A district court in Madison, Wis., gave the green light to the right of FFRF’s nonbelieving directors to challenge the parish exemption giving preferential tax benefits to “ministers of the gospel.”
U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb, Western District of Wisconsin, issued a strong 20-page opinion and order Aug. 29 granting standing to FFRF’s plaintiffs to pursue their challenge of the 1954 law. Plaintiffs are Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor and President Emerita Anne Gaylor.
FFRF v. USA was filed in September 2011. FFRF first challenged the parish exemption in district court in Sacramento in 2009 with 21 FFRF members named as federal taxpayers in a case destined for the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. A ruling on taxpayer standing in an unrelated Supreme Court ruling forced FFRF to withdraw the suit in 2011.
FFRF then refiled in Wisconsin, challenging the statute’s injury to FFRF’s paid directors, who receive part of their salaries designated as a housing allowance, yet are unable to benefit from it as ministers are.
“We’re very pleased that the court has acknowledged our injury and right to sue over this,” said Barker, ironically a former minister who previously qualified for and used housing allowance benefits. Barker is not accorded the same privilege as director of an atheist/agnostic organization, which shows governmental favoritism of religion over nonreligion. Barker calls the statute a subsidy rather than an accommodation of religion.
FFRF seeks a declaration that the federal statute creating the parish exemption violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. FFRF is asking the court to enjoin the tax benefits exclusively given for ministers of the gospel under 28 U.S.C. § 2201 that 26 U.S.C. §107.
“Because it is clear from the face of the statute that plaintiffs are not entitled to the exemption, I see no reason to make their standing contingent on the futile exercise of making a formal claim with the IRS,” Crabb ruled. She wrote that “there is no plausible argument that plaintiffs could make that they qualify as ‘ministers of the gospel,’ so it would be pointless to require plaintiffs to jump through the hoop of filing a claim to prove that they are not entitled to the exemption.”
She dismissed as “another straw man” the government’s characterization of the FFRF directors’ injury as mere “disagreement with the government’s claim.” Crabb wrote, “It is undoubtedly true that plaintiffs object to §107 because they believe it violates the Establishment Clause and that this may be the primary reason they filed the lawsuit, but that is not the injury plaintiffs are alleging for the purpose of showing standing.”
The exemptions permit clergy to deduct from their taxable income housing allowances furnished as part of compensation. Congress in 1954 amended the tax code to permit all clergy to exempt their housing costs from their taxable income. U.S. Rep. Peter Mack, author of the amendment, declared:
“Certainly, in these times when we are being threatened by a godless and antireligious world movement we should correct this discrimination against certain ministers of the gospel who are carrying on such a courageous fight against this foe. Certainly this is not too much to do for these people who are caring for our spiritual welfare.”
The statute defines the gross income of a minister of the gospel as not including “the rental value of a home furnished to him as part of his compensation,” or “the rental allowance paid to him as part of is compensation, to the extent used by him to rent or provide a home and to the extent such allowance does not exceed the fair rental value of the home, including furnishings and appurtenances such as a garage, plus the cost of utilities.”
The exclusion can be used by ministers for virtually all of the costs of home ownership, including down payment on a home; home mortgage payments, including interest and principal; real estate taxes; personal property taxes; fire and homeowners liability insurance; rental payments and cost of acquiring a home (i.e., legal fees, bank fees, title fees, etc.).
Crabb’s ruling means FFRF’s lawsuit will go forward to be argued on its merits. FFRF is being represented by attorney Richard L. Bolton
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has announced its intention to sue two Pennsylvania school districts in federal court after neither met a deadline to remove illegal Ten Commandment markers on school property.
FFRF had warned both districts that without notification by Sept. 7 that they were removing the monuments, FFRF would sue. FFRF has hired Pennsylvania counsel and has parent plaintiffs in both districts. Attorney Marcus Schneider of Pittsburgh wrote the districts Aug. 29 on behalf of FFRF, noting that the Ten Commandment monuments “will not withstand judicial scrutiny.”
In response, the Connellsville Area School District grudgingly agreed to remove its 5-foot-tall monument near the Junior High School East auditorium entrance. The district placed plywood over the front of the monument. After some in the community raised a fuss, the school board declined to vote Sept. 12 to remove the monument, so a lawsuit is imminent.
A suit is also being prepared against New Kensington-Arnold School District, which FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott first contacted last March. The similar granite bible monument prominently displayed at Valley High School is at the school entrance. It sits between two footpath bridges leading from the parking lot to the main entrance.
“The permanent display of the Ten Commandments in front of a New Kensington-Arnold school violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Courts have continually held that public schools may not display religious messages or iconography,” wrote Elliott. He cited the Supreme Court decision (Stone v. Graham, 1980) that ruled posting the Ten Commandments in schools violates the Establishment Clause: “The preeminent purpose for posting the Ten Commandments on schoolroom walls is plainly religious in nature.”
The New Kensington marker is a Catholic version of the Ten Commandments (with no reference to “graven images”).
His letter also cited Justice Stephen Breyer’s observation that Ten Commandments displays have no place “on the grounds of a public school, where, given the impressionability of the young, government must exercise particular care in separating church and state.”
“The school districts deserve an ‘F’ in civics,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Instead of protecting the freedom of conscience of students, they are sending a message that the First Amendment is trumped by the First Commandment. Contrary to the First Commandment, a school district has no business telling students and their parents which god to have, how many gods to have or whether to have any gods at all!”
FFRF has more than 18,500 nonreligious members nationwide. It’s currently suing over the declaration by the Pennsylvania House that 2012 is “the Year of the Bible.” That federal suit is being brought by attorney Richard Bolton behalf of FFRF and its 700 Pennyslvania members, including 41 named state members, and its chapter, Nittany Freethought.
Name: Maddy Ziegler.
Where and when I was born: Janesville, Wis., Sept. 7, 1989.
Family: Parents, two sisters, 21 and 19, and a brother, 17.
Education: I majored in English and political science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. I’m about to start my second year of law school at UW-Madison.
My religious upbringing was: I was raised Roman Catholic.
How I came to work as an FFRF legal intern: I had been an admirer of FFRF for a few years, so I applied first thing when I saw their advertisement for summer interns through the UW Law Career Services.
What I do here: I research complaints and legal issues and draft letters to people violating the First Amendment.
What I like best about it: Gaining legal experience while working toward something I’m passionate about.
Something funny that’s happened at work: Someone wrote us a piece of “anonymous” crank mail through the online complaint form, taunting us that his restaurant gave free meals to Christians and daring us to find him. However, he included his email address, so another intern and I were able to track him down immediately online, figuring out his name, restaurant, P.O. Box and phone number in a matter of minutes. We’re still thinking of the best ways we could put this information to use.
My legal interests are: Still being figured out, but include constitutional law, environmental law and family law.
My legal hero is: Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
These three words sum me up: Intelligent, snarky, optimistic.
Things I like: Books, good TV, politics, the Green Bay Packers, playing the violin, cats, indie music, living in Madison, concerts, Wisconsin beer and fall weather.
Things I smite: Irrationality, the crickets infesting my apartment and people who chew with their mouths open.
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.