The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed its first lawsuit over a violation of open records law, after a track record of taking more than 60 Establishment Clause lawsuits.
In a suit filed today in Dane County Circuit Court, Wis., the Madison-based national state/church watchdog charges that Wisconsin open records law was violated by Theodore Nickel, state Office of the Commissioner of Insurance and Commissioner. In addition to FFRF, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott is a plaintiff.
Elliott made a series of open records requests of the Office of the Commissioner after a reported agency decision that Wisconsin's contraceptive mandate, known as the Contraceptive Equity Law, would no longer be enforced because it was preempted by the June 30 Hobby Lobby ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
FFRF and many other observers disagreed, since the Religious Freedom Restoration Act under which the ruling was decided applies only to the federal government, not states.
On July 21, the right-wing news outlet MediaTrackers quoted J.P. Wieske, OCI legislative liaison and public information officer, as stating the Contraceptive Equity Law was "preempted." MediaTrackers reported that the state would not enforce the law. Legitimate news sources then piggybacked on MediaTrackers' story.
Elliott first made a records request July 22 about OCI's enforcement of contraceptive coverage requirements, including Nickel's authority to disregard state law. Elliott followed up July 25 with further requests.
When more than a month had lapsed, Elliott again contacted the agency on Aug. 25. Although that resulted in 16 pages of documents, much of the requests were denied or not responded to. Elliott contested the denial in an Aug. 29 letter, which also was not responded to. He subsequently requested records from the Office of the Governor, including any communications with the OCI related to Wisconsin's contraceptive mandate.
Gov. Scott Walker's office made two denials, but otherwise provided 36 pages of documents, including some communications with OCI that OCI had failed to provide to comply with FFRF's request.
The law says responses must be provided "as soon as practicable and without delay." FFRF charges that OCI violated numerous portions of the law and seeks an order directing the defendants to produce the requested records, award reasonable attorneys' fees, damages of not less than $100, punitive damages and other actual costs.
"Let there be sunlight," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, who thanked the firm of McGillivray Westerberg & Bender for representing FFRF.
The case is in the courtroom of Circuit Court Judge Amy Smith.
By Annie Laurie Gaylor
Freedom From Religion Foundation
Last week Pope Francis was hailed worldwide merely for appearing to suggest that dogs can go to heaven. Then it turned out he never said it.
For the record, this is the pope's void-for-vagueness remark about heaven on Vatican Radio Nov. 26: "The Holy Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this wonderful design also affects everything round us." Italian media, then media around the world, including The New York Times, went wild, conflating this remark with another comment "attributed" to Pope Paul VI, supposedly to comfort a small boy: "One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God's creatures."
But the quote fable is really beside the point. Heaven is the real fable. What is to the point is that none of us, beloved pooches included, will outlive our deaths. There's evidence only for death after life, not life after death. Heaven is pure make-believe and wishful thinking. Even had the pope said dogs go to heaven, he would have simply been conjuring up a nicer nonexistent place than the traditional Catholic version.
"Faith outreach" officials with the Humane Society and PETA fell all over themselves in response to the misreports of the pope's remarks on heaven. Ms. Christine Gutleben, senior "director of faith outreach" for the Humane Society, told The New York Times, "If the pope did mean that all animals go to heaven, then the implication is that animals also have a soul."
If dogs have "souls," isn't the other implication that they could also wind up in hell? Why weren't PETA and the Humane Society calling for a picket of the Vatican for cruelty to animals?
One can speculate endlessly about the nonexistent, but we shouldn't reward people, popes or parents for such irresponsible vaporizings. It's not right or ethical to deceive children about the fate of dead pets. At best, one might truthfully say of a pet or person who's been very ill, that their suffering is over. But to say a pet or a person is "in a happier place" is a fabrication. It's a "pie in the sky" lie. The time to enjoy pie is while we're alive. If we're going to enjoy pie, or treasure our pets, and each other, it has to be here and now.
Nor can I approve a fool's paradise, however final, inexorable, frightening, tragic or ghastly death might be. Telling ourselves obvious fibs about reality shouldn't be laudable. As Emily Dickinson put it, "Believing what we don't believe/Does not exhilarate." Most of us would agree death could be a friend in the most ideal of circumstances, at the conclusion of a long, fulfilling life when we're worn out and ready to go. And in those less ideal and more likely circumstances, such as long illnesses, or Alzheimer's, death may well be a welcome release. And wouldn't immortality ultimately turn into eternal torture? As Dan says, "The trouble with eternal life is: When does it end?"
Religion's greatest "sin" lies in displacing human endeavor, thought, time, resources and efforts from this world, our only world, in order to exalt a highly unlikely, unknowable, unseeable, unprovable and unbelievable pretend afterworld. The only afterlife that ought to concern us is leaving our descendants (along with the other animals and life we share our planet with) a secure and pleasant future.
SOME FAVORITE QUOTES ABOUT HEAVEN AND HELL
Heaven for climate, hell for company. — Mark Twain
It is possible to speculate endlessly about the nonexistent. — Anne Nicol Gaylor
The average man, who does not know what to do with his life, wants another one which will last forever. — Anatole France
Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon. — Susan Ertz
That it will never come
Is what makes life so sweet.
Believing what we don't believe
Does not exhilarate.
That if it be, it be at best
An ablative estate –
This instigates an appetite
— Emily Dickinson
We are on the earth, and they tell us of heaven; we are human beings, and they tell us of angels and devils; we are matter, and they tell us of spirit; we have five senses whereby to admit truths, and a reasoning faculty by which to build our belief upon them; and they tell us of dreams dreamed thousands of years ago, which our experience flatly contradicts.
— Frances Wright
The lash of a hereafter is no guide for us here. — Ernestine L. Rose
Religion, with an upward glancing eye, asks what there is above. Philosophy looks around her and seeks to make a happy home of earth. — Emma Martin
One world at a time. — Robert G. Ingersoll
(Also attributed to Henry David Thoreau as he lay dying.)
I believe that this world needs all our best efforts and earnest endeavors twenty-four hours every day. . . . I do not know the needs of a god or of another world. . . I do know that the needs of humanity and this world are infinite, unending, constant, and immediate. They will take all our time, our strength, our love, and our thoughts; and our work here will be only then begun. — Helen H. Gardener
Our life is short and we cannot spare an hour from the human race, even for all the gods in creation. — Ernestine L. Rose.
Dying is a very dull, dreary, affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it. — W. Somerset Maugham
I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. — Bertrand Russell
I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own—a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotism. It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature. — Albert Einstein
All religions issue bibles again Satan, and say the most injurious things against him, but we never hear his side. — Mark Twain
Annie Laurie Gaylor co-directs FFRF with Dan Barker, and lives in Madison, Wis. Some of the quotes above are from the anthology she edited, Women Without Superstition — 'No Gods, No Masters': The Collected Writings of Women Freethinkers of the 19th and 20th Centuries, published by FFRF.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit today against Franklin County, Ind., which annually places a prominent nativity display in front of the Franklin County Courthouse in Brookville. The devotional tableau is erected shortly after Thanksgiving and stays up until early to mid-January.
The nativity consists of several life-size figures of Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men, and at least one angel blowing a trumpet surrounding the baby Jesus. "The display represents an endorsement of religion and has the principal effect of advancing religion, and it therefore runs afoul of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution," the complaint charges. The display, which is owned by Brookville, has been erected for some 50 years. It's FFRF's information and belief that the county provides the electricity used to light the devotional scene.
In addition to FFRF, two Franklin County residents are local plaintiffs in the suit. FFRF is represented by Senior Staff Attorney Gavin M. Rose of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. FFRF Staff Attorneys Rebecca Markert and Sam Grover are co-counsel.
After receiving complaints by local residents, FFRF first contacted Franklin County about its unconstitutional nativity in 2010. That year the nativity scene was erected at the foot of the flag pole. FFRF renewed complaints in 2011 and 2013. The county refused to take down the religious scene, moving it closer to the courthouse entrance in 2011. Community members have held annual rallies around it, where a commissioner was quoted this year as saying, "The atheists and the liberals are taking over our country."
In a 2010 media report, a Franklin County commissioner insisted that FFRF was "serious about limiting our Christian values that we have." In 2011, FFRF put up billboards reading "Imagine No Religion" and "Reason's Greetings" in Brookville to counter the government-sponsored crèche.
"There are ample private and church grounds where religious displays may be freely placed, said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Once Franklin County enters into the religion business, conferring endorsement and preference for one religion over others, it strikes a blow at religious liberty, forcing citizens of all faiths and of no religion to support a particular expression of religion."
"The First Amendment protects these kinds of displays by individuals and groups on private property, but also makes clear that displays on public property, which is maintained by taxpayers, cannot demonstrate a preference for religion," said Rose.
The lawsuit asks the court to order Franklin County to remove the nativity scene permanently. A motion for a preliminary injunction was also filed today. The case, No. 1:14-cv-02047-TWP-DML, sits before Judge Tanya Walton Pratt, an Obama appointee, at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division.
FFRF is a national state/church watchdog with more than 21,500 members, including 350 in Indiana.
Eleven friendly and thought-provoking billboards featuring members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its chapter, the FFRF Metropolitan Chicago Chapter, are going up this week in Chicagoland in a public relations campaign to introduce area atheists and agnostics to their community. Additional billboards will be placed early next year.
The billboards feature the faces of local atheists, agnostics and freethinkers along with their personal freethought “testimonials.”
Tom Cara, chapter director, from Niles, is pictured next to his slogan: “Kindness comes from altruism, not from seeking divine reward.”
A freethinking family, Liz, Chris, Sylvie, Ian and Charlie Calato of Huntley, is featured and identified as atheists. Their message? “Finding purpose & meaning together . . . religion free!”
Hemant Mehta of Naperville, a young atheist celebrity who runs the popular “Friendly Atheist” blog, says “I’d rather put my faith in me.”
“We are here to challenge you to think for yourself!” says Kimberly Veal, of Chicago, identified as “social justice activist . . . Freethinker & Humanist.”
Retired teacher Mary Schulatz of Chicago proclaims, “I believe in reason and logic!”
“Free of faith, fear and superstition,” says Evan Kane of Highland Park, who calls himself a “real estate scientist.” Kane is active with the FFRF Chicago chapter.
Trader and atheist Joel Frazin, Chicago, says: “Equality for all shouldn’t be constrained by any religion.” IT Executive, father and atheist Kenner Estes, Chicago, notes: “Atheism does not dampen my wonder.” Chicago’s Drew Bekius, a former pastor who is now a freethinker, explains: “I’m following truth beyond belief.”
“I put my faith in science,” is the billboard message of Alan Wagner, Sterling, a musician and atheist. Grandmother Kathi Wise of Palatine, pictured on a lavendar billboard, affirms, “Life is good for this life-long atheist.”
FFRF, a state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., is the nation’s largest association of atheists and agnostics with more than 21,500 members, including more than 800 members in Illinois. FFRF debuted the “Out of the Closet” campaign in Madison in 2010 and has taken the personalized campaign to Columbus, Tulsa, Raleigh, Phoenix, Nashville, Portland, Spokane, Sacramento, Cleveland and Akron.
“Research shows that atheists and other nonbelievers remain at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to social acceptance. One reason for that is that even though at least 20% of the population today is nonreligious in the United States, many Americans have never knowingly met an atheist,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “We’re trying to change that.”
You don’t have to be on a real billboard to participate in FFRF’s “out of the closet” campaign. Make your own “virtual billboard” or upload a short freethought video statement.