Outreach & Events - Freedom From Religion Foundation
Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

"Speak of the Devil," a two-act comedy drama about "The Great Agnostic" Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-99), was presented in February at Theatre NOW New York in New York City.

The actors' impassioned performances had the audience listening intently, laughing and applauding. The dramatic reading, the first in the company's 2015 Raw Reading Series, was made possible through the sponsorship of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Yip Harburg Foundation.

"Speak of the Devil" was written in the early 1970s by the late Richard F. Stockton, an Ingersoll scholar, and revised in 2011 by Marsha Lee Sheiness. His widow, Irene Stockton, is an FFRF Life Member. The play brings to life the conflicts, joys and difficulties experienced by Ingersoll as he spread his freethought philosophy through oratory and voluminous written works. Its director is Robert Kalfin, founder of New York's Tony Award-­winning Chelsea Theater Center.

The play is moving toward full production in the near future, with the goal of reaching as many new audiences as possible. The creative team is reaching out to individuals and groups for donations to make this possible.

Theatre NOW New York is a nonprofit that facilitates the creation and development of new works and the "reimagining" of previously produced works through productions, readings, workshops and work-in-progress presentations.

Contributions to help spread Ingersoll's crucial message are tax deductible and can be made at ffrf.org/get-involved/donate/. Email with questions and comments.

Four moments that made Ingersoll

Richard Stockton (1932-97) on the four moments in Robert Green Ingersoll's life that shaped him, the first being the death of his father John, who was a Congregationalist minister:

"Despite their opposing religious views, the old revivalist on his deathbed asked Bob to read to him from the black book clutched to his chest. Bob relented, took the book, and was surprised to discover that it wasn't the Bible. It was Plato describing the noble death of the pagan Socrates: a moving gesture of reconciliation between father and son in parting. The second event was Bob's painful realization that his outspoken agnosticism not only invalidated his own political career but ended his brother Ebon's career in Congress, as well. Third was the exquisite anguish of seeing his supportive wife Eva and his young daughters made to suffer for his right to speak his own mind. And fourth was the dramatic tension of having to walk out alone on public stages, in a glaring spotlight, time after time with death threats jammed in his tuxedo pocket informing him that some armed bigot in that night's audience would see to it that he didn't leave the stage alive."

Ewan is the recipient of a new FFRF student activist award, which includes a $1,000 cash scholarship. The generous donor, who prefers anonymity, writes: "In the 21st century, with so much scientific advancement, I hope all humans are able to reason and think critically. We don't need an invisible 'super being' to tie up our freedom of thought."

By Ewan McCartney

My name is Ewan McCartney. I'm in the eighth grade. I attend public school in Seattle. I am an atheist and I also have autism.

I would like to thank the Freedom from Religion Foundation for helping me. I have sat out the Pledge of Allegiance since the fourth grade. I have several issues with it. Among my issues: I think the "under God" part violates the separation of church and state, and I don't like saying "liberty and justice for all" when we still oppress so many groups of people in our country.

The principal at my school caught me sitting out the pledge and was adamant that everyone should participate. She said it was disrespectful not to participate. I did a bunch of research and wrote her a letter explaining why it is every student's right to decide for him/herself if they want to participate in the pledge.
The principal was uncooperative and condescending to me, so my mom and I contacted FFRF. Attorney Andrew Seidel helped me a lot and we got the situation resolved (with a letter from the school district's lawyer saying that I am correct and the principal is wrong — yay!). I cannot thank Mr. Seidel enough for his help.
When I am not arguing about my right to free speech in school, I am active in local politics, mostly with regard to education and human rights. I testify every chance I can get in the state legislature (and complain to any elected official I can convince to listen to me) about better funding for public education and closing the achievement gap in our schools.

I have also volunteered extensively on various "freedom to marry" campaigns. I am an ordained minister with the Universal Life Church and am available for all your gay wedding needs!

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It’s paying to complain in Michigan

The Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists (MACRA), co-founded by FFRF Life Members Holly Huber and Mitch Kahle, successfully complained in March on behalf of parents concerned about religious intrusion in public schools.

Kahle wrote a letter to the principal of Daisy Brook Upper Elementary about allowing bible classes. Kahle said Fremont Public Schools Superintendent Ken Haggart told him the district did transport children to a nearby church for bible study during the previous school year but switched this year to holding monthly bible study in the school gym at lunchtime to save money. About a third of the school's 150 children attended the class.

Haggart told WZZM that the school has returned to its original arrangement in which students are driven off-campus to churches. Haggart told Kahle that the school district won't provide transportation.

Haggart clarified his statement that "as of this point, all clergy will have been permanently banned from Fremont Public Schools and that no organized religious activities will again take place on school property while school is in session, if organized and run by adults." He said in a second email to Kahle, "I wanted to let you know as well that Fremont Public Schools neither encourages nor discourages participation in any religious program. By saying 'clergy are banned' we are referring to the offering or conducting of religious instruction classes. In the event of school tragedies, or needed counseling, or for clergy who have children attending FPS, or other use of the facilities, they are of course welcome to visit our schools."

MACRA also complained about two adults unlawfully leading students in Christian prayer at Cross Creek Charter School in Byron Center. "Clergy and adults are forbidden from participating in any voluntary, student-initiated religious activity that takes place on school property during school hours, including during lunch and recess periods," said Kahle. "Release time is not an opportunity for teachers or administrators to circumvent long-established laws prohibiting organized religion in public schools."

Cross Creek Principal Joe Nieuwkoop told mlive.com that the adults were not school employees, but stressed that "student religious groups or gatherings led by adults will not be allowed to hold meetings during school and/or instructional hours. However, students may organize prayer groups, religious clubs and gatherings before or after school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other noncurricular student activities groups."

MACRA complained in February about Hudsonville Public Schools letting students attend bible club in a recreational vehicle in the parking lot during lunch hour. The district responded that it stopped the practice and told Bible Club Ministries International-Western Michigan to comply with state law.

In a related case MACRA is involved in, the Grand Haven Tribune reported that a group called Citizens of Grand Haven filed suit April 1 against the city in Ottawa County Circuit Court to contest a city council ordinance in January that resulted in removal of a Christian cross from public property on Dewey Hill. The suit claims the council's removal of the area as a public forum gives the appearance the city "is hostile to the cross as religious speech."

Although Mayor Geri McCaleb voted against the ordinance change, she said public entities dealing with groups like MACRA have to be aware of what they do with taxpayer dollars.

Councilman John Hierholzer, who voted for the change, said the city has already spent $12,000 on the issue without going to court.

FFRF sent a letter of complaint and records request March 30 to Iron Mountain Public Schools in Iron Mountain, Mich., after the school district allowed speaker Bob Lenz to use a presentation during school hours to recruit students to attend a later religious event at a church.

Lenz is part of Life Promotions, which is based in Appleton, Wis. He employs a common evangelical method to recruit public school students to religious programming, giving a supposedly secular presentation during the school day where he passes out fliers advertising pizza, prize drawings or other incentives to attend a religious event later that evening.

At an auditorium event during the school day March 2, Lenz gave a talk touted as "a positive message of hope and encouragement," accompanied by an illusionist. Lenz says he has been speaking to public schools for over 30 years.

"Students are a vulnerable and captive audience, and Iron Mountain High School allowed Lenz to take advantage of the students' captivity to recruit them to come to a Christian event later that night," wrote Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert.

Lenz brags on Facebook about the percent of students who returned for the religious program and the number who "received Jesus" after a March 9 presentation in public schools in Girard, Kan.

A promotional video for Life Promotions claims that America's youth are experiencing a "spiritual poverty," lamenting that less than 18% of youth attend church regularly. The video also takes a tone-deaf attitude toward poverty, asking viewers, "Did you know many of America's youth are among the poorest in the world?" with a graphic of a person holding out a bowl. The hungry person is then "painted" over, as the narrator announces, "Not a physical poverty, a spiritual poverty!"

"This is very callous, given that 16 million U.S. children live below the actual poverty line," noted FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.

FFRF sent letters March 25 to five more public universities that inappropriately employ religious leaders for their basketball teams. The letters follow a March 24 letter and records request to Wichita State University in Kansas. WSU informed FFRF that it was investigating the chaplaincy.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino has allegedly appointed his friend, Fr. Ed Bradley, as "unofficial chaplain." He reportedly travels with the team, sits with coaches on the bench and leads the team in prayer before games, at halftime, after games and while the team travels.

Many university chaplains, including WSU's Steve Dickie, are associated with Nations of Coaches, a religious group that provides "character coaches" and chaplains to basketball programs. The group's website shows a graphic with a whistle with a cross on it, and bible verses abound on its website. "Nations of Coaches exists to impact coaches and all whom they influence for the glory of God," says the group's application.

The University of Maryland employs Pastor Donnell Jones as a chaplain. Oklahoma University lists Scott Thompson as its "character coach." Both are associated with Nations of Coaches.

The University of Virginia employs Brad Soucie as director of player development. Soucie and Assistant Coach Ritchie McKay have been together since their time at Liberty University, an evangelical Christian school founded by Jerry Falwell. Soucie recently spoke at a church about the "significance of men finding their identity in Jesus instead of success, work, or any other source." (It was announced April 1 that McKay was returning to Liberty to be head coach.)

Kansas University also has a chaplain, Wayne Simien. Simien quit the NBA to pursue a "passion . . . for Christian ministry and youth athletics," and has said his goal is "to impact the lives through sports and with the message of Jesus Christ."

"Public school athletic teams cannot appoint or employ a chaplain, seek out a spiritual leader for the team, or agree to have a volunteer team chaplain because public schools may not advance or promote religion," Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel told the schools.

FFRF Co-President Dan Barker noted that giving these chaplains secular titles compounds the violation by blurring the line between a legitimate position and an abuse of that position to "[help] basketball players learn how to love God," as Dickie put it.

One in three Americans under the age of 30 identifies as nonreligious, FFRF pointed out, making it very likely these chaplains are imposing their religion on students who are not religious and just want to play basketball.

FFRF also requested financial records and policies relating to religion in athletics from all of the colleges.

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FFRF asks governors to repeal state RFRAs

FFRF is calling on the governors of Connecticut and Virginia to take the lead in repealing their states' versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. While thanking Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe for speaking out against Indiana's RFRA law, FFRF points out that their states also have objectionable RFRA laws on the books.

Malloy banned state-funded travel to Indiana, saying, "We cannot sit idly by and do nothing while laws are enacted that will turn back the clock." Connecticut's RFRA law is even broader than Indiana's in that it bans any "burden" of a person's exercise of religion without a compelling governmental interest, instead of requiring the burden to be "substantial." FFRF sent him a letter April 1.

McAuliffe invited Indiana businesses to come to Virginia, where, ironically, there is also a RFRA law in place. "The executive order you signed to protect state employees from discrimination is an excellent start. But it does not protect all citizens. The fact is, your state has had a law nearly identical to Indiana's in place for eight years," wrote FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker in their letter to McAuliffe.

"The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is now used not as a shield, but as a sword by the religious majority and corporations to discriminate against minority groups," charges FFRF.

By Annie Laurie Gaylor
FFRF Co-president

When my mother-in-law Pat Barker's eyes were opened to religion after a lifetime of devout fundamentalist belief, she poignantly told my husband, Dan: "I'm so glad I don't have to hate anymore."

"You don't have to hate anymore" could be the slogan of the movement known by the hashtag #boycottindiana.

No one should hate in the name of religion. But certainly no one should be allowed to legally discriminate in the name of their god. Bigotry is not divine. No state should pass a law, like Indiana did in early April, which grants religious citizens and corporations license to break laws they feel go against their religion, such as anti-discrimination laws protecting gays.

Indiana passed a state version of the 1993 federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that brought us the Supreme Court's infamous Hobby Lobby ruling last year, setting women's contraceptive rights back half a century. In that ruling, the right-wing, male, Catholic bloc on our Supreme Court ruled that corporations have "religious rights" that can be "offended" if employees don't follow their boss's religion, and that supersede the rights of women.

Clearly, it's time for Congress to overturn the federal RFRA, which has seeded RFRAs in almost half of our states. If it's not in your state yet, watch out — it's coming soon.

Thanks to corporations that are more caring than Hobby Lobby, Indiana has become the focus of national consciousness raising and consternation. The NCAA released a statement: "We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees. We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week's Men's Final Four In Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill."

Organizations such as the Gen Con gaming convention and the $4 billion software company Salesforce threatened to move operations out of Indiana.

Every hour, it seemed, another city or state joined the boycott, including the mayors of Seattle, San Francisco, Portland and the governors of Connecticut and Washington. Celebrities such as George Takei and Audra McDonald have decried the law.

Tim Cook, the head of Apple, noted "something very dangerous [is] happening in states across the country. . . . America's business community recognized a long time ago that discrimination, in all its forms, is bad for business."

FFRF knows that these laws are bad for business, women, LGBT rights and true religious liberty.

It's heartening to see the public concern over passage of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But we also need to channel that concern against the 20 other state RFRAs and the granddaddy that inspired them at the federal level.

FFRF with several children's advocacy groups submitted the only amicus brief in the Hobby Lobby case (written for us by Marci Hamilton) asking the Supreme Court to overturn the federal RFRA.

It's time to repeal it. Let's have no hate in my state — or in these United States.

Editor's note: After the firestorm of controversy, Gov. Mike Pence (who once described himself as "a Christian, a conservative and a Republican in that order") signed a quickly revised bill that critics said still falls short of providing equal protection to all.

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An atheist view of the golden rule

This op-ed was originally published March 12 in the Brainerd, Minn., Dispatch and is reprinted with the author's permission.

By Amy LaValle Hansmann

I recently read a guest opinion piece that seemed to make the case for religion as a necessary tool for moral behavior.

As an atheist, I often hear that there can be no morality without the absolutes of the Bible (or any other holy book). However, I've found that morality can be quite easily boiled down to one simple piece of guidance, which is commonly referred to as "the golden rule."

While the phrase "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" can be found in some form in the Bible, I'm confident that we as a species could have figured this one out on our own. It's really quite simple. Why, as an atheist, don't I run around murdering people? Because I have no desire to do so, and even if I did, I am equipped with empathy and can understand how that action would hurt someone else. Why don't I go around driving my car at 100 miles per hour when I feel like it? Because I'm aware of the danger that puts not only myself in, but my fellow humans as well should I happen to crash.

I have had no trouble raising children without the mandates of any religion. They are simply taught to use the empathy and compassion they were born with to treat other people with respect and kindness. If they wouldn't like someone hitting them with a stick, then why would they go around hitting someone else with one? It's not a terribly difficult concept to understand, even for children. In fact, when I look around at the world today, I see a direct correlation between the people committing the worst atrocities against humanity, and religion.

I get together regularly with a group of atheists, agnostics, and "freethinkers" as some people prefer to call themselves, and they are some of the kindest, most generous people I've ever had the privilege of knowing. And the interesting thing is, they aren't "good" because they are trying to earn their way to heaven, or win favor with a deity. They are good because they genuinely care about their fellow human beings, and want what's best for everyone. We have evolved as a species to care about each other. It's the only way we can survive. If we didn't have that sense of built in empathy, we would have become extinct long ago.

I think it's far nobler a pursuit to really wrestle together with questions of ethics than to evade our responsibility and just parrot edicts that were written down thousands of years ago. It's too easy to not have to really think about the consequences of our actions when we can just point to a book and say "but God said so."

In no other realm of understanding is faith seen as a good way of knowing anything about the universe. We don't understand math because we take it on faith. So why should we stop wondering at the many mysteries the universe still has for us to find answers to?

Leaving it to faith is giving up, and deciding that we don't need to seek any further understanding of our lives. In my opinion, that stance does not get us any further as a species. It only leaves us standing still; unable to progress and make life better for everyone.

Amy LaValle Hansmann founded the Brainerd Area Atheists & Freethinkers four years ago "to help connect all the freethinkers in my small town who are feeling isolated because of their lack of belief." In her blog "Liberal House on the Prairie," she describes herself as a progressive mom living in the "real America" and adds, "I do have a job, but it's not an interesting one (smiley face).

This column was first published March 19 at AlterNet and is reprinted with the author's permission.

By Wendy Thomas Russell

Coming out of any proverbial closet can be hard. For those of us who have hidden part of our identities from people we know and love, finally revealing that thing can be daunting. Fear and anxiety, no matter how ungrounded, have a way of clutching our hearts.

When I decided four years ago to write a book aimed at secular parents, I knew that it would require that I disclose my atheism to my friends and family. My own parents were comfortably secular themselves, which no doubt made the task a whole lot easier. But I had plenty of other loved ones who felt strongly about their faith and would surely be offended or uncomfortable with my stance — not to mention worried about my daughter's eternal soul. So I definitely felt that sense of coming out of a closet.

I took a few days to send a bunch of e-mails and make a few phone calls. And while no one disowned me in the process, the revelation did hurt some people I love, at least a little. And that made it hard.

But now, four years later, I can candidly say that, for me personally, being "out" has been one of the most surprisingly gratifying choices I've ever made. Here's why.

1. It turns out I really enjoy shattering people's assumptions. I don't fit the media's stereotype of a non-believer — who does, right? — so it's nice to be able to spread the "good word" that atheists, agnostics and other "nones" are just as likely as the next guy to be engaging people, good parents and involved community members. I particularly enjoy slipping my atheism into conversation with religious people who already know and like me; it forces them to confront any stereotypes they might have. Always a good thing.

2. I like religious people more now. When I was closeted, it was way too easy to sit back and become preemptively resentful. I sometimes felt a little pissed that others were "free" to share their views while I had to keep mine to myself. I assumed, as many do, that people's reactions would be negative if I were to inject my views into these conversations. But once I was out — and because I only brought up my atheism in truly neutral ways, not as a point of conflict — the reactions from religious people have been overwhelmingly positive.

Some quietly disapprove, sure. But, in my experience, religious people have been, outwardly, very lovely about my lack of belief. (As lovely, incidentally, as I am about their belief.) They don't insult me or shy away from me. They don't avoid the subject (well, some do, and that's okay!) or make snide comments. They don't try to change me. And with every positive experience I have, I am more open and less judgmental of "religious people" myself. I find that the more open I am about myself, the better I feel about the people around me.

3. I'm setting a great example for my child. Not believing in God is nothing to be ashamed of, but being open about our disbelief does — I believe — require a bit of finesse. We ought not just blurt it out in anger. We ought not invoke it as a weapon. We ought not talk about it excessively just because we "can." I don't want my child to ever feel ashamed to share her beliefs with others, whatever those beliefs turn out to be, but I also want to be a good role model for how to go about it without being a dick.

4. I'm opening the door for others. You wouldn't believe how many people in our day-to-day lives consider themselves nonreligious, and the look of refreshment on their faces when you open the conversation can be priceless. It's like the floodgates open. There's this whole, rather fascinating aspect of your life, and theirs, that can be tapped for great conversation. By being open myself first, I'm showing others that it's okay to make the first move. In fact, it can make friendships, and maybe life, even better.

Not believing in God is not like being gay, lesbian or transgender. Sharing your "religious affiliation" with others is not required to live a normal, healthy, happy life. Unless you choose to be an activist (or a secular-parenting author), you probably don't adopt behaviors that make you stand out as secular. You might not even know where your friends fall on the religious spectrum, or want to know.

That's OK.

There are lots of reasons to come out as a nonbeliever. There are lots of reasons not to come out. All of us must weigh myriad factors before making that call for ourselves, not the least of which is our proximity to the "bible belt." But if you're on the fence, and face no heart-crushing consequences to doing so, I urge you to open that door a crack. You might be delighted by what you find there.

Wendy Thomas Russell has spent most of her career in Southern California, writing and editing for newspapers, magazines and other online and print publications. Her new book is Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious. Her "Natural Wonderers" blog ("Raising curious, compassionate kids in a secular family") is at patheos.com/blogs/naturalwonderers/. Her website is at wendythomasrussell.com/. She lives in Long Beach with her husband and daughter.

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter of complaint April 2 to the Pittsburg [Texas] Independent School District after learning that Pittsburg High School head baseball coach Tommy Stewart reportedly conducts bible study with players after practice each Wednesday and punishes those who don't attend with 20 minutes of running.

FFRF's complainant reported that Stewart shows religious videos, including the movie "God's Not Dead," and that practice uniforms have "With GOD all things are possible" printed on them.

Before FFRF had even written the district, word of the complainant's objections were reported by local media. Superintendent Judy Pollan sent a message of support for Stewart to staffers, writing, "We are blessed to have a man who feels called to work with our boys as they make the transition into manhood. I WOULD MOST CERTAINLY RATHER BE REPORTED FOR DOING SOMETHING GOOD RATHER THAN DOING SOMETHING BAD."

Pollan warned that FFRF "is the same [group] that caused White Oak and Mt. Vernon problems," and chastised the local complainant for "hid[ing] behind the camera and not show[ing] her face." She concluded her email with a bible quote: "Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity. For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb."

According to Co-President Dan Barker, "FFRF is pleased to report it has experienced no withering as of today and is prepared to alert the police should anyone attempt to 'cut down' its 'workers of iniquity.' "

Barker added, "It shows the extent of the problem that the superintendent, instead of taking corrective measures against the coach, compounds the violation by misusing her public authority to espouse her personal beliefs. This public school district's promotion of religion turns Christians into 'insiders' and the rest of us into 'outsiders,' and that is unacceptable."

Pittsburg's native sons include U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert and Carroll Shelby, auto designer and racing driver.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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