Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

A national state/church watchdog with 23,000 nonreligious members has sent a letter of protest to the Commissioner of Prisons over misuse of prisoners to carve and upholster a special chair to be used by Pope Francis when he celebrates Mass in a prison later this month.

Freedom From Religion Foundation President Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote Commissioner of Prisons Louis Giorla today. She pointed out this is at least the second time Pennsylvania prisoners have crafted gifts for Catholic leaders. In January, inmates made a special chair for Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Caput when he celebrated Mass at the prison.

The Philadelphia Prison System appeared to coordinate the gift for the pope, with inmates from Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center handcarving the chair out of walnut and sending it to Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility for reupholstery.

These prisons are public-supported, FFRF noted, they are not Catholic prisons.

"This is literally a captive audience, being asked to labor to produce something for a sectarian purpose, a purely devotional event, and that is totally inappropriate," she added. It doesn't matter whether the prisons asked for volunteers — prison officials shouldn't have been involved at all, she added.

"We write to point out that PPS appears to be showing impermissible favoritism to one religion over all others, and religion over nonreligion, by inviting Catholic religious leaders to its facilities and then bestowing gifts on them," Gaylor said.

The group asked that PPS take steps to ensure that it does not continue to use inmates to further religion and impermissibly promote one religion above all others.

reasonrallymemeThe second Reason Rally, sponsored by a coalition of secular groups including the Freedom From Religion Foundation, will take place at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, June 4, 2016.

"At FFRF, we work hard to ensure that reason will prevail — not only in urging that reason should be employed in forming opinions about religion, but must inform our public policy, not religious dogma," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

"We also hope to rev up the 'I'm Secular and I Vote' movement in an election year, to ensure that candidates are reminded that almost a quarter of the U.S. population today is nonreligious, supports secular government and opposes religious interference in our laws," added Dan Barker, who co-directs FFRF, the nation's largest association of atheists and agnostics with more than 23,000 members nationwide.

You may start making travel arrangements, booking hotel rooms, and coordinating with other freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, skeptics, humanists, and activists for four whole days of comedy, music, eating, drinking, enlightenment and activism!

Who will be there? Of course, YOU, but we will also be welcoming many secular activists, authors and musicians, including Richard Dawkins and James Randi. Confirmed speakers include Eugenie Scott, Paul Provenza, Cara Santa Maria and many others.

Please visit for more information on who will be speaking and performing, what will be happening, how to help, and where to go for accommodations.

In 2010, Obama signed an executive order to alter the guidelines for government partnerships with faith-based organizations (FBOs). Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced proposed rule changes for nine federal agencies regarding the federal government's partnership with faith-based organizations (FBOs). The changes are the result of a long-standing effort to reform George W. Bush's "faith-based" initiative.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is only allowing public comments on the new proposed rule until next Tuesday, September 8th.

Review the proposed changes and FFRF's comment, then consider leaving your own public comment to voice your opinion on what you like and don't like about the new rule!

Here are the most important changes that will take place:

The Good
FBOs were given additional responsibilities to ensure they are not using federal funds to promote religion. In particular, the rules will now state that FBOs receiving federal funds for social services must:

  • Hold any "explicitly religious activities" at a different time or place than the secular services they provide, and participation in such activities must be voluntary;
  • Refer any beneficiaries who object to the religious character of the FBO to an alternative provider;
  • Include an assurance or statement that the program is or will be conducted in compliance with the regulations;
  • Provide training on these matters for government and FBO employees.

Also note that while most agencies will require FBOs to provide written notice to beneficiaries explaining their rights under these rules, this change is NOT part of USAID's proposed rule.

The Bad
The main drawback to these rule changes is simply that they do not go far enough; we would rather they avoid state/church entanglement by eliminating all FBO partnerships. Though not changing the law, the following unfortunate aspects of the rules will remain:

  • Federal agencies must use religiously neutral criteria to determine grant recipients; they cannot take political or religious affiliation into account during the grant awarding process.
  • FBOs that receive only "indirect financial assistance" are not subject to the rule's restrictions. "Indirect financial assistance" includes voucher-like programs where the beneficiary can choose a service provider and the government simply picks up the bill.
  • FBOs have no restrictions on their hiring practices; they are permitted to discriminate against current or potential employees based on religion.
  • FBOs are not required to "secularize" their name, mission statement, or, notably, the space in which they provide secular services. The rules specifically state that FBOs are allowed to leave up "religious art, icons, scriptures, or other symbols".

Please see FFRF's comment or the proposed rule itself for more details!

Overall, these changes should go a long way toward ensuring that taxpayer funds are not used to promote religion through the guise of secular social services. FBOs should now be held accountable if they proselytize while providing federally funded services. Such practices have always been illegal, but the government has stepped up its enforcement of these important limitations.


Submit your own comment on the proposed USAID rule change by going to this website and clicking on the green button on the right, "SUBMIT A FORMAL COMMENT."

Please tell the USAID that you support additional safeguards against faith-based organizations using federal funds to promote religion, but you would prefer that the rules went further by limiting the use of federal tax dollars entirely to secular purposes!

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Gaylor v. Risser


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