Busiest year ever for legal staff

This report was delivered at the FFRF convention on Oct. 30.

The courts are the last line of defense for atheists and agnostics in a nation crawling with religious people eager to trample on the rights of the minority. To help shore up the constitutional wall of state-church separation in 2010, FFRF added a second full-time staff attorney, Patrick Elliott, to work with Rebecca Markert, senior staff attorney.
Stephanie Schmitt, our 2009 summer law clerk, is also assisting after passing the Wisconsin Bar.

After saying goodbye to two wonderful law clerks from last academic year and summer (Megan Roughen, UW Law School, and Sam Grover, Boston University), FFRF welcomed two law clerks for the fall semester: Jayme Lawson Durkee and Jane Kleven, both UW Law School students. Legal interns provide tremendous assistance to our staff attorneys.

FFRF also began working with a student group at Harvard University’s Law School — the Harvard Society for the Separation of Church and State. Students agreed to spend a semester researching state constitution religion clauses. Research will be compiled in a section of a new FFRF legal manual for use by our in-house legal department and our network of litigation attorneys around the country.

FFRF surveyed its members this year, and from that survey we have a growing list of attorneys willing to provide pro bono services to FFRF’s litigation efforts nationwide.

Nonlitigation efforts

We primarily resolve disputes with letters of complaint, phone calls or advice to members wishing to pursue matters on their own.

Since last year’s annual convention in Seattle, the legal staff has written 291 letters of complaint, up about 100 from the previous year. Most involved religion in public schools, followed by prayer at government meetings such as city council or county board meetings. School complaints were mainly over prayer in schools led by teachers or athletic coaches.

FFRF achieved more than 30 significant nonlitigation victories, including these noteworthy ones:
• Lake Local School District, Ohio: Removed “Belief in God” from public school district’s mission statement.
• Florence City Schools, Ala.: Teacher reprimanded for giving bibles to fourth graders as a Christmas gift.
• Garfield Heights, Ohio: School district finally cancels “field trip” to church after years of FFRF complaints.
• Madison County, Fla.: County Board rejects proposal to install Ten Commandments statue after receiving FFRF letter
• Highland Local Schools, Ohio: Public school district stops high school choir performances at Sunday worship services and prayer at annual awards banquets.
• Exeter, Calif.: FFRF joins other groups to stop prayer at high school graduation and stops prayer at eighth grade graduation.
• Missoula County Fair, Mont.: Free admission to fair for church service attendees is dropped after FFRF’s letter. The church also moved worship services to private property.
• Hamilton County Schools, Tenn.: Prayers over loudspeaker at football games at Soddy Daisy High School were dropped after FFRF’s letter, which spawned other complaints around Tennessee.
• Owatonna Schools, Minn.: The district ended preferential treatment for the evangelical group Young Life, including removal of a reserved parking spot, changing visitor policies to end proselytizing and agreeing to charge Young Life rent for use of the school.
• Janesville Schools, Wis.: Removed Alcoholics Anonymous curriculum at CRES Academy, a charter school.
• Zaxby’s Restaurants: Zaxby’s, a nationwide restaurant chain with over 450 locations, stopped advertising a church bulletin discount on its website.
• Chesterfield Juvenile Detention, Va.: Instituted a new policy that ensured participation in Christian worship services was completely voluntary.

Government prayer: FFRF contacted approximately 60 communities the last two years to object to prayer at government meetings. Since last year, FFRF persuaded two government bodies (Albany, N.Y., and Roswell, Ga.) not to institute prayer at meetings and also forced other boards to enforce current laws.

We also sent a nine-page follow-up letter to correct misleading historical and legal claims made by the Alliance Defense Fund.

NDP post-victory complaints: Staff organized and drafted sections of a letter that was sent to thousands of mayors and all 50 U.S. governors informing them of our victory in the National Day of Prayer lawsuit and urging them to stop NDP celebrations. We also wrote to 36 governmental bodies regarding planned NDP events or scheduled prayer breakfasts.

Research and publications: Staff updated existing and added new legal FAQs on the website on topics such as religious license plates and workplace religious issues.

We also compiled materials on important state-church issues to use as a resource for when we need to respond to questions complaints. For example, we summarized relevant court opinions and scholarly legal articles to assist with the National Day of Prayer lawsuit. Those summaries are kept on file to be used as a quick office reference guide.

Communications to members: Staff regularly answer legal questions from members and prospective members on issues that do not result in letters of complaint. On a daily basis, we send numerous letters and e-mails and take phone calls on state-church issues.

Amicus briefs

FFRF submitted several amicus briefs in federal courts around the country. As the legal staff grows, we will continue submitting briefs so that FFRF’s views are represented. Briefs of note include:
• Satawa v. Board of County Road Commissioners of Macomb County
In early 2009, FFRF successfully removed a nativity scene from a median in Warren, Mich. John Satawa, who had put up a large nativity display in the middle of the road for many years without a county permit, finally applied for a permit but was denied.
He then sued Macomb County, citing free speech rights. FFRF submitted an amicus brief, with the help of Michigan member Danielle Hessell’s law firm, in federal district court. The case is still pending, but the nativity scene was moved to private property until a decision is handed down.
• Christian Legal Society v. Martinez

In March, FFRF joined the American Humanist Association (AHA), et al., in submitting an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court on a California case involving Hastings College of Law’s nondiscrimination policy. The policy requires open admission for all registered student groups. CLS requires members to sign a “Statement of Faith,” effectively excluding atheists and gays.

The brief urged SCOTUS to affirm the 9th Circuit’s finding that Hastings’ policy was constitutional, which the Supreme Court did in June.
• Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn

In September, FFRF joined the AHA, et al., in a U.S. Supreme Court brief in a case involving taxpayer-subsidized religious instruction. Arizona provides a dollar-for-dollar tax credit to citizens who contribute to groups that offer scholarships to private school students. The Supreme Court heard heard oral argu ents in November.

In-house counsel:

Staff attorneys and assistants also provide FFRF with legal advice on a multitude of issues concerning daily operations, including:
• Reviewing contracts, state sales exemption applications and IRS determination letters.
• Researching Americans with Disabilities Act regulations for Freethought Hall renovations.
• Filing for trademarks and ensuring copyrights.
• Following through on bequests to the Foundation.
• Ensuring that donations through employer matching grants are awarded.
• Drafting letters to news organizations which print libelous remarks about FFRF.
• Providing disclaimers for FFRF communications to limit liability.

If you wish to work with FFRF on a local state-church issue, please report an abuse online at ffrf.org/legal/report and we’ll respond.

“FFRF is unique as an atheist-agnostic association in providing this concerted level of practical help to its members and to the public to protest and end entanglements of religion with government,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

“We have brought more than 50 lawsuits, challenging many egregious violations, but it is our goal to end violations without going to court,” Gaylor said.

Dan Barker, FFRF co-president, added, “We salute our legal staff and interns for their commitment, dedication and persistence. And we thank our members who contribute to FFRF’s Legal Fund.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation