Name: Olivia Mote.
Where and when I was born: Indiana (the Land of Casseroles), 1986.
Family: Two lovely, doting parents and two equally lovely siblings.
Education: DePauw University, Greencastle, Ind., B.A., religious studies and political science; Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, M.A., comparative religion; University of Wisconsin-Madison, J.D. candidate.
My religious upbringing was: United Methodist.
How I came to work as an FFRF legal intern: I learned about FFRF at a law school event, found the organization’s mission compelling, attended its fall convention, sent an “I’d like to participate” email — and here I am.
What I do here: Draft/edit letters for staff attorneys and absorb as much First Amendment “stuff” as possible. I also try not to upset the copy machine.
What I like best about it: Even though I’m still learning the ropes, I feel like the projects I work on here truly matter. I’m also learning a lot about advocacy, and from a different perspective than I get in class.
Something funny that’s happened at work: Every day has its entertaining moments!
My legal interests are: Constitutional law, state/church separation, business and nonprofits, education policy, comparative law and probably other areas to be determined.
My legal heroes are: Attorneys who think empathy is important in the practice of law.
These three words sum me up: Enthusiastic, curious, freckled.
Things I like: School (still!), cooking, making lists of all the places I want to eat in Madison, playing outdoors, my fluffy dog Ruby (her name’s a tribute to the Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday”), NPR (especially “The Diane Rehm Show”).
Things I smite: Meanness.
My loftiest goal: I’m not good at picking favorites. One of them — graduate from law school with (some kind of) honors.
Name: Arthur J. Naebig Jr.
Born: 1937, Chicago, Ill.
Currently living in: La Valle, Wis. [about 25 miles west of Wisconsin Dells]. I moved here for the bicycle trails.
Education: Sacred Heart Grammar School, Chicago Vocational High School, Woodrow Wilson Jr. College, Chicago Teachers College (B. Ed.).
Occupation: Retired from teaching automotive technology for 21 years at Kennedy-King College in Chicago.
How I got where I am today: Thanks to a free college education available to residents of Chicago back when corporations and the rich actually paid taxes.
Where I’m headed: Who knows?
Person in history I admire: Ben Franklin, a genius who knew how to enjoy life.
A quotation I like: “When religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.” — Benjamin Franklin
A few of my favorite things: Science, the natural world, good food.
These are not: Fast food, climate change deniers, religion and other kinds of scams.
My doubts about religion started: At age 8 or 9 when the nuns were telling us outrageous things we were supposed to believe.
Before I die: I hope the Fountain of Youth will finally be discovered.
Ways I promote freethought: I write letters to newspapers to refute lies and misinformation in letters they have printed from other readers — usually, but not always, of a religious nature.
I wish you’d have asked me: “What would you tell young people?” Don’t believe anything you’re told unless you have checked it out for yourself. Don’t be afraid to call bullshit what it is.
This is a letter to FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel that the local complainant agreed to share (with identifying information removed to preserve anonymity) after FFRF legal staff successfully resolved several state/church violations. A teacher was disciplined and the school adopted a policy requiring staff to sign an acknowledgment that they must remain neutral toward religion at work.
FFRF really relies on its members and supportive nonmembers to keep us in the loop about potential violations.
Dear Mr. Seidel:
You can’t imagine how excited and relieved I am to read your email! I don’t think I can truly express it in words, but I’m going to try.
Being one ordinary parent at a small school in a conservative state, I didn’t have much hope initially that your group would take on our cause. To my knowledge, this is the very first time in [this school’s] history that a staff member has been disciplined for foisting religious beliefs on students. You are correct that victory is the only word that fits!
This victory is one that I hope will send a message loud and clear — to those on staff and in our parent community who feel they have tacit permission to violate the rights of others because they suffer no consequences for doing so — that [the school] will not tolerate the violation of the law and the rights of students.
I am happy to report that I attended a school music program on Tuesday night held in [the auditorium now owned by a church], and I saw that it was prepared in the manner it should have been prepared all along. All religious images were covered, all religious signs and literature were out of sight, and for the first time I felt that the venue was a neutral space that showed respect for all parents and students in attendance. This is huge!
The progress shown in that area, and the fact that [the teacher] will be held accountable and disciplined for his actions, speaks volumes to parents who have become discouraged and simply numb to the prevailing culture at [the school]. Our school community has lost many families who have given up on seeing any change or who were ultimately worn down from a continual battle that got them nowhere ([my friend and her] family among them).
I hope what you have accomplished on our behalf will stop other good families from walking out the door. When issues are addressed swiftly and decisively, parents can feel confident that their concerns will be heard and the rights of their children respected.
This whole issue forced me to become more outspoken and more involved than I ever planned or wanted to be at my kids’ school. It forced me to fight against the urge to be a “pleaser” and avoid making waves. It illustrated to me that avoiding conflict at the expense of doing the right thing is not a strategy I can accept.
I have long been resigned to “going down swinging” for this cause. You can’t imagine how good it feels to experience a win for a change. Although the words are inadequate, on behalf of many other parents who shared my concern, we give you our most sincere thanks. You are awesome!
Peggy Porter Koenig, friend of FFRF, writes: “While I was growing up, this statue, which we referred to as ‘Jesus on the Ball,’ was smack dab in the middle of a public park [in Marshfield, Wis.]. Then FFRF got him his own private park. Thank goodness for the Freedom From Religion Foundation.”
FFRF and the late Clarence Reinders of Marshfield sued in 1998 over the display with its “Christ Guide Us On Our Way” wording and prevailed nearly three years later when a federal appeals court ordered U.S. District Judge John Shabaz to oversee erection of a wall or fence with a prominent disclaimer in the park.
Shabaz initially dismissed FFRF’s suit after the city sold a parcel in the park to a group formed to save the statue. The appeals court ruled Feb. 4, 2000, that the sale didn’t remedy the constitutional violation.
The Catholic Knights of Columbus, a men’s group renowned for trying to turn America into a theocracy, had donated the statue to the city in 1959. Losing the suit cost the city about $60,000 in legal fees and fencing and sign costs.
Reinders, an FFRF Life Member who died in 2012, wrote at the time that leaving “the religious idol” in the park and fencing it off was the best outcome, though he was initially disappointed it was allowed to stay. “Whenever anyone looks at the idol in its newly imprisoned setting, they will see the fruits of our labors in defense of the First Amendment. With the fence and disclaimer signs, we have left our freethought mark of state/church separation for posterity.”
Goto ffrf.org/legal for more on FFRF’s litigation and to ffrf.org/legal/other-legal-successes for other legal victories.
FFRF recently received a $17,000 bequest for its legal work from the Reinders’ estate. Clarence lives!
FFRF placed a patriotic red-white-and-blue secular display to counter an enormous Catholic Easter display at Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago in April.
Two colorful 8-foot banners on a 12-foot structure promoting the secular views of founding fathers were placed with the help of the FFRF Metropolitan Chicago chapter and three FFRF staff attorneys — Patrick Elliott, Andrew Seidel and Sam Grover. The trio drove to Chicago from Madison, Wis., to install the display with chapter help on a wooden structure they built for the back-to-back banners.
One banner reads: “In Reason We Trust” and pictured Thomas Jefferson, displaying his famous advice to a nephew, “Question with boldness even the existence of a god.” The other side proclaimed, “Keep State & Religion Separate,” and pictured President John Adams, who signed the Treaty of Tripoli, which assured “. . . the government of the United States is not in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
The display countered religious displays and evangelism in Daley Plaza by the Catholic Thomas More Society, which has evangelized in the plaza every Easter for several years. The group’s aim, through its “Divine Mercy Project,” is to seek the “conversion of Chicago, America and the Whole World.”
Rather than place such displays on church grounds, the society explicitly seeks to take over public property for its purposes, claiming that at Daley Plaza it encounters “militants, feminists, Satanists, radical Muslims, just about everybody.”
The society placed a 10-foot-tall painting of Jesus that it claims was miraculously inspired, with the statement “Jesus, I trust in you,” as well as a 14-foot cross. In past years, supporters have also held 24-hour prayer vigils, distributed thousands of prayer cards and hosted anti-abortion rallies in front of the Jesus painting.
FFRF additionally had two smaller posters affixed to each side of its display, explaining its purpose, written by Tom Cara, Chicago chapter director: “Not looking to convert? Neither are we,” protesting use of government property to endorse the beliefs of a specific religious group. Another poster questioned the “divine mercy” of the bible, upon which Catholicism is predicated.
FFRF and its Chicago-area chapter in December placed an 8-foot lighted “A” (for atheism and agnosticism) and banner celebrating the “birth of the Bill of Rights” to counter a huge nativity display erected annually for decades.
FFRF thanks Patrick Elliott, who initiated the project, as well as Andrew Seidel and Sam Grover for building the display with Patrick, and Tom Cara and other chapter volunteers for their help in erecting, dismantling and storing the newsmaking displays.
Name: Alexis Palmer. I go by Lexi.
Where and when I was born: Burnsville, Minn., May 1992.
Family: My parents still live in the house that I grew up in back in cold Minnesota. I have a sister, Payton, who is a year younger than I am. She goes to school in a much warmer state, Arizona.
Education: I’m a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (and could not be prouder to be a Badger). I’m completing my legal studies and political science majors.
My religious upbringing was: I grew up as a Lutheran, so working for FFRF has really opened my eyes to an entirely different side of law and different way of helping people.
How I came to work as an FFRF legal intern: Naturally, I was looking for some legal experience, and I became interested in the work that FFRF does.
What I do here: My day-to-day work usually differs depending on the week; generally I assist the staff attorneys with drafting letters of complaint or help research specific issues involving religion.
What I like best about it: Assisting people who turn to this organization as a source of hope when they feel discriminated against. The first day I truly realized the impact of the work that FFRF does was the day a complainant responded to one of my emails thanking me over and over again for the work that we do and the difference that we make for people like him.
My legal interests are: I don’t dream of becoming famous. I just want to become a lawyer so I can help people who can’t help themselves and truly see the difference that I am making for them.
These three words sum me up: Charismatic, compassionate and determined.
Things I like: My favorite thing in the world is my cat, Gucci, who lives with my parents. I am definitely a cat person. I also really love trying new and authentic food. Every member of my family is definitely a “foodie,” and we love to go out and try all types of restaurants.
Things I smite: Shopping of any sort, unless it’s shopping for other people’s gifts. I don’t make decisions very quickly, so shopping is not an easy task for me. Another thing that I smite is the show “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” for hopefully obvious reasons.
My loftiest goal: To travel to every country in the world and spend at least a week in each one before I die. I have traveled throughout much of Europe and spent my last spring semester in Spain studying Spanish. The next continent on my list is South America.
I strongly believe that everyone should travel and see the rest of the world!
Name: Christine Eldridge.
Where I live: East Providence, R.I.
Where and when I was born: Woonsocket, R.I., 1969.
Family: My husband, Darryl, and I share our home with a cat, Lola, and two dogs, Isabella and Kirk. I am child-free by choice and love being an auntie to my nieces and nephews.
Education: B.S. in music education, Rhode Island College. Clarinet is my main instrument, and I play with a chamber music ensemble. I also study piano, having resumed lessons two years ago after about a 20-year hiatus, and started playing the ukulele this year.
Occupation: Nonprofit arts administration.
Volunteer work: Humanists of Rhode Island (vice president), Secular Coalition for Rhode Island (co-chair), active in community service as well as secular, social justice, arts advocacy and animal welfare causes.
How I got where I am today: Help and support from family and friends, random luck, various personal choices and hard work.
Where I’m headed: I plan to continue to learn, to help others and to enjoy the journey.
Person in history I admire: Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, for his staunch convictions about and advocacy for freedom of conscience and separation of church and state.
A quotation I like: “I’m an atheist, and that’s it. I believe there’s nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for each other.” (Katharine Hepburn).
“Heresy makes for progress.” (Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner). “We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes.” (Gene Roddenberry). “The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so.” (Robert Ingersoll).
These are a few of my favorite things: “Star Trek” (I’m a costume-wearing, convention-attending, lifelong Trekkie), octopuses (they’re such fascinating animals!), music, reading, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking.
These are not: Cruelty, bigotry, pseudoscience.
My doubts about religion started: I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school. My first doubts came as a child, when I tried to reconcile a loving God with the wrathful being portrayed in the bible, the problem of evil and the concept of hell.
Ways I promote freethought: With the Humanists of Rhode Island and the Secular Coalition for Rhode Island, I am active in working to keep religion out of government and to raise visibility for atheists, humanists and other nonbelievers.
I identify openly as an atheist and a humanist and hope to demonstrate by my words and actions that it is indeed possible to live a life that is ethical, happy and fulfilling without belief in a deity.
Every year, the Freedom From Religion Foundation handles multiple complaints about local government officials inserting themselves into National Day of Prayer events, not as private citizens but in their roles as public employees or appointees.
FFRF, a national state-church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., so far this year has sent letters of complaint to Bulloch County (Statesboro, Ga.); the cities of Mandeville, La.; Guin and Summerdale, Ala.; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Polk County Public Schools, Bartow, Fla. (event at Lake Wales Senior High); and the cities of Odessa, Texas, and Barron, Wis.
Complaints about Nampa, Idaho, Jeffersonville, Ind., and other locales were pending at press time.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote Mandeville Mayor Donald Villere on April 29 about the rally on the front steps of City Hall, which was prominently displayed on the city’s website under the section titled “Mayor’s Message.”
An April 16 letter from Grover went to Odessa Mayor David Turner and City Manager Richard Morition about the May 1 Mayor’s Prayer Luncheon held annually in conjunction with the NDP. A city press release said tickets for could be bought through the city secretary and listed her phone number at City Hall.
FFRF contacted the previous mayor in 2012 about spending several thousand dollars of tax money on the luncheon and using city staff to coordinate it. Guin promoted its event on the city’s website and Facebook page.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote April 30 to Bulloch County Attorney Jeff Atkins, and included a photo of a sign on the courthouse lawn. “It appears that the county is hosting the event since there is no indication of a private sponsor.”
FFRF also filed an open records request for county policies on advertising and putting up displays on government property.
This year’s National Day of Prayer theme was “One Voice, United in Prayer.” The featured bible verse was Romans 15:6: “So that with one mind and one voice, you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Secularists and even some Christians have long noted that the day “has been taken over by evangelicals,” as one man put it. The NDP Task Force, based in Colorado Springs, is top-heavy with social conservatives, many of whom are homophobic and anti-choice.
Ohio FFRF members Nancy Dollard and Tom Reke, joined by freethinkers Charles Wright and Andreas Avente, protested the National Day of Prayer on Thursday, May 1 at the Summit County Courthouse in Akron. The Beacon Journal story said the event marked the end of a marathon reading of the bible that started the previous Sunday. Pastor Mike Radebaugh sang the national anthem and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
The paper added, “Tom Reke from Akron was among local atheists to carry signs on the sidewalk below the courthouse steps. Reke’s two-line sign read: ‘Prayer Never Works/There’s no God.’ ”
Nancy notes that Tom’s god was lower-cased, unlike the newspaper’s. Freethought Today tried to purchase reprint rights to the photo but was told “we will not be able to grant permission to use one of our photos for your publication” by Kimberly Barth, director of photography and graphics.
The Akron Day of Prayer had a “much lower turnout this year,” Nancy said. “Also, we got to talk to some young students who were part of the local Secular Student Alliance chapter.”
Humanists now Army ‘religious’ option
Lt. Col. Sunset Belinsky, a U.S. Army spokeswoman, said April 22 that the “preference code for humanist” as a religious preference became effective April 12 for all members of the Army.
According to Religion News Service, that means fewer hurdles for seculars trying to organize. It could also lay the groundwork to add humanist chaplains.
Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, has been pushing for greater recognition of humanists in the armed services; in February, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the Pentagon on Bradley’s behalf.
“This is a big victory,” said Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.
Reserve Maj. Ray Bradley, Fort Bragg, N.C., who serves in the Medical Service Corps, said it took the Army two years to approve his request. On a section of MAAF’s website titled “Atheists in Foxholes, in Cockpits, and on Ships,” Bradley says this:
“It never bothers me to keep my head up in formation while others are praying. And I’ve noticed over the years that more soldiers do the same. I doubt there are that many more atheists today. Most likely, fewer feel afraid to reveal they are not Christian. And though religion is strong and apparent among many in the military, I believe it is the unbowed heads in the formation that remind the world that we are united by freedom above all else.”
Arizona atheist tosses hat in ring
James Woods, an open atheist who is also blind, announced his candidacy April 27 to run as a Democrat against U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., in a heavily Republican district.
If elected, Woods, a member of the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, would be the only “out” atheist in Congress. He told Religion News Service, “I believe in human ingenuity. We can solve problems to improve our lives and the lives of people around us. You don’t need religion for that.”
He lost his sight seven years ago at age 26 to a life-threatening staph infection.
Islamist group abducts Nigerian schoolgirls
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on May 14 rejected a swap of jailed Muslim extremists for hundreds of schoolgirls a militant group kidnapped April 14. Boko Haram militants abducted 276 girls as they studied for final exams at a boarding school in Chibok. Some have escaped. It’s estimated about 200 girls are still being held captive.
According to Human Rights Watch, Boko Haram rewards recruits by offering them sex slaves. Western education is also seen as sinful.
More than 70 people were killed April 14 in explosions at a bus station in the capital Abuja. The BBC reported Boko Harma is suspected to be behind the attacks, which were similar to previous ones.