Other Court Challenges - Freedom From Religion Foundation

FFRF challenges Catholic shrine on Big Mountain

FFRF filed suit in U.S. District Court in Montana, challenging the Forest Service's decision to renew a special permit for a "shrine to our Lord Jesus Christ" on federal property in the Rockies. The Knights of Columbus, a conservative Roman Catholic men's club, has placed a devotional shrine on Big Mountain near Whitefish Mountain's Resort Chair Two in Flathead National Forest, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. On June 24, 2013, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen issued a ruling granting summary judgment for the Defendants.

Complaint
FFRF news release: "FFRF challenges Catholic shrine on Big Mountain"
William A. Cox Declaration
Order 
FFRF news release: "Judge rules FFRF's Jesus shrine suit can go forward"
Government's Brief for Summary Judgment
Intervenor's Brief for Summary Judgment (Knights of Columbus)
Smith Declaration
FFRF Response Brief
Bonham Declaration
Morris Declaration
Gaylor Declaration, Exhibits
Decision and Order 

FFRF filed a notice of appeal on August 22, 2013. The case was heard by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

FFRF Appellate Brief
Government's Response Brief

Amicus briefs filed in support of the government: 

ACLJ
State of Montana and American Legion

In August 2015, the Ninth Circuit, in a comparatively short 2-1 decision, ruled the Catholic shrine could stay. The blistering dissent noted, ". . . despite arguments to the contrary, a twelve-foot tall statue of Jesus situated on government-leased land cannot realistically be looked upon as 'predominantly secular in nature.' "

Ninth Circuit Ruling

FFRF sought an en banc review of the case on Aug. 21, 2015.

FFRF news release: "FFRF seeks en banc review over Jesus shrine on Big Mountain"

That review was denied on Nov. 20, 2015.

Newdow v. The Congress of the United States

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), along with 19 other plaintiffs is suing the U.S. treasury for stamping "In God We Trust" on currency. Honorary FFRF board member, Mike Newdow, is acting as legal counsel in the suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on February 1, 2013.

IGWT was first added to coins during the Civil War and then to all currency in the 1950s. Plaintiffs allege that the religious verbiage is proselytizing, discriminatory and a per se establishment of monotheism in violation of the Establishment Clause.

Complaint 2/1/2013

Decision 9/13/2013

Plaintiffs' Corrected Appellate Brief 1/16/2014

Government Appellate Brief 1/17/2014

Plaintiffs' Reply Brief 1/31/2014

Decision by 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals

FFRF sues florist in Rhode Island for refusing flower order for Jessica Ahlquist

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is suing a Rhode Island florist in Superior Court in Providence for refusing to deliver FFRF's order of a dozen red roses to Cranston teen Jessica Ahlquist after she won a court case in January 2012. FFRF alleges Marina Plowman, owner-operator of Twins Florist in Cranston, denied FFRF "full and equal access to public accommodations by refusing to 

fulfill a flower order on the basis of religion (non-belief), in violation of Rhode Island General Laws." FFRF filed a previous complaint in January 2012 with the state Commission for Human Rights. A preliminary investigating commissioner determined in October that "probable cause" existed to believe that Plowman violated state law. The parties could have engaged in more conciliation with the commission, but the defendant chose to move the matter to Superior Court. FFRF has asked for a jury trial.

The defendant told a TV reporter at the time, "It's my freedom of speech. I refuse orders when I want and I take orders when I want."

FFRF filed a similar complaint with the commission about Flowers by Santilli's refusal to fulfill the order. Flowers by Santilli chose pursue mediation through the commission. Attorney Katherine Godin of Warwick is FFRF's local counsel in the lawsuit.

Legal Complaint, Jan. 25, 2013

More background:

Rhode Island florists refuse to deliver FFRF's flowers to Jessica Ahlquist, Jan. 19, 2012 
Florist shops violate rhode Island public accommodation statute, Jan. 19, 2012

 

FFRF sues IRS for preferential treatment of churches, which are exempt from filing fees, filing Form 990

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and its North Carolina chapter, Triangle Freethought Society, are suing the Internal Revenue Service for giving religious groups preferential treatment.

Under IRS regulations, all 501(c)3 non-profit organizations must file an onerous annual Form-990 — except churches. The Form 990 requires detailed reports on revenue and functional expenses, activities, governance, management, how groups fulfill their mission, and what proportion is spent on programs, management and fundraising.

FFRF and Triangle Freethought spend thousands of dollars each year to complete the 990. We have to track all our money and show the IRS where it all goes. Churches and other religious organizations do not have to file this form, do not have to track their funds, do not have to publicly report their funds, and do not have to pay accountants to complete the form.

The "preferential treatment of churches" directly benefits churches, while discriminating against other non-profit organizations, "solely on the basis of religious criteria."

The District Court initially granted FFRF standing to sue on August 22, 2013.  After the Seventh Circuit decided against FFRF on the parsonage exemption lawsuit, the District Court dismissed this lawsuit as well.  The court held that FFRF and Triangle did not have "standing" to sue.  The court basically said that the IRS had to first officially determine that FFRF was not eligible for the Form-990 exemption before FFRF would have standing to sue.

Legal complaint
Press Release
Motion to Dismiss
Court order denying IRS's motion to dismiss the lawsuit
IRS's motion for summary judgment 
FFRF's response brief opposing the IRS motion for summary judgment
IRS's reply to FFRF's response brief 

Court's order and opinion dismissing on standing

 

FFRF sues Warren mayor over crèche display (Dec. 22, 2011)

On behalf of a local member, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit on Dec. 22, 2011, in the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division, charging Mayor James R. Fouts, of Warren, Mich., with government censorship of its nonreligious views and unlawful endorsement of religion. FFRF sought a preliminary injunction to enjoin the mayor from continuing to establish religion “by allowing public displays of only religious symbols” and to order him to allow placement of FFRF’s Winter Solstice display. The lawsuit, FFRF v. City of Warren, was filed by the firm of Butzel Long in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., which is representing both FFRF and its member plaintiff pro bono. FFRF alleges censorship, establishment of Christianity and denial of equal protection under the law by the city of Warren.

The mayor responded to a demand letter sent by attorney Danielle Hessell with a letter that called FFRF’s sign “highly offensive.”

Fouts, amusingly, compared FFRF’s request to place its sign saying "There are no gods" to putting up a “sandwich board saying that there is no Santa Claus.” Fouts stated: “I cannot and will not sanction the desecration of religion it the Warren City hall atrium.”

The legal complaint summarizes the chronology of the mayor’s endorsement of religion and censorship of the views of FFRF and its member Douglas Marshall of Warren, a named plaintiff. FFRF complained about the nativity display in the city hall atrium more than a year ago, eventually receiving a response on Dec. 8, 2010, in which Fouts wrote that “all religions are welcome to celebrate their religious seasons with a display in city hall.” Marshall tried in vain repeatedly to obtain permission to place the FFRF sign in the city hall atrium.The complaint called Fouts’ denial of a permit to Marshall “an unconstitutional, content-based restriction on plaintiffs’ expression in a traditional public forum.” As the Supreme Court has held, “a principle at the heart of the Establishment Clause [is] that government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion.” The mayor’s preference for the nativity display, and discriminatory practice against the plaintiffs also denies them equal protection under the law.

“As a result, Defendants send a clear message to Plaintiffs that they are outsiders and not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message that those who favor the Christian religion are insiders and favored members of the political community," charges the Complaint.

FFRF asks the court to enjoin the mayor from barring the FFRF sign, to find that the city has violated the rights of FFRF and its member, and to award nominal damages and reasonable attorney’s fees.

Legal Complaint

Injunction

Opinion

On May 31, 2012, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Zatkoff issued a ruling granting the city’s motion for summary judgment. FFRF has appealed this decision to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Plaintiff's Brief

Defendant's Response Brief

Amicus Curiae Brief - ACLU

Amicus Curiae Brief - AU

On February 25, 2013, a 3-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the district court.  In an opinion authored by Judge Sutton, the panel found Warren's display to be permissible government speech.

Warren 6th Circuit Opinion

FFRF sues IRS over "parsonage exemption"

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, with plaintiffs Annie Laurie Gaylor, Anne Nicol Gaylor and Dan Barker, filed a nationally significant federal lawsuit in Madison, Wis., on Sept. 13, 2011, challenging tax benefits for “ministers of the gospel,” commonly known as the “parsonage exemption," allowing ministers to deduct housing costs from their taxable income. The case advanced to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the plaintiffs lacked standing. FFRF will be retrenching its challenge of this unconstitutional subsidy.

FFRF sought a declaration that the federal statute creating the parish exemption, as administered by the IRS and the Treasury Department, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by providing preferential tax benefits to ministers of the gospel. FFRF requested the court enjoin the allowance or grant of tax benefits exclusively for ministers of the gospel.

The individually named plaintiffs, either currently directors or retired directors of FFRF, receive a housing allowance designated by FFRF's governing body, yet do not qualify for the housing allowance as they are promoting non-belief, rather than religion. In fact, Dan Barker is an ordained minister who previously was able to utilize the housing allowance and exclude such payments from his taxable income.

Ministers, who are paid in tax-free dollars, also may deduct their mortgage interest and property tax payments. Under federal law, allowances paid to “ministers of the gospel” are not treated as taxable income. “Ministers of the gospel” may uniquely claim these benefits, so the statutes convey a governmental message of endorsement, unconstitutionally favoring religious employees and institutions over all others. The exemptions permit clergy to deduct from their taxable income housing allowances furnished as part of compensation. The unique benefits to clergy date to 1954, when Congress amended the tax code to permit all clergy to exempt their housing costs from their incomes taxes. U.S. Rep. Peter Mack, author of the amendment, declared:

“Certainly, in these times when we are being threatened by a godless and antireligious world movement we should correct this discrimination against certain ministers of the gospel who are carrying on such a courageous fight against this foe. Certainly this is not too much to do for these people who are caring for our spiritual welfare.”

“The income taxation of ministers of the gospel under the general rules that apply to other individuals would not interfere with the religious mission of churches or other organizations or the ministers themselves,” the legal complaint maintained. The statutes are not an accommodation of religion, therefore, but a subsidy.

Defendants were Jacob Lew, U.S. Treasury Secretary and John Koskinen, Internal Revenue Service Commissioner, who are all providing tax benefits only to “ministers of the gospel,” rather than to a broad class of taxpayers. (When originally filed in 2011, defendants were Timothy Geithner and Douglas Shulman).

U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb, Western District of Wisconsin, issued a strong 20-page opinion and order on Aug. 29, 2012, permitting FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor and President Emerita Anne Gaylor to pursue their challenge of the 1954 law. The plaintiffs receive part of their salaries designated for a housing allowance. Yet they do not qualify for the parish exemption as they are not “ministers of the gospel.” The government contested their standing to sue, but Crabb wrote that “there is no plausible argument that plaintiffs could make that they qualify as ‘ministers of the gospel,’ so it would be pointless to require plaintiffs to jump through the hoop of filing a claim to prove that they are not entitled to the exemption.”

Complaint
Motion to Dismiss
Amended Complaint
Opinion and Order - Motion to Dismiss
FFRF news release: "FFRF parish exemption case clears hurdle" 
Opinion and Order, August 29, 2012
Government Brief for Summary Judgement
FFRF's Brief in Opposition
Annie Laurie Gaylor Declaration
Dan Barker Declaration
Decision in favor of FFRF (Nov. 21, 2013) 

The federal government filed notice on January 24, 2014, that it was appealing Judge Crabb’s ruling in favor of FFRF. Oral arguments were held before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago on September 9, 2014.

Government’s Appellate Brief
FFRF Brief
Government’s Reply Brief
Plaintiff’s Supplemental Brief Regarding Standing

Amicus Briefs filed in support of Government:

Becket Fund for Religious Liberty 
Foundation for Moral Law
Liberty Institute
National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs
Alliance Defending Freedom
Church Alliance
Christian Legal Society - Part I
Christian Legal Society - Part II

Amicus Brief filed in support of FFRF:

Center for Inquiry - Amicus Brief

On November 13, 2014, a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the exemption.

Decision for 7th Circuit
FFRF news release: "FFRF faults 7th Circuit timidity on clergy privilege case"

FFRF challenges Arizona Day of Prayer in state court (Jan. 4, 2012)

FFRF, its Valley of the Sun Chapter and several members as well as plaintiffs who were Buddhist, Christian and Muslim, filed suit in state court, challenging the constitutionality of Arizona Gov. Janice K. Brewer's annual Arizona Day of Prayer. The lawsuit was filed in Superior court of Arizona, County of Maricopa in January of 2012. Judge Eileen Willett dismissed the case on August 13, 2012 for lack of standing and for lack of jurisdiction to issue relief to the plaintiffs. On Nov. 16, 2012, FFRF and the individual plaintiffs filed an appeal to Division One of the Arizona Court of Appeals arguing that their injuries are sufficient to challenge the Governor's proclaimed days of prayer.

The Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal based on a lack of plaintiff standing  on June 11, 2013. In an unpublished opinion, Judge Donn Kessler wrote that the plaintiffs would have to demonstrate behavior of avoidance of the violative conduct or "that the alleged violation is so pervasive and continuing that it of necessity affects on a practical level how the plaintiffs interact with government." In its earlier briefing, FFRF emphasized court decisions that allowed standing where the plaintiffs had unwelcome contact with government speech promoting religion. The court did not reach the merits of the constitutional claims.

Legal complaint (pdf)

Summons (pdf)

Motion to Dismiss

Response to Motion to Dismiss

Order of Dismissal

FFRF Appeal Brief (Oct. 1, 2012)

Governor's Answering Brief (Dec. 28, 2012)

FFRF Reply Brief (Jan. 22, 2013)

FFRF sues over Pennsylvania 'Year of Bible'

FFRF filed suit challenging a declaration by the Pennsylvania House that 2012 is "The Year of the Bible." FFRF brought suit on behalf of its 599 Pennsylvania members, including 41 named state members, and its chapter, Nittany Freethought. The federal lawsuit was filed March 26, 2012, in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Defendants are State Rep. Rick Saccone, author of the resolution, Clancy Myer, House Parliamentarian and Anthony Frank Barbush, House Chief Clerk. “FFRF's membership includes individuals residing in Pennsylvania who have had direct and unwanted exposure to the Year of the Bible Resolution and the hostile environment created thereby as a result of the official declaration of a state religion by the Pennsylvania Legislature,” notes the legal complaint. Members include “individuals [who] oppose governmental speech endorsing religion because they are made to feel as if they are political outsiders.” The bible “contains violent, sexist and racist models of behavior that FFRF members find personally repugnant, and which potentially could encourage persons who rely on them to act in a manner harmful to them and others.” HR 535 sends a message of Christian endorsement and disparagement to nonbelievers. “HR 535 improperly proclaims the bible to be ‘the word of God,’ . . . the Pennsylvania House of Representatives has no such authority or right to determine what is ‘the word of God,’ or if there is a ‘word of God,’ or if there is a ‘God’,” maintains FFRF. Our nation is not founded on religious belief or a bible, but upon “a secular and godless Constitution, which grants sovereignty not to a deity or a ‘holy book,’ but to ‘We the People.’ ”

FFRF asked the court to find that HR 535 violates the Establishment Clause, to order defendants to discontinue further publication and distribution of HR 535, to declare that public officials in Pennsylvania are indeed subject to the Establishment Clause, to declare that the theocratic principles of the bible do not constitute the ”official, preferred or endorsed religion” of the state, and to declare that the government is not “Judeo-Christian.”

U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner on Oct. 1, 2012, dismissed the case, ruling House officials had legislative immunity, but chastised House officials for "premeditated pandering" and expressed alarm that the resolution passed unanimously. Conner wrote: "At worst, it is premeditated pandering designed to provide a reelection sound bite for use by members of the General Assembly. But regardless of the motivation . . . its express language is proselytizing and exclusionary. . . . The court is compelled to shine a clear, bright light on this resolution because it pushes the Establishment Clause envelope behind the safety glass of legislative immunity."



Legal complaint 
Read News Release
Motion to Dismiss 

Plaintiff's Opposition to the Motion to Dismiss
Defendants' Reply Brief

Order

 

FFRF, ACLU sue Virginia school over Ten Commandments (Sept. 15, 2011)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia filed a federal lawsuit Sept. 13 against the School Board of Giles County, Va., for unconstitutionally endorsing religion by displaying the Ten Commandments. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Roanoke on behalf of a student at Narrows High School, Narrows, Va., and the student's parent. The plaintiffs also filed a motion for them to remain anonymous due to the potential for retaliation and for a protective order barring defense counsel and court personnel from disclosing their identities. FFRF first objected to the display in December 2010 when the Commandments were posted in all six county schools. The district responded by taking the displays down, then put them back up after a church congregation and others pressured the board. On advice of legal counsel, they were again later removed. In June, after FFRF and ACLU of Virginia sent a joint letter of objection to another plan to repost the bible edicts, the board voted 3-2 to post them again, with other documents, in the misguided belief that the documents would put the display on stronger legal footing. The display at Narrows High School is in a main hallway where the student plaintiff by necessity encounters it daily. The display "promotes a particular faith to which Doe 1 does not subscribe," the suit charges. "Doe 1 understands the current display to be merely a continuation of the board’s longstanding policy, practice, and custom of promoting the Ten Commandments in the school." Given the public outcry when the Commandments were removed and the clamor for their reinstallation, "any alleged secular purpose for the current displays are, and will be perceived as, a sham," the plaintiffs contend. Hundreds of students wearing Ten Commandments t-shirts walked out of a high school this spring. Other believers crowded school board meetings.

The plaintiffs seek a declaration that the policy and postings are unconstitutional, a permanent injunction prohibiting Giles County Public Schools from displaying the Commandments, nominal damages and attorneys' fees and costs. The Supreme Court ruled in Stone v. Graham that public schools may not post the Ten Commandments. "One has only to read the first commandment, 'Thou shalt have no other god before me,' than to realize why a public school may not post such a command. It is none of the business of a school board whether a student embraces one god, ten gods or no god at all! The First Commandment is the antithesis of the First Amendment," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Plaintiffs' attorneys are FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott and Rebecca Glenberg, Thomas Okuda Fitzpatrick of the ACLU of Virginia and Frank Feibelman, ACLU of Virginia cooperating attorney.

Legal Complaint (September 13, 2011)
Brief in Support of Protective Order
Brief in Opposition to Protective Order
Reply Brief Supporting Protective Order

Motion to Dismiss
Response to Motion to Dismiss

Protective Order
Defendant's Answer

FFRF vs. Gov. Rick Perry's prayer rally (July 13, 2011)

FFRF filed a federal lawsuit on July 13, 2011 in the Southern District Court of Texas in Houston seeking to block Texas Gov. Rick Perry from continued association with the evangelical Christian prayer rally he initiated at Reliant Stadium in Houston to take place on Aug. 6, 2011. On behalf of its 700 Texas members, FFRF, as well as five of its Houston members asked  the federal court to declare unconstitutional Perry’s initiation, organization, promotion and participation in the Aug. 6 prayer event. Perry had issued a proclamation to promote the prayer rally calling Aug. 6 a "Day of Prayer and Fasting for our Nation's Challenges." The rally itself was initiated by Perry. The American Family Association took on the details for the event, called "The Response: A Call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis." The website for The Response, linked from the governor’s official website, http://www.governor.state.tx.us, conveys Gov. Perry’s hope that the prayer rally will provide divine guidance to the nation, and Perry’s videotaped invitation to join him on Aug. 6 to turn to Jesus and ask for God’s forgiveness. The homepage bears Perry’s open invitation as governor to “fellow Americans” to join him and other “praying people” in “asking God’s forgiveness, wisdom and provision for our state and nation. There is hope for America. It lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees.”

On July 22, FFRF exposed the use of Gov. Perry on robocalls promoting the rally: “This is Governor Rick Perry and I'm inviting you to join your fellow Americans in a day of prayer and fasting on behalf of our nation. As an elected leader, I am all too aware of government's limitations when it comes to fixin’ things that are spiritual in nature. That's where prayer comes in, and we need it more than ever. With the economy in trouble, communities in crisis and people adrift in a sea of moral relativism, we need God's help. That's why I'm calling on Americans to pray and fast like Jesus did, and as God called the Israelite to do in the Book of Joel. I sincerely hope you will join me in Houston on August the sixth and take your place in Reliant Stadium with praying people asking God's forgiveness, his wisdom and provision for our state and nation. To learn more, visit TheResponseUSA.com, then makes plans to be part of something even bigger than Texas.” On July 25, FFRF filed a motion seeking to enjoin Perry was continuing to promote the prayer rally. FFRF asked that Perry be barred from participating “in his official capacity as governor as a speaker at the event,” and to rescind his proclamation calling Aug. 6 a “day of prayer and fasting for our nation’s responses.” U.S. District Judge Gray Miller dismissed the lawsuit on July 28, ruling that the plaintiffs lacked standing. “Nobody would have trouble seeing the injury if a governor aligned himself with a radical Muslim group and used his office to call all citizens to a daylong prayer to Allah rally," noted FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

FFRF held a “dinner of nonprayer and nonfasting” Aug. 5 for Houston-area members to honor the local co-plaintiffs in the case. After being denied use of any billboards near the stadium to protest the entanglement, FFRF commissioned an airplane to fly a banner: "Gov: Keep state/church separate. FFRF.ORG," over the stadium event and leased a mobile billboard with a caricature of the prayerful governor next to this message: "Beware Prayer by Pious Politicians: Get off your knees and get to work."

Legal Complaint
Proposed Order
Motion for Preliminary Injunction
Plaintiffs' Brief in Support of Preliminary Injunction
Exhibits
Declaration of Annie Laurie Gaylor
Declaration of Kay Staley
Declaration of Scott Weitzenhoffer
Perry Order Setting Hearing on Motion

FFRF & Friends Sue Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer over Arizona Day of Prayer

FFRF, with four of its Arizona members, filed a lawsuit on March 15, 2010 in U.S. District Court, District of Arizona, to enjoin Arizona Gov. Janice K. Brewer from declaring an Arizona Day of Prayer in this or future years. She has issued such proclamations in conjunction with the National Day of Prayer. The lawsuit also seeks a declaratory judgment declaring that Brewer violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in declaring her Arizona Day of Prayer last year.

Legal Complaint
Amended Complaint: filed 8/24/11

Response to Complaint
Order Schedule Hearings

Motion to Dismiss: filed 9/13/11
Response to Motion to Dismiss: filed 10/3/11
Motion for Partial Summary Judgment: filed 9/30/11

Order Dismissing Case: filed 12/12/11

FFRF & Friends Challenge 'Under God' in Pledge in New Hampshire Schools (with Mike Newdow)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has joined Michael Newdow in launching a new challenge of the religious phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. Plaintiffs include the Foundation and a Hanover couple with children in the schools who are Foundation members. The suit, filed in federal court on Oct. 31, 2007, names Congress and three local school districts. A 2002 state law requires New Hampshire schools to include recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in every school day, but adds that student participation is voluntary. The parent plaintiffs believe that by including the phrase in the pledge, the district is "endorsing the religious notion that God exists" and thereby creates a "societal environment where prejudice against atheists . . . is perpetuated." "It should be noted that Plaintiffs are making no objection to the recitation of a patriotic Pledge of Allegiance," the Complaint notes. "The government is certainly within its right to foster patriotism, and it may certainly make the determination that recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance serves that purpose. However, government may not employ or include sectarian religious dogma towards this end. By placing the religious words 'under God' into the pledge, Congress not only interfered with the patriotism and national unity the pledge was meant to engender, but it actually fostered divisiveness. . . in a manner expressly forbidden by the Constitution," writes Newdow in the legal complaint.

On Jan. 18, 2008, 51 members of Congress won court permission to intervene in the lawsuit. The interveners, including three U.S. Senators — Sam Brownback, James M. Inhofe, and Ted Stevens — and 48 members of the House, asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit. A number of individual religionists in the school district, as well as the Knights of Columbus, also intervened in the lawsuit. (The Catholic men's club originally spearheaded the campaign to insert "under God" into the previously secular pledge.) U.S. Dist. Judge Steven J. McAuliffe issued an order on Aug. 7, 2008, agreeing to dismiss Congress as a defendant. But the Court denied the State of New Hampshire's motion to dismiss, as well as the motion to dismiss filed by several intervening individuals and the Knights of Columbus. A 3-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Nov. 12, 2010 against FFRF's challenge of the new Hampshire School Patriot Act. A request for en banc review was turned down on Dec. 28, 2010. Michael Newdow with plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to review the decision on March 25, 2011.

Legal Complaint
(pdf)
Press release about Complaint
McAuliffe Aug. 7, 2008 ruling (pdf)
First Amended Brief, filed October 2008 (pdf)

Petition for Rehearing Denied

Writ for Certiorari

FFRF Sues Bush (Now Obama) over National Day of Prayer Proclamations

The Foundation, a national state/church watchdog, filed a federal lawsuit on Oct. 3, 2008, broadly challenging the federal law designating a National Day of Prayer and requiring a National Day of Prayer Proclamation by the President. In addition to suing Pres. George W. Bush (later amended to Pres. Barack Obama), the lawsuit named his press secretary, Dana Perino (amended to Robert Gibbs), Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, one of 50 governors to also issue prayer proclamations, and Shirley Dobson, chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force. Public Law 100-307 sets the first Thursday in May as "National Day of Prayer." The 1952 law, passed at the behest of Rev. Billy Graham, exhorts citizens to "turn to God in prayer, at churches." The Foundation sought a declaration that the law violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The suit alleged that a task force associated with Focus on the Family is "working hand-in-glove" with the government in organizing the National Day of Prayer. When FFRF, for pragmatic reasons, dropped the Wis. governor as a defendant, the court also dropped the NDP Task Force as a defendant. However, the judge permitted the case to continue and ruled that the plaintiffs — FFRF and six of his officers and board members — had standing to bring the suit.

In a historic decision on April 15, 2010, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled in FFRF's favor, finding the law unconstitutional and enjoining Pres. Obama not to issue a prayer proclamation. Crabb stayed the order for the injunction during the appeal. On April 14, 2011, a 3-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled that FFRF and its nonbelieving plaintiffs did not suffer any injury in being exhorted to set aside an entire day for prayer once a year by Congress and the President, and thus did not have standing to sue.

Case No. 08-CV-588

Press Release (Oct. 3, 2008)
Complaint (Oct. 3, 2008)
Amended Complaint (Feb. 10, 2009)
2008 Presidential Proclamation & all 50 2008 gubernatorial proclamations (pdf)
Federal Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Jan. 12, 2009)
Defendant Shirley Dobson's Motion to Dismiss Amended Complaint (March 9, 2009)
Defendant Shirley Dobson's Motion to Dismiss Brief (March 9, 2009)
Reply in Support of The Federal Defendant's Motion to Dismiss the First Amended Complaint (March 12, 2009)
Plaintiffs Brief in Opposition to Motions to Dismiss (April 7, 2009)
Exhibit A (pdf)
Exhibit B (pdf)
Exhibit C (pdf)
Exhibit D (pdf)
Exhibit E (pdf)
Exhibit F (pdf)
Exhibit G (pdf)
Exhibit H (pdf)
Exhibit I (pdf)
Defendant Shirley Dobson's Reply in Support of Her Motion to Dismiss First Amended Complaint (April 24, 2009)
Opinion and Order Re: Motion to Dismiss (May 26, 2009)
Plaintiffs' Responses to Federal Defendants' Statement of Proposed Findings of Fact (Nov. 16, 2009)
Plaintiffs' Brief in Opposition to Motion for Summary Judgment (Nov. 20, 2009)
Plaintiffs' Additional Proposed Findings of Fact in Opposition to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Nov. 20, 2009)
Deposition of Shirley Dobson (Nov. 20, 2009)
Exhibits for Dobson Deposition
Plaintiffs' Brief in Support of Judgment in Their Favor (Dec. 10, 2009)
Plaintiffs' Proposed Findings of Fact (Dec. 11, 2009)
First Opinion and Order (March 1, 2010)
Final Opinion and Order (April 15, 2010)

Before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals

Brief for Appeal by Obama Administration, Defendant-Appellants, filed July 2, 2010

ACLJ Amicus Brief
Attorneys General Amicus Brief
Dobson et. al Amicus Brief
Justice and Freedom Fund Amicus Brief
Foundation for Moral Law Amicus Brief
National Day of Prayer Task Force Amicus Brief
Wallbuilders Amicus Brief

FFRF Response Brief, Sept. 30, 2010
Appendix to FFRF Response Appeal

Oral Arguments (Dec. 2, 2010)

Decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, April 14, 2011
Petition for rehearing en banc

Friend of the Court briefs in favor of FFRF

Center for Inquiry
American Humanist Association
Institute for Humanist Studies
Military Religious Freedom Foundation
Secular Student Alliance
Society for Humanistic Judaism
Americans United for Separation of Church and State
The American Civil Liberties Union
The ACLU of Wisconsin
The Interfaith Alliance Foundation
American Jewish Congress (and appendix)

 

FFRF v. Geithner Parsonage Exemption

The Freedom From Religion Found­­ation, along with 21 of its California members, has filed a nationally significant federal lawsuit in Sacramento to challenge tax benefits for “ministers of the gospel,” commonly known as “the parsonage exemption.”

Ministers, who are paid in tax-free dollars, also may deduct their mortgage interest and property tax payments. Under both federal and California law, allowances paid to “ministers of the gospel” are not treated as taxable income. “Ministers of the gospel” may uniquely claim these benefits, so the statutes convey a governmental message of endorsement, unconstitutionally favoring religious employees and institutions over all others, the Foundation maintains.

The lawsuit was filed Oct. 16 in California Eastern District Court, Sacramento office. Judge William Shubb will preside over the case. Attorney Richard Bolton, Madison, Wis., with local counsel Michael Newdow, Sacramento, represent the Foundation and its plaintiff members.

The Foundation seeks a declaration that, on their face and as administered, provisions allowing tax benefits for “ministers of the gospel,” provided for by the IRS and Treasury Depart­ment, violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Defendants are Timothy Geithner, U.S. Treasury secretary; Douglas Shulman, Internal Revenue Service commissioner; and Selvi Stanislaus, executive officer of the California Franchise Tax Board, who are all providing tax benefits only to “ministers of the gospel,” rather than to a broad class of taxpayers.

The exemptions permit clergy to deduct from their taxable income housing allowances furnished as part of compensation. The unique benefits to clergy date to 1954, when Congress amended the tax code to permit all clergy to exempt their housing costs from their incomes taxes. U.S. Rep. Peter Mack, author of the amendment, declared:

Certainly, in these times when we are being threatened by a godless and antireligious world movement we should correct this discrimination against certain ministers of the gospel who are carrying on such a courageous fight against this foe. Certainly this is not too much to do for these people who are caring for our spiritual welfare.

Section 107(2) allows ministers to avoid paying taxes on income declared to be a “housing allowance.” The privilege also permits churches to save money on clergy salaries. Most egregiously, clergy may “double-dip,” i.e., deduct their mortgage payments and real estate taxes from income tax, even though they paid for these with tax-exempt dollars, amounting to a government subsidy solely for clergy.

In 2002, Congress acted to protect the exemption, after the IRS sued over an abusive housing allowance taken by Rev. Rick Warren, by limiting deductions in future to “reasonable rental value.”

“All other taxpayers pay more because clergy receive this privileged benefit,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president.

“The income taxation of ministers of the gospel under the general rules that apply to other individuals would not interfere with the religious mission of churches or other organizations or the ministers themselves,” the legal complaint maintains. The statutes are not an accommodation of religion, therefore, but a subsidy.

The Supreme Court has previously ruled that a tax benefit given only to religion violates the Establishment Clause (Texas Monthly, Inc. v. Bullock, 1989).

Complaint (Oct. 15, 2009)
Government's Motion to Dismiss (Feb. 26, 2010)
Stanislaus' Motion to Dismiss (Feb. 26, 2010)
Plaintiffs' Opposition to Government's Motion to Dismiss (April 20, 2010)
Plaintiffs' Opposition to Stanislaus' Motion to Dismiss (April 23, 2010) 
Stanislaus' Reply in Support of Motion to Dismiss (May 3, 2010)
Government's Reply in Support of Motion to Dismiss (May 3, 2010)
Plaintiffs' Reply Memorandum Regarding Question by Court (May 13, 2010)
Ex. A - Plaintiff's Reply Memorandum Regarding Questions
Ex. B - Plaintiffs' Reply Memorandum Regarding Question
Decision and Order (May 21, 2010)
Amended Complaint (June 18, 2010)
Motion to Dismiss (Dec. 23, 2011)

Withdrawn in 2011. See new Sept. 13, 2011 challenge.

FFRF Sues to Stop Religious Engravings at Capitol Visitor Center

The Foundation and its Co-Presidents filed suit on July 14, 2009, to stop the prominent engraving of "In God We Trust" and the religious Pledge of Allegiance at the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington D.C. The lawsuit was filed by attorney Richard Bolton in U.S. District Court in the western district of Wisconsin. The House and the Senate passed resolutions in July 2009 directing the Architect of the Capitol to engrave the mottos, with an expected cost of at least $100,000. Religious members of Congress had threatened to delay the opening of the Visitors Center, through which every visitor to the Capitol must now pass, unless "God is welcomed back into the Center." The Foundation contends that the motto, "In God We Trust," is a johnny-come-lately, usurping the original, secular "E Pluribus Unum" (from many, come one), only adopted during the Red Scare in the 1950s. Similarly, the once secular pledge was tampered with by Congress in 1954, when it added "under God" wording.

Read press release
Read Complaint 09-CV-439 (pdf)
Opinion and Order, Sept. 29, 2010

Watchdog, Parents File Suit Against South Carolina Release-Time Credits

The Foundation and two parent complainants in Spartanburg, S.C., filed suit in U.S. District Court, Spartanburg Division, Greenville, S.C., on June 17, 2009, challenging the awarding of academic credits for evangelical release-time instruction. "A public school could not constitutionally teach this course, but in South Carolina, a student can now get a public school academic credit for taking this class," explained George Daly, a well-known North Carolina civil rights attorney who is representing the plaintiffs.

Read press release
Moss v Spartanburg Co. School District 7:09-cv-01586-RBH Complaint (pdf)
Exhibit A (pdf)
Memorandum in Support of Motion to Dismiss
Plaintiffs' Memorandum in Opposition to Defendant's Motion to Dismiss
Memorandum in Support of Motion to Dismiss Equal Protection Claim
Plaintiff's Memorandum in Opposition to Defendant's Motion to Dissmiss Second Amended Complaint
Opinion and Order for Motion to Dismiss
Third Amended Complaint
Defendant's Answer to Plaintiffs' Third Amended Complaint
Response of Plaintiffs to Defendants Motion for Summary Judgement
Memorandum in Response to Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment
Plaintiff's Reply to Defendant's Response to Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment
Reply Memorandum in Support of Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment
Memorandum in Support of Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment
Memorandum in Support of Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment
Summary Judgment Opinion and Order

Before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals

Plaintiffs' Opening Brief
Defendant's Response Brief
Plaintiffs' Reply Brief

Decision (June 28, 2012)
Petition for Rehearing En Banc
On July 31, 2012, the petition for rehearing was denied by the Fourth Circuit

The petition for a writ of certiorari was filed on Oct. 2, 2012. The Court denied the petition on Nov. 13. 

Newdow, FFRF & Coalition Sue to Halt Inaugural Prayers

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, its co-presidents and several of its members are among the many co-plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit, Newdow v. Roberts, filed on Dec. 30, 2008, by attorney Michael Newdow in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking to enjoin the Presidential Inaugural Committee from sponsoring prayers at the official Inauguration. The 34-page Legal Complaint also punctures some myths, documenting that for most of our country's history, no clergy led prayers at inaugurations. The original complaint has been amended to include many more freethinkers, including minor students, from around the nation, as well as a variety of groups. The case was dismissed, and lost on appeal.

Case No. 08-2248 RBW

Read press release/complaint
Oral Argument Request Brief (Appeal) (pdf)
Brief Appendix (pdf)
Decision by Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, Newdow v. Roberts, No. 09-5126 (May 7, 2010) (pdf)

FFRF Sues City of Rancho Cucamonga over Censorship of "Imagine No Religion" Billboard

The national Freedom From Religion Foundation filed suit on Nov. 26, 2008, in federal court against the City of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., for taking actions which led to the censorship of its "Imagine No Religion" billboard on Archibald and Foothill Blvd, Route 66. The Foundation had prepaid for the board and contracted for a two-month run beginning in mid-November. The Board had been up for less than a week when it was removed at the apparent instigation of a city official. "The Defendants' actions conveyed a message that religion is favored, preferred, and promoted by the City of Rancho Cucamonga and its officials, despite subsequent attempts to cover up the Defendants' involvement in sending an objectively understood message disapproving FFRF's billboard," said the Foundation.

Case No. 2:08-CV-7833
Read Complaint (pdf)
Proposed Order (pdf)
Declaration of Annie Laurie Gaylor (pdf)
Declaration of Wendy Leung (pdf)
Declaration of Richard L. Bolton (pdf)
Plaintiff's Statement of Genuine Issues in Opposition to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (pdf)
Plaintiff's Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Opposition to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (pdf)
Summary Judgment Decision from Judge (pdf)

FFRF Sues Colorado Governor Over Prayer Proclamations

The Foundation, with the help of Denver-area members and plaintiffs, filed suit on Nov. 12, 2008, against Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr., for showing governmental preference for religion in issuing National Day of Prayer proclamations in tandem with the National Day of Prayer (NDP) Task Force.

The Foundation filed the lawsuit in state court in Denver, both on behalf of four named plaintiffs and its more than 400 Colorado members. The lawsuit seeks to declare Day of Prayer proclamations and dedications by Gov. Ritter in violation of the Religious Freedom clause of the Colorado Constitution, and seeks an order enjoining him from issuing further such proclamations. The Complaint notes that not only has Ritter issued official National Day of Prayer proclamations, but he appears to have aligned himself and the State of Colorado with a national observance called Reign Down USA, an evangelical movement that promotes prayer, ostensibly for restoration of the nation.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled on May 10, 2012 in FFRF's favor: "A reasonable observer would conclude that these proclamations send the message that those who pray are favored members of Colorado’s political community, and that those who do not pray do not enjoy that favored status.”

On May 20, 2013, the Colorado Supreme Court granted Gov. Hickenlooper's petition for review. The court will decide whether to upold the appellate decision, which held that FFRF and four of its members have standing and that the state constitution disallows the governor's "Colorado Day of Prayer" exhortations. 

Case No. 08-CV-9799

Press Release

FFRF Complaint (11/12/10)
Memorandum of Law in Support of Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment

Exhibit A
Exhibit B
Exhibit C
Exhibit D
Exhibit E
Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment

Memorandum of Law
Defendants' Motion
Plaintiffs' Cross-Motion
Plaintiffs' Brief in Opposition
Plaintiffs' Responses
Plaintiffs' Proposed Findings
Affidavit of Richard L. Bolton

Order Summary Judgement (10/28/10)

FFRF Amended Notice of Appeal; Proposed Order (12/14/10)
Order re FFRF Amended Notice of Appeal (12/14/10)

FFRF Opening Appellate Brief
Colorado Answer Brief
FFRF Reply Brief

Opinion (in FFRF's favor) by Judge Bernard, concurring Loeb and Lichtenstein
May 10, 2012

Colorado Petition to Supreme Court 

FFRF Response

Colorado Reply

Order Granting Review

FFRF press release, May 10, 2012

Briefs:

Governor Opening Brief to Colorado Supreme Court

FFRF’s Answer Brief (Nov. 8, 2013)

Amicus brief by American Humanist Association

Amicus brief by ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Opinion (November 24, 2014)

FFRF Challenges North Dakota's Subsidy of Christian Juvenile "Ranch"

The Foundation, with three of its North Dakota members, filed a federal lawsuit in North Dakota on June 19, 2007, challenging state and county subsidy of avowedly Christian juvenile detention facilities. The ranch, run by the Lutheran Church/Missouri Synod, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, "attempts to modify behavior by directing children to find faith in the Lord Jesus Christ," the Foundation legal complaint alleges. The facilities incorporate biblical teachings, subscribe to the three Ecumenical Creeds and the Lutheran Confessions, and schedule weekly Spiritual Life Groups activities, church attendance or other spiritual activities on Sundays, individual spiritual discussions, prayers at meals, baptism, confirmation studies, devotions, bible studies and related discussion groups. Post-release mentoring services also incorporate religion and are publicly funded with taxpayer appropriations. The ranches, run by two Lutheran denominations, have monopolized juvenile detention services in the state for many decades.

Case No. 2007 CV 00043

Press Release
Read Complaint (pdf)

U.S. Dist. Judge Daniel L. Hovland on July 17, 2008, granted the motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit, saying the Legislature does not explicitly mandate that state officials allocate specific funds for the ranches, so the alleged violation amounts to a discretionary action by the executive branch and may not be challenged by taxpayers.
Judge's Ruling (pdf)

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