Liberty Counsel's Mathew Staver attacks FFRF

Who is the paper tiger?

Dan Barker

In a recent blog, Mathew Staver, dean of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University School of Law, called the Freedom From Religion Foundation “a paper tiger.”  Staver is also founder and director of the Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal organization that fights to defend “religious freedom.” He notes that FFRF has been in the news a lot (quite an accomplishment for a “paper tiger”) and claims this is because we are mounting a “war with Christianity.”

It is true that the Freedom From Religion Foundation, composed mainly of atheists and agnostics, is fighting Christianity in government, although we did not start the war. That is like saying my ancestors, the American Indians, were mounting a war with Europe. The reason we have been in the news is not due to our efforts to fight Christianity, and even if it were, that is not a bad thing. It is good to resist a false, dangerous and invasive world view. Staver undoubtedly feels the same about his opposition to Islam, yet I doubt he would characterize his opinions as a “war with Islam” (although he is indeed "marching as to war with atheism").

FFRF is in the news because of its efforts to defend, not attack. FFRF’s main purpose is to protect the separation of church and state. We are not assaulting Christians or interfering with Staver’s freedom to believe in talking snakes and magical incantations. We sue governments—mayors, governors and school boards, for example, as well as the executive branch of the federal government—only when they overstep their authority by promoting religion and allowing religious zealots to hijack our precious Constitution, a document truly worth defending.

We are asking the government to remain neutral, but theocrats like Staver seem to confuse neutrality with hostility. If our current victory over the National Day of Prayer holds, Christians will no longer be allowed to force the government to promote their private views—they will have to (gasp!) do it on their own. Our victory does not promote atheism nor hinder Christianity in the slightest—in fact, it strengthens the freedoms of believers when the government stops meddling in our private affairs.

I debated Mat Staver last month at Liberty School of Law on whether American law is based on the Ten Commandments (see blog about the event). Now he says he has “given the group [FFRF] a deeper look" since the debate.

He didn’t look very close. He says FFRF is “headed by Dan Barker” when he should know that Annie Laurie Gaylor and I are co-presidents, elected as part of a governing board of officers. He claims “the foundation is really a small organization that does not even have full-time attorneys to deal with its lawsuits, but that it is represented by a few volunteer lawyers.” If he had done a minimum of reading (such as looking at our “Getting Acquainted” webpage), he would have seen that we indeed have a full-time staff attorney, though I don’t fault him for not knowing that we may soon be hiring a second one. In more than three decades of legal action, including more than 50 lawsuits, we have had very few pro bono representatives (and those are deeply appreciated). FFRF has a legal fund, thanks to the generosity of our members, a fund that is always near depletion because we put that money to good use.

Liberty Counsel currently has earned only a 2-star rating from Charity Navigator (see here), unlike the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has held the top 4-star rating for six years in a row (see here). Liberty Counsel’s revenue is a little more than half that of FFRF’s. On their web page, it appears that their only staff are Mathew and his wife, both attorneys.

Staver pulls a paper rabbit out of the hat when he says “FFRF has a limited number of donors, but no broad-based support . . . It’s supported by a few wealthy individuals who want to support and promote these atheistic ideas.” (We'd like to know who those "wealthy individuals" are!) FFRF has some generous individual supporters, but the vast majority of our funding comes from individual $40-$50 memberships from nearly 15,000 members, and twice-a-year fundraisers that bring in very nice, deeply appreciated, but mostly modest contributions that add up to enough to keep our legal efforts afloat.

But why is any of this relevant? Staver’s belittling remarks side-step the real issue, which is whether our complaints against public officials who promote religion are constitutionally valid. The reason we have been in the news recently is precisely because a federal judge has deemed our lawsuit to have merit. In our recent National Day of Prayer victory, federal Judge Barbara Crabb issued a careful, fair decision based on good law, good history and Supreme Court precedent. The Freedom From Religion Foundation speaks for the more than 15% of Americans who are nonreligious. Would Staver dismiss the efforts of a Jewish legal organization that represents only 1.2% of the population? When Roy Torcaso and Ed Schempp and Vashti McCollum won their landmark Supreme Court cases, they were speaking for themselves, as individuals.

In America we are free to disagree about religious matters, but we are not free to ask our government to settle the argument. It is usually minority groups that win these lawsuits—Jehovah’s Witnesses, Amish, Jews, atheists. The First Amendment, after all, is designed to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. No one should be surprised that the National Day of Prayer would be challenged by a group representing a (currently) unpopular viewpoint that is working to keep the Christian tiger from tearing up the paper on which the Constitution is printed.

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