Linda Stephens was a plaintiff in the Town of Greece v. Galloway Supreme Court case. She’s an FFRF Life Member and a member of the Atheists Community of Rochester, N.Y. Her op-ed was printed June 7 in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and is reprinted with her permission. To hear her on Freethought Radio, scroll down to May 30 at ffrf.org/news/radio/shows/. She and co-plaintiff Susan Galloway will receive FFRF Freethinker of the Year awards in Los Angeles at the 37th annual convention Oct. 24-26.
By Linda Stephens
All is not lost. There are some positives coming out of the recent Supreme Court decision about governmental prayer. First, the court ruled that governments can no longer exclude potential speakers on the basis of religion, as the Town of Greece did for years. If a government relies on outsiders to deliver a solemnizing message at meetings, it must now allow monotheists, polytheists and nonbelievers to do so as well.
That has prompted a number of atheist and humanist organizations to encourage their members to “crash the party” and volunteer to deliver secular invocations at government meetings. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, the largest atheist and agnostic organization in the country, is offering an annual award for the best secular invocation at a government meeting.
Similarly, the Humanist Society is training people to deliver secular invocations. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which advocates for both theists and nontheists, has just launched “Operation Inclusion,” which aims to help diversify the pool of people delivering prayers/invocations.
Another bright spot: Henceforth, those giving invocations may no longer proselytize or disparage religious minorities or the nonreligious. Having been on the receiving end of some disparaging and hurtful remarks hurled by overzealous Christian pastors at Greece Town Board meetings, I commend the court for laying down the law about this matter.
Some Christian pastors are gloating about the court decision, no doubt relishing the idea of returning to business as usual. One Greece pastor told a Democrat & Chronicle reporter that he was “ecstatic about the ruling.”
In November, the pastor told a USA Today reporter: “Do I want everybody to be a Christian? Of course I do.” And as for the residents who complain about the invocations: They need to “grow some thicker skin,” said the pastor.
Not all Christian pastors, it should be noted, are thrilled about this court decision. David Whitney, a pastor in Pasadena, Md., calls the decision “a hollow victory.” Why?
“What really is at question is the role of Christianity in our society. Does it deserve a special place of honor and encouragement? The Court has said no. In that same opinion, part of the reason the Town of Greece was successful in this case, they allowed people of all persuasions, even a Wiccan, to offer a ‘prayer’ at a public meeting. What is even more amazing is that the Town Council said they would allow an atheist to offer the invocation as well.”
Pastor Whitney goes on to say:
“Does it make a difference if Christianity is simply one among a pantheon of religions in America? That it holds no special place in our land?”
Apparently, the court has said just that.
FFRF Staff Attorneys Andrew Seidel and Sam Grover spent June 12–13 on Capitol Hill in Washington spreading secular good news to Congress. They scheduled seven meetings at congressional offices and dropped in at 20 others to let officialdom know that while the Religious Right is shrinking, the secular movement is getting stronger and more organized every day.
As a 501(c)(3) organization, FFRF can only engage in limited lobbying, but as a member of the 501(c)(4) Secular Coalition for America, FFRF is able to extend its reach. The coalition set up meetings as part of its Lobby Day, where more than 50 freethinkers had more than 60 meetings at congressional offices.
Andrew and Sam scheduled many of their own meetings and dropped in on offices to let Congress know that the demographics are changing for the better. That the “nones” is the fastest growing segment of the population, that we are getting organized, that we are a force.
While Sam contacted lawmakers to schedule meetings in addition to those organized by the coalition, Andrew drafted some eye-catching literature.
FFRF asked Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin to reconsider her co-sponsorship of the EACH Act (Equitable Access to Care and Health, HR 1814), which passed March 11 in the House. FFRF has taken a stand against this bill before. If it passes in the Senate, EACH would undercut the efficacy of the Affordable Care Act by exempting individuals with “sincerely held religious beliefs” from the requirement to get health insurance.
The bill effectively raises the cost of insurance for millions of Americans in the name of “religious liberty,” when in reality, those who object to health insurance on religious grounds are no less likely to need health care. It would also endanger children’s lives.
Andrew and Sam also alerted lawmakers and their staff to FFRF’s three ongoing lawsuits challenging various church-specific exemptions in the tax code. The lawsuits include FFRF’s parish exemption lawsuit, its challenge to the Form 990 exemption for churches and its lawsuit on the lack of enforcement of church electioneering restrictions.
While FFRF has won its challenge to the parish exemption in federal district court, a legislative effort to undermine that decision could come at any time. FFRF asked legislators to vote against any bill designed to protect the disparate treatment between churches and secular nonprofits in the tax code.
FFRF attorneys found the meetings in less-than-friendly offices to be some of the most important. Politicians who use religious rhetoric to pander to their constituencies need to know that they are alienating the country’s fastest-growing demographic by religious identification.
They also visited the House Office of the Chaplain, deep in the recesses of the Capitol, to do a little secular proselytizing. After meeting Patrick Conroy, a Jesuit priest who’s the 60th House chaplain, Andrew and Sam had an educational conversation with his two assistants, who didn’t quite know what to make of the polite, smiling atheists in their midst.
The conversation turned to morality and the atheists explained how it’s possible to be good without God. “Having had to reason out my moral code based on my appreciation for a shared humanity — rather than having it fed to me from a pulpit by reference to an antiquated book — has made my moral convictions all the stronger,” Sam explained.
Andrew passed along informational literature on the country’s nonreligious demographics and pointed out that the chaplain’s prayers typically exclude more than 62 million nonreligious Americans.
Andrew’s favorite moment
In between our scheduled meetings, we dropped in on numerous representatives and senators. In the one Southern lawmaker’s office, representing a state to which FFRF has written too many letters over the years, we sat down with a staffer who had been on her way out of the office. “I can give you three minutes,” she said. What can you say in three minutes, especially to a politician who scored an F on the Secular Coalition’s report card?
Quite a lot, actually. You can tell them, “the times they are a-changin’.” You can tell them, “the atheists are coming, the atheists are coming!” You can tell the staffer that when their representative invokes his or her god, they are alienating millions of Americans.
Andrew was wearing his scarlet letter, the Atheist “A” pin on his tie. “You must be a ’Bama fan,” the staffer said, referring to the University of Alabama logo.
“No, it’s worse than being a fan of the Crimson Tide, I’m an atheist,” Andrew said proudly and with a smile. “I watched as, behind her eyes, her preconceived notions and stereotypes came crashing down. Clearly, she had never met an open atheist, and certainly not on Capitol Hill. It was by far my most favorite moment of the day.”
Montana’s attorney general teamed up with the American Legion in early May to file an “unfriendly brief” opposing the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s challenge of a Jesus shrine on federal property. FFRF’s appeal of a district court ruling on the church/state controversy is before the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
The amicus brief was filed on behalf of the attorney general and conservative vets’ group by the Liberty Institute of Texas. Liberty Institute lost a federal case to FFRF and the ACLU of Ohio last year in defending a portrait of Jesus in a public high school.
A 6-foot-tall shrine to Jesus Christ sits on a 7-foot pedestal on Big Mountain in the Flathead National Forest, which is owned by the U.S. Forest Service. Since 1953, the Forest Service has issued a permit allowing the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s group, to place without cost a “Shrine overlooking the Big Mountain ski run,” whose purpose is “to erect a Statue of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In response to initial objections to the shrine, the Knights of Columbus claimed “that our Lord himself selected this site.” The American Legion got involved because of the belated sham relabeling of the shrine as a “war memorial.”
Bizarrely, the Legion and the attorney general said there is no constitutional violation “simply because it is a statue of Jesus. But removing it because it is a statue of Jesus does create both impermissible viewpoint discrimination and a content-based restriction of the Kalispell Knights’ private speech.”
“A permanent Catholic shrine on public land is prohibited by the Establishment Clause, every bit as much as a Catholic church would be,” asserts FFRF’s appeal brief, filed Jan. 28.
Also filing an amicus brief against FFRF was the American Center for Law and Justice, started by televangelist Pat Robertson.
A challenge of the invidious use of a religious motto on U.S. coins and currency by intrepid secular litigator Michael Newdow on behalf of many plaintiffs, including the FFRF and many of its members, was ruled against by a 3-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York on May 28.
Primary plaintiff in Newdow v. The Congress of the United States is Rosalyn Newdow, a member of FFRF and a devoted numismatist who collected coins for 40 years, but has felt obligated to stop purchasing coin sets which exclude her and all nonbelievers.
“It’s necessary to remind not just the courts but the public that ‘In God We Trust’ is a Johnny-come-lately motto adopted at the height of the Cold War. It was only officially required on all currency in 1955,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “It’s not even an accurate motto. To be accurate, it would have to say, ‘In God Some of Us Trust,’ and wouldn’t that be silly?”
She noted that nonbelievers are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population by religious identification, approaching 20% — the second largest “denomination” after Catholics.
FFRF first sued over the motto and its use on coins in the 1990s, and says that religion on the motto and on money remain two of the most common complaints the state/church watchdog receives.
Gaylor praised Newdow for carrying on his pro bono work to divorce religion from government. Says Newdow: “I plan to keep trying in the remaining six circuits until we find some federal appellate judges who believe in the principles that underlie our Constitution.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a brief in early June before the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, defending its major November victory in federal district court overturning the housing allowance exclusion uniquely benefiting “ministers of the gospel.”
“Even the Bible commands citizens to ‘render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s,’ ” the state/church watchdog notes in its 47-page brief. Yet the tax code and the clergy who benefit from it at the expense of all other taxpayers ignore “basic principles of neutrality and fairness when it comes to clergy taxation.”
“Just about every church denomination in the country has mobilized to fight our victory and flout the ‘Render unto Caesar’ injunction,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor. She and her husband, Dan Barker, are FFRF co-presidents and co-plaintiffs in the nationally watched lawsuit.
“The rest of us pay more taxes because ministers don’t pay their fair share. Ministers and churches are unabashed in demanding special treatment. We like to call it our ‘David versus Goliath’ IRS battle,” she added, “and you know who won that!”
The “parsonage allowance” law enacted in 1954 favors ministers by allowing churches to pay them through a housing allowance that is then excluded (up to the fair rental value of a home) from taxable income.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb of Madison, Wis., agreed that this major tax benefit — expressly awarded to clergy for fighting “godlessness,” according to bill sponsor U.S. Rep. Peter Mack, D-Ill. — is an unconstitutional preference for religion over nonreligion. Crabb noted that “the exemption provides a benefit to religious persons and no one else, even though doing so is not necessary to alleviate a special burden on religious exercise.”
“It’s more than disappointing that FFRF is under assault not just by conservative churches but by liberal ones, including the American Baptists, traditionally our allies for separation of church and state,” noted Barker. “Even Unitarian Universalists, Jewish and Islamic groups have joined literally hundreds of Christian denominations and nondenominational congregations in signing onto seven amicus briefs filed against FFRF by theocratic legal aid societies.”
As a former ordained minister, Barker previously benefited from the preferential treatment of clergy by the IRS. But he and Gaylor, as directors of an atheist/agnostic group, may not deduct from their taxable income the portion of their salaries now designated by FFRF as a “housing allowance.” That discriminatory treatment gave the couple standing to sue.
Richard L. Bolton, serving as FFRF’s litigation attorney, laid out the discriminatory treatment of Gaylor and Barker as similarly situated taxpayers. Section 107(2) of the tax code violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it is not neutral — providing significant tax benefits exclusively to ministers of the gospel, and providing greater benefits to ministers than to nonclergy taxpayers.
Ministers derive an enormous financial benefit by being paid in tax-exempt dollars, FFRF’s brief notes. So do churches, which may pay clergy less because tax-free dollars go further. There’s no requirement that the housing allowance be used for the convenience of the employer. Even retired ministers are eligible to claim the allowance.
The IRS has determined that teachers at parochial schools, even athletic coaches, may be paid through a housing allowance if they’re ordained. FFRF documents the substantial entanglement between church and state that results from intrusive IRS standards about what constitutes an eligible church and minister.
“While all taxpayers would like to have exclusions and deductions to cover their housing costs, the reality is that only ministers of the clergy now get this break,” FFRF’s brief concludes. “Section 107(2) therefore violates the Establishment Clause in a most obvious way by conditioning tax benefits on religious affiliation.”
FFRF is the nation’s largest association of atheists and agnostics, with more than 20,000 members, and is based in Madison, Wis. FFRF has two other challenges of the IRS’ preferential treatment of religion. Its challenge of lack of IRS enforcement of anti-electioneering laws by tax-exempt churches is in district court, as is its challenge of the IRS exemption of churches from mandatory reporting laws applying to all other 501(c)(3) entities.
The case is Freedom From Religion Foundation, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker v. Jacob J. Lew and John A. Koskinen.
There will be no public funding of a Christian park named The Shepherd’s Garden in Sioux City, Iowa. The Freedom From Religion Foundation had sent a letter of complaint May 19 after learning that the park’s developers had been awarded a $140,000 grant from the board of Vision Iowa, which is overseen by the Iowa Economic Development Authority, a public entity. After the agency got FFRF Staff Attorney Seidel’s letter, IEDA spokeswoman Tina Hoffman claimed that public money would only be used for green space and not the park’s religious elements. Plans included a “Walk of Faith,” a “Calvary Crosses water feature,” “prayer spaces,” “crosses” and “bible verses.” The plans even differentiated between “public spaces” and “prayer spaces.”
Using the money for so-called nonreligious elements wouldn’t make the grant any less unconstitutional, Seidel said. “This is one of the most egregious grants for a religious purpose FFRF has encountered,” he said, noting that project plans described it as “a space that pays particular attention to the promise of new life in Jesus Christ that is available to all.”
On June 6, Timothy J. Whipple, IEDA general counsel for legislative affairs and rules, emailed FFRF: “You will be pleased to learn that the applicant has declined the board’s award and that the project will be completed entirely with privately raised funds. For your information, I have attached a PDF copy of the letter the board received declining the award.
“Thank you for your interest in Iowa’s economic development programs,” Whipple wrote.
“I didn’t want to be in the middle of a lawsuit,” Garry Smith, a member of the Shepherd’s Garden board, told The Associated Press. “All I want to do is build the park. I don’t want to be in the middle of depositions.”
Smith said June 6 that FFRF’s objections prompted private donors to come forward so the project doesn’t need state money. The $810,000 park is on track for completion in the fall, he said.
“This was a no-brainer for anyone who knows anything at all about the Constitution,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “You don’t build a private park with public money. We’re expecting a card any day now in the mail from Shepherd’s Garden thanking us for shaking loose the cash from their donors, who most certainly must see this as a win for the free market.”
Name: Neal Joseph Fitzgerald.
Where and when I was born: St. Louis, Mo., July 6, 1989.
Family: Mother, Terrie; father, Tim; sisters Jill and Jane; brother-in-law Mark; nieces Charlotte, 6, and Eleanor, 3.
Education: B.A. in history, University of Wisconsin-Madison; starting my second year at the UW Law School.
My religious upbringing was: Catholic, including K-12 Catholic schooling and an all-boys high school.
How I came to work as an FFRF legal intern: On a bike! FFRF was actually an organization that factored into my decision to come to Madison for law school, and working here was one of my goals in law school.
What I do here: I draft letters on a wide variety of church/state violations and concerns for all five staff attorneys and Dan and Annie Laurie. I research a variety of topics, from legislative history to civil procedure.
What I like best about it: The victories. I like to see that the work I'm doing is having a positive effect.
Something funny that's happened at work: I received a response to a complaint that began. "Before I commence, I have to say how sorry I am that my assailant is an Irishman." The letter that followed was entertaining if not confusing. But all is well, as it was a victory.
My legal interests are: Constitutional law, the First Amendment, legislative drafting and administrative law.
My legal heroes are: Alexander Hamilton, Thurgood Marshall, Stephen Breyer and Josh Lyman [on "The West Wing"].
These three words sum me up: Family, friends, food.
Things I like: Cooking, St Louis Cardinals baseball.
Things I smite: Tardiness, "Libertarians."
My loftiest goal: White House chief of staff.