- FFRF backs Georgia family in suit over elementary school prayer
- FFRF sues Walker administration for open records violation
- FFRF sues over government nativity, denial of equal treatment in Franklin Co., Ind.
- FFRF sues over school board prayer in Chino Valley, Calif.
- FFRF sues Orange County schools over literature discrimination
- FFRF and parents seek removal of Ten Commandments monuments in front of two Pa. public schools
- FFRF, students, bring suit over graduation and school board prayers
- FFRF challenges Catholic shrine on Big Mountain
- FFRF sues IRS over "parsonage exemption"
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 are the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the anonymous Doe family.
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 alleges 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.
FFRF is 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. In addition to FFRF, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott is a plaintiff.
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 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 charges that OCI violated numerous portions of the open records law when it failed to provide the documents, and seeks an order directing the defendants to produce the records and award reasonable attorneys' fees, damages of not less than $100, punitive damages and other actual costs.
"Let there be sunlight," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, who thanked the firm of McGillivray Westerberg & Bender for representing FFRF.
The case is in the courtroom of Circuit Court Judge Amy Smith.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit on Dec. 16, 2014 against Franklin County, Ind., which annually places a prominent nativity display in front of the Franklin County Courthouse in Brookville. The devotional tableau is erected shortly after Thanksgiving and stays up until early to mid-January.
The case, No. 1:14-cv-02047-TWP-DML, sits before Judge Tanya Walton Pratt, an Obama appointee, at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. In addition to FFRF, two Franklin County residents are local plaintiffs in the suit. The lawsuit asks the court to order Franklin County to remove the nativity scene permanently. However, the county passed an ordinance establishing a process for other groups to add their own displays, turning the courthouse lawn into a public forum. The case is proceeding under a claim for nominal damages.
After the ordinance passed, FFRF applied for a space on the courthouse lawn under the new policy, 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, is assigned to Judge Sarah Evans Barker, a Reagan appointee.
FFRF is represented by Senior Staff Attorney Gavin M. Rose of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. FFRF Staff Attorneys Rebecca Markert and Sam Grover are co-counsel.
On November 13, 2014, FFRF filed a lawsuit in the Central District of California, Eastern Division, against the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education, whose meetings “resemble a church service more than a school board meeting.” There was such an outpouring of support that FFRF amended its complaint on December 15, adding 18 plaintiffs, for a total of 22. All the plaintiffs are families with students in the school or school employees who have had the prayers foisted on them.
School board meetings open with a prayer, and often include bible readings and proselytizing by board members. Board President James Na injects Christianity into many of his official statements, FFRF's legal complaint notes. At one typical meeting, Na “urged everyone who does not know Jesus Christ to go and find Him,” after which another board member closed with a reading of Psalm 143.
Students often attend the meetings to receive awards, speak about issues affecting their schools, attend disciplinary hearings and do performances. Student attendance is mandatory in some instances, and a student representative is a member of the board.
FFRF is represented by Attorney David J.P. Kaloyanides, who won a lawsuit in February on behalf of the American Humanist Association, which stopped the city of Lake Elsinore, Calif., from building a war memorial depicting a soldier kneeling before a Christian cross. FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert and Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel are co-counsel on the case.
The complaint asks the court to declare the board's religious practices unconstitutional under both the federal and state constitutions and to permanently enjoin the board from any further school-sponsored religious exercises. U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal, an Obama appointee, is handling the case (Case No. 5:14-cv-02336).
On February 27, 2015, CVUSD retained new counsel, the Pacific Justice Institute.
FFRF filed a motion for protective order to keep the plaintiffs' identities confidential and protect them from retribution. Pitzer College professor Phil Zuckerman, the foremost expert on secular demographics and sociology, offered testimony to support FFRF's motion. PJI opposed the protective order initially, then changed course and stipulated to the pseudonyms. The court granted plaintiffs' request and ordered that pseudonyms be used from 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.
Some procedural aspects of the case are being appealed to the 11th Circuit. 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. Several procedural issues must still be decided by the 11th Circuit.
FFRF and parents of children in two Pennsylvania public schools filed suits in September 2012 to remove Ten Commandments displays in front of the schools.
FFRF and two parents filed the first suit on Sept. 14, 2012, against the New Kensington-Arnold School District (Pa.) to challenge a six-foot-tall Ten Commandments monument in front of Valley High School. FFRF wrote to the District in March of 2012 requesting the monument be moved because it violated federal and Supreme Court precedent prohibiting the display of the decalogue in public schools. District officials defended the monument and refused to move it.
FFRF and a student's parent filed the second 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. Plaintiffs FFRF and a parent of a student seek a declaration that the display is unconstitutional and an injunction requiring it to be moved, nominal damages and attorneys' fees and costs.
After FFRF objected, the Connellsville district initially indicated it would move the monument. Following intense public pressure, the school board voted on Sept. 12 to "delay any further action concerning moving the monument from its current location . . . until further notice and pending further legal action."
FFRF's complaint states that the continued presence of the Ten Commandments on district property is an unconstitutional advancement and endorsement of religion. The Connellsville case was transferred from Judge Cathy Bissoon on Feb. 25, 2013 to Judge Terrence McVerry in the Pittsburgh Division of the Western District of Pennsylvania. The parties filed for summary judgement on Dec. 10, 2014.
FFRF's case against the New Kensington-Arnold School District is also before Judge McVerry. The parties filed for summary judgment on Dec. 12, 2014. The suits will likely be decided at the same time. Pittsburgh-based attorney Marcus Schneider represents the plaintiffs.
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)
New Kensington-Arnold School District:
News Release (9/14/12)
Order Granting Use of Pseudonyms (11/30/12)
Defendant's Motion to Dismiss (11/16/12)
Plaintiffs' Response to Motion to Dismiss (12/14/12)
Second Order Granting Use of Pseudonyms (12/19/12)
Opinion Denying Motion to Dismiss (1/22/13)
Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment (12/12/14)
Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (12/12/14)
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. FFRF and the students, represented by local counsel Aaron Kozloski, asked the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, Columbia Division, to declare the district's policy null and void, enjoin it from further school-sponsored graduation prayers and to award damages, costs and attorney fees. 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 Cameron McGowan Currie presides over the case.
FFRF filed suit in U.S. District Court in Montana, challenging the Forest Service's decision to renew a special permit for a "shrine to our Lord Jesus Christ" on federal property in the Rockies. The Knights of Columbus, a conservative Roman Catholic men's club, has placed a devotional shrine on Big Mountain near Whitefish Mountain's Resort Chair Two in Flathead National Forest, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. On June 24, 2013, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen issued a ruling granting summary judgment for the Defendants.
FFRF news release: "FFRF challenges Catholic shrine on Big Mountain"
William A. Cox Declaration
FFRF news release: "Judge rules FFRF's Jesus shrine suit can go forward"
Government's Brief for Summary Judgment
Intervenor's Brief for Summary Judgment (Knights of Columbus)
FFRF Response Brief
Gaylor Declaration, Exhibits
Decision and Order
FFRF filed a notice of appeal on August 22, 2013. The case will be heard by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Amicus Briefs filed in support of Government:
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, with plaintiffs Annie Laurie Gaylor, Anne Nicol Gaylor and Dan Barker, filed a nationally significant federal lawsuit in Madison, Wis., on Sept. 13, 2011, challenging tax benefits for “ministers of the gospel,” commonly known as the “parsonage exemption," allowing ministers to deduct housing costs from their taxable income. The case advanced to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the plaintiffs lacked standing. FFRF will be retrenching its challenge of this unconstitutional subsidy.
FFRF sought a declaration that the federal statute creating the parish exemption, as administered by the IRS and the Treasury Department, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by providing preferential tax benefits to ministers of the gospel. FFRF requested the court enjoin the allowance or grant of tax benefits exclusively for ministers of the gospel.
The individually named plaintiffs, either currently directors or retired directors of FFRF, receive a housing allowance designated by FFRF's governing body, yet do not qualify for the housing allowance as they are promoting non-belief, rather than religion. In fact, Dan Barker is an ordained minister who previously was able to utilize the housing allowance and exclude such payments from his taxable income.
Ministers, who are paid in tax-free dollars, also may deduct their mortgage interest and property tax payments. Under federal law, allowances paid to “ministers of the gospel” are not treated as taxable income. “Ministers of the gospel” may uniquely claim these benefits, so the statutes convey a governmental message of endorsement, unconstitutionally favoring religious employees and institutions over all others. The exemptions permit clergy to deduct from their taxable income housing allowances furnished as part of compensation. The unique benefits to clergy date to 1954, when Congress amended the tax code to permit all clergy to exempt their housing costs from their incomes taxes. U.S. Rep. Peter Mack, author of the amendment, declared:
“Certainly, in these times when we are being threatened by a godless and antireligious world movement we should correct this discrimination against certain ministers of the gospel who are carrying on such a courageous fight against this foe. Certainly this is not too much to do for these people who are caring for our spiritual welfare.”
“The income taxation of ministers of the gospel under the general rules that apply to other individuals would not interfere with the religious mission of churches or other organizations or the ministers themselves,” the legal complaint maintained. The statutes are not an accommodation of religion, therefore, but a subsidy.
Defendants were Jacob Lew, U.S. Treasury Secretary and John Koskinen, Internal Revenue Service Commissioner, who are all providing tax benefits only to “ministers of the gospel,” rather than to a broad class of taxpayers. (When originally filed in 2011, defendants were Timothy Geithner and Douglas Shulman).
U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb, Western District of Wisconsin, issued a strong 20-page opinion and order on Aug. 29, 2012, permitting FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor and President Emerita Anne Gaylor to pursue their challenge of the 1954 law. The plaintiffs receive part of their salaries designated for a housing allowance. Yet they do not qualify for the parish exemption as they are not “ministers of the gospel.” The government contested their standing to sue, but Crabb wrote that “there is no plausible argument that plaintiffs could make that they qualify as ‘ministers of the gospel,’ so it would be pointless to require plaintiffs to jump through the hoop of filing a claim to prove that they are not entitled to the exemption.”
Motion to Dismiss
Opinion and Order - Motion to Dismiss
FFRF news release: "FFRF parish exemption case clears hurdle"
Opinion and Order, August 29, 2012
Government Brief for Summary Judgement
FFRF's Brief in Opposition
Annie Laurie Gaylor Declaration
Dan Barker Declaration
Decision in favor of FFRF (Nov. 21, 2013)
The federal government filed notice on January 24, 2014, that it was appealing Judge Crabb’s ruling in favor of FFRF. Oral arguments were held before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago on September 9, 2014.
Amicus Briefs filed in support of Government:
Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
Foundation for Moral Law
National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs
Alliance Defending Freedom
Christian Legal Society - Part I
Christian Legal Society - Part II
Amicus Brief filed in support of FFRF:
On November 13, 2014, a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the exemption.