“Mobile churches” that set up shop at the Sahuarita Unified School District in Arizona will now be charged full rent. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter April 30, outlining allegations that several churches were far exceeding the scope of their contracts, using more space for more time than they paid for and “paying” with in-kind donations that were of dubious use to the school such as an expensive sound system. “These issues expose SUSD to severe legal and financial liability,” he noted.
FFRF’s complainant reported on May 27 that signs advertising the churches were removed and that the school district told churches they could only use the space they had actually rented.
The Lancaster County (S.C.) School District is taking steps to ensure an Indian Land Elementary teacher will no longer force her students to give prayers in class. FFRF learned that teacher Kathryn Watkins reportedly selected students at random to lead a prayer before lunch, continuing to select students until one gave a Christian prayer. “A prompt by a teacher for a student to lead the class in prayer carries the stamp of approval of the school. Ms. Watkins goes further by requiring one student to recite the prayer, and all students to listen, before they are permitted to eat lunch,”
wrote Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott in a May 8 letter.
School attorney Kathryn Mahoney wrote back May 26. FFRF’s concerns were addressed with the teacher, who now understands she’s not to lead a prayer or ask students to do so, Mahoney said.
Students at Willow Glen High School, San Jose, Calif., will not be subjected to future screenings of the Christian movie “Courageous.”
A math and science teacher showed the movie to students, boasting on social media that his students “are hearing the Gospel as direct as if I were preaching it to them on the streets.”
The plot focuses on four police officers who resolve to honor God and be better fathers after one of their daughters is killed. The “Critics Consensus” on the rating site Rotten Tomatoes says, “While the filmmaking is fairly competent, ‘Courageous’ is overall worthless to anybody who doesn’t subscribe to its dogmatic agenda.”
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a Feb. 13 complaint letter. An attorney for the school district confirmed on May 4 that “Courageous” would not be shown again.
Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, Texas, will no longer direct its charitable efforts toward a religious group. FFRF received word that teachers solicited students during class time to donate to Mobile Loaves & Fishes — Miracles on Wheels and offered a party for the class that donated the most. The group’s main activity is a “truck ministry.”
“It is laudable for CRHS to encourage students to become active, charitable and involved in their community by volunteering and donating, but the school cannot use that goal as an avenue to support a religious organization with a religious mission,” explained FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor in a letter to the Round Rock Independent School District. The school district responded May 14. While denying teacher involvement, it said “District administrators will remind all teachers to refrain from soliciting donations to student fundraising endeavors.”
The Alpine School District Board of Education, American Fork, Utah, no longer starts meetings with a Mormon prayer. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the district Jan. 13 to object to the illegal prayer. Courts have consistently ruled “It is beyond the scope of a public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its scheduled meetings,” Seidel said.
An attorney for the board responded May 8 that the board has discontinued prayers.
Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission employees will no longer be allowed to plan a National Day of Prayer event on government time using the public dime. FFRF received a report that the employees plan an annual gathering held offsite during work hours. Planners reportedly advertised their office phone numbers as contact numbers for this year’s event and handed out fliers promoting it to other employees at work.
“Commission employees’ promotion and apparent coordination of this event at work using work resources poses constitutional separation of state and church concerns,” wrote Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler in a May 4 letter.
Commission counsel responded May 7, agreeing it was inappropriate for employees to be thus involved and ensuring they’d be made aware of restrictions.
Kindergarten testing in Portage, Mich., will no longer take place in church. Previously, Woodland Elementary School held its mandatory screening at First Baptist Church, where religious pamphlets were reportedly distributed to students and parents.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote in an April 1 complaint letter, “It is outrageous and illegal for a public school to allow a church to proselytize 5-year-old students with religious materials at a mandatory school-sponsored event.”
The superintendent responded May 1 to say that the district was able to find an alternative secular location.
San Angelo Independent School District in Texas is taking steps to ensure a teacher who bragged about praying with students will follow the law in the future. Central High School teacher Julie Upton Schniers wrote on Facebook that she was “a teacher who prays with [her] team before every speech and debate tournament knowing they don’t all believe and knowing it could get [her] fired some day.”
She also wrote it was her job to subtly influence her students toward Christianity by “planting a seed.”
“Almost more troubling than the constitutional violation is the willful and blatant manner in which Schniers is breaking the law,” wrote Staff Attorney Sam Grover in an April 28 complaint letter.
The school district responded May 1, saying it was conducting an investigation and would “promptly take all remedial actions necessary to ensure compliance with applicable legal standards.”
Olentangy Local School District in Lewis Center, Ohio, distanced itself from a baccalaureate ceremony after getting a May 13 complaint letter from Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert. An email invitation about the ceremony was sent to parents from an email address typically used to promote school events. It had no disclaimer that the ceremony was not school-sponsored and said to contact Olentangy High School teacher Linda Shank to sign up.
An assistant superintendent responded the next day to say that the district was taking steps to ensure employees maintained appropriate distance from the baccalaureate. FFRF’s complainant reported that further school announcements included a disclaimer that the baccalaureate was not school-sponsored and that students were no longer to contact school staff to sign up.
Shank, the teacher listed as the contact person, called Markert on May 19 and demanded to know the complainant’s name, a request Markert refused. FFRF carefully protects the identities of complainants, as it is allowed to do by law.
Fruita, Colo., Monument High School instituted a new policy on baccalaureates after getting a Jan. 28 letter from FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. FFRF learned the school previously held a baccalaureate, organized by administrators and other staff, in the gym. At the 2014 ceremony, teachers reportedly read bible verses and spoke about the virtues of being Christian, with choir and orchestra students required to perform. Students were threatened with lower grades and told that failing to attend would result in having to perform all the concert music alone in front of the entire class.
“The District agrees that its schools and staff members should not sponsor, organize or require attendance at baccalaureate events in which prayers or other religious messages are recited,” wrote the Mesa County Valley School District’s attorney in an April 28 response. The new policy assures ceremonies will be conducted “in a manner that is fully consistent with modern First Amendment jurisprudence.”
DAN BARKER and ANNIE LAURIE GAYLOR are co-presidents of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and co-hosts of Freethought Radio. A former minister and evangelist, Dan became a freethinker in 1983. His books, Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children and Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher To Atheist (1992) are published by the Foundation. His newest book, Life Driven Purpose: How an atheist finds meaning, was published by Pitchstone Press in 2015. His previous book, the autobiographical Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists, was published in 2008. A graduate of Azusa Pacific University with a degree in Religion, Dan now puts his knowledge of Christianity to effective freethought use. A professional pianist and composer, Dan performs freethought concerts and is featured in the Foundation's musical cassettes, "My Thoughts Are Free," "Reason's Greetings," "Dan Barker Salutes Freethought Then And Now," a 2-CD album "Friendly Neighborhood Atheist," and the CD "Beware of Dogma." He joined the Foundation staff in 1987 and served as public relations director. He was first elected co-president in November 2004.
Annie Laurie was also editor of Freethought Today from 1984 to 2009, when she became executive editor. The paper is published 10 times a year. Her book, Woe To The Women: The Bible Tells Me So, first published in 1981, is now in its 4th printing. In 1988, the Foundation published her book, Betrayal of Trust: Clergy Abuse of Children, the first book documenting widespread sexual abuse by clergy. Her 1997 book, Women Without Superstition: 'No Gods, No Masters'is the first collection of the writings of historic and contemporary women freethinkers. A 1980 graduate of the UW-Madison Journalism School, she was an award-winning student reporter and recipient of the Ken Purdy scholarship. After graduation, she founded, edited and published the Feminist Connection,a monthly advocacy newspaper, from 1980-1985. She joined the Foundation staff in 1985. She has been co-president since 2004. She co-founded the original FFRF with Anne Gaylor (see below) as a college student. Photo: Timothy Hughes
FFRF President emerita
ANNE NICOL GAYLOR is a founder and president emerita of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. She served as executive director from 1978 to 2005, and is now working as a consultant to the Foundation. Born in rural Wisconsin, she is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She owned and managed successful small businesses and was co-owner and editor of an award-winning suburban weekly newspaper. A feminist author, she has done substantial volunteer work for women's rights (including serving as volunteer director of the Women's Medical Fund). Under her leadership the Freedom From Religion Foundation has grown from its initial three Wisconsin members to a national group with representation in every state and Canada.
Director of Operations
LISA STRAND is director of operations of FFRF. She has more than 25 years of experience in nonprofit (primarily association) management, including 15 years as executive director of the Wisconsin Library Association. She is married with a daughter, as well as three cats, a guinea pig and an untended garden that will someday be beautiful.
REBECCA S. MARKERT attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and received her B.A. in political science, international relations and German in 1998. After graduating from UW–Madison, Rebecca spent one year working as a legislative fellow at the German Parliament in Bonn, Germany. In the fall 1999, she returned to the United States and began working as a legislative correspondent and assistant to the chief of staff for United States Senator Russ Feingold in Washington, D.C. In 2002, she returned to Madison, Wisconsin, to work on Senator Feingold’s 2004 re-election campaign. After the campaign, Rebecca attended Roger Williams University School of Law and received her Juris Doctor in 2008. She joined the Foundation staff in October 2008.
Rebecca is the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s first staff attorney and primarily works on Establishment Clause cases. She is a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin, Dane County Bar Association, and is admitted to practice in the United States District Court for the Eastern and Western Districts of Wisconsin.
PATRICK ELLIOTT, the Foundation's second staff attorney, hails from St. Paul, Minn. Patrick received a degree in legal studies and political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005. He attended the University of Wisconsin Law School and received his Juris Doctor in 2009. While in school, Patrick took an interest in the First Amendment and constitutional law. He joined FFRF as a staff attorney in July 2010, after working part-time for the Foundation since February. Patrick is a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin, and is admitted to practice in the United States District Court for the Western and Eastern Districts of Wisconsin.
ANDREW SEIDEL graduated cum laude from Tulane University with a B.S. in neuroscience and environmental science and magna cum laude from Tulane University Law School, where he was awarded the Haber J. McCarthy Award for excellence in environmental law. He studied human rights and international law at the University of Amsterdam and traveled the world on Semester at Sea. In May of 2011, Andrew completed his Master of Laws at Denver University Sturm College of Law with a 4.0 GPA and was awarded the Outstanding L.L.M. Award. He has written a book on International Human Rights Law and his essay on the role of religion in government and the founding of our nation placed second in the FFRF's 2010 graduate student essay contest. Andrew is a former Grand Canyon tour guide and accomplished nature photographer; his work has been displayed in galleries in Colorado, Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and Maryland. He joined the FFRF staff as a constitutional consultant in November 2011.
ELIZABETH CAVELL received her B.A in English from the University of Florida in 2005. After college, Elizabeth spent a year as a full-time volunteer in AmeriCorps*NCCC. She attended Tulane University Law School and received her Juris Doctor in 2009. After law school, she worked as a deputy public defender in southern Colorado. She joined the Foundation as a staff attorney in January 2013, after working for the Foundation part-time since September 2012.
SAM GROVER received his B.A. in philosophy and government from Wesleyan University in 2008. He first worked for FFRF in 2010 as a legal intern while attending Boston University School of Law. In 2011, his article on the religious exemptions in the Affordable Care Act’s individual health insurance mandate was published in the American Journal of Law and Medicine. After receiving his J.D. from Boston University in 2012, Sam worked as a law clerk for the Vermont Office of Legislative Council where he drafted legislation on health care, human services, and tax issues. He returned to work as a constitutional consultant for FFRF in the fall of 2013. Sam has written a paper on counterterrorism and the law that was published by the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism in Oklahoma City and has traveled to southern Africa to work under Justice Unity Dow of Botswana’s High Court.
KATHERINE PAIGE graduated magna cum laude from Wichita State University in 2010 with a B.A. in History, Political Science, and French. She attended law school at the College of William & Mary where she received her Juris Doctor in 2014. Katherine became FFRF’s first Legal Fellow in September 2014, specializing in faith-based government funding.
MADELINE ZIEGLER graduated magna cum laude from the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse in 2011 with a B.A. in English Literature and Political Science. She attended the University of Wisconsin Law School and received her Juris Doctor in 2014. She has worked at FFRF since May 2012, starting as a legal intern/extern, and currently works as a law clerk and legal publicist.
CALLAHAN MILLER graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin — Madison in 2014 with a B.A. in Sociology and Legal Studies and a certificate in Criminal Justice. She received a Distinction in the Major for Legal Studies and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Alpha Kappa Delta. For the majority of her time as an undergraduate, she was a leading member of UW’s ground-breaking Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics student organization. She joined the FFRF team as an official staff member in January of 2015 after having previously been an intern and intends on going to law school herself in a few years.
BILL DUNN is the editor of Freethought Today. He has a degree in history and mass communications (journalism emphasis) from the University of South Dakota and has worked as a reporter, copy editor and editor in South Dakota and Wisconsin since 1980. Bill joined the Foundation staff in July 2009. He has two daughters, Kaitlin Marie and Jamie Lee.
LAURYN SEERING is the publicist & assistant webmaster. She was born in Wausau, Wis. and has also lived in Nagasaki, Japan. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stout in 2012 with her B.S. in Professional Communications and Emerging Media, concentrating in Technical Communication and International Studies. She also received a double minor in Journalism and English. Lauryn moved to Madison in January 2013 and enjoys reading about astrophysics, basking in the sun like a turtle and creating art at coffee shops. Lauryn is a practicing Pastafarian.
LISA TREU is our Director Of First Impressions at FFRF. She comes to us after working in broadcasting for iHeart Radio in Madison, Wisconsin. She hosted various radio programs for fifteen years. Lisa and her husband ran their own Birdhouse/Birdfeeder manufacturing company called Northwoods Mfg., Inc. during the 1990’s where she had her own line of decorative birdhouses that she designed and painted herself. Lisa is the wife of Harry and is the mother of twin daughters Katrina and Karinthia. In her spare time she enjoys reading, painting, gardening, feeding the birds, getting silly with her daughters and lounging with her two cats.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to announce the formation of a new FFRF Honorary Board of distinguished achievers who have made known their dissent from religion.
The FFRF Honorary Board includes Jerry Coyne, Robin Morgan, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Ernie Harburg, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Christopher Hitchens, Susan Jacoby, Mike Newdow, Katha Pollitt, Steven Pinker, Ron Reagan, Oliver Sacks, M.D., Robert Sapolsky, Edward Sorel and Julia Sweeney.
“We are so pleased that these outstanding thinkers and freethinkers have agreed to publicly lend their endorsement to the Foundation, and its two purposes of promoting freethought and the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause,” said Dan Barker, Foundation co-president.
- Jerry Coyne, Ph.D., professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, is author of the popular book 'Why Evolution is True' and the blog of the same name.
- Richard Dawkins, probably the world’s most famous contemporary atheist and a distinguished evolutionary biologist, is Oxford professor emeritus. In his blockbuster book, The God Delusion, Dawkins writes: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.”
- Daniel C. Dennett is Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Tufts, and author of the bestselling book about religion, Breaking the Spell. In a newspaper article about his nonbelief, Dennett once wrote: “I’ve come to realize it’s time to sound the alarm.”
- Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments For the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction and a research associate in Harvard’s psychology department, is FFRF Freethought Heroine of 2011. Goldstein is a 1996 MacArthur Fellow (the “genius” award). She has taught at Barnard and in the Columbia MFA writing program and the Rutgers philosophy department. She’s been a visiting scholar at Brandeis and at Trinity College in Hartford.
- Ernie Harburg, a retired research scientist, is president of Yip Harburg Foundation and co-author of Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz? Ernie has dedicated his retirement to furthering the lyrics, music, memory and progressive views of his freethinking father, the lyricist Yip Harburg, author of classic songs such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and of Rhymes for the Irreverent, recently republished by FFRF.
- Jennifer Michael Hecht, poet, historian and author of the acclaimed Doubt: A History and The End of the Soul, told the FFRF 2009 convention audience: “If there is no god — and there isn't — then we [humans] made up morality. And I'm very impressed.”
- Susan Jacoby, bestselling author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, and program director of the Center for Inquiry-New York City, told FFRF convention-goers in 2004: "[President] Kennedy had to speak about his religion because he was suspected of insufficient dedication to the Constitution's separation of church and state. Today's candidates are suspect if they display too much dedication to secular government."
- Robin Morgan, feminist pioneer, global activist, author of the groundbreaking "Sisterhood is Powerful" and more than 20 books, was formerly Ms. Magazine editor and consulting editor. She is the co-founder of the Feminist Women's Health Network and Women's Media Center and currently hosts "Women's Media Center Live" the radio "talk-show with a brain."
- Mike Newdow is working pro bono to challenge such violations as the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. He told the U.S. Supreme Court during oral arguments: “I am an atheist. I don't believe in God. And every school morning my child is asked to stand up, face that flag, put her hand over her heart, and say that her father is wrong.”
- Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard, is author of The Blank Slate: “I never outgrew my conversion to atheist at 13.”
- Katha Pollitt, “Subject to Debate” columnist for The Nation, author and poet, has spoken out regularly and energetically as a freethinker, in such columns as “Freedom From Religion, Sí!”
- Ron Reagan, media commentator, describes himself in a radio ad he taped for FFRF as: “Unabashed atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”
- Oliver Sacks, M.D., the compassionate neurologist and bestselling author, describes himself as “an old Jewish atheist.”
- Robert Sapolsky, a neurologist, Stanford professor and bestselling author, once suggested FFRF put up a sign at its conventions: “Welcome, hellbound atheists.”
- Edward Sorel, satiric cartoonist and irreverent illustrator who is a regular contributor to The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and whose caricatures have been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, has been a Foundation member since the 1980s.
- Julia Sweeney, comedian and actress, is writer/performer of the play, “Letting Go of God”: “How dare the religious use the term 'born again.' That truly describes freethinkers who've thrown off the shackles of religion so much better!”
- Christopher Hitchens, the iconoclastic journalist, is author of the bestselling God Is Not Great: “Since it is obviously inconceivable that all religions can be right, the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong.”