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Recent FFRF legal victories

Bibles removed from UW guest rooms

After attempting to end the practice for several decades, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has persuaded University of Wisconsin-Extension in Madison to remove Gideon bibles from its 137 guest rooms.

In November, a complainant who encountered the bible at the Lowell Center on the UW-Madison campus contacted FFRF. The seven-story conference center hosts events of up to 400 people and was used by the UW secular student group — Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics — to host a freethought festival last March.

Patrick Elliott, one of FFRF’s five staff attorneys, took action, contacting UW-Extension: “When a government entity like the Lowell Center allows distribution of religious material to visitors, it has unconstitutionally entangled itself with a religious message, in this case a Christian message.”

UW-Extension Chancellor Ray Cross (now UW System president) responded Nov. 25 that all bibles would be removed from guest rooms by Dec. 1. The decision received wide area media coverage.

Elliott called it a solid victory for state/church separation. “While private hotels may choose to put any type of literature they want in their guest rooms, state-run colleges have a constitutional obligation to remain neutral toward religion.”

FFRF President Emerita Anne Nicol Gaylor first contacted UW-Extension in the 1980s and 1990s about the unconstitutional practice. Now 87, Gaylor responded, “It’s satisfying to finally see this violation remedied.”


Letter stops N.C. employee prayers

A complainant reported to FFRF that annual Thanksgiving celebrations at a department within the North Carolina Education Lottery have included prayers initiated by the department director.

In a Nov. 29 letter, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott urged NCEL Executive Director Alice Garland to remind employees that such practices are unconstitutional.

Founded in 2005, the lottery is mandated to turn over 100% of its proceeds to public education.

In a Dec. 6 response, lottery counsel assured FFRF that the practice will stop. “We have addressed this matter with the affected department director, and informed all upper management that religion should never be part of any activities, NCEL-sanctioned or not, while on company property and/or time.”

Okla. staff warned on teacher prayer 

A concerned student reported to FFRF that pep rallies at Alva High School in Oklahoma regularly featured student-led prayer circles supported by the faculty. In a letter sent Oct. 23, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel reminded Superintendent Steve Parkhurst and the school principal that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment deems any school-sponsored sectarian practice unconstitutional.

FFRF received a statement from Parkhurst on Nov. 4, claiming that the group prayer was merely optional after a pep rally. Seidel addressed this contention in his letter, “Even if prayer at Alva High’s pep rallies were voluntary, and even if participation at pep rallies were made non-mandatory for students in the band, cheerleaders, and football players, the mere voluntariness of the prayers would still not remedy this constitutional violation. Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation.” 

Parkhurst concluded his letter on a positive note, “Faculty members have been reminded that this must be student-initiated and as a faculty member they cannot participate.” 

Hymns removed from school music

Emmons Lake Elementary School in Caledonia, Mich., was contacted Oct. 3 by Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel on behalf of a concerned parent. Seidel informed Superintendent Randy Rodriguez that teaching Christian-themed music to students is unconstitutional.

“The problems with the music are compounded by the fact that [the teacher] used the song as an opportunity to teach Christian doctrine to students, as well as by the fact that the concert is specifically labeled a ‘Christmas’ concert,” noted Seidel.

On Oct. 16, the superintendent assured FFRF that the school “has initiated steps to resolve this concern at a local level.” 

The complainant confirmed that religious teachings have been withdrawn from music classes.  

Jersey restaurant stops church discount

FFRF successfully ended a discount extended exclusively to churchgoers by Aleathea’s Restaurant in Cape May, N.J. Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell, informed by a concerned customer, advised the restaurant to drop the discriminatory practice in an Oct. 10 letter:

“Your restaurant’s restrictive promotional practice favors religious customers, and denies both customers who do not attend church as well as nonbelievers the right to ‘full and equal’ enjoyment of Aleathea’s. Any promotions should be available to all customers regardless of religious preference or practice on a nondiscriminatory basis.”

Cavell said such a discount violates New Jersey law and the federal Civil Rights Act, which ensures equal opportunity to “goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages and accommodations.”

The owner confirmed Dec. 2 that the restaurant had dropped the discount.

Carolina meals won’t open with prayer

Prayers will no longer precede meals at the Simpsonville Activity and Senior Center in Simpsonville, S.C. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel warned the Parks and Recreation Department, which runs the center, that such religious practices are prohibited by the Establishment Clause and Title XX of the Social Security Act.

“Not only does organizing public prayer at meals jeopardize your federal funding, it also violates our citizens’ rights to be free from religious proselytizing by the government or government funded organizations,” wrote Seidel.

On Dec. 5, FFRF received a reply from Director of Recreation Robbie Davis, stating that “staff at the Simpsonville Senior Center has ceased leading or encouraging prayer before meal functions.”

FFRF letter curbs Cornerstone prayer 

FFRF reminded the Hyde Park Central School District in New York that active involvement of faculty during after-school clubs is inappropriate. 

In a Nov. 7 letter to Superintendent Greer Rychcik, Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell requested that staff at F.D. Roosevelt High School in Staatsburg, N.Y., stop participation in the school’s prayer group, Cornerstone, on constitutional grounds.

Cavell also referenced the Equal Access Act, which prohibits teachers from participating in noncurricular student activities.

“We ask that teachers throughout the district be reminded of their constitutional duty to remain neutral toward religion, a duty that does not simply begin and end with the school day,” wrote Cavell. 

The school’s legal counsel responded Dec. 3: “The district understands and appreciates its constitutional and statutory obligations to students in this regard and, to that end, has reminded those teachers who were approached by Cornerstone to remain neutral toward religion and to refrain from participating in the substantive affairs of religious clubs. The district has also instructed those teachers to refrain from any participation or activity that may be perceived as an endorsement of the club’s religious message.”      

Proselytizing cop warned to stop

A concerned citizen in Toledo, Ohio, informed FFRF that during a traffic collision investigation, after asking whether the citizen attended church, the police officer started recommending various churches in the area. 

Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell requested in a Nov. 26 letter that the city remind the officer that such actions are unconstitutional.

“[The officer’s] overt promotion of religion while acting in his official capacity as a government agent gives the unfortunate impression that the Toledo PD endorses Christianity over other religions and generally endorses religion over nonreligion,” wrote Cavell.

In his response Dec. 4, the police chief said the situation would be investigated further and that “[the officer’s] supervisor was made aware of the incident and was instructed to counsel [the officer] about his actions.”

FFRF extinguishes Points of Light

A proselytizing group will no longer have access to families at Frick Middle School in Oakland, Calif. A religious organization called Points of Light hosted a barbecue at a “Back to School Night” alongside school activities. FFRF’s complainant reported that both events were treated and advertised through official school channels as a single event with no mention of the ministry’s involvement. At one point, a PoL representative addressed the crowd and made religious statements, such as “praise God” and “lift up Jesus.” 

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter to Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Gary Yee on Nov. 7: “It is regrettable that religious groups seek to use the school as a recruiting ground for their particular religion. Their presence at this school event creates the appearance of district endorsement of their programs. Given the purpose of the school welcome event, the prominence of the PoL ministry, and PoL’s use of the school to spread its message, a reasonable parent would conclude that PoL has the backing of the school.” 

In a Dec. 19 response, the district’s attorney strongly criticized the arrangement. Attorney Laura O’Neill told Points of Light, “The statements made by your staff member violated board policy because they promoted Christian viewpoints. It is the district’s expectation that your staff will comply with Board Policy and refrain from making any statements that proselytize or favor one religious viewpoint over another. Specifically, your staff may not in any way promote Christian viewpoints or proselytize on any district campus.” 

School tells coach to stop prayer

A coach at West Linn High School in Tualatin, Ore., will no longer participate in team prayer. FFRF received a complaint last fall that Assistant Coach Art Williams would regularly join a circle of football players to bow his head in prayer. 

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter Sept. 24 to William Rhodes, superintendent, requesting that all coach-led prayer cease immediately: “West Linn High School and its coaches should be aware of the tremendous influence coaches have on their athletes. Parents trust their children to the coaches’ charge and coaches — through their own example — must be sure that athletes are not only treated fairly but also imbued with a sense of community and camaraderie.”

On Oct. 15, an attorney representing the district responded that Williams was directed not to join students in prayer. 

Superintendent removes nativity scene

The superintendent of Green Local Schools in Smithville, Ohio, took down a nativity scene after receiving a letter from FFRF.

Superintendent Judith Robinson had displayed a nativity scene in her office window. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to her Dec. 18: “It is unlawful for a public school to maintain, erect, or host a nativity scene, thus endorsing Christianity.”

Robinson emailed promptly that same day stating that she had taken down the scene.

Pledge refusal OK at Utah school

Students at Oquirrh Hills Middle School (West Jordan, Utah) will no longer be reprimanded for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. A student contacted FFRF to say that, on multiple occasions, a teacher had singled out a student for refusing to recite the pledge.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the superintendent Nov. 13: “Students should not be singled out, rebuked, told they must stand, or otherwise penalized for following their freedom of conscience. It is illegal to reprimand a student in any way for non-disruptively exercising his or her constitutional right to object to reciting the pledge of allegiance.”

The district responded Nov. 20 that it has and “will continue to teach and remind our students, faculty, and staff to foster and maintain an atmosphere of respect and tolerance in our classrooms and communities.”  

Religious fliers out in Ohio school

South Bloomfield Elementary School (Ashville, Ohio) will no longer be permitted to pass out religious fliers to students.

A concerned parent contacted FFRF when her child brought home an advertisement for “A Night in Bethlehem,” an event organized by a church and featuring a live nativity scene, Christmas music and religiously themed activities.

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel contacted the school Dec. 12 about its constitutional obligation to remain neutral to religion and pointing out that religious fliers “waste the time and resources of paid school personnel” and force “teachers of diverse views and beliefs to distribute religious promotional materials.”

Superintendent Jeff Sheets responded Dec. 23 that the district has a policy not to send any third-party communications home with students. He said he informed the South Bloomfield principal, who was new, of this policy. Sheets also stated he would remind district residents of the policy.

K-9 unit’s bible posts taken down

The Douglas County [Ga.] Sheriff K-9 Unit’s Facebook page no longer posts religious messages. The page administrator regularly posted bible quotes on Sundays, as well as several other Christian-themed posts. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the sheriff Nov. 27: “It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that the government cannot in any way promote, advance, or otherwise endorse religion.”

Since receiving FFRF’s letter, there have been no further religious posts on the unit’s Facebook page.

Religious marquees banned at school

The superintendent of the Wayne County [W.Va.] School District will ensure that religious messages are not put on school marquees after FFRF notified her of one such marquee and the constitutional problems it posed.

Buffalo Elementary School had displayed the message “WISE MEN STILL SEEK HIM” around Christmas. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to the superintendent Dec. 31.

Superintendent Lynn Hurt responded Jan. 3 that she had notified the principal to remove the sign. The school district’s attorney “will prepare a notice for all of our principals and share it with them at their monthly meeting about this situation,” Hurt said.

Public school prayer monitored in Minn.

FFRF has received multiple complaints about prayer at Pillager [Minn.] Public School events. In 2010, FFRF objected to a prayer led by a pastor at a Veterans Day assembly for all K-12 students. Superintendent Chuck Arns gave assurances that prayers would not recur at future events but prayers at some events continued.

Most recently, an invocation by a pastor was included as part of a National Honor Society ceremony in November. 

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to the attorney for the school district about the continuation of prayers, asking for the superintendent to “issue a memorandum which makes absolutely clear that prayers are not permitted as part of school-sponsored events, which includes all events organized by school staff. We also request that all staff who plan school events are trained on the legal necessity to immediately cease scheduling prayers.” 

The attorney replied Jan. 8: “In the next week, Superintendent Arns will address all school administration and others who could be responsible for planning school events. He will remind them that during school-sponsored events, there shall be no religious expression or instruction, whether in the form of prayer or references to the bible.”

FFRF members with students in the district will monitor future activities to ensure compliance. 

Band director’s prayer strikes sour note

The marching band director at a high school in Rock Hill School District Three, Rock Hill, S.C., apparently initiated a student prayer circle before performances. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott contacted the school’s legal counsel Dec. 6 on behalf of a complainant:

“It is a violation of the Constitution for a [school] employee to organize, schedule, or participate in prayers or other religious proselytizing before marching band performances.”

In a Dec. 12 letter, legal counsel admitted that “the band director has on occasion signaled to the students just before they recited the prayer.”

The director “understands that he is to refrain in the future from signaling that any such prayer take place at a school-sponsored activity or event.”

School strips staff of ‘Jesus’ shirts

FFRF action led to return of shirts like this to the donor.

Buchtel Community Learning Center teachers in Akron, Ohio, will no longer be allowed to wear religious T-shirts in school. The shirts promote the school’s athletic program with messages such as “Jesus Is My Hero,” “Pick Up the Cross and Follow Me: Jesus” and “God’s Got Our Back.”

FFRF contacted Akron Public School Superintendent David James on June 5. Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert detailed constitutional concerns and conflict with the board’s policy, which bars staff from using their positions or property “ ‘for participant political or religious purposes.’ Wearing T-shirts calling upon others to follow Christ is not an example public school teachers are constitutionally allowed to set. Furthermore, the policy states staff would ‘dress in a manner consistent with their professional responsibilities.’ ” 

The district responded that it takes such allegations seriously and requested names of teachers involved. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a follow-up letter with names of staff who had worn the shirts, including the principal and assistant principal. Seidel also noted that the shirts were being sold in the official school store. 

“The [shirt] designs themselves align official athletics teams (not private student clubs) with Christianity in violation of the law.” 

Seidel urged the district to confiscate the remaining stock of shirts and remind staff not to wear them to school. 

The district responded Oct. 23: “The entire school staff was notified that the donated shirts are not to be worn during school because they are a violation of the board’s policy regarding the wearing of religious symbols. The rest of the donated T-shirts have been confiscated and will be given back to the donor.” 

Religion off athletic shirts at school

After a complaint by FFRF, coaches at South Central High School in Winterville, N.C., received a lesson from the school principal on the Constitution.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote Nov. 27 to the Pitt County School District about reports of coach-led prayers at football, soccer, baseball and basketball games. 

On Dec. 20, FFRF received assurances from the school district’s attorney that the principal had informed all coaches of restrictions on prayer at school events. The district also agreed that bible verses would not be placed on athletic shirts, which at least one team had done in the past.

School removes ‘Lord God’ from mural

FFRF was successful in remedying this constitutional violation in a Georgia elementary school.

Robinson Elementary School in Dawsonville, Ga., painted over part of a verse from an Anglican hymn after FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliot contacted the attorney for the Dawson County School District on behalf of a concerned parent.

The verse, which read, “All Creatures Great and Small. The Lord God Made Them All,” was painted above a cafeteria mural depicting a variety of animals and insects. 

In December, the parent notified FFRF that the religious portion of the hymn had been painted over with a new message. The mural now reads, “All Creatures Great and Small. Robinson Elem. Loves Them All.” 

The mural was the latest violation in Dawson County Schools that FFRF has rectified. In January 2013, FFRF received confirmation from the school system that it would not grant academic credit to students for attending an unaccredited Christian Learning Center, as had been reported in the news. 

In February 2013, a parent alerted FFRF about a Latin cross painted on a large boulder beside the high school football field. After receiving a letter from Elliott, the school painted over the cross.

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I was an atheist by third grade.

Singer Linda Ronstadt

New York Times, 12-29-13


The Kickstarter campaign for “Bible Chronicles: The Call of Abraham” is not off to a quick start. After launching two days ago, it has gathered just $1,649 of its $100,000 target from 28 total backers. Funding closes on Feb. 6.

Article on the “God-focused single-player role-playing” video game, 1-9-14


Sexual abuse in Jewish religious institutions has emerged as one of the most tragic issues of our generation. Fearing scandal, rabbis in the past were often inclined not to report such cases to the authorities, thus enabling pedophiles to continue preying on children as they moved on to other religious educational institutions.

Columnist Isi Leibler

Jerusalem Post, 1-1-14


If you didn’t think that took balls, you’ve never been to Oklahoma. Saying “I’m an atheist” in Oklahoma is like screaming “jihad” at airport security.

Entertainer Doug Stanhope, on atheists raising $125,000 for tornado survivor Rebecca Vitsmun, who famously told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer she was not thanking God for saving her family

The Raw Story, 12-30-13


It’s a campaign to get the word out that there are atheists and agnostics. There’s no attempt to convert anyone. It doesn’t say, “We hate God.”

Stephen Hirtle, Pittsburgh Coalition of Reason spokesman [and FFRF chair], on a bus ad rejected by the city’s Port Authority over which the group is suing

Pittsburgh City Paper, 12-4-13


You do know Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, right?

Jon Stewart, responding to Fox News host Megyn Kelly’s claim that Jesus and Santa were both white men

“The Daily Show,” 12-12-13


The lady looked at me. I thought she was going to put money in the kettle. She came up to me and said, “Do you believe in God?” And she says, “You’re supposed to say Merry Christmas,” and that’s when she hit me.

Kristina Vindiola, Salvation Army bell ringer, on what happened when she said “Happy Holidays” outside a Phoenix Walmart


I am a retired Christian. 

Irish actor Peter O’Toole, who died Dec. 14 at 81, saying he prefers “education and reading and facts” to faith

New York Times, 7-26-07


How did my family miss the dedication of Dorr Township to the Holy Family with a nativity in the publicly owned gazebo at the center of town?

Atheist Jeremiah Bannister, Dorr, Mich., on how a crèche was allowed on land leased by the township

Advance Newspapers, 12-15-13 


The hardest thing I had to do was walk through the door of a police station and stand at a desk with people around, and say why I was there.

Clergy abuse victim DG, 55, on reporting in 1993 his molestation at age 13 by Marist Brother Raymond Foster, who killed himself after being arrested in 1999

Australian Broadcasting Corp., 12-13-13


Mr. Obama has gone to church 18 times during his nearly five years in the White House, according to Mark Knoller of CBS News, an unofficial White House historian, while his predecessor, Mr. Bush, attended 120 times during his eight years in office.

News story analyzing the president’s personal faith and church attendance, which included a “no show” on Christmas

New York Times, 12-29-13


There is nothing about the image that suggests he believes in one god, no god, or several. It simply depicts a Native American shooting a bow and arrow.

U.S. District Judge Joe Heaton, ruling against a Methodist pastor in his suit claiming that the Oklahoma license plate forces him to display an image contrary to his beliefs

Tulsa World, 1-15-14

There has been anti-science propaganda running unchecked on the right for years, from anti-gay equality misinformation to climate change denials. When you look at white evangelical Protestants, the evolution denialism gets even worse. Only 27% of that group believes in evolution.

Columnist Charles Blow, citing a Pew Research Center study

New York Times, 1-4-14


It seems that if Oklahoma Christians want to imbue society with their values, there are better ways to do it that respect the pluralistic nature of our society. Perhaps they should just focus on living out the Ten Commandments and ditch the monuments.

Kirsten Powers, columnist and Fox News political analyst, on a State Capitol controversy

USA Today, 1-14-14

I don’t give a [expletive] about religion when it comes to sports. In fact, I think it’s stupid. I think everyone that goes on national television and is asked why do you win says, “I want to thank God.” Really? Like God gives a [expletive] that you made 18 jump shots. I have always had a problem with that. I have a problem with people showing their religion in public. I have a real problem with that.

Luigi “Geno” Auriemma, head coach of the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team

Hartford Courant, 1-17-14


[Atheists] need to buck up, assert our rationality, and change the way we deal with the religious, with everyday affronts delivered (at times unknowingly) by believers, with the casual presumptions that historically have tended to favor the faithful and grant them unmerited respect. A lot is at stake. Religion is a serious matter, reaching far beyond the pale of individual conscience and sometimes translating into violence, sexism, sexual harassment and assault, and sundry legal attempts to restrict a woman’s right to abortion or outlaw it altogether, to say nothing of terrorism and war. Now is the time to act.

Journalist Jeffrey Tayler, “15 ways to stand up for rationality”, 1-11-14


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Vouchers subsidize incompetent schools

With “National School Choice Week” upon us, it is a fitting time to take a look at Wisconsin’s failed voucher program. The abrupt closure of LifeSkills Academy, a Christian school in Milwaukee, is merely a symptom of a larger problem. Wisconsin’s voucher system is broken and cannot be repaired. 

At its core, the voucher system is a backdoor means to fund religious schools with taxpayer money instead of public schools. The expansion of vouchers statewide highlights this fact. All of the new schools, 25 out of 25, are Christian schools.

Notably, the one Islamic school and two Jewish schools that applied for state approval were not able to garner as many applicants as the 18 Catholic schools and seven other Christian schools now receiving taxpayer money. Only parents in the religious majority were able to send their children to a denominational “choice” school.

This flawed program violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and its equivalent in the Wisconsin Constitution: Article 1, Section 18. 

While the legality and feasibility of statewide vouchers have not been tested, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has been tested. It is the long-est running voucher program in the country. What have we learned? Wisconsin taxpayers are paying millions of dollars to dozens of incompetent religious schools that do not provide a comprehensive education.

Milwaukee’s LifeSkills Academy, which received $2.3 million in state voucher money since 2008, shut down suddenly in mid-December. A priest in charge of the building that was rented by the school said that the school’s operators moved out “in the dead of the night.” Families of students were left scrambling to find a new school.

LifeSkills students had struggled with basic reading and math, with only one of the 56 students testing proficient in either subject on 2012 state exams. Despite their poor operation of the Milwaukee school, Taron and Rodney Monroe opened LifeSkills Academy II in Florida last year and bragged about their ability to get government grants for religious schools.

LifeSkills Academy is merely one of many inept Milwaukee voucher schools. Department of Public Instruction testing data published last year showed that Milwaukee Public School students outperform voucher students in reading and math. Looking past the averages, the data reveals that entire voucher schools lack basic skills. 

Carter’s Christian Academy and Daughters of the Father Christian Academy are two Milwaukee schools that rely almost entirely on taxpayer funding. Daughters of the Father promotes itself as “specializing in reading and math.” Of the 92 students tested in 2012 at Daughters of the Father, only one tested proficient in reading and two tested proficient in math.

At Carter’s Christian Academy, none of the 85 students tested proficient in reading and only one tested proficient in math. Between the two schools, 81% are classified as having “minimal” skills in reading and 75% have minimal math skills. 

It is understandable that students attending these schools are struggling, given the fundamentalist curriculum that is being taught in what are generally considered secular subjects. Information available on each school’s website makes it clear that they both utilize curriculum provided by A Beka Books, a publisher of fundamentalist Christian textbooks. A Beka has promoted its materials by saying that textbook writers “do not paraphrase progressive education textbooks and add biblical principles” but instead “create textbooks from a biblical worldview, built upon the firm foundation of Scriptural truth.” 

A profile of the 2011-12 curriculum on the Daughters of the Father website includes revisionist history lessons from A Beka Books, creationism instruction in science classes and health class instruction for seventh and eighth graders on “sins such as adultery, fornication and homosexuality.” 

It matters what is taught in taxpayer-funded schools. No parental “choice” on where to send a child for school should mean that all taxpayers pick up the tab for fundamentally flawed schooling by educators who are incompetent. It is expected that the Milwaukee voucher program will cost $161 million this school year alone.

With vouchers, there are no assurances that educators are answerable to the citizens who ultimately write the checks. They are not governed by publicly elected school boards that have to answer to constituents. There are virtually no protections to ensure that students are receiving a sound education.

Voucher supporters will be unable to offer reforms that guarantee another LifeSkills Academy debacle will not happen again. Moving students around in the middle of a school year like they are chess pieces is absolutely disruptive to student learning and will continue under a voucher system.

Any additional accountability measures for voucher schools that are put into place cannot fix a fundamentally broken program. 

Patrick Elliott is a staff attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis.

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Feds appeal FFRF’s parish exemption win

The federal government filed notice Jan. 24 that it’s appealing the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s significant federal court victory declaring the “parish exemption” unconstitutional. Under the 1954 law, “ministers of the gospel” don’t pay any taxes on salary designated as a “housing allowance.”

U.S. District Judge Barbara B. Crabb for the Western District of Wisconsin issued a strong, 43-page decision on Nov. 22 declaring 26 U.S. C. § 107(2) unconstitutional. The case is FFRF, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker v. Jacob Lew, Acting Secretary of the Treasury Department and Daniel Werfel, Acting Commissioner of the International Revenue Service.

The appeal will go before the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago.

The law allows “ministers of the gospel” who are paid through a housing allowance to exclude that allowance from taxable income. Ministers may even use untaxed income to buy a home and deduct interest paid on the mortgage and property taxes — known as “double dipping.”

The clergy benefit costs the government up to $700 million a year in lost revenue, and benefits not just ministers but their employer churches, which can pay ministers less because untaxed income goes further.

Christianity Today found that 84 percent of senior pastors receive a housing allowance ranging from $20,000 to $38,000 in added (but not reported or taxed) salary.

“I agree with plaintiffs that §107(2) does not have a secular purpose or effect,” wrote Crabb, adding that a reasonable observer would view it “as an endorsement of religion.”

At the time of the federal ruling, attorney Richard L. Bolton, representing FFRF, noted: “The Court’s decision does not evince hostility to religion — nor should it even seem controversial.” However, the decision set off “shock waves” in the clergy network.

Clergy are permitted to use the housing allowance not just for rent or mortgages, but for a wide range of home improvements, including maintenance and repairs. They may exempt from taxable income up to the fair market rental value of their home, particularly benefiting well-heeled pastors.

The 1954 bill’s sponsor, Rep. Peter Mack, argued ministers should be rewarded for “carrying on such a courageous fight” against a “godless and anti-religious world movement.”

All taxpayers are burdened by taxes, Crabb noted. “Defendants do not identify any reason why a requirement on ministers to pay taxes on a housing allowance is more burdensome for them than for the many millions of others who must pay taxes on income used for housing expenses.”

Gaylor and Barker, as co-presidents of FFRF, are the primary plaintiffs. Crabb agreed they have standing to sue and are injured because FFRF designates part of their salaries as a “housing allowance,” but they are not lawfully able to claim the same benefit “ministers of the gospel” are accorded.

“The clergy and churches have become accustomed to privileges and prerogatives from our secular government which are not only unconstitutional, but which don’t play fair. The rest of us should not have to pay more taxes, because clergy don’t pay their fair share,” said Gaylor.

Barker, a former minister, now heads the volunteer Clergy Project, which helps clergy who have changed their minds about religion leave the pulpit. Barker said he knows hundreds of former ministers who agree with FFRF that “the housing exclusion is an unfair and unwarranted boost from the government and should be abolished.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, working with noted state-church attorney Marci A. Hamilton and groups advocating for the rights of victims of religious abuse filed an amicus brief Jan. 27, before the U.S. Supreme Court. The brief opposes Hobby Lobby’s claim that for-profit corporations have a right to deny contraceptive coverage to women workers based on religious objections.

The Hobby Lobby chain of stores argues that it is “a person” under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and that the federal government’s contraceptive insurance mandate imposes a “substantial burden.”

Hamilton successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in City of Borne v. Flores (1997) that RFRA was unconstitutional as applied to state and local governments. 

In the amicus brief, Hamilton argues that the unconstitutionality of the federal RFRA “has been lost in the intense public debate between claimed religious liberty for for-profit corporations and women’s reproductive health.”

FFRF’s brief is also signed by Bishop, Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty (CHILD), the Child Protection Project, the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, Survivors for Justice and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

FFRF’s interest in the case arises from its position that “the radical redefinition of ‘religious freedom’ to include a right to impose one’s religious beliefs on others is arguably the greatest threat to individual freedom of conscience.”

FFRF notes that its original founders, Anne Nicol Gaylor and Annie Laurie Gaylor, formed FFRF “partly in response to unwarranted governmental and religious intrusion into a woman’s reproductive health decisions.”

Hobby Lobby was founded by David Green, who has a religious objection to some forms of prescription contraception, and essentially maintains his corporation has a soul and rights of conscience that trump the rights of conscience of his employees.

Green runs a chain of more than 500 craft stores and is challenging the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act. The law requires health care plans to provide coverage for certain “preventive care” at no additional charge, including immunizations, diabetes screening, AIDS screening and contraception.

“RFRA is being invoked in this case as a license for employers to influence their female employees’ contraception choices,” FFRF contends in the amicus brief.

The amici also assert: “If Hobby Lobby can deploy RFRA to block coverage of women’s reproductive health, the next believer will argue against vaccinations, and the next against screenings for children or domestic violence screening and counseling. There is no limit to the variety of religious believers in the United States, and good reason to know that the vulnerable will pay the price.”

Hamilton writes: “RFRA lets religious citizens rewrite any federal law they don’t like, to their benefit.”

Oral arguments will be heard March 25. The 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby that corporations have the same (or stronger) religious rights as individuals. 

However, the 3rd Circuit ruled against a similar challenge by another business that “for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise” and that a business owner’s religious rights do not allow that owner to impose his religion on his business’s employees.”

Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., East Earl, Pa., is appealing that ruling, which will also be heard March 25.

RFRA is being “permitted to foment culture wars,” Hamilton writes, which violates the separation of powers, Article V and the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

Hamilton holds the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and is the author of God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law.

“We find ourselves in the novel position, for once, of siding with the federal government, in this case Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services,” commented FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Dogma must not be permitted to trump civil liberties in our secular republic.”

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Blasphemy laws violate the First Amendment.  They promote religion, specifically Christianity, over nonreligion in violation of the Establishment Clause.  They prohibit speech in violation of the Free Speech Clause.  They violate the guarantees of religious free exercise and free press.  In general, blasphemy laws assault the First Amendment’s protection of the freedom of conscience.  

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FFRF to Walker: Delete religious tweet


Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is on the receiving end of a letter of complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison for a religious tweet on his official Facebook and Twitter accounts.

On Sunday, March 16, either Walker or someone empowered to posted the following: "Philippians 4:13" (see screen shots), a bible verse which says, "I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me."

FFRF, a state-church watchdog with 20,000 members nationwide and about 1,300 in Wisconsin, reminded Walker in a March 18 letter that it's "improper for a state employee, much less for the chief executive officer of the state, to use the machinery of the state of Wisconsin to promote personal religious views."

Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, in FFRF's letter, said Walker's tweet "seems more like a threat, or the utterance of a theocratic dictator, than of a duly elected civil servant."

The letter cites court cases that prohibit government officials from endorsing religion over nonreligion. If a department head or ordinary employee were to use state resources to promote personal beliefs, they would most certainly be admonished.

The question is will Walker be able to get away with it? If so, what might he post next, maybe something from Acts 10 (in which a sheet descends from above, with a voice saying, "Rise, Peter; kill, and eat")? More sustenance and strength for the religious and exclusion for non-Christians.

The letter concludes, "On behalf of our membership, we ask you to immediately delete this religious message from your official gubernatorial Facebook and Twitter. May we hear from you at your earliest convenience?"

On Wednesday, March 12, the Georgia Senate passed H.B. 702, a bill designed to place a Ten Commandments monument within the state capitol building or on its grounds. The bill previously passed the Georgia House. In addition to the Ten Commandments, the proposed granite monument will also contain the preamble to the Georgia Constitution (which states in part that the people of Georgia rely “upon the protection and guidance of Almighty God”) and the “part of the Declaration of Independence which states that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’”

Note: the monument will not include the entirely secular preamble to the U.S. Constitution, as described in the bill’s summary on first reading and as reported incorrectly by numerous news sources. The original version of the bill did call for inclusion of the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, but that was swapped for the portion of the Declaration of Independence that refers to “a Creator.” Yet the sponsor of the bill, Rep. Greg Morris (R-Vidalia), denied, with a straight face, any religious intent behind his proposed monument.

If enacted into law, this bill would be a clear and egregious violation of the separation between state and church. In reaction to the passage of H.B. 702, Erwin Chemerinsky, First Amendment legal scholar and distinguished attorney in the landmark Supreme Court decision Van Orden v. Perry, noted, “the Supreme Court has . . . made clear that putting up new Ten Commandments monuments, when the purpose is so clearly to advance religion, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

The Georgia legislature needs to stop wasting time imagining new, creative ways to memorialize the Christian god and get back to work!


Please take a moment to contact the governor to voice your opposition to H.B. 702.

Phone and email the governor today:
Governor Nathan Deal
The Office of the Governor
206 Washington Street
Suite 203, State Capitol
Atlanta GA 30334
Phone: 404-656-1776
Fax: 404-657-7332
As a Georgia citizen, I strenuously object to H.B. 702 and ask you to veto this bill to promote display of the Ten Commandments on the Capitol grounds. The first commandment alone, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” is reason enough for you to veto this bill. The State of Georgia, the Georgia General Assembly and the Georgia governor have no business telling me which god to have, how many gods to have, or whether to have any gods at all.  
The enactment of this law would violate not only the constitutional separation of state and church, but my right to be free from religion in government. I object to the display of the Ten Commandments — the morally inadequate commandments of one religion and its deity — at the seat of my state government, which turns me into a political outsider. The Capitol grounds should be free of religious divisiveness.

For maximum effectiveness, be succinct and polite in messages, and identify yourself as a constituent when relevant (not as a member of FFRF responding to this action alert). For obvious reasons, do not forward this action alert to the governor. Feel free to let friends and colleagues know about this threat. You may wish to send blind copies (using bc in your email) to FFRF at: 

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