FFRF attorneys confront lawbreakers

‘In God We Trust’ plates exclusionary

FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott testified on Sept. 24 against Wisconsin Assembly Bill 244, which creates a religiously exclusionary license plate saying “In God We Trust.” Money would go to a state veterans fund.

Elliott noted Wisconsin already offers a “Wisconsin Salutes Veterans” plate, which honors all and excludes no one, and already helps fund a program for vets.

According to 2012 Department of Defense data, 23% of military personnel identified as nonreligious. A survey of FFRF’s membership correspondingly shows 24% of members are veterans.

Elliott cited the Supreme Court, which has ruled: “[S]ponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community and accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.’ ”

The history of “In God We Trust” has no secular purpose, Elliott noted. It was first adopted in 1956 during the Cold War as a reaction to “godless” communism. “E Pluribus Unum” meaning “out of many, one,” was the entirely secular motto selected by a distinguished committee of U.S. founders: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.

Elliott noted the favoritism of the bill. Private groups may already use the normal process that is available for special group plates. Such special approval was a primary reason that an “I Believe” religious plate in South Carolina was ruled unconstitutional. The court said in that case:

“Any religious message approved through South Carolina’s legislative process would likely violate the Establishment Clause because the speech involved is predominantly government speech and the legislative approval of it evidences approval of the referenced religion.”

The Wisconsin Legislature is also considering a bill to promote an anti-abortion plate, “Choose Life,” with proceeds going to a nebulous group offering “abortion counseling,” organized under the auspices of Religious Right spokesperson Juliane Appling, who works with a Focus on the Family offshoot. 


School skirts law with midfield prayer 

An illustration of how tenacious theocratic school officials can be is found in FFRF’s ongoing complaint over illegal prayer at South Pittsburg [Tenn.] High School at football games. Prayer was blared over the public address system, according to a local complainant who contacted FFRF, in direct violation of a Supreme Court ruling.

Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, first wrote Mark Griffith, director of Marion County Schools in Jasper, about the unconstitutional practice in April 2012. Getting no response, Markert sent follow-up letters on May 31 and July 16.

Finally, Marshall Raines Jr., an attorney representing the school district, replied. Raines demanded that FFRF provide the name of the complainant “to determine whether your organization has standing to raise this issue and to properly investigate the assertions contained in your letter.”

FFRF asserted by return letter that there was no need to identify the complainant. “Marion County Schools can confirm the practice of prayer before football games without knowing who told us,” Markert wrote. “FFRF would not be pursuing this issue at all if it had not been brought to our attention by someone who attended a game and was offended by its religious content. The family would prefer that their identities be held in confidence so that there is no negative interaction between the complainant and administrators at the school.”

Raines responded that state and federal laws bar the school district from retaliating, thus continuing to refuse to address the gist of the complaint.

Three days after receiving Raines’ nonrespone, FFRF was alerted to a WTVC News Channel 9 story that Director of Schools Griffith had “made the decision to allow 10 minutes before each game for student-led prayer,” replacing the loudspeaker prayer with an onfield prayer.

Griffith was quoted as saying, “We’re going to call it ‘Meet me at the 50.’ That way both sides, the home and the opposing side, can come together and conduct prayer.” FFRF received reports that the 50-yard line prayer occurred at the most recent home game.

Markert wrote the district Sept. 4 that such a “remedy” doesn’t alleviate the constitutional violation. In Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe (2000), Markert noted, “The court reasoned that because the football game was still a school-sponsored event, the fact that a student was leading the prayer did not cure the constitutional violation.”

FFRF Co-President Dan Barker said it’s naïve to believe that because a law prohibits retaliation, it won’t occur. “There’s an old saying that says ‘Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.’ Time and time again in cases like this, we’ve seen complainants harassed and threatened, sometimes physically, because they stood up for the law, and courts usually allow anon-ymity in such cases.”


FFRF places ‘Constitution Day’ ads

FFRF celebrated Constitution Day on Sept. 17 to mark the 226th anniversary of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 with a full-page color ad celebrating “our Godless Constitution” in the Lancaster, Ohio, Eagle Gazette and “our secular Constitution” in the Herald-Times, Bloomington, Ind.

FFRF has nearly 20,000 members, including more than 500 in Indiana and more than 300 in Ohio. Cost of the ads was underwritten by a generous Lancaster member and by Indiana members Paul Newman, Charlie Sitzes and donor Jim Vaughan. 

The ads quote U.S. founders and framers on their strong views against religion in government and their often critical views on religion in general. The ads feature Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin and the first four presidents: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. 

“This ad would also be timely on Bill of Rights Day on Dec. 15, the anniversary of ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791. FFRF would be delighted to work with members to run this ad in their area on any occasion,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

View the prototypical ad at ffrf.org/news-releases (scroll to Sept. 17, Sept. 13 or July 1, 2013).


No trust in God, or in Hobby Lobby

Hobby Lobby’s latest July 4 ad features a variety of historic quotes arranged around a large font saying “In God We Trust.” The quotes try to create the impression that the U.S. is a Christian nation and “trusts in God.” But just like Hobby Lobby’s God, the quotes aren’t very trustworthy and are often wildly inaccurate. 

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel researched the quotes cited by Hobby Lobby. He and summer legal intern Charles Roslof, an information technology major before going to Harvard Law School, launched an interactive Web page with a breakdown of the ad. Users can see a side-by-side comparison of Hobby Lobby’s quote and the original quote, read notes on history and context of the quote and view original source documents. 

An example of disinformation and outright distortion: In 1844, the Supreme Court upheld a provision in freethinker Stephen Girard’s last will and testament that left $2 million (about $43 million today, who says nonbelievers aren’t generous?) to start a school for educating orphans, so long as “no ecclesiastic, missionary and minister” held any position in the school. Hobby Lobby mischaracterizes the court’s decision as encouraging the use of the bible in public schools.

See the page at ffrf.org/hlr/HobbyLobby.html.


FFRF to New York: ‘So long, Sukkahs!’

FFRF once again contacted New York City’s Department of Sanitation Bureau of Legal Affairs to address the illegal construction of structures called sukkahs that are annually placed on Brooklyn public sidewalks for the Jewish holiday Sukkot.

The sukkahs often block sidewalks and disregard city safety codes. Most have been built without permits, but are often taken down before enforcement action can be taken.

Observant Jews eat in the outdoor booths during Sukkot (Sept. 19-25 this year). Sukkahs are meant to represent the temporary dwellings claimed to have been used by Israelites while “wandering the desert.” 

On Sept. 6, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott sent a letter to the sanitation department, following up his 2012 complaint. The Bureau of Legal Affairs had responded to the first complaint by agreeing that no permits had been allowed and that “it appears that the structures impeded the flow of pedestrian traffic and would therefore constitute a sidewalk obstruction.”

Elliott stated in his follow-up letter: “The department has not done enough to address this problem.”

FFRF contends that nonenforcement of current policies gives the appearance of government endorsement of religion and religious favoritism.

If you live in New York City and see sukkahs obstructing sidewalks, call 3-1-1.

Freedom From Religion Foundation