The Freedom From Religion Foundation is poised to sue the chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives over the refusal to allow Dan Barker, an atheist, to deliver the opening invocation before the House.
FFRF is representing Barker, a lifetime member and co-president of FFRF.
No nontheist has ever been allowed to give the House invocation, despite the fact that the nonreligious make up almost 24 percent of the population.
From the years 2000 to 2015, 96.7 percent of the invocations have been Christian, 2.7 percent Jewish, 0.4 percent Muslim and 0.2 percent Hindu. More than a third were delivered by guest chaplains.
The lawsuit is being readied for a May filing, more than 18 months after the Rev. Patrick Conroy, a Roman Catholic priest who has been House chaplain since 2011, was first asked to permit Barker to give an invocation. House Speaker Paul Ryan is also named because he's the presiding officer whose duties include overseeing other House officers, including the chaplain.
FFRF Staff Attorneys Sam Grover and Andrew Seidel first met with the chaplain's office in 2014, asking about a nonreligious citizen delivering the opening invocation. The aides, Assistant to the Chaplain Elisa Aglieco and Chaplain's Liaison to Staff Karen Bronson, will also be named as defendants.
No written requirements exist, but the chaplain's office replied that someone could give the invocation (1) if they are sponsored by a member of the House, (2) they are ordained, and (3) they do not directly address House members but instead address a "higher power."
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, who represents Barker in Congress, requested in February 2015 that the chaplain's office invite Barker, a former minister who retains a valid ordination. Pocan provided Barker's requested information, biography and ordinance certificate. Conroy then asked for something other applicants haven't been required to provide — a draft of the proposed remarks, expressing doubt Barker could craft an appropriate invocation.
When no permission was forthcoming, Barker provided his remarks in June 2015. Barker proposed saying there is no power higher than "We, the people of these United States," and invoking "the 'spirit' of the founding patriot Thomas Paine, a non-Christian deist who argued for Common Sense over dogma."
Four months passed without a word. When recontacted, the chaplain's office, insultingly, claimed it did not think Pocan's request was "genuine."
FFRF is planning to sue both under the Fifth Amendment's due process clause, and, in a novel twist, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. RFRA is the statute under which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Hobby Lobby's decision to meddle in its female employees' contraceptive decisions. RFRA states that the federal government, which includes the house chaplain, "shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability," unless the government demonstrates that the burden "is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest" and "is the least restrictive means of furthering" that interest.
FFRF plans to argue that the chaplain's office is putting substantial pressure on Barker to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs. FFRF is also planning to invoke Article VI, Section III of the U.S. Constitution, which states that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification of any office or public trust."
FFRF will be asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to declare that barring atheists and other nonreligious individuals from the position of guest chaplain violates the Constitution and RFRA, that requiring guest chaplains to invoke a supernatural power violates Article VI, and to enjoin the defendants from barring otherwise qualified atheist and nonreligious individuals from delivering the opening invocation before the U.S. House.
After being denied a request to put up a display in a city park, FFRF has sued the city of Shelton, Conn., and its mayor and parks director.
FFRF, along with member and local resident Jerome H. Bloom, filed suit March 22 in U.S. District Court, Connecticut.
The American Legion has been allowed to erect a display, featuring heralding angels, every December for at least four years in Shelton's Constitution Park. The Legion claims its organization was founded to acknowledge "God as the source of all our rights and freedoms."
FFRF's suit challenges the city for allowing the park to have a religious display, but not a nonreligious one.
"The angel display in the park constitutes not only a religious display, but one with a sectarian message, since the display is put up every December to coincide with the traditional celebration of the birth of Jesus, as heralded by angels," FFRF charges in the suit.
Megan Spicer of the Connecticut Law Tribune pointed out that Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, sides with FFRF.
"These are clearly losing cases for the local governments," he told Spicer. "The reason they're [FFRF] bringing these forward is because it's the only way to challenge the government's favoring religion over nonreligion. They're trying to get the government to be more consistent under the First Amendment and not take sides."
When Bloom and FFRF sought permission last November to counter such religiosity by placing a sign asserting, among other things, that there are "no angels," they were turned down because the city deemed it "offensive to many."
FFRF made three more attempts to resolve the dispute, but no satisfactory resolution occurred.
The city's Mayor Mark A. Lauretti and Parks Director Ronald Herrick are co-defendants in the lawsuit.
FFRF and Bloom are seeking a judgment that the city's censorship has violated their free speech rights under the First and 14th Amendments, as well as their equal protection rights, and a judgment enjoining the city from excluding their display in the future, as well as nominal damages and reasonable legal costs.
The case was filed in the courtroom of Judge Janet Bond Arterton (appointed by President Clinton) on behalf of the plaintiffs by Laurence J. Cohen of Springfield, Mass., with FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell and FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne serving as co-counsel. FFRF v. City of Shelton has case number 3:16-cv-00477.
FFRF has renewed its court challenge against a housing allowance in the tax code that uniquely privileges clergy.
FFRF filed the federal lawsuit in the Western District of Wisconsin on April 6, naming as defendants Jacob Lew, U.S. secretary of the treasury, and John Koskinen, IRS commissioner.
The clergy allowance is not a tax deduction but an exemption—allowing housing allowances paid as part of clergy salary to be subtracted from taxable income. Rep. Peter Mack, the sponsor of the 1954 law that put this allowance into place, argued that ministers should be rewarded for "carrying on such a courageous fight against this [a godless and anti-religious world movement]."
The plaintiffs are FFRF itself, as well as FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, whose housing allowance allocation by FFRF was denied by the IRS.
"There is $700 million in annual benefit at stake, and the tax and religious worlds will be watching as the case once again begins its foray through the legal system," Tony Nitti writes in Forbes.
In 2013, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled in FFRF's favor.
"Some might view a rule against preferential treatment as exhibiting hostility toward religion, but equality should never be mistaken for hostility," Crabb wrote. "It is important to remember that the establishment clause protects the religious and nonreligious alike."
Crabb's finding sent "shockwaves through the religious community," according to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, which bitterly fought the ruling.
"We call this our David vs. Goliath challenge," said Gaylor, because virtually all major denominations and many minor congregations — including Unitarians, Muslim and Jewish groups — weighed in with amicus briefs against FFRF's challenge to religious privilege.
In November 2014, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out that victory — not on the merits, but on the question of standing — arguing that Barker and Gaylor hadn't yet sought a refund of their housing allowance from the IRS.
Accordingly, Barker and Gaylor sought refunds last year, as did FFRF's president emerita, Anne Gaylor, whose retirement payout included a housing allowance. The IRS refunded the housing allowance to the married couple for the year 2013, but denied the refund request for 2012. Similarly, the IRS held up the refund request for the senior Gaylor, who subsequently died in June. Ian Gaylor, her son, is additionally named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit on behalf of the Anne Nicol Gaylor estate.
The benefit of the tax exemption to the clergy is huge. The congressional Joint Committee on Taxation has reported that the exemption amounts to $700 million a year in lost revenue. Religious News Service calculated the allowance reduces the take-home pay of some pastors by up to 10 percent. Christianity Today found that 84 percent of senior pastors receive a housing allowance of $20,000 to $38,000 in added (but not reported) compensation to their base salary.
"The manner in which our housing allowance has been used borders on clergy malpractice," William Thornton, a Georgia pastor and blogger, told Forbes magazine in 2013. "A growing subset of ministers who are very highly paid and who live in multimillion dollar mansions are able to exclude hundreds of thousands of dollars from income taxation."
Clergy are permitted to use the housing allowance not just for rent or mortgage, but also for home improvements, including maintenance, home improvements and repairs, dishwashers, cable TV and phone fees, paint, towels, bedding, home décor, even personal computers and bank fees. They may be exempt from taxable income up to the fair market rental value of their home, particularly helping well-heeled pastors. The subsidy extends to churches, which can pay clergy less, as tax-free salaries go further.
FFRF is asking the court to rule unconstitutional IRS 26 U.S.C. §107 as administered by the IRS and the Treasury Department because it provides preferential and discriminatory tax benefits to ministers of the gospel. FFRF's complaint alleges that the section "directly benefits ministers and churches, most significantly by lowering a minister's tax burden, while discriminating against the individual plaintiffs, who as the leaders of a nonreligious organization opposed to governmental endorsements of religion are denied the same benefit."
The case was filed on behalf of FFRF by litigator Richard L. Bolton. Gaylor et al v. U.S. Treasury has case number 3:16-cv-00215.
Name: Alyssa Schaefer
Where and when I was born: I was born in a suburb of Chicago a week before Christmas. However, I spent most of my adolescence in Wausau, Wis.
Education: I earned a B.S. in international affairs with a concentration in security policy from the George Washington University. I also spent a semester abroad in Brussels, Belgium.
How I came to work at FFRF: I had moved back to Wisconsin after going to school/working on the East Coast and was on the hunt for a job in the nonprofit world. I discovered the job posting, did some research on FFRF, realized that I agreed with the foundation's mission, and applied. The rest, as they say, is history.
What I do here: I'm FFRF's program assistant. My job tends to vary from day to day, depending on the needs of the foundation. One constant is overseeing FFRF's shop.
What I like best about it: The people here are quite amazing.
What gets old about it: I really dislike the cranks that call looking for a fight.
I spend a lot of time thinking about: The intersections of philosophy with other academic fields and popular culture, both past and present. Right now I am on an Existentialism kick. Just this past week I watched the season finale of the TV show "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and it was a modern-day homage to Sartre's "No Exit."
I spend little, if any, time thinking about: The NFL. I honestly don't know which teams were in this year's Super Bowl.
My religious upbringing was: Catholic. There were two Catholic churches in my hometown. One church focused on Jesus and being a good person, while the other was more focused on fire and brimstone. I went to the former, and although I had issues with Catholicism, the community at the church was a real positive one.
My doubts about religion started: At the age of 8 or 9. In Sunday school I had difficulty putting behind me the discrepancies between the stories of Jesus, with his messages of kindness and compassion, and God, who seemed to be quite a terrifying and cruel guy. I became particularly distraught over the story of the ark when I was that age, unable to wrap my head around the idea that God destroyed all but two of each of all land animals just because he was angry with the humans.
Things I like: Cheese, the great outdoors, sloths, book sales, and my crazy cat Lola.
Things I smite: Cockroaches, bar crawls, and "God's Not Dead 2."
In my golden years: When I retire, I hope to become a docent at either an art museum or a natural history museum.
By Brian Bolton
Williamson County, Texas, may be the most politically and religiously conservative governmental entity in the United States. Only Republicans are elected to public office and they often tout their alleged Christian credentials.
For example, the incumbent district attorney compared herself to Jesus, explaining that "Christ's example shows us that doing what's right often comes at a price" (she spent a weekend in jail for disobeying a judge's order), while vilifying her opponent in full-page advertisements as an ally of dangerous criminals.
With a population of 50,000 and more than 70 Christian churches, Georgetown (where I live) is the county seat. A historic courthouse dominates the downtown square. Sprawling Williamson County, with a population approaching one half million, is governed by a judge and four commissioners. They are paid about $100,000 a year.
Three very different newspapers are available in Georgetown. The Williamson County Sun is a moderately conservative, semi-weekly newspaper that reports local news. The Georgetown Advocate is published biweekly and promotes an incendiary blend of Tea Party politics and fundamentalist zealotry that features virulent anti-Obama tirades. The Good News Journal is a bimonthly "Judeo-Christian newspaper that delivers a message of hope, inspiration, and patriotism."
The following examples illustrate how fundamentalist extremism can thoroughly infuse, infect and distort community values.
A Williamson County constable resigned from his position in mid-term three years ago. The county commissioners decided that they would handle the replacement process. After inviting applications, they interviewed the top five candidates.
The county judge and three of four commissioners interrogated the nominees, asking a series of questions about religious affiliation and participation and views on abortion and same-sex marriage. Three of the rejected candidates filed a federal lawsuit against the judge and commissioners. Two subsequently settled for monetary damages, and one continued to court. Almost every high school student knows that the U.S. Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office. Not only did the county judge and the commissioners demonstrate contempt for a basic constitutional principle, they actually rationalized their behavior by stating that voters in the next election would ask the same questions!
The total cost to the taxpayers was well over half a million dollars for this official governmental bigotry. One remarkable irony is that the recalcitrant commissioners were represented in court by Rudy Giuliani's law firm, since he is an advocate of women's reproductive rights and supports marriage equality!
This scenario would be unbelievable anywhere except in Williamson County, Texas.
Speaking at the ground-breaking for a fundamentalist megachurch in Georgetown, the local state senator said, "Our nation was built on the cornerstones of Christ, the church, the family and the community." The Georgetown mayor proclaimed "Georgetown Vacation Liberty School Week" at a council meeting. The Vacation Liberty School merges traditional summer bible school with Christian nation propaganda: "Our goal is to teach students to understand that no matter what they might have heard, America is a Judeo-Christian based culture."
The editor of the Advocate suggested in a signed editorial that the public schools are not teaching that the U.S. is a Christian nation in order to be "progressive" or politically correct. His opinion supports the distrustful attitude toward public schools expressed in the goal statement of the Vacation Liberty School.
After the Good News Journal published an article titled, "Prayer That Birthed a Nation," which claimed that delegates to the Constitutional Convention began each session with "prayer for God's guidance and wisdom," I wrote to the managing editor and publisher explaining that Benjamin Franklin's motion to begin each session with prayer was not adopted.
No correction or apology to readers was ever issued. Interestingly, the publisher had previously written in a brief editorial statement that, "Truth is hidden in scandals, bad media and lies." Remember, this is a self-described Judeo-Christian newspaper!
I wrote to a reporter asking that the Sun give more attention to the American majority viewpoint than to a small minority of anti-abortion extremists. That informal note was published as a letter to the editor, and then a personal attack on me was published in response.
The author of the letter said that I write articles about atheism and spew an anti-God secular agenda. He wondered why people like me choose to live in Georgetown, where God, family and country still have deep roots.
My reply, which summarized what the bible actually says (and doesn't say) about abortion, was finally published six weeks later after I pressed an argument based on journalistic ethical responsibility.
Within a month of publication of my letter, the editorial assistant who initiated the episode lost his position and one month later the managing editor left the Sun. A cause and effect inference would not be unreasonable because the cautious publisher carefully avoids the abortion controversy.
I also wrote a letter to the editor of the Advocate responding to the false assertion that the bible prohibits abortion. The confused author based her claim entirely on the pronouncement that "God knew us when we were still in our mother's womb." Like several other passages that refer to the womb, this verse does not condemn or prohibit abortion.
My letter, which explained that there is no biblical basis for the assault on women's reproductive rights, was not published. The Advocate does not tolerate any opinions that contradict fundamentalist Christian dogma.
The Georgetown Life Chain conducts an annual street-side demonstration where 100 activists hold signs such as "Abortion kills children" (which is not true) and pray for the end of abortion. Some people driving by honk their support. From this evidence, the local organizer concluded, "Georgetown is pro-life."
An anti-abortion operation called the Heidi Group, with the demonstrably false motto "God Loves the Unborn," alleged that comprehensive sexuality education programs in the schools encourage teen sexual activity, illustrating the confused ideas that permeate the anti-abortion movement.
Finally, six anti-abortion protesters demonstrated outside the local Bank of America branch, with a display saying that the "Bank of Abortion donates to Planned Parenthood." Actually, the bank matches employees' contributions to all approved charitable organizations.
Christian football legend Tim Tebow visited a Georgetown evangelical megachurch for Easter Sunday service. He gave his popular testimony in a 20-minute interview conducted by the pastor.
Reflecting the size of this resurrection celebration, 15,000 attendees were transported to the church by 110 chartered school buses. The big trouble began the following Wednesday when the Sun published a front-page story with numerous photographs under the banner headline, "Tim Tebow Has Risen, Indeed."
The reaction to the headline was immediate and vociferous. Letter writers called it offensive to Christians and disrespectful to their lord and savior Jesus Christ. In a groveling apology, the editor declared that he was "deeply sorry" and assured readers that he was a devout, lifelong Christian. He concluded by calling Jesus "the most important figure in history."
The fundamentalist blitzkrieg not only brought the editor to his knees, he became increasingly defensive and belligerent in responding to reader criticism. Few people in the community were surprised when the editor announced his resignation and moved to Colorado at the end of the year. Ironically, he had received an award from the Texas Press Association for excellence in headline writing a few months earlier!
Despite the radical political and religious views and the occasional unconstitutional activities, Georgetown is generally a good community in which to live. The government operates efficiently and there are few major problems. The residents are friendly and helpful and controversies are always resolved peaceably.
The real problem for nonbelievers in predominantly Christian communities is the relentless effort of the radical fundamentalist minority who want to impose their extreme ideas on everyone else. Mainstream Christians and members of smaller sects are reluctant to engage in combat with the self-righteous zealots out of fear of being labeled un-Christian or worse.
Nonreligious Americans have legitimate reasons to be concerned about fanatical fundamentalist activism. Texas is one of the seven states that still have prohibitions against unbelievers holding public office or serving on juries. Moreover, the neo-fundamentalist agenda would not permit atheists or agnostics to teach school, adopt children or even to vote.
Finally, while the River Rock Bible Church held two Christmas Eve services in the historic courthouse and Bethlehem Village was a prominent feature of the Christmas extravaganza on the square, there was one positive note: The Georgetown Utilities System wished all residents "Happy Holidays."
FFRF Life member Brian Bolton, who lives in Georgetown, Texas, is a retired psychologist, humanist minister and sponsor of FFRF's graduate essay contest. The executive wing of FFRF's office bears his name.
This article originally ran in the Arizona Republic on Feb. 8, 2016, and is reprinted with permission.
By Dianne Post
The chaos at the Phoenix City Council meeting on Feb. 3 is precisely why religion and government should be kept completely separate. To try and enforce one viewpoint is not only contrary to the Constitution, law and founders, it's contrary to common sense.
The First Amendment is clear and cannot be overturned by majority vote. As Thomas Jefferson said, "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment or religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof' thus building a wall of separation between church and state."
The First Amendment is not the only place in the Constitution that prohibits religion. In Article VI, paragraph 3, it states that elected representatives are bound by an oath to the Constitution, not the bible, and that "... no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."
When John Kennedy ran for office in 1960 as the first Catholic, he had to be very clear that, "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute — where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote — where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference — and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs."
Yet today, from presidential candidates down to city council members, public officials are racing to establish their religious bona fides, religious schools are siphoning off public tax dollars, preachers tell their parishioners how to vote and Catholic bishops dictate medical treatment to doctors.
This does not make religion or society stronger.
In fact, James Madison said, "It was the universal opinion of the century preceding the last, that civil government could not stand without the prop of a religious establishment, and that the (Christian) religion itself, would perish if not supported by a legal provision for its clergy. The experience of Virginia conspicuously corroborates the disproof of both opinions. The civil government though bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy possesses the requisite stability and performs its functions with complete success; whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the state."
Other presidents, too, such as Rutherford B. Hayes, have pointed out that both the public and the private spheres are stronger when they are kept separate: "We all agree that neither the government nor political parties ought to interfere with religious sects. It is equally true that religious sects ought not to interfere with the government or with political parties," Hayes wrote. "We believe that the cause of good government and the cause of religion suffer by all such interference."
Jimmy Carter needs not burnish his religious credentials, and he, too, said, "I think the government ought to stay out of the prayer business . . ."
Too many have today forgotten the lessons of our history. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "The lessons of religious toleration — a toleration which recognizes complete liberty of human thought, liberty of conscience — is one which, by precept and example, must be inculcated in the hearts and minds of all Americans if the institutions of our democracy are to be maintained and perpetuated."
An Iraq War veteran, who spoke at the Phoenix City Council hearing, described how in that country members of one sect kill others just because they believe in something different. Council Member Thelda Williams said she received death threats, and another public official told me she received hate mail for suggesting an imam give an invocation.
This hatred and fear as demonstrated at the City Council meeting are precisely why religion and government must remain separate. Religions are protected from government meddling and interference with their ideas of faith and conscience, and those of us who are nonreligious or of minority religions are also protected from government or religions interfering with our ideas and our conscience.
We should listen to the wisdom of our founders and the words of our Constitution and eliminate all public invocations.
Dianne Post is an international human rights attorney who represented battered women and children in Phoenix for 18 years before embarking on international work in the field of gender violence. See "Meet a Member" profile on this page for more.
Name: Dianne Post
Where I live: Phoenix.
Where and when I was born: I was born in Muscoda, Wis., halfway between Madison and Dubuque, in January 1947.
Family: Two sisters, one in Milwaukee and one in California; two brothers, both in Muscoda.
Education: I received my bachelor's degree in correctional administration in 1969 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I worked with Anne Nicol Gaylor on women's abortion rights. Then I was off to California for my first professional job as a parole officer and then to graduate school in San Jose in psychology. Then I moved back to Wisconsin to work in a series of jobs around the state with alcoholics and the mentally challenged. Psychology was not for me, so I applied to only one law school and got in — UW-Madison. After graduating in December 1979, I left for the sunny and hot clime of Arizona and have been here ever since.
Occupation: International human rights lawyer. My last gig was in Moldova in November 2015 training judges on women's rights and LGBT rights.
How I got where I am today: Hard work, stubbornness, brains and guts.
Where I'm headed: Well, I wanted to be the first woman president, but that doesn't seem too likely. I'll settle for making maximum use of the talents I have to bring about a better world before I leave it.
Person in history I admire and why: Charlotte Gilman Perkins was the ultimate in women rebels of her time. She left her marriage, gave up her child, saved herself from insanity and wrote profound books to lead the way for those who came after her.
A quotation I like: "There was a time when religion ruled the world. It is known as the Dark Ages." – Ruth Hurmence Green.
These are a few of my favorite things: The cosmos, hummingbirds, books.
These are not: Mosquitos, temperatures more than 110 degrees.
My doubts about religion started: When I was sent to Sunday school. I was the kid who asked all those impossible-to-answer questions: "But teacher, we learned in school that you can't turn water into wine." I was told that these were just mysteries that people were not meant to understand and to stop asking questions. That didn't sit well. In high school, a very enlightened Presbyterian minister moved to town and I babysat his kids and started going to his church. He encouraged questions and didn't hesitate to say he didn't understand, either. Not surprisingly, he left the church himself after three particularly horrible events. By the time I was 16, I was done with religion.
Before I die: I'd love to see a socialist woman president.
Ways I promote freethought: Agitating against prayer in governmental spaces. I gave the first (as far as I know) secular invocation in Phoenix in February 2015. That practice is now ended and we turn our sights toward the state Capitol!
A Texas school district has removed a bible quote from its website following an FFRF complaint.
The Troup Independent School District's official website on its homepage prominently featured a bible quote from 1 Samuel 17:48: "As Goliath moved closer to attack, David quickly ran out to meet him."
"It is well settled that public schools may not advance or promote religion," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote Stuart Bird, superintendent of the Troup Independent School District, in January. "No public school may urge religious viewpoints on students by granting special status to a religious text like the bible."
The story of David and Goliath as told in the bible is not just a tale of an underdog triumphing over great odds, but is also a story about the power of the Judeo-Christian god, FFRF explained. Before David strikes down Goliath, he states, "You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied." (1 Samuel 17:45). Indeed, David explicitly states, "All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord's, and he will give all of you into our hands." (1 Samuel 17:47). This is a story meant to convert readers to Judeo-Christianity.
Quoting a bible story about the power of the Judeo-Christian god on the district's website shows its preference for Judeo-Christianity over all minority religions and over nonreligion, FFRF contended. By doing this, the district unconstitutionally lent its power and prestige to Christianity, thereby excluding the nearly 30 percent of adult Americans who are non-Christian and the more than 43 percent of Millennials who practice a minority religion or no religion at all. FFRF asked that the quote be removed from the homepage.
FFRF has learned that the Troup Independent School District modified its website. While the website still references the story of David and Goliath, this is a prominent story in popular culture and contemporary literature. Thus, it's not unconstitutional for the district to reference the story. It was the bible citation that constituted a religious endorsement and that has been removed.
The University of South Carolina football program has let go of its chaplain after the FFRF complained about him last year.
"South Carolina's football team has parted ways with longtime team chaplain Adrian Despres," reports The State newspaper, adding that "his position came under some criticism when the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter of complaint in August, requesting the elimination of the chaplaincy in the USC football program."
Indeed, FFRF's report on unconstitutional Christian chaplains in college football programs highlighted the University of South Carolina as one of the major offenders. FFRF's Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote to USC President Harris Pastides asking him to abolish the chaplaincy.
FFRF had charged that Despres preached creationism and proselytized public university students while being paid $4,500 by the University of South Carolina during the 2014 football season. He was supposedly a "character coach" hired to counsel players and speak to recruits, but in reality he was paid to preach and recruit new football players.
In truth, he functioned as the team chaplain, asserted FFRF, with then-head coach Steve Spurrier calling him "preacher" or "reverend." Despres preached a series of sermons called "Christian Man Laws" to players, teaching them to "stop being sissies for Christ."
South Carolina's chaplaincy dates back to 1994. Adrian Despres apparently took over in 1999.
After ending Despres' 16-year run as chaplain, coach Will Muschamp responded to criticism by saying that FFRF has "zero to do with any decisions I make."
FFRF has effectively killed off a crusading public school mascot.
Ken Caryl Middle School in Littleton, Colo., has a "crusader" as its mascot. The figure is a cloaked knight holding a shield and sword. Latin crosses on the tunic and shield mark him out to be a member of Knights Templar, one of the most feared fighting units in the Crusades.
FFRF reminded the school district that a school mascot should not be derived from the Crusades, since they were incredibly divisive and violent. The Crusaders were zealous warriors who slaughtered Jews, Muslims and other Christians in the name of religion. The whole effort was a disaster that to this day mars the West's relationship with the Middle East.
FFRF pointed out to the school district that a lot of universities and organizations, including Christian outfits, with crusader-type mascots have gotten rid of them in recent years. It urged the school to do so, too.
The school district indicated that it would be heeding FFRF's advice.
"The district is in the process of forming a diverse group of parents, students, staff and community members to consider your feedback and develop and/or review submissions for a new mascot/logo for Ken Caryl Middle School," Dan McMinimee, superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, replied in a March 15 email. "We anticipate the process to be finished by the start of the next school year."
DAN BARKER and ANNIE LAURIE GAYLOR are co-presidents of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and co-hosts of Freethought Radio. A former minister and evangelist, Dan became a freethinker in 1983. His books, Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children and Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher To Atheist (1992) are published by FFRF. Other books include Godless (Ulysses Press, 2008), The Good Atheist: Living a Purpose-Filled Life Without God (Pitchstone Publishing, 2011), Life Driven Purpose: How an Atheist Finds Meaning, Pitchstone Press (2015) and GOD: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction (Sterling Publications, 2016). A graduate of Azusa Pacific University with a degree in religion, Dan now puts his knowledge of Christianity to effective freethought use. A professional pianist and composer, Dan performs freethought concerts and is featured in FFRF’s musical CDs, "Friendly Neighborhood Atheist," "Beware of Dogma,” and “Adrift on a Star." He joined FFRF's staff in 1987, serving as public relations director. He was first elected co-president in November 2004, speaks widely and has engaged in more than 100 debates about religion.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, a third-generation freethinker, co-founded FFRF with her mother Anne Gaylor as a college student in 1976. She served as editor of Freethought Today, FFRF’s newspaper, from 1985 to 2009. Her book, Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So, first published by FFRF in 1981, is in its 4th printing. In 1988, FFRF published Betrayal of Trust: Clergy Abuse of Children, the first book documenting widespread sexual abuse by clergy. Her 1997 anthology, Women Without Superstition: 'No Gods, No Masters,’ is the first collection of the writings of historic and contemporary women freethinkers. A 1980 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Journalism School, she was an award-winning student reporter and recipient of the Ken Purdy scholarship. After graduation, she founded, edited and published the Feminist Connection, a monthly advocacy newspaper, from 1980-1985. She first joined the FFRF staff in 1985. She has been co-president since 2004. In the late 1970s, her student protest ended commencement prayers at the UW-Madison. She has been plaintiff in or overseen many state/church lawsuits and actions by FFRF. Dan and Annie Laurie have appeared on a variety of TV news shows, including “Oprah,” “O’Reilly,” “Good Morning America,” Univision, CNN and FOX news segments, CBS Evening News and ABC World News Tonight.
Photo: Timothy Hughes
FFRF President emerita
ANNE NICOL GAYLOR was a founder and president emerita of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. She served as executive director from 1978 to 2005, and worked as a consultant to the Foundation. Born in rural Wisconsin, she was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She owned and managed successful small businesses and was co-owner and editor of an award-winning suburban weekly newspaper. A feminist author, she did substantial volunteer work for women's rights (including serving as volunteer director of the Women's Medical Fund). Under her leadership the Freedom From Religion Foundation has grown from its initial three Wisconsin members to a national group with representation in every state and Canada.
Director of Operations
LISA STRAND is director of operations of FFRF. Previously, she was the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Library Association. She has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, both as a staff member and volunteer leader, including having served as board president of the Wisconsin Society of Association Executives and the Community Action Coalition of South Central Wisconsin. She has a B.A. from the University of Minnesota. Lisa is married with a daughter, as well as three cats, a guinea pig and an untended garden that will someday be beautiful.
REBECCA S. MARKERT attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and received her B.A. in political science, international relations and German in 1998. After graduating from UW–Madison, Rebecca spent one year working as a legislative fellow at the German Parliament in Bonn, Germany. In the fall 1999, she returned to the United States and began working as a legislative correspondent and assistant to the chief of staff for United States Senator Russ Feingold in Washington, D.C. In 2002, she returned to Madison, Wisconsin, to work on Senator Feingold’s 2004 re-election campaign. After the campaign, Rebecca attended Roger Williams University School of Law and received her Juris Doctor in 2008. She joined the Foundation staff in October 2008.
Rebecca is the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s first staff attorney and primarily works on Establishment Clause cases. She is a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin, Dane County Bar Association, and is admitted to practice in the United States District Court for the Eastern and Western Districts of Wisconsin.
PATRICK ELLIOTT, the Foundation's second staff attorney, hails from St. Paul, Minn. Patrick received a degree in legal studies and political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005. He attended the University of Wisconsin Law School and received his Juris Doctor in 2009. While in school, Patrick took an interest in the First Amendment and constitutional law. He joined FFRF as a staff attorney in July 2010, after working part-time for the Foundation since February. Patrick is a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin, and is admitted to practice in the United States District Court for the Western and Eastern Districts of Wisconsin.
ANDREW SEIDEL graduated cum laude from Tulane University with a B.S. in neuroscience and environmental science and magna cum laude from Tulane University Law School, where he was awarded the Haber J. McCarthy Award for excellence in environmental law. He studied human rights and international law at the University of Amsterdam and traveled the world on Semester at Sea. In May of 2011, Andrew completed his Master of Laws at Denver University Sturm College of Law with a 4.0 GPA and was awarded the Outstanding L.L.M. Award. He has written a book on International Human Rights Law and his essay on the role of religion in government and the founding of our nation placed second in the FFRF's 2010 graduate student essay contest. Andrew is a former Grand Canyon tour guide and accomplished nature photographer; his work has been displayed in galleries in Colorado, Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and Maryland. He joined the FFRF staff as a constitutional consultant in November 2011.
ELIZABETH CAVELL received her B.A in English from the University of Florida in 2005. After college, Elizabeth spent a year as a full-time volunteer in AmeriCorps*NCCC. She attended Tulane University Law School and received her Juris Doctor in 2009. After law school, she worked as a deputy public defender in southern Colorado. She joined the Foundation as a staff attorney in January 2013, after working for the Foundation part-time since September 2012.
SAM GROVER received his B.A. in philosophy and government from Wesleyan University in 2008. He first worked for FFRF in 2010 as a legal intern while attending Boston University School of Law. In 2011, his article on the religious exemptions in the Affordable Care Act’s individual health insurance mandate was published in the American Journal of Law and Medicine. After receiving his J.D. from Boston University in 2012, Sam worked as a law clerk for the Vermont Office of Legislative Council where he drafted legislation on health care, human services, and tax issues. He returned to work as a constitutional consultant for FFRF in the fall of 2013. Sam has written a paper on counterterrorism and the law that was published by the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism in Oklahoma City and has traveled to southern Africa to work under Justice Unity Dow of Botswana’s High Court.
MADELINE ZIEGLER graduated magna cum laude from the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse in 2011 with a B.A. in English Literature and Political Science. She attended the University of Wisconsin Law School and received her Juris Doctor in 2014. She has worked at FFRF in some capacity since May 2012, starting as a legal intern/extern, and currently works as a legal fellow.
RYAN JAYNE received a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Honors College in 2007. After graduating, Ryan taught piano and chess lessons while working as a financial advisor until 2012, when he began law school at Lewis & Clark in Portland, Oregon. In law school he focused on intellectual property and animal law, serving as an associate editor for the Animal Law Review at Lewis & Clark and co-founding the Pacific Northwest’s first Secular Legal Society. Ryan graduated cum laude in 2015, began working with FFRF in January of 2015, and became a Diane Uhl Legal Fellow in September, 2015, specializing in faith-based government funding.
WHITNEY STEFFEN is FFRF’s Legal Assistant. Whitney is a Madison native who graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison with a B.A. in English in 2011. Whitney received a Paralegal Post-Baccalaureate diploma from Madison College in 2014 and previously worked as a paralegal at a small law firm before coming to FFRF. She enjoys watching the Wisconsin State Senate and Assembly from the galleries, reading, and spending time with her four cats.
ALYSSA SCHAEFER is FFRF’s Program Assistant. She graduated from The George Washington University in 2014 with a BA in International Affairs, concentrating in Security Policy. A native of Wisco, she recently moved back to Madison from the east coast. In her free time Alyssa enjoys traveling, exploring the great outdoors, live music, and lazy Sundays with her cat Lola.
PJ SLINGER is editor of Freethought Today. A Green Bay native, he has a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has worked as a sports reporter, news reporter, copy editor, web editor and photo editor in newspapers in Marshall (Minn.), Mankato (Minn.) and Madison (Wis). Prior to coming to FFRF in 2015, he worked for 15 years at The Capital Times in Madison. He has a wife and three kids.
BILL DUNN is the editor of Freethought Today. He has a degree in history and mass communications (journalism emphasis) from the University of South Dakota and has worked as a reporter, copy editor and editor in South Dakota and Wisconsin since 1980. Bill joined the Foundation staff in July 2009. He has two daughters, Kaitlin Marie and Jamie Lee.
LAURYN SEERING is the publicist, assistant webmaster & communications coordianator. She was born in Wausau, Wis. and studied abroad in Nagasaki, Japan. Lauryn graduated from the UW-Stout in 2012 with her BS in Professional Communications and Emerging Media, concentrating in Technical Communication & International Studies. Lauryn moved to Madison in 2013 and enjoys reading about space stuff, biking and creating art at coffee shops.
LISA TREU is our Director Of First Impressions at FFRF. She comes to us after working in broadcasting for iHeart Radio in Madison, Wisconsin. She hosted various radio programs for fifteen years. Lisa and her husband ran their own Birdhouse/Birdfeeder manufacturing company called Northwoods Mfg., Inc. during the 1990’s where she had her own line of decorative birdhouses that she designed and painted herself. Lisa is the wife of Harry and is the mother of twin daughters Katrina and Karinthia. In her spare time she enjoys reading, painting, gardening, feeding the birds, getting silly with her daughters and lounging with her two cats.
AMITABH PAL is the Communications Director of FFRF. Prior to joining in February 2016, he was the Managing Editor of The Progressive magazine for more than a decade. He was also the editor of the Progressive Media Project, an affiliate of The Progressive that sends out op-eds through the Tribune Wire Service to hundreds of newspapers in the United States and other countries. Pal has appeared on C-SPAN and BBC and television and radio stations all over the United States and abroad. His articles have been published in school and college textbooks in the United States and Australia. Pal teaches a course at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. He has a Master's in Journalism from the University of North Carolina and a Master's in Political Science from North Carolina State University.
Executive Board of Directors
JIM BREDESON (Secretary) retired in 2012 from a career in academic and public libraries. He served as a reference librarian at Beloit College, Marquette University, the Wisconsin Historical Society, and as director of the library at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County for 15 years. He has been active in professional organizations and served on the boards of the Council of University of Wisconsin Libraries and Wisconsin Interlibrary Services for several years. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin – Madison in journalism and library/information sciences.
Jim lives in Madison with wife Cheryl and their St Bernard dog, Afton. He has been president of the local neighborhood association board and currently serves on their condominium board committees. He is a lifelong freethinker and has been an FFRF member for two decades.
MIKE CERMAK (Director) lives in rural Pennsylvania with his family and owns several small businesses. He first joined FFRF while in college, after having read “Losing Faith in Faith,” and is passionate about state-church separation. Mike is a private pilot, electric car owner and “evangelist,” and enjoys technology of all kinds.
PATRICIA CLEVELAND, (Director) with her late husband Roger, was a founding member of the long-lived chapter, Alabama Freethought Association (active 1989-2016). Pat and Roger were awarded FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award for being outspoken atheists in the bible belt, and as volunteers for overseeing Lake Hypatia Freethought Advance (Not Retreat) near Talladega. Deeding property to FFRF, they encouraged the national FFRF to build a southern outpost, and, at Pat’s suggestion, also erect a monument to “Atheists in Foxholes.” Pat has been volunteer caretaker of the hall and campgrounds for decades, and as director or co-director of the chapter oversaw several successful lawsuits. She also arranged the annual “Glorious Fourth” of July event at Lake Hypatia Freethought Hall, attracting freethinkers not just from the South but around the country to the rural event. She is a mother and grandmother.
JOE CUNNINGHAM (Director) was born in the back hills of West Virginia, migrated with his family to the Oklahoma oil fields during the Great Depression, later returning to West Virginia, where he attended a one-room school. By high school, his family had moved to Illinois, where he had to float on a plywood boat for a total of 1,440 crossings of the Wabash River to catch the bus for high school. He joined the U.S. Navy after graduation at age 17, serving two years in the Pacific. He graduated from Southern Illinois University, earning both B.S. Ed. and M.S. Ed. degrees, majoring in history and English and taking business courses. He taught in Red Bud High School (Ill.), then in Mascoutah, where he met his wife, Norma Steines. They have two daughters, one a lawyer, one a doctor, and have five grandchildren, one of whom is finishing up her M.D. degree. He is 90 and has been retired for 31 years.
STEPHEN HIRTLE (Chair) is a professor in the School of Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh. He is an organizer with the Steel City Skeptics and the Center for Inquiry Pittsburgh, faculty liaison for the Student Alliance at Pitt and previously hosted a CFI Institute on “Secularism on Campus.” He has been a guest on Freethought Radio and has assisted FFRF in fighting a nativity display at the Ellwood City Municipal Building (a Ten Commandments monument outside Valley High School in New Kensington) and the Year of the Bible resolution passed by the Pennsylvania House.
TODD PEISSIG (Director) grew up in central Wisconsin and still lives there today. He attended the University of Wisconsin Pharmacy School, graduating with a B.S. in Pharmacy in 1989. He has worked as a retail community pharmacist with the Kmart Corporation for 27 years and is currently the pharmacy manager overseeing 5 technicians. Traveling extensively both domestically and worldwide is a great passion of his, as is fighting the battle of religious overreach in our country. He also is an activist fighting for LGBT rights. Todd volunteers a full day for FFRF every six-eight weeks, as well as at FFRF conventions.
STEVE SALEMSON (Treasurer) took early retirement in 2005 after nearly two decades in scholarly publishing, first as business manager of the Duke University Press and then as associate director of the University of Wisconsin Press. In previous lives, he worked as a classical musician and as a French translator and interpreter. He has an M.A. in Liberal Studies from Duke University and a B.A. in Comparative Linguistics from Queens College in New York, as well as degrees in French horn and music pedagogy from the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris. He enjoys biking, downhill skiing, doing crossword puzzles and being a grandfather. In addition to being on the board of the FFRF, he sits on the boards of the Midwest Folk Dance Association and the National Mustard Museum, and so is involved with both nonprofits and non-prophets.
JIM ZERWICK (Director) attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, joined the Navy in 1968, studied Russian at the Defense Language Institute, and served as a communications tech in the Mediterranean area until late 1971. After discharge, he and a buddy toured Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand. He earned a Master’s in Library Science at UW-Madison, worked for several years at the Michigan State University Science Library, and became the engineering librarian at the University of Virginia. There he became hooked on flying ultralight aircraft. Returning to Wisconsin, he spent the following 29 years working as a property manager and assisting his parents as they approached the end of their lives. His mother, Rose Zerwick, who died as a “happy heathen” at 95 in 2013, was a second-generation atheist. Among Jim’s claims to fame is being part of the backup chorus singing Dan Barker’s “The Stay Away Pope Polka” for FFRF. He has been on the Board, initially as treasurer and now as a director at large, for 10 years. He is married to a retired high school teacher who has two grown children and a granddaughter. His three siblings and their spouses “all share a healthy skepticism of religion.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to announce the formation of a new FFRF Honorary Board of distinguished achievers who have made known their dissent from religion.
The FFRF Honorary Board includes Jerry Coyne, Robin Morgan, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Ernie Harburg, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Christopher Hitchens, Susan Jacoby, Mike Newdow, Katha Pollitt, Steven Pinker, Ron Reagan, Oliver Sacks, M.D., Robert Sapolsky, Edward Sorel and Julia Sweeney.
“We are so pleased that these outstanding thinkers and freethinkers have agreed to publicly lend their endorsement to the Foundation, and its two purposes of promoting freethought and the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause,” said Dan Barker, Foundation co-president.
- Jerry Coyne, Ph.D., professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, is author of the popular book 'Why Evolution is True' and the blog of the same name.
- Richard Dawkins, probably the world’s most famous contemporary atheist and a distinguished evolutionary biologist, is Oxford professor emeritus. In his blockbuster book, The God Delusion, Dawkins writes: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.”
- Daniel C. Dennett is Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Tufts, and author of the bestselling book about religion, Breaking the Spell. In a newspaper article about his nonbelief, Dennett once wrote: “I’ve come to realize it’s time to sound the alarm.”
- Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments For the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction and a research associate in Harvard’s psychology department, is FFRF Freethought Heroine of 2011. Goldstein is a 1996 MacArthur Fellow (the “genius” award). She has taught at Barnard and in the Columbia MFA writing program and the Rutgers philosophy department. She’s been a visiting scholar at Brandeis and at Trinity College in Hartford.
- Ernie Harburg, a retired research scientist, is president of Yip Harburg Foundation and co-author of Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz? Ernie has dedicated his retirement to furthering the lyrics, music, memory and progressive views of his freethinking father, the lyricist Yip Harburg, author of classic songs such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and of Rhymes for the Irreverent, recently republished by FFRF.
- Jennifer Michael Hecht, poet, historian and author of the acclaimed Doubt: A History and The End of the Soul, told the FFRF 2009 convention audience: “If there is no god — and there isn't — then we [humans] made up morality. And I'm very impressed.”
- Susan Jacoby, bestselling author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, and program director of the Center for Inquiry-New York City, told FFRF convention-goers in 2004: "[President] Kennedy had to speak about his religion because he was suspected of insufficient dedication to the Constitution's separation of church and state. Today's candidates are suspect if they display too much dedication to secular government."
- Robin Morgan, feminist pioneer, global activist, author of the groundbreaking "Sisterhood is Powerful" and more than 20 books, was formerly Ms. Magazine editor and consulting editor. She is the co-founder of the Feminist Women's Health Network and Women's Media Center and currently hosts "Women's Media Center Live" the radio "talk-show with a brain."
- Mike Newdow is working pro bono to challenge such violations as the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. He told the U.S. Supreme Court during oral arguments: “I am an atheist. I don't believe in God. And every school morning my child is asked to stand up, face that flag, put her hand over her heart, and say that her father is wrong.”
- Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard, is author of The Blank Slate: “I never outgrew my conversion to atheist at 13.”
- Katha Pollitt, “Subject to Debate” columnist for The Nation, author and poet, has spoken out regularly and energetically as a freethinker, in such columns as “Freedom From Religion, Sí!”
- Ron Reagan, media commentator, describes himself in a radio ad he taped for FFRF as: “Unabashed atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”
- Robert Sapolsky, a neurologist, Stanford professor and bestselling author, once suggested FFRF put up a sign at its conventions: “Welcome, hellbound atheists.”
- Edward Sorel, satiric cartoonist and irreverent illustrator who is a regular contributor to The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and whose caricatures have been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, has been a Foundation member since the 1980s.
- Julia Sweeney, comedian and actress, is writer/performer of the play, “Letting Go of God”: “How dare the religious use the term 'born again.' That truly describes freethinkers who've thrown off the shackles of religion so much better!”
- Christopher Hitchens, the iconoclastic journalist, is author of the bestselling God Is Not Great: “Since it is obviously inconceivable that all religions can be right, the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong.”
- Oliver Sacks, M.D., the compassionate neurologist and bestselling author, describes himself as “an old Jewish atheist.”