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:
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In letters to the Internal Revenue Service, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has reported possible illegal political campaign intervention by Catholic bishops in Green Bay and Madison, Wis.
In a Nov. 1 letter to the IRS office in Dallas which oversees "exempt organizations classification," FFRF Senior Staff Attorney told the IRS that Diocese of Green Bay Bishop David L. Ricken wrote an article Oct. 24 titled "An Important Moment" to be inserted in all parish bulletins.
Ricken begins, "It is almost time to vote and to make our choices for president and other political offices..." Ricken lists a "set of non-negotiables" for parishioners "to keep in mind as you approach the voting booth to complete your ballot." These issues include "abortion" and "homosexual 'marriage'."
He further states, "These are areas that are 'intrinsically evil' and cannot be supported by anyone who is a believer in God...A well-informed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program that contradicts fundamental contents of faith and morals."
His letter, which was printed on the diocese letterhead, continues, "But what does this have to do with the election? Some candidates and one party have even chosen some of these as their party's or their personal political platform," and to vote for such a candidate or party "means that you could be morally 'complicit' with these choices which are intrinsically evil. This could put your own soul in jeopardy."
Ricken also warns his diocese to "keep in mind" the "aggressive moves by the government to impose the HHS mandate, especially the move to redefine religion so that religion is confined more and more to the four walls of the Church..."
IRS regulations specify that 501(c)(3) organizations, which include churches and other religious organizations, are prohibited from "[participating in or intervening in]...any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office."
The issues identified by the bishop in the Oct. 24 article as "intrinsically evil" are generally what distinguish Republican and Democratic social platforms. In Wisconsin, these issues differentiate candidates for federal and state offices, i.e., one candidate for U.S. Senate was anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage, and the other candidate was a lesbian who supports marriage equality and abortion rights.
Ricken's article, published and distributed just two weeks before Election Day, is clearly urging people not to vote for the "one party" that embraces these "evil" positions.
Likewise, a warning that the current HHS mandate is a "dangerous precedent" is a clear reference to the policy of the incumbent candidate for president, Barack Obama. He distinctly refers to the imminent presidential election. Though he does not explicitly state, "Vote for Romney" or any other specific candidate, it is clear to the reader that Ricken is urging members of his diocese to vote against Democratic candidates.
Markert's Nov. 6 letter to the Dallas IRS makes similar points about an article Nov. 1 by Madison Bishop Robert Morlino. Titled "Official guidelines for forming a Catholic conscience in the Diocese of Madison," it was published in the diocesan newspaper.
FFRF urges the IRS to investigate circumstances that led to the churchmen's efforts to influence political races.
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Another Pennsylvania school board has decided to drop prayer at board meetings after getting a letter from FFRF. That means FFRF is batting 5 for 5 in recent challenges to prayers by Keystone State school boards.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Aug. 17 on behalf of a local complainant to Glenn Yoder, president of the Eastern Lancaster County Board of School Directors in New Holland.
FFRF is a national state/church watchdog with over 18,500 members, including over 600 in Pennsylvania.
Markert noted that state and federal court have repeatedly ruled that prayers by public school boards are unconstitutional, inappropriate and divisive and cited the relevant cases. (The Anti-Defamation League of Philadelphia also wrote the board to complain about its invocations.)
On the weekend of Oct. 20, Superintendent Robert Hollister left a phone message at FFRF's office that said the board would no longer be opening meetings with prayer.
According to unofficial minutes from the Sept. 17 board meeting, meetings will instead open with a moment of silence. The minutes contend there's value in "thoughtful reflection," i.e., prayer, but add "the board doesn't not wish to expose our taxpayers to threat of litigation that these outside groups have implied will occur, because our tax dollars are best spent supporting the education of our children."
The Greencastle-Antrim, Grove City, Octorara Area School Board in Atglen and Big Spring school boards also voted recently to stop praying before meetings after getting FFRF letters.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation condemns as "blatant politicking" full-page ads by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which make clear whom Graham wants voters to choose for president and U.S. Senate. The ministry ran ads in Sunday's New York Times and in the Wisconsin State Journal two Sundays in a row, as well as in USA Today on Oct. 19, in the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 18, and in "more than a dozen national and battleground state newspapers before Nov. 6," according to Huffington Post.
Billy Graham met with Mitt Romney in his North Carolina home on Oct. 11, where the evangelist tacitly endorsed Romney for president. According to Huffington Post, "Although the Romney campaign stopped short of calling it an endorsement, Graham made it clear at the meeting's conclusion that Romney had his support. After leading a prayer for the Republican nominee, Graham told Romney, 'I'll do all I can to help you. And you can quote me on that.' "
Two days after the meeting, the ministry announced its "vote biblical principles" campaign.
On Sunday, Oct. 21, a full-page ad ran in the Wisconsin State Journal. Graham's face dominated half of the ad, which reproduced his signature. The text attributed to Graham read:
"On November 6, the day before my 94th birthday, our nation will hold one of the most critical elections in my lifetime. We are at a crossroads and there are profound moral issues at stake. I strongly urge you to vote for candidates who support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and woman, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms. The Bible speaks clearly on these crucial issues. Please join me in praying for America, that we will turn our hearts back toward God."
The ad is clearly marked "Paid advertisement by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association," a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charity. Tax exempt organizations are forbidden by the IRS to engage in partisan politicking, which includes actions making clear whom tax-exempt entities want people to vote for or against.
"It was not necessary for Billy Graham to name names. One presidential candidate has come out in favor of marriage equality for gays and is pro-choice. The other rejects gay marriage and is antiabortion. Ditto for Wisconsin's heated U.S. Senate race, between one candidate who is antiabortion and anti-gay marriage, and the other candidate who is a lesbian who supports marriage equality and abortion rights," noted Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF Co-President.
"This is dirty pool," she added, because taxpayers are subsidizing these ads by virtue of the fact that donations to the Graham ministry are tax-deductible, making it an "unfair political battle."
A similar full-page ad ran again in yesterday's State Journal, as well as the New York Times. The ad featured a photo of the evangelist's face taking up two-thirds of the page, and this statement by him:
"The legacy we leave behind for our children, grandchildren, and this great nation is crucial. As I approach my 94th birthday, I realize this election could be my last. I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman. Vote for biblical values this November 6, and pray with me that America will remain one nation under God."
Tax-exempt organizations may engage in voter registration drives. These ads by the Graham ministry, which reported $122 million in net assets for the year 2011, go far beyond that, FFRF contends.
The "coded" message continues at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website, where a majority of banner ads and highlighted links on the homepage work together to send an endorsement message for Romney. These include:
1. A banner ad saying "Vote Biblical Values on November 6. Important Message from Billy Graham" (with his photo) taking readers to copies of the ads the ministry is running around the country.
2. A banner ad saying "Billy Graham Welcomes Mitt Romney," featuring a photo of Romney and Graham, linking to more photos and a press release saying: "It was a privilege to pray with Gov. Romney—for his family and our country." The press release features the same language as the current ads, urging readers "to vote for candidates who will support the biblical definition of marriage, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms."
3. A banner ad saying "Can an Evangelical Vote for a Mormon? Franklin Graham Provides an Answer," linking to a statement by the junior Graham dated Oct. 22, 2012, which concludes: "So, can a Christian vote for a Mormon? The answer is yes."
"These coded messages overall create a clear message of endorsement of a presidential candidate, even picturing Romney with the head of the ministry," said Gaylor.
After Billy Graham's Oct. 21 meeting with Romney, references to Mormonism as a "cult" were "scrubbed" from the ministry's website, according to Religion News Service.
FFRF received many complaints from its North Carolina members and members of the public after Graham was featured in ministry ads supporting the North Carolina referendum to ban gay marriage, which passed this summer. FFRF found no evidence that the ministry had registered with state election officials in North Carolina.
"The Billy Graham Evangelical Association is abusing its tax-exempt status," said Gaylor. FFRF will pursue complaints with appropriate agencies. Read letter to Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.