1996 Freethinkers Of The Year by Jennifer Essak (November 1996)

“Good Friday” Victors Named

Named as 1996 Freethinker of the Year were four State of Wisconsin employees who signed on as significant plaintiffs in the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s winning federal lawsuit challenging a Wisconsin statute mandating worship on Good Friday and declaring it a state holiday.

Three recipients were able to attend the annual convention of the Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin, on October 12, 1996, and their remarks follow.

Jennifer Essak

Thank you to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Sam and I both work for the State of Wisconsin. I work at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Sam works for the State Department of Natural Resources. After years of working there we both have been vocal in our opposition to the holiday decorations, basically Christmas and Easter, and have made ourselves known in our work places because of this.

I was vocal during one Christmas season when there was a very unattractive evergreen tree that was placed right outside the hospital with a five-point star on it. After my phone calls and march up to the top floor I was able to get that removed.

Sam also, in his department, was able to get a Christmas tree removed, although there was one person who continued to vocalize that it was “not a religious symbol.” To prove her point, she kept the tree and for the whole year continued to decorate it with Hallmark holiday hanging Valentines and St. Patrick’s day things — so it was a nonreligious tree.

Needless to say, we were very excited to be a part of a bigger battle, to be a part of something to make a bigger impact. Although we didn’t know a lot about the Freedom From Religion Foundation and what was going to happen, we were excited.

Sam Essak

We were excited, but we were also a little nervous about potential harassment issues. It hasn’t been easy for us fighting the holiday decoration battles at work, but we thought this was a really important effort and we were glad to join on board with FFRF.

Since we’re both very active in the Jewish community in Madison we were a little bit concerned about how the Foundation was going to see us. Were we going to be accepted by them? Was it going to be a comfortable situation? The Foundation has been very welcoming to us and we feel that this is part of what this lawsuit is about. It’s about respect and that’s why we need to have separation of church and state. That’s why it’s important to Jennifer and me — it creates a sense of respect in the workplace and makes all the citizens of this country comfortable when they come to the state hospital or office buildings. We were very grateful to be a part of this, and it never would have happened without the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The battle’s not over. It’s not over in terms of religious decorations and it’s not over in terms of how it’s going to personally affect our lives. Just a few weeks ago we closed on a home that we were going to purchase. The day before we closed, our lawyer called us up and asked why the governor had a lien on our property for $35,000 — we weren’t going to be able to close the deal! We’re assuming it was a clerical error, because Tommy Thompson actually owed the Foundation for the legal fees, but it potentially could have been someone angry about the lawsuit. We know that there are people throughout the state, even a community in Wisconsin that has decided that they are outright not going to follow the lawsuit. So, the battle is not over.

Also, Jennifer’s union (we’re both members of a union since we are both state employees) has just signed a new contract with the state that calls for a spring holiday. Of course, “spring holiday” is going to fall on Good Friday next year and the following year. But Good Friday is never on the same day, so it’s obvious that they’ve just renamed it to comply with the lawsuit. There are still battles to be fought against Good Friday here in Wisconsin and in other states.

Prof. Michael Hakeem

I am very much honored and pleased to receive this plaque. It’s a very delicious victory, really, because Governor Tommy Thompson is a very religious person. In fact, at his first inauguration a reporter for the local newspaper said that at the inauguration you would have thought you were at some sort of church ceremony. He couldn’t even tolerate a banner that says “Keep Church and State Separate” in the state capitol, so he took it down.

I think it’s very important to bring litigation. Litigation is an uphill struggle, but it’s very important to do. Suppose you lose? You just pick up yourself and start over again. It was delightful to win this lawsuit, but even loss is not entire loss. Loss is educational. It tells people out there that there are other voices, that there is opposition to church/state entanglement. There is nothing more horrible to think about than a tie between the state and religion. It’s a very terrible thing to have the power of the government behind religion. The battle is never done.

Just one mailing, I think, of the Christian Coalition, costs more than all the resources, all the money contributed, and all the revenues collected by all the freethought organizations of the world combined. Last year, Billy Graham’s ministry (one of the rare ones that gives out its financial statements each year) collected $107 million in contributions in addition to $17 million from investments. Recent statistics, as reported in Freethought Today, show U.S. religion received $70 billion in contributions annually.

This is how enormously big this victory of Good Friday is. It’s amazing when you look at what you are fighting, what you are opposed to, the overwhelming nature of it and the vast resources of it. The multiplicity of ministries, associations and organizations make this a very sweet, delicious victory and I am very proud to have been part of it. Thank you.

Freedom From Religion Foundation