The City Council in Wadena, Minn., voted unanimously Nov. 10 to no longer place a nativity scene in a public park after getting FFRF letters of complaint. Wadena, a city of about 4,000 residents 160 miles northwest of Minneapolis, annually placed the nativity in Burlington Northern Park.
"The city's display of a Christian message in the city's premier park unmistakably sends the message that the city endorses the religious beliefs embodied in the display," wrote Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott in the first letter to the city last January.
Mayor George Diess told KARE News that "when something is put up that many years, it becomes a tradition to the city." Board members expressed concern about a potential lawsuit.
The council meeting was packed with backers of the religious display. The city will turn it over to a ministerial association.
Many residents in and around Port Neches, Texas, have come together to defend and support a cross that sits in a public park after FFRF requested that the city remove the Christian symbol.
The white 10-foot-tall cross, located in the city's Riverfront Park, has been there for 45 years. But tradition and length of time don't matter when it comes to the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
"We ask you to remove the cross from Port Neches Riverfront Park immediately or direct the display to be moved to a more appropriate private location," FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote in her letter to Mayor Glen Johnson on Nov. 5.
"The government's permanent display of a Latin cross on public land is unconstitutional," the letter states. "The inherent religious significance of the Latin cross is undeniable and is not disguisable. No secular purpose, no matter how sincere, will detract from the overall message that the Latin cross stands for Christianity and that the display promotes Christianity."
Johnson said he's received calls from many people angry with FFRF, according to a report by KFDM in Port Arthur, Texas.
A prayer vigil was held in the park by cross supporters, but nonbelievers tried to diffuse the situation. "A letter signed by 'your friendly Port Neches atheists, agnostics and other non-Christians' was left at the cross along with cookies, asking to find an amicable solution," KFDM reported. "Members of Midcounty's Atheist and Agnostic Group say they found the letter torn up after the vigil."
Port Neches resident Sheila Ackley told a reporter, "We stand united to fight for what our beliefs are. They're our beliefs. It's our constitutional right to do so. If we don't stand for it, it's no more. It won't be long and they're gonna take our churches away. It won't be long and they're not gonna allow us to have our bibles. I was placed on this Earth by God to fight for Him and over my dead body."
There is also a group making and distributing small crosses for residents to place on their lawns.
FFRF took the Elbert County clerk and sheriff to task in Kiowa, Colo., for constitutional violations. Responding to a public officials' group email about how clerks opposed to same-sex marriage should deal with license issuance, Clerk Dallas Schroeder wrote how he had hung a religious poster where "There is no way to miss it if you are in for a marriage license."
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel called out Schroeder in a Nov. 20 letter to members of the email group, which consisted of several county clerks, a state senator and state representative.
"According to the email chain, some clerks or employees are uncomfortable issuing marriage licenses to gay couples," Seidel wrote. "Hopefully you all know by now that you must issue licenses to gay couples whatever your personal religion."
Seidel also took issue with the poster bearing a verse from 1 Corinthians. "Mr. Schroeder is displaying words from his religion's holy book to issue a religious warning to all citizens in a government building. This is unconstitutional."
Elbert County Sheriff Shayne Heap contributed this to the discussion: "These conversations are initiated to pervert the truth and do whatever is necessary to get the results you want," Heap wrote. "I'm going to get back to work and I'm going leave the cross in my office, the Bible on my desk and I support the clerk's constitutional rights."
Cheyenne County Clerk Patricia Daugherty sent out the first inflammatory email Aug. 7: "I have a delilma [sic] in my office that I wish to get a little feedback on. In my office, everyone has personal objections to issuing same sex marriage licenses. . . . Am I the only office with this delima [sic]? What is your plan?"
Schroeder answered Aug. 9: "I pray for all the clerks across this country who have been made to make a terrible decision. I pray for our state legislators for them to use God's Holy Bible as a guide to govern. Prayer is the only thing that will change the downward spiral our country is in."
Schroeder told the group this story: "I talked with a local artist, who is also a Christian, and he created a beautiful poster which I have had hanging for about a year. There is no way to miss it if you are in for a marriage license. It is a picture of a bride standing on a hill with the groom walking up the hill to meet her. . ."
Schroeder wrote that he bought the poster with his own money, so in his mind it's legal. "I am not denying anyone service. My thought process is that they have to see the poster and if they choose to violate God's written Word, then that is on their head. I have warned them."
Seidel said who paid for the poster is irrelevant. "If anything, it proves the point that Mr. Schroeder is abusing a public office to further his personal religion."
Several other clerks have responded to FFRF that they either refused to hang the poster or have since removed it from government property.
The La Crescent (Minn.) City Council unanimously voted Nov. 23 to move a cross and star off city property that have been lit every season to celebrate Easter and Christmas, after FFRF contacted them about the constitutional violation.
Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a complaint letter last July after getting a complaint from a La Crescent resident. The Lions Club owned and maintained the display, but it sat on city land.
According to WXOW, the plan approved was to light the display through Jan. 10 and then move it off city property. A yet-to-be-formed private group will sponsor and maintain the display in the future on private property.
"Most wars are fought over religion and we didn't want to have a war with this situation," La Crescent Mayor Mike Poellinger said. The Lions Club will apparently relinquish control due to association rules prohibiting support of sectarian matters.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor hailed the city's thoughtful action. "We are very pleased to hear the city of La Crescent will abide by the constitution and divest itself of this unconstitutional endorsement of religion," she said. "It's nice to see reason, and the Constitution, prevailing."
In what amounts to good news for secular parents and nonbelievers, children who grow up in nonreligious environments appear to be more generous than those who are raised with religion, according to a new study.
More than half of all Americans think that belief in God is required to be moral, but the results of the study published Nov. 5 in the journal Current Biology "contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others," the authors wrote.
The study, which surveyed 1,170 children between ages 5 and 12 from several religious backgrounds in the U.S., Canada, Jordan, Turkey, South Africa and China, found that the kids from nonbelieving households were more likely to share with their classmates and less likely to endorse harsh punishments for those who pushed or bumped into others.
The generosity scores for Christians and Muslims were basically the same, but the scores for the nonreligious children were 23% to 28% higher. It was also found that the more religious (any religion) the family, the less altruistic the child.
An analysis by Phys.org says "the results might be explained in part by 'moral licensing,' a phenomenon in which doing something 'good' — in this case practicing a religion — can leave people less concerned about the consequences of immoral behavior, the researchers say. They also come as a timely reminder that religion and morality are not one and the same."
The numbers seem to be moving in the right direction for nonbelievers.
A survey recently found that the number of U.S. adults who believe in God, pray daily, or regularly go to church all have declined in the past several years.
The Pew Research Center surveyed more than 35,000 people in its 2014 Religious Landscape Study, a follow-up to a similar one done in 2007.
According to the study, the decrease in religious beliefs is due in large part to the increase in "nones," those who say they do not belong to any organized religion. The biggest jump among the "nones" was among those in the millennial generation, which is roughly described as those who were born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s.
The percentage of U.S. adults who say they believe in God dropped from 92 in 2007 to 89 in 2014. And those who responded that they are "absolutely certain" God exists dropped from 71% to 63% over the course of the two studies.
The religiously unaffiliated ("nones," not to be confused with "nuns"!) now make up 23% of the adult population, up significantly from the 16% in 2007. One-third of the "nones" say they do not believe in God, which is up 11 percentage points since 2007.
While the "nones" have grown since the last study, they have also become less religious. The share of "nones" who say religion is "very important" to them has fallen 3%, and those who say religion is "somewhat" important has fallen 4%.
Nearly two-thirds of the "nones" rated religion as "not too important" or "not at all important," which is up from 57% in the 2007 study.
Singing hymns and chanting, hundreds of residents of a small Mississippi town gathered on the street before a council meeting in early November to defend the city's pervasive religious park decorations. FFRF sent a complaint letter Oct. 19 about the unconstitutional displays.
"Before Tuesday night's board of aldermen meeting, downtown Collins quickly began to feel like a church," said television reporter Candace Coleman of WHLT in Hattiesburg in a Nov. 4 story. "Hundreds of people crowded the street to speak out against a complaint the city received from the Freedom from Religion Foundation."
Bettie D. Robertson Memorial Park is filled with life-size or larger religious displays. Included are three large Latin crosses, a statue of Jesus carrying a cross next to a lighted New Testament verse, a large globe with the "City of Collins" on a banner above a picture of Jesus, a display depicting Jesus walking on water suspended above the lake, a mural cut-out of Jesus hanging from a tree, a small chapel with a cross atop it (with angels next to it) and a nativity scene.
The displays, many of which are lighted, are up all year. The nativity scene is unveiled in December. The sheer number of religious displays in the park is the most FFRF has ever encountered in one case.
FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell sent the city (pop. 2,500) a letter on behalf of a local complainant: "Citizens of all faiths and no faith have an equal right to use city parks without being surrounded by symbols promoting any one religion. A city cannot have a 'Christian' park."
Dozens of Collins residents spoke at the city meeting in favor of keeping the displays up, apparently not realizing that the Constitution's Establishment Clause is not based on majority rule.
One woman told WHLT that non-Christians should more or less just ignore the decorations. "All they have to do is go through the park, not notice those figures and say, 'Well, that's a silly old man standing in water or a man carrying a cross on his shoulder,' " said Dot Donovan of Collins.
Another Collins resident said the city welcomes everyone, except apparently those who are offended by religious displays. "Everybody is welcome here," said Vickie Mooney. "We love everybody, but if you are offended by the way that we do things, then you can just leave."
FFRF is awaiting word from the city on what it plans to do about the displays. Collins Mayor V.O. Smith said he has no plans to take them down but said he's speaking with attorneys in case FFRF would pursue a lawsuit. Stay tuned.
Name: Lisa Miller Treu.
When and where I was born: Plymouth, Wis., June 24, 1964.
Education: Random Lake High School, 1982; Trans-American Broadcasting School (now the Madison Media Institute), 1982-83.
Family: Husband Harry and twin daughters Karinthia and Katrina, 18.
My work background: I started on-the-air broadcasting in 1983 at WRKR-FM in Racine. In 1986 I moved to Madison, where I was on the air at WIBA-FM for 15 years on and off. I also started a woodworking manufacturing company called Northwoods Mfg. Inc. with my husband. The customer base included Home Depot, Eddie Bauer and Blain's Farm and Fleet.
We closed the doors to Northwoods in 2000, when I went back to WIBA. I also did print, voice-over and television ads in the Madison area with companies such as Lands' End, Hilldale Shopping Center, East Towne and West Towne Malls, Fox's Jewelers, Rocky Rococo, American Family Insurance and more.
How I came to work for FFRF: I met Dan and Annie Laurie in 2009 as the Director of First Impressions for iHeartMedia in Madison, where they record their weekly radio show, and we became fast friends! It was such a joy to see them each week, and they always stopped to visit with me. Then Dan included me in his book Life Driven Purpose and gave me an autographed copy. After reading it, I knew that my life had a new purpose and that was to be more involved with FFRF.
What I do here: Director of First Impressions and whatever I can do to help the Foundation get the message out.
What I like best about it: All the knowledge that I've gained and all the people that I work with.
What gets old: What I call the "Bubba calls." They usually start with "Can I ask y'all somethin'?" and end with them telling me that I am going to hell.
I spend a lot of time thinking about: The world that I brought my daughters into and what they have to face in the future.
I spend little if any time thinking about: What's on TV.
My religious upbringing was: Catholic.
My doubts about religion started: In first grade when Sister Andrienne yelled at me in front of the whole class for turning around in church. I told her that the little boy sitting behind me was pulling my hair. She said that was no excuse, that Jesus suffered for our sins and to be respectful of the altar in the front of the church. The little boy was not punished. It was my first taste of religious hypocrisy.
Things I like: Music (most of all), books and caring for my cats, Jasmin and Shadow, who also answer to Jazz, Shads or Tuna!
Things I smite: The Beltline and drivers who cut you off or don't wait their turn to merge into traffic.
In my golden years: I hope to share my days with my husband and daughters, gardening, reading and staying healthy.
I wish you had asked: Who are the people that inspire me? My husband, my daughters, John Lennon, Peter Gabriel, Yoko Ono, Annie Laurie and Dan.
An invasive species is defined as "not native to a specific location and which has a tendency to spread to a degree which causes damage in some respect upon exposure." You could say that sounds a lot like Gideon bibles in a bedstand drawer.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation thinks so, and is making a major consumer request to the hospitality industry, asking it to be more hospitable to non-Christian and nonreligious clientele by offering "bible-free" rooms.
Gideons International is "exploiting hotels and motels to proselytize a captive audience," FFRF has informed the American Hotel and Motel Association.
In early December, FFRF sent a letter to a number of companies, including Wyndham Worldwide, Intercontinental Hotel Groups (Holiday Inn), Choice Hotels International (Quality Inn), Hilton Worldwide, G6 Hospitality (Motel 6), Marriott International, Best Western, Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group (Radisson, Carlson, Country Inn) and Starwood Hotels and Resorts (Sheraton).
All told, the 15 companies contacted are responsible for more than 33,000 hotels in the U.S. and more than 4.1 million rooms internationally.
"Those who must read the bible every day will surely take precautions to travel with their own copies. The rest of us deserve a break from mindless evangelizing when we are on vacation," wrote Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor on behalf of FFRF's 23,000 nonreligious members.
"Many of your guests are freethinkers — atheists, agnostics, skeptics or 'nones' — who are deeply offended to be charged high fees only to be proselytized in the privacy of their own bedrooms. Not only that, the bible calls for killing nonbelievers, apostates, gays, 'stubborn sons' and women who transgress biblical double standards," FFRF noted. As an organization whose members embrace reason and science, FFRF would prefer placement of Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" to the invasive Gideons (though the letter doesn't request that).
FFRF does ask the hotel industry to follow the lead of Gansevoort Hotel Groups, which, to provide a friendlier environment, removed religious materials from guest rooms but provides such materials upon request. Many boutique hotels have likewise stopped serving as a conduit for Protestant missionaries. Travelodge (UK) removed bibles from more than 500 hotels last August "in order not to discriminate against any religion."
Thanks to Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel for his research help.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and its member David Steketee filed a lawsuit Nov. 30 in New Jersey state court suing the Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders and other officials. The suit challenges public grants of tax dollars to churches to repair or maintain places of worship.
Steketee, a taxpayer in Morris County, is contesting grants to churches by the board's Historic Preservation Trust Fund. Since 2012, the board has awarded more than 55% of its total Trust Fund assets to churches — more than $5.5 million. It's believed that 2014 and 2015 grants haven't yet been fully disbursed.
FFRF and Steketee are specifically challenging:
• Allotments to the Presbyterian Church in Morristown, which has been allocated more than $1.04 million in public funds since 2012. The church's 2013 construction grant application specifically notes that funding would allow "continued use by our congregation for worship services."
• Allotments to the St. Peter's Episcopal Church. Its 2014 grant application states that a distribution from the fund would ensure continued safe public access to the church for worship, [and] periods of solitude and meditation during the week."
The board didn't respond to FFRF's February 2015 complaint letter about the grants. Steketee testified June 24 before the board and again on July 8 asking it to follow the federal and state constitutions and discontinue the grants. Freeholder Hank Lyon has also objected to the practice.
The grants violate plaintiffs' rights under Article I, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution, guaranteeing: "nor shall any person be obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary to what he believes to be right."
These grants deprive Steketee of his constitutional rights, also in violation of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, N.J.S.A. 10:6-2(c).
"Although preserving historic Morris County buildings is an appropriate use of taxpayer funds, the New Jersey Constitution must trump any other considerations regarding the distribution of public funds to churches, places of worship, or ministries," FFRF's legal complaint alleges.
The plaintiffs seek a declaration from the Superior Court of New Jersey, chancery division of Morris County, that grants of taxpayer funds to churches, places of worship and ministries disbursed within the past two years violate the New Jersey Constitution. They seek a preliminary injunction, later to be made permanent, requiring the defendants to rescind the challenged grants and enjoin them from offering such grants to churches in the future. Nominal and actual damages are sought for Steketee, and the plaintiffs seek attorneys' fees.
"It was an axiom when our secular republic was founded that no citizen 'shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever,' to use the historic words of Thomas Jefferson," noted FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Tax dollars should not be subsidizing religious worship. That's what many immigrants to this land came here to escape."
The lawsuit is being handled by attorney Paul S. Grosswald. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew L. Seidel and Diane Uhl Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne are co-counsel.
FFRF also thanks its former Legal Fellow Katherine Paige for her work on the case.