The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., and the nation’s largest freethought association, with more than 18,500 members, is racking up legal victory after legal victory, separating religion from government and generating news coverage all over the nation.
Although FFRF jokes that it is often overlooked as a “nonprofit and a nonprophet in its own land,” its increasing work caught the eye of reporter Steve Elbow of The Capital Times in Madison, which ran an Aug. 2 news story headlined “Madison group ramps up national fight against religion in government.”
FFRF’s legal staff, which has doubled to four attorneys since the start of the year, has already sent out more formal letters of complaint (612) protesting state/church entanglements than in all of last year. Many such complaints generate major news coverage and end in responses ending a diverse multitude of state/church “sins” without court battles.
FFRF currently has nine lawsuits in state or federal court, but “Our aim is to end these through education and persuasion, without having to go to court whenever possible,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
The impressive list of major state/church entanglements that FFRF action has halted in midsummer alone includes:
• Prayers by the Henrico County, Va., Board of Supervisors. Officials swiftly dropped a 25-year abuse after a July 10 vote, following a July 2 letter by FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott: “The board compounds the violation when the prayers are to Jesus and/or most of the officiants are Christian or Christian clergy. Sectarian prayers make religious minorities and nonbelievers feel like political outsiders in their own community and show an unconstitutional governmental preference for Christianity over other faiths and for religion over nonreligion.”
A local citizen contacted FFRF after an overtly Christian prayer, which included “in Christ’s name,” was delivered at a June meeting. Elliott pointed out that the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals consistently struck down sectarian prayers four times recently.
Joseph Rapisarda, county attorney, issued a statement: “The board was briefed on the legal ramifications of having a sectarian prayer. After careful consideration, the board decided to end the practice of having an opening prayer, effective immediately.”
• A city-hosted nativity display in Ellwood, City, Pa. A saga that began last December, sparking huge controversy, a lot of crankmail, a prayer rally and media coverage, ended sedately with a victory for FFRF and secular government. Seven months after legal staffers Patrick Elliott and Andrew Seidel first protested the display at the municipal building, the borough council on July 16 voted down a proposal intended to resurrect the entanglement.
A city “Nativity Committee” drafted what Ellwood City Ledger reporter Eric Poole called “a convoluted, complicated, constitutionally bereft proposal that slaps a figurative ‘SUE ME’ sign on the borough’s back.” Poole added, “This shouldn’t be about winning or losing, but about honoring an American principle — that all citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof, stand equally before the civil authority.”
FFRF thanks FFRF member Stephen Hirtle for his invaluable assistance and dedication in monitoring and helping to end this major violation.
• A city-sponsored prayer breakfast in Augusta, Ga. After two months of back and forths with FFRF, the city agreed to discontinue its unconstitutional involvement in organizing, coordinating and promoting the monthly “Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast.” Major Deke Copenhaver, who initially insisted no laws were being broken, told a local news channel: “Being mayor is what I do. My faith is who I am, and I feel very strong about that.”
An open records request filed by Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert revealed that Karyn Nixon, executive assistant to the mayor, coordinated the event, including selecting the churches, sending out invitations, putting together an agenda and even instructing pastors to include scripture readings and opening prayer and remarks by the hosting pastor.
Nixon used city e-mail and phones during normal business hours. Aside from one breakfast in 2009 at a Jewish synagogue, all prayer events have been held at Christian churches or by Christian groups.
On Aug. 2, Andrew Mackenzie, general counsel, responded: “Mayor Copenhaver will continue to attend the monthly Prayer Breakfasts, but he has volunteered [sic] to allow the organization, coordination and promotion of such breakfasts to be done exclusively by private sponsors.”
The event will no longer be advertised on the city’s website with the misleading title, “Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast.” It will be replaced with “Community Prayer Breakfast” to “avoid the appearance of city endorsement.”
• Two church bulletin discounts by restaurants. FFRF is helping Pennsylvania member John Wolfe, an octogenarian, protest a Civil Rights violation by Cajun Kitchen in Columbia, Pa., whereby patrons who did not turn in church bulletins paid 10% more for their Sunday breakfasts.
FFRF’s Rebecca Markert wrote three letters over 18 months in a patient attempt to educate the restaurant owners that they were violating the Civil Rights Act. It reads in relevant part: “All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation . . . without discrimination on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.”
Co-owner Sharon Prudhomme justified the discount by saying she’s a “hardworking American” and can “advertise as I see fit.” Wolff filed a complaint with the state Human Relations Commission and a resolution is expected.
Read John Wolff’s letter on the subject on page 6. When the complaint was first reported, it provoked many nasty comments to and about John and FFRF. FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote a blog, “Don’t ‘discount’ civil rights,” about the importance of upholding the Civil Rights Act. Visit ffrf.org/news/blog or see page 10.
FFRF also stopped a church bulletin discount at Wendy’s Old-Fashioned Hamburgers in Valdosta, Ga. The restaurant was offering a 10% Sunday discount to those bearing a church bulletin as proof they’d been to church that day. FFRF was notified in July that the unlawful discount has stopped.
• Prayers before an Indiana school board. FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote the South Dearborn School Board in April protesting the recent inauguration of prayer to start monthly meetings. The board opened with the Lord’s Prayer. Schmitt wrote that “opening school board meetings with a Christian prayer discriminates not only against nonbelievers, but also against any non-Christian attendees. Parents and students should not be made to feel like outsiders when attending meetings.”
FFRF was notified July 3 that the prayer has been discontinued.
• Army abuse in Georgia. The U.S. Army “no longer wants YOU! to mow the Catholic Charities’ lawn” after Andrew Seidel wrote a July 5 letter objecting to soldiers providing “area beautification support to the Catholic Social Services.”
The practice of the Regimental Noncommissioned Officer Academy’s Advanced Leader Course at Fort Gordon, Ga., was to send soldiers to mow the grass for Catholic Social Services, whose motto is, “In every season, God is with us.” Commented Seidel: “Now, in every season they are responsible for trimming their own hedges and raking their own leaves.” While the Army now claims it relied on volunteers, the relationship has ceased.
• Plans to inaugurate prayer before a Pennsylvania school board. The Sharpesville Area School Board in late July assured FFRF it would not go forward with a proposal to inaugurate prayer at its meetings or implement a religious class. FFRF’s Stephanie Schmitt sent three letters starting in February after a board member, saying “the guy up above is very important to us,” recommended prayers begin.
The letter noted that the Third Circuit, which encompasses Pennsylvania, has ruled against school board prayer, considering it analogous to prayer in public schools.
• A variety of school-related violations. FFRF treats intrusion of proselytizing and religious ritual in public schools as a top priority. Stephanie Schmitt wrote Thomas County Schools, Thomasville, Ga., over a violation at a middle school, when the principal announced over the intercom on March 20 that a group (apparently Gideons International) was in the school “and would be distributing bibles to whoever [sic] was interested in taking one.”
Schmitt noted a long list of cases barring Gideons’ distribution of New Testaments in schools. FFRF received assurance July 16 there would be no repetition of this violation.
In July, FFRF also received assurances from Hastings [Mich.] Area Schools that prayers were not said at this year’s graduation ceremony as they had been for the past decade.
FFRF wrote the Tishomingo County School District in Iuka, Miss., after receiving complaints that teachers at Iuka Elementary were leading students in daily prayer before heading to the lunchroom and asking students to lead prayer.
In July, after several follow-ups, Schmitt received word that faculty would no longer “be encouraging students to pray or lead students in prayer.”
From January through June, FFRF took about 1,275 formal requests for help to end constitutional violations. On “backlog Thursday” in late July, the legal staff, including three summer interns, drafted a record 67 letters of complaint in one day (interns wrote by far the most)!
FFRF thanks its summer interns and dedicated staff attorneys. “Our legal staff is so busy ending violations that we literally have trouble finding room to report all of our major actions in Freethought Today,” said Gaylor.
See other recent actions reported on page 9 of this issue and major complaints reported elsewhere. FFRF regularly updates legal victories online at: ffrf.org/legal/other-legal-successes/
FFRF also issues press releases about many of its complaints and victories. Sign up to get press releases and news updates sent to your inbox at: