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Lead Us Not Into Penn Station:Provocative Pieces

National Convention

October 7-9, 2016

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Published by FFRF

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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

FFRF has once again received a stellar assessment from the country's premier nonprofit charity rating organization.

For the sixth consecutive year, FFRF has gotten four stars, the highest ranking from Charity Navigator in its just-released annual survey. Four stars indicate that the state/church watchdog organization is collecting and spending donation money in an exemplary way.

FFRF scores very well as compared to its peers in a number of categories. In the Human and Civil Rights category, for instance, it has an overall score of 97.17, much higher than the average. Its revenue growth and program growth are three times the average, as is its net revenue for the year.

Similarly, in the Advocacy and Education category, FFRF's overall score of 97.17 is once more much higher than the average. Its revenue and program growth are again three times the average.

And FFRF does superbly in comparison to other charities based in its home state, since its overall score is way higher than the Wisconsin average. And still again, its revenue growth and program growth are many times that of its peers.

In other key areas, its numbers are lower (better) than its fellow nonprofits. Its CEO compensation is tens of thousands of dollars less than that for its counterparts in all three categories. Its fundraising expenses as a portion of its budget are a tiny fraction of the average.

"Charity Navigator issues the gold standard of nonprofit ratings, and so we are delighted that we've been rated 24 karat," says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.

"This sends an important message to all our members and donors that their donations are going to work for intended purposes and not for fundraising bells and whistles," Barker added.

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FFRF News

Kentucky's rejection of license plate challenged

FFRF contacted the state of Kentucky on behalf of state resident Ben Hart after his application for a personalized license plate was rejected. Hart had the "IM GOD" license plate in Ohio, from where he recently moved to Kentucky.

FFRF asserts that the reasons cited for the Kentucky DMV rejection of "IM GOD" do not hold water. There is no legal precedent for the refusal, FFRF contends. The state has thus far defended the rejection on the basis that it doesn't meet a "standard of good taste and decency."

"The 'good taste and decency' restriction is plainly unconstitutional," FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Todd Shipp at the Kentucky Office of Legal Services.
The Kentucky Department of Transportation added that the "IM GOD" plate "would create the potential of distractions to other drivers and possibly confrontations." But the state can't impose a heckler's veto against speech with which some may disagree, FFRF says.

Summary judgment sought in nativity suit

FFRF, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Indiana are seeking summary judgment in a lawsuit challenging an annual nativity performance at an Indiana public school.

Each December, the Performing Arts Department of Concord High School in Elkhart, Ind., has planned, produced, and staged several performances of its "Christmas Spectacular." Each year the show closes with a 20-minute depiction by students of the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.

However, in December 2015, a federal judge issued an injunction against the live nativity, ruling that the version performed for nearly 50 years was an unconstitutional religious endorsement.

The school then modified the nativity enactment for the 2015 performance, using mannequins in place of live student performers. FFRF and the ACLU note that this modified nativity scene is no more legal or appropriate than the original.

The plaintiffs — a student who participates in the Performing Arts Department, three parents who have attended and will attend the event in order to support their performing children, and FFRF — are entitled to a permanent injunction barring all versions of the nativity enactment.

No windfall for FFRF in lawsuit settlement

FFRF is going to see a little reimbursement as part of its legal victory over the Chino Valley School Board in California.

U.S. District Court Judge Jesus Bernal ruled on Feb. 18 that the School Board's prayers violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Of the $200,000-plus that Bernal fined the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education for violating the U.S. Constitution, FFRF will be receiving a bit more than $40,000 as reimbursement for all the hard work that Staff Attorneys Andrew Seidel and Rebecca Markert put in. The rest will go to attorney David Kaloyanides, who litigated the case in California for the organization, and his law clerk Roda Torres.

If the School Board pays up, which could depend on the appeal, FFRF will simply be recouping the cost of having Seidel and Markert work the case, not reaping a windfall. The Chino Valley School Board has taken the legally and constitutionally unwise step of appealing the decision, so it'll likely be a while before FFRF sees any of the reimbursement.

However, the fees are an important deterrent against other governmental bodies behaving similarly.

"Sadly, these fees are important," Seidel explains. "Not because they generate income for FFRF, but because they deter other school districts from violating the law and strengthen FFRF's ability to resolve future cases without litigation, which is always our goal."

Michigan city's behavior questioned, decried

Doug Marshall, a resident of Warren, Mich., secured the right last year to set up a Reason Station in the city hall after a hard-fought court battle in which FFRF, the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State assisted him. On May 5, the city observed the National Day of Prayer on the building's lawn. Marshall, who had a permit reserving space in the indoor atrium, was booted out with less than 24 hours notice and without explanation. Upon questioning by FFRF, the city claimed that "the atrium will be set up as an alternate site in the case of rain or poor weather."

FFRF asserts that this behavior on the part of the city is unjustified and that it is punishing Marshall for his views. Added evidence for FFRF's contention is that the weather forecast for the day predicted no chance of rain. The city lacks any written criteria for revoking approval of a permitted event, which allows the Reason Station to be restricted at the whim of city officials.

FFRF challenges church school trip

FFRF strongly objected to an Arkansas school district's church trip to celebrate the National Day of Prayer.

The Jessieville Public School District organized an excursion of students from the local high school to the Village Church of Christ. The outing was during the school day.

FFRF points out that such blatantly religious activities would not be permitted to take place inside public schools during the school day. A school district-organized visit to a church is no more permissible.

Non-Christian and nonreligious students are made to feel like outsiders when a school district coordinates a trip for prayer to a church, FFRF asserts. And the fact that participation and attendance is optional is no pretext, as courts have repeatedly ruled.

FFRF: Investigate adult-run student club

FFRF is questioning adult involvement in an Indiana public school religious club.

The Foundation of Christian Students chapter at Riverside Intermediate School in Fishers, Ind., has extensive adult participation, FFRF has been informed. The meetings are led by adults, including four teachers. The sessions include adult-created religious lessons and prayer.

"Public schools may not advance or promote religion," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne writes to Allen Bourff, superintendent of Hamilton Southeastern Public Schools. "Even when student religious clubs are permissible, it is inappropriate and unconstitutional for district staff to lead or organize a student religious club. Teachers may be present to make sure that students are not violating school rules, but may not participate."

FFRF is asking that the matter be investigated. If the Foundation of Christian Students chapter on campus hasn't in fact been student-initiated, it would be in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and should be dissolved. The students may reconstitute the club without adult direction.

Chicago-area principal should lose his job

FFRF wants a Chicago-area public school principal to be dismissed for his active promotion of religion.

Rich South High School Principal Michael McGrone regularly boosts religion, according to media reports and FFRF local members. He has brought in a woman to pray with the students in the cafeteria, the Chicago Tribune reports. In a Facebook posting, McGrone wrote: "This is how we 'stop the killing': Allow God back in school!! Prayer works." He has also said, "Is (prayer) considered crossing the line? I would agree in part, but in so many ways I cannot deny who I am and what got me to become principal."

McGrone's behavior is illegal and unconstitutional, as courts have consistently ruled.

There is no doubt that McGrone is promoting Christianity to the students under his care. (He reportedly makes frequent references to Jesus, in addition to his other utterances and actions.) McGrone's stated goal of getting "God back in school" shows a complete disregard for his constitutional obligations, and he has admitted to promoting religion despite knowing it's illegal to do so.

Proposed school bible class opposed by FFRF

FFRF is opposing a proposed bible class in an Arkansas school district.

Bentonville School Board member Brent Leas has recommended adding an elective academic bible study class to the 2017-18 curriculum. He is justifying it under Arkansas Act 1440, which was passed three years ago.

FFRF contends that such classes violate the notion that public schools should not play favorites when it comes to religion.

And they are legally problematic under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Arkansas Constitution.

The Christian bias in such a course proposal is obvious. If the Bentonville School District feels that its students will benefit from a deeper understanding of different belief systems, why has it not proposed classes on the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita or, indeed, Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion"?

Certainly in theory, a bible course may be permissible as part of a public high school curriculum, but, in practice, such classes are rarely taught in a legal manner, FFRF asserts. Southern Methodist University Professor Mark Chancey did a study in 2013 of bible classes that Texas had introduced six years before and found that many of them "are blatantly and thoroughly sectarian, presenting religious views as fact and implicitly or explicitly encourage students to adopt those views."

Religious ROTC creeds should be changed

FFRF is objecting to the injection of religion into U.S. Army programs.

Specifically, FFRF is taking issue with the JROTC and the ROTC's cadet creeds. The JROTC belief principle ends: "May God grant me the strength to always live by this creed."
Not only does this strike the tone of a Christian prayer, it also adds the requirement that every JROTC cadet believe in a deity and actively seek its assistance.

The ROTC creed suffers from the same problems, since it concludes with: "May God give me the compassion and judgment to lead and the gallantry in battle to win." This, too, mimics a prayer and makes the cadet give an active appeal to God in order to participate.

FFRF cautiously welcomes a Texas city's decision to deed a piece of public land with a cross to a church, but is skeptical about the terms of the sale and the future of the site.

The Port Neches City Council sold a portion of Riverfront Park containing a 10-foot Latin cross to the First United Methodist Church for only $100. FFRF had written letters to Mayor Glenn Johnson in November and January objecting to the cross on public property as an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

"The City Council's move does show the local government fully realizes that you can't have religious symbols on public land," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "However, the means by which the city divested itself of the cross raises concerns."

FFRF questions whether the city's motives are secular, given that the community outcry against FFRF's complaint was led by the mayor. He showed up at a rally held by supporters of the cross in November and spoke against FFRF's "attack" on "our cross," vowing, "We may lose . . . but I'm just telling you this: When we come out of the fight, [FFRF] will have two black eyes, a broken leg, and a broken arm. . . . And we may look worse, but they'll know they have been in a fight."

The low sale price could mean that the church was given preferential treatment, and a close watch needs to be kept, FFRF says, on how the church's plot will be differentiated from the adjacent taxpayer-funded park.

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert tells the Beaumont Enterprise that a "reasonable person" should be able to see where the park ends and the church property begins and suggests that it be marked with signs as church property and fenced off.
United Methodist Church pastor Wesley Welborn says the church has no intention to make any changes to the land around the cross.

"We're not going to put a fence up, for certain," he tells the Enterprise. "There are no plans right now to put any signs up. Our plans are to leave it as-is."

FFRF even presented Port Neches with a better deal for the land, offering $2,000 for that 400-square-foot parcel.

"In these times of fiscal austerity and municipal bankruptcies, we are trying to ensure that a city has resources to provide essential public services to its residents," says Gaylor. "$2000 will make that 20 times more certain than $100."

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FFRF legal victories

Evangelist barred from Florida schools

FFRF has had an ex-con proselytizer barred from a Florida school district.

Hillsborough County Public Schools had allowed a Fellowship of Christian Athletes representative, David Gaskill, who has a criminal record, to interact and proselytize with its students without restriction. Gaskill had been involved with the district's sports programs since at least 2014 and appeared to be the schools' sports chaplain.

FFRF had asked that Gaskill be immediately disallowed from Hillsborough schools. There are serious privacy issues when schools let outside adults pose for "selfies" and pictures with students, including with their arms draped around shirtless students, FFRF contended. The schools also permitted Gaskill to meet with students in "intimate locker room" settings with no other adults present.

No more Christian revivals in school district

A West Virginia school district changed its policies after FFRF objected to a Christian revival meeting held at one of its schools.

Evangelist Matt Hartley sermonized to students at Mingo Central High School in Williamson, W.Va., preaching to them about Jesus, mulling about whether being gay was a choice, and asserting that "God never made a mistake" in choosing a person's gender.

FFRF contacted the school district after receiving a complaint and the district quickly informed FFRF that it was revamping its policies governing such events.

"Steps have already been taken by the superintendent to ensure that such events will not occur in the future and that all staff are educated regarding the legal obligations of school systems when such issues arise," Denise Spatafore, legal counsel for Mingo County Schools, wrote back to FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott.

OK! Students no longer sent to 'Spring Tea'

An Oklahoma school district has assured FFRF that its students will not be attending a moralistic sermon.

The "Spring Tea" is a highly religious annual event in Muskogee. In March, hundreds of middle school girls were preached to on such issues as abstinence, teen pregnancy, sexting and sexually transmitted diseases. Among those attending were students from two public magnet schools in the Muskogee school district.

Last year, FFRF had sent a notice to the district asking them not to have any involvement with the occasion or face legal action. Officials had assured FFRF that the district would abstain, but the organization recently learned that this wasn't the case.

The school district responded that this was all due to a misunderstanding. Drummond explained that the main middle school had explicitly been instructed not to take part, but that the school district had neglected to notify the two public magnet schools. This oversight has now been rectified.

Kentucky town to discontinue nativity display

A Kentucky town will stop displaying an overtly religious nativity scene in response to an FFRF objection.

FFRF had notified the city of Walton a number of times that a Christmas nativity panorama on the City Hall lawn was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
After the December letter and a follow-up in April, FFRF has finally gotten an assurance that the town would take heed of the Constitution.

"I have discussed the legal issues raised in your correspondence dated Dec. 23, 2015, with Mayor Mark Carnahan and advised him accordingly," Walton City Attorney Timothy Noyes wrote back to FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne. "Based on that advice, the mayor indicated that future Christmas displays on city property, if any, will give due deference to existing law concerning separation of church and state."

District won't promote religious ceremonies

A Texas school district has assured FFRF that it will stop publicizing private religion-infused baccalaureate ceremonies.

FFRF had contacted the Friendswood Independent School District with its concern that a baccalaureate service in Friendswood High School on May 22 has been advertised on the district's website and in a handout sent home with seniors.

The school district admitted that it had made a mistake in publicizing the event and said it has taken swift measures to rectify the blunder.

"In order to remedy any confusion, Friendswood High School Principal Mark Griffon has sent a memorandum to all senior students indicating that the prior notice was sent in error and that the event is not school-sponsored," the school district's attorney replied.

"Friendswood High School has also removed all references to the event from its calendar."

Tennessee schools to address violations

A Tennessee school district is taking steps to ensure that state/church violations do not recur after hearing from FFRF about the violations.

A second-grade teacher at Highland Rim Elementary in Fayetteville, Tenn., helped students construct crosses as a class craft project. She also marked student assignments with a stamp that stated, "God Made You Special."

"Public schools have a duty to ensure that 'subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion' or use their positions of authority to promote a particular religious viewpoint, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote to Bill Heath, director of Lincoln County Schools.

Lincoln County Schools replied with a letter detailing a five-point action plan that the district is implementing.

District cracks down on religious promotion

A Texas school district has made important policy changes in response to FFRF's concerns with the McKinney Independent School District on several issues.

District employees were displaying crosses in a number of rooms at local high schools. A religious poster at a middle school read: "As Believers You Are Saved Forever by Grace through Faith" and continued with other religious description including "Baptized into Christ Jesus" and "Soldiers of Christ."

Additionally, a faculty member at McKinney Boyd High School solicited participation of students to read prayers, recite scripture and sing hymns at an upcoming baccalaureate service. And each year, the graduation ceremony the high school has taken place at in the church sanctuary at the Prestonwood Baptist Church decorated with traditional Baptist Christian symbols.

The School District promised to explore alternatives to the church for McKinney High School's graduation ceremony, and it assured FFRF it would keep the church's religious iconography covered as long as the building was used. The district will no longer organize, sponsor or promote baccalaureate services.

Violations ended in Florida school district

The Indian River County School District in Florida has instituted changes after FFRF contacted the district with reports of several constitutional violations.

The Vero Beach High School football and baseball teams reportedly employed a chaplain, pastor Joe Moore, who was also the director of the Indian River County Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Football players and cheerleaders participated in prayer breakfasts at First Baptist Church alongside their coaches. The breakfasts frequently involved ministers preaching to students.

In an April 19 response to FFRF, the district's lawyer stated that "the superintendent discovered a few employees who did not understand their duties and obligations regarding student prayer at school, and has corrected those misunderstandings. The superintendent has also reminded all principals at all schools regarding public employee duties and obligations involving student prayer at school."

California school board drops prayer

The Silver Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees no longer prays at its meetings, thanks to action taken by FFRF.

On April 25, attorneys for the school district "decided to voluntarily discontinue its prior practice" of including invocations, after hearing from FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler.

Tennessee school's choral program secularized

Students at David Crockett High School in Jonesborough, Tenn., will no longer be compelled to perform "contemporary Christian concerts" as a part of their public school music instruction after hearing from FFRF.

FFRF received a report that music teacher Kelly Sams conducted blatantly Christian concerts, frequently performed in a church. The concerts consisted mainly of contemporary Christian music.

"These songs have devotional messages that would be appropriate in a church setting, but not in a public school," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a letter to the Washington County Schools.

The county attorney replied to FFRF on April 20, reporting that the superintendent and school principal had met with Sams, advising her that "holding a 'contemporary Christian concert' which contained solely religious songs was not consistent with" school policy.

FFRF gets Christian movie removed from school

The Christian movie "Facing the Giants" will no longer be shown in South Dearborn Community Schools, thanks to a complaint lodged by FFRF.

The film follows a struggling high school football coach who inspires his team to believe in the Christian God and to use faith to win football games. South Dearborn Middle School reportedly had students watch it as a reward for finishing a test. When FFRF's complainants contacted the school, they were repeatedly told next time students would be allowed to opt out of watching such movies.

"The district may not require students to opt out of a movie screening, intended as a class reward, in order to avoid a school-sponsored religious message," wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne.

The school principal replied promptly, assuring FFRF that the film will not be shown again, and the school would "make sure that any film shown remains neutral toward religion."
Illinois teacher takes down religious ads

A West Aurora High School teacher has taken down religious ads she posted around her classroom after FFRF sent a letter of complaint.

One poster advertised "See You At The Pole," a Christian prayer event, that included bible quotes. Another poster advertised the school's student prayer club.

On April 25, the district superintendent informed FFRF that the postings had been removed after hearing from FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne.

FFRF resolves another issue in Orange County

FFRF has resolved yet another issue in Florida's Orange County Public Schools. The district, the 11th-largest in the country, is FFRF's most-contacted school district.

This time, the district is ensuring that JROTC ceremonies at East River High School will not include prayer. The 2016 JROTC Awards and Change of Command Ceremony included an invocation listed on the agenda. Attendees were asked to bow their heads, although ROTC students were told in advance that a prayer would be given and if they did not believe in "God or Jesus" that they "just need to stand there and be silent."

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to the district's two attorneys, pointing out that even in the context of a state military college with older students, a federal court "held that school officials may not compel students to participate in a religious activity."

OCPS General Counsel and frequent FFRF correspondent Diego "Woody" Rodriguez responded on April 26, confirming that the prayer occurred and that there would be none at future programs.

After wavering, school board drops prayer

Thanks to persistent action by FFRF, the Kings Canyon Unified School District Governing Board in Reedley, Calif., will no longer pray at its meetings.

FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler first objected to the practice in November 2015.
Superintendent Juan Garza replied on Feb. 24, informing FFRF that the board had passed a new invocation policy. The policy attempted to set up a system like that approved by the Supreme Court for local government bodies in its Greece v. Galloway case, and contained inclusive language, but still allowed for prayer at school board meetings.

"School-sanctioned prayer, even in the new, slightly more removed context, is unconstitutional," wrote Ziegler in a second letter on April 7. "Federal courts ruling on the matter have agreed that school boards fall within the school context, not in the realm of other government meetings."

On May 3, Garza informed FFRF that "the district has decided to discontinue its practice of invocation."

Religious email signature removed

An employee at the Eau Claire district attorney's office in Wisconsin has removed an inappropriate religious message from the signature line of her official email address, thanks to FFRF. The signature read, in part, "Joyful, Prayerful, and Thankful – Thessalonians 5:16-17."

"It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district attorney's office or its agents to promote a religious message because doing so conveys government preference for religion over nonreligion," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in a May 10 letter.

The next day, the office's manager replied that the matter had been resolved.

'Follow Christ' sign taken down at Ohio school

The Genoa Area Local Schools in Genoa, Ohio, have removed a sign reading "Follow Christ" from Genoa High School, after receiving a letter from FFRF.

"It is unconstitutional for Genoa Area Local Schools to encourage its students to 'Follow Christ,' in effect encouraging non-Christian students to convert," said FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne on April 25.

The superintendent replied on May 5 saying the sign had been removed.

Florida district dissociates from religious camp

After FFRF lodged a complaint, the Palm Beach County School District in Florida is no longer partnering with a religious sports day camp, SportsTyme.

The group claims that it creates a sports environment that "leaves God in," including bible lessons. Previously, the district permitted SportsTyme to advertise on school grounds and reportedly helped sign up students for the religious camps.

On May 4, the district notified FFRF that SportsTyme updated its website to delete PBCSD schools from their list of "partners" and added a disclaimer noting that it was not affiliated with or endorsed by the school district.

School to be more careful in music selection

Following an FFRF complaint, the Modesto City Schools in California will exercise more care in choosing music for students to perform.

One section of a Winter Concert held at La Loma Junior High School was overwhelmingly religious. Most of the songs were devotional Christian songs.

In a May 9 response to FFRF, a school official said that the La Loma chorus director had "agreed to be more careful in the songs he chooses for future concerts. He will ensure there is more variety in the music performed at each concert."

Texas school district withdraws from prayer event

After hearing from FFRF, schools in the Gunter Independent School District in Texas won't be participating in future National Day of Prayer ceremonies

FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the district after receiving a report that Gunter High School students participated in a National Day of Prayer event that included prayer and scriptural readings, performing a hymn. The National Day of Prayer is a Christian event originally organized by Billy Graham to "mobiliz[e] the Christian community to intercede for America and its leadership."

In a May 23 response, the superintendent assured FFRF that Gunter ISD would no longer take student groups to perform at the ceremonies.

California Denny's no longer discriminates

The Denny's restaurant in Hawthorne, Calif., no longer privileges churchgoers with a church bulletin discount after FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell contacted the restaurant on Dec. 18 to complain about the civil rights violation.

Cavell informed the restaurant that the discount, 20% off for bringing in a church bulletin, violated federal and state laws providing that places of public accommodation cannot discriminate on the basis of religion.

A restaurant worker phoned Cavell on May 17 to report that the restaurant would no longer offer the discount.

FFRF silences loudspeaker prayer at Texas school

Spearman High School in Spearman, Texas, is no longer including prayer over the loudspeaker at athletic events. The move follows a Dec. 1 letter sent by FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover.

"The Supreme Court has specifically struck down invocations given over the loudspeaker at public school athletic events," said Grover, referring to the 2000 Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe case.

A lawyer for the school district replied to FFRF on May 19, saying the district "will instruct those individuals providing announcements during football games, and other school sporting events, to refrain from reciting any prayer, Christian or otherwise," and promised corrective action if the instructions were disregarded.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor introduced Stuart Watson, a longtime investigative reporter in North Carolina, during FFRF's mini-convention in Raleigh, N.C.:

We got to know Stuart because he called us when he saw our parish exclusion lawsuit that FFRF is filing against the 1954 law that allows ministers to be paid through a housing allowance, which is fully exempt from taxation. It's wonderful investigative reporting, the old-fashioned kind that's hardly done anymore.

He's been an investigative reporter for more than 30 years and has won many national awards, including the George Foster Peabody Award, the DuPont Columbia Silver Baton, the National Headliner Award and many others. He had a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard.

They don't make them like this any more, so we are really privileged to have Stuart Watson here.

Watson's speech, edited for space, was delivered on May 3, 2014.

By Stuart Watson

I grew up a fundamentalist. My father believed that the bible was the holy and inerrant word of God. Every comma. I fell away from that when I went off and met my wife at Vanderbilt University.

I fell away from the church and from fundamentalism when someone told me I was going to hell because when I was baptized I was sprinkled instead of dunked. I thought that any god that's going to send me to everlasting damnation for want of a few gallons of water is no god that I can believe in. That was the end of me and that.

So now, I would describe myself as just a searcher. Just a seeker. Somebody who asks a lot of questions. I'm biased in favor of people who think, and I'm biased in favor of people who ask challenging questions. So I feel very much at home here.

As a reporter, many of our best stories come from tips, and someone sent me a tip that said that a pastor was building a 10,000-square-foot home. It turned out it was a 15,000-square-foot home, 10,000 of which was a heated, four-car garage. When I started looking into it, people said, "Really? Is that all it is? Just a story about a pastor with a big home?" And I said, "No, I don't think it is."

Investigative reporting moves in what they call "the three eyes." You investigate individuals, you investigate institutions, and then you move on to issues or ideas. And so you kind of move up a hierarchy; you move from the specific to the general. And so investigative reporting is about saying, "Is this an isolated incident? Or is it part of pattern? Is it part of something bigger?"

So we aired our report about the huge home that this pastor was building. The name of this church — the largest megachurch in North Carolina — is called Elevation Church. It's a multisite model, which means that the preacher preaches live in one place and it's broadcast around to other places simultaneously, and also over the web and on television. It's technically televangelism, but it's also much more than that.

But something that I never really asked came up on Glenn Beck's website. Beck asked if it's OK for pastors to live in extravagant homes. It was not asked to cause class jealousy or create issues of envy or class warfare or anything. It wasn't, "Well, his house is too big." That, curiously, is a question that is asked within the Christian church. Those outside the Christian church were asking a different question.

The Christian church said, "You're asking questions about whether this guy is following Jesus's footsteps? Or is he biblical? Or is he theological?"

But outside people were saying, "No, the only stake we have in what this church does is that you get a tax break. You get a big tax break." So this is a guy who became quite wealthy, using a tax-exempt institution. And then we narrowed it down to talk specifically about the housing allowance. You might call it the parsonage allowance.

Why the tax break?

The issue is that Dan and Annie Laurie, as heads of a small nonprofit, are not eligible to take this tax exemption. Whereas, if you are a rabbi, if you are a minister, if you are a priest or if you are an imam, you are eligible.

So there is a distinction made. Their argument is that it is a violation of the Establishment Clause, which is the first part of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The courts and the lawyers have to determine whether this tax-exemption for religious leaders is de facto establishing a religion.

The way that this impacts atheists and agnostics is that it gives these pastors nonprofit status. So the church itself does not pay property taxes, the church gets tax exemptions. But more importantly for the purposes of the federal lawsuit, the bigger the house, the bigger the tax break for the pastor.

Let's watch this video so we can see what I'm talking about.

[A video is shown to convention attendees. An edited version of the video has been transcribed here.]

Stuart voiceover: When we first reported how Elevation Pastor Steven Furtick was building a 16,000-square-foot home, we got a lot of complaints from his supporters. "So what if he builds a huge house? How is that any concern of yours or anyone else's?"

Well, the answer is, if you are a taxpayer, it is your concern because pastors don't pay income taxes on the salary for housing. It's called a parsonage allowance. And when preachers are exempt from paying a big chunk of income taxes, guess who does pay?

Pastor Steven Furtick will not reveal how much Elevation Church pays him as a tax-free parsonage allowance. But his mentor, Ed Young Jr. in Dallas, gets about a quarter million dollars a year, tax-free, just for housing.

But my question about the parsonage allowance doesn't start or end with Pastor Steven and his big house. Seventeen years ago as a young reporter, I wanted to know why the CEO of Goodwill Industries of Eastern North Carolina, a man named Dennis McClain, got $54,000 a year just for expenses.

McClain, a Methodist minister assigned to Goodwill, gets a parsonage allowance even though he doesn't pastor a church. The Raleigh News and Observer reports McClain and his wife, also at Goodwill, earn nearly $800,000 a year. Thanks in a large part to the parsonage allowance, more than $147,000 of that is tax-free.

Dan Barker voiceover: We think that's unfair. I was an ordained minister. After 19 years of believing, really believing and preaching the gospel, I changed my mind.

Stuart voiceover: When Dan was a preacher, he got a tax break for housing.

Dan voiceover: You don't even have to report it! It was nice. I mean, who wouldn't want that advantage? If you're paying your taxes, you want every break you can get.

Stuart voiceover: But as atheists, Barker and his wife and co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, sued the IRS over the parsonage exemption. The atheists sued in federal court in Madison, Wis., where the headquarters is. They claim the parsonage allowance violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution because Congress gave a tax break to clergy, but not to all nonprofits. The bigger the house, the bigger the tax break, because the parsonage allowance is limited only by the fair market rental value of the pastor's home.

Annie Laurie voiceover: So if you choose to live in the Sistine Chapel or a mansion, you can't claim more than the fair rental value, but that could still be astronomical.
Stuart voiceover: Dan and Annie Laurie couldn't care less what Elevation Church pays Steven Furtick, but they do care about the tax breaks.

Dan voiceover: If they want to pay the pastor $50 million a year, we are not complaining about that, that's freedom. But if they are excluding housing from taxation, tax liability, then that's hurting all of us.

Stuart voiceover: And thanks to the secrecy Congress affords churches, taxpayers have no idea how much the parsonage allowance is even worth.

Annie Laurie voiceover: It's shielded from public scrutiny, yet the public is subsidizing churches.

Stuart voiceover: You see, most nonprofits have to make their tax forms public. Only last week a federal judge in Wisconsin handed the atheists a first-round victory. The judge ruled the tax break for the parsonage allowance is unconstitutional and should be thrown out. The decision will almost certainly be appealed.

[End of video]

Questions raised

We went to the church early on and said we'd like to interview Pastor Steven. Not just about his house, but about the whole movement. The movement has really been phenomenal and in eight years has gone from seven families to about 15,000 people a week. So it mushroomed. It became really kind of extraordinarily successful.

So, just like any other nonprofit institution, there are questions raised.

My argument to them was that we are not picking on you, but you have become big. And so we are asking the same types of questions we would ask a health care nonprofit or a United Way nonprofit — any kind of charitable nonprofit enterprise. We're asking you where the money goes. Some of my colleagues in journalism said this a story about faith. I said this is a story about money, a story about real estate, a story about tax law. But if you go to people and say, "Hey, let me educate you on the tax exemption of the parsonage allowance," well, there aren't enough open bars in the world to keep people fixated on that!

But if you say this is about Pastor Steven and his 15,000-square-foot home, then all of a sudden people are paying attention. They wonder about that guy, they've seen him on television, they wonder what's his deal.

Well, we tried to pursue what his deal was. Along the way, they said they would not give us a financial statement. They later released it after all of our reports. Because of the money that flows around it, the financial statement doesn't give the complete picture, but at least they released an audited financial statement.

They made both volunteers and certainly church employees sign a confidentiality agreement. He would not submit to an interview. I met with him face to face and asked for an interview, offered to do unedited interviews and put them on television, offered to put them on the web, offered to let him shoot the interviews himself. I offered to let him ask me any questions on camera that he wanted to. I submitted registered letters requesting interviews. I asked in every way I knew how to ask. Every way short of carrier pigeon. The answer was always no.

Cloak of secrecy

At first, I took that personally and thought that he doesn't like me. But then I discovered that it was pretty much the same way with everyone. This was a calculated strategy, not to sit in front of anybody who could ask a critical or challenging question. This room, I suspect, is filled with people who ask critical and challenging questions.
This cloak of secrecy extended to things that I thought were even benign or beneficial to them. I asked them for their bylaws. How is the church governed? What is his salary? Could anyone fire him? Is there anyone who has the power, or is this a theocracy in which he is God's chosen, God's anointed?

People are not writing checks to Pastor Steven, they are writing tax-deductible checks to the church. In exchange for giving $100 or $100 million, do they get accountability? Do they get any say in how he runs it? No, they do not, because the way the board is selected is not democratic. The board of directors is made up of other megachurch pastors. He pays them to come preach at his church, they pay him to come preach at their church, and so it's all very nice and cozy. They're the ones who set his salary. I think that is one of the reasons why you don't see the bylaws.

Increasingly, I wonder what is actually giving and what is buying public relations? If you come to the community and you want to get a name for yourself, you start throwing money around. How is that any different from advertising?

Yet, for a certain amount of money, you can guarantee yourself good PR by saying how great you are. So we wanted to scrutinize a lot of this $11 million they said that they'd given over the course of eight or nine years in the community.

They showed us the top contributions. They showed us the glossy annual report with full-color pictures. But they said if you want to know about the complete picture, you need to go and ask the recipients. That's very strange, because how do we know who the recipients are? How do I know where you gave your money? It strikes me that if you are the United Way and I ask you what my money was used for, they will do backflips to tell you every little organization that they give $5,000, $10,000 to.

And yet they were only showing us the big ones. The rest of 'em? Guess! Guess where the money is going!

We were criticized. People said we were picking on him, that we just don't like him, we've made this personal. But this is not limited to one church, one faith, one pastor. There are multiple people who are living in these big houses who are eligible for these breaks. But you don't get to see them — unlike Dan and Annie Laurie where you can see it on their IRS Form 990, it's right on the web, it's full transparency — because they are not the same as a ministry and outside nonprofit agencies. In the case of a church or a synagogue, those religious institutions do not have to declare this.

[Another video is shown to convention attendees. An edited version of the video has been transcribed here.]

Stuart voiceover: Preachers, really all clergy, don't have to pay income taxes on whatever they're paid for housing, no matter how much that is. They don't even have to tell you about it. We talked to a CPA who broke it down for us.

Peter J. Reilly voiceover: Clergy housing allowances can be in the hundreds of the thousands.

Stuart voiceover: Todd Coontz preaches the Gospel of Prosperity on TV. That god wants you to be rich, if you'll just send Todd some money. Todd's church, Rockwealth International, owns a million-dollar condo where he lives. Here's the thing. He doesn't even have to tell you if he gets a tax-free housing allowance.

Reilly voiceover: You don't have transparency with churches. That's probably to me one of the biggest problems with churches compared to other not-for-profits.

Stuart voiceover: Peter J. Reilly is a CPA from Massachusetts who's written on Forbes.com about the parsonage benefit of the clergy, and why special tax treatment needs to go.
Reilly voiceover: Churches are kind of a black hole. There is no limit! The rule is one house for the exemption. It can be a really big house, but only one.

Stuart voiceover: So while Congress sides with the preachers' lobby, Peter O'Reilly has a suggestion: Reform the loophole. Cap the tax break. Limit it the same way that the U.S. military does. But that would take an act of Congress, and Congress has not been inclined to act. There are lots of lobbyists in Washington, but few more powerful than the church.
[End of video]

Just to articulate Peter's position: If you want to make a common-sense test, say, in the military, if you have an admiral and by virtue of his job he has to live on the Cape. Then they cap the amount that he can deduct for the off-base housing. So in the military they have a limit to the amount military personnel can write off on their taxes as part of their housing allowance. And he's just saying that the same kind of common sense should apply to the clergy that applies to them.

Annie Laurie and Dan are filing this lawsuit, and all of you are funding it, on the basis of principle in that the clergy as a class are treated differently than other nonprofits.

%250 %America/Chicago, %2016

Ingersoll statue restoration under way

A 105-year-old statue of one of America's most illustrious nonbelievers is set for a long-overdue restoration.

FFRF raised funds from donors across the nation to repair the historic statue of Robert G. Ingersoll in Glen Oak Park, Peoria, Ill. The restoration will cost Peoria taxpayers nothing, thanks to 248 donors from around the nation, representing many states and Puerto Rico, who contributed more than $35,000.

Ingersoll (1833-1899), a Civil War officer, prominent lawyer and attorney general of Illinois, was also a famed freethinking orator who settled for much of his life in Peoria. His speaking fees ranged as high as $7,000 more than a century ago. He once attracted 50,000 people to a lecture in Chicago, which was 40,000 too many for the Exposition Center.

FFRF member Zenos Frudakis, an internationally acclaimed sculptor, has arranged to help the Laran Bronze Foundry in Philadelphia carry out the restoration.

Created in 1909 by Fritz Triebel in Genoa, Italy, the statue has a hole in the base and in the shoe, a seam in the right leg, poor patching, severely corroded iron armature, surface and interior corrosion of the bronze, and cracks in the granite base.

Ingersoll's speeches and writings fill 12 volumes, known as "The Dresden Edition," that are highly prized today. Among his pithy remarks:

• "All religions are inconsistent with mental freedom."

• "The hands that help are better far than lips that pray."

The base is expected to carry one of Ingersoll's more popular sayings: "Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so."
This marks the first time FFRF, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, has partnered with a city government on a public works project.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said local member Ken Hofbauer, who is part of the Peoria Secular Humanist Society, raised the alarm on the condition of the statue and worked with the Peoria city parks division to approve the project. She also thanked Jeff Ingersoll, a descendant of Ingersoll with the Robert Green Ingersoll Memorial Committee, for working with FFRF on the project. The new base of the statue will carry the names of donors who contributed at least $1,000.

"We're so pleased freethought will still play in Peoria," Gaylor added.

While the crowd at the June 4 Reason Rally may not have been as big as anticipated, the message still resonated among the thousands who were there.

"I left the rally feeling optimistic for the future when I saw so many people passionately fighting for science, secularism, and reason," wrote Matthew Facciani on his "According to Matthew" blog on Patheos.com.

Lyz Liddell, executive director of the Reason Rally Coalition, opened the event.

"We say to our families, our communities and, ultimately, our government, which meets just at the other end of this National Mall, that we exist, we are good without God," she declared. "We can bring about social change and we are a growing voter constituency."

Dozens of people spoke at the rally, including Bill Nye "The Science Guy," illusionist Penn Jillette, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, Reps. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Bobby Scott of Virginia, and, of course, FFRF's Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor. (See page 17 for their speeches.) The Reason Rally was hosted and funded by several secular and atheist groups, including FFRF.

Observers noted the crowd was smaller than during the first Reason Rally in 2012, when an estimated 20,000 people attended.

NASA scientist Carolyn Porco told the crowd the only way to address issues in the governance of our nation is not to "pray the problems away, but to think the problems away."

Brenda Germain, a member of the group Military Atheists and Secular Humanists of Fort Bragg, was at the rally with her husband, an Air Force veteran.

"We're tired of watching our politicians pandering to the religious and ignoring us as if we don't even exist," Germain told CNN Wire.

Liddell said the presence of two U.S. representatives, along with Maryland congressional candidate Jamie Raskin, was significant.

Raskin, a state senator who is culturally Jewish, noted that alliances between "progressive religious reformers of all faiths and secular humanists" have changed America by advancing justice and freedom in movements related to abolition, women's suffrage, labor and environmentalism.

"We must tell the world of how America broke from theocracy and religious war by protecting both freedom of thought and freedom of worship," Raskin said. "Both secular government and religious liberty [were protected] simply by the ingenious act of separating the church from the state."

"A pluralistic, secular government is the only way to ensure that all individuals have the freedom to follow the religious path of their choice," said Gabbard, who is the first and only American Hindu elected to Congress. When Gabbard ran for Congress in 2012, her opponent argued that she shouldn't be allowed to serve because her religion doesn't "align" with the Constitution.

Laura Duncan, 57, of Taylor, Mich., came with her friends from Michigan Atheists.

"It's just really nice seeing people who think the same way you do after being isolated for 50 years," Duncan told the Religion News Service.

Annie Laurie Gaylor's remarks at the Reason Rally

Mark Twain once said heaven for climate – hell for company. And how's this for good company?

It's awe-inspiring to see so many unabashed atheists — and agnostics — who aren't afraid of burning in hell, or of making our voices heard.

I'm Annie Laurie Gaylor. As a third-generation freethinker, I co-founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation with my mother, Anne Nicol Gaylor. Anne was a true firebrand for feminism and freethought. Anne's experiences in the early 1970s battling for legal abortion opened our eyes to the absolute necessity of keeping religious dogma out of our civil laws — especially laws affecting women.

FFRF has grown from two of us to nearly 24,000 dues-paying members. FFRF is a national state/church watchdog and our message is: Beware of dogma. Once religion gets into our government and our social policies — watch out!

Lawrence Krauss kindly mentioned FFRF's full-page ad in The New York Times this week, talking about how Congress discriminates against atheists, and very specifically one atheist — Dan Barker! This ad's also running in this weekend's USA Today and look for the ad in tomorrow's [Sunday, June 5] Washington Post. FFRF's election year message is: "I'm an atheist and I vote." See if you can spot our message now up in 70 nearby locations right here in downtown D.C. — where legislators can't miss it.

FFRF is fighting to buttress that besieged wall of separation between state and church — because we know it's the only barrier standing between us and theocracy.

FFRF has seven attorneys on staff, who ended 240 major violations last year alone! Last year, we also won five significant state/church lawsuits, such as: removing a Ten Commandments monument from a public school in Pennsylvania; stopping teachers in Georgia from forcing kindergartners to pray and from telling a first-grader her mother was a "bad person" for not believing in God.

FFRF has 14 ongoing lawsuits in court including eight suits filed already this year to stop government promotion of religion. This spring, we won a federal court victory against prayers at public school board meetings. This week, we just won a federal lawsuit stopping a really outrageous violation — removing Christian crosses from Texas police cars. [See front page for story.]

We're not a Christian nation — our Constitution is godless.

Unfortunately, reactionary religious lobbies threaten our constitutional rights. The latest assault is the campaign to legalize discrimination — to allow someone else's religion to trump your civil rights. Tell your congressperson to support the "Do No Harm" bill amending the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act that brought us that horrible Hobby Lobby ruling, cosponsored by our speaker today, U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, one of my heroes. Civil rights shouldn't be dependent on your zip code —and fanatics shouldn't be allowed to drive our social agenda or run Congress.

We're here at the Reason Rally to tell Capitol Hill and candidates about secular citizens — the fastest growing segment of the population, to act on our concerns: civil liberties, equality, science education, climate change and its root cause — overpopulation, as Bill Nye laudably points out, reproductive rights, and that all-American principle of separation between state and church.

When you vote this year, you're not voting for president — you're voting for the next Supreme Court justice. We must break the 4-4 court deadlock so reason and compassion can prevail in one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

We invite you to become a part of our essential work to educate the public about nontheism, and to get religion out of government — by joining us at FFRF.org.

And now, Dan Barker wants to tell you a story . . .

That's right. I am suing Congress.

Did you know that almost $800,000 of your taxes are spent each year for chaplains to open Congress with prayer? That's more than $2,000 per prayer!

Although a quarter of Americans are nonreligious, all of the prayers have been blatantly religious, almost all Christian.

Shouldn't the House of Representatives be representative?

Many of those prayers are delivered by guest chaplains. Over the years, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has asked Congress to allow me to give a secular invocation.

As many of you know, I was an ordained Christian minister. I preached for 19 years before I saw the light. After examining my faith with reason, I finally threw out all the bathwater and discovered: "There is no baby there!" There is no evidence, no argument and no need for a god. I just lost faith in faith.

But I did not lose my desire to participate in government.

Last year we finally found a member of Congress who agreed. My representative, Mark Pocan,
asked House Chaplain Father Pat Conroy, a Jesuit priest, to allow me to open Congress with a secular invocation.

The chaplain turned me down.

An atheist cannot solemnize government, he said, because the prayer needs to address a "higher power." I replied that in this country, there is no power higher than "We, the people."

In this country, there is no religious test for public office. I told him that although I cannot invoke a supernatural spirit, I can invoke the "spirit" of the Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, who put "Common Sense" over dogma, and reason over faith.

The chaplain still turned me down.

So the Freedom From Religion Foundation has just filed a lawsuit against Congress for discrimination, denial of equal rights, and violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

James Madison said there should be no chaplains in government at all, and we agree, but if there are, they should at least be inclusive.

In my book Life Driven Purpose, I declare the truly "Good News" that we atheists offer the world: There is no purpose of life. There is purpose in life.

In my newest book, GOD: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction — which Richard Dawkins asked me to write — I show that the God of the bible is not a creature we should base our government on, much less worship or admire.

As Dawkins said: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

Part 1 of my book is "Dawkins was right," with a chapter documenting each of those 19 nasty adjectives. But Part 2 of the book is called "Dawkins was too kind," showing that God is also a pyromaniacal, angry, merciless, curse-hurling, vaccicidal, aborticidal, cannibalistic slave monger.

Any country based on the bible is doomed to divisiveness, cruelty and irrationality.
Our government should not be praying to that god or any god.

It's time for pious politicians to get off their knees and get to work!

By Eric Jayne

Performances of "God Bless America" were wedged into Major League Baseball games 15 years ago as an intended patriotic gesture and healing response to the 9/11 attacks. All MLB teams feature these performances as part of the seventh-inning stretch — along with the traditional singing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." The team's public address announcer introduces the performer and tells fans to remove their hats and stand as they would for the National Anthem. This is an especially irritating experience during "Faith and Family Night."

In 2012, the Minnesota Atheists organization had an opportunity to hold an "Atheist and Family Night" with the minor league baseball team in St. Paul. Our billboard campaign caught the attention of local media and that led to a conversation between the Minnesota Atheists and the fun-loving St. Paul Saints. With significant help from Freedom From Religion Foundation, Minnesota's beloved minor league baseball team will again be secularized and rebranded from the St. Paul Saints to the Mr. Paul Aints on July 16 at CHS Field.

The team is literally rebranded because the player jerseys will feature a modified "Aints" team logo, omitting the usual "S," but including the scarlet "A" from the Out Campaign, made famous by Richard Dawkins. The misogynistic namesake of the capital city is tossed aside so that "Saint" Paul is transformed to "Mister" Paul. These unsaintly jerseys will be autographed by the players and auctioned off during the game, with proceeds going to Camp Quest, Minnesota Atheists and FFRF. There will also be atheist/secular/skeptic-themed antics between innings and during the game. One example of these antics is "Doubting Thomas," who goes around the stadium wearing a shepherd's robe vocally doubting things and questioning calls from umpires during the game.

The "S" will be covered on the Saints signage throughout the stadium and FFRF will have a few banners strategically displayed. There will also be a greeting table by the main gate hosted by local atheists with some free items, including our popular Get Out of Hell Free cards in the style of the Monopoly board game.

The motto of Minnesota Atheists is "Positive Atheism in Action," so we are demonstrating that by asking fans to give up their "soles" for charity. Our team of volunteers designed large wooden crates for fans to donate their gently worn shoes for individuals and families experiencing poverty. All of the shoes we collect will be sent directly to the secular global nonprofit Soles4Souls, who will then distribute the shoes to those in need.

It takes a special team to feature an "Atheist Night" game like this, especially since religious belief has such a strong presence in baseball and all other professional sports. You don't have to be knowledgeable about sports to have heard an athlete give credit to God for the team's win, or to have noticed a player make a religious gesture after making a big play. To be sure, the players on the Saints are no more or no less religious than players on other professional sports teams, so we are grateful for their participation in this night of "unbelievable" fun. Only a couple of players have refused to play in our past sponsored games, but the vast majority of Saints players have been really good sports.

The St. Paul Saints ownership includes Mike Veeck and Bill Murray (yes, that Bill Murray). Veeck was recently given the title of "funniest man in baseball" by ESPN, and it's worth noting that his father, Bill Veeck, was responsible for a number of entertaining stunts, such as in 1951 when he signed the shortest man to play in a MLB game. Standing at 3 feet, 7 inches tall, Eddie Gaedel had an impossible strike zone and was consequently walked on four straight pitches for what would become his only plate appearance. Mike continued his dad's intrigue for fun and entertainment, and was responsible for the infamous "Disco Demolition Night" at a Chicago White Sox game in 1979.

Bill Murray isn't as visible as Veeck at St. Paul Saints games, but he occasionally makes an appearance. He even greeted fans at the main gate during the last game of the 2014 season, which was the last game played at the original stadium. They now play in a brand new stadium (CHS Field) that was awarded "Best New Ballpark" last year by Ballpark Digest. Besides being part owner of the Saints, Murray also holds the title of team psychologist and once filled in as third-base coach during a game where the Saints rallied from a seven-run deficit in the third inning to win the biggest comeback in team history.

The Saints have one of the most competitive teams in the American Association league and are expected to make the playoffs again this year. They are quite popular in the Twin Cities market and they sell out most of their games. Our "Atheist Night" game will likely be sold out too, just like last year. We have some sections reserved for the Minnesota Atheists-FFRF group, but they are selling quickly. The Infield (aka "Infidel") section has already sold out but there are some seats still available in the General Admission section. Tickets can be purchased at Saintsgroups.com (password is 2016atheists).

The first pitch against the Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks is scheduled for 7 p.m., but we'll be grilling and tailgating in the southeast parking lot by about 3 p.m. Food and drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) will be plentiful. We are also planning to hold a pregame speaking event with familiar FFRF leaders at a local library nearby, which is next to a light rail station that will take you directly to the ballpark. Details, including exact time and location for these pre-game festivities, will be updated at MinnesotaAtheists.org/baseballgame.

Eric Jayne is an FFRF member and president of Minnesota Atheists.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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