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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

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FFRF legal activism

Florida council nixes godly motto

After protests by local activists and a letter from FFRF, the Venice, Fla., City Council voted 5-2 on April 28 against displaying "In God We Trust" in its chambers.
David Williamson, head of the Central Florida Freethought Community, a chapter of FFRF, spoke at the meeting, as did Marie Glidewell of the Gulf Coast Humanists Association. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that about 20 supporters of the display also showed up.

"This is not a chamber of the majority, it is a chamber of all," Williamson told the council.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor sent the council a letter April 27: "Posting 'In God We Trust' interferes with citizens' rights of conscience and is a misuse of city property for the benefit of a system of religion."

The proposal was just the latest in a series of nearly identical efforts pushed nationally by a California-based group called In God We Trust ~ America Inc. Its aim is to display the phrase "in every city and county chamber in America."

Such campaigns show why the phrase, adopted by Congress in 1956 at the height of the McCarthy era, should not be a national motto because it excludes a large percentage of the population, Gaylor said.

FFRF, Dawkins group expel creationism

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science were successful in getting a science teacher in Arroyo Grande, Calif., to stop teaching creationism. The groups sent a letter that sparked an investigation by the Lucia Mar Unified School District into lessons on creationism by Brandon Pettenger at Arroyo Grande High School.

In an April 29 email to Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Chuck Fiorentino reported that he and the school principal met with Pettenger on April 23 and told him "to immediately cease using [creationist materials] and not to instruct at all on the topics of creationism, intelligent design, or anything related."

They also told Pettenger he must adhere to state-adopted science standards and that anything outside those standards needed approval. Creationist material was also removed from his school district Web page.

In addition, the district "will be reminding all teachers of their legal obligation to teach only material that is in the State adopted Standard, or Curriculum, or Board approved."

Dawkins Foundation CEO Robyn Blumner praised the anonymous student for bringing the situation to light. "That student helped bring evidence-based science back into a public school classroom hijacked by religious teachings."

FFRF weighs in on California prayer case

FFRF filed an amicus brief April 22 in a case over government-sponsored prayer in Eureka, Calif. In Beaton v. Eureka, city resident and atheist Carole Beaton filed suit over prayers that start city council meetings. FFRF's "friend of the court" brief supports Beaton's position that prayers at government meetings violate the Constitution.

FFRF argues that the California Constitution provides extensive protection of state/church separation, broader than that required by the Establishment Clause, and that the government should refuse to lend its "prestige and power" to religion by endorsing religious practices.

The brief also criticizes U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Marsh v. Chambers and Greece v. Galloway, which upheld legislative prayer. The cases reject legal principles in favor of relying on a misguided view of history, alleges FFRF, urging California courts to refuse to incorporate flawed reasoning into state law.

Florida students support FFRF bible verse protest

Gator Freethought and Humanists on Campus, two student groups at the University of Florida in Gainesville, sent a letter to university President W. Kent Fuchs in support of FFRF's April 13 objection to a bible verse inscribed on a new business school building.

Heavener Hall has a bible verse on an archway reading, "He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your god. Micah 6:8."

In an April 23 letter, the two groups said, "We, as students and staff of the University of Florida, feel that the quote promotes Judeo-Christian beliefs over all other beliefs on campus, and that this alienates members of the University of Florida community, such as ourselves, who do not hold the same beliefs and encourages discrimination against ourselves and other individuals of different faiths, creeds and beliefs."

The organizations, which have about 45 active members total, requested the verse be replaced with "a more secular, encompassing inscription."
"It's wonderful to see students standing up for their rights and taking an active interest in upholding the Constitution," said FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel.
The university told FFRF on April 15 that it was reviewing the complaint.

Church signs down at L.A. high school

The Los Angeles Unified School District removed church advertising from school grounds after Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel informed the district March 6 that four permanently posted signs at University High School on Texas Avenue near Santa Monica Boulevard violated the Constitution.

"When a school permanently displays a banner on its property advertising a church, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message, here a Christian message," Seidel wrote.

FFRF's local complainant reported on March 27 that the banners had been removed.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has made a $10,000 donation from its new Nonbelief Relief Fund to help earthquake-ravaged Nepal. FFRF is evenly splitting the donation between the United Nations World Food Program and Doctors Without Borders, both of which rate well as secular charities.

The death toll from the 7.8-magnitude earthquake April 25 and aftershocks moved past 8,000 in early May. More than 8 million people were affected. On May 12, a magnitude-7.3 quake was centered near the Chinese border followed by at least five aftershocks measuring from magnitude-5.6 to magnitude-6.3. Within a few hours, the government confirmed 36 people were killed and at least 1,117 injured.

FFRF is launching Nonbelief Relief so that its members and other nonreligious donors have the opportunity to give under a secular umbrella. As the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science has long pointed out, nonbelievers are as (or more) generous as the religious, but have lacked infrastructure to give as a group under the secular name.

"The hands that help are better far than lips that pray," said Co-President Dan Barker, quoting Robert G. Ingersoll.

"There are many established secular charities that respectfully serve people in need regardless of religion, whose purposes are to help — no religious questions asked, no bibles thumped or other hidden-agenda proselytizing," noted Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Nepal is 80% Hindu and 20% Buddhist, all the more reason to avoid any hint of proselytizing by U.S.-based charities, she added.

While FFRF chose the UN World Food Program and Doctors Without Borders for its donation, FFRF reserves the right, as the Nepalese disaster and needs unfold, to designate donations for Nonbelief Relief for another or additional secular relief charities helping the Nepalese.

Generous nontheists who'd like their donation to be made under such a secular umbrella may select "NonBelief Relief" under FFRF's donation dropdown at ffrf.org/get-involved/donate/. Donations, fully tax-deductible, will be forwarded as promptly as possible to a secular charity meeting real needs in the real world.

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Meet a legal staffer

Name: Elizabeth Cavell.

Where and when I was born: New York, N.Y., in July 1983.

Education: B.A., University of Florida; J.D., Tulane University Law School.

Family: Spouse, Andrew Seidel; son, Oliver; and Moose, our dog.

How I came to work at FFRF: I worked as a public defender in Colorado after law school. After a couple of years there, my husband Andrew had an opportunity to work for FFRF so we moved to Madison. I took the Wisconsin bar exam and was working part-time providing legal support at FFRF when the former intake attorney left to take a job at a local firm. I was hired to replace her.

What I do here: I am the intake attorney, which means I supervise the processing of complaints by our administrative assistant. I also process incoming complaints myself. I speak with complainants who contact FFRF about potential state/church violations, assess each complaint and assign complaints to attorneys for further action when appropriate.

I also handle my own substantive caseload, which includes complaints involving governmental "In God We Trust" displays, public parks, post
offices and civil rights/public accommodations complaints.

What I like best about it: Working with my friends, practicing constitutional law and screwing with the government.

What gets old about it: The daunting volume of complaints, working with limited resources and people threatening to kill us.

I spend a lot of time thinking about: Places I'd like to travel, how to better myself, home improvement projects.

I spend little if any time thinking about: Sports and fantasy sports.

My religious upbringing was: Catholic. I attended Catholic school until my family moved to Florida when I was in fifth grade.

My doubts about religion started: I was never very engaged with religion as a kid. Homilies never made sense to me, and I never felt socially or intellectually connected to my church, but I was expected by my family to participate in the rituals and sacraments.

Like many Catholics, hypocrisy and abuse made me lose all respect for the church. And like many Catholics, as an adult I did not practice Catholicism in any way. Once I was in college and law school, reading the religious skepticism of others, I gave up any religion.

Things I like: Summer in Madison, visiting new places, laughing with my husband, narrating my dog's thoughts.
Things I smite: Bullying, violence and corruption.

In my golden years: I hope to be traveling with my husband or living at my future beach or lake house.

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Marshall enforces law without a badge

City Hall in Warren, Mich., got a lot more reasonable on April 28 thanks to activist and FFRF member Douglas Marshall, who was finally allowed to set up a "reason station" in the building atrium after a legal battle for equal treatment.

For years, the city let volunteers at a "prayer station" inside City Hall distribute religious pamphlets and offer to pray and discuss their religious beliefs with passersby. Marshall submitted an application in April 2014 to city officials to reserve atrium space two days a week for a reason station, where he would offer to engage in philosophical discussions with those who expressed an interest in a secular belief system.

But less than two weeks after it was submitted, Marshall's application — although nearly identical to the one submitted by the church sponsoring the prayer station — was rejected by Mayor James Fouts. In his rejection letter, Fouts accused Marshall of "intending to deprive all organized religions of their constitutional freedoms or at least discourage the practice of religion." (Fouts called FFRF "un-American" after FFRF sued him and the city in late 2011 over a nativity scene.)

Noting that the atrium was established as a public forum, FFRF, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on behalf of Marshall in July 2014. The suit was settled in February, with the city agreeing to treat nonbelievers and believers equally.

The reason station will be open and staffed from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. On opening day, about eight people expressed interest, Marshall said. "One lady thanked me for my persistence. One man said he was glad we were there and said he specifically came to welcome us. A few others came up and stated that they were also nonbelievers."

Local and major media, including the Detroit Free Press, covered the opening. Linda Jackson, 74, told the Free Press she stopped to pray but said, "It's a public place. I guess all are welcome, whether they believe Jesus is the reason or they don't."

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Oklahoma AG smears FFRF, misleads public

After the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent letters to 26 Oklahoma school districts about illegal bible distribution, state Attorney General Scott Pruitt went on the offensive (you can take that two ways).

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel's February complaint letters objected to letting Jamison Faught (son of state Rep. George Faught) and other Gideons International members distribute bibles to fifth-grade students during the school day. FFRF educated the districts on the law and advised them that if they continued to allow third-party distributions, FFRF would seek to distribute its literature.

Faught had bragged on Facebook about being allowed to distribute bibles "at every school in McIntosh, Okmulgee and Ofuskee counties except one or two. Last year, the Checotah principal not only personally took us to each classroom, but he helped us hand them out!"

In response to the letter, several schools ended their open forum policies, with at least one superintendent confirming he did not know the Gideons had been allowed into the schools. Gideons typically operate by deliberately avoiding superintendents and school boards, seeking permission from lower-level, less-informed staff.

In his response letter April 14 to superintendents statewide, Pruitt smeared FFRF and trumpeted false claims about government's hostility toward religion.
"Schools have a right to enact neutral policies that allow all viewpoints on religion to thrive," Pruitt wrote. "As the Attorney General of Oklahoma, I will not stand idly by while out-of-state organizations bully you or any other official in this State into restricting the religious freedom the Founders of this country held dear."
Seidel responded to Pruitt the next day, informing him that several districts contacted by FFRF already had such policies, but decided to "revisit the wisdom of these forums" after FFRF asked for equal time.

"It is obviously far easier for an Oklahoma student to get hold of a bible than it is to get hold of criticisms of the bible, which FFRF will seek to pass out in every public school forum that is opened under your offer," Seidel wrote. "If the goal of the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office is to allow public schools to be used to distribute atheist messages, then this is a brilliant idea."

However, he added, "FFRF prefers that public schools focus on education rather than serve as a venue for divisive religious debates."

It's not the first time Pruitt has smeared FFRF. Last year, in discussing the Internal Revenue Service's inaction against pulpit politicking, he claimed FFRF "is unabashed in its desire to destroy" free speech and the First Amendment's free exercise clause.

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Eleanor McEntee

ELEANOR MCENTEE has over a decade of experience as a nonprofit bookkeeper and is very dedicated to nonprofit organizations.  In her free time, she journals, spends time with her cats Steven and MacNcheez, and rides her Harley all over Wisconsin and more!

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