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FFRF parish exemption case clears hurdle

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

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Thou shalt honor thy First Amendment!

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.

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Intern foils crank mailer

ziegler maddy

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.

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Second ‘War of Northern Aggression?’

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.org/get-involved/donate/

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$11,250 in prizes awarded to seniors

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has awarded $11,250 to 13 college-bound high school seniors in this year’s essay competition. Seniors were asked to “describe a moment when they stood up for freethought and/or that made them proud to be a freethinker,” in 500-700 words. There were seven winners in the top five, with two ties for fourth and fifth place, plus six honorable mentions. Their essays can be found on pages 11-15. 

Nonagenarian Herbert “Harry” Bushong of Texas once again generously endowed this year’s contest. FFRF would also like to extend special thanks to Californian John Moe for endowing the honorable mention awards of $200 and to Dorea and Dean Schramm, Florida, for providing each student with a $50 bonus. 

First place ($3,000): Jordan Halpern, University of California-Davis. 

Second place ($2,000): Danielle Kelly, University of Montana-Missoula. 

Third place ($1,000): Joseph Price, UCLA. 

Fourth place tie ($500): Nicole Schreiber, New York University. 

Fourth place tie ($500): Sarah Hedge, Northwestern. 

Fifth place tie ($300): Rebecca Ratero, Rutgers. 

Fifth place tie ($300): Samantha Biatch, Smith College. 

Honorable Mention ($200): Abigail Dove, Swarthmore College. 

Honorable Mention ($200): Amedee Martella, University of Colorado-Boulder. 

Honorable Mention ($200): Cheyenne Tessier, The George Washington University (Cheyenne will defer her university enrollment for a year to do humanitarian service in Senegal with Global Citizen.)

Honorable Mention ($200): Jarrett Browne, Wright State University. 

Honorable Mention ($200): Kaitlin Holden, Winthrop University. 

Honorable Mention ($200): Zach Gowan, University of South Carolina-Spartanburg. 

Look for honorable mention essays in future issues. 

In September, 2012 college essay winners will be announced, and in October, FFRF will announce graduate/mature student winners.

FFRF is getting more and more complaints about churches violating IRS regulations on political campaigning. In June and July alone, Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent complaints about five churches to the IRS.

IRS regulations bar nonprofit 501(c)(3) groups such as churches from “[participating in or intervening in] . . . any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

A sample of violations:

• A South Carolina Baptist church’s website links to a Facebook page titled “I will NOT vote for Obama in 2012.”

• A Catholic priest in Florida was reported to have said at Mass, “You can vote for anybody, even a dog, but don’t vote for Obama.” Parishioners were outraged — at the dog reference, anyway. Others claimed the statement was not accurate or was taken out of context, but one of those naysayers admitted that “Father Dan did say ‘Whatever you do, you can’t vote for Obama.’ ”

• In Virginia, a Baptist church put campaign signs for a Republican congressional primary candidate on its property.

• A Washington church invited far-right gubernatorial candidate Shahram Hadian to speak about the threat of Islam in America. Before the event, two pastors and another church member all voiced their strong support for Hadian’s candidacy. One prayed that “more and more people would see the bumper stickers, they’d see the signs, they’d wonder about this man.” The other was so enthusiastic he twice broke into “speaking in tongues.”

• Rev. Terry Jones, infamous for burning copies of the Quran, hanged Obama in effigy on the lawn of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla. The effigy included a rainbow gay pride flag in its left hand and a doll in its right to protest Obama’s positions on gay marriage and abortion, with the backdrop of a trailer reading “Obama is Killing America.”

FFRF has written to the IRS about all of these and similar violations. The agency responds with a form letter saying IRS can’t discuss ongoing investigations. Unfortunately, it has revoked only one church’s tax-exempt status for campaigning since the restriction was put in place in 1954.

Even so, FFRF believes it’s important to pursue the violations. If you know of any churches intervening in political campaigns, contact FFRF to send a letter on your behalf or visit our Churches and Political Lobbying Activities FAQ at ffrf.org/faq/state-church/ to learn how to send a complaint to the IRS yourself.

— By Maddie Ziegler 

 

Georgia district
flouts law

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Sei-del sent a follow-up letter July 12 to Houston County Schools in Perry, Ga., about egregious constitutional violations. FFRF has now been contacted by 8 families, each reporting multiple violations. (Along with the complaints were threats. A Warner Robins resident mentioned “sticking guns in your mouths and blowing the backs of your god damn heads off.”) 

Reported violations include:

• Prayers at school events, such as assemblies, ceremonies, and school council meetings. 

• Administrators encouraging teachers to pray.

• Teachers admitting, with pride, that “we (the teachers) did hold hands and have a prayer around the kids. It was lovely.”

• Alma mater songs endorsing religious belief over nonbelief.

• A recommended “Summer Reading Program” including the violent Left Behind series by conservative End Times Pastor Tim LaHaye.

• Religious imagery and bible quotes on school walls and websites.

• Schools partnering with churches in close and troubling relationships. 

• Mandating attendance at religious baccalaureate. 

Seidel has corroborated most of the claims. The 13 enclosures and more than 30 pages of evidence make it “clear that there is a systemic lack of adherence to and respect for the First Amendment in Houston County Schools,” he wrote. “Extensive corrective measures, including training of all HCSD employees and administrators on the proper boundaries of the Establishment Clause, are imperative.”

 

Was she even Christian?

Atop Maiden Cliff in Camden Hills State Park and visible “for miles around” is a 24-foot-tall cross. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s letter to Director Will Harris of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands noted that “the cross has fallen or been blown down approximately five times” and “government resources, including National Guard helicopters and the manpower of the Maine National Guard, local fire departments and Parks and Lands employees, were used to erect the cross on multiple occasions.”

Seidel’s letter asks Harris “to remove the cross from state property immediately or direct the display be moved to a more appropriate private location.” Local legend claims that the “cross is meant to serve as a memorial to 11-year-old Elenora French, who fell from the cliff almost 150 years ago, in 1864.”

However, Seidel’s research revealed the girl’s actual grave has no Christian iconography. “The placement, size and visibility of the cross make it far more likely this display was not chosen to memorialize Elenora, but to associate the area and the state of Maine with the Christian religion.”

 

Other FFRF complaints:

• The city of Draper, Utah, used at least $21,500 of city funds to pay for a worship concert starring Christian artist Michael W. Smith on his “Wonder, Worship, & Glory Tour.” The city had backed off after a resident threatened to sue, then reversed itself.

FFRF followed up with an open records request to determine actual funding and coordination between Draper and the local Christian group that urged the city to bring Smith to town.  

• A local complainant informed FFRF of the Richardson [Texas] Police Department’s “Third Annual Faith-Based Crime Prevention Conference.” Registration preference went to religious organizations over secular ones.

In his complaint, Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel noted (tongue only slightly in cheek), “If they are looking to reduce crime, the RPD would do better to police the churches rather than partner with them, especially the Catholic churches.”  

• The Peach County Senior Citizens Center in Fort Valley, Ga., has illegally let staff lead prayers, bible readings and hymn singing. Federal regulations prohibit senior centers that receive federal funding from engaging in religious activities at government-sponsored functions such as meals.

• The Century, Fla., Town Council budgeted money to buy “a manger scene at town hall.” Council President Ann Brooks “believe[s] we all want a manger scene.” The council has not yet replied to FFRF’s complaint.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator

 

FFRF privacy statement

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FFRF is a member of Atheist Alliance International.