FFRF fights back against SCOTUS prayer ruling

“If the Supreme Court won’t uphold the Constitution, it’s up to us — it’s up to you” is the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s homily in response to the high court’s May 5 ruling approving sectarian prayer at official government meetings. The ruling is a personal blow to the stature and rights of U.S. nonbelievers and non-Christians, as well as to secular government.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Town of Greece v. Galloway that governments can not only host prayers, those prayers can be pervasively sectarian: “To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech.” First Amendment champion Ellery Schempp, FFRF Lifetime Member from Massachusetts, who began the protest that led to a landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling against recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools, emailed on the day of the ruling: “FFRF is vital after the awful Greece decision. This is why we need FFRF!”

FFRF, the nation’s largest association of freethinkers, with more than 20,000 atheist and agnostic members nationwide, has responded to the hostile court ruling by announcing a “Nothing Fails Like Prayer Award.” 

The award will be given to citizens who succeed in delivering secular “invocations” at government meetings. The individual judged to give the “best” secular invocation will be invited to open FFRF’s annual convention with said “invocation,” receiving an all-expenses-paid trip to FFRF’s 37th annual convention at the Los Angeles Biltmore and an honorarium of $500.

Linda Stephens, the atheist plaintiff in the Greece challenge brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is a longtime member of FFRF, who became a Lifetime Member following the ruling. Both she and co-plaintiff Susan Galloway will be named Freethinkers of the Year and accept the award at FFRF’s convention Oct. 24-26. (See more, back page.)

Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered the “swing vote,” not only voted in lockstep with his four ultra-conservative Catholic brethren but wrote the Greece ruling.

 “Once again, the lopsided conservative majority has proudly announced that it is on the wrong side of history,” commented FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, quipping about Kennedy: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

The one silver lining in Kennedy’s decision was this reference: “The town at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver. Its leaders maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation.”

“Freethinkers: It’s time to crash the party, to ask for equal time to give our own atheist homilies and freethought invocations at local board meetings,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, who, with Anne Nicol Gaylor, cofounded FFRF in the late 1970s to successfully protest prayers at their local governmental meetings.

Already, a member of FFRF in Greece has received permission to give an atheist homily before the city meeting in July.

Government prayer remains one of the most common complaints FFRF receives from its members and members of the public.

Gaylor noted that despite the approval of sectarian governmental prayer by five Supreme Court justices, government bodies are not required to open with prayer. “We’d like to see secular citizens flood government meetings with secular invocations that illustrate why government prayers are unnecessary, ineffective, divisive, embarrassing and exclusionary of the 20-30 percent of the U.S. population today that identifies as nonreligious, as well as of other non-Christians,” Gaylor said.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, who suggested the award, notes that many of our nation’s most influential founders opposed governmental exercises of religion, including revolutionary Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, who refused in his two terms to issue days of prayer, and James Madison, fourth president and primary architect of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. 

Secular invocations for the contest could be sincere and eloquent, such as state Rep. Juan Mendez’s invocation before the Arizona House last year, for which he won FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award. You may wish to “invoke”secular “founding fathers,” your own life philosophy or take a more facetious route (think Flying Spaghetti Monster). The goal is to represent the nonreligious point of view and show that government bodies have no need of a prayer to imagined gods, or religion or superstition, to govern. The answers won’t come from above and government needs to be guided by reason.

“Government officials need to get off their knees and get to work,” said Barker, adding, “Be a Paine in the government’s Mass.” 

FFRF plans to make the contest an annual event until the Greece decision is overturned. All eligible secular invokers will receive a certificate suitable for framing, and FFRF will post the invocation on its website.

Read full contest rules at:

For “inspiration,” download a free copy of Barker’s songs “Get Off Your Knees and Get to Work” (from FFRF CD, “Adrift on a Star”) and “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” (from FFRF CD, “Beware of Dogma”) at FFRF’s website (select CD, then scroll play list to find free downloads): ffrf.org/shop/music/.

Read various early May FFRF blogs about the ruling, at ffrf.org/news/blog/.

Freedom From Religion Foundation