Sam Erickson may occasionally wrap himself in the flag but never the cross.
Name: Sam Erickson.
Where and when I was born: Eagan, Minn., Aug. 13, 1994.
Family: Mother, Pamela; father, Keith; brothers Tim, 23, Ben, 17, and Dan, 14.
Education: University of Wisconsin-Madison class of 2016, majoring in economics and political science.
My religious upbringing was: Baptist.
How I came to work as an FFRF legal intern: I am the president of Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics (AHA!) at UW-Madison. We are one of the largest student atheist groups in the country and have hosted Dan Barker, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Andrew Seidel of FFRF at various times. Through those connections, I was offered a summer internship.
What I do here: I split time between the legal department and doing graphic design work. When not writing follow-up legal letters or dealing with legal paperwork, I am designing the Freethought of the Days seen on Facebook and Twitter [examples shown below], in addition to many other cool design projects.
In the future, I hope to get more heavily involved in legal projects while continuing to help with design needs.
What I like best about it: Gives me a chance to help out a cause that I am extremely passionate about!
Something funny that’s happened at work: When I first started working with the office equipment, I had to be taught how to use a fax machine because I had never used one before. That is how young I am, I suppose.
My legal interests are: I am still exploring all my career options, but if I decide on law school, I would use my law degree to fight for causes that I am passionate about, such as the environment, protection of civil liberties or the separation of church and state.
My legal heroes are: Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Meiklejohn, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Clarence Darrow.
These three words sum me up: Workaholic, outgoing, optimistic.
Things I like: When I have the time, I love staying up way into the night doing one of my many hobbies. I will commonly be up until 3 in the morning engrossed in a book or a song that I’m producing on my computer, or just messing around in graphic design software.
I also love staying in shape and exercising. You’ll see me playing pickup soccer at least once a week, in addition to running, weight lifting and skiing in winter.
Things I smite: Religion’s foothold in our world and influence in American culture and politics; religious repression of critical thinking, sexuality, and many other things; how religion poisons the minds of the young; and how awkward family dinners are now that I’m the only “out” atheist in the family.
My loftiest goal: To one day get interviewed on Fox News and then proceed to offer an intellectual smackdown of whichever bigot is interviewing me (I’m looking at you, Bill O’Reilly).
Special treatment under the law for religious people was popular in this abbreviated edition of the crank mail, printed as received.
Miserable with your own life: You should rename your site “Demons of Satan and servers of Jesus Christ haters”. Hell will be your eternal dwelling at the moment of your death! — Grady Brown
you: You guys must be bigger assholes than the assholes at the IRS, if you want to partner with the against churches in America to shut them down. — doug akers, columbus, ohio
So you did not like the Hobby Lobby decision: This white, Catholic male was thrilled. Now don’t you have the Little Sisters of the Poor to pursue? — kenneth k
Court ruling: Too bad all nine judges are not Catholic, then the supreme court could be counted on to always rule in a most judicious manner! — John Duffy
Hobby Lobby: Nations build on lies, such as communism and socialism and all the isms, have risen and fallen. See you either at the top with the truth, or the fallen with the likes of Stalin and Hitler. — M. Gazal
Hello: came across your website and fleetingly read a few stuff. are you opposed to all religions eg islam hinduism or just the church? — Daisy Pillai, CARLETONVILLE
Religious Liberty: So you guys think religious liberty trumps women’s rights. I believe contraception is immoral. That being said, if you guys want your women contracepting why don’t you guys stand up like men and pay for it yourself. — rjvrable
Hobby Lobby: Your latest tirade of ant-Catholicism bigotry has no place in America. My legal team is looking into having your tax-exempt status revoked. — John Lushis, Jr, Bethlehem, PA
Shame: Your anti-Catholic venom is beneath contempt. Hitler would be proud. — William W. Whiting
Freedom from Tyranny: Couldn’t your time be better spent? But I guess I should not be surprised at your self-centeredness since you have no concept of self-sacrifice. Note: it’s all about a cross. I am sad you cannot grasp that. — Lynn Weathers, Ohio
Bible ads take permanent vacation
An advertisement for vacation bible school in front of the Caraway Public Library in Caraway, Ark., has been removed. The sign, an electronic, scrolling text marquee, promoted a bible program for children at a local church.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Mayor Barry Riley on June 13, noting the Establishment Clause violation. “The best policy would be for the city to disallow such advertising,” Elliott suggested.
Riley responded the same day: “The message on the sign has been removed.”
FFRF thwarts school abstinence assembly
Onaway Area Community Schools in Onaway, Mich., will no longer invite speakers with a proselytizing agenda. Matt Fradd, who describes himself on his website as “a Catholic apologist and speaker,” was invited to give a presentation April 29 to Onaway High School students on the subject of abstinence.
According to Fradd’s website, his presentation “challenges audience members to open their minds and hearts and embrace the Church’s teachings on human sexuality.” Students were reportedly told, “Romantic love is impossible without chastity.”
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Superintendent Rod Fullerton on May 20, citing constitutional concerns over the religious content, adding that regardless of the motive, inviting such a speaker “gives the appearance that Onaway Area Community School District endorses the program’s message.”
Replying on June 18, Fullerton said the school “had no intention of violating any laws with this assembly” and that it “will not be participating in this type of assembly in the future.”
Bible quote off township website
Inappropriate religious material brought to FFRF’s attention by a concerned individual has been removed from the official website of the township of Watersmeet, Mich.
The bible quote, accredited to “Mr. Jesus Christ,” which we will politely refrain from quoting again here, endorsed a belief in heaven, sin and Jesus.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Township Supervisor Mike Rogers on June 16 to relay the information that “Courts have continually held that townships may not display religious messages.”
Rogers agreed moments after receiving the letter electronically to remove the quote.
School to review
policy on religion
Due to FFRF’s intervention, Manierre Elementary School in Chicago relocated its kindergarten graduation from a church sanctuary to its banquet hall.
On June 10, Staff Attorney Sam Grover, acting on reports from a concerned community member that the ceremony was to be hosted in Moody Church, wrote Barbara Byrd-Bennett, chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools about the clear constitutional violation.
The next day, school attorney James Bebley replied that, “the school has arranged for the captioned ceremony to be moved to the banquet hall.” And “at our administrator training this summer, we plan to address again the prohibition on the use of religious sites for public school events.”
No more religious rituals at school
Rockwall Independent School District in Rockwall, Texas, will no longer permit prayer at any school-sponsored events. According to a local complainant, Rockwall High School’s June 10 graduation included a religious prayer led by a local police officer. The graduation was one of two scheduled that week.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to Superintendent Jeff Bailey on July 11. “Graduation should be an inclusive, unifying event designed to celebrate the accomplishments and prospects of the graduates. Including religious references does exactly the opposite, isolating non-Christian and nonreligious students, cheapening their participation by sending the message that they are outsiders at their own graduation and in their own community.”
Later that day, counsel for Rockwall ISD replied that the district “has agreed to take [the] appropriate steps to ensure that religious rituals are not part of graduation ceremonies or any school-sponsored events in the future.”
The Rockwall-Heath High School graduation, which took place after the FFRF complaint, did not include prayer.
Swan song for graduation prayer
Graduation ceremonies in Forsyth County School District in Cummings, Ga., will no longer include religious prayer.
On May 24, Forsyth Central High School’s graduation reportedly included a student-delivered invocation and benediction, both of which specifically mentioned God and Jesus.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote Superintendent L.C. Evans on May 30: “School officials may not invite a student to give any type of prayer, invocation or benediction at a public high school-sponsored event.”
District counsel replied July 13: “The issues which you raise in your letter will not be a part of next year’s graduation program at Forsyth Central High School.”
Satisfied complainant: FFRF is ‘awesome’
A concerned resident reported church ads in front of Castle Rock Middle School and Castle View High School. The signs advertised Sunday morning worship at Eternal Rock Lutheran Church and Summit Church. The churches rent from the school district, but have routinely left advertising banners up for months on school property.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter of complaint to the Douglas County School District on July 8. The next day, the complainant confirmed that FFRF’s letter had a positive effect. “You guys are awesome — the signs are down now!”
FFRF intervention saves prayer addicts
Prayer will no longer be sanctioned at Piedmont High School athletic events in West Piedmont, Ala.
Previously, it was the practice for a Christian prayer to be delivered over the school’s public address system before football games. A graduate and Piedmont athletics booster reached out to FFRF, noting that he found the prayers “very offensive to those who do not share in the belief of prayer,” and that a student should not be “subjected to ridicule for not participating.”
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert notified Superintendent Matt Akin of the unconstitutional action on March 20. Akin responded July 2 after two follow-up letters: “Beginning immediately, the Piedmont City School District will no longer allow student-led prayer at athletic events.”
Navy agrees to allow equal access
Naval Hospital Bremerton (NHB) and associated clinics in Bremerton, Wash., will no longer block minority religious Web pages. Their Internet filtering policy banned websites of non-monotheistic religions.
A concerned individual was distressed to learn that the online Church of Satan was “blocked for reasons of Cult and Occult,” along with other non-mainstream religions such as Scientology, Wicca and various pagan religions. He described the discriminatory practice as “an outrage,” noting that monotheistic websites, including the outrageously bigoted Westboro Baptist Church’s site, were readily available.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote the NHB on May 1, explaining that the policy was discriminatory. On July 15, Lt. Cmdr. David Peck reported that the policy had been changed to allow sites such as wicca.org and churchofsatan.org.
Church graduation ceremonies moving
Graduation ceremonies for Perry Local School District, Massillon, Ohio, will no longer be held at the Faith Family Church. From now on, nonreligious students wishing to participate in one of life’s most momentous occasions will not be excluded from doing so.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Superintendent Martin Bowe on Feb. 17, informing him that “It is unconstitutional for a public high school to force, compel, or coerce its graduation students, their parents, teachers, and other members of their families or friends, to violate their rights of conscience at a graduation ceremony.”
Bowe’s May 15 reply said the district has “agreed to find a different site for the 2015 graduating class.”
Bible distribution stopped in school
A South Carolina school district has agreed to stop allowing the distribution of bibles on school property due to a July 3 letter from Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott to Superintendent David Havird, Anderson School District One in Anderson.
FFRF’s complainant reported that a man told students they could take a bible as a staffer stood by outside an elementary school library, with bibles on the table.
Elliott’s letter addressed illegal events that occurred in April, when the bibles were distributed to students at Powdersville Elementary School in Greenville, S.C. “It is unfortunate that some adults view public schools as ripe territory for religious recruitment,” wrote Elliott, adding that courts have held that “religious instruction is for parents to determine, not public school educators.” Elliott noted that the distribution also violated school policy.
District counsel responded July 21 that “the district will ensure that bibles are not made available to elementary school-aged students during the school day on school premises.”
‘Pervasive religious culture’ addressed
Lamar County School District staff in Purvis, Miss., will no longer be permitted to proselytize to students. A Sumrall Middle School student contacted FFRF in April about a teacher who talked about “why our country needs God” and the “war on Christmas.” Another teacher apparently held an Easter event and spoke about “the Rapture” and the anti-Christ.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover noted the violations June 20 in a letter to interim Superintendent Tess Smith, also citing faculty participation in prayer at Sumrall Elementary School and a “pervasive culture of proselytization in the district.”
Smith responded July 8 and agreed to “meet with each of the staff members mentioned, including a follow-up meeting with the school principal.” Smith said she’s organizing an in-service for principals to give them “the necessary guidance to train their staff in the future regarding constitutional issues.”
FFRF ends prayer at school banquet
There will no longer be teacher-led prayer or any prayer at the end-of-year banquet for Sarah Scott Middle School in Terre Haute, Ind.
A family member of a student contacted FFRF with information that, like ceremonies from previous years, a school-sponsored banquet May 27 celebrating the top 10 students in each grade featured teacher-led prayer.
“Everyone is expected to bow their heads while a teacher leads the prayer,” reported the complainant. “The school is fairly diverse, so I’m sure I’m not the only person that is uncomfortable with the school trying to force everyone to pray.”
Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a letter May 30 to Superintendent Daniel Tanoos of Vigo County School Corp., declaring that, “The district should make certain that teachers in its schools are not unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters by encouraging them to engage in prayer. Schoolchildren already feel significant pressure to conform from their peers. They must not be subjected to similar pressure from their teachers, especially on religious questions.”
After a July 8 follow-up inquiry, district counsel replied July 17 that each building principal has been told that “teacher-led prayer with students present will cease, as it is prohibited by the Constitution and should not be allowed.”
Georgia Air Force base
grounds job ad bias
Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta, Ga., has removed a requirement that only Catholics need apply for a position as music director.
FFRF was alerted to the July 15 job ad, which requested a “Catholic Music Director to provide worship services at Moody AFB Chapel.” The posting specified that “the contractor shall maintain a lifestyle consistent with Catholic principles” for the position, and said the applicant would “not be required to perform duties that are incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
Staff Attorney Sam Grover’s July 18 complaint letter noted that the religious test violates the equal employment provisions of the Civil Rights Act, which says military departments may not discriminate on the basis of religion.
Within 15 minutes of receiving the complaint, an Air Force representative called to apologize for impermissible language in “all of the solicitations” and said the base intends to “modify the verbiage” in all of its job postings and remove the “Catholic lifestyle” mention.
Prayer breakfast promotion stopped
Putnam County in Carmel, N.Y., will no longer use county email to promote prayer breakfasts. Last fall, the director of personnel invited county employees to attend the 22nd Annual Putnam County Leadership Prayer Breakfast. The email included a bible verse from 2 Chronicles: “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive them, and heal their land.”
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent three letters to the county, starting March 17. County counsel responded July 10: “The individual who sent the email in question regarding the Prayer Breakfast event has been advised not to send such notices by County email in the future.”
Baccalaureate will include disclaimer
Columbian High School in Tiffin, Ohio, will no longer be involved with a baccalaureate service for seniors. The June 7 baccalaureate at Trinity United Church of Christ was coordinated with school faculty, including the principal, his secretary and the choir director.
The religious service was listed on the school’s graduation checklist and promoted on the school calendar. Additionally, the graduation FAQ on the school’s website encouraged graduates and their families to attend.
On June 12, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote Superintendent Vicki Wheatley of Tiffin City Schools. Due to the school’s “promotion of the worship service on its school website, students will perceive the baccalaureate service as school-sponsored,” Markert wrote.
Wheatley responded June 25 that “future District publications regarding a baccalaureate service will include a disclaimer indicating the event is not school-sponsored, it is an optional event, and that the District does not endorse any message espoused.”
Wheatley said she has “reminded the appropriate District employees of the policies and limitations discussed above, and [has] clarified the District’s expectations.”
Georgia district agrees to prayer curbs
Future graduations at Bremen City High School in Bremen, Ga., will not include prayer, at FFRF’s behest. A religious photo of prayer has also been removed from the Bremen City Schools Facebook page.
The school’s May 24 graduation included opening and closing prayers. Each lasted several minutes and addressed the Christian “Heavenly Father, we thank you.”
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote the district June 6, noting other recent violations in the district, including a photo on the district website of the football team praying and an elementary school administrator leading kindergarteners in prayer.
The district responded June 17, saying that “the phrase ‘invocation’ will not be used in next year’s graduation program.” Additionally, the “superintendent has removed that photo” in question.
Prayer off football team pregame menu
Illegal pregame prayer at football team meals has been halted at Alexander High School in Douglasville, Ga. According to reports by a concerned individual, the varsity football team had been supplied pregame meals by Pray’s Mill Baptist Church. A pastor was present at the meals and at most of the practices and games.
At the end of the mandatory meals, the pastor would deliver a “pseudo-sermon” and ask those present to bow their heads and pray. The complainant said the prayer “makes several nonbeliever athletes uncomfortable as well, but because they’re students on the team, they can’t just ‘step out’ and not participate or risk banishment.”
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote Superintendent Gordon Pritz on May 27. District counsel replied June 17 that Pritz “has discussed with school administration and appropriate staff members the legal issues that you raised. . . . To the extent there existed any issue with a prayer or religious talk being given to students on the team during a team event by local clergy, there will be no such activity during next football season.”
The district was successfully sued by Doug Jager, son of a longtime FFRF member, over pregame invocations in the late 1980s. Doug was a member of the marching band. In Jager v. Douglas County District, the Supreme Court in 1989 let stand a ruling in Doug’s favor by the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Jesus vanishes from department’s Facebook
The police department in Jacksonville, Ala., has removed and will no longer display religious postings on its official Facebook page. The posts included an image with the words “Happy Birthday Jesus,” an image of a nativity, a number of bible verses, a picture promoting the “National Day of Prayer for Law Enforcement,” a picture of a man carrying a “Police Officer’s Bible” and a link to a Christian website with police officers singing a Christian song.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert contacted Jacksonville Chief of Police T.L. Thompson on Dec. 31. After two follow-up letters, Thompson finally replied July 2: “That post and similar ones were deleted from that account and no new posts of this nature have been posted.”
FFRF halts public school prayers
Ignacio School District in Ignacio, Colo., will no longer feature prayers at certain ceremonies held throughout the academic year.
A complainant reported to FFRF that schools included prayers before graduation, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas ceremonies. It was also reported that two prayers are offered at each of these events, one to the Christian god and another to a Ute Native American god.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter Oct. 18, explaining that the district has a legal duty to remain neutral toward religion.
After receiving a follow-up letter, the district responded June 23: “We have discontinued that practice.”
The response sets a record for the most concise letter of compliance an FFRF attorney has ever received.
— Compiled by publicist Lauryn Seering and intern Noah Bunnell
FFRF ran a full-page ad in the July 3 New York Times to protest the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling that is bringing in many new members (welcome, all) and is still creating a stir.
Featuring a portrait of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, whose motto was “No Gods — No Masters,” the ad criticizes the “all-male, all-Roman Catholic majority” on the court for putting “religious wrongs over women’s rights.”
That caught the attention of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who facetiously thanked FFRF for showing there is still anti-Catholic bigotry. Dolan claimed the ad was a “drippingly bigoted blast in the hospitable pages of The New York Times.”
The near-apoplectic Bill Donohue, Catholic League president, of course claimed FFRF was bigoted for pointing out that six of the nine court members are Catholic, with five of them very committed and reactionary Catholics.
FFRF’s 2012 full-page ad in the Times was titled “It’s time to consider quitting the Catholic Church.” (The paper made FFRF rephrase the original headline, which was the much punchier: “It’s time to quit the Catholic Church.”)
Dolan is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which the ad criticized for openly declaring war on the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate and for placing dogma above humanity.
Online newscaster Cenk Uygur of “The Young Turks” featured an amusing analysis July 13 of the reaction to the latest ad, running clips of Fox News going after FFRF. Andrea Tantaros emceed a round table going after FFRF and the Times, showing a close-up of the “Dogma should not trump civil liberties” part of the ad.
“The ad doesn’t go after Catholics. It says we don’t want the Catholics to force their religion on us,” Uygur pointed out. “If there’s so much bigotry against Catholics, how did so many of them wind up on the Supreme Court?”
FFRF has taken the lead in calling for repeal of the 1993 Religious Freedom Resoration Act, which was the basis for the Hobby Lobby ruling.
“None of our civil rights, established after decades and decades of struggle and education, will be safe until RFRA is overturned,” commented Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. (See more about ruling on page 5.)
Lewis Public Schools in Lewis, Kansas, will no longer allow staff to facilitate distribution by the Gideons of religious materials. A complainant contacted FFRF after a fifth-grade teacher told students to cross the street unescorted to receive a bible. The teacher lined the students up, told them to cross the street to get the bibles, but did not accompany the children because she believed this made her actions legal.
When the complainant’s child refused a bible because the student’s family was not religious, the teacher asked the student, “Do you always do what your parents tell you to do?”
The complainant noted that bible distribution by Gideons at the school has been going on for 30-some years.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter on May 21 to Superintendent Virgil Ritchie, pointing out why forcing students to accept religious literature is predatory and illegal. On June 10, Ritchie responded that it had been decided that “Lewis Elementary School will not allow The Gideon Society to distribute materials during the school day or on school grounds. The teacher mentioned in your letter is no longer employed by the school district.”
Satanist suit based
on Hobby Lobby
The New York-based Satanic Temple announced July 28 a campaign against “informed consent” laws that require providers to furnish women certain information when they seek an abortion. Citing the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, the group argues that women can claim a religious exemption from the informational requirements.
A press release said the court “has decided that religious beliefs are so sacrosanct that they can even trump scientific fact. This was made clear when they allowed Hobby Lobby to claim certain contraceptives were abortifacients, when in fact they are not. Because of the respect the Court has given to religious beliefs, and the fact that our beliefs are based on best available knowledge, we expect that our belief in the illegitimacy of state mandated ‘informational’ material is enough to exempt us, and those who hold our beliefs, from having to receive them.”
The temple’s website says it holds “the basic premise that undue suffering is bad, and that which reduces suffering is good. We do not believe in symbolic ‘evil.’ We embrace blasphemy as a legitimate expression of personal independence from counterproductive traditional norms.”
• • •
In Hasan v. Obama and Rabbani v. Obama, filed July 3 in D.C.’s federal district court, the British advocacy group Reprieve argued that the previous decision in Rasul v. Myers holding that Guantanamo Bay detainees are not persons protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has effectively been overruled by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case:
“The Guantanamo Bay detainees, as flesh-and-blood human beings, are surely ‘individuals,’ and thus they are no less ‘person[s]’ than are the for-profit corporations in Hobby Lobby or the resident noncitizens whom Hobby Lobby gives as an example of persons to whom the RFRA must apply.”
Reprieve earlier filed emergency motions on behalf of two prisoners seeking the right to participate in communal prayer during Ramadan.
• • •
A Reuters/Ipsos poll of 10,693 people conducted April 28 to June 20 showed that most respondents oppose letting employers, based on their religious views, exclude certain contraceptives from workers’ insurance coverage.
Results showed 53% disagreed that employers should be able to limit coverage, while 35% agreed and 12% were unsure.
Suit settled over
denial of bus ads
A federal lawsuit by the Washington, D.C.-based United Coalition of Reason against the Port Authority of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh was settled July 2, with the agency agreeing to pay UnitedCoR $20,000 in damages and the Appignani Humanist Legal Center of the American Humanist Association $40,000 in expenses. FFRF is a coalition ally.
The suit was filed in November 2013 after the Port Authority refused to run $5,700 worth of bus ads which would have read “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.”
Fred Edwords, national director of UnitedCoR, said, “We also still maintain that the Port Authority didn’t correctly apply its new ad policy when they allowed certain ads by religious groups to run but not ours. However, through the litigation process we believe we’ve made our point and that the Port Authority will apply its new ad policy more consistently in the future.”
31-cross display gets court setback
In Cabral v. City of Evansville, Indiana, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on June 25 dismissed for lack of standing an appeal of an Indiana federal district court’s injunction barring the city of Evansville from permitting West Side Christian Church’s proposed display of 6-foot-tall crosses on the Riverfront area.
The district court ruled the 31 crosses would violate the Establishment Clause, reported Religion Clause. The city didn’t appeal but the church did as an intervenor.
The 7th Circuit concluded that to have standing, West Side would need to apply for and have a permit denied, which hasn’t occurred. The opinion said, “We question whether a reasonable observer would be put on notice that the ‘Cross the River’ display is strictly private speech given the sheer magnitude of a display that takes up four blocks and has two signs alerting citizens that it is a private display.”
Board changes prayer policy after Greece
The Carroll County Board of Commissioners in Maryland unanimously approved a process June 26 for opening meetings with Christian prayers to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway. The 5-4 decision said that a governing body using sectarian prayer must have a formalized process, according to the Carroll County Times, quoting County Attorney Tim Burke.
Commissioners agreed to change “We pray” in the formal process to “I pray” at the end of the prayer led by participating board members. Residents Bruce Hake and Neil Ridgely sued the county earlier over the prayers, and while the suit is still pending, the Greece decision may have rendered it moot.
• • •
Opening prayer is back to start meetings in the town of Troutman, N.C., reported Time Warner Cable News. On July 10, the mayor and town alders were led in prayer by a local pastor. The restoring of the tradition came after the May Supreme Court ruling Town of Greece v. Galloway.
The board agreed to let non-Christians, including atheists, deliver invocations, during which the audience will not be asked to stand. “They have to remain seated except for the pastor, so everyone is perceived to be equal, you know. If we can get the prayer back, that’s a fair trade off, I guess,” said Mayor Elbert Richardson.
Certiorari denied in Soledad cross case
The Supreme Court declined on June 30 to review Mount Soledad Memorial Association v. Trunk, a decades-old case in which FFRF member and foxhole atheist Steve Trunk is a party. The high court said the case must first go to the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. The veterans group wanted to let it “leapfrog” to the Supreme Court after a lower federal court ruled in December that the 43-foot Christian cross erected on public land in San Diego in 1954 should come down.
“The Court of Appeals has not yet reviewed on appeal,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote. “Any review by this Court can await the decision of the Court of Appeals.”
Sending the case back to a lower court could mean the case will last at least another two to three years, Religion News Service reported.
Obama signs bill placing FDR prayer
President Barack Obama signed a bill June 30 to add President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s D-Day prayer (June 6, 1944) to the World War II Memorial in the nation’s capital.
The prayer encourages Americans to “Let not the keenness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment, let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.”
The bill requires private fundraising to have the prayer inscribed on the monument.
GOP not enamored of ‘liberal’ pope
The Hill reported July 29 that H. Res. 440, a resolution congratulating Pope Francis on his election last March and recognizing his inspirational statements and actions, has fallen victim to politics.
The resolution is stalled in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Only 19 of its 221 co-sponsors are Republicans. Apparently, most in the GOP see the pope as too liberal. The resolution was intended to reinforce Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to the pope to address a joint session of Congress when he visits the U.S. in September 2015.
Suit: ‘Sham’ forum favored Christians
A dispute over a Christian war memorial in King, N.C., should go to trial, U.S. District Judge James Beaty ruled July 8. He also ruled that several of the city’s practices regarding religious memorial ceremonies are unconstitutional.
Hewett v. City of King was filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State on behalf of Steven Hewett, a decorated Afghanistan veteran and FFRF Life Member. The suit seeks removal of a Christian flag and a statue with a soldier kneeling before a cross and an end to city promotion of Christian prayers at official memorial events.
In November 2010, the city, on advice from the evangelical legal group the Alliance Defending Freedom, created a “limited public forum” in which a memorial flagpole was reserved for a rotating group of pre-approved flags. The city held a lottery and approved 52 applications.
The suit says the forum is a sham. The Christian flag flew for 47 out of 52 weeks in 2011-13. Beaty also rejected the claim that the Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway authorized the city’s conduct.
Ohio students get ‘released time’ credit
An Ohio law goes into effect in September that allows up to two academic credits for public high school students taking part in “released time” religious programs off-campus.
In a Cleveland Plain Dealer op-ed July 13, Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said the law unwisely added a “fourth ‘R’ [religion] to the “Three R’s” — readin’, ’ritin’ and ’rithmetic.”
“Ohio students can now learn dinosaurs died off millions of years ago, yet also lived only a few thousand years ago, and potentially receive credit for both lessons,” Daniels wrote. “For their part, Ohio lawmakers deserve an ‘F’ for passing this poorly written, nonsensical mess of a law.”
Appeals court upholds Ground Zero cross
In American Atheists Inc. v. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on July 28 rejected a challenge to the display in the National September 11 Museum of a 17-foot-high “Cross at Ground Zero” made up steel beams from the World Trade Center debris after 9/11. The court ruled “the stated purpose of displaying The Cross at Ground Zero is to tell the story of how some people used faith to cope with the tragedy is genuine, and an objective observer would understand the purpose of the display to be secular.”
June 30 marked a turning point in the struggle to uphold the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, according to FFRF’s statement released on the day the Supreme Court issued its chilling abuse of “religious liberty.”
In a 5-4 split, the court held that for-profit corporations can exercise their so-called religious conscience in order to restrict employees’ access to contraceptives. The ruling in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores held that the contraceptive coverage granted by the Affordable Care Act creates a “significant burden” on a corporation’s free exercise of religion.
Once again an all-Catholic, all-male, all-ultra-conservative majority of five has voted to eviscerate fundamental rights. The law’s requirement that employers who provide health care coverage must offer preventive care, including prescriptive contraceptives, does not violate the rights of Hobby Lobby, even though it is run by a fundamentalist zealot. But the court’s ruling giving corporate veto power over women workers’ private contraceptive choices, certainly violates the rights of women.
It was all over by page 2 of the Supreme Court’s decision favoring the fundamentalist Christian owner of Hobby Lobby Stores and the Mennonite owner of Conestoga Wood Specialties. Justice Samuel Alito, joined by his Catholic brethren, wrote these jaw-dropping words:
“[W]e must decide whether the challenged HHS regulations substantially burden the exercise of religion, and we hold that they do. The owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients. If the owners comply with the HHS mandate, they believe they will be facilitating abortions.”
The fanatical businessmen who brought the litigation believe some forms of the birth control pill and IUD are abortifacients, despite reality. The amicus brief of the College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and 21 other medical professional groups thoroughly debunking this misrepresentation.
The ruling was not based on the Constitution, but on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a statute. This statute was adopted by Congress and must be repealed by Congress. Even Alito admits: “As we have seen, RFRA was designed to provide very broad protection for religious liberty. By enacting RFRA, Congress went far beyond what this Court has held is constitutionally required.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s amicus brief noted state-church attorney Marci A. Hamilton (joined by groups advocating for the rights of victims of religious abuse), was the only brief before the Supreme Court that argued that RFRA is unconstitutional. FFRF’s important brief points out that RFRA “accords religious believers extreme religious liberty rights that yield a political and fiscal windfall in violation of the clearest commands of the Establishment Clause.”
During oral arguments, counsel for the government, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, noted that a decision in favor of Hobby Lobby would be “the first time under the Free Exercise Clause or under RFRA in which [the Supreme Court] or any court has held that an employer . . . may be granted an exemption that extinguishes statutorily guaranteed benefits of fundamental importance.”
The ruling ignored the rights and needs of thousands of female Hobby Lobby employees, and millions of women nationwide who work at for-profit corporations. Women workers must not be at the mercy of employers who happen to be religious fanatics who want to intrude into private reproductive decisions that are none of their business. Rather than protecting women workers’ right to health care and women’s freedom of conscience, the Court has turned its back on them in the name of “religious liberty.”
This damaging decision opens the floodgates for corporations, interested only in increasing their bottom line, to claim religious objections to a variety of generally applicable laws. The Court arbitrarily claims its decision would not necessarily allow a corporation to claim a similar religious objection to blood transfusions, vaccines, or mental health services, or create a religious right to discriminate on the basis of sex, sexual orientation or race. But very obviously, the ruling creates mischievous precedent that will haunt the next generation of litigation.
The high court has ruled that contraception — the right to plan families and avert unwanted pregnancies — is not necessary for women’s health. One in four U.S. women died due to pregnancy or childbirth in the 19th century. It is a lie for the Supreme Court to aver that birth control is not preventive medicine. The court is practicing reckless medicine without a license.
We cannot let a male, Catholic, ultra-conservative majority on the court turn the clock back a century. Join FFRF in working now for the most practical remedy for this pernicious decision — the repeal by Congress of RFRA. None of our civil and human rights, established after decades and decades of struggle and education, will be safe from the reach of religious bigots until RFRA is overturned.
This statement was written by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, Staff Attorneys Andrew Seidel and Sam Grover. Turn to page 12 to read FFRF’s ad against the Hobby Lobby ruling that ran in The New York Times on July 3.
In 2010, [Judge] Crabb declared the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional, provoking national outrage. The decision was overturned by a federal appeals court. Asked in a joking way what her thinking was in issuing that ruling, Crabb laughed softly and said, “I was thinking that the government shouldn’t be in the business of sponsoring, promoting religion. Obviously, people disagreed.”
Profile of U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb, who ruled in favor of FFRF in its National Day of Prayer lawsuit
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 7-22-14
Based on the evidence, this crime did not occur as reported.
Dayton, Ohio, Police Chief Richard Biehl, on a bus driver’s story that his chest pocket bible miraculously stopped two bullets, when in reality he fired the shot himself with the book on the sidewalk
We have been starting our meetings with a nonsectarian prayer since 2013. The Greece, N.Y., case is prompting us to change the method.
Alex Saitta, chairman of the School Board of Pickens County, S.C., on switching to “Jesus prayers”
Christian Post, 6-27-14
The Supreme Court ruled today that some bosses can now withhold contraceptive care from their employees’ health coverage based on their own religious views that their employees may not even share. President Obama believes that women should make personal health care decisions for themselves rather than their bosses deciding for them.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, on Obama’s reaction to the Hobby Lobby decision
This is the heart of theocratic ideology: It is a fascism with a religious face. Although Christians and Muslims have had numerous conflicts over the centuries that cost countless lives, the similarities between their two doctrines when carried to extremes are downright eerie.
Randy Renau, Corryton, Tenn., letter to the editor, “Culture should not be based on Bible”
Knoxville News, 7-1-14
This is a simple case of equal time. The Supreme Court says that invocations are constitutional if the policy doesn’t discriminate along sectarian bounds. That includes invocations by representatives of atheism, humanism, Wicca or any other religious tradition.
Randy Word, president of Metroplex Atheists, on applying to give the opening City Council invocation in Rowlett, Texas
Lakeshore Times, 7-1-14
When Gallup measured Bible reading in the 1980s, three in four Americans claimed to read Scripture at least on occasion. Two decades later, that number had fallen by 20%. That’s like losing 700 Bible readers every day.
Ruth Kramer, article, “Decline in Bible literacy”
Mission Network News, 7-2-14
Atheism Rules/Wins (With Facts)
Message chalked on the sidewalk at John Knox Presbyterian Church, Keizer, Ore.
Salem Statesman Journal, 6-6-14
Muslims in the United Arab Emirates are among the most common sufferers of degenerative knee problems in the world because of soaring obesity rates and a kneeling-to-pray culture.
Abu Dhabi National, 6-7-14
Wearing pink or blue shoes, [the soccer players] might as well wear women’s panties or a bra.
Russian Orthodox priest Alexander Shumsky, calling the World Cup a “homosexual abomination”
Moscow Times, 6-7-14
In the Hobby Lobby [and Conestoga Wood] cases, five male justices of the Supreme Court, who are all members of the Catholic faith and who each were appointed by a president who hailed from the Republican Party, decided that a huge corporation, with thousands of employees and gargantuan revenues, was a “person” entitled to assert a religious objection to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate because that corporation was “closely held” by family members. To the average person, the result looks stupid and smells worse.
Judge Richard G. Kopf, U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush
Judge Kendall Sharp of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida dismissed FFRF’s free speech case against the Orange County School District as moot, since the district has agreed to let FFRF distribute all of the literature it had previously prohibited.
In 2013, FFRF and its local chapter, the Central Florida Freethought Community, sought to distribute literature in several public high schools after the district allowed an evangelical Christian group to distribute bibles.
“This is a victory. The court has acknowledged that the school district is allowing all the materials that were initially prohibited,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “We disagree with how the court and the school district chose to handle this clear-cut discrimination, so we’re planning to appeal on some issues, but overall, it’s a win.”
The now-permitted materials include a pamphlet that the district had previously prohibited, claiming it “argues that Jesus did not promote equality and social justice, was not compassionate, was not reliable and was not a good example.”
Other FFRF “nontracts” that discuss what the bible says about abortion and which, according to the district, “assert that God is hateful, arrogant, sexist and cruel,” will now be allowed. As will Robert Price’s Jesus Is Dead, which the district banned earlier because “[t]he claim that Jesus was not crucified or resurrected is age-inappropriate for the maturity levels of many of the students in high school.” (An odd claim given that the district allowed the violence-filled bible.)
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, who worked closely on the case with litigating attorney Steven Brady, noted that the forum is now open to all comers. “Satanists can distribute their literature, Muslims can distribute the Quran and atheists can distribute books that criticize religion.”
CFFC Leader David Williamson added, “We intend to give out a lot more literature to educate students about atheism and the importance of keeping religion out of public schools. We are even designing new materials specifically for students and families in Orange County.”
From the beginning, FFRF and CFFC have maintained that Orange County should close the distribution forum. “The irony is that kids can get a bible anywhere. It’s the country’s most widely available book,” Seidel said. “But where could a Christian kid get a copy of Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation so easily? As long as the forum remains open, they can get one in Orange County Public Schools.”
FFRF thanks David Williamson for being a plaintiff and for his hard work. Other plaintiffs were FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, whose writings were among those that were censored.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a joint federal lawsuit July 23 on behalf of FFRF member Douglas Marshall, contesting the ban of a “reason station” in a city hall atrium where the city has allowed a “prayer station.”
Since 2008, the city of Warren, Mich., has allowed Tabernacle Church, a Church of God congregation, to set up the prayer station, in which volunteers distribute religious pamphlets, pray with passersby and promote their religious beliefs. The lawsuit doesn’t seek to remove the prayer station but asks the court to order the city to treat believers and nonbelievers equally.
When Marshall, a Warren resident, asked to set up a reason station in April for two days a week, he was denied a permit. According to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Marshall and other volunteers who operate the reason station would offer philosophical discussions with people who express an interest in secularism.
Upon receiving news of the lawsuit, Fouts told The Associated Press: “The city has certain values that I don’t believe are in general agreement with having an atheist station, nor in general agreement with having a Nazi station or Ku Klux Klan station.” He added that a reason station “will not contribute to community values or helping an individual out.”
In his rejection letter, Mayor James Fouts wrote: “To my way of thinking, your group is strictly an anti-religion group intending to deprive all organized religions of their constitutional freedoms or at least discourage the practice of religion. The City of Warren cannot allow this.”
“Our Warren member simply wants the same access to the atrium that has been granted to others, including those who operate the prayer station,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “Regardless of one’s viewpoint, there’s no legally justifiable reason to deny Douglas Marshall his First Amendment rights.”
Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan deputy legal director, said, “Once the government opens public space for use by private groups, it cannot pick and choose who can use the space based on the content of their message or whether public officials agree with that message. The city cannot allow speech supportive of religion and reject speech supportive of atheism.”
“The city has an obligation to serve all members of the community equally, regardless of their faith or their lack of faith,” added Alex Luchenitser, Americans United associate legal director.
“The government can’t simply silence private speakers whenever it dislikes their message,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Nobody should be excluded from their own city hall based on what they believe, or don’t believe.”
In addition to Korobkin, Luchenitser and Mach, Marshall is represented by Ayesha Khan of Americans United, Rebecca Markert and Patrick Elliott of FFRF and Michael Steinberg, Kary Moss and William Wertheimer of the ACLU of Michigan.
To read the legal complaint and motion for preliminary injunction: