Highlighted Court Victories
Plaintiff David Dionne stands in front of the offices of the Antelope Valley Union High School District.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, with the Antelope Valley Freethinkers and its head David Dionne, sued the Antelope Valley Union High School District on April 12, 2016 after the school district repeatedly refused to advertise scholarships offered by the groups because of their atheism.
The groups sought to have scholarships on the topics of “Being a Young Freethinker in the Antelope Valley,” “Young, bold and nonbelieving: Challenges of being a nonbeliever of color,” and “Why I’m Good Without God: Challenges of being a young nonbeliever” listed alongside other scholarships, including scholarships that require recipients to be Christians and write about their faith. The district said that the freethought prompts appeared to “promote anti-religious expression” and had “aggressive” and “argumentative undertones towards religion.”
After repeated unsuccessful attempts to convince the district to back off its unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination, the groups filed suit in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California. California attorney David Kaloyanides represented the plaintiffs along with FFRF’s Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel and Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler. The case, No. 2:16-cv-02487, sat before Judge Manuel Real, a 92-year-old Lyndon B. Johnson appointee.
The district quickly offered to settle, and the case was resolved entirely just two months after it was filed. The district agreed to treat all scholarships equally, "without regard to the viewpoint on the issue of religion or lack of religion," and to notify all juniors and seniors of FFRF and the Antelope Valley Freethinkers' scholarships. The district also paid $10,000 for FFRF's attorney's fees.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and two of its members filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court, Western District of Texas, Alpine Division, on March 2, 2016, against Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson over his decision to affix Latin cross decals on county patrol vehicles. Local plaintiffs Kevin Price and Jesse Castillo, both atheists and members of FFRF, had come in regular contact with the Christian displays numerous times while out driving in the county. They do "not believe in any supernatural beings" and object to "an exclusively Christian religious symbol" being displayed on their county's patrol vehicles, the suit noted.
Shortly after the suit was filed, Brewster County removed the crosses from its patrol vehicles. The county later voted to accept FFRF’s terms of settlement, written into a consent decree, in which the county agrees not to place cross decals on Sheriff’s Office vehicles in the future. The County also agreed to pay each individual plaintiff $1 in nominal damages, a symbolic acknowledgement of past constitutional violations against them, as well as $22,370 in attorneys fees and court costs.
While pleased with the outcome of this case, FFRF notes that Brewster County could have saved itself time and money by voluntarily removing the crosses in response to FFRF’s December 2015 letter to the sheriff.
FFRF Staff Attorneys Sam Grover and Patrick Elliot worked with Houston-based attorney Randall Kallinen to secure the victory. The case, no. 4:16cv-14, was ordered dismissed by Judge Robert A. Junell on June 13, 2016, pursuant to the consent decree.
FFRF filed suit on Sept. 27, 2012, against the Connellsville Area School District (Pa.) in a challenge to a Ten Commandments monument in front of the District's junior high school. The suit was also brought on behalf of a student, Doe 4, then a 7th grader, and the student's parent, Doe 5, an atheist and FFRF member.
The large, tombstone-like granite monument was donated to the school system in 1956 by a local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, where it sat alone in a prominent area near the entrance to the auditorium of Connellsville Area Junior High.
FFRF argued that the continued presence of the Ten Commandments on district property was an unconstitutional advancement and endorsement of religion.
On August 28, 2015, U.S. District Judge Terrence F. McVerry of the Western District of Pennsylvania issued a 50-page decision, ruling that "the Ten Commandments monument at the Connellsville Area School District Junior High School runs afoul of the Establishment Clause."
Judge McVerry's decision recites the chronology of the placement, which involved the mayor rhapsodizing that "there can be no better guidance for youth than God's laws.”
The decision also highlighted the community uproar over the request to remove the biblical edicts from public school grounds. At a public meeting the plaintiffs were referred to as "yellow-belly bums" for being pseudonymous, and speakers cited the need to "stand up for the Bible" and Christianity.
"The monument still stands alone outside the school, declaring to all who pass it, 'I AM the LORD thy God.' There is no context plausibly suggesting that this plainly religious message has any broader, secular meaning," wrote McVerry.
Although the student plaintiff was no longer at the junior high, because the student graduated, a claim for nominal damages avoided mooting the case. McVerry awarded the requested nominal damages in the amount of $1.00 to plaintiffs. The Connellsville School Board voted on Sept. 9, 2015 to return the monument to the Eagles. The monument was removed in October and placed on church property near Connellsville High School.
Connellsville Area School District:
News Release (9/27/12)
Defendant's Motion to Dismiss (12/3/12)
Plaintiffs' Response to Motion to Dismiss (1/8/13)
Defendant's Reply (1/14/13)
Opinion Denying Motion to Dismiss (3/7/13)
Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment (12/10/14)
Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (12/10/14)
On Feb. 9, 2015, FFRF filed a federal lawsuit in the Southern District of Georgia, alleging discrimination against two anonymous Doe children by their elementary school teachers. The complaint against Emanuel County Schools charges that teachers inflicted religious prayers on their captive student audiences each day before lunch. Plaintiffs were the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the anonymous Doe family.
The complaint alleged that when the parents of kindergartener Jamie Doe and first grader Jesse Doe complained about the prayers at Swainsboro Primary School, teachers responded by instructing the Doe children to wait in the hallway while the rest of their classes prayed. The Doe parents ultimately removed Jamie from school due to persistent complaints of feeling uncomfortable in class.
The complaint further alleged that Jesse was pressured to pray by multiple teachers in the school. A teacher held Jesse back from recess to explain her personal Christian beliefs and said that Jesse's mother was a bad person for not believing in God.
In September, 2015, the parties reached a confidential settlement agreement. The Doe family received financial compensation and the school district’s faculty received educational training on their obligations not to promote religious beliefs in their classrooms. The parties therefore agreed to a stipulation of dismissal.
FFRF was represented by W.R. Nichols, of Atlanta, with FFRF Staff Attorneys Samuel T. Grover and Andrew L. Seidel serving as co-counsel. FFRF v. Emanuel County School System, Case No. CV615-013, is in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, Statesboro Division.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit Dec. 17, 2014 in Dane County Circuit Court, Wis., charging that Wisconsin open records law was violated by Theodore Nickel, state Office of the Commissioner of Insurance and Commissioner.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott made a series of open records requests of the Office of the Commissioner after a reported agency decision that Wisconsin's contraceptive mandate, known as the Contraceptive Equity Law, would no longer be enforced because it was preempted by the June 30, 2014 Hobby Lobby ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. FFRF and many other observers disagreed, since the Religious Freedom Restoration Act under which the ruling was decided applies only to the federal government, not states.
FFRF learned of documents in OCI's possession that should have been provided in response to the records requests, but were withheld. FFRF's suit charged that OCI violated numerous portions of the open records law when it failed to provide the documents, and sought an order directing the defendants to produce the records and award reasonable attorneys' fees, damages and other costs.
On August 18, 2015, Circuit Court Judge Amy Smith ordered the defendants to provide a series of emails to the plaintiffs. The court also ordered the defendants to pay $100 in statutory damages and $4,174 in attorneys fees.
The case was handled for FFRF by Christa Westerberg of the firm Bender Westerberg LLC.
FFRF News Release: "FFRF sues Walker administration over open records violations"
OCI Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings
FFRF Response Brief
OCI Reply Brief
Judge’s Order on Motion
FFRF Motion for Clarification
In Camera Review Order
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a federal lawsuit on Dec. 16, 2014, against Franklin County, Ind., which annually placed a prominent nativity display in front of the Franklin County Courthouse in Brookville. The devotional tableau was erected shortly after Thanksgiving each year and stayed up until early to mid-January. The case, No. 1:14-cv-02047-TWP-DML, was heard by Judge Tanya Walton Pratt at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. In addition to FFRF, two Franklin County residents were local plaintiffs in the suit.
Shortly after FFRF initiated its lawsuit, Franklin County adopted a new policy to issue permits to local residents so they could erect displays on the courthouse lawn. This effectively turned the courthouse lawn into a public forum, which can be a legal solution if administered in a nondiscriminatory way. Due to the new policy, FFRF filed a notice with the court voluntarily withdrawing its challenge to the continued display of the nativity scene.
Under the county’s new policy, FFRF applied for a space on the courthouse lawn, as did the Satanic Temple. The county denied both applications, and FFRF filed suit again, this time with the Satanic Temple, on March 24, 2015. The case, No. 1:15-cv-00484-SEB-DKL, also filed in the Southern District of Indiana, was assigned to Judge Sarah Evans Barker, a Reagan appointee. The county subsequently approved FFRF and the Satanic Temple’s applications and the parties settled the case. In both cases FFRF was represented by Senior Staff Attorney Gavin M. Rose of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. FFRF Staff Attorneys Sam Grover and Rebecca Markert acted as co-counsel.
In October 2016, Franklin County adopted a new ordinance, closing the forum on its courthouse lawn, which effectively prevents any private religious or nonreligious displays in the future. FFRF is pleased with this result, which makes the lawn a welcoming, religiously neutral area for all citizens. It is, in fact, the result that FFRF has advocated for since it first contacted the County in 2010.
- Motion for Preliminary Injunction
- FFRF News Release: FFRF sues Indiana county over its nativity display
- Voluntary Withdrawal of Challenge
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the Internal Revenue Service for failing to enforce electioneering restrictions against churches and religious organizations, calling it a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and of FFRF’s equal protection rights. FFRF filed the lawsuit Nov. 14, 2012, in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. At the time of our suit, the IRS had not publicly announced any church audits since 2009, when a federal court in Minnesota ruled that an IRS official who had authorized a church audit was not of sufficient rank. After a restructuring in 1998, the IRS had not designated officials who could institute audits under the Church Audit Procedures Act of 1984.
The lawsuit, FFRF v. Koskinen, (12-cv-818), was filed by attorney Richard L. Bolton (originally FFRF v. Schulman). FFRF sought to enjoin IRS Commissioner John Koskinen (originally filed against former Commissioner Douglas Shulman from continuing “a policy of non-enforcement of the electioneering restrictions against churches and religious organizations.” Additionally, FFRF seeks to order Koskinen “to authorize a high-ranking official within the IRS to approve and initiate enforcement of the restrictions of §501(c)(3) against churches and religious organizations, including the electioneering restrictions, as required by law.”
At the time of the filing, FFRF had more than 19,000 members nationwide “who are opposed to government preferences and favoritism toward religion.” This non-enforcement “constitutes preferential treatment to churches and religious organizations that is not provided to other exempt organizations, including FFRF,” the complaint notes. “Churches and religious organizations obtain a significant benefit as a result of being non-exempt from income taxation, while also being able to preferentially engage in electioneering, which is something secular exempt organizations cannot do.” This preferential tax exemption involves more than $100 billion annually in tax-free contributions to churches and religious organizations in the United States.
FFRF reached an agreement with the IRS in July 2014 that resolves, for the time being, the issues in FFRF’s federal challenge. Specifically, FFRF was informed that since 2010, the IRS has flagged churches involved with political intervention, including churches that submitted materials as part of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” FFRF was also informed that an IRS review committee determined that 99 churches were marked for “high priority examination.” The IRS could take enforcement action against some of those churches, which were marked for potential illegal political intervention between 2010-13. Since the IRS demonstrated it does not have a blanket policy or practice of non-enforcement of political activity restrictions, the parties moved for a joint dismissal of the case.
On August 1, 2014, U.S. District Judge Lynn S. Adelman issued an order granting the joint motion for dismissal between FFRF and the IRS. Adelman’s decision and order agreed that FFRF may voluntarily dismiss its lawsuit “without prejudice,” meaning FFRF can renew the lawsuit if the IRS reverts to its previous inaction.
- Press release
- IRS Motion to Dismiss
- FFRF Response Brief
- Government's Reply Brief
- Church Motion to Dismiss - Decision and Order
- Church Motion to Intervene
- Brief in Support of Motion to Intervene
- Father Malone Declaration
- Government Opposition to Church Motion to Intervene
- FFRF Opposition to Church Motion to Intervene
- Church's Reply to Motion to Intervene
- Decision and Order by Adelman allowing church intervenor, Feb. 3, 2014
- Joint Motion to dismiss, July 17, 2014
- Church Opposition to Motion to Dismiss
- Gov't Reply in Support of Motion to Dismiss
- FFRF Reply in Support of Motion to Dismiss
- Church Brief in Sur-reply
- Press Release: FFRF, IRS settle suit over church politicking
- Decision and Order, July 29, 2014
- FAQ on case
FFRF member Douglas Marshall sued the City of Warren, Mich., after his request to install a “reason station” in the atrium of City Hall was rejected.
The City allowed a local church group to run a prayer station in which volunteers distribute religious pamphlets, offer to pray with passersby, and discuss their religious beliefs with people who approach the station.
In April 2014, Marshall submitted an application to city officials to reserve space in the atrium for his “reason station” two days a week. Marshall wished to set up a station that is similar in size, structure and function to the prayer station – a folding table and chairs with literature on display and available to the public – except that his station would offer information and opportunities for discussion from a non-religious perspective. The station would be operated by Marshall and other volunteers. Less than two weeks after it was submitted, Marshall’s application was rejected by Warren Mayor James Fouts because Marshall’s belief system “is not a religion.”
Marshall asked the court to declare the City’s denial of his request to reserve and use the atrium space a violation of his First Amendment rights and to enter preliminary and permanent injunctions requiring the City to allow the reason station. On February 3, 2015, the court approved a settlement requiring the City to give atheists equal access to city hall.
Mr. Marshall was represented by attorneys from FFRF, Americans United, and the ACLU. The lawsuit was filed in the Eastern District of Michigan on July 23, 2014. The case (No. 14-CV-12872) was before Judge Marianne Battani.
FFRF successfully sues Pismo Beach over prayers, chaplain
FFRF and a Pismo Beach member and citizen, Sari Dworkin, challenged the city council's prayers and their appointment of a city chaplain. The lawsuit was filed on November 1, 2013, in the Superior Court of San Luis Obispo. Rather than fight the case in court, the city agreed to halt all prayers and to abolish the position of city chaplain.
At each bi-monthly city council meeting the city chaplain, Dr. Paul Jones, a Pentecostal preacher, gave a sectarian Christian prayer. The complaint included a statistical breakdown of the prayers including the fact that only 3 of more than 120 prayers were not delivered by Christian clergy. Jones has delivered 112 of the 126 prayers scheduled by the council between Jan. 1, 2008, to Oct. 15, 2013. All but one of the 126 prayers was addressed to the Christian god. The Christian bible was cited more than 88 times. And in virtually every prayer Jones pressures citizens and the council to live a Christian lifestyle in accordance with the bible, to vote for “righteous” leaders, or to make decisions that honor Jones’ particular god.
The case was argued on California state law, so the Supreme Court’s decision in Greece v. Galloway (decided on the Monday after the final FFRF/Pismo Beach settlement was approved on Friday) has no impact on the case.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit June 12, 2013, in U.S. District Court in Florida against the Orange County School Board in Orlando for censoring distribution of freethought materials while allowing unfettered distribution of the Christian bible. Plaintiffs are FFRF, its Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, and David Williamson, who heads the Central Florida Freethought Community, an FFRF chapter. While opposing literature distribution in public schools by outside groups, FFRF, its chapter and other area secular groups decided to counter a bible distribution by handing out nonreligious literature. The legal Complaint lists dozens of factual examples of how secular materials and secular volunteers were treated differently from the bible distributors, including prohibition based on viewpoint discrimination of much of its literature.
On May 12, 2014, FFRF asked the Court to rule that Orange County Schools violated the free speech rights and equal protection rights of the plaintiffs. The Motion for Summary Judgment includes an exhaustive appendix detailing how the District-approved Bible contained themes and content identical to plaintiffs' literature, but from a religious viewpoint. This proves that the District was prohibiting plaintiffs' speech because of its message, a violation of the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
In July, Judge Kendall Sharp of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida dismissed FFRF’s free speech case against the Orange County School District because the district agreed to let FFRF distribute all of the literature it had previously prohibited. Read more about this victory here.
Orange County's decision means that any group wishing to distribute materials should be allowed into the schools. In September, The Satanic Temple asked Orange County for permission to distribute its literature in the public schools as well.
The district suspended the planned 2015 distribution in the wake of the FFRF and the Satanic Temple's requests to hand out literature to students. In February 2015, the district banned all religious distributions, which is exactly what FFRF asked for in our first letters to the district. Had the district listened, it could have saved $86,000 and two years of legal wrangling. As a result of all this, the 11th Circuit dismissed the remaining procedural issues and FFRF considers this case resolved.
Final Order (Currently Unpublished)
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed a lawsuit on Feb. 3, 2013, on behalf of plaintiffs who seek removal of a portrait of Jesus from Jackson Middle School in Jackson. Doe 1, Doe 2 and Doe 3 are suing the Jackson City School District and others to remove the portrait from the public school, which school authorities refused to remove. Plaintiffs were offended by the religious portrait, its usurpation of parental authority and its violation of the Establishment Clause. A strong memorandum was filed seeking a protective order to protect the identity of the students and parents, which was almost immediately granted by the judge. The federal lawsuit was in the court of U.S.District Judge Algrnon Marbley, a Clinton appointee. The portrait was moved from the middle school to the high school after the suit was filed. The school district worked with the Liberty Institute, a religious right group, which proclaimed at its website: “We have never lost a case to the ACLU, [or] Freedom From Religion Foundation,” even though this was FFRF’s first case in which the Liberty Institute interceded. The superintendent announced that it would take a court order to remove the painting, and that’s what he got.
The federal lawsuit was victoriously settled with a consent degree on Oct. 4, 2013. The court order mandated permanent removal of the portrait and parties agreed to a financial settlement requiring the school to pay the plaintiffs a combination of damages and legal fees totaling $95,000. Each of the plaintiffs, parents and students, received $3,000 in claims and damages. “It’s just and appropriate that students and parents who risk public exposure and threats of retaliation for speaking up for the First Amendment should receive damages and that public school officials who violate the First Amendment be held accountable,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. The case number is: 2:13-cv-112.
FFRF and one of its South Carolina members filed suit on May 30, 2012, against School District Five of Lexington and Richland Counties challenging a district graduation prayer policy. The policy allowed prayer by a vote of the graduating class. Matthew Nielson, an Irmo High School senior at the time, was the lead plaintiff.
A district policy titled "School Ceremonies and Observations" set guidelines for benedictions and invocations at graduations and athletic events: Use of prayer "will be determined by a majority vote of the graduating senior class with the advice and counsel of the principal." The school facilitated a vote by students and the graduation ceremony on May 30, 2012, contained a prayer.
Two other Irmo High students joined the suit June 11, 2012, which was before Judge Cameron McGowan Currie in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina. On Nov. 16, 2012, the plaintiffs amended the suit to also challenge prayers before Board of Trustees meetings.
The District and the plaintiffs subsequently settled the graduation prayer issue once the District rescinded its prayer policy in August of 2013 and paid the plaintiffs’ attorney fees.
On August 7, 2014, the plaintiffs filed for summary judgment on the issue of prayer at school board meetings. "A school board is not the same as a state legislature or a city council," the brief states. "Rather, it is by design and activity created solely for the governance and operation of a public school system. As such, school board prayers are scrutinized for constitutionality under tradition Establishment Clause jurisprudence.” Judge Currie dismissed the remainder of the case on Dec. 1, 2014, ruling the students and FFRF didn't have legal standing to challenge prayers at board meetings because the plaintiffs hadn't attended recent meetings under a new prayer policy. The case was dismissed without prejudice, meaning FFRF could re-open the case if currently enrolled students or their parents come forward with complaints.
FFRF singled out the three students for their courage in standing up to a fundamentalist community to defend the Constitution. All three plaintiffs — Max Nielson, Dakota McMillan and Jacob Zupon — have received student activist awards from FFRF.
Second Amended Complaint
FFRF Summary Judgment Brief
District Summary Judgment Brief
District Summary Judgment Response Brief
FFRF Summary Judgment Response Brief
The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit against the Town of Whiteville, Tenn., and its mayor, James Bellar, to force him to remove crosses on the Whiteville water tower, in front of Whiteville City Hall and on the city-owned sidewalk. FFRF began complaining about a prominent lighted cross atop its water tower in 2010 on behalf of an area resident offended by the town's message of endorsement of Christianity. After writing three unanswered letters of complaint, FFRF, with Tennessee attorney Alvin Harris, sent a letter of demand on Sept. 29, 2011, warning Bellar if he didn't move the cross, FFRF would sue by the end of the month. Bellar announced on Oct. 3 that he would move the cross, although he referred to FFRF and its members as "terrorists" in local media reports. On Oct. 17, Bellar told reporter Daniel Wilkerson, WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tenn., that "Somebody has to stand up to these atheist sons of bitches, and you can quote me on that." In late October, Bellar used nearly $4,000 in taxpayer money to hire a crane service to inexplicably break one arm of the cross. Then the town began lighting what remained of the cross. On or about Nov. 28, 2011, the town installed two large crosses in front of Whiteville City hall. On or around Nov. 30, defendants decorated the crosses with Christmas wreathes. FFRF is suing on behalf of a member who regularly comes into unwelcome contact with the town displays of crosses.
On Aug. 8, 2012, Judge Daniel Breen approved a settlement between the parties and entered an agreed judgment. The Town and Mayor were enjoined from installing crosses on city hall property. The defendants also agreed not to replace the cross arm on the remaining structure of the water tower. The Town agreed to pay $20,000 to pay FFRF's attorney's fees.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia filed a federal lawsuit Sept. 13, 2011, against the School Board of Giles County, Va., for unconstitutionally endorsing religion by displaying the Ten Commandments on the wall of a district school. The suit was filed on behalf of a student at Narrows High School and the student's parent. On July 3, 2012, Judge Michael Urbanski approved a settlement between the parties. The school board agreed that the Ten Commandments will not be posted in any school “unless and until there is precedent in the Fourth Circuit or United States Supreme Court allowing the posting of the text of the Ten Commandments in the public schools.” In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled in Stone v. Graham that Ten Commandments displays in public schools violate the Establishment Clause.
In May of 2012 the District removed the Ten Commandments posting from Narrows High School. In addition to assurances that the Ten Commandments would not be reposted in school, the settlement agreement kept a protective order in effect that shields the identify of the plaintiffs. The court retains jurisdiction to enforce the settlement for eight years following dismissal of the case. See FFRF’s press release here.
Plaintiffs' attorneys were Rebecca Glenberg and Thomas Okuda Fitzpatrick of the ACLU of Virginia, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott, and Frank Feibelman, ACLU of Virginia cooperating attorney.
Doe Motion for Summary Judgment
Previous Press Releases:
FFRF sues Virginia school over Ten Commandments
Ten Commandments Proposal for Giles County Schools is Unconstitutional
FFRF honors Virginia woman for contesting school religion
Virginia school board votes to put Ten Commandments back in county schools
FFRF filed a copyright infringement suit on Sept. 13, 2011 relating to unauthorized use of its Freethought of the Day website feature. See our statement.
The suit is Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Bookpack, Inc., United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, Case No. 11-CV-634.
The case was settled in 2011.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed suit on Oct. 10, 2007, against the Cherry Creek School District in Denver, Colo., for illegally urging that children spend an hour a week at a religious institution. Filed on behalf of three parents and their three children, the lawsuit challenges a program known as "40 Developmental Assets." Defendants are Supt. Monte C. Moses and the school district. The district urges parents to put the assets "to work in your family, your school, and your community," promises success for children who are "asset-rich," and warns that not having these assets can "kill you." Asset 19 states: "Religious Community--Young person spends one or more hours per week in activities in a religious institution."
"This Asset," the Foundation legal complaint notes, "is prominently posted in Cherry Creek public schools alongside the photo of a young child with her hands clasped as though in prayer under the title 'Faith Community.' " The "adoption, promotion, endorsement, approval and publicizing of Development Asset 19" by the district "constitute an establishment of religion in violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution," as well as violating the prohibition against teaching sectarian tenets or doctrines found in the Colorado Constitution. The school district has agreed to stipulate to the Foundation's request for a protective order, which will keep the identity of the parents and children confidential to protect them from reprisal.
Press release and Legal Complaint
UPDATE: On Sept. 8, 2008, U.S. Dist. Judge Marcia S. Krieger dismissed FFRF's lawsuit, but gave FFRF 10 days to file an amended brief. Stay tuned.
Ruling by Krieger (pdf)
Motion For Reconsideration (pdf)
Third Amended Complaint (pdf)
Motion For Leave to File Third Amended Complaint (pdf)
Appendix A (pdf)
Appendix B (pdf)
Appendix C (pdf)
Appendix D (pdf)
Appendix E (pdf)
Round Two: FFRF amended its legal complaint, and linked the violation to the Lutheran Brotherhood in September 2008. Attorney Richard R. Tiernan introduced evidence linking the District's 40 Developmental Assets to a Lutheran, scripture-based program. The Foundation's refilings document the religious origins and purpose of the assets. "Each of the Assets has a stated biblical underpinning and the history of the Assets program clearly shows that religion is at its core," states Tiernan. Each asset is actually based on specific biblical references. "Service to others," for instance, is explicitly based on 1 Isaiah 6 and Romans 12:9-13. Revealing affidavits by two Denver men familiar with the "40 Assets" programs were also filed.
"Plaintiffs contend that the 40 Assets taken as a whole constitute a moral code for young people promulgated by the Lutheran religion or a sect thereof," which violates the First Amendment, as does Asset 19 taken separately.
The 40 Developmental Assets were developed by the Search Institute (originally known as the Lutheran Youth Group), and it is the Foundation's belief it continues to be heavily financed by the Lutheran Brotherhood. Institute Board Members include representatives of the National Council of Churches, the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, Outreach National Baptist and National Network of Youth Ministries.
Third Amended Complaint (pdf)
Affidavit of Robert L. Stuart (pdf)
Affidavit of Barton G. Prieve (pdf)
Assets and Scripture (pdf)
FFRF settled its federal lawsuit in August 2009 after a nearly 2-year protracted legal case. FFRF and the school district agreed to add “secular (nonreligious)” to the list of organizations which the school district was encouraging students to spend “one of more hours per week” in educational or civic pursuits, including not only religious but irreligious.
The Foundation took the County of Manitowoc, Wis., to court in mid-Dec. 2008 over its "provocative and divisive" prominent display every December since 1946 of a nativity scene bearing the words "Glory to God in the Highest" on its courthouse lawn. The Foundation filed suit representing its Manitowoc County members, and named as defendants Bob Ziegelbauer, as Manitowoc County Executive and Jeffrey Beyer, public works director. The Foundation and various regional media were unable to uncover any permit for the display, or approval by the Manitowoc Public Works Committee, or even written guidelines about public displays. Norbert Vogt, a Manitowoc County Board Supervisor on the Public Works Committee, has publicly stated that the County should not allow atheists to put up a sign declaring 'There is no God.' " After the suit was filed, the county adopted written guidelines on use of the grounds as a public forum with content-neutral language, but continued to insist its 60-plus year history of favoring a creche was permissible, so the case proceeded. The Foundation also objected to the onerous insurance requirements in the policy. The judge ruled to no one's surprise that the issue was mooted once the county remedied the situation and adopted a content-neutral policy. FFRF's suit successfully forced the county to open the space up as a bonafide public forum, in theory allowing equal access to all groups and ending the preferential treatment for the Catholic clubs. The judge warned that the county "may come to regret its solution to the problem" as it may find itself "deluged with applications seeking to enrich the holiday season" with "an embarrassment of riches." FFRF intends to test the policy by applying for its own "no gods" winter solstice display.
Case no. 08-C-1105
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and Wisconsin taxpayers filed suit in Dane County, Wis., on April 25, 2008, suing the Department of Public Instruction and the Rio Community School District for drawing money from the state treasury for the benefit of religious organizations. The state-funded Rio school district has refused to charge rent for after-school meetings for elementary students on school property by the Child Evangelism Fellowship Group. It also uses time and resources to send home flyers publicizing the after-school evangelism. The Child Evangelism Fellowship describes itself as a "Bible-centered, worldwide organization composed of born-again believers whose purpose is to evangelize boys and girls with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, disciple them in the Word of God and establish them in a Bible-believing church for Christian living." The Complaint charges that the subsidy of the ministry violates the Wisconsin State Constitution, which was amended to permit public school buildings to be used by religious groups after hours, provided reasonable compensation is paid. The Foundation was also concerned about CEF posters being placed at child's eye view by water coolers and lockers promoting CEF and its after-school treats.
On March 20, 2009, the case was dismissed at the request of the Foundation. After the lawsuit was filed, the CEF stopped meeting in Rio schools. FFRF and its complainants will monitor the situation.
See press release
Read Legal Complaint (pdf)
Dismissal by FFRF (pdf)
The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit on Dec. 26, 2007, challenging the unlawful display of a manger scene at the entrance of city hall in Green Bay, Wis., in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Wisconsin. The Freedom From Religion Foundation v. City of Green Bay includes 14 individual plaintiffs of diverse religious and nonreligious views, and additionally names Green Bay City Council President Chad Fradette and Jim Schmitt, Mayor of Green Bay. Plaintiffs include Foundation members and other freethinkers, a Lutheran, a Buddhist, a Unitarian Universalist, a Wiccan and an Episcopalian. The Council president placed a nativity scene at city hall directly because the Foundation had complained about an unlawful nativity display in Peshtigo, Wis. "Public and private communications by the Defendants reflect their intent to provoke and marginalize persons who do not share their views regarding the public display and promotion of religion by the City," the Complaint noted. The City Council placed a moratorium on the public display of any religious symbols other than the Christian Nativity scene, which "preferentially conveys endorsement, promotion and/or advancement of religion."
Among the plaintiffs are Taku Ronsman and Wendy Coriell, who sought unsuccessfully to place other symbols at city hall, and Michael Bergman, who had expressed concern to the city over the Christian endorsement and wondered if he could display a Buddhist symbol to coincide with a major Buddhist holiday in May. The Foundation Complaint charges that "objectors and dissenters are shown to be political outsiders and discouraged from challenging the official view that public sponsorship of religious displays is an appropriate exercise of government authority."
The Foundation dropped its appeal before the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on Jan. 13, 2009, since no religious displays were permitted by the City of Green Bay, Wis., in December 2008. The Foundation is prepared to go back to court if abuses recur.
Read the Legal Complaint, case number 07-C-1151 (pdf)
Freethought Today coverage
FFRF Motion of Continuance (pdf)
Decision and order by William C. Griesbach, U.S. District Judge (pdf)
Motion to Appeal Filed Nov. 3, 2008
FFRF's major legal coup in 2007 was ending the first chaplaincy for state workers ever set up in the nation, in which a pastor was hired by Indiana to bring "faith into the workplace" for state employees in the Family and Social Services Administration. The state abolished the chaplaincy and fired the chaplain in the fall of 2007, ending the lawsuit. The lawsuit brought media attention, resulting in several exposes in Indiana newspapers revealing that in nearly 18 months and after $120,000 in tax money, the program had met few of its goals.
The Foundation and four of its Indiana members and taxpayers filed a lawsuit on May 2, 2007, in the courtroom of Judge David Hamilton, U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Indiana, challenging the creation of a chaplaincy for the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA). The FSSA hired Pastor Michael L. Latham, a Baptist minister, in 2006, at a salary of $60,000 a year, paid with revenue from state taxpayers. The job description stated that Rev. Latham "serves as the Chaplain for the Family and Social Services Administration and functions as a staff advisor on all problems involving spiritual needs of the employees. He also serves as the strategic director for policy, procedures and communication efforts on faith-based services. The position reports directly to the FSSA Chief of Staff." The job description required the chaplain to be an ordained or licensed minister, who will minister to FSS employees, develop a statewide network of volunteer ministers, train staff to encourage a "faithful environment in the workplace," participate in outreach to faith-based groups and prepare "faith-based services, including for legislators and service providers.
Read the news release
Read Amended Legal Complaint (pdf)
Read confirmation of termination of chaplaincy program (pdf)
Read Stipulation & Order for Dismissal (pdf)
In its ninth major lawsuit challenging the "faith-based initiative," the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit May 5, 2006 in federal court challenging faith-based prison programs at the Federal Bureau of Prisons.The lawsuit challenges previous multifaith programs set up by the Bureau, as well as the Justice Department's announced plans to expand "single-faith" programs into as many as six more federal prisons.
Named are: Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales; Federal Bureau of Prisons director Harley G. Lappin, and Clay Johnson III, director, Office of Management and Budget. Plaintiffs include the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church watchdog group of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics), co-presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, and founder Anne Nicol Gaylor.
The lawsuit challenges the Bureau of Prisons' Life Connections Program, instigated by the Department of Justice Task Force for Faith-based and Community Initiatives, which is an 18-month program that has been operating since at least 2003 in at least five federal institutions. The Federal Bureau of Prisons suspended temporarily calls for grant applications for its proposed new "single-faith" programs after FFRF's lawsuit was filed. The lawsuit also seeks to end actions by the Office of Management and Budget, which gives a "report card" to each major federal agency which apparently grades the agencies on the extent to which they have disbursed or increased their appropriations to faith-based agencies.
Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Gonzales, Case No. 06-C-0244-S, has been assigned to Judge John Shabaz, U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin.
By the end of May 2006, shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the FBP had suspended its call to accept grants to run "single faith" prison ministries. In October 2006, the Bureau quietly announced at its website that the call for single faith grants was canceled.
Read the update here
Read the original news release
The University of Minnesota agreed in September 2006 to drop plans to sponsor a "faith health leadership course" after removing itself from a "faith health consortium," in response to a federal lawsuit filed by FFRF on March 25, 2005. The "faith/health leadership program" was to be the centerpiece of the Minnesota Faith Health Consortium and a national model, in which the University of Minnesota would train professionals to be "faith/health leaders," offering devotional, not academic classes for seminary credit at a public university.
Federal funds of $435,000 earmarked for Alaska Christian College, as well as remaining funds from a previous federal grant, were suspended on Oct. 7, 2005, by the U.S. Department of Education, as a result of a federal lawsuit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The Foundation challenge of public funding of the unaccredited bible college, with only 31 students and run by the Evangelical Covenant Church of Alaska, was filed on April 21, 2005, in U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin. The "Christ-centered" school offers no academic classes. Students receive a bible certificate at the end of the year. After investigating, the Department of Education agreed to suspend the grant, thus saving taxpayers nearly half a million dollars.
The lawsuit sought a court order to HHS to discontinue funding MentorKids, as well as an order to enjoin HHS from "further disbursement of funding to faith-based mentoring groups until HHS has a demonstrated plan in place to comply with its constitutional obligations." On Nov. 23, 2004, the Foundation filed for summary judgment in its challenge of federal funding of the exclusively Christian group, which works only with churchgoing mentors to "share the good news of who Jesus is and how he can provide a future of hope for anyone," working with children of prisoners.
MentorKids USA was awarded a total of $225,000 in HHS funds for the years 2003-2006. It was originally launched in 1996 by Prison Fellowship Ministries, the Christian ministry founded by Watergate felon Chuck Colson. Its website advertises: "We are a faith-based organization working in partnerships with churches and the local Christian community to enlist, train and support Christian mentors." The group's Statement of Faith includes a "belief in one God, Creator and Lord of the Universe, the Co-Eternal Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Mentors must sign the mission statement, which includes the belief that "the Bible is God's authoritative and inspired word that is without error in all its teachings, including creation, history, its origins and salvation, . . ."
On Dec. 15, 2004, HHS suspended "the drawdown of federal funds" to MentorKids USA. HHS ordered the group to submit a "Corrective Action Plan" by Jan. 3, 2005, then asked the court to dismiss the Foundation lawsuit.
On January 11, 2005, the Department of Health and Human Services was ordered for the first time by a court to "vacate" funding of MentorKids. Judge Shabaz found that the federal government failed to "prove there is no reasonable expectation that the wrong will be repeated" and ruled the funding unconstitutional: "federal funds have been used by the MentorKids program to advance religion in violation of the Establishment Clause." The victory was not appealed.
In February 2004, the Freedom From Religion Foundation won its challenge of a Ten Commandments monument in a public park in La Crosse, Wis., and the city's convoluted attempt to sell a small bite of the park to the Fraternal Order of Eagles in order to maintain the monument in the same park. Federal Judge Barbara Crabb of the Western District of Wisconsin noted: "It borders on preposterous to argue that the government can avoid an establishment clause violation by 'dedicating' a religious object to a nonreligious group. Adopting such a view would permit municipalities to erect crosses and build churches on public property throughout the city so long as it could think of a new group to which it could dedicate each one." The city and the Fraternal Order of Eagles, represented by television evangelist Pat Robertson's legal group, have appealed the ruling to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The case is Sue Mercier et al v. City of La Crosse, 02-C-376-C.
View News Release
On Jan. 3, 2005, a 3-judge panel of the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals partially overturned Judge Crabb, approving the sale of city land to the Eagles to explicitly maintain the decalog in the same spot. Judge Crabb's main ruling that display or ownership of the Ten Commandments by a city is unconstitutional was not overturned, thus the bible edict remains on private property. Dissenting appellate Judge Bauer called the city sale of the park a "sham" bordering on "fraud":
See final press release
Mercier vs. La Crosse Legal Complaint (pdf)
Reply Brief on Standing, Mercier vs. La Crosse (pdf)
7th Circuit Ruling, Mercier vs. La Crosse (pdf)
The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit in April 2003 challenging the funding and merger of two Montana state offices with the "Montana Faith-Health Cooperative."
The Foundation and three Montana Foundation members are suing the Montana Office of Rural Health, its executive director David M. Young, the Montana State University-Bozeman, and the Montana Faith-Health Cooperative. The "faith-health cooperative" is in the same office as the Montana Office of Rural Health and the Montana State University-Bozeman.
Young, who is on the steering committee of the "faith-health cooperative," shares management of the cooperative with the Executive Director of the Montana Association of Churches.
State and federal taxpayers are subsidizing the activities of the faith-health cooperative, the lawsuit charges. The Montana Office of Rural Health, as part of the Montana State University-Bozeman educational website, hosts, copyrights and owns the cooperative's website. "The mission of the Montana Faith-Health Cooperative is to foster and promote holistic health care, including an emphasis on the spiritual aspect of human beings," the Foundation complaint charges, promoting "the importance and power of faith as part of public health care initiatives." The case is Freedom From Religion Foundation et. al. v. Montana Office of Rural Health (CV-03-30-BU-RWA).
FFRF won the lawsuit in October 2004.
On June 7, 2004, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled in favor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its plaintiffs, challenging 51 years of unlawful bible instruction in Rhea County (Dayton, Tenn.) public schools.
Bible students at William Jennings Bryan college were brought into the public schools for 51 years to give religious instruction every week, until the Foundation sued over the practice in federal court.
The case is John Doe, Mary Roe, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Sue Porter, Superintendent of the Rhea County School District, Rhea County Board of Education, Jimmy Wilkey, County Executive for Rhea County, Tennessee, 02-5316/5823, June 7, 2004.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation took and won the fully adjudicated federal lawsuit challenging direct funding of a faith-based agency in 2002. The Foundation challenged the government funding of Faith Works, a Milwaukee group dedicated to bringing "homeless addicts to Christ." As a presidential candidate, George W. Bush visited Faith Works and announced Faith Works was a prototype of the kind of religious agency he would funnel billions of tax dollars to. The Foundation's victory ensuring no more direct funding of Faith Works was not appealed, and set significant national precedent. The case is Freedom From Religion Foundation v. McCallum (00 C 0617 C).
Direct subsidy to parochial schools was ruled unconstitutional by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on April 27, 2001. The Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling in favor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation's challenge of a Wisconsin program giving cash grants to religious schools to reimburse them for Internet linkage access costs. The grants constituted a "direct subsidy to participating religious schools" that runs afoul of the Establishment clause principles set out by the U.S. Supreme Court in Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist (1973), wrote Judge Harlington Wood, Jr., joined by Judges Michael S. Kanne and Diane P. Wood.
The case is Freedom From Religion Foundation Inc. v. Bugher No. 99-2850.
A nationally-watched Wisconsin law to create a state coordinator to "assist" clergy to develop "community-wide standards of marriage" was ruled unconstitutional in a firm decision issued on May 25, 2000, by U.S. District Judge John Shabaz. The law was to be modeled after a Christian program called Marriage Savers, based in Maryland. Marriage Savers director Mike McManus suggested that its funding source be the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Federal funds for needy families, totaling $210,000, were to be raided to promote religion. Plaintiffs included not only the Foundation and its staff members, but the Rev. Charles Wolfe, pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church, Madison. The case is Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Joe Leean (99-C-813-S).
The Freedom From Religion Foundation's two-and-a-half year court battle over a shrine to Jesus in a public park in Wisconsin concluded in November 2000 with the erection of a 4-foot, wrought-iron fence and two "private property" signs around the statue. The Foundation, with Clarence Reinders of Marshfield as plaintiff, filed suit in 1998 after receiving complaints by residents and motorists about a Jesus statue dominating a public wayside park, reading "Christ Guide Us On Our Way." The statue had been given to the town by the Knights of Columbus in the 1950s. The Foundation's lawsuit was initially dismissed by Shabaz after the city sold a prime parcel of the park to a group formed expressly to save the statue.
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago agreed with the Foundation that the sale did not remedy the violation, because there was no wall or sign indicating the statue is now on private land. A three-judge panel ordered Shabaz to oversee the erection of a wall or fence with a visible disclaimer.
Read the decision
Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc., and Clarence Reinders, v. City of Marshfield, Wis., and Henry Praschak Memorial Fund, Inc., No. 99-1639 U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. Decided February 4, 2000.
The United States District Court in Denver in 1998 approved a settlement in Wells v. Lochhead, a lawsuit challenging a shrine built to commemorate the Mass said by Pope John Paul II during his 1993 appearance in Cherry Creek State Park outside Denver. The State of Colorado Department of Natural Resources agreed to delete a series of religious phrases and an image of a boy praying, as well as a picture of the pope blessing someone, from plaques placed in a gazebo-like memorial structure in the park.
Roger Cleveland and the Alabama Freethought Association, a Foundation chapter, sued to remove crosses and preference for Christian use at Alabama state parks in 1992. In 1993, the Alabama State Parks agreed to take down crosses, to stop using the term "chapel" on buildings and state maps, and to give groups "first come-first serve" rights to use public facilities, instead of reserving buildings for religious groups every Sunday morning.
In 1995, the Alabama chapter and members were plaintiffs in the original ACLU case against Judge Roy Moore, filed when he was a county judge inflicting prayers on juries and erecting a Ten Commandments plaque in his courtroom. The plaintiffs won at the federal level in November 1996, with Moore ordered to stop the prayers. The case was thrown out on a technicality in 1998, after interference by the governor complicated the lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge John Shabaz ruled on Feb. 24, 1996, that Wisconsin's Good Friday legal holiday is unconstitutional. The holiday violated the First Amendment by favoring Christianity over other religions or no religion. The 1945 law mandated: "On Good Friday, the period from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. shall uniformly be observed for the purpose of worship." The law was amended to require state offices to close at noon on Good Friday to observe the crucifixion of Jesus.
Shabaz wrote in a strongly-worded, 15-page decision that "The language of [the law] leaves absolutely no doubt that the purpose of the Wisconsin Legislature . . . was the promotion of religion."
Even without a religious purpose written into the law, Shabaz declared that the effect of giving state employees the paid holiday still endorses Christianity. The case is Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Tommy Thompson (95-C-634-5).
Addendum: On March 5, 1997, a Wisconsin county, whose supervisors had vowed they would never relinquish a publicly-observed Good Friday holy day, capitulated. After months of divisive religious debate, procrastination and three formal votes to retain the official holy day, Ozaukee County supervisors finally voted 18-12 to abandon their official Good Friday holy day. A "floating holiday" will take its place. A settlement of the lawsuit, Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Ozaukee County, Wisconsin, provided that Ozaukee County paid the Foundation $8,500 in court costs and attorney's fees.
Read the Good Friday Ruling (pdf)
Read the Court Order (pdf)
Photo: Brent Nicastro
In November 1993, the Freedom From Religion Foundation Denver chapter, with the national organization, successfully went to court to enjoin the Denver mayor's office from cosponsoring a National Day of Prayer against Violation on Dec. 5, 1993. The Court enjoined the mayor from "any further endorsement, promotion, sponsorship or support of the Day of Prayer."
Ruling (pdf) by Judge John N. McMullen, District Court, in FFRF, Colorado Chapter of FFRF, Robert H. Fenn and Lee Whitfield v. City and County of Denver, Colo., Wellington Web,b, Mayor of Denver. Case No. 93 CV 6056
In September 1984, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit seeking removal of a religious question from mandatory registration forms at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The names and addresses of students who indicated their religious preferences were given to area churches, campus ministries and religious officials for recruitment. The University settled the case by adding the Freedom From Religion Foundation name to the list, then eventually discontinued the church check-off list.