FFRF’s major successes in ending entrenched illegal prayer practices in many Southern public schools are attracting the attention of the Religious Right.
Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, a Christian group based in Tupelo, Miss., charged in a rambling broadcast Aug. 22 that FFRF has launched a “second War of Northern Aggression.” (The term is used by some Southerners to describe the Civil War.)
Fischer’s remarks came after publicity over FFRF’s complaint that persuaded a Mississippi public school to obey the law and stop broadcasting prayers over its P.A. system before football games. Fischer mused about FFRF’s legal strategy, imagining it to be, “Let’s get rid of every trace of religious liberty in the South, and we can do it because these people will not fight back. And again the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin, and this is the second War of Northern Aggression and they’re winning this thing.”
FFRF has also followed up on Walker County Schools’ response to FFRF’s request to investigate unusual constitutional violations by Ridgeland [Ga.] High School football coach Mark Mariakis. Although praising the superintendent’s “commitment to upholding the Constitution,” the response raised lingering concerns.
Attorney Andrew Seidel’s Aug. 21 letter detailed allegations that FFRF had received over several egregious sports/church entanglements at Ridge-land. Most notable was the coach taking public school football teams to pregame church meals where prayers are recited.
It was also alleged that Mariakis regularly prayed with his teams, had pressured students to attend a “Christian football camp” and that the team had adopted a “team chaplain.”
Superintendent Damon Raines responded Aug. 30 that “the district will not have a team chaplain nor will school officials or employees, including coaches, organize, lead or participate in any prayers. Staff will also refrain from participating in the [Fellowship of Christian Athletes].” The district said pregame meals will no longer include “religious references.”
Seidel replied Sept. 11 that “taking public school teams to church still involves constitutional concerns.” Quoting legal precedent that bars public schools from holding graduations in churches, he argued that regardless of the purpose in choosing to have a pregame meal in a church, “the sheer religiosity of the space create[s] a likelihood that high school students . . . would perceive a link between church and state.”
FFRF is alarmed over Mariakis’ attendance at a Sept. 9 “Rally to Pray” held to “keep prayer in the practices and before games.” Seidel said, “It seems to send a message that he is unrepentant and hostile to First Amendment limitations on his proselytizing.”
FFRF wants the district to investigate the coach’s remarks and the rally and to “ensure that Mariakis understands he cannot use his position as coach to ‘share the Gospel’ with his team and other public students.”
FFRF also noted that it appears that school buses are taking players, coaches and staff from the school to churches for meals. FFRF further requested a response to an unanswered allegation from its original complaint that the football program has used the bible as a motivational tool.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor added, “When a public school district has permitted unconstitutional practices to flourish for years, it creates a climate of intolerance. We see that intolerance in the community’s reaction to our reasonable request to ensure that student rights of conscience, and Supreme Court precedent, are honored in Walker County schools.”
A short first-of-its-kind feature spot, “Spotlight on Freethought and the First Amendment,” produced in conjunction with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, started airing Aug. 18 on select national public television affiliates.
The spot is guaranteed to air 500 times in the next three months and reach an estimated 3 million people. A four-minute version and one of 5:30 will run interchangeably. When and where the short program, used as filler, will run can’t be announced beforehand. Public TV affiliates decide which fillers are needed on the day they run.
If you catch one of the spots on your local public TV affiliate, please be sure to contact the affiliate promptly to say thank you and to encourage rebroadcast.
This is believed to be the first such segment featuring discussion of freethought, atheism and focus on the specific dangers of mixing state and church. The description sent to affiliates reads:
“America has more diversity, faiths, religions and cultures than any other country in the world. And yet we all seem to get along pretty well. Only in a country where we can be free of religion in our government can we then be free to practice our own or choose not to follow any faith.
“This segment focuses on our freedom to practice our faith, or no faith — exactly as we want.”
The narrator says, “More wars have been waged, more people killed, in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history. So with such wildly contrasting beliefs in this country, why aren’t we at each other’s throats? Here’s why. It’s our Constitution and its very core of freedom from religion. Our country was founded in part by refugees seeking freedom, seeking to escape centuries of religious persecutions, holy inquisitions, witch hunts.”
The four-minute version talks about the benefits of the United States’ secular form of government, defines “freethought” and includes brief interviews with FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor.
Gaylor, a co-founder of FFRF, says on-camera:
“The United States of America was the first nation where our founders did not claim a pipeline to a divinity. It was a revolutionary act that they created a secular and entirely godless Constitution whose only references to religion are exclusionary, that there shall be no religious test for public office. The founders were aware of the inquisitions and the pogroms and the religious wars and the terrors in Europe, and the persecutions in many of the individual colonies — and they wanted no part of that. And so they erected what Thomas Jefferson called the ‘wall of separation between church and state,’ and that protects all of us. It has prevented the bloodshed and warfare that we see in so many parts of the world where religion is involved in government.”
Barker adds, “There are some believers that don’t see the difference between neutrality and hostility. They think efforts of groups like ours to keep the government neutral are also a hostile act against their faith, when we’re not asking for the government to be pro-atheistic either. If the government stays neutral, the government stays secular, then everybody’s an insider, nobody’s an outsider.”
The longer spot features a bonus: an interview with Pitzer College professor Phil Zuckerman, a leading expert on “secularity” and how secular societies measure up favorably to religious nations. Zuckerman is an FFRF member and author of many books, including Society Without God.
As a bonus, a version that is over seven minutes — including additional interview footage of Dan talking about freethought, morality and purpose in life -— has been posted at FFRF’s website and can be viewed now on FFRF’s homepage at ffrf.org/.
Watch for little “cameos,” including appearances by Darwin, Einstein and Susan B. Anthony, shots of some mementos at FFRF’s office, Freethought Hall, a powerful quote by Mark Twain about the witch hunts, photographs of the Reason Rally crowd by Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel and of FFRF Staffer Katie Daniel giving the Westboro Baptists thumbs down when they picketed an FFRF event.
“We warmly thank members who contributed to our PR Campaign Fund as part of the spring membership appeal, whose generosity made possible the filming and airing of this first-of-its-kind segment,” said Gaylor.
Only the first three months of airing are monitored by Neilsen Ratings, but “Spotlight On” segments often run far longer. The program is not offered as any part of any PBS national program service.
FFRF has been venturing into television this year with nationally airing ads, including one featuring JFK endorsing the separation between church and state, and one by actress Julia Sweeney defending contraception from attack by Catholic bishops.
If you’d like to see more TV ads and segments, you may make a tax deductible contribution at:
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.
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
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.
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 . . .”)
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.