Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

A Georgia courthouse has taken down a Christian flag due to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

An overtly Christian flag on a flagpole boasting an additional cross had been prominently on display next to the judge's bench in a Bryan County courtroom. The flag is a traditional evangelical Christian design, reportedly conceptualized by Protestants in the early 20th century. The white in the flag is said to represent the biblical notions of purity, the blue is supposed to stand for baptism in water and the red is meant to symbolize the sacrifice that Jesus made for humankind.

The religious significance of the cross and the flag display is indisputable, and FFRF had urged its immediate removal.

"An overwhelming majority of federal courts agree that the Latin cross universally represents the Christian religion, and only the Christian religion," FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote to Rebecca Crowe, Bryan County clerk of courts. "And a majority of federal courts have held displays of Latin crosses on public property to be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion." 

After agreeing to remove the display, Bryan County officials dilly-dallied for a while, shirking responsibility for actually getting rid of it. Earlier this week, however, they finally complied with the U.S. Constitution

"We appreciate that they finally decided to stop playing the role of constitutional outlaws" says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Bryan County is not a Christian county, Georgia is not a Christian state and the United States is a secular—not a Christian—nation. Reason and the Constitution have prevailed."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with almost 24,000 nonreligious members across the country, including more than 400 in Georgia and an Atlanta-area chapter.

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation applauds a recent court victory that health care workers have obtained over their religious employers regarding unfair pension plans. FFRF, a national state/church watchdog group, filed a friend of the court brief in a case decided earlier this week by a federal appeals court.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on July 26 ruled that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) does not exempt retirement plans created by supposedly religious entities that are not churches.

The plaintiffs alleged that they had been harmed by the management of a retirement plan run by their former employer, Dignity Health. FFRF submitted an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs arguing that any religious exemption from ERISA violates the constitutional separation of state and church.

While not addressing the substantive argument that FFRF put forward, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on statutory grounds. The ruling joins similar decisions handed down by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Decemberand the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March. FFRF had filed amicus briefs in these cases, too. Last month, FFRF also filed an amicus brief before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in a similar case.

"The panel held that Dignity Health's pension plan was subject to the requirements of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act and did not qualify for ERISA's church-plan exemption," states the summary of the ruling. "Agreeing with other circuits, the panel agreed that a church plan must be established by a church or by a convention or association of churches or by a church-controlled or church-affiliated organization whose principal purpose or function is to provide benefits to church employees."

ERISA regulates retirement plans, but exempts church plans from requirements such as paying insurance premiums, meeting minimum funding standards, and disclosing funding levels to plan participants. Cases have been brought around the country against large corporations like Catholic hospitals that claim the exemption, with FFRF filing amicus briefs and sharing in court victories in several instances.

FFRF argued that the problem isn't that various hospital corporations are claiming the church-based exemption, it's that the loophole exists at all.

"We rejoice with the employees at the court ruling," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "But courts need to completely do away with the religious exemption, since it blatantly violates the First Amendment."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nontheistic organization with 24,000 members nationwide. FFRF extends its appreciation to former law intern Jarvis Idowu for his work on the amicus briefs on behalf of FFRF, as well as FFRF Staff Attorneys Patrick Elliott and Andrew Seidel.

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Whitney Steffen

WHITNEY STEFFEN is FFRF’s Legal Assistant. Whitney is a Madison native who graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison with a B.A. in English in 2011. Whitney received a Paralegal Post-Baccalaureate diploma from Madison College in 2014 and previously worked as a paralegal at a small law firm before coming to FFRF. She enjoys watching the Wisconsin State Senate and Assembly from the galleries, reading, and spending time with her four cats.

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A Public Affair

1ohiochristianuniveristyThe Freedom From Religion Foundation is challenging an Ohio town's scholarship program for a Christian university.

Grove City is offering its residents scholarships to attend Ohio Christian University's local campus, at the Grove City Church of the Nazarene, as part of the Grove City Higher Education Investment Program. The university is deeply immersed in religion.

The campus is located inside a megachurch. Many of the institution's degrees and courses are heavily infused with Christianity. For instance, the university offers a B.A. in leadership and ministry that requires many courses in Christian theology and teaches students how to "demonstrate skills in communicating the gospel." But even seemingly secular options have a lot of religion in them. So, students who pursue a B.S. in nursing are taught to deliver "holistic Christian care," while students who pursue an associate's degree in business or human services must take a core of "Bible/Christian worldview classes." All graduates of the university are expected to "articulate a Christian worldview," to "confirm an understanding of a saving and sanctifying knowledge of God through Jesus Christ as savior and lord," to "affirm the Bible as the only infallible guide for Christian faith and practice," to "demonstrate God's love for humanity through a selfless life that seeks to reconcile the world to Christ," and to apply "Bible-based moral values in their daily life."

City-funded scholarships from Grove City for attending Ohio Christian University thus violate both the U.S. and the Ohio Constitutions.

"The Ohio Constitution prohibits compelling taxpayers to fund religious education," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne writes to Grove City Council President Roby Schottke. "And the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment strictly prohibits the government from advancing religion."

The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down grants to parochial schools when there is a possibility that the funds will be used to advance religion, FFRF informs Grove City. The Supreme Court has also upheld statutes that prohibit public aid to students pursuing degrees in theology. Private universities that offer no truly secular degrees are not entitled to participate in government funds, FFRF asserts.

FFRF asks Grove City to discontinue the scholarships.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to separation of state and church, with nearly 24,000 nonreligious members across the country, including more than 600 in Ohio. Ohio is an annual "top ten" offender in FFRF's list of the states with the most state/church violations.

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