FFRF Convention 2013 - Photo Slideshow by Brent Nicastro
FFRF Convention 2013 - Photo Slideshow by Andrew Seidel
The Freedom From Religion Foundation held its 36th annual national convention on the last weekend in September at the Concourse Hotel, 1 West Dayton St., in downtown Madison, Wis.
Jill Sobule and Julia Sweeney will team up for a delightful set that mixes witty songwriting with witty repartee and social commentary. Author, playwright, actress and comedian Sweeney (“Letting Go of God”) intersperses comedic improv and stories in between songs by Sobule, who wrote the title song for Sweeney’s DVD, “Letting Go of God.”
“Saturday Night Live” alum Sweeney has a new book, If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother, on parenting and being parented.
Sobule broke new ground in 1995 when her recording “I Kissed a Girl” was the first Top 40 hit to deal with overtly gay themes. Known for fanciful storytelling and satire, she’s releasing a new album with the string quartet Ethel. She also writes commentary on Huffington Post.
Also entertaining will be Australia’s freethinking and talented young songstress and singer Shelley Segal, who accompanies herself on guitar. Segal sang at the Reason Rally and has released a freethought CD, “An Atheist Album.” Her signature freethought song, “I Don’t Believe in Fairies,” makes a cameo on FFRF’s new musical CD “Adrift on a Star,” featuring Dan Barker and friends. FFRF Co-President Dan Barker will also entertain at the piano and team up with Shelley for a few songs.
A new addition will be Aisha Goss, of Secular Coalition of America, to give a 15-minute briefing at the start of the Saturday afternoon program.
Honored with the first Richard and Beverly Hermsen Student Activist Award of $5,000 will be 19-year-old Zack Kopplin, a Louisiana student activist who’s made national news in his work to repeal a stealth creationism law in his home state. His repeal effort has been endorsed by 43 Nobel laureates, among others. Zack persuaded the New Orleans City Council to vote unanimously to support repeal of the Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008. He appeared in March on “The Bill Moyers Show.” He’s a sophomore history major at Rice University.
Receiving a Freethought Heroine Award will be mystery writer Sara Paretsky, an ardent supporter of separation of state and church and women’s reproductive rights and creator of the famous V.I. Warshawski detective series, which revolutionized the mystery world.
Paretsky took ill just before FFRF’s 2012 Portland conference and will be accepting her award a year late. Her memoir, Writing in an Age of Silence, chronicles her journey from Kansas farm-girl to New York Times bestseller, and includes social commentary.
Jamila Bey worked for a decade as producer and editor at National Public Radio on such shows as “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered” and “Talk of the Nation.” She hosts the weekly radio show, “The Sex, Politics and Religion Hour: SPAR with Jamila,” airing on AM 1390 in Washington, D.C., and AM 1430 in New York City.
A stand-up comedienne, Bey says she enjoys the stage because it’s a cheaper hobby than scrapbooking. She’s currently working on a book that critically examines the role religion plays in the lives of African-American women. She frequently writes and lectures on state/church and religious issues.
The convention will celebrate the 65th anniversary of the landmark McCollum v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court by airing the Peabody Award-winning documentary “The Lord Is Not on Trial Here Today,” directed by Jay Rosenstein, and with an appearance from Lifetime Member Jim McCollum. Jim was previously named an FFRF “Champion of the First Amendment.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s closely watched lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service and the Catholic Knights of Columbus council in Kalispell, Mont., got a green light Nov. 27 from U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen.
FFRF sued in February 2012, seeking a declaration that the “continued presence of a six-foot-tall statue of Jesus Christ in the Flathead National Forest, on a 25-by-25-foot plot owned and administered by the United States Forest Service, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”
The Knights placed the shrine in 1954 after receiving a special-use permit from the government. The Forest Service continued to sanction the shrine overlooking the Big Mountain ski run until the most recent lease ran out in late 2010. FFRF filed a complaint in early 2011 and was informed that summer the Forest Service wouldn’t renew the permit.
After U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., made a fuss, essentially running for Senate on a “save the Jesus statue” platform, the Forest Service quickly reversed the denial. (Rehberg, by the way, lost his Senate bid in November.) FFRF had received such nasty e-mails and phone calls in response to publicity that it chose not to name FFRF members in the initial legal complaint.
After several defendants sought to have the suit dismissed, FFRF submitted a declaration by FFRF member and local resident William Cox, who asserted he “had and will continue to have direct and unwelcome contact with the statue.”
In his Nov. 27 ruling, Christensen said: “Cox’s declaration meets [standing requirements]. He is a member of FFRF, he lives 15 miles from Whitefish Mountain Resort, he is a frequent skier at the resort who has skied past the statue many times previously and intends to again this winter, and he is a non-believer who considers the statue religious in nature and offensive.”
The judge added, “Cox would have standing to sue in his own right if he were a named plaintiff.”
Cox, who has skied past the shrine at Whitefish Mountain Resort, known as Big Mountain, his entire life, was interviewed Dec. 3 about the controversy by Melissa Block, host of “All Things Considered” on National Public Radio.
“I’ve regarded the statue as an absurdity,” Cox said. “I resented it the first time I saw it, and it’s just kind of a bizarre thing to discover Jesus standing there in the snow. So I thought to myself, I think I’ll join this organization [FFRF]. I’m no longer a person of faith, and subsequently, they contacted me and asked whether I would care to be a witness.”
He added, “You know, we live today in a religiously diverse and multicultural society, and it’s offensive to many people, some of whom I know intimately. My wife is Jewish, and it’s worrisome to them that religion, particularly Christianity, plays such a prominent role in our political life. Often, it appears to me to be a somewhat hypocritical role. In any event, the Constitution provides that in essence the federal government shall not establish religion, and this is a clearly religious shrine.”
The Knights of Columbus are intervening as defendants and are being represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed a motion to dismiss the suit. Eighteen members of Congress filed an amicus brief seeking to dismiss FFRF’s lawsuit in August, with the help of Pat Robertson’s “American Center for Law and Justice.”
Members of Congress who opposed FFRF’s suit were Rehberg, Dan Burton (Ind.), Michael Conaway (Texas), Chip Cravaak (Minn.), J. Randy Forbes (Va.), Virginia Foxx (N.C.), Vicky Hartzler (Mo.), Bill Johnson (Ohio), Walter Jones (N.C.), John Kline (Minn.), James Lankford (Okla.), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), Jeff Miller (Fla.), Sue Myrick (N.C.), Alan Nunnelee (Miss.), Dennis Ross (Fla.), Steve Scalise (La.) and Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.).
FFRF’s complaint and litigation over the “Big Mountain Jesus” has prompted international coverage, as well as religious hysteria. The Nov. 28 news story in the Daily Mail in London was headlined:“Hearts of ice! Atheists campaign to remove six-foot tall Jesus statue erected a WAR MEMORIAL at ski resort.”
FFRF has pointed out a Christian shrine would not be an appropriate war memorial on federal property, but calls the claim a sham anyway. Returning Catholic soldiers from Kalispell got the idea after seeing shrines to Jesus in the Alps.
FFRF is asking the court to enjoin the defendant from continuing to approve the shrine for federal property and ordering the Forest Service to direct the Knights of Columbus to remove it.
The case, FFRF, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Anne Nicol Gaylor and Dan Barker v. United States of America, was filed on FFRF’s behalf by attorney Richard L. Bolton and local counsel Martin S. King. Christensen, who was confirmed as an Obama appointee in December 2011, had practiced law in the Kalispell area since 1977. Read the decision at: