The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s inaugural feature production for use as educational filler on public television affiliates aired more than 1,430 times over three months in late 2012. This is the first such segment featuring discussion of freethought, atheism and focusing on the specific dangers of mixing state and church.
The four-minute “Spotlight on Freethought and the First Amendment” featured interviews with FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor. The longer version, over five minutes, included a bonus interview with “secularity” expert, sociologist and author Phil Zuckerman, professor at Pitzer University, Claremont, Calif. Local public TV affiliates were given the option to use either spot, or both, as fillers.
For the first time in the history of Spotlight Productions, more affiliates ran the longer version, “a compliment to Phil Zuckerman,” says Gaylor. The longer version aired 731 times in 136 station airings. The short version aired 699 times with 142 station airings.
The two shows each reached more than 3.6 million public TV viewers, according to the Nielsen ratings. Markets airing one or both of the spots included high population airings such as New York City and Los Angeles, as well as a diversity of smaller markets nationwide. In the Salt Lake City area, for instance, served by five area public TV affiliates including in Provo, FFRF’s spots ran 62 times last fall.
The broadcasts are audited by Nielsen only for the first 3 months after the show is released. But FFRF’s two “Spotlights” may continue to air for years as filler.
View the videos at FFRF’s YouTube Channel. The shorter “abridged” version is at bit.ly/WmTCP2.
The longer “TV” version with Zuckerman is at bit.ly/P8TZfT.
A “bonus track” version of nearly seven minutes, which includes additional footage with Dan Barker, is prominently featured at FFRF’s website, ffrf.org and at bit.ly/V7kan5.
Name: Hemant Mehta.
Where I live: Naperville, Ill.
Where and when I was born: Just outside of Chicago, 1983.
Education: University of Illinois-Chicago, 2004, double major in math/biology; DePaul University, 2010, master’s in math education; national board-certified teacher, 2012.
Occupation: High school math teacher.
How I got where I am today: After leaving medical school in order to become a teacher, I had some free time and began working closely with the Secular Student Alliance and also started my website, FriendlyAtheist.com. Both of those experiences have helped me develop into an activist, and I hope to keep improving on that in a variety of ways!
Where I’m headed: Thankfully, not downward.
Person in history I admire: It’s always inspiring to hear about those who challenge the status quo to make things better for various minority groups. I’ve been fortunate to meet a number of atheists who have done sort of consciousness-raising in our own movement.
A quotation I like: “If you want to get something done, ask a busy person.”
These are a few of my favorite things: My students, great books, crossword puzzles, “The Daily Show,” Twitter.
These are not: People whose sole purpose in life is to put other people down.
My doubts about religion started: When I started high school. It turned out my parents’ religion (Jainism) couldn’t withstand tougher scrutiny.
Instead of “thank God” or “God bless you,” I say: Gesundheit.
Why I’m a freethinker: It’s empowering when you know the truth about something the majority of the country is completely wrong about.
Ways I promote freethought: I blog at FriendlyAtheist.com to spread news and stories about atheism. I am a board member for the Foundation Beyond Belief and work to encourage other atheists to give money to secular charities.
I serve on the Advisory Board of the Secular Student Alliance because they focus on helping young atheists. To promote my ideas, I’ve written a few books, the most recent of which is called The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide.
In 2012, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its four staff attorneys impressively won more than 150 significant legal victories using education and persuasion, without having to go to court.
FFRF received more than 2,460 requests (whew!) last year for help from members, or members of the public, over entanglements between state and church. FFRF officially doubled its staff attorneys in 2012, going from two to four, to handle the caseload.
They or FFRF’s co-presidents sent 1,005 formal letters objecting to state/church violations last year. It may take many follow-up letters to get results, and those follow-up letters are not included in the letter count.
The majority of FFRF legal letters involve religion in the public schools, followed by prayer at government meetings such as city council or county board meetings. Two-thirds of FFRF’s victories involved ending violations in public schools, which FFRF prioritizes.
Prayer in schools is the largest subcategory within school complaints. FFRF also sent letters of complaint to more than 100 government bodies or departments over prayer. Most involve city or county board prayer, but there are also many complaints over city-hosted prayer breakfasts and prayer proclamations.
Top 10 states for violations
(most FFRF complaint letters):
5. North Carolina
Top ten issue areas:
2. Government Prayer
4. Holiday Displays
5. Religion in the Workplace
6. Election Law Complaints
8. Prayer Breakfasts
9. Church Bulletins
10. National Day of Prayer
2012 legal victories
These include but are not limited to:
• The Federal Election Commission, in response to a complaint filed by FFRF in 2008, found that the Colorado group Informed Catholic Citizens violated election laws in issuing a robocall by a priest who advocated for the election of John McCain.
• The Kiel Area School District Board of Education (Wis.) voted down a proposal to teach “alternative theories of the origins of man within the science curriculum” after FFRF pressured the board to follow case law prohibiting such instruction in public schools.
• An FFRF complaint prompted Henrico County (Va.) officials to drop the 25-year-old tradition of offering meeting prayers before Board of Supervisors meetings.
• The Kannapolis City Council (N.C.) ended prayers before meetings, replacing the prayers with a moment of silence.
• FFRF secured the right of students at Walton High School in Marietta, Ga., to start a “FACT” group (Freethinkers for Cooperation Acceptance and Trust) after the school had denied their right to create the student group.
• After months of debate, the Ellwood City Borough Council (Pa.) voted to remove a long-standing nativity display in front of the borough’s municipal building.
• Five Pennsylvania school boards (Big Spring, Octorara, Greencastle-Antrim, Eastern Lancaster, Grove City) dropped prayer before board meetings after letters from FFRF.
• FFRF stopped future religious assemblies by Dave Walton (braggingforjesus.com/) at a Tennessee middle/high school.
• FFRF’s letter of complaint resulted in removal of a cross from a Nebraska state park and outside a park ranger’s home in George Wyth State Park on Iowa state property.
• FFRF’s letter of complaint resulted in Washoe County Libraries in Nevada remaining open on Easter Sunday.
• FFRF stopped mayoral sponsorship and coordination of monthly prayer breakfasts in Augusta, Ga.
• The City of Tucson, Ariz., rescinded a grant to the Catholic Church of $1.1 million to fix a building it had abandoned after FFRF’s letter of complaint, records request, and action alert to FFRF members in Arizona.
• In another faith-based victory, the West Linn, Ore., City Council rescinded a $1,300 grant to a local church and removed paid, government employees from the church’s advisory board after a letter from FFRF.
• Thanks to FFRF, Catholic Social Services of Augusta, Ga., will no longer receive free lawn maintenance from the U.S military.
• A family court in Jackson, Mo., has reprimanded a pastor for hijacking a secular class meant to teach divorced parents how to help their children and injecting it with his religious rant. The court is looking for other teachers and sites other than his church.
• Bret Harte Union High School (Calif.) will no longer release student information to the local Catholic diocese.
• Peach County senior center employees will no longer pray with their charges or read the bible to them at meal times and special occasions.
• The Assessment Appeals Board in San Francisco implemented procedural changes to eliminate the use of a religious oath when swearing in parties at hearings.
• COLT bus system in Scranton, Pa., discontinued the practice of displaying “God Bless America” on their electronic tickers after FFRF wrote to them in February.
• FFRF halted (or stopped for the future) illegal Gideon bible distribution in public schools in Magnolia, Ark., Boydton, Va., Robertson County, Tenn., and Grant County, Ky., among other public school districts.
• The University of Tennessee-Chattanooga discontinued its long tradition of prayer before its football games after continued pressure.
• FFRF persuaded the Cobleskill-Richmondville Central School district (N.Y.) from using school facilites for religious worship.
• FFRF was able to address several complaints regarding the inappropriate use of government emails, putting a halt to religious messages at four different agencies.
• FFRF stopped numerous prayer violations and other religious indoctrination at schools around the country.
• FFRF had a total of 11 victories in 2012 ending church bulletin discounts, in which restaurants or places of public accommodation were illegally discounting meals or tickets for those bearing church bulletins. These are violations of the Civil Rights Act.
Many complaints from 2012 and earlier are still actively being pursued, with other victories pending.
Although not all complaints can be acted on, FFRF’s attorneys try hard to respond to bonafide state/church queries. FFRF also hosts an extensive State/Church FAQ: ffrf.org/faq/state-church
Before contacting FFRF, you may wish to check out the FAQ. Complaints over state/church violations may be sent via the online complaint form:
These victories are in addition to FFRF’s litigation. FFRF has filed well over 60 lawsuits since it began, winning many significant victories, and through December 2012 had nine ongoing lawsuits. In 2012, FFRF successfully settled two additional lawsuits: its challenge of a cross on a water tower and other city property in Whiteville, Tenn., and its challenge removing a Ten Commandments poster from a high school in Giles County, W. Va., brought with the ACLU of Virginia.
FFRF last year won an appeals court decision in Colorado state court in which a judge agreed with FFRF that the governor’s Colorado Day of Prayer proclamations are inappropriate.
Last year, FFRF filed four new lawsuits: challenging Ten Commandments monuments in front of two schools in Pennsylvania (two separate federal lawsuits), challenging graduation prayer in a South Carolina high school, and its highly popular challenge of non-enforcement by the IRS of its ban on church electioneering.
FFRF works with a number of litigation attorneys, including some pro bono, with staff attorneys providing help.
Congratulations to FFRF’s diligent and committed staff attorneys Rebecca Markert, Patrick Elliott, Andrew Seidel, outgoing attorney Stephanie Schmitt and new intake attorney Liz Cavell. Also deserving of much credit are FFRF’s 2012 law clerks: Ken Earl, Susan Lund, Dustin Clark, Maddy Ziegler, JJ Rolling, Ben Zich, and undergraduate volunteer interns Svein Hoexter, Brendan Moriarity and Calli Miller.
Your membership and additional donations designated for the Legal Fund help pay for this substantial litigation and the work of staff attorneys. Special thanks to Board Member Lester Goldstein, who created an internship endowment with the help of other FFRF members setting aside a minimum of $5,000 a year to help pay for internships.
Many thanks to Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert for her very thorough legal report which provided the details for this article.
I have prayed before not to have another child, but the condom worked better.
Giselle Labadan, roadside vendor in Manila, on a new law opposed by the Catholic Church in the Philippines that provides public funding for contraception
Honolulu Star-Advertiser, 1-8-13
While I was younger, my father drank a lot. There was abuse in the home. My brother committed suicide in 2001. So at some point you start to say, “Why does all this stuff happen to people?” And if I pray and nothing good happens, is that supposed to be I’m being tried? I find that almost kind of cruel in some ways. It’s like burning ants with a magnifying glass. Eventually that gets just too hard to believe anymore.
Rigoberto Perez, 30, raised as a Seventh-day Adventist, “More Young People Are Moving Away From Religion, But Why?”
NPR “Morning Edition,” 1-15-13
Between banning gay marriage and requiring school prayer, too many legislators are intent on turning Indiana into a religious state as repressive, intellectually stultifying and ultimately insulting of their own God as any on the planet. It’s time for them to learn a new R: Reality.
Columnist/reporter Phil Wieland, opposing a bill by the state Senate’s Education Committee chairman to let public schools require daily recitation of the Lord’s Prayer
Northwest Indiana Times, 1-11-13
Wise atheists make no moral claims, seeing good and bad randomly spread among humanity regardless of faith. Humans do have a hardwired moral sense, every child born with an instinct for justice that makes us by nature social animals, not needing revelations from ancient texts. The idea that morality can only be frightened into us artificially, by divine edict, is degrading.
Polly Toynbee, outgoing president of the British Humanist Association
The Guardian, 12-16-12
I noticed something interesting. Those two guys disagreed on everything, except the fact that I was going to hell.
Doug Krueger, an atheist and professor at NorthWest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, on sharing an office with a Catholic and a Baptist when he was a Ph.D. student
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 1-10-13
Commonly known to biographers but often surprising to most Christians, King James I was a well-known bisexual. Though he did marry a woman, his many gay relationships were so well-known that amongst some of his friends and court, he was known as “Queen James.” It is in his great debt and honor that we name the Queen James Bible so.
Publisher’s statement on new bible translation, “edited to prevent homophobic misinterpretation”
This report confirms that the code is 10 times the size of the bible with none of the good news.
U.S. Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, on a new study of the U.S. tax code
U.S. News & World Report, 1-10-13
Man, this is weird for me too — to be in a room where I don’t recognize a single person. And you call yourself a Christian nation. . . . I am totally cool with hookers. Fishermen and hookers. I got a whole fishnet motif going.
Matt Gubser, portraying Jesus in the “Holiday Heathens” comedy show at the Punch Line in San Francisco
Religion News Service, 12-13-12
The bible has outsold Fifty Shades of Grey and Justin Bieber’s autobiography to top the Norwegian bestseller charts this month for a second year in a row. The new Norwegian translation of the bible has held the top spot for 54 out of the last 56 weeks.
Christian Today, 12-18-12
I’ve explained to them that some people believe God is waiting for them, but I don’t believe that. I believe when you die, it’s over and you live on in the memory of people you love and who love you. I can’t offer them the comfort of a better place. Despite all the evils and problems in the world, this is the heaven — we’re living in the heaven and it’s the one we work to make. It’s not a paradise.
Julie Drizin, Takoma Park, Md., quote in “Atheist parents comfort children about death without talk of God or heaven”
Washington Post, 12-22-12
It’s an opportunity to get out of the cold, have a cigar and learn some bible.
Larry Gilbert, member of a Missouri Synod Lutheran bible study group that meets at Cigar Cigars, Rocky River, Ohio
Cleveland Plain Dealer, 1-18-13
On their bare backs, the women had painted “In Gay We Trust” and “Shut Up.”
News story about four women who went topless in St. Peter’s Square during an appearance by Pope Benedict, who “appeared not to have been disturbed”
Belfast Telegraph, 1-13-13
An atheist is no more necessarily moral or better than a Christian or Muslim. The difference is an atheist isn’t tied to an ignorant, dated and immoral religious text and therefore doesn’t need to make excuses for such. An atheist doesn’t claim that anyone who doesn’t believe like they do will be punished forever. An atheist doesn’t abandon reason for convenience or fear of death. An atheist doesn’t dismiss science for childish myths. An atheist takes the universe as it is without magic.
James Kirk Wall, Wheaton, Ill., “Why be an atheist?”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation released its third musical CD in January, “Adrift on a Star,” featuring Dan Barker and friends. The title song is Barker’s arrangement of a Yip Harburg poem.
The album’s showpiece is “Poor Little Me,” a collaboration between Barker, who wrote the lyrics, and Charles Strouse, the Broadway icon (“Annie,” “Bye Bye Birdie”), who’s also an atheist who received FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award in 2011.
“I had the pleasure of sitting next to Charles at the 2011 FFRF convention dinner,” says Dan. “We chatted about music, the many Broadway and other composers who are nonreligious, and he said if I sent him some lyrics, he would put them to music. So I did and he did. It’s truly a collaboration, because Charles threw away about half of my lyrics, and it’s a much better song for it!”
What’s left are subtly humorous lyrics and rich music blended into a winning song.
Dan, who had a musical ministry as an ordained minister before “seeing the light” and is still receiving royalties for his Christian musicals for children, has now written scores of freethought songs in what he calls “reverse penance.”
Other new songs in the album include “Get Off Your Knees (And Get to Work),” dedicated to “Gov. Rip Van-Perry Winkle, who has slept not 30 but 2,030 years,” “Reason,” inspired by the D.C. Reason Rally, and Dan’s humorous “Unfaithful.” Dismissing belief in a deity, the lyrics say: “I want you to know it isn’t me — it’s you.”
Susan Hofer, a talented jazz vocalist in Madison, Wis., performs Dan’s jazz ballad, a love song, “It’s Only Natural,” inspired by Richard Dawkins’ book Unweaving the Rainbow, which makes a plea to integrate science and art. The song has been oft-requested since Dan wrote it in 2006.
He’s also set to music several poems by Harburg from Rhymes for the Irreverent, a collection of verses reprinted by FFRF. Another musical icon, Harburg, a nonbeliever who openly scoffed at religion, wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” among many, many enduring classics.
To showcase many of Harburg’s witty rhymes about religion, Dan set them to music in “Somewhere Over the Paper Moon,” performed as a duet with Hofer.
Dan also performs Harburg’s song “One Sweet Morning,” a lovely but rarely recorded peace anthem with a freethought perspective. The music is by Earl Robinson (“Joe Hill”). Dan set plaintive music to poet and lyricist Philip Appleman’s cautionary “In a Dark Time,” written in the mid-2000s. Dan also recorded “Experiment,” a little-known paean to science and critical thinking by Cole Porter, who was nonreligious. By popular request of FFRF’s staff, Dan recorded a G-rated version of “Merry F&*#ing Christmas” from “South Park.”
Cameo appearances include Australian freethought/feminist troubadour Shelly Segal, who graciously gave FFRF permission to include her haunting song “I Don’t Believe in Fairies,” and Joe Taylor, formerly a Christian rocker, who recorded his first freethought song, “Be Still My Child,” for the album.
Also included is “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” sung by Hofer and arranged by Dan with a local band. Bonus tracks include a few extras.
FFRF Rob Shepherd plays the saxophone on several songs, and FFRF member Buzz Kemper, announcer of Freethought Radio, engineered the album at Audio for the Arts in Madison.
FFRF members may order the CD “Adrift on a Star” for a discounted $15 postpaid ($20 postpaid for nonmembers). “Adrift on a Star” joins FFRF’s two previous CDs, featuring Barker and friends. “Beware of Dogma” is also available for $15 to members.
The 34-song “Friendly Neighborhood Atheist,” with many contemporary and historic freethought songs, also featuring Kristen Lems, is available for $20 to members via the mail or ffrf.org/shop/music. (Note: The online shop calculates postage based on weight and location, so final online price may vary slightly from mail catalog price.)
Name: Sarah Eucalano.
Where and when I was born: Milwaukee, April 6, 1992.
Family: Mom, Patty; dad, Brian; and an older sister, Lara, 24.
Education: Pursuing a bachelor’s in journalism and international studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
My religious upbringing was: Roman Catholic.
How I came to work at FFRF as a journalism intern: I belong to Atheists, Humanists & Agnostics at UW-Madison and answered an email FFRF sent about intern opportunities. I love being a part of AHA. The discussions that happen there and the awareness the organization raises are great. I sent FFRF an email hoping I’d be able to help them out with their mission and gain some writing experience.
What I do here: I write up legal victories and Freethought of the Day and do whatever else FFRF needs me to do.
What I like best about it: I love writing and working with the people at FFRF because they are all nice and intelligent. I also love all of the freethought stickers, comics, quotes and pictures that are all over the walls. Everyone at FFRF is a freethinker, and most people are tea drinkers, so I fit right in.
Something funny that’s happened at work: At the Winter Solstice party, Dan sang a song from South Park with a chorus that inserted the f-word between Merry and Christmas. Also, FFRF still uses a typewriter for some tasks. I had to use it once and got a kick out of it.
My writing interests are: I write for the city news beat for the UW Badger Herald, which I enjoy. I also write short stories and poetry in my free time.
Three writers I admire: Mark Twain, Margaret Atwood and Douglas Adams.
These three words sum me up: Pragmatic, honest and passionate.
Things I like: People who think for themselves and have integrity. I also enjoy running, reading and riding my bike.
Things I smite: Dane Cook’s stand-up comedy. I also hate it when people use the phrase “you know how they are.” I hate it when people think they can look down on or make assumptions about people who aren’t white, white collar, suburban or formally educated.
Fun fact: I ran my first marathon this summer, the Paavo in Hurley, Wis. My time was 3:43, a good 15 minutes faster than Paul Ryan’s actual time.
Name: Scott B. Colson.
Where and when I was born: Neenah, Wis., 1984. I’ve spent most of my life in Appleton and Madison.
Education: University of Wisconsin- Madison, B.S. in philosophy.
What I want to be when I grow up: The Don, El Jefe, El Capo.
I spend a lot of time thinking about: Progressive politics, brewing beer, revolutionary economics, music.
I spend no time thinking about: I guess I haven’t thought about it. No topic is off limits.
My religious upbringing was: Barely Catholic. My catechism teachers were parents of other students who had a hard time answering so many of my “gotcha” questions and double binds.
My doubts about religion started: Very early. I think it was during second grade that I told my parents I thought the whole thing was some weird power trip.
How I came to work at FFRF: An opening for website development and desktop publishing at an atheist foundation — how could I pass that up?
What I do here: If it’s jammed, I unjam it. If the lights on a machine start blinking, I unblink them. I produce the newspaper (not the content, except for this gem). I build Web pages, manage the artwork for campaigns and occasionally work on ads. I help with the radio show and podcast.
What I like best about it here: Tea time, all of the time; random acts of jazz and baking.
What sucks about it: There are not enough hours in the day to fight all that’s crazy out there.
Things I like: Peanut butter, postmodernism, prog rock.
Things I smite: Piety, papacy, pelf-tocracy. [pelf (n.) money, esp. when gained in a dishonest or dishonorable way]
Favorite quote about freethought: “Atheism is not a drama, but the philosopher’s serenity and philosophy’s achievement.” (Gilles Deluze and Felix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?)
The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s formal request that a middle school in Jackson, Ohio, remove a prominent painting of Jesus from its entrance has created shockwaves locally.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a letter of complaint Jan. 2 to the Jackson City Schools on behalf of a complainant protesting the painting’s presence at Jackson Middle School. Since sending the letter, FFRF has been contacted by other families with children in the schools distressed over the violation.
“Courts have continually held that public schools may not display religious messages or iconography. It is illegal for Jackson Middle School to post religious images on the walls of its schools. The district must remove the picture of Jesus at once,” Markert wrote.
Her letter cited a 1994 decision by the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled that an identical portrait of Jesus could not be displayed in a public school. Ohio is part of the 6th Circuit.
The Jackson School Board decided Jan. 8 to not remove the devotional image. Superintendent Phil Howard told more than 300 emotional backers of the painting who attended a board meeting that the picture would stay. He claimed it was lawful because it was a gift from a student group and “has historical significance.”
Channel 10 News reported on the “tense” and heated meeting, with parents booing those who opposed the painting’s presence, and cheering and applauding the board’s decision.
“It is still violating the United States Constitution and must be removed immediately,” said a parent, who was loudly booed.
Since FFRF wrote its letter, the ACLU of Ohio has joined the fight. ACLU litigation coordinator Drew Dennis said: “The fact that this portrait has been hanging for many years does not change the fact that it promotes one set of religious beliefs at the expense of all others. Public school displays that advance one particular religious tradition are neither welcoming, nor inclusive for those who may have other beliefs.”
The “Jackson Jesus” painting is the focal point, segregated by itself, of a so-called “Hall of Honor” at the school. It reportedly was given to the school in 1947.
“I’m certainly not going to run down there and take the picture down because some group from Madison, Wis., who knows nothing about the culture of our community or why the picture is even there, wants me to take it down,” Howard told WKKJ.
A Christian-right group based in Texas known as the Liberty Institute announced Jan. 11 that it had been “retained” by Jackson City Schools as legal counsel. A Facebook group was started to support the school board’s position, garnering more than 11,000 “likes” by Jan. 7.
Joe Hensler, who started the Facebook page, dubbed himself president of Citizens of Jackson County for Jesus. “And it’s good to see that there are still people in our community that are willing to stand up and speak out for Christ,” he told a reporter.
The devotional painting in question, formally titled “Head of Christ,” was painted by Warner Sallman in 1941. According to the Sallman official website, the painting has been reproduced more than 500 million times. The Gospel Trumpet County, later Warner Press, became the principal distributor of the painting and other Sallman images.
Sallman also painted popular images titled “Christ at Heart’s Door,” “Christ in Gethsemane” and “The Lord is My Shepherd.” He enrolled in bible school and was encouraged to paint by a dean who said, “Sometime I hope you give us your conception of Christ. And I hope it’s a manly one. Most of our pictures today are too effeminate.”
Sallman said about his work, “I give God the glory for whatever has been accomplished by my efforts to bring joy and happinss to people throughout the world.”
Dan Barker, FFRF co-president and a former evangelical minister, is familiar with the painting, having encountered it himself in countless Christian churches. “It boggles the mind that in 2013, a public school superintendent and school board would not understand that a devotional painting of Jesus, called ‘The Head of Christ,’ — identical to millions hanging in churches and Sunday school classrooms around the country — may not be part of a ‘Hall of Honor’ or be posted at the entrance of a middle school.”
(Further developments in what will be an ongoing story will be reported in the March Freethought Today.)
Ending 2012 with a bang, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit Dec. 27 to challenge the Internal Revenue Service’s preferential treatment of churches in applying for and maintaining tax-exempt status.
The IRS exempts churches and certain other religious organizations from paying expensive application fees and filing the onerous annual Form 990 required of nonchurch nonprofits. FFRF and Triangle FFRF v. the IRS was filed in U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin.
FFRF, a national state/church watchdog with more than 19,000 nonreligious members, and its chapter, the Triangle Freethought Society in North Carolina, are challenging the preferential application and reporting exemptions to churches.
FFRF and its North Carolina chapter are 501(c)(3) nonprofits that paid fees of several hundred dollars in order to apply for tax-exempt status and must annually file the annual Form 990.
The IRS requires nonchurch tax-exempt nonprofits to file “detailed, intrusive, and expensive annual reports to maintain tax-exempt status, but such reports are not required for churches and certain other affiliated religious organizations,” the complaint notes.
“Why should churches be exempt from basic financial reporting requirements?” asks Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “Equally important, why would churches not wish to be accountable?”
Gaylor adds, “Having tax-exempt status is a great privilege, and in exchange for that privilege, all other groups must file a detailed report annually to the IRS and the public on how we spend donations.”
“The unfairness of this is so overwhelming,” says FFRF President Emerita Anne Nicol Gaylor, who in FFRF’s early years personally prepared the annual forms. “Churches are allowed to play by different rules.”
Form 990 requires detailed reports on revenue and functional expenses, activities, governance, management, how groups fulfill their mission and what proportion is spent on programs, management and fundraising.
The “preferential treatment of churches” directly benefits churches, while discriminating against other nonprofit organizations, including the plaintiffs, “solely on the basis of religious criteria,” FFRF’s complaint asserts. This “results in obligations imposed on secular nonprofits, including the plaintiffs, that are not imposed on churches.”
FFRF asks the court to find the church exemptions a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment and the equal protection rights of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. FFRF seeks to enjoin the IRS from continuing to exempt churches and related organizations from the application and annual reporting required of all other 501(c)(3) nonprofits.
This is FFRF’s third ongoing lawsuit against IRS practices involving preferential treatment of churches.
In January/February 2013, FFRF filed a high-profile lawsuit seeking to enforce the IRS’ non-electioneering code against churches.
In late August, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that FFRF and three of its directors have standing to proceed in a challenge of the 1954 “parish exemption” act of Congress. That law, enacted to reward ministers for fighting what the law’s author, U.S. Rep. Peter Mack, called “a godless and antireligious world movement,” permits “ministers of the gospel” to deduct payment designated as a housing allowance from taxable income.
All three lawsuits were filed in U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin, and were brought on behalf of FFRF by attorney Richard L. Bolton.
“We thank the Triangle Freethought Society for joining FFRF in this important challenge,” adds FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
Fifth place: Graduate/mature student essay contest
FFRF awarded Jemille Bailey a $350 scholarship.
By Jemille Bailey
Modern America has an unhealthy love affair with religion. In recent years, U.S. government leaders have invoked God when addressing their constituents in speeches and writings. For those who don’t believe in a deity, or don’t agree with government’s interpretation of or interference with religious matters, there exists an uncomfortable relationship.
While Americans generally have great respect for the fundamental ideals of the founders, it is obvious that the secular ideological underpinnings so eloquently codified in the U.S. Constitution are frequently contested, circumvented or disregarded for political gain.
Two issues in particular are of concern nationwide: The right of women to exercise physical sovereignty vis à vis their reproductive systems and capabilities are once again being hotly debated. In January, presidential hopeful Rick Santorum gallingly proclaimed in a CNN interview that victims of rape should “accept what God has given to [them].”
Despite that issue having already been addressed and settled by the U.S. Supreme Court for almost 40 years, Santorum dangerously and irresponsibly asserts his religious beliefs as justification for setting or changing public policy.
He also single-handedly reinterprets the Constitution, arguing that “life begins at conception.” Santorum is free to argue his position, but his stance is based not on reason, science or social responsibility but on his religion.
Secondly, thinly veiled government promotion of religion has also seeped into the lives of ordinary Americans through their maltreatment of sexual minorities. The civil rights of lesbians, gays and bisexuals, as well as people who are gender nonconforming or transgender, are too frequently set aside, unrecognized or challenged.
Religion has frequently been a reason why the aforementioned Americans are marginalized and disenfranchised. Speaking to the graduating class of 2012 at Liberty University, a Christian university in Lynchburg, Va., Mitt Romney, then the presumed Republican nominee for U.S. president, reaffirmed his opposition to marriage equality:
“It strikes me as odd that the free exercise of religious faith is sometimes treated as a problem, something America is stuck with instead of blessed with.” He went on, “Perhaps religious conscience upsets the designs of those who feel that the highest wisdom and authority comes from our government.”
Using language such as “blessed” is a clear signal to Christian believers in the audience that they and Romney are on the same team. If he were running for president of Liberty University, he would be well within his bounds to use such language. This speech also doubled as a campaign event.
Such rhetoric implies a divide between religious and nonreligious citizens. Further, it’s concerning that Romney doesn’t trust legislators, judges and other public servants. We elected them presumably because of their perceived wisdom. Logically, as those leaders have been given responsibility through the ballot box or appointment, they are the highest authorities in the nation.
But Romney then shamelessly pronounced that “there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action.” What disappointing news for the nation’s many atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Muslims.
Often, after all other ineffective social and moral arguments are exhausted, religion is the last, and incidentally, the most illegitimate justification for the restriction of rights or release of responsibilities. It is on the emotionally tempting but judicially irrelevant leg of religion that Romney stands to assert his opinion on what makes a family.
Every year in the U.S., a National Prayer Breakfast is held and televised, attended by Democrats and Republicans alike. While some may view it as mere tradition, its implicit nature makes clear that we are under an ever-growing threat of moving toward theocracy.
When reason and objective analysis are pushed aside or ignored and replaced with tribal and theocratic allegiances and dogma, the resulting separatism can provoke the same unseemly acts of marginalization or restrictions of civil liberties that have led toward slavery, genocide and other atrocities throughout modern history.
Those acts may, in turn, be irrationally justified as divinely inspired or even virtuous at the expense of the physical and intellectual sovereignty of dissenting citizens.
Jemille Bailey, 32, is a Los Angeles native pursuing an undergraduate liberal arts degree with a concentration in financial economics at Columbia University.