In 2012, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its four staff attorneys impressively won more than 150 significant legal victories using education and persuasion, without having to go to court.
FFRF received more than 2,460 requests (whew!) last year for help from members, or members of the public, over entanglements between state and church. FFRF officially doubled its staff attorneys in 2012, going from two to four, to handle the caseload.
They or FFRF’s co-presidents sent 1,005 formal letters objecting to state/church violations last year. It may take many follow-up letters to get results, and those follow-up letters are not included in the letter count.
The majority of FFRF legal letters involve religion in the public schools, followed by prayer at government meetings such as city council or county board meetings. Two-thirds of FFRF’s victories involved ending violations in public schools, which FFRF prioritizes.
Prayer in schools is the largest subcategory within school complaints. FFRF also sent letters of complaint to more than 100 government bodies or departments over prayer. Most involve city or county board prayer, but there are also many complaints over city-hosted prayer breakfasts and prayer proclamations.
Top 10 states for violations
(most FFRF complaint letters):
5. North Carolina
Top ten issue areas:
2. Government Prayer
4. Holiday Displays
5. Religion in the Workplace
6. Election Law Complaints
8. Prayer Breakfasts
9. Church Bulletins
10. National Day of Prayer
2012 legal victories
These include but are not limited to:
• The Federal Election Commission, in response to a complaint filed by FFRF in 2008, found that the Colorado group Informed Catholic Citizens violated election laws in issuing a robocall by a priest who advocated for the election of John McCain.
• The Kiel Area School District Board of Education (Wis.) voted down a proposal to teach “alternative theories of the origins of man within the science curriculum” after FFRF pressured the board to follow case law prohibiting such instruction in public schools.
• An FFRF complaint prompted Henrico County (Va.) officials to drop the 25-year-old tradition of offering meeting prayers before Board of Supervisors meetings.
• The Kannapolis City Council (N.C.) ended prayers before meetings, replacing the prayers with a moment of silence.
• FFRF secured the right of students at Walton High School in Marietta, Ga., to start a “FACT” group (Freethinkers for Cooperation Acceptance and Trust) after the school had denied their right to create the student group.
• After months of debate, the Ellwood City Borough Council (Pa.) voted to remove a long-standing nativity display in front of the borough’s municipal building.
• Five Pennsylvania school boards (Big Spring, Octorara, Greencastle-Antrim, Eastern Lancaster, Grove City) dropped prayer before board meetings after letters from FFRF.
• FFRF stopped future religious assemblies by Dave Walton (braggingforjesus.com/) at a Tennessee middle/high school.
• FFRF’s letter of complaint resulted in removal of a cross from a Nebraska state park and outside a park ranger’s home in George Wyth State Park on Iowa state property.
• FFRF’s letter of complaint resulted in Washoe County Libraries in Nevada remaining open on Easter Sunday.
• FFRF stopped mayoral sponsorship and coordination of monthly prayer breakfasts in Augusta, Ga.
• The City of Tucson, Ariz., rescinded a grant to the Catholic Church of $1.1 million to fix a building it had abandoned after FFRF’s letter of complaint, records request, and action alert to FFRF members in Arizona.
• In another faith-based victory, the West Linn, Ore., City Council rescinded a $1,300 grant to a local church and removed paid, government employees from the church’s advisory board after a letter from FFRF.
• Thanks to FFRF, Catholic Social Services of Augusta, Ga., will no longer receive free lawn maintenance from the U.S military.
• A family court in Jackson, Mo., has reprimanded a pastor for hijacking a secular class meant to teach divorced parents how to help their children and injecting it with his religious rant. The court is looking for other teachers and sites other than his church.
• Bret Harte Union High School (Calif.) will no longer release student information to the local Catholic diocese.
• Peach County senior center employees will no longer pray with their charges or read the bible to them at meal times and special occasions.
• The Assessment Appeals Board in San Francisco implemented procedural changes to eliminate the use of a religious oath when swearing in parties at hearings.
• COLT bus system in Scranton, Pa., discontinued the practice of displaying “God Bless America” on their electronic tickers after FFRF wrote to them in February.
• FFRF halted (or stopped for the future) illegal Gideon bible distribution in public schools in Magnolia, Ark., Boydton, Va., Robertson County, Tenn., and Grant County, Ky., among other public school districts.
• The University of Tennessee-Chattanooga discontinued its long tradition of prayer before its football games after continued pressure.
• FFRF persuaded the Cobleskill-Richmondville Central School district (N.Y.) from using school facilites for religious worship.
• FFRF was able to address several complaints regarding the inappropriate use of government emails, putting a halt to religious messages at four different agencies.
• FFRF stopped numerous prayer violations and other religious indoctrination at schools around the country.
• FFRF had a total of 11 victories in 2012 ending church bulletin discounts, in which restaurants or places of public accommodation were illegally discounting meals or tickets for those bearing church bulletins. These are violations of the Civil Rights Act.
Many complaints from 2012 and earlier are still actively being pursued, with other victories pending.
Although not all complaints can be acted on, FFRF’s attorneys try hard to respond to bonafide state/church queries. FFRF also hosts an extensive State/Church FAQ: ffrf.org/faq/state-church
Before contacting FFRF, you may wish to check out the FAQ. Complaints over state/church violations may be sent via the online complaint form:
These victories are in addition to FFRF’s litigation. FFRF has filed well over 60 lawsuits since it began, winning many significant victories, and through December 2012 had nine ongoing lawsuits. In 2012, FFRF successfully settled two additional lawsuits: its challenge of a cross on a water tower and other city property in Whiteville, Tenn., and its challenge removing a Ten Commandments poster from a high school in Giles County, W. Va., brought with the ACLU of Virginia.
FFRF last year won an appeals court decision in Colorado state court in which a judge agreed with FFRF that the governor’s Colorado Day of Prayer proclamations are inappropriate.
Last year, FFRF filed four new lawsuits: challenging Ten Commandments monuments in front of two schools in Pennsylvania (two separate federal lawsuits), challenging graduation prayer in a South Carolina high school, and its highly popular challenge of non-enforcement by the IRS of its ban on church electioneering.
FFRF works with a number of litigation attorneys, including some pro bono, with staff attorneys providing help.
Congratulations to FFRF’s diligent and committed staff attorneys Rebecca Markert, Patrick Elliott, Andrew Seidel, outgoing attorney Stephanie Schmitt and new intake attorney Liz Cavell. Also deserving of much credit are FFRF’s 2012 law clerks: Ken Earl, Susan Lund, Dustin Clark, Maddy Ziegler, JJ Rolling, Ben Zich, and undergraduate volunteer interns Svein Hoexter, Brendan Moriarity and Calli Miller.
Your membership and additional donations designated for the Legal Fund help pay for this substantial litigation and the work of staff attorneys. Special thanks to Board Member Lester Goldstein, who created an internship endowment with the help of other FFRF members setting aside a minimum of $5,000 a year to help pay for internships.
Many thanks to Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert for her very thorough legal report which provided the details for this article.