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Meet the Interns: Ben and JJ

ben jj

FFRF legal interns Ben Zich (left) and J.J. Rolling with Bertrand Russell and FFRF’s “Emperor” statuettes. Note both interns were born on the same date! (Photo by Andrew L. Seidel)


Loving language, even legalese

Name: J.J. Rolling

Where and when I was born: Madison, Wis., April 1, 1987. (My mother was also born on April 1, no foolin’!)

Family: Parents, Cindy and John Rolling, and sister, Cecily.

Education: B.S. in economics, University of Wisconsin-Madison; University of Wisconsin Law School, anticipated J.D. in 2014.

My religious upbringing was: I was baptized a Catholic, but I attended Congregationalist and Presbyterian churches growing up. I recognize that I have been very fortunate to have a family that allowed my beliefs, religious and not, to be my own.  

How I came to work as an FFRF legal intern: My previous work and internships were in the business world. They were math-heavy, research-oriented and analytical. Therefore, when I saw that I could work in a field that naturally arouses passionate discourse, I was excited to apply.

I believe that I benefit the organization by using some of the skills I acquired there to help unmask the organizations, property owners and businesses violating the Constitution.

What I do here: I help write open records requests to government agencies, draft letters for staff attorneys responding to member concerns and research everything I can get my hands on regarding First Amendment issues.

What I like best about it: All of the attorneys I have worked with are very sharp in their own right, but I have never seen their brains go to their heads. Egos do not get in the way of our team and mission.

Something funny that’s happened at work: Some of the chastising, taunting and general nastiness from the FFRF’s “fans” gives the office a laugh. If there is a hell and the assurances of these “supporters” are true, I look forward to meeting up with all of my office mates again.   

My legal interests are: Cities have always fascinated me, so I’m interested in any legal issues at the crossroads of private property, real estate and public works. Although the legal issues we deal with at FFRF may seem remote, I think they actually fit with my interests quite well. To me, defining and enforcing the rights of groups in a society are necessary components to well-functioning urban civilization.  

My legal heroes are: Although he may not have done much in the way of writing appeals or cross-examination, Demosthenes is the ancient equivalent of a lawyer who inspires me. Supposedly, he taught himself to deliver more forceful oratory by practicing speeches with pebbles in his mouth and shouting over roaring waves.

He matched his dedication in training with his love for Athens, which he served by attempting to use his considerable talents for rhetoric to rally against a coming invasion by the Macedonians.

These three words sum me up: Sharp, creative, redhead.

Things I like: I’m a Madison native and I love this unique city. I love playing soccer, which I did from youth and into college. Perhaps most, I love language. I love reading, the sound of words and foreign languages. I regard myself as fortunate to be a native English speaker because the language allows us to use different sentences to describe the same thought but convey entirely different meanings.

Things I smite: I hate, hate, hate any notion that our society’s future is bleak or that we cannot get better. I’ll allow that this may sound like naiveté or unconstrained idealism, but I absolutely refuse to listen to people who use the phrase, “given the way things are going.”

We’ll fix it and if not, we’ll manage it, and if not, we’ll survive it.


Interning at Rick’s Café

Name: Benjamin Zich.

Where and when I was born: Omaha, Neb., April 1, 1987. 

Family: An older sister (28), a younger brother (23), and a younger sister (17). My father is an electrical engineer and my mother was a special education teacher until she became a “stay-at-home mom” when my eldest sister was born. 

Education: B.A. in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where my senior thesis on Andrew Marvell, a 17th century English metaphysical poet, is collecting dust somewhere in the deepest recesses of the UNC library. I’m currently a J.D. candidate at Wake Forest Law School in Winston-Salem. 

My religious upbringing was: Evangelical. I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household that believed the bible was literally true, that the Earth was created in six days, that it’s 6,000 years old and all that jazz. I began to have qualms with Christianity when I was a sophomore in high school because I had the usual theological questions and received the usual theological “answers,” but the answers I got from my pastor I found anemic and not compelling, though I couldn’t say exactly why at the time.

The dissatisfaction I felt with these pat answers was the first in a series of disenchantments with religion that culminated two years later when I admitted to myself I was certainly no longer a bible-believing-Christian and probably (gasp!) an atheist. 

How I came to work as an FFRF legal intern: I was interested in church/state separation issues after my first year at Wake Forest University, so I started poking around the Internet to find out about organizations that were working to enforce the First Amendment. My search quickly led me to FFRF, and I immediately knew I wanted to intern here. 

What I do here: The barbarians are at the gate! I help keep those barbarians on the other side of that gate. To do that, I help with research on Establishment Clause cases, draft and send out letters of complaint and listen to too many legislative prayer recordings. 

What I like best about it: Every morning is like walking into Rick’s Café from “Casablanca.” Dan Barker will usually start off the day with some piano music and I, like Humphrey Bogart, will throw back a few shots (of espresso or coffee). Seriously though, I really love the work environment here. I feel lucky to be improving my professional skills while working on such important issues, especially since I get to work with such talented, smart, freethinking people. 

Something funny that’s happened at work: Learning that I share the exact birthdate with one of my fellow interns, J.J. Rolling. Also, I hate to admit it, but I enjoy Dan’s puns.

My legal interests are: Outside of Establishment Clause issues, my interests are in intellectual property, cyber-law, Internet architecture, free speech and privacy.

My legal heroes are: Lawrence Lessig and Jonathan Zittrain, two great visionaries of law in the Information Age, and Benjamin Cardozo, who was not just an influential judge, but a wonderful prose writer as well. He brought a whole new meaning to “poetic justice.” 

These three words sum me up: Happy-go-lucky.

Things I like: I am basically an “otaku” (someone who likes anime, comic books and video games), but I also like a good game of pickup basketball, Stanley Kubrick movies, udon noodles, the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, just about every Cole Porter tune and boba tea. 

Things I smite: Jogging (and working out in general). As Woody Allen said, I would prefer to atrophy. I don’t like it when people thoughtlessly forward or repost stories on the Internet that are easily debunked by spending all of five seconds to look it up on snopes.com or politifact.com

What is your favorite logical fallacy/argument? The false dichotomy. I see it all of the time when talking with theists. Somehow, tons of theists believe that “meaning” exists either on the cosmic scale or not at all. They say things like, “Well, if you’re an atheist, nothing matters.” This false dichotomy looks something like this: 

• P1: If God does not exist, there is no ultimate meaning or purpose to the universe.

• P2: Atheists believe that God does not exist.

• C: Therefore, for atheists, nothing matters or has any meaning at all.

This drives me nuts. How do you go from “there is no ultimate meaning” to “no meaning at all”? It’s such an obvious slide but many people totally buy it.

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$11,250 in prizes awarded to seniors

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has awarded $11,250 to 13 college-bound high school seniors in this year’s essay competition. Seniors were asked to “describe a moment when they stood up for freethought and/or that made them proud to be a freethinker,” in 500-700 words. There were seven winners in the top five, with two ties for fourth and fifth place, plus six honorable mentions. Their essays can be found on pages 11-15. 

Nonagenarian Herbert “Harry” Bushong of Texas once again generously endowed this year’s contest. FFRF would also like to extend special thanks to Californian John Moe for endowing the honorable mention awards of $200 and to Dorea and Dean Schramm, Florida, for providing each student with a $50 bonus. 

First place ($3,000): Jordan Halpern, University of California-Davis. 

Second place ($2,000): Danielle Kelly, University of Montana-Missoula. 

Third place ($1,000): Joseph Price, UCLA. 

Fourth place tie ($500): Nicole Schreiber, New York University. 

Fourth place tie ($500): Sarah Hedge, Northwestern. 

Fifth place tie ($300): Rebecca Ratero, Rutgers. 

Fifth place tie ($300): Samantha Biatch, Smith College. 

Honorable Mention ($200): Abigail Dove, Swarthmore College. 

Honorable Mention ($200): Amedee Martella, University of Colorado-Boulder. 

Honorable Mention ($200): Cheyenne Tessier, The George Washington University (Cheyenne will defer her university enrollment for a year to do humanitarian service in Senegal with Global Citizen.)

Honorable Mention ($200): Jarrett Browne, Wright State University. 

Honorable Mention ($200): Kaitlin Holden, Winthrop University. 

Honorable Mention ($200): Zach Gowan, University of South Carolina-Spartanburg. 

Look for honorable mention essays in future issues. 

In September, 2012 college essay winners will be announced, and in October, FFRF will announce graduate/mature student winners.

FFRF is getting more and more complaints about churches violating IRS regulations on political campaigning. In June and July alone, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent complaints about five churches to the IRS.

IRS regulations bar nonprofit 501(c)(3) groups such as churches from “[participating in or intervening in] . . . any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

A sample of violations:

• A South Carolina Baptist church’s website links to a Facebook page titled “I will NOT vote for Obama in 2012.”

• A Catholic priest in Florida was reported to have said at Mass, “You can vote for anybody, even a dog, but don’t vote for Obama.” Parishioners were outraged — at the dog reference, anyway. Others claimed the statement was not accurate or was taken out of context, but one of those naysayers admitted that “Father Dan did say ‘Whatever you do, you can’t vote for Obama.’ ”

• In Virginia, a Baptist church put campaign signs for a Republican congressional primary candidate on its property.

• A Washington church invited far-right gubernatorial candidate Shahram Hadian to speak about the threat of Islam in America. Before the event, two pastors and another church member all voiced their strong support for Hadian’s candidacy. One prayed that “more and more people would see the bumper stickers, they’d see the signs, they’d wonder about this man.” The other was so enthusiastic he twice broke into “speaking in tongues.”

• Rev. Terry Jones, infamous for burning copies of the Quran, hanged Obama in effigy on the lawn of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla. The effigy included a rainbow gay pride flag in its left hand and a doll in its right to protest Obama’s positions on gay marriage and abortion, with the backdrop of a trailer reading “Obama is Killing America.”

FFRF has written to the IRS about all of these and similar violations. The agency responds with a form letter saying IRS can’t discuss ongoing investigations. Unfortunately, it has revoked only one church’s tax-exempt status for campaigning since the restriction was put in place in 1954.

Even so, FFRF believes it’s important to pursue the violations. If you know of any churches intervening in political campaigns, contact FFRF to send a letter on your behalf or visit our Churches and Political Lobbying Activities FAQ at ffrf.org/faq/state-church/ to learn how to send a complaint to the IRS yourself.

— By Maddie Ziegler 


Georgia district
flouts law

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Sei-del sent a follow-up letter July 12 to Houston County Schools in Perry, Ga., about egregious constitutional violations. FFRF has now been contacted by 8 families, each reporting multiple violations. (Along with the complaints were threats. A Warner Robins resident mentioned “sticking guns in your mouths and blowing the backs of your god damn heads off.”) 

Reported violations include:

• Prayers at school events, such as assemblies, ceremonies, and school council meetings. 

• Administrators encouraging teachers to pray.

• Teachers admitting, with pride, that “we (the teachers) did hold hands and have a prayer around the kids. It was lovely.”

• Alma mater songs endorsing religious belief over nonbelief.

• A recommended “Summer Reading Program” including the violent Left Behind series by conservative End Times Pastor Tim LaHaye.

• Religious imagery and bible quotes on school walls and websites.

• Schools partnering with churches in close and troubling relationships. 

• Mandating attendance at religious baccalaureate. 

Seidel has corroborated most of the claims. The 13 enclosures and more than 30 pages of evidence make it “clear that there is a systemic lack of adherence to and respect for the First Amendment in Houston County Schools,” he wrote. “Extensive corrective measures, including training of all HCSD employees and administrators on the proper boundaries of the Establishment Clause, are imperative.”


Was she even Christian?

Atop Maiden Cliff in Camden Hills State Park and visible “for miles around” is a 24-foot-tall cross. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s letter to Director Will Harris of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands noted that “the cross has fallen or been blown down approximately five times” and “government resources, including National Guard helicopters and the manpower of the Maine National Guard, local fire departments and Parks and Lands employees, were used to erect the cross on multiple occasions.”

Seidel’s letter asks Harris “to remove the cross from state property immediately or direct the display be moved to a more appropriate private location.” Local legend claims that the “cross is meant to serve as a memorial to 11-year-old Elenora French, who fell from the cliff almost 150 years ago, in 1864.”

However, Seidel’s research revealed the girl’s actual grave has no Christian iconography. “The placement, size and visibility of the cross make it far more likely this display was not chosen to memorialize Elenora, but to associate the area and the state of Maine with the Christian religion.”


Other FFRF complaints:

• The city of Draper, Utah, used at least $21,500 of city funds to pay for a worship concert starring Christian artist Michael W. Smith on his “Wonder, Worship, & Glory Tour.” The city had backed off after a resident threatened to sue, then reversed itself.

FFRF followed up with an open records request to determine actual funding and coordination between Draper and the local Christian group that urged the city to bring Smith to town.  

• A local complainant informed FFRF of the Richardson [Texas] Police Department’s “Third Annual Faith-Based Crime Prevention Conference.” Registration preference went to religious organizations over secular ones.

In his complaint, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel noted (tongue only slightly in cheek), “If they are looking to reduce crime, the RPD would do better to police the churches rather than partner with them, especially the Catholic churches.”  

• The Peach County Senior Citizens Center in Fort Valley, Ga., has illegally let staff lead prayers, bible readings and hymn singing. Federal regulations prohibit senior centers that receive federal funding from engaging in religious activities at government-sponsored functions such as meals.

• The Century, Fla., Town Council budgeted money to buy “a manger scene at town hall.” Council President Ann Brooks “believe[s] we all want a manger scene.” The council has not yet replied to FFRF’s complaint.

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There’ll be hell to pay


FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt has written three letters of complaint about posting of religious material in the office of Tax Commissioner Susan Kersey in Jeff Davis County in Hazlehurst, Ga. The first two letters went to Kersey, with a follow-up letter to County Administrator James Carter. “We have written two letters to Ms. Susan Kersey regarding this matter and to date have received no response,” Schmitt wrote July 25 to Carter. “It is our further understanding that Ms. Kersey admits to receiving our letters and in fact has made comments online about her refusal to take [the religious items] down. I’ve enclosed copies of these posts as well.”

Besides the displays pictured, another says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, Philippians 4:13.” (A more fitting verse for someone in Kersey’s position would be “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s . . .”)

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Credits for release time OK’d by court

The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals refused to accept a petition for en banc review filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, after a three-judge panel approved academic credit for released-time instruction on June 28.

FFRF, and two sets of parent plaintiffs with children in the school district in Spartanburg, S.C., challenged the practice as a state entanglement with religion, which favored students of the dominant religious faith. The group filed suit in 2009.  

The school district delegated grading power over its students and evaluation of the course material to both the Spartanburg County Education in School Time (SCBEST) and a private Christian school, Oakbrook Preparatory Academy. FFRF contends that essentially the district has added a devotional religious course as a public school elective and gave the bible school grading power over it. “If the Bible School course consisted of five hours a week of praying on bended knee and Oakbrook approved it, academic credit would nevertheless ensue as a matter of course,” FFRF’s petition noted.

The Supreme Court, in approving released time instruction in 1952, never hinted it could be treated as the equivalent of attending French or math class. It was intended as accommodation, and public schools were to have a ‘hands-off’ approach, with no academic reward for undergoing proselytization off-site an hour a week.

In its legal challenge, handled pro bono by attorney George Daly, FFRF documented that the superintendent gave the released time group names and addresses of children in order to publicize the program. 

The public school has no control of the grades. Schools may be compelled to accommodate devotional religious instruction, but may not be required to provide it, or hand out grades for it, maintains FFRF. 

FFRF thanks its plaintiffs and Daly for challenging the violation. FFRF is considering its options.

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State/Church Bulletin

Appeals court nixes Wis. church graduations

The Elmbrook [Wis.] School District illegally held graduation ceremonies at Elmbrook Church, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled 7-3 on July 23. Symbols in the church, including a giant cross on the wall, conveyed a message that government was endorsing a particular religion, the court ruled in a 2009 suit bought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“[The decision] ensures that students in Wisconsin will not be forced to enter an intensely religious environment as the price of attending their own high school graduation, a seminal event in their lives,” said attorney Alex Luchenitser, AU associate legal director.


Court denies challenge to hate crimes law

The 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Aug. 2 upheld a lower court’s ruling that denied a 2010 claim by three Michigan pastors and the American Family Association of Michigan that the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act hampered their religious obligation “to state clearly the immoral nature of homosexuality” and “to publicly denounce homosexuality, homosexual activism and the homosexual agenda as being contrary to God’s law and His divinely inspired Word.”

“The Act does not prohibit Plaintiffs’ proposed course of hateful speech,” wrote appellate Judge James Gwin wrote.


Courts rule against reproductive rights

Women’s reproductive rights took hits in July in three court rulings cheered by the Religious Right. Phoenix federal Judge James Teilborg upheld an Arizona law banning all abortions starting at 20 weeks after a woman’s last menstrual period.

The New York Times reported the law “defies binding Supreme Court precedent that prevents states from banning abortions before a fetus can survive outside the womb, which generally occurs at about 24 weeks.” Teilborg also embraced questionable claims about when a fetus can feel pain.

• Denver U.S. District judge issued a temporary injunction stopping the Obama administration from requiring a secular ventilation and air-conditioning company to provide employees with contraceptive coverage.

The Times noted, “There is no constitutional precedent for individuals, much less corporations, allowing them to violate generally applicable laws because they may have a religious objection. Conversely, the company’s claim that its owners or officers have a First Amendment right to impose their personal religious beliefs on the corporation’s employees is groundless.”

• The 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis upheld 7-4 a 2005 South Dakota law requiring doctors “to misinform women seeking an abortion that they face an increased risk of suicide and suicidal thoughts” if they have an abortion, the paper reported.

Zoo removes Commandments after protest planned 

The Oakland [Calif.] Zoo removed a Ten Commandments monument July 25, days before a planned protest by the East Bay Atheists and Atheist Advocates of San Francisco. The 6-foot-tall marble sculpture has been on zoo property since 1965 when the area was a state park.

Joey Piscitelli, Martinez, told the San Jose Mercury News that the removal wasn’t a coincidence. “They wanted to thwart the demonstrations and keep this out of the public eye.”


Court: Mennonite B&B can’t bar gays

A Mennonite-owned bed-and-breakfast in Grand Forks, B.C., discriminated against a gay couple from Vancouver by refusing them a room, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruled July 17.

Brian Thomas and Shaun Eadie were each award $4,500 in damages and expenses.

Riverbend B&B owners Les and Susan Molnar, members of a Mennonite church, argued they were exercising their right to religious freedom in the sanctity of their own home.


Florida county sued over 10 Commandments

Bradford County commissioners in Starke, Fla., are being sued by American Atheists for refusal to remove a Ten Commandments monument from outside the courthouse in Starke.

The county asked the group that put the monument there, the Community Men’s Fellowship, to remove it “immediately,” but the group refused, reported News 4 in Jacksonville.

FFRF sent a complaint letter May 14 to the commission.

“The county doesn’t have the ability to move it without accruing a very substantial cost in doing that,” said County Attorney Terry Brown. “So somebody needs to pay for it, and it doesn’t need to be the taxpayer.”


Faith-healing conviction upheld in Oregon

An Oregon appellate court upheld the 2009 conviction on July 11 of Carl Brent Worthington, a member of the Followers of Christ Church, for second-degree criminal mistreatment in the death of his 15-month old daughter. The girl died of sepsis and bacterial pneumonia from an untreated cystic mass. 

Worthington and his pregnant wife, Raylene, were acquitted on manslaughter charges. She was also acquitted of criminal mistreatment. He was sentenced to two months in jail and five years’ probation.


Church graduations costly for Conn. school 

The Enfield [Conn.] School Board voted 6-3 on July 18 to settle a suit challenging the school system’s practice of holding high school graduation ceremonies in a church.

“No students or their families should feel like outsiders at their own graduation ceremony,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, the Hartford Courant reported.

The district agreed to hold no more graduations in church. Its insurance provider will cover up to $470,000 in settlement costs. The exact amount of the settlement wasn’t revealed, but plaintiffs’ legal fees are about $1 million.


Ohio high court takes creationist teacher’s case 

The Ohio Supreme Court voted 4-3 on July 5 to hear Mount Vernon science teacher John Freshwater’s appeal of his 2011 firing for pushing Christianity and creationism in the classroom. Freshwater alleges his rights to free speech and academic freedom were violated. The first complaint against him surfaced in 2008.

Religion Clause blog reported that the court granted review on two issues: Could he be fired if the board didn’t clearly indicate what materials or teaching methods were unacceptable, and did the mere presence of religious texts from the school library and/or display of a patriotic poster can justify his firing?

I guess now that the “God particle” has been discovered -— or very nearly confirmed by a majority of physicists — I need to decide what church to join. We atheists, after all, have long been devoutly demanding evidence of the hypothesized intelligent designer holding the universe together.

So now that scientists have observed the predicted Higgs boson that gives matter its mass — without which there could be no creation, no gravity, galaxies, stars, planets, waterfalls, pansies, panthers or “Hallelujah” choruses — we must conclude that the theologians have been right all along.

Or maybe not.

Peter Higgs, the physicist who first deduced and proposed the existence of the theoretical field now known as the Higgs boson, does not believe in God. After Leon Lederman, another nonbelieving physicist, had jokingly referred to the mysterious boson as the “God particle,” Higgs was not happy: “I wish he hadn’t done it. I have to explain to people it was a joke. I’m an atheist.”

The phrase became part of the title for Lederman’s 2006 book, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?

Other scientists agree with Higgs. Pauline Gagnon, a Canadian physicist working at the Large Hadron Collider, said: “I hate that ‘God particle’ term. The Higgs is not endowed with any religious meaning. It is ridiculous to call it that.”

I am certain Lederman did not have any spiritual motive. He was not trying to endow the particle with any “religious meaning.” He was using language in an ironic and humorous way. And most likely his publisher knew that the word “God” helps sell books.

According to one story, Lederman first called it the “goddamn particle,” but the editor didn’t think that would make a great title. (Although I would have bought such a book!)

When Einstein said that “God does not play dice with the universe,” he was clearly not talking about a supernatural being playing a game of craps. The word “God” has often been used (inadvisedly, in my opinion) as a convenient placeholder for “We don’t know.”

“God” is a synonym for “mystery.” When the cause of an event is unknown, some say “God did it.” Surprised by a natural disaster, some call it an “act of God.” Not having a sure answer, some say “God knows” — meaning, “Who knows?”

God reflects uncertainty, not knowledge. It’s the same with faith: We only rely on faith when the claim cannot stand on its own merits.

When the ancient Greek and Nordic civilizations heard thunder, they said, “Zeus is on the warpath,” or “Thor is angry.” In other words, “Who knows?” Now that we understand something about the weather and electricity, we no longer need Zeus or Thor. We no longer need “God did it.” Thor is dead. God has one less place to hide.

But our language still reflects those old patterns. The fact that I’m writing this article on a Thursday (the day of Thor) does not mean the Norse gods really exist or that a thunderstorm is truly an “act of God.” When Lederman nicknamed the Higgs boson the “God particle,” he was playing with language, joking that since we don’t know what holds matter together, God must be the explanation (wink, wink).

While we atheists cannot pretend that the discovery of the Higgs boson proves there is no God, we can certainly say that such evidence, if confirmed, gives God one less place to hide.

Believers will always find other hiding places, so this discovery will pose little threat to their faith. But now maybe they can join us — those with a sense of humor — in officially changing the name of the Higgs boson.

From now on, let’s call it the “Godless particle.”


Dan Barker is FFRF co-president and author of The Good Atheist: Living a Purpose-Filled Life Without God; Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher To Atheist; Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists; and Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children.

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Maia, 12, tells county board to shape up

The Freedom From Religion Foundation named Tennesse student Maia Disbrow, 12, its fifth student activist awardee this year for speaking up in favor of halting prayer before the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners in Chattanooga in July.

The issue has been extremely contentious, and two local men have sued the commission in federal court over the prayers and for being ejected from a meeting while addressing the commission.

Maia’s write-up of her experience and a text of her speech follows. Her appearance is also on YouTube (search for Maia Disbrow).

“We are impressed with Maia’s gumption, maturity and dedication to a constitutional principle. Going before government bodies to protest government prayer is something many adults are reluctant to do,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.

Maia has received a $1,000 award. FFRF officially offers three student activist awards of $1,000 each annually endowed by kind members: the Thomas Jefferson Youth Activist Award, the Catherine Fahringer Memorial Student Activist Award and the Paul J. Gaylor Memorial Student Activist Award. Since both state/church violations and student activism are on the rise, FFRF expects to see increasing numbers of deserving student activists nominated for awards.

Last year, FFRF gave out six $1,000 student awards, all to high school students. This year’s other activist winners were high school students as well. Three of the five are from Tennessee.

FFRF members wishing to create and endow a one-time or annual student activist award in their name, as a memorial, etc., are encouraged to contact FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor at 608/256-8900. 

View student winners since 1996 at ffrf.org/outreach/awards/student-activist-awards/.


Maia’s heartfelt speech on prayer:


Good morning. My name is Maia Disbrow, and I am 12 years old. I am a perfectly normal young adult, although some of my friends would beg to differ. 

I was present at the meeting at which my dad spoke. The prayer was very rude to me and some of my closest friends, not to mention parts of my family. 

My dad did not put me up to this. I came because I care about this and things like it. All through elementary school, I was teased and ridiculed by people who I thought were my friends. Whenever the subject of me being a freethinker came up, I was singled out, by my friends.

You are doing the same thing that they did to me at every meeting you have. Singling me out. Singling out every single person in Hamilton County who is not Christian. 

It is not fair for you to pray openly to your God without praying to all the others as well. I believe a moment of silence would accommodate all beliefs, not just one. And after speaking today, I hope I have some friends left at school next year. 

Good day.

Maia writes about bullies

Dear FFRF:

I was sitting right in front when my father spoke at the commission meeting, and also during the prayer beforehand. The prayer was very offensive to me, and when they gave the preacher an award, or present, or whatever they’d like to call it, I almost exploded inside. It made my dad so angry, he was shaking with rage after he sat down from speaking. After we got home that day, a news station called and wanted to interview my dad at our house. They came, did an interview and left.

At some point, one of us joked that I should speak in front of the commission. My dad didn’t push me to do it, we just joked about it. But when I thought about it, I realized that there were some things I’d like to say to them. It took me a while to decide, because even though I go to a middle school for the arts that is supposed to accept everyone, I was worried because during elementary school, I was bullied about my beliefs. Whenever the subject of my religion, or lack thereof, came up, my social status dropped for a few days.

So really, I was worried about further bullying. When I realized that the county commissioners were actually behaving like a bunch of fifth-grade bullies, I sat down and started writing my address to them. I honestly didn’t expect this much attention for a 40-second speech, but I am very thankful for it.

Thank you so much for the scholarship, although it does make me a little depressed that a person can get an award for standing up for basic human rights.



Maia’s father, Steven, writes:

Maia spoke on July 18. I spoke two weeks before that. I took both my kids with me so that they could see how the commission works and get a glimpse at how local government is run.

Maia was born on May 5, 2000, the same day as the supposedly apocalyptic planetary alignment [Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were positioned in line with the Sun]. While her birth didn’t herald the end of civilization, it was a big event for her family.

Her interests include reading (which she was doing at 18 months), writing, acting (currently in rehearsals for a production of “Medea”), singing and taking care of her pets (a dog and two guinea pigs). In the fall, she’ll be entering seventh grade at the Center for Creative Arts, where she studies visual art.

Maia also has a younger brother, Logan, who insisted on being mentioned here at the end, rather than in the bit about the pets.

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Chick-fil-A drops church discount

A Chick-fil-A restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., dropped a church discount scheduled for each Monday in June after an FFRF member complained. George White noticed an online calendar promoting Church Bulletin Night at the University Mall store:

“Bring in your Church Bulletin from Sunday from 5-8 p.m. every Monday and receive a FREE Chicken Sandwich with the purchase of a medium side and a medium drink!”

The Atlanta-based company’s “corporate purpose” is “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us.” Founder S. Truett Cathy, 91, is a devout Southern Baptist who insists that all outlets close on Sunday. A series of allegations have been made against the firm for backing anti-gay initiatives.

Such discounts violate the federal Civil Rights Act and some states’ equal protection laws. In a June 12 email, owner/operator Sammy Culberston thanked White for bring the matter to his attention. “At present, the church bulletin promotion runs through July but we will be suspending the promotion as of next week.”

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

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