concert.

By Susan Galloway

Thank you for this award and the amazing greeting. I've never been in a room with so many people who believe in the separation of church and state and are willing to fight for it.

I started attending town meetings during this particular time over the issue of a public cable access channel. I continued to go to the meetings to fight for public cable access and its continuation and noticed a pattern, a pattern of prayers, which were all quite sectarian and all Christian and made me feel uncomfortable. It made me feel like I didn't belong in a town where I should have. Government should feel inclusive, and it sure didn't feel that way to me.

As I was looking at this podium, I was imagining the fact that this was how it was at the town board meeting. Instead of "Freedom from Religion," it had the big seal of the town of Greece and the pastors behind it. I'd be out there with you and they'd be saying their prayer, talking to Jesus and all the other trinities, depending on the pastor. They'd be asking for wisdom and for the ability to make good decisions.

It's hard to believe that the Supreme Court would have thought that the prayer was directed at the board members, when they would have been behind here. I'd be in the audience and [the board members] would be crossing themselves, and it was very uncomfortable and very inappropriate. I said, "This is not OK."

Linda and I, who had known each other through other activist work, said, "Let's do something about it." I'd hoped that we could solve it by talking to them reasonably. We would reason, "Hey, this is uncomfortable, this is wrong," but it didn't happen that way. We ended up filing a lawsuit.

As it turned out, an ordinary person who spoke up had an extraordinary thing happen to them. It went through the courts and wound up at the U.S. Supreme Court. We had lost in the district court and discussed whether we want to appeal it, because we knew it would go up to the Supreme Court. If we won they would appeal it up to the Supreme Court, but at that time we didn't think it was likely that it would be accepted.

So we appealed and won in the appellate court. As it turned out, there were other cases that were pending in other appeals courts throughout the country. With the timing of their decisions, the courts were split, so the Supreme Court decided to take our case.

If you're not familiar with our brief, we had videos of almost 12 years of prayers. There was no denying what had happened, no denying how it had looked, how they stood up, everything. So it really came down to our argument that it violated the First Amendment because the town of Greece aligned itself with religion.

Unfortunately, the court decided 5-4 that it was tradition and that was what was right. I do think it was very interesting that the three justices of a minority religion all dissented. I think that was a positive outcome.

Since the decision

I want to tell you what's happened since. On Aug. 19, the town adopted a new invocation policy, which was almost identical to the Alliance Defending Freedom's model policy. The Alliance represented the town in the lawsuit.

I went to the town board meeting and saw on the agenda that they weregoing to vote on the policy. I asked them for a copy, but they said they didn't have one, so I had no idea what was in it. They basically voted on it with no discussion and it passed.

The next day I got the policy and read it. It basically contradicted everything the town told the Supreme Court — that anybody was welcome to do the prayer, that they didn't discriminate, that there were no restrictions. But the new policy required a representative from a group with a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.

In the 12 years of videotapes and prayers that we had, there were only three token prayer givers. That was right about the time we were filing the lawsuit and right after. It was obvious they did it because they wanted to have the evidence that they were allowing anybody to do it.
The new policy will totally eliminate the ability of two of the three people from ever doing the prayer again. It really was a bait and switch. They said, "This is what we do," and after the cameras and media attention were gone, they approved this terrible policy. I continue to fight it.

I stood up in September and complained about the policy and the way it was handled in putting it out there. The supervisor made a very insulting response when I was leaving. He said, "The hypocrisy. We won the lawsuit and we are allowing atheists to come pray because they want us to be tolerant, but they're not tolerant of Christians. The hypocrisy."

To say that a town is merely allowing atheists, when they say they don't discriminate and anybody's welcome, it all made me incredibly angry. So I responded and he told me that if I wasn't quiet he'd remove me.

It was just this pompousness, that they have the right to do this and to hell with what anybody else believes and what is right. They were going to do what they wanted to do.

I can't emphasize the importance of separation of church and state enough. I think the general public doesn't understand it. They think, "What's the big deal? Just don't listen. Think about something else."

It is a big deal when you are made to feel like a second-class citizen at a government meeting when you are supposed to be part of that community and when they ask people to stand, you don't stand.

If you make a request like, "Please don't get rid of our public cable access" — is that [not standing for prayer] going to affect how they vote and how they respond to me? I can't believe that's not going to have an effect. When the justices say that adults can't be coerced — need I say more?

Look at how many people do things based on peer pressure, because others are doing it. They just want to belong. It happens.

I swear we had a great case, but we had a lousy court [applause]. I think a future case will come and this terrible decision will be overturned. I hope it's within my lifetime, because we can't wait.

I want to thank you again because I felt alone so many times. I'm thankful that Linda and I went through this together.

I didn't feel much support then, but now it's so wonderful to see so many people who feel this way. Sometimes it gets really lonely and you feel like you're fighting a battle by yourself. I'm so glad and thankful that you appreciate this. Thank you so much for this honor.

'I swear we had a great case, but we had a lousy court.'

Linda Stephens' acceptance speech appeared in the December 2014 issue, and is available online at:

College Oaks Elementary School in Lake Charles, La., and High Mount School in Swansea, Ill., have both barred teachers from leading bible clubs for students after getting FFRF complaints.

FFRF wrote to Calcasieu Parish Public Schools on Jan. 9 after a concerned parent reported that College Oaks Elementary was recruiting students for the bible club Kids for Christ. All the club's logistics were handled by College Oaks teacher Kristen Shepherd, who encouraged other staff to announce club meetings in their classrooms, according to public email records obtained by FFRF.

Reminders about Kids for Christ meetings were sent home with students, and one teacher directly called a parent to ask permission for a student to attend the club. The school also sold children's bibles and T-shirts reading, "We are Christians at College Oaks." Shepherd distributed bibles to students, as well as order forms for Kids for Christ merchandise.

"Given the high level of faculty involvement in the organization and content of the Kids for Christ bible club, plus the location of the meetings and regular faculty promotion of the club, a reasonable student or parent will perceive this religious club as 'stamped with her school's seal of approval,'" wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover.

Calcasieu Parish Schools' attorney Gregory Balfour responded Jan. 26, assuring FFRF that staff were told not to hand out bibles, wear bible club T-shirts at school or be involved in promoting or leading the club. "School staff were also reminded that they may not 'pressure' students to join the club," he said.

In a similar situation in Illinois's High Mount School District 116, the district sent emails to K-8 students and their parents at High Mount School to promote a new Kids for Christ group. The district email described the club as "a permanent program" that "operates in cooperation with local schools."

In a Feb. 4 letter to school attorney William Stiehl Jr., Grover wrote: "All HMS staff should be reminded that their duties under the Establishment Clause prohibit them from actively promoting a religious club while acting in their official capacities as district employees."

Stiehl responded the next day: "The employee who sent the emails has been advised that emails which appear to promote or sponsor a religious organization may not be sent using the High Mount email system or on High Mount letterhead."

TurningPoint Church crosses the line

Fayette County Public Schools, Lexington, Ky., received FFRF complaints about several state/church violations.

Leestown Middle School held a "retreat" for sixth graders at two churches. Students were given T-shirts at the retreat that advertised TurningPoint Church and its website. They were told to wear shirts to a mandatory school assembly, which was supposedly secular, put on by the church's lead pastor, Joshua Mauney. He had children write down information, including their addresses, on cards. FFRF's complainant then received mail from the church.

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to the school district Nov. 13. "Allowing a church leader unique access to a captive audience of schoolchildren and permitting him to turn students into walking billboards for his church is inappropriate and unconstitutional, and his predatory conduct should raise many red flags."

Markert continued, "Moreover, public school employees cannot distribute or wear religious T-shirts while at school, nor can they require or encourage students to wear them."

The district responded in February, informing FFRF that speakers would be prohibited from using students as a platform for a religious message on social media and from requesting names and addresses of students in the future. The district also agreed to request advance approval of anything put on donated items.

'Praying hands' image off school wall

After initially refusing, Kenneth Cooper Middle School officials in Oklahoma have removed a poster called "Faith in America" featuring two children with their hands clasped in prayer in front of an American flag.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel first wrote to Putnam County Schools about the image in August. "The meaning could not be more clear," Seidel wrote, "real American children pray."

School district attorney Anthony Childers responded that the district had received no complaints in the 18 years the poster had been up and claimed it was not proselytizing. "At this time, we do not believe that the image violates the Establishment Clause and the District will not agree to remove the image from its office."

In a rebuttal, Seidel noted that the fact that the display had been up so long "only serve[d] to make the violation more egregious." The claim that the poster was not religious was "at odds with common sense," he said.

FFRF's local complainant reported that "Faith in America" has been swapped out for a George Washington portrait.

FFRF stops bible study field trip

Del Norte County Unified School District stopped a teacher at Crescent Elk Middle School, Crescent City, Calif., from holding a bible study as part of an overnight field trip to her home.

"When a school allows a teacher to lead students in a devotional bible study, the school becomes complicit in an egregious constitutional violation and breach of trust," wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel in a letter sent Jan. 26.

Superintendent Don Olson responded the next day, saying that he "directed staff to stop this practice immediately," and would work with the district's legal team, thanking FFRF for making him aware it was happening.

Georgia school removes 10 Commandments

FFRF succeeded in getting a Ten Commandments display removed from the Pinevale Elementary School library in Valdosta, Ga. Staff Attorney Sam Grover in an Oct. 24 letter to Valdosta City Schools wrote, "Any student will view a Ten Commandments display in a school as being endorsed by a school."

After a follow-up letter, Superintendent E. Martin Roesch phoned Grover to say that the display had been removed.

No more Christian pumpkin patch trips

A field trip to a church-run pumpkin patch will not reoccur at Randolph Elementary in Centreville, Ala. Kindergartners and first graders were given nametags reading, "Hay there, Jesus loves you" with a bible verse underneath.

Students' finger paintings also had bible verses printed at the top. The students posed for a photo beneath two large signs with bible verses on them.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote the district Nov. 24: "It excludes non-Christian and nonreligious students for a public school to schedule a trip to this type of sectarian establishment."

On Jan. 23, the superintendent of Bibb County Schools responded that this was the school's first visit to the pumpkin patch, admitting it had not been properly vetted. She said the district would not send students there in the future.

South Dakota sex ed secularized

The public school district in Aberdeen, S.D., which showed a Catholic version of a sex education program to students, is taking steps to correct the violation after getting a Jan. 9 letter from Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott.

The health curriculum at Central High School included "Romance without Regret," a religious presentation promoting sexual abstinence and "chastity" from a Catholic perspective. The presenters prayed and made religious references such as "Realize that purity is a gift from Jesus, we have to ask him of it, and he'll give it to us."

It also denigrated students, particularly girls, who had had sex, describing a man who has sex with a woman as "robbing her purity" and watching pornography as "looking at the corpse of a woman's heart." It also quoted many debunked and misleading health statistics.

The superintendent called Elliott two weeks later to say that the video was shown mistakenly instead of a secular version of the presentation. She reviewed both versions of the film in full and assured FFRF that she recognized the Catholic version was inappropriate for public schools and would not be shown again.

Team chaplain barred in Florida

A Nov. 24 FFRF letter ensured the removal of a team chaplain who, with coaches, led Franklin County Schools athletes in prayer in the locker rooms, at practices and at games.

"Public high school football teams cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team, or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain, because public schools may not advance or promote religion," wrote Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel.

Superintendent Nina Marks, Eastpoint, Fla., later responded that the individual in question was employed as a statistician and film editor, not as a chaplain, and was "acting entirely on his behalf without permission or authority of the administration." He and other employees were reminded that district staff "cannot and will not participate or encourage religious activities of any kind."

God out of Okla. police training

Oklahoma's Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training (CLEET) is taking steps to eliminate unconstitutional religious training materials after receiving an FFRF complaint. A peace officer in training told FFRF that during training, instructors and materials repeatedly promoted religion.

Course materials contained statements such as, "While there are differences between the various faiths, we still are a people of God. This idea is the basis for the common bond of all people." A section focusing on ethics encouraged peace officers to dedicate themselves before God to their chosen profession.

In an Oct. 7 letter, Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote, "CLEET must revise its training materials and lectures by removing suggestions that belief in God is an essential component of being a competent peace officer."

Grover corresponded with an attorney representing CLEET who said he was taking steps to remove religious content, adding that instructors were warned about expressing their personal religious views in class.

Missouri park crèche won't be back

The Higginsville, Mo., Parks and Recreation Department has in the past displayed a large nativity scene in a public park with a sign saying "The Savior is Born."

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent the department a letter after a local resident complained: "By displaying this sign, the Department is praising the Christian god and proclaiming Jesus as savior. This is in direct violation of the Constitution."

The department responded Feb. 4 that the nativity will not be put up in the future.

Letter ends Kansas bible handouts

Unified School District 219 in Kansas has stopped a Minneola Elementary School teacher from distributing bibles to students. In a letter sent Jan. 30, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel informed the district, "When a school distributes religious literature to its students, it entangles itself with that religious message."

Superintendent Mark Walker responded Feb. 6: "The district has taken prompt action to visit with the teacher and inform the entire staff that allowing the Gideons to distribute Bibles on school property is not allowed and should not happen again."

W.Va. middle school crosses removed

Ravenswood Middle School in Ripley, W.Va., has taken down crosses that were previously displayed on school property.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote Jackson County Schools on Jan. 20 after learning that multiple crosses were placed in a garden near an entrance to the school. One included the word "FAITH" and two verses from the New Testament.

"We are sensitive to the possibility that the crosses and angels are meant as a memorial. However, it is the school's constitutional obligation to find a religiously neutral means of expressing remembrance in a memorial display," wrote Elliott.

The district responded Feb. 6 to say that the crosses had been removed.

FFRF stops Kansas proselytizing

Haskins Learning Center, a K-8 public school in Pratt, Kan., is presenting in-service training to teachers about religious proselytizing after FFRF again objected to the school's practices.

Just six weeks earlier, the school had agreed to stop prayer at school events. But the day after the first response, FFRF received a report that teachers had distributed gifts to students with attached tags quoting the biblical John 3:16.

An attorney for the school told Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel on Feb. 9 that he had in-services scheduled with instructional and administrative staff.

Prayer get boot from graduation

Quehanna Boot Camp, an adult correctional facility in Karthaus, Pa., will not include prayers in future graduation ceremonies. Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the camp Feb. 3 to object to the pastor-led prayers.

The Department of Corrections responded Feb. 13, writing that the invocation and benediction portions of the ceremony would be removed.

Religious odyssey off school schedule

FFRF learned that Tropic Isles Elementary School, North Fort Myers, Fla., planned a fifth-grade field trip to a church which was hosting a walk-through play entitled "Drug House Odyssey."

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote the school district on Feb. 12 informing them that the field trip was unconstitutional: "Taking public school students to a church, a place covered with religious iconography, is an endorsement of that church's religion."

Lee County Schools Superintendent Nancy Graham responded Feb. 16, stating that she shared FFRF's concern that the district's participation "not present any impression that the School District is attempting to indoctrinate students into a religious belief."

The district chose to postpone the event and consider an alternative site, she said.

Hand soap Jesus off school bottles

Bennett Elementary School in McKinney, Texas, removed hand sanitizer bottles that displayed the Lord's Prayer and the logo of a church. "Religion is a divisive force in public schools," wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover. "Though the school may accept donations from religious entities such as churches, the school still must comply with the Establishment Clause in its use of those items."

FFRF's complainant reported on Feb. 18 that the prayers had been removed and the church logos replaced with school logos.

Prayerful posts off Ohio school site

Eastern Local School District, Reedsville, Ohio, removed two religious posts after a car accident claimed the life of a former Eastern High School student. The posts called for "prayer warriors" to "lift all of [those involved in the accident] up in prayer."

Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Superintendent Michele Filon a letter on Feb. 12. "We are sensitive to the fact that sharing such tragic news can be a difficult and emotional task. Expressing condolences over this situation was correct, but we wish to remind the District that it must ensure that it remains neutral on matters of religion." FFRF received word Feb. 19 that the posts had been removed.

FFRF protects Minn. prisoners' rights

The Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud has agreed to discontinue providing extra gifts to prisoners who attend holiday Christian services.

"Encouraging inmates to attend a church service is constitutionally impermissible because it coerces inmates to participate in a religious exercise, and sends the message that MCF-St. Cloud endorses Christianity over all other faiths and over nonreligion," wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover on Feb. 12.

Warden Collin Gau responded Feb. 23. "We had no intention of sending a message that MCF-St. Cloud endorses Christianity over other religion, and to avoid that effective immediately, we will discontinue providing any gifts to offenders as a part of attending any religious programming at MCF-St. Cloud."

Hotel bibles removed at Portland State

FFRF had been trying to obtain a response from Portland State University in Oregon about its hotel bibles since its original letter of complaint in February 2014. "If guests want to read this religious text during their stay, they should do what everyone else does, travel with the book they want to read. The state need not, and cannot, provide religious literature to citizens," said Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel.

With help from FFRF's Portland chapter and the PSU Secular Student Alliance, FFRF was able to confirm that the bibles had been removed from rooms, despite the university's unwillingness to admit it had taken action.

— Compiled by Maddy Ziegler

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FFRF opposes Colorado discrimination

FFRF has signed on to an amicus brief in support of a gay couple refused a wedding cake by a Colorado bakery owner. While it doesn't usually get involved with non-Establishment Clause issues, FFRF strongly opposes redefining "religious freedom" to include the right to discriminate.
Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, refused to make a cake for David Mullins and Charlie Craig for their 2012 wedding reception. "I'm a follower of Jesus Christ so you can say it's a religious belief, but I believe that the bible teaches that that's not an OK thing," said Phillips.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado brought a case on the couple's behalf. The state Civil Rights Commission ruled in May 2014 that the business violated state anti-discrimination laws, ordering the bakery to change its policy. The bakery's appeal sits at the Colorado Court of Appeals.

FFRF joined Americans United for Separation of Church and State's amicus brief, written by AU Legal Director Ayesha Khan.

The order telling Phillips to stop discriminating does not violate his rights to free speech and free exercise of religion, the brief argues. Cakes are made to order for customers, who commission them for their own enjoyment, "not because they want to assist the bakery in expressing itself."

Requiring the bakery to make cakes for gay couples doesn't force the business to proclaim its approval of gays, notes the brief. A business might serve gay people "because it wishes to increase its revenue by serving as many customers as possible, because it values same-sex marriages as much as straight couples' marriages, because it did not inquire about its customers' sexual orientations and does not consider that information relevant to its business, or because it simply wishes to follow applicable state antidiscrimination laws."

FFRF filed a federal lawsuit Feb. 9 challenging the infliction of daily prayer on elementary school students in the Emanuel County School System, Swainsboro, Ga.

Defendants include Superintendent Kevin Judy, Swainsboro Primary School Principal Valorie Watkins, teacher Kaytrene Bright and teacher Cel Thompson. Anonymous co-plaintiffs are Jane and John Doe and their young children, Jesse and Jamie Doe.

Before lunch, Jamie's teacher asked students to bow their heads, fold their hands and pray while Thompson led a call-and-response prayer: "God our Father, we give thanks, for our many blessings. Amen."

In Jesse's first-grade class, Bright led students in this daily prayer: "God is great. Let us thank you for our food. Thank you for our daily prayer. Thank you. Amen."

When parents learned of the prayers in August 2014, they immediately Watkins to object. The teachers responded by telling the Doe children to leave their classrooms and sit in the hallway while the rest of their classes prayed.

"It should not be necessary for FFRF to sue over such an obvious violation of specific Supreme Court decisions barring devotions from our public schools," noted Dan Barker, FFRF co-president. "No child in our secular school system or their parents should be subjected to prayer, or stigmatized when their parents speak up to defend the Establishment Clause. But unfortunately, it appears a lawsuit will be the only way to protect the freedom of conscience of these young children."

"If anyone needs a picture drawn on how destructive religion is in our public schools, this situation is a perfect example," added Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president. "The fact that such abusive practices are continuing in our public schools 63 years after the first Supreme Court decision against school prayer shows just how much FFRF's legal work is still needed."

FFRF is represented by W.R. Nichols of Atlanta, with FFRF Staff Attorneys Samuel Grover and Andrew Seidel serving as co-counsel.

The following Q&A with Stephen Uhl is from Linda LaScola's Feb. 12 Rational Doubt column, which has been focusing on "Clergy Doubt." She is co-author with Daniel C. Dennett of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind and Preachers Who Are Not Believers. She's also a co-founder of the Clergy Project. Uhl, a Ph.D. psychologist and former Catholic priest, is a major FFRF supporter and author of Out of God's Closet.

1. What caused you to start seriously doubting your faith?

I had always trusted Mother Church and her teachings. One of those official teachings was that the human mind, without the aid of faith, could prove God's existence. So when, in morning meditation, I saw that the official teaching of the church was based on an unwarranted assumption, I realized that the church teaching was not as infallible as that church claimed.

2. How did you initially react to the doubts (e.g., discuss them with others, keep them to yourself, do religious or secular reading, do something else)?

As best as I can now recall, after many decades have passed, I mainly kept the doubts to myself at first. But as the doubts got strong enough for me to think of likely making a lifestyle change, I then discussed with my spiritual adviser/confessor and with the abbot.

3. What caused the doubts to start becoming stronger than your beliefs?

Once the complete blinders of faith were discarded/punctured, the more I looked at my own and others' lives and circumstances, the more clearly I could see that what I had believed for three decades was "not necessarily so."

4. How did the doubts affect your preaching, teaching or other responsibilities or your interactions with your congregation and your family?

Whether in the classroom during the week or in the pulpit on weekends, I stayed away from most all dogmatic matters of faith while sticking to natural "golden rule" sorts of things. So I thereby avoided hypocrisy in these situations.

5. How did you come to the realization that your doubts were overcoming your beliefs, that you were no longer a believer?

Faith is blind and complete or it is inadequate to keep a reasonable person from ditching it altogether.

6. How did you think of yourself at that time (e.g., agnostic, atheist, spiritual but not religious, nonbeliever, "different" believer, something else?

I guess "anxious agnostic" would describe me for a while. But I think the anxiety soon became directed towards the practical details of leaving the monastery and dealing with survival details with minimum scandal for those who knew what I was doing. Philosophical agnostic but practical atheist would be the best personal descriptor for me.

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

Philip Appleman decrees: Let there be Enlightenment. And it is good.

Phil, a talented and compassionate poet who turned 89 in February, has had an amazing literary outpouring in his eighties. Recent books include Karma, Dharma Pudding & Pie (2009) and Perfidious Proverbs & Other Poems: A Satirical Look at the Bible. A poet and a scholar, he is editor of the Norton Critical Edition, Darwin, and the Norton Critical Edition, Malthus, as well as of the classic New and Selected Poems, 1956–1996 (1996) and Let There Be Light (1991).

The Labyrinth (Quantuck Lane Press, 2014), his newest work, is an elegant and wise 69-page monograph on God, Darwin and life, as its subtitle promises. Every page is rife with insights into the meaning of life and the reckoning with death.

"The large brain is the ultimate weapon, and sometimes it is aimed at us," he muses. "We are capable of abstractions, capable of imagining things; that is part of the problem. We imagine all sorts of useful and pleasant things: wheels, shoes, poems. But the imagination refuses to stop before it is too late and proceeds to invent sinister hells, and sumptuous heavens, and miscellaneous hypotheses, such as 'God.' "

Phil fearlessly wrestles with religion in The Labyrinth, and reality wins: "People in general have never exhibited much passion for the disciplined pursuit of knowledge, but they are always tempted by easy answers. God is an easy answer." He writes that "God" may "soothe some minds temporarily, as an empty bottle may soothe a crying baby; the nourishment from each is the same."

It's a beautiful little hardback with a dust jacket that's also beautifully written, reasoned and true. Every paragraph is studded with secular epiphany. Each page, for me, elicited a frisson of appreciation.

As Phil untangles the knotty riddles of existence, volition, human neurosis and religion, his searing logic is tempered, always, by empathy. What we have is "the joy of human life here and now, unblemished by the dark shadow of whimsical forces in the sky. Charles Darwin's example, both in his work and in his life, helps us to understand that that is the only 'heaven' we will ever know. And it is the only one we need."
Philip Appleman, the person, the freethinker, the poet and the friend, has added immeasurable joy to my life, and that of his countless readers, who include Bill Moyers, who interviewed him recently for his show.

Moyers writes: "I came across Philip Appleman's essay The Labyrinth at a difficult moment in my life and work, when I seemed to be groping from one maze to another only to find that each led to a minotaur of complexity and conflict. . . . I had been looking for the meaning of these things — of complexity, conflict, and life itself — in the wrong places. If you're in doubt about where to find such meaning, take up the thread and come along. It leads to a most surprising place."

Anita Weier, a Madison Common Council member in Madison, Wis., is the sponsor of a proposal to add atheists and the homeless as protected classes under the city's Equal Opportunities Ordinance, which offers protections in housing, employment and public accommodations. It appears to be the first such proposal in the nation.

At its initial presentation Feb. 12 before the Equal Opportunities Commission, it was referred to the employment subcommittee for discussion. A vote was set for March 12 (the day after press time for this issue) on whether to recommend passage to the council.

The EOC has been discussing adding the homeless as a protected class for more than two years. Weier told the Wisconsin State Journal that she's seeking protections for atheism because religion is already a protected class, and she thinks lack of religion should have similar guarantees. She noted that groups such FFRF have raised concerns about discrimination.

The city already prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion, color, natural origin, citizenship status, age, handicap/disability, marital status, source of income, arrest or conviction records and more.

In her blog, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor noted that the most typical discrimination FFRF has faced, locally and nationally, is refusal by companies to make its T-shirts, print its brochures or post its billboards. "We don't just have problems with free speech. We have problems with 'paid speech.' Whether this ordinance would affect such discrimination remains to be seen. But the public has no idea how often freethought views are censored. This includes a decision by CBS last year and NBC this year to refuse to nationally air a TV ad made for us by well-known public figure Ron Reagan." (At the end of the ad, he says, "Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.")
Gaylor suggested broadening the ordinance language to include "nonbelievers" or "nontheists" as well as atheists.

"Many nonreligious Madisonians may prefer other appellations to that of atheist. I like to joke that our members may call themselves by many an appellation — atheist, agnostic, skeptic, secular humanist, rationalist, nonreligious, etc. — but whatever we call ourselves, we all disbelieve in the same gods."

In his testimony, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott noted, "Having worked to protect the civil rights of nonreligious persons, I can tell you that discrimination against atheists is widespread and an ongoing concern. It permeates into employment, public schools, and even in discounts offered by places of public accommodation."

Elliott referenced his experiences halting free admission for those who attend Catholic Mass at various ethnic festivals.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel testified about discrimination nationally, including state constitutions that unlawfully prohibit atheists from holding public office, shelters and soup kitchens that reject atheist volunteers, atheist parents being denied custody and job discrimination against model employees who are atheists. Seidel pointed to a complaint by FFRF in the 1990s which involved substantial legal fees to stop involving a Madison grocery from giving out free gallons of milk only to those who had attended Mass.

"If any group in this country needs protection, it's the one that is least liked and most distrusted"—that is, atheists, according to surveys, Seidel said. "It's time that atheists enjoy the same protections as other Americans, and I encourage this council to set an example and take this historic first step."

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Meet a legal staffer: Andrew Seidel

Name: Andrew Lewis Seidel (SIGH-dle).

Where and when I was born: Jan. 31, 1982, in Woodbury, N.J.

Family: My wife Liz, who's also an FFRF staff attorney.

Education: B.S. in neuroscience and environmental science (cum laude), juris doctor (magna cum laude), Tulane University; master of laws (Outstanding LLM Award), University of Denver, Sturm College of Law.

How I came to work at FFRF: I was working in private practice in Colorado but wanted to do something more. I looked at all the state/church separation groups and atheism and humanism groups in the country. To me, FFRF has the perfect balance of atheism and separationism. We focus on helping people first, which is a bit unique in this movement.

I had already won a scholarship from FFRF for an essay I wrote for the annual contest. I used that foothold to do some volunteer work and then asked Dan and Annie Laurie to hire me full time. I believe I have a responsibility to use my law degree to make this world a better place. That's why I chose FFRF.

What I do here: I do a bit of everything, but mostly I defend Jefferson's wall of separation. I also speak around the U.S., take photos, write blogs and help write ads and serve as a general handyman around the office. Several staffers have joked that my staff attorney title is too restrictive.

What I like best about it: Every day we fight to uphold the First Amendment. Not many lawyers have that privilege. We also fight on behalf of an underrepresented minority. Helping freethinking students and families attend school, free from proselytizing or praying and preying teachers, is immensely rewarding.

What gets old about it: Playing against a stacked deck can get tiresome. We are way overmatched in funding, and courts are reluctant to decide cases in favor of an unpopular minority, even if the law is clear. The media portray us as whiny rabble-rousers. But we have reason and right on our side, and I truly believe that we will be successful.

I spend a lot of time thinking about: My family, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And the book I am working on about how Judeo-Christian principles conflict with America's founding principles. I'm almost done with the first draft.

I spend little if any time thinking about: The differences between the various religious sects. To me, it's a bit like arguing over the average height of leprechauns or what color unicorn hair is. It's all an argument over something that isn't real. The Methodist is just a wrong as the Catholic who's just as wrong as the Sikh. They're wasting their breath on differences over fictional nonsense.

My religious upbringing was: Pretty liberal. My mom encouraged me to go to different churches with my Christian friends and to temple with my Jewish friends, etc. According to my mom, I briefly wanted to convert to Judaism after attending my first bar mitzvah. That broad exposure made it pretty clear that no religion had a monopoly on truth. I soon realized they were probably all wrong.

My doubts about religion started: They didn't start, they were always there. I agree with Hitchens, who observed that "You don't so much as become an atheist as find out that's what you are. There's no moment of conversion. You don't suddenly think 'I don't believe this anymore.' You essentially find you don't believe it."

Religion never made sense to me. I think it's natural for every child to doubt and question. Kids are curious. It takes religion to silence that curiosity and shut down those doubts. If humans were truly, deeply religious, they wouldn't need to attend church every week to reinforce their faith.

Things I love: Learning, traveling, reading, my wife (FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell), my family, dogs, trying to capture the beauty of nature with my camera and redemption through effort, thought and will.

Things I smite: Cruelty, bigotry, proud, confident ignorance and redemption through human sacrifice.

My favorite authors are: In no particular order, P.G. Wodehouse, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, George MacDonald Fraser, George Orwell, Christopher Hitchens, Ron Chernow, Colleen McCullough and many more.

My legal heroes are: There are so many to choose from — Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Clarence Darrow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Earl Warren, Learned Hand (coolest name ever) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg all spring to mind.

But my true legal heroes are plaintiffs in cases like those FFRF takes: the McCollums, Ellery Schempp, Roy Torcaso, Joann Bell, Jessica Ahlquist, Max Nielson and everyone who challenges religious privilege in court. I'm in awe of their courage and willingness to stand on principle. (John Scopes also, although he was a criminal defendant and not a plaintiff.)

FFRF Co-Presidents

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

See Dan's bio »
See Dan's online writings »

See Dan's Debates »
Contact Dan »

See Annie Laurie's bio »
See Annie Laurie's online writings »
Contact Annie Laurie »

FFRF President emerita

Anne Nicol Gaylor
Photo by Brent Nicastro.

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.

Slideshow of Anne Gaylor & FFRF activism
See Anne Gaylor's online writings.

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.

FFRF Legal

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.

FFRF Staff

JACKIE DOUGLAS is the office manager at the Foundation. She graduated in 2002 from the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Human Development and Family Services. Jackie is happily married, owns a home on the east side of Madison, and has a black cat named Lucky.

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.

JAKE SWENSON started as FFRF’s first graphic designer in 2015. He was born in Rockford, Illinois, and graduated with a degree in fine art from the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. He enjoys music, cycling, photography, traveling, and coffee.

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.

ELEANOR MCENTEE has over a decade of experience as a nonprofit bookkeeper and is very dedicated to nonprofit organizations.  In her free time, she journals, spends time with her cats Steven and MacNcheez, and rides her Harley all over Wisconsin and more!

FFRF Honorary Board


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!”

In Memoriam 

  • 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.”

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