- Newdow v. The Congress of the United States
- FFRF sues florist in Rhode Island for refusing flower order for Jessica Ahlquist
- FFRF sues IRS for preferential treatment of churches, which are exempt from filing fees, filing Form 990
- FFRF sues Warren mayor over crèche display (Dec. 22, 2011)
- FFRF challenges Arizona Day of Prayer in state court (Jan. 4, 2012)
- FFRF v. Geithner Parsonage Exemption
- FFRF Sues Colorado Governor Over Prayer Proclamations
- FFRF Challenges North Dakota's Subsidy of Christian Juvenile "Ranch"
- Gaylor v. Risser
- Illinois Chapel Litigated
- Round One; Ten Commandments
- Year of the Bible Challenged
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.
Plaintiffs' Corrected Appellate Brief 1/16/2014
Government Appellate Brief 1/17/2014
Plaintiffs' Reply Brief 1/31/2014
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
FFRF Appeal Brief (Oct. 1, 2012)
Governor's Answering Brief (Dec. 28, 2012)
FFRF Reply Brief (Jan. 22, 2013)
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.
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
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
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)
In 1978, the Foundation filed a federal lawsuit challenging public payment of prayers by preachers to open the Wisconsin Legislature. The case languished in federal court for five years without being heard, then was dismissed when the U.S. Supreme Court acted on a similar Nebraska case, Marsh v. Chambers (1983), finding that the prayers were "traditional." The Foundation later prevailed on the Wisconsin Senate to drop paid prayers for at least one session (1985).
In 1986, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, with Illinois member Steve Van Zandt, filed a federal lawsuit to stop the building of a chapel at the Illinois statehouse. The chapel had been suggested during a visit by TV evangelist Pat Robertson. In December 1986, the Foundation won its lawsuit at the trial level, with a strong, eloquent decision. In January 1988, the appeals court inexplicably ruled that the prayer room had a "secular purpose." The silver lining: the chapel was never used.
In 1985 the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit challenging a Ten Commandments monument in a public park in La Crosse, Wisconsin, donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. Preparing for the trial in 1987, the attorney in the case deposed the Eagles official who came up with the idea, who explained how he and director Cecil B. DeMille got together to promote the Ten Commandments, Minnesota granite and DeMille's new epic movie. The federal judge found that, based on a technicality, the La Crosse plaintiff, a lifelong resident, schoolteacher and daughter of the former local Congressman, did not have standing to sue (1987). This case has been revisited by the Foundation with 22 local plaintiffs, and to date, the Foundation has prevailed in court.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation was the first to challenge a Congressional proclamation calling 1983 "The Year of the Bible." Gaylor v. Reagan was eventually dismissed as moot by U.S. District Judge James Doyle when Reagan signed the Congressional resolution. But the lawsuit commanded major headlines, TV talkshows and interviews for the Foundation. The proclamation was delayed following the filing of the lawsuit, and the version that was belatedly signed was also weaker than the original wording proposed.