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FFRF complaints create buzz

March roared like a lion from beginning to end in winter-weary Wisconsin, and so did the Freedom From Religion Foundation, acting on many egregious entanglements between religion and government.

FFRF’s complaints stirred up lots of regional and national news coverage, crank mail and crank callers, starting with the March 3 announcement that the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct agreed with FFRF that former magistrate Lu Ann Ballew violated codes of judicial conduct by ordering a boy’s named changed from Messiah to Martin at an August hearing.

Ballew said Messiah is a title “earned by one person, and that person is Jesus Christ.” Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert’s letter of complaint set in motion the board’s public censure.

Garnering at least of a week of media attention in March was a letter from Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor to Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt, reprimanding him for inviting the pope to visit the Wisconsin city next year to make “a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help.”

Schmitt’s invitation on city letterhead was signed “Your servant in Christ” and extolled in excited tones “the events, apparitions and locutions” in 1859 that “exhibit the substance of supernatural character,” involving “the first and only Blessed Virgin Mary apparition approved by the Catholic Church in the United States.”

While noting Schmitt is “welcome to personally believe” in the supernatural sighting of the Virgin Mary a century and a half ago, the FFRF directors told Schmitt he’s not free to use his civic office to promote “your personal (and highly embarrassing) religious beliefs.” 

At a press conference Schmitt called to defend himself, he admitted his letter was a “little heavy” on the religion. This is not FFRF’s first tussle with Schmitt, who was stopped by FFRF’s federal lawsuit from putting a nativity scene atop the entrance of City Hall.

FFRF, by the way, also criticized the invitation to the pope to address Congress from Catholic politicians John Boehner, U.S. House speaker, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi: “Congress needs a visit from the pope like Boehner needs more time in a tanning booth.” 

Gaylor and Barker also stirred up an online hornet’s nest for reprimanding Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for misusing his official gubernatorial Facebook and Twitter accounts to promote religion. On March 16, Walker posted the words “Philippians 4:13” — a verse from the bible reading: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”

FFRF’s press release added that “this braggadocio verse coming from a public official is rather disturbing” and seems more like “a threat, or the utterance of a theocratic dictator than of a duly elected civil servant.” 

Florida school violations

FFRF sent letters of complaint in March to two Florida school districts in Orange and Seminole counties over entanglement with a Christian congregation called The Venue Church (whose “venue,” ironically, is only in public schools). 

Already, Seminole County Public Schools has promised to end the constitutional violations outlined by Seidel in FFRF’s letter. 

Orange County allegations detail rampant religious activity at Apopka High School, including weekly services and other events sponsored by the church, which asserts, “We are permanently planting churches in Central Florida Schools.”

Other issues:

• Regular prayer sessions attended by football coaches and players, including prayers led by Venue Pastor Todd Lamphere, who is also team chaplain. Lamphere is also “bowling team chaplain.” A video shows him and other adults praying with the team.

• Bible verses on signs and apparel are common. A large banner saying “Prepare for Glory, 2 Corinthians 4:17” was displayed at the football field as was a banner with a verse from John 15:13. Several T-shirts and jerseys combine the school logo with religious messages.

Similar constitutional concerns were voiced to Seminole County Schools, including public endorsement of the church by district officials, who appeared in a promotional video for the church using their titles. The video was shot on campus. Seminole County Schools agreed almost immediately to end all such ties with the church.

Idaho, Kentucky letters

A letter sent by FFRF in November dominated March news and airwaves in Idaho, with more than 100 people turning out March 19 at a city meeting in Sandpoint over FFRF’s request that the Farmin Park Ten Commandments monument be moved to private property. The monument is one of several placed by the Eagles Club.

FFRF also called out Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear’s use of state resources to promote a March 13 prayer breakfast. The governor’s home page included a tab promoting the breakfast, and Kentucky.gov included a link to the event, named “Governor’s Prayer Breakfast.”

FFRF has received regular complaints about Beshear’s annual event, particularly from state employees who received two email invitations from the governor to the event. The prayer breakfast invitations included the official state seal and were sent to most state employees in violation of the state’s Internet policies.

Chief’s prayer walks

Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel’s complaint about the police chief of Birmingham, Ala., received statewide and national coverage. Police Chief A.C. Roper, an ordained minister, created a Christian ministry called Prayer Force United. In his capacity as police chief, he leads monthly prayer walks through different neighborhoods, “claiming the city of Birmingham for God,” ostensibly to lower crime. 

Roper has opined that one of Birmingham’s biggest problems is a “lack of godliness.” Seidel noted Roper can’t use his public office to “advance promote or endorse one religion over another, or religion over nonreligion.”

He also debunked the notion of prayer as a crime-fighting technique, citing statistics showing that nonreligious states and nations are safer. (View a video Seidel created documenting Rogers’s sermons with commentary on their legality on FFRF’s YouTube channel.)

 

FFRF members can sign up to receive FFRF news releases, action alerts, blogs or daily news links by emailing and specifying what you’d like sent to your inbox.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation this week filed a strong brief before the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, defending its November victory in federal district court overturning the housing allowance exclusion uniquely benefiting "ministers of the gospel."

"Even the Bible commands citizens to 'render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's," the state/church watchdog notes in its 47-page brief. Yet the tax code and the clergy who benefit from it at the expense of all other taxpayers ignore "basic principles of neutrality and fairness when it comes to clergy taxation."

The "parsonage allowance" law enacted in 1954 lets churches pay ministers with a housing allowance (up to the fair rental value of a home), which is then excluded from their taxable income.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb of Madison, Wis., agreed that this major tax benefit — expressly awarded to clergy for fighting "godlessness," according to bill sponsor U.S. Rep. Peter Mack, D-Ill. — is an unconstitutional preference for religion over nonreligion. Crabb noted that "the exemption provides a benefit to religious persons and no one else, even though doing so is not necessary to alleviate a special burden on religious exercise."

"Just about every church denomination in the country has mobilized to fight our victory," reported Annie Laurie Gaylor. She and her husband Dan Barker are FFRF co-presidents and co-plaintiffs in the nationally watched lawsuit.

"The rest of us pay more taxes because ministers don't pay their fair share. Ministers and churches are unabashed in aggressively demanding special treatment. We like to call it our 'David versus Goliath' IRS battle," she added, "and you know who won that!"

"It's disappointing that FFRF is being fought not just by conservative churches but by liberal ones, including the American Baptists, traditionally our allies for separation of church and state," noted Barker. "Even Unitarian Universalists, Jewish and Islamic groups have joined literally hundreds of Christian denominations and individual congregations in signing onto seven amicus briefs filed against FFRF by theocratic legal aid societies."

As a former ordained minister, Barker previously benefited from the preferential treatment of clergy by the IRS. But he and Gaylor, as directors of an atheist/agnostic group, may not deduct from their taxable income the portion of their salaries now designated by FFRF as a "housing allowance." That discriminatory treatment gave the couple standing to sue over the law.

Richard L. Bolton, serving as FFRF's litigation attorney, laid out the discriminatory treatment of Gaylor and Barker as similarly situated taxpayers. Section 107(2) of the tax code violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it is not neutral — providing significant tax benefits exclusively to ministers of the gospel, and providing greater benefits to ministers than to non-clergy taxpayers.

Ministers derive an enormous financial benefit by being paid in tax-exempt dollars, FFRF's brief notes. So do churches, which may pay clergy less because tax-free dollars go further. There's no requirement that the housing allowance be used for the convenience of the employer. Even retired ministers are eligible to claim the housing allowance.

The IRS has determined that teachers at parochial schools, even basketball coaches, may be paid through a housing allowance if they're ordained. FFRF documents the substantial entanglement between church and state that results from intrusive IRS standards about what constitutes an eligible church and minister.

"While all taxpayers would like to have exclusions and deductions to cover their housing costs, the reality is that only ministers of the clergy now get this break," FFRF's brief concludes. "Section 107(2) therefore violates the Establishment Clause in a most obvious way by conditioning tax benefits on religious affiliation."

FFRF, a state/church watchdog, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), with more than 20,000 members and is based in Madison, Wis.

The case is Freedom From Religion Foundation, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker v. Jacob J. Lew and John A. Koskinen.

Visit FFRF's website to read background, including the theocratic amicus briefs against FFRF's challenge (scroll down to view).

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In God We (Don’t) Trust

A challenge of the invidious use of a religious motto on U.S. coins and currency taken by intrepid secular litigator Michael Newdow on behalf of many plaintiffs, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation and many of its members, was ruled against by a 3-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York today.

Primary plaintiff in Newdow v. The Congress of the United States, was Rosalyn Newdow, a member of FFRF and a devoted numismatist who collected coins for 40 years, but has felt obligated to stop purchasing coin sets which exclude her and all nonbelievers.

"It's necessary to remind not just the courts but the public that 'In God We Trust' is a Johnny-come-lately motto adopted at the height of the Cold War. It was only officially required on all currency in 1955," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

"It's not even an accurate motto. To be accurate, it would have to say, 'In God Some of Us Trust,' and wouldn't that be silly?" she said, pointing out that today nonbelievers are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population by religious identification, approaching 20% — the second largest "denomination" after Roman Catholics.

FFRF first sued over the motto and its use on coins in the 1990s, and says that religion on the motto and on money remain two of the most common complaints the state/church watchdog receives.

"It creates the dangerous misperception that our republic is based on a god, when in fact it is based on an entirely godless and secular Constitution. These symbolic violations from the 1950s have damaged respect for the constitutional principle of separation between religion and government."

Gaylor praised Newdow for carrying on his pro bono work to divorce religion from government.

FFRF offers "clean," pre-"In God We Trust" currency as door prizes at its national conventions, and is currently offering a "clean" dollar bill to any FFRF member recruiting a new member.

"Godless money is a great way to end the argument when someone misguidedly says, 'God has always been on our money,' " Gaylor said.

Newdow commented that the decision was based on such weak contentions as “other circuits have ruled that ‘In God We Trust’ is OK” or “It’s just ceremonial.” He will move for a rehearing.

"I plan to keep trying in the remaining six circuits until we find some federal appellate judges who believe in the principles that underlie our Constitution."


Read more about the lawsuit history, including Newdow's fascinating legal complaint.

Read decision 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a state-church watchdog and the nation's largest association of atheists, agnostics and freethinkers, is beating back Hobby Lobby's attempt to proselytize in the Oklahoma public schools.

FFRF has been monitoring and protesting Mustang Public Schools' (Mustang, Okla.) bible curriculum since last November. Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel has written several letters to the school district about the dangers of the class and the Christian bias of the curriculum. Other state-church groups, like the ACLU and Americans United, have also warned the district.

Accompanying Seidel's letters were open records requests. According to Seidel, "The records show that Hobby Lobby CEO Steve Green is intimately involved in the development and administration of this course." The records also show that (1) Green helped the school board avoid Oklahoma open meetings laws (2) Green's admit the legitimacy of some of FFRF's criticisms, and (3) Green's biblical scholars are not familiar with biblical texts as basic and central as the Ten Commandments. The records also show that approximately 170 of more than 2,700 students — less than 7% — are interested in taking the elective.

Green's involvement

Hobby Lobby CEO Steve Green is heavily involved in promoting the Christian curriculum. The first email record obtained by FFRF is an email from Green to Mustang Superintendent Sean McDaniel. Later, Green instructed McDaniel "not to provide any information [to media] at this time." For his part, McDaniel kept Green personally informed ("Just wanted to keep you in the loop") with progress reports. Green, CEO of a multibillion dollar corporation, even scheduled meetings with McDaniel for people working on the curriculum and meetings occurred at Hobby Lobby headquarters.

Green also helped the school board circumvent Oklahoma Open Meeting Laws. These laws require school boards to open meetings to the public and the media if a quorum of members is present. More than 20 school district representatives, including three of five board members — a quorum — met at Hobby Lobby headquarters on April 14, 2014, to discuss the curriculum. Green gave Saxum, the public relations company working to spin Hobby Lobby's challenges to the Affordable Care Act, the job of making sure the meeting was closed to the public. According to an April 10, 3:25 p.m. email from Green's assistant Marsha Bold to Superintendent McDaniel, "Steve [Green] reached out to Saxum this morning after several concerns were brought to his attention and he asked that they reach out to you to discuss options." McDaniel had a phone conversation with a Saxum rep who "suggested she was representing HL [Hobby Lobby]." (Sup. McDaniel email to Jerry Pattengale and Marsha Bold, Thursday, April 10, 2014 3:14 PM.) Green and his PR team sought to circumvent the law "because the curriculum and the Obama Care issues cannot be 'co-mingled.' " Id.

To avoid having an open, transparent meeting as required by law, the school representatives met at Hobby Lobby headquarters on the same day in two different groups. That way, no quorum of school board members would be in the same room at the same time: "I want to emphasize again that per my conversation with Ashleigh [the Saxum rep] and the decision to break into two groups, that this will not be a public meeting." (Sup. McDaniel email to Marsha Bold, Thursday, April 10, 2014 4:07 PM.) Green personally called McDaniel to discuss this arrangement: "Steve called and left a message for you as he wanted to visit with you if you have a minute." (Marsha Bold email to Sup. McDaniel, Thursday, April 10, 2014 5:08 PM)

Ascertaining Green's motives is vital given his personal involvement. When someone with the desire, the drive, and the funds to impose their religious beliefs on a captive audience of public schoolchildren is pushing a course on the bible, parents have a right to know why.

FFRF has been sounding this alarm from the beginning. Green uses Hobby Lobby as an "opportunity to start distributing God's Word." He supports foundations that put "Scripture into the hands of nonbelievers," targeting children as young as 4 years old. Green and Hobby Lobby have a record of distorting history to evangelize. Every year Hobby Lobby places a July 4th ad in national papers featuring spurious quotes, misquotes, mined quotes, and creatively edited quotes attempting to show that America is a Christian nation. (FFRF completely debunked Green's most recent ad.

Green's Museum of the Bible runs the Green Scholars Initiative, which, in turn, is developing the curriculum at issue. Green's bible museum's mission is "to bring to life the living word of God, to tell its compelling story of preservation, and to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible" according to the documents filed with the IRS. 

Green's own experts admit criticism is valid

Jerry Pattengale, as Executive Director of the Green Scholars Initiative, heads up Green's curriculum push. According to his resumé before joining the Green Scholars Initiative, Pattengale authored a book with a telling title: A History of World Civilizations from a Christian Perspective. That title encapsulates the problem with the curriculum he is designing — it is told from a Christian perspective and heavily endorses that perspective. For another book, Straight Talk: Clear Answers about Today's Christianity, Pattengale wrote, "To know Christ's words, to read and study them, and to know about His life, death, and Resurrection is to know history."  In Pattengale's eyes, the "Resurrection" is not an article of faith, but a historical fact.

Despite this Christian bias and goal of "inspir[ing] confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible," Green and Pattengale often note that FFRF's criticisms are accurate.

For instance, regarding FFRF's complaint that the book utilizes leading questions like "how do we know that the bible's historical narratives are reliable?" instead of asking "is the bible historically accurate?" Pattengale says, "actually they are right..."

Pattengale wrote of FFRF's "Feminism complaint ... the writer [of the critical letter, i.e., FFRF] was correct..." Id. Pattengale added, "we're discussing removing the Color Filter sections ..." Id. But many of the changes are superficial and fail to correct the inherent Christian bias. In fact, Pattengale admits to altering the text, but not the meaning: "The simple change from 'that' to 'if' in the title, which carries the same intended meeting [sic, meaning] makes all the difference for those seeking things to criticize." (emphasis added). 

Biblical scholars?

Not all of FFRF's criticisms were appreciated. FFRF pointed out, as the textbook's best example of Christian bias, it answering the question, "What is God like?" by listing only positive attributes such as "gracious and compassionate" or "full of love."

Pattengale's response to this criticism is stunning.  Writing about God's negative attributes, Pattengale says "the Bible doesn't list any, and these [positive attributes] are in [the] section representing what the text says."

Some of the most basic and central biblical verses do, in fact, discuss God's negative characteristics. One prominent example is God's jealousy. According to the Ten Commandments, God himself says "I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation." Exodus 20:5. Not only does God admit that he is jealous, he promises to punish innocent children for the crimes of their parents in the Ten Commandments. God repeats himself, in the second set of Ten Commandments in Exodus 34:18, and elsewhere in the bible, Deuteronomy 4:24, 5:9, 6:15 and Joshua 24:19 to name a few.

Pattengale's erroneous statement seems to indicate one of three possibilities, that (1) Pattengale does not know the Bible, which disqualifies him from developing a Bible curriculum for the nation's youth, (2) he's deliberately keeping the superintendent in the dark, which is even more disturbing or (3) he's blinded by his bias, which again calls the curriculum into question.

Green and his staff are using the Mustang School District for their own ends. The school district has adopted a curriculum that is not constitutional and for which the Mustang taxpayers, not Green, could ultimately pay. FFRF's April 24, 2014, letter was correct: "This course is too tainted with Christian bias. It should be scrapped altogether." Mustang Schools needs to rethink its trust in Green and Hobby Lobby.

FFRF is working closely with the ACLU and Americans United to ensure that this class meets the constitutional standards. These groups are interested in discussing the curriculum with Mustang families should the board fail to address these problems.

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Dayna Long

DAYNA LONG is an administrative assistant at FFRF. Originally from Illinois, she attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received a degree in English. She has been with FFRF since July 2013. She spends her free time volunteering for the Wisconsin chapter of the National Organization for Women. She also enjoys reading, cooking, and admiring her beautiful cats.

Praying Hands - Albrecht Durer prayer failIt's time to show our government that official prayer is unconstitutional, pointless, divisive and offensive. The U.S. Supreme Court unwisely "blessed" sectarian blessings by city and county governments in its May 5, 2014, Town of Greece v. Galloway decision.

If the Supreme Court won't uphold our godless and entirely secular Constitution — adopted at a prayerless constitutional convention — it's up to us. It's up to you!

Although the Greece decision is a blow to secularism and the rights of the nonreligious, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the decision did include reasoning that acknowledges the right of an atheist to give the invocation:

"The town at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver. Its leaders maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation." Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway, 12-696, 2014 WL 1757828 (U.S. May 5, 2014).

To foster the groundswell of protest against government prayer, FFRF announces the creation of its newest activism award: The Nothing Fails Like Prayer Award. The award will be given for the best secular "invocation" at a government meeting. The annual winner or winners will receive a commemorative plaque, $500 and will be invited to deliver the invocation at FFRF's annual convention. Be a Paine in the government's Mass — a Thomas Paine.

All eligible entries will receive a commemorative certificate. FFRF will post eligible video entries of the secular invocation at its website and/or reprint it in FFRF's newspaper, Freethought Today.

We'd like to see secular citizens flood government meetings with secular invocations that illustrate why government prayers are unnecessary, ineffective, embarrassing, exclusionary, divisive or just plain silly. The more citizens that protest prayers, the more likely government prayers will stop.

Annual Prize

The individual or individuals judged to give the "best" secular invocation will be invited to open FFRF's annual convention with the "invocation," receiving an all-expenses-paid trip to FFRF's annual convention (this year at the Los Angeles Biltmore Oct. 24-25), a plaque and an honorarium of $500.

FFRF plans to make the contest an annual event until the Greece decision is overturned.

Tips for winning:

• Get the government to stop prayer after your prayer!
• Show the government why prayers are unconstitutional as part of a government meeting or ridiculous.
• Don't be shy about your lack of belief. Be an out and proud freethinker!
• Often, governments require "ordained" prayer-givers . Here are some options for atheists:
• The United Church of Bacon (Praise Bacon!) offers free ordination (click: Join, Become Ordained
• For $20, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster will ordain you and give you a certificate
• The First Church of Atheism gives ordinations for free, but you can order cards and certificates for a fee.
• The higher the quality of video recording the better your chances of winning. Use a tripod! (Don't rely on a cell phone if possible.)
• Your invocation can be sincere yet secular, like Arizona Rep. Juan Mendez's invocation, for which he won FFRF's Emperor Has No Clothes Award, or light-hearted or even facetious (think Flying Spaghetti Monster).

To Enter: 

  • Give an invocation during the official invocation period at any government meeting (not during the public comment period)
  • Prepare a copy of the video recording of your invocation (link, file, or DVD)
  • Prepare a written transcript of your invocation (print, PDF, or MS Word)
  • Prepare your personal information:
    • Your name
    • Your phone number (for FFRF use only)
    • Your email address (for FFRF use only)
    • Your mailing address (for FFRF use only)
    • The name of the government body where you gave your invocation
    • The date you gave your invocation
    • A short personal bio
  • Send the video recording, written transcript, and personal information to or Nothing Fails Like Prayer Contest, c/o FFRF, PO Box 750, Madison WI 53701

Print off this list here. 

Terms and Conditions

1. Contestants hereby agree to submit their entries under the following terms and conditions: (i) that FFRF may use any ideas, concepts, or material, in whole or in part, contained in an entry; (ii) that all materials submitted become the property of FFRF and can be used by FFRF for any purpose whatsoever, including commercial use, without compensation; (iii) that the contestant has obtained all rights, permissions, and licenses necessary to use the entry for any purpose; (iv) that no entry or any part thereof infringes any trademark or copyright or otherwise violates anyone's right of privacy or publicity; and (v) that the contestant indemnifies and holds harmless FFRF from any claims, suits, losses, damages, and expenses (including reasonable attorneys' fees) that arise from any breach of the terms and conditions.

2. FFRF reserves the right in its sole discretion to terminate, modify, or suspend the contest at any time. All interpretations of the rules and decisions by FFRF are final. FFRF reserves the right in its sole discretion to disqualify any individual it believes to be tampering with the entry process, voting process, or operation of the website; to be acting in violation of the official rules; or to be acting in a disruptive or negative manner.

3. No purchase is necessary to enter. Becoming a member of FFRF, while a great way to show your support for state/church separation, does not confer any advantage in this contest.

4. Arrangements for the fulfillment of all prizes will be made by FFRF, which reserves the right to substitute any prize for any reason that FFRF deems necessary. All prizes are non-transferable. Upon receipt of any part of the prize, prize recipients are required to comply with any and all applicable federal, state, and local laws, rules, and regulations. All expenses, including taxes, on receipt and use of prizes are the sole responsibility of the winner.

5. Entries must be received no later than Sept. 30 to be considered by FFRF for the 2014 convention. Entries will be accepted year-round and deadlines will be updated annually.

6. Content: An eligible entry must contain the contestant's original ideas and language, with any quotations properly credited. Invocations must be appropriate for posting on FFRF's website. FFRF retains sole discretion as to what constitutes inappropriate content and an eligible entry.

7. Entries: There is no limit on the number of entries that can be submitted per person, provided that each entry is from a unique government meeting and that the content of the invocation is unique. Contestants who jointly submit an entry shall be treated as a single contestant by FFRF, with any prizes being shared.

Media Coverage of our Nothing Fails Like Prayer Contest

Secular Groups Sign Up to Give ‘Blessings’ At Meetings
Orlando Sentinel

"If the Supreme Court won't uphold the Constitution, it's up to us — it's up to you" is the response of the Freedom From Religion Foundation to the high court's ruling May 5 that judicially blessed sectarian prayer at official government meetings.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Town of Greece v. Galloway that governments can not only host prayers, those prayers can be pervasively sectarian: "To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech." 572 U.S. 1, 12-13 (2014).

FFRF, the nation's largest association of freethinkers, with more than 20,000 atheist and agnostic members nationwide, is responding to the hostile court ruling by announcing a "Nothing Fails Like Prayer Award." The award will be given to citizens who succeed in delivering secular "invocations" at government meetings.

The individual judged to give the "best" secular invocation will be invited to open FFRF's annual convention with the "invocation," receiving an all-expenses-paid trip to our 37th annual convention at the Los Angeles Biltmore Oct. 24-25 and an honorarium of $500.

FFRF plans to make the contest an annual event until the Greece decision is overturned. All eligible secular invokers will receive a certificate suitable for framing, and FFRF will post the invocation on its website.

FFRF, which submitted an amicus brief against government prayer in the case, was initially founded for the very purpose of protesting government prayer at city and county meetings.

Anne Nicol Gaylor, who coined the adage, "Nothing fails like prayer," and her daughter Annie Laurie, founded FFRF in Wisconsin in order to speak with a more powerful voice when testifying against prayers by the Madison Common Council and Dane County Board in 1976. The city dropped prayers the following year and the county went to rotating opening remarks by county supervisors.

Government prayer continues to rate as one of the most common complaints FFRF receives from its members and members of the public.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor notes that despite the approval of sectarian governmental prayer by five Supreme Court justices, there is no requirement for government bodies to open with prayer. Citizen request has stopped the practice of government prayer throughout the country and can continue to do so.

"We'd like to see secular citizens flood government meetings with secular invocations that illustrate why government prayers are unnecessary, ineffective, divisive, embarrassing and exclusionary of the 20-30 percent of the U.S. population today that identifies as nonreligious," Gaylor said.

Although the Supreme Court "blessed" opening prayer as governmental speech, meaning government bodies don't have to permit guest prayers, even the town of Greece has indicated it would consider a guest secular invocation.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, who suggested the award, notes that many of our nation's most influential founders opposed governmental exercises of religion, including revolutionary Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, who refused in his two terms to issue days of prayer, and James Madison, our fourth president and primary architect of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Secular invocations can be sincere and eloquent, such as state Rep. Juan Mendez's invocation before the Arizona House, for which he won FFRF's Emperor Has No Clothes Award. You may wish to "invoke" secular "founding fathers," your own life philosophy or take a more facetious route.

The goal is to show that government bodies don't need prayer to imagined gods, or religion or superstition, to govern — they need to be guided by reason.

"Government officials need to get off their knees and get to work," added Dan Barker, a former evangelical minister and author of "Godless," who now co-directs FFRF. He has another suggestion: "Be a Paine in the government's Mass."

(For "inspiration," download a free copy of Barker's songs "Get Off Your Knees and Get to Work" and "Nothing Fails Like Prayer.")

Contest rules.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state-church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., is keeping a close eye on the bible course developed by Hobby Lobby President Steve Green for public school students.  

The school board in Mustang, Okla., voted 4-0 with one abstention April 14 to approve Green's curriculum entitled “The Book, the Bible’s History, Narrative and Impact of the World’s Best-selling Book” as a high school elective course.

Green is a billionaire whose corporate headquarters is about 5 miles from Mustang in Oklahoma City. The company's No. 1 commitment, according to its website, is "Honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with biblical principles." Hobby Lobby has also sued the federal government because it's opposed to the birth control mandate in the Affordable Care Act and has taken the case to the Supreme Court.

FFRF has been corresponding with Mustang Public Schools Superintendent Sean McDaniel about the course since November 2013 (also when Green met with the school board). FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a cautionary letter to the district and requested records on Nov. 21.

According to a Religion News Service story, Mustang High will be the only school using the curriculum this fall in its "beta-test" phase. Supposedly, 170 students expressed interest in it. A company spokesman said the goal is to have it in at least 100 schools by September 2016 and "thousands" by the following year.

Elective bible classes at higher grade levels can be taught in public schools but must be secular, informative and not endorse religion, Seidel said. "The Green family’s constant attempts to impose their evangelical Christianity on Hobby Lobby employees has secularists naturally suspicious that any Hobby Lobby bible class will not comform to the law. Previous investigations have revealed that bible classes in Texas rarely comport with the law, that teachers lack training, and that teachers impose their personal religious beliefs on all students."   

"Will the class be fair, scholarly and open, or will this be another attempt by Hobby Lobby to impose their religion on others?" Seidel asked.

These are questions that FFRF hopes to have answered soon and has again requested all documents and records relating to the curriculum and will carefully analyze them over the summer before the class starts in the fall.

Dan Barker, FFRF co-president, quoted Isaac Asimov, who said, “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”

Barker, a former evangelist, is skeptical. "In the religious climate of the bible belt, given the impetus for this class, we are seriously concerned."

TAKE ACTION

Please act now. Contact the superintendent to express your opposition to a Hobby Lobby-funded bible class in our public schools. The scheme is fraught with peril. There are tax-exempt churches all over where students or adults may seek out Sunday school classes.

As President Ulysses S. Grant put it in a famous speech in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1875: “Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the Church, and the private schools, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate.” 

Contact now:

Superintendent Sean McDaniel

Mustang Public Schools
906 S. Heights Drive
Mustang, OK 73064

%833 %America/Chicago, %2014

Calif. city settles prayer suit with FFRF

Reaching a settlement with the Freedom From Religion Foundation to end FFRF's lawsuit against the city, the Pismo Beach City Council voted April 15 to stop all prayers before its meetings and to abolish the city chaplain position.

FFRF and Dr. Sari Dworkin, a Pismo Beach resident and FFRF member, sued the city Nov. 1, 2013, in Superior Court in San Luis Obispo, alleging the official prayers and chaplaincy violated the California Constitution.

Before each council meeting, the city chaplain, Paul Jones, or one of his religious substitutes, gave a Christian prayer. Prayers often included egregious factual mistakes, including manufactured quotes by America's founders. Jones’ prayers pressured citizens to live a Christian or biblical lifestyle, to vote for “righteous” leaders and make decisions that “honor” his God.

The city agreed to pay the plaintiffs nominal damages and attorney fees totaling about $47,500 and to end the practice of praying at meetings and abolish the chaplain position. The settlement carries the force of law and will be accompanied by a court order.  

"This is a significant victory to keep all prayer — sectarian or nonsectarian — out of Pismo Beach public meetings," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to rule on the issue of sectarian prayer in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a New York case. FFRF's Pismo Beach victory will stand regardless of the high court's ruling in that case. "We're entirely satisfied by the outcome," Gaylor said.

Pismo Beach established an official city chaplaincy in 2005 and appointed Jones, a Pentecostal preacher, to the post. He’s affiliated with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, which emphasizes “speaking in tongues.”

Jones delivered 112 of the 126 prayers scheduled by the council between Jan. 1, 2008, and Oct. 15, 2013. All but one of the 126 prayers were addressed to the Christian god. Many were lengthy and more like sermons than prayers.

FFRF thanks local plaintiff Sari Dworkin, attorney Pamela Koslyn, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel and Atheists United of San Luis Obispo and its members for helping initiate the lawsuit.  

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

 

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FFRF is a member of Atheist Alliance International.