No One Complained About This Before! Why Protest Is a Good Thing: Matthew J. Barry

Matthew Barry first joined the Freedom From Religion Foundation as a young student in 1985. Since that time he has become a Life Member and a longtime activist. In 1987, as a student at the University of Maryland, Matt went to court to challenge prayers at the university graduation ceremony.

He moved to Seattle in 1993 to attend grad school at the University of Washington. When he discovered that the University was paying for Christian Science treatment, he contacted the ACLU and their complaint removed prayer from the student insurance plan. Statewide precedent was created.

Matt is a veteran and inveterate letter writer, with more than 100 letters published in the past five years alone, including in USA Today and Newsweek. He sharpens his letter-writing skills by editing technical documents for a software company.

He is also an activist for the separation of lungs and second-hand smoke. He and his wife Shawn are expecting their first babies (yes, twins are en route!).

By Matthew J. Barry


Matthew Barry
Photo by Brent Nicastro

The first time I spoke at an FFRF event was in 1989, at a Philadelphia mini-convention. That’s when I first met Anne Gaylor, the president of FFRF, Annie Laurie Gaylor, and Dan Barker. I cannot believe it’s been 15 years. I guess time flies when you’re an angry atheist!

We saw some great cartoons from Steve Benson last night, and I wanted to follow that theme and show you one of my favorite cartoons.

This cartoon demonstrates one of the side benefits of defending the separation of church and state. Namely, you get to annoy angels! The cartoon shows an angry angel praying, “Please get Mr. Barry off our @#*!! back!!” This was back when I sued the University of Maryland over graduation prayers. This cartoon accompanied a supportive editorial in the school newspaper. I’ll talk about that lawsuit a little bit later.


I’m here to talk about activism. I’ll discuss why defending the separation of church and state is important, I’ll discuss some ways to do that, and then I’ll give you some examples of things I’ve done.

Why is activism on behalf of the separation of church and state a good thing and a necessary thing? Two reasons. First, the wall between church and state is being dismantled as we speak. If you listen closely, you can almost hear George Bush, Tom DeLay, and Justice Scalia hammering at the wall right now. Second, atheists are second-class citizens in this country. If you have any doubts, take a look at our national motto: “In God We Trust.”

In 1944, when American soldiers stormed the shores of Normandy on D-Day, the national motto was the inclusive “E Pluribus Unum.” The greatest generation did pretty well with that godless motto. But it was changed in the 1950s, and now atheists are excluded from their country’s motto. I’m certainly not part of that “we.” I love my country, I’m patriotic, I put the flag out on July 4th. But I need not apply when it comes to my national motto.

Then there’s “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. A common argument is that the words “under God” are OK because they don’t specify a particular god or endorse a particular religion. It’s just a generic god. So any American–any true, patriotic American–should have no problem saying “under God” because any true, patriotic American believes in a god of some sort.

How many people have heard that argument before? How many people think that argument is bogus? It’s not just bogus, it’s offensive. It’s almost as if they don’t know or care that atheists exist. I’ve had people who know I’m an atheist use that argument with me. I pinch myself and ask, “Do you see me? Am I here? Do you really think an atheist would be convinced by that argument?”

It reminds me of a quote from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a novel about the African-American experience. He wrote: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

Even Justice Sandra Day O’Connor used that bogus argument in her concurring opinion in the Michael Newdow case. She wrote that the pledge “does not refer to a nation ‘under Jesus’ or ‘under Vishnu,’ but instead acknowledges religion in a general way: a simple reference to a generic ‘God.’ “

In other words, “under God” is OK because the only people who are excluded are atheists. And who cares what they think? I see this attitude time and time again. I saw a story in a Florida newspaper about putting “In God We Trust” posters in public schools:

[School board] member Pam Cox indicated she would vote against the posters. “Public education is for all children, not just Christian children,” she said. Member Nelson Faerber had a different point of view. “I don’t find “In God We Trust” excluding anyone except atheists,” he said.

My letter to the editor in response was subsequently printed. Here’s part of it:

Imagine if a public official said, “That policy is OK because it won’t exclude anyone except blacks.” Or “except Asians.” Or Jews. Or Hispanics. Or the elderly. How is it possible that someone so bigoted and ignorant can be voting on issues that affect our children’s education? It boggles the mind.

By the way, I found out later that that board voted against putting those posters up in their schools.

One problem is that many people in this country just don’t know atheists. One of my brothers lives in upstate New York and told me that I’m the only atheist he knows. He’s not in the Bible Belt; he’s in upstate New York. Hillary Clinton land. Imagine what it must be like in the Bible Belt. Millions of Americans must live and die without ever meeting an atheist.

But they certainly hear about us on the “700 Club” and the “Coral Ridge Hour.” Evangelists like Pat Robertson and D. James Kennedy demonize atheists at every opportunity. We are demonized by right-wing commentators like Anne Coulter and Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly rarely gets through a show without bemoaning how nonreligious people are trying to ruin the country.

Here’s a quote from a recent survey by the American Mosaic Project, which asked people, who do you think shares your vision of society: “After 9/11, we assumed that Muslims would fare the worst. However, this was not the case. Atheists received the lowest scores by far.”

We are both unknown and demonized. That’s a bad combination. That doesn’t lead to sympathy for our constitutional rights.

So what should we do? I think we should “Be like Mike!” Mike Newdow, that is. He lost at the Supreme Court, but think about what he has accomplished. Thirty or 40 years ago, no one would have conceived of complaining about the Pledge of Allegiance. It would have been like complaining about apple pie or clean air. No one had any clue that “under God” was offensive to some people. Now, everyone knows.

And he’s not alone. There have been many editorials and columns in major newspapers that support his position. Many legal experts, including a former clerk for Justice O’Connor, agreed with Newdow.

This doesn’t mean everyone will agree with his position. There are many, like Jerry Falwell, who won’t change their mind. In fact, people like Falwell take great joy in knowing that atheists feel excluded. But there are many liberal religious people who don’t like discrimination and don’t want to live in a country where people are excluded, and they will be influenced by reading all these pro-Newdow editorials.

If we can get these people to join us and become our allies, we’ll win. You don’t have to be homosexual to defend the rights of gays. You don’t have to be black to defend the rights of blacks. Likewise, you don’t have to be an atheist to defend the separation of church and state. If we educate people through our activism, win or lose, like Michael Newdow has done, then we can hope that they will help us to defend the Constitution.

Perhaps the next time a member of a school board or city council is asked to add the Pledge of Allegiance or a prayer to the agenda, maybe some of those open-minded people who don’t believe in discrimination will remember that there are some who feel excluded by religious rituals and statements in a government setting. And maybe they’ll vote against it.

When I say, “Be like Mike,” of course we can’t all expect to make an impact like he made, but we can think globally and act locally. We can be little local Mikes. Or you can have other freethought heroes. Or, since we’re all freethinkers, be yourself! The point is we need to speak up for our rights.

Here’s an example that shows how important letters are to officials. Jesse Card, who is speaking later today, is courageously trying to get the Ten Commandments removed from government property in Everett, Wash. I read an article two months ago about that case and here’s part of it:

The city has no plans to abandon its legal strategy, said spokeswoman Kate Reardon. The mayor’s office has received many letters and e-mails supporting its decision, and few opposing it. “If we had heard from a lot of people who said, ‘No, you’re wasting your money,’ then we could make a decision based on that,” she said.

Here’s another example. In Marion, Ind., a Bible verse, Psalm 23, is on the side of a fire truck: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” According to an article, the mayor “received numerous calls, e-mails and letters from people who overwhelmingly support keeping the verse on the truck.” The mayor said, “I think a majority of the people have decided that they think it should stay.” The director of the Indiana ACLU said that he hadn’t received any complaints about it.

Perfect examples. Officials listen to input. They want to get re-elected. We need to provide our input. So contact public officials, whether by regular mail, or e-mail, by fax, by phone, or even in person. Let them know that we exist.

You can also persuade policy-makers by writing letters to the editor. They read the editorial section. They want to see what people are thinking. Again, if they never see a letter opposed to George Bush’s faith-based initiative, they’ll conclude that everyone is happy with it.

Beyond lawmakers, you can also influence the thousands of people who read your letter. At the very least, you can prove that atheists really do exist and we’re not boogeymen. As more and more people see rational letters from nonreligious people, perhaps they’ll become more sympathetic to our position.

You may think that when it comes to letters, we’ll always be outnumbered. Not true. Here’s an example. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a weekly column called “Burning Questions,” written by cartoonist David Horsey. Two months ago, he asked what people thought about “under God” in the Pledge. The following week, the headline was “Surprise! Most say change the Pledge.” Underneath, they printed a representative sample of letters. He wrote, “Somewhat to my surprise, most of those responding to this week’s ‘Burning Question’ want ‘under God’ taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance.”

That is huge. We got a majority because people took the time to e-mail the newspaper. When readers see that a majority of their neighbors thinks “under God” should be removed, they may say, “Gee, maybe all these people are right.” And maybe they’ll change their minds.

Perhaps some of you have written letters to the editor and they aren’t printed. That’s discouraging and maybe you feel like you’re wasting your time. But you’re not. I e-mailed a letter to the Seattle P-I on this very issue but it was not one of the ones that was printed. Sure, I was upset and trashed my living room in anger, but I got over it. Did I waste my time writing that letter? No. I helped create that majority. If I and others had decided it wasn’t worth our time, we may not have been a majority and that headline may have instead said, “No surprise. The Majority likes ‘under God.’ “

Moral of the story: Write letters to the editor whether you are printed or not. If your letter gets printed, great. If not, you helped those who agree with you to get printed.

Another tactic is to protest, speak up, in other words, be a troublemaker whenever you see a violation of the separation of church and state. I’ll give you a few examples from my own experience.

When I was a senior at the University of Maryland, the ACLU and I sued to stop the school from having prayers at the graduation. This was in 1987, before the Supreme Court Lee v. Weisman case, which banned clergy-led prayers at high school graduations.

Before I contacted the ACLU, I remember talking to the school’s Human Relations office. The guy said to me, “You know, no one complained about this before.” He said it in a smug way, as if he had won the argument. I thought it was completely irrelevant. The number of people who complain about something doesn’t determine whether it’s constitutional or unconstitutional. But it is relevant from one standpoint: If no one complains, nothing will change. If no one complained about sitting in the back of the bus, African Americans would still be sitting in the back of the bus.

There is, of course, no guarantee that protesting will be successful. As it turns out, I didn’t win at the University of Maryland. The judge said that if I didn’t like the prayers, I could stand out in the hall or come late and leave early. You know, kind of like saying if you don’t like sitting in the back of the bus, well you can walk or ride a bike. No one is forcing you to get on the bus. The point is: If I want to get on the bus, I should be able to sit wherever I want, and if I go to my graduation, I should be able to enjoy it without being subjected to a religious ritual.

So I didn’t win. But in a small way, I hope that at least I helped to raise the issue. There were newspaper articles about it, including a very favorable feature article about me in the Baltimore Sun. I also wrote a column for the student newspaper. At the very least, the next time an atheist at the University of Maryland complains about graduation prayers, the school can’t say, “Well, no one complained about this before!”

My next example serves as a warning: Defending the separation of church and state can get you into legal trouble. In Maryland, a few years after my lawsuit, I moved within the state and found out that my new voting place was a church. A Seventh-day Adventist church. Of course I thought this was unconstitutional and sent a letter to the appropriate authorities. I was told that they chose the church because it was the only large building in that voting district. Being skeptical, I decided to make sure there weren’t other alternatives. So one day, I got a map and drove down just about every street in that district, looking for large buildings. Call me crazy, but I like to think of it as being thorough.

At one point, I was driving through a ritzy neighborhood with big houses and realized that the street I was on was actually someone’s private driveway. I quickly turned around but not before several people looked at me suspiciously.

The next day, two police officers showed up at my door. They asked me if that was my car outside. I said yes. They said, “Well, your car was seen in a neighborhood that has had a rash of thefts recently.” I started to wipe the sweat from my brow. We sat down, and they asked me what I was doing driving around in that neighborhood. I said–this is a true story–“Well, believe it or not, I was looking for a place to vote.” They looked at me like I was crazy (kind of the way you’re looking at me now), but I was eventually exonerated.

Moral of the story: Don’t look like a thief when you’re defending the Constitution.

After I lost my lawsuit at the University of Maryland and then almost got thrown in jail for looking for alternative voting locations, I decided the Fates were telling me something, so I moved to the west coast in 1993. I ended up at the University of Washington in graduate school. One day, I was looking at the student health insurance brochure and noticed that the University covered treatment by Christian Science practitioners.

For those who don’t know, Christian Scientists don’t believe in medicine, even for their children. Several Christian Scientists have allowed their children to die from easily curable diseases or conditions. Instead of getting medical care, they pray. That is, they do nothing. Christian Science has “practitioners” and “nurses” who allegedly have special training in the proper ways of praying.

Amazingly, Christian Scientists years ago convinced almost all state legislatures to exempt them from child neglect and child abuse laws. I think more than 45 states have such exemptions. That is, if they let their children die, the government lets them off the hook. It’s an outrage.

I’ve been a long-time member of an organization called CHILD–Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty ( It was founded by a former Christian Scientist who unfortunately was one of those who mistakenly relied on a Christian Science practitioner, and her child died as a result. The group works to remove these exemptions from state law. I encourage you to check out that organization.

So when I saw that the University of Washington was using my premiums to pay these dangerous quacks to pray, I went into action. I read through a lot of Christian Science literature and got some excellent quotes that demonstrated that Christian Science “treatment” was nothing but prayer. For example:

“Treatment is always a form of prayer.”

“Christian Science healing is in fact one way of worshiping God.”

“The function of the full-time practitioner of Christian Science is not intended to be equivalent to that of a medical doctor, since it consists entirely of heartfelt yet disciplined prayer. . . .”

So, armed with my quotations, I sent a letter to the University of Washington and said the school should not be paying people to pray and worship. The UW delayed and delayed, so I contacted the ACLU and they sent a letter to the University. A week later, the school sent me a curt, one-sentence letter saying they would remove Christian Science practitioners from its policy.

But wait, it gets better! Immediately after that, the ACLU, who were on a roll, contacted the State of Washington’s Public Employees Benefits Board and asked them to remove Christian Science “treatment” from the state employee medical plan. The day after the board received the ACLU letter, it voted to stop covering Christian Science prayer.

Most recently, I protested the placement of religious inscriptions at a local public library. Four years ago, I visited the Redmond Library, which is about 20 miles east of Seattle. I noticed many inscribed bricks on the walkway outside the library. The library was selling these bricks, or pavers, as a fundraising effort. Here are some of the bricks I saw:

Christ Died For Our Sins. He Rose Again.

Christ Is Risen. He Is Risen, Indeed.

Read About Jesus.

Read Your Bible; Prevent Truth Decay.

Thy Word Is A Lamp To My Feet And Light For My Path.

Psalms 119:160. All Your Words Are True.

And of course there was a “John 3:16” brick.

These brick fundraisers have become very popular for elementary schools, public parks, and libraries, and have resulted in many controversies. For example, the Rutherford Institute sued a public school in the year 2000 to force the school to keep bricks such as “Jesus Saves” and “Jesus Christ Is the Lord of This School” on the front walkway of the school.

I sent a letter to the library saying that these religious inscriptions were improper. The library responded that the religious messages were OK because the walkway served as a content-neutral public forum. I thought this argument was bogus. I contacted the ACLU and wrote:

“A citizen can certainly display a temporary sign in a public forum such as Washington DC’s Lafayette Park, but that doesn’t mean a citizen can purchase a permanent structure inscribed with Christian verses (e.g., Ten Commandments) and have it placed forever in that public park.” Likewise, Judge Roy Moore can temporarily carry a sign of the Ten Commandments in front of the Alabama Judicial Building. But he cannot permanently place the Ten Commandments in that public building, even if he paid for the monument.

The ACLU felt that the best we could do was to get a disclaimer. The library agreed to add a disclaimer to each entrance that said the library did not endorse the messages on the bricks. I felt the disclaimer was better than nothing, but not much better. I think the whole disclaimer legal strategy allows the majority to get away with abusing the system.

Imagine if a library director in the Bible Belt, who also just happened to be the town mayor and the pastor of the local church, decides to have a brick fundraiser. In his role as pastor, he encourages all his parishioners to buy a “Jesus Loves You” brick. So the library is surrounded by hundreds of permanent “Jesus Loves You” bricks. You complain about it, and the library tells you, “Well, we have a disclaimer, so there’s no problem.” Wink wink. The disclaimer is a sham.

So I had two goals. First I wanted to make sure the library would accept all content. I wasn’t going to watch the library add more Christian bricks and just trust that it would hypothetically accept atheistic bricks. I had to test it to see if it would fairly apply the content-neutral policy. The more important goal, though, was to discourage this from happening at other public libraries.

So I employed the “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” strategy. FFRF has used this strategy in the Wisconsin State Capitol. They tried to get religious symbols removed from the capitol, but the government refused to comply, so FFRF put up a sign that said religion is myth and superstition.

Now, FFRF didn’t want to put these controversial statements on government property any more than it wants to see Christian statements on government property. But if the government won’t keep church and state separate, then we’re going to show them what the unpleasant side effects are, and by doing so, hopefully discourage others from violating the separation of church and state.

So I got four bricks of my own:

First Amendment: Keep Church & State Separate

Evolution Is A Fact. Read About It.

Jehovah, Allah, Zeus, Thor & Brahma. They’re All Myths.

God Kills Babies. Read 1 Samuel 15:3. And God Is Love??

Offensive, yes, but my goal was to discourage, and I thought this would do the trick. I also encouraged others to buy tiles. FFRF purchased a tile with the organization’s name and web address, and someone purchased one quoting Robert Ingersoll, “With Soap, Baptism is a Good Thing.” So at this point, the library passed the public forum test–temporarily–by engraving these bricks.

I then wrote an article about this for FFRF’s Freethought Todaynewspaper. That article was picked up by an Internet newsletter called Library Juice. The owner told me that his traffic quadrupled the first day my article was up. The issue my article was in ended up getting over ten times the normal number of visits. Other websites linked to the story.

As a result, other individuals purchased 11 other bricks with secular themes. Interestingly, all 11 were placed next to each other, far from the main entrance. I call it the Road to Hell. The bricks read:

Nothing Fails Like Prayer

No God! No Jesus! No Problem!

Religion Is Poison In Your Mind

The Bible Teaches People To Hate

Jesus Was A False Prophet. Read Matthew 16:28 Mark 9:1.

Truth Is Greater Than Religion!

Free Thinkers Tell Secular Truths

Sexism: The Original Sin

And three bricks that said “No Gods, No Masters.”

It was at this point that the library decided enough was enough. They canceled the program, with hundreds of bricks left empty. Apparently, its devotion to its content-neutral public forum crumbled in the face of a continuing stream of content that it didn’t like. So in the end, the library failed the test.

As for my main goal of discouraging other libraries, I told you that the newsletter Library Juice helped to disseminate the story to some librarians. At that point, this issue had been only on the Internet, but it had never made the local news. That changed in 2002, which was two years after I got my bricks. Someone complained to the library about their brick being next to one of mine. The story hit the front page of the Seattle Times and made the local TV news.

But, more important, the Seattle Times story was picked up and mentioned in the magazine of the American Library Association. It was also mentioned in a publication called Library Journal. It was also picked up by, which is for those working in library and information science. Every librarian reading those publications learned how not to raise money with bricks.

In October of 2002, the following appeared in the minutes of the library’s board of trustees meeting: “The Seattle Times recently had a story about the two-year-old Redmond Library tiles project . . . [I]n hindsight, restrictions should have been in place at the beginning regarding the wording on the tiles.” So, the next time the American Library Association has its annual convention, I can only hope that if the topic of fundraising comes up, the director of the Redmond Library or someone else will stand up and encourage them to keep church and state separate.

By the way, with the addition of the 11 Road-to-Hell bricks, the secular bricks now–and apparently forevermore will–outnumber the Christian ones.

Those are a few examples of actions I’ve taken. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But even when you lose, you help raise the issue, educate others, and thus pave the way for future victories.

My wife Shawn and I are going to have twins anytime within the next two months. They will be our first children. That means that in the year 2010, our children will be starting elementary school. It will be interesting to see if my children are asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Stay tuned. You may see my name in the newspaper in about six years, unless Michael Newdow makes it a moot point by then.

Well, I had my conclusion all worked out. I was going to say that silence is our worst enemy. However, a person who will speak later today recently remained silent during a particular part of the Pledge of Allegiance. He made his point with silence.

Unfortunately, he ruined the end of my speech. I cannot say that silence is always our worst enemy. So instead I’ll say that we must stop being invisible. Our letters need to show up in the letter-to-the-editor section of our newspapers. Our letters need to show up on the desks of policy-makers. Pick up the phone. Send a fax. Carry a sign. Donate to the pro-separation organization of your choice (FFRF!). We need to demonstrate that nonreligious people exist, that we’re not going away, and that we demand equal rights.

Freedom From Religion Foundation