Anne Gaylor, 88, dies; guarded wall between church and state by Sam Roberts

Freethought Today reprints with permission the June 16 New York Times obituary of FFRF’s principal founder.

By Sam Roberts

Anne Nicol Gaylor, who transformed a local campaign for abortion rights into a national crusade to maintain the separation of church and state, died on June 14 at a hospice in Fitchburg, Wis., near Madison. She was 88.

The cause was complications of a fall on May 30, her daughter, Annie Laurie Gaylor, said.
Claiming descent from a carpenter’s apprentice on the Mayflower, whose fellow passengers had sought religious freedom, and born to a nonbeliever, Ms. Gaylor became a principal founder in the 1970s of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which bills itself as the nation’s largest group of atheists and agnostics.

Even in death, she held to her principles. Having already arranged to be cremated, she left a handwritten list of instructions with her family that explicitly ordered “No memorial,” and specified that a small tombstone be inscribed “Feminist — Activist — Freethinker.”

No one could dispute those characterizations, not even the adversaries whose vitriolic passions she provoked, first by advocating abortion rights and raising money for poor women unable to afford to terminate their pregnancies, and then by singling out religion as “the root cause of women’s oppression.”

“My mother and I and a Milwaukee gentleman first founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation as a regional group when I was a college student in 1976,” her daughter said. With her husband, Dan Barker, a former evangelical minister, the younger Ms. Gaylor succeeded her mother as co-president of the foundation in 2004.

“The impetus for the group was our somehow becoming aware that they were opening county board meetings with prayer,” she said. “We went down to ask them to stop this unconstitutional practice, and thought we would sound more powerful if we called ourselves a group. So we made up a name, and the rest is history.”

Since then the group has challenged, often successfully, laws and regulations that proclaimed a National Day of Prayer and a Year of the Bible, established Good Friday as a state holiday in Wisconsin, required Bible instruction in a Tennessee school district, favored religious groups in awarding federal social service grants, permitted the Knights of Columbus to display a statue of Jesus along a Montana ski run on property owned by the United States Forest Service, required invocations at commencement exercises, and granted clergy tax-exempt housing allowances.

The elder Ms. Gaylor never minced words, beginning with the provocative name of her group.
“I’ve never liked euphemisms,” she told The Wisconsin State Journal. “If you have something to say, say it.”

“More people have been killed in the name of religion than for any other reason,” Ms. Gaylor said. She branded the Bible “a grim fairy tale” and preached that “nothing fails like prayer.” She wrote a book titled “Abortion Is a Blessing” and declared unabashedly that “in the kind of world I want to live in, all children would be wanted.”

Lucie Anne Nicol was born in rural Tomah, Wis. — between Madison and Eau Claire — on Nov. 25, 1926. Her father, Jason, was a farmer, feed store manager and atheist. Her mother, the former Lucie Sowle, was an elementary school teacher and died before her daughter turned 2.

She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in English in 1949, the same year she married Paul J. Gaylor.

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by their three sons, Andrew, Ian and Jamie; two granddaughters; and a brother, Thomas.

Ms. Gaylor operated an employment agency in Madison, then, with her husband, bought the weekly newspaper The Middleton Times-Tribune, which in 1967 editorialized in favor of legalized abortion. In 1972, she co-founded the Women’s Medical Fund to help poor women pay for abortions.

In 1989, the fund successfully sued to remove Wisconsin as a friend of the court in a brief seeking to overturn the United States Supreme Court decision upholding the right to abortion. As a volunteer, Ms. Gaylor continued to answer telephone inquiries at the fund’s offices until earlier this year, when she had two strokes.

Her foundation, which began as “a dining room table cause group,” she once said, was formed with her daughter and a friend, John Sontarck, and evolved into a national association in 1978 with her as its president.

The group invoked the 19th-century term freethinker to describe someone who forms an opinion about religion on the basis of reason, rather than faith, tradition or authority. The Gaylors formally described the organization’s goals as educating the public about “nontheism” and protecting the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. The foundation now claims more than 20,000 members.

Ms. Gaylor’s final instructions to her family were far more personal. After dictating the text of her tombstone, she wrote, “Please plant something flowering when weather permits.” Then she told them: “Take care of each other.”

The story states that Anne took Women’s Medical Fund phone calls at the fund’s offices. Actually, she took them at her home.

Freedom From Religion Foundation