FFRF convention speech: The origin of the Henry Zumach Award

This speech was delivered at FFRF’s 39th annual convention in Pittsburgh, Pa., on Oct. 8, 2016.

By Henry Zumach

I was born in 1942. In the United States at that time, it was common for women to be paid less than men for the same job, and women were refused promotions. A number of states had laws that allowed homosexuals to be imprisoned. Many states and municipalities required businesses to close on Sundays and some “holy days.” In some parts of the country, if a black man looked at a white woman’s face while passing on a sidewalk, he might be killed in a public hanging by members of the Ku Klux Klan, a Protestant denomination. In other countries, those kinds of practices, and some even more egregious (such as the Holocaust) were commonplace.

“Sincerely held” religious beliefs were the justification. I am sure that everyone here is aware that similar conditions are still common in many of the countries where religion and government are not separated.

I gradually came to realize that many of the things I was taught during five years attending Catholic schools did not make any logical sense, and were, in fact, contrary to the basic teaching of “treat others as you want to be treated.” I became more and more supportive of the need to separate the powers of religion and government and appreciative of those who were willing to publicly oppose the most egregious laws and practices. But I had no interest in getting involved and was happy to simply enjoy my retirement.

One morning in 2002, I read the headline story in the La Crosse (Wis.) Tribune about the federal lawsuit that had been filed by FFRF and a local couple to force the removal of a Ten Commandments monument from a city park in downtown La Crosse. The article described that the lawsuit was to be dropped because the husband of the couple who were the plaintiffs had died and the widow was unwilling to continue as the lone plaintiff.

I said to myself: “Damn. That’s too bad, because that religious monument does not belong on public property. Someone should do something to keep the lawsuit going. Damn.”

And then it happened. This weird question kept popping up in my mind: “Hank, why don’t you be that someone?” And I could not come up with a good reason why not. So, I phoned the widow, Sue Mercier, and asked her if she would be willing to continue if other people were willing to join the suit as plaintiffs. After Sue said she would consider it, I began making phone calls and by Monday evening we had about 30 people in a La Crosse living room and 22 of us joined the FFRF in the lawsuit. I accepted the role of spokesperson for the plaintiffs and the lawsuit became the largest Tribune story two years in a row.

I mention this story in part to explain how it began that I became aware of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, its founder Anne Nicol Gaylor, and the now co-presidents, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker.

As time passed, I began to consider how I might be able to encourage and support the activism of the “Sue Merciers” in other parts of the country and world. I am not wealthy, but I am financially secure. A year ago, I made the commitment to annually award $10,000 to an individual or organization that has taken actions that diminish the influence of fundamentalist religion. I emphasize the word “fundamentalist.”

I am calling it the Henry H. Zumach Award for Freedom From Fundamentalist Religion. Working with the American Humanist Association, last year the Henry H. Zumach Award went to Charlie Hebdo, the publishing company in Paris that was attacked by Muslim fundamentalists because Charlie Hebdo repeatedly printed articles critical of Islamic fundamentalist teachings and even repeatedly published drawings depicting Mohammed’s appearance. In spite of the killings and bombing, Charlie Hebdo refused to back down and continues its proud activism.

I am very pleased and proud to announce that FFRF and I are in the process of working out the details of a plan that FFRF will oversee and administer the Zumach Award in the future. To that end, over the next two years, I expect to donate $200,000 to begin to permanently fund the award. I also intend to make the fund the recipient of the assets in my will. The money will be invested in a stock market index fund to ensure its long-term viability. As you all can easily imagine, the laws and regulations for such an activity are complicated, but we are working out the details. It is my hope that some of you may decide to join me in this effort.

I do not have to go into any details with this audience as to the incredible work done by FFRF and its talented staff members. I am here today to announce that this year’s Henry Zumach Award for diminishing the influence of fundamentalist religion is being given to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. FFRF, under the leadership of Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, has been doing an outstanding job of opposing the imposition of various religious beliefs on others.

Freedom From Religion Foundation