The Freedom From Religion Foundation has asked a judge to declare a New Jersey county's millions of dollars in grants for church repair a violation of the state constitution.
FFRF and member David Steketee recently submitted their final brief in support of their motion for summary judgment in a lawsuit filed on Dec. 1, 2015. The suit seeks to protect the rights of New Jersey citizens to not be compelled to support religions with which they disagree.
Steketee, a taxpayer in Morris County, and FFRF are contesting grants to churches by the county's Historic Preservation Trust Fund. Since 2012, the board has awarded more than $4.6 million to such entities, which is more than 40 percent of the money disbursed by the fund.
FFRF's case relies on the religious aid prohibition in New Jersey's Constitution, which states that "No person shall . . . be obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary to what he believes to be right or has deliberately and voluntarily engaged to perform."
FFRF's brief points out that the New Jersey Constitution prohibits the government from spending taxes to "repair any churches," and cites cases where the New Jersey Supreme Court and Appellate Court have enforced this provision, even under circumstances that are less clear. Morris County told the court that it didn't spend tax dollars to "repair" churches, but only to "stabilize, rehabilitate, restore, and preserve" them. "Constitutional obligations cannot be escaped with synonyms," FFRF answered. In addition, the county itself used the word "repair" to describe the challenged grants.
Morris County also argues that denying churches access to taxpayer funds would violate the churches' rights, but FFRF explained that this misses the mark. "The county may not prohibit the churches' free exercise of religion, but this does not mean Morris County must pay the churches' repair bills," FFRF asserts. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld state constitutional provisions very similar to New Jersey's, despite similar arguments against them.
FFRF has asked that the court grant FFRF's summary judgment motion, declare that the grants violate the New Jersey Constitution, prohibit Morris County from issuing similar grants in the future, and require the churches to repay the grants they improperly received. The court will hear oral arguments for the case on Oct. 13. Since Morris County has spent tax dollars on the exact thing the state constitution prohibits, FFRF is confident that it will prevail. With this victory, FFRF will ensure that Morris County taxpayers will no longer be forced to finance religious buildings.
The lawsuit is being handled by attorney Paul S. Grosswald. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew L. Seidel and Diane Uhl Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne are co-counsel. FFRF v. Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders, Case No. C-12089-15 is in the Chancery division of Somerset County in New Jersey state court. The judge assigned to the case is Margaret Goodzeit. FFRF's prior brief can be seen here.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to the constitutional separation of state and church, with more than 23,000 members across the country, including almost 500 in New Jersey.
Church must pay property tax on downtown lot in Madison, Wis., that is assessed at $4 million
A Dane County judge has ruled that the Catholic Church must pay taxes on a multimillion–dollar lot it owns in downtown Madison.
Dane County Circuit Court Judge Rhonda Lanford decided on Oct. 4 that a 1.3-acre lot in Madison owned by the Catholic Church is not exempt from property taxes. The Church sued the city last year to recover taxes it paid on the lot, which amount to nearly $100,000 per year.
FFRF filed an amicus curiae brief in June supporting the city of Madison. FFRF's brief questioned how St. Raphael's could retain an exemption while it was really just holding on to the lot as a future site of a $50 million cathedral.
"All Madison taxpayers should not have to pay more taxes while St. Raphael's invests in its other property holdings in Madison and holds the St. Raphael's lot for future development," FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote. "It is precisely for this reason that property must be used to maintain an exemption."
The court granted summary judgment in favor of the city of Madison, holding that land that is tax exempt must be "necessary for the location and convenience of buildings" under Wisconsin law. Since there are no church buildings on the lot, it is taxable.
While the church may some day develop the property, the court found that tax exemptions do not "extend to pre-construction planning of a building." The Church also failed to demonstrate that it was "readying" the property for construction. Judge Lanford noted, "While plaintiff has acquired property in preparation for construction of the new cathedral, it has not submitted plans of any kind into this record."
FFRF is delighted at the ruling.
"This is a victory for taxpayers," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Churches cannot be allowed to abuse tax exemptions by holding on to valuable real estate and expecting local governments to look the other way when they fail to actually use the property for exempt purposes."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Madison, Wis.-based national state/church watchdog organization with more than 23,000 nonreligious members all over the country, including 1,300-plus in Wisconsin.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is renewing its objection to several public university football chaplaincies.
FFRF initially contacted the schools in August of last year to complain about their respective chaplaincy programs as part of a broad national report titled "Pray to Play."
This August, FFRF contacted five major universities still not in compliance with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Those schools are Georgia Tech, the University of Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, the University of Missouri and the University of South Carolina. FFRF plans to contact more noncompliant universities throughout the fall.
Most of the schools involved try to get around the unconstitutionality argument by claiming that any religious services or activities are purely voluntary. But the idea that such religious activities are truly optional is questionable, at best.
FFRF's "Pray to Play" report concluded that "athletes do not view coaches' suggestions as optional." Moreover, "coaches add to this pressure by sending chaplains to talk with players going through difficult times, instead of allowing players to seek out their own religious or professional counseling."
"Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation," FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote in a letter to Georgia Tech President G.P. Peterson.
Additionally, these schools employ only Christian chaplains, showing an unconstitutional preference for Christianity. This is in spite of the fact that 44 percent of college-aged Americans are non-Christian and fully a third of millennials identify as nonreligious, according to the Pew Research Center.
In order to aid these universities in protecting their students from religious discrimination, FFRF is also recommending the adoption of a model policy, which includes the maintenance of complete official neutrality in matters of religion. If adopted, this model policy would not only bring the schools into compliance with the law, but would send the message that the universities value the right of every student athlete to hold his or her own religious or nonreligious views, free from direct or indirect coercion or contrary endorsement.
At Georgia Tech, it appears that Derrick Moore continues to serve as its football chaplain and receives compensation from the school for his religious services. Moore prays with the team before games while wielding a sledgehammer at times.
"Apparently, we need to sledgehammer Georgia Tech officials in order to get any meaningful response," Barker adds.
The University of Missouri last year quickly replied to FFRF's letter, stating that it had no intention to change its program.
As with the other schools, it contended that Mizzou's football chaplaincy is acceptable because it is voluntary. Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin wrote that "interaction with the chaplain and attendance at these services is strictly voluntary." But former coach Gary Pinkel invited a chaplain to deliver prayers for the whole team in the locker room.
Also, chaplains Shay Roush and Nathan Tiemeyer are not uncompensated or purely "volunteer." As FFRF's report details, both have received per diem payments for their services, as well as Mizzou-sponsored flights for themselves and their families to bowl games. Such benefits send a clear message to players and the community that these chaplains are working for Mizzou.
FFRF is pleased to report the departure of Chaplain Adrian Despres, about whom it complained last year.
However, it appears that the new University of South Carolina football head coach, Will Muschamp, has decided that he wants "multiple voices available to assist with the spiritual development of student-athletes," as he was quoted in an official statement on Despres' exit. Furthermore, he told a Rotary Club meeting earlier this year, "There's no question being a Christian is very important to me. . . . That's not something I push on our players. It's something I make readily available for our players."
As an initial matter, it is improper for a public university program to "assist with the spiritual development" of students. This cannot be a task of the government under the First Amendment, which excludes government entities from sponsoring religious activity. Whether or not to engage in religious activity is squarely left to private individuals.
Virginia Tech's Director of Athletics Whit Babcock's response to our letter, dated Oct. 15, 2015, indicated that Virginia Tech has taken positive steps regarding its chaplain, but that the program continues.
Following FFRF's exposé, money was repaid to the university after team Chaplain Dave Gittings and his family traveled with the team and stayed in team hotels, received per diem payments for bowl games, and received complimentary season tickets.
However, Virginia Tech appears to have retained its chaplaincy program as a whole. Gittings continues to serve as the team chaplain, and he apparently provides "weekly large group meetings open to the student athletes, small group team bible studies, one on one discipleship, coaches bible studies and a ministry to the ladies who love and support the coach called Behind The Bench."
According to Virginia Tech's Gobbler Connect Organizations Directory, there are more than 60 religious organizations for students to choose from. There is no need for the Virginia Tech football program to provide Christian chaplains in order for the student-athletes to freely exercise their religions.
FFRF has been badgering the University of Wisconsin about its chaplaincy program for many years, however, it has yet to issue a formal response to FFRF's newest concerns.
Father Michael Burke, a Catholic priest, continues to serve as the UW football chaplain. For decades, Burke has traveled with the team, led team prayers and provided religious services, among other chaplain duties. He has access to team facilities and has even participated in recruiting.
Burke has a history of leading the team in pregame prayers. These prayers are coercive. A former Jewish player told a reporter that he had to opt to sit with the group while it was praying and listen silently so as to not appear socially out of place.
FFRF is particularly concerned that the UW football program has been subsidizing Burke's travel with the team. FFRF first exposed the subsidization in the early 1990s. Recent public records that FFRF requested revealed that in the past couple of years UW again paid for Burke's hotel rooms for bowl games, which totaled nearly $2,500. Following FFRF's request for records of Burke's reimbursement, UW belatedly submitted an invoice to Burke for such travel.
We're just days away from the 2016 FFRF annual national convention in Pittsburgh the weekend of Oct. 7-9!
If you haven't registered already, you may still sign up at the door, although you cannot order meals.
Join us for a weekend of great speakers, food, music and more! FFRF has pulled together an exceptional lineup of speakers, including Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss, Susan Jacoby and Jerry Coyne. Many of the other speakers have intriguing, interesting and/or heartbreaking stories to tell about their personal battles or fighting state/church separation. You'll learn a lot and be entertained. What more can you ask for?
Because of the popularity of this year's convention (and the fact that's there's a Steelers game in town that Sunday), hotel rooms at the Wyndham Grand Downtown, site of the convention, are now sold out for that weekend. To find a place to stay nearby, go to hotels.com or your favorite online booking site.
We hope to see you in Pittsburgh! For more information, go to ffrf.org/outreach/convention.
Raihan Abir lived in a constant state of fear that he would be killed.
And for good reason. Which was for bad reasons.
Abir is co-author of Philosophy of Disbelief, a book promoting atheism that became a bestseller in Bangladesh in 2011. He is now the latest Bangladeshi nonbeliever aided by Nonbelief Relief, which serves as the charitable arm of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Abir's co-author, Avijit Roy, was hacked to death in February 2015 on a street in Dhaka by religious extremists.
Rafida Bonya Ahmed, Avijit Roy's wife, survived the assault and is a prominent voice at global forums and the United Nations, calling on the Bangladeshi government to do more to protect atheist writers. She will be speaking at FFRF's convention in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Oct. 8.
On May 12, 2015, Abir's book editor and friend, Ananta Bijoy Das, had stepped out of his home for the daily commute to his job when men wearing masks and carrying machetes chased him and killed him.
"When he was killed, I said there is no way I'm not next," Abir told the Toronto Globe and Mail. "They will target me, of course."
Three people involved in the publishing of the book have been brutally murdered.
Three others have been seriously injured, as religious extremists in Bangladesh target atheist and secular writers. Since 2013, religious extremists have killed more than 50 bloggers, secularists and LGBT activists, according to Human Rights Watch.
"Whenever we started out of the house, he used to ride the motorcycle and I used to look backward all the time to make sure no one's following us or going to do anything to us," his wife Samia Hossain said.
Even as he got off the bike and walked to his job at the university, Abir would leave his helmet on because he feared an attacker would target his head with a machete.
"At least I'll survive the first attack," Abir told the Globe and Mail.
What got Abir into this dangerous predicament began in 2007, when he found comfort in the online world with places like Mukto-Mona — meaning "free thinking" — a website started by Avijit Roy that became a gathering spot for atheist and secular writers.
The people he met through Mukto-Mona became his co-authors, publishers, editors and fellow bloggers. He and others tried to debunk parts of the Quran, bible and Hindu sacred texts. They said religion was a virus that breeds extremism and threatens freedom.
But, in recent years, Islamic extremists began targeting those writers and, in 2015, the violence increased dramatically. Abir would get death threats by text message and email.
"It's not uncommon for Islamic extremists to attack writers and secular people, so I was keeping myself away from going to public meetings and rallies so people don't track me," he told Michael Petrou of Maclean's magazine. "I was taking these kind of precautions because we have to. But in 2015, it got out of control."
It was so bad that Abir decided he had to get out of the country.
Leaving for Canada
Abir went to Canada in June of 2015 to attend a biomedical engineering conference, leaving behind his wife, who was six months pregnant. Neither had any idea when they would see each other again. "I knew that I might not be able to see her for three or four years," Abir told The Guardian.
But, according to The Guardian, Hossain was pleased to see him leave Bangladesh. "When the plane left and was in the air, I knew he would be alive. I was so happy," she said.
It wasn't long before she was able to join Abir in Canada. She applied for a visa to attend an architect's conference and within two months — by then eight months pregnant — she was on a plane to Toronto.
"I thought it would be the happiest day of my life," Abir told The Guardian.
But while his wife was traveling to Canada, he learned that another of his friends, blogger Niloy Neel, had been hacked to death in his home on Aug. 14, 2015.
"It was a really stressful time," Abir said. "We were losing the brightest minds of Bangladesh one by one."
Then, shortly after finding a home to live in, their daughter Sophie was born. His family was then given refugee status in November.
"I kept it very secret that I was in Canada, but somehow they knew," he told Maclean's. "I can't say 100 percent that I am safe. But I feel safe. In Dhaka, I used to wear a helmet all the time and look back while walking forward, but here I don't do that."
Won't give up the fight
He continues to write and edit Mukto-Mona from his Toronto home. He plans to complete his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. He says he won't give up the fight for secularizing Bangladesh.
"Because this dark side, this kind of thing, never [wins]," he told Maclean's. "Maybe they do atrocities, maybe they will kill us. But they won't be winning in the long run. So we'll have to keep on doing what we do — keep informing people about science, about reason, about humanism."
Abir also is focused on helping the many Bangladeshi writers who are still hiding and fearing for their lives.
"We're trying to make connections with the outer world and get them to safe places," he told The Guardian. "We don't have any resources, we're just trying to do what we can. But it is really difficult to fight off machetes with a pen."
The goal of getting back to Bangladesh is on Abir and Hossain's minds. But they know it won't be soon. Abir hopes to go back in two years, while Hossain thinks it will be closer to five years. But they both agree that the murders will have to end before they go back.
"It's not over yet," Abir recently told the Globe and Mail. "Because within this month we'll wake up one day in the morning and say, 'That's our friend. He has been killed.' "
We're only weeks away from the November election and this means many of us are finalizing our voter registrations and pinning down where we're supposed to go to vote. You may be surprised to find that your polling location is in a church. Every election year, FFRF receives questions about the legality of houses of worship being used as polling places.
Only three courts in the entire country have spoken on this issue, and those three have found it to be a permissible practice so long as there are reasonable alternatives available for those who object to voting in a church, such as early voting or absentee voting. However, because only a minority of courts have deemed the practice permissible, it's not well-settled law.
In many places, one-third to one-half of all polling locations are churches. In Rockford, Ill., churches constitute an incredible 80% of the city's polling locations. In Eau Claire, Wis., 53 of 66 wards use houses of worship. In Fayetteville, Ark., churches are used for 16 of the 17 polling places!
FFRF takes the position that this practice is objectionable on many grounds.
There are a whole host of problems with churches being used as polling sites. First, many of these sites are utilized for Christian worship. Religious imagery is pervasive in a lot of these venues and oftentimes are in direct view of voters. FFRF receives complaints of voting booths being underneath paintings of Jesus, large Christian crosses and nearby bibles and posters with biblical verses on them. A church in Eau Claire put the voter registration table at the foot of an 8-foot tall Christian cross. Wisconsin has same-day registration, allowing voters to register on Election Day. Our complainant described his experience as "disconcerting, as if that was the focus of the event, instead of the primary election." As our country becomes more religiously diverse, Christian images and iconography are seen by many as symbols of political intimidation.
At a minimum, if churches are going to be used as polling locations, religious imagery should be removed or covered in voting areas.
Furthermore, there are numerous cases across the country of churches exploiting their position as polling sites to promote their churches or causes. We've received reports of churches handing out literature about their services and posting sign-ups for their bible studies.
In the 2008 election, Shawnee Tabernacle Christian Church in Tobyhanna, Pa., used its status as a polling place to hand out "goodie bags" for voters. These bags were distributed to voters as they were entering or exiting the polling place. Bags contains religious literature included a "Welcome" pamphlet that listed worship services and prayer meeting times, a magazine entitled "PoconoParent," which described a charter school opened and run by the pastor; and an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner sponsored by the church. Following a letter of complaint by FFRF, the Monroe County director of elections indicated they would not use the Shawnee Tabernacle as a polling location in the future.
Just this year, FFRF sent a complaint to Lehigh County, Pa., over its use of churches as polling places. Voters reported that, along with religious imagery, there were tables with displays of church activities. In a partial victory, the county agreed to place portable walls and dividers to cover up some of the religious images voters encountered in the polling area.
The takeaway from these stories is this: churches should not be able to exploit their positions as a polling place in order to advertise themselves and distribute proselytizing materials.
The most egregious abuses, however, come when churches used as polling places also take the opportunity to speak out on ballot initiatives at issue in the election, or take the time to endorse or oppose a candidate. This came up frequently in the past as same-sex marriage bans were considered in states across the U.S.
Using houses of worship as polling places is particularly problematic knowing the psychological consequences of voting in a church. Where you vote can affect how you vote. In a 2008 study, "Contextual Priming: Where people vote affects how they vote," professors Jonah Berger, Marc Meredith and S. Christian Wheeler found that those voting in a school were more likely to support a measure that increased sales tax to fund education. A similar study in 2010, "Deus ex machine: The influence of polling place on voting behavior," by Abraham Rutchick, found that 83% of those voting in churches supported a measure defining marriage as between one man and one woman, while 81.5% of voters in secular locations supported the same measure.
If you have to vote in a church, complain! Usually your city or county representative has the authority to suggest changes to polling places. A local rep is more apt than a bureaucrat to respond to a citizen complaint. Suggest secular alternatives (particularly those with access to persons with disabilities): libraries, public schools (it's educational for students to witness Election Day), fire stations, malls, etc.
If you are forced to vote in a church, take notes or photographs (if allowed by law), especially if you are forced to walk by signs, brochures or posters which would influence voters on issues such as gay rights or abortion. You have the right to vote in an auditorium or hall free of religious messages, crucifixes, etc. Document such violations when you complain to local officials.
FFRF members have been successful in getting officials to choose secular over religious sites. Being a "squeaky wheel," doing homework about available alternatives, and working with local government representatives can yield results.
FFRF does not have the resources to complain about every church used as a polling site, but if the circumstances you encounter are extreme, we can do a backup complaint.
Rebecca S. Markert is FFRF senior staff and managing attorney.
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 in 2009, 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.
A UW graduate, TIM NOTT has called Madison home since 1991. He began his career doing campus IT support while completing a BA in English. The Internet had just become graphical and the opportunity for inexpensive, scalable communication piqued Tim's interest. After 15 years in the industry he took the entrepreneurial plunge, cofounding a startup and building a platform to help make mobile application technology as accessible and ubiquitous as the Web. The company expanded services to work on drones and the Internet of Things. Tim brings his entrepreneurial and technological skills to FFRF where he focuses on our digital products and IT infrastructure.
ROGER DALEIDEN is the Graphic Designer at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He grew up in Wausau, Wis. He has been living in Madison since 1987. He graduated from University of Wisconsin-Stout with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1986 (Fine Art), and the received his Master of Fine Art degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1991. Roger has taught Art and Design courses for UW-Madison and also for Madison College. He has worked as a Graphic Designer for catalog companies, most recently Full Compass Systems, and as well as for newspapers, including The Capital Times. Some of his other interests include bicycling through our beautiful Southern Wisconsin landscapes, paddling down the lower Wisconsin River, sailing on our lakes and skiing at the local ski areas.
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, Lawrence Krauss, 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."
- Lawrence Krauss, theoretical physicist, author and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, Fellow of American Physical Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is featured in “The Unbelievers,” a film with Richard Dawkins, and is author of nine books, including A Universe from Nothing.
- 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.”