Ongoing Lawsuits - Legal - Freedom From Religion Foundation

FFRF sues Morris County, N.J., over grants to churches

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and member David Steketee filed a lawsuit Dec. 1, 2015, in New Jersey state court against Morris County and county officials, challenging public grants of tax dollars to repair or maintain churches. FFRF with Steketee, a taxpayer in Morris County, are contesting grants to churches by the board's Historic Preservation Trust Fund. Since 2012, the board has awarded 55% of its total Trust Fund assets to churches—more than $5.5 million. FFRF is specifically challenging $1.04 million in allocations to the Presbyterian Church in Morristown to allow "continued use by our congregation for worship services," and allotments to the St. Peter's Episcopal Church that would ensure "access to the church for worship, [and] periods of solitude and meditation during the week." The grants violate Article I, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution, guaranteeing: "nor shall any person be obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary to what he believes to be right."

The lawsuit is being handled by attorney Paul S. Grosswald. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew L. Seidel and Diane Uhl Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne are co-counsel. FFRF v. Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders, Case No. C-12089-15 is in the Chancery division of Somerset County in New Jersey state court. The judge assigned to the case is Margaret Goodzeit.

FFRF, ACLU bring suit challenging public school’s live nativity scene

On October 7, 2015, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Indiana filed a federal lawsuit, along with a local parent and student, challenging an annual live nativity performance at Concord High School in Elkhart, Indiana.

The complaint notes that for several decades, Concord High School has organized a "Christmas Spectacular" each winter. Every performance, of which there were five last year, "ends with an approximately 20-minute telling of the story of the birth of Jesus, including a live Nativity Scene and a scriptural reading from the Bible. During this segment, students at the High School portray the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men, shepherds, and angels."

Plaintiff Jack Doe, a student at the school, is a member of the performing arts department. Attendance and performance at the Christmas Spectacular is mandatory for students enrolled in the performing arts department. In February 2016, concerned parents of two other Concord High School students joined the lawsuit as John Noe and John Roe.

Attorneys for FFRF and the ACLU argue in the complaint that the nativity performance and the reading of the biblical story of the birth of Jesus are, of course, "well-recognized symbols of the Christian faith. Their presence at the Christmas Spectacular is coercive, represents an endorsement of religion by the High School and the School Corporation, has no secular purpose, and has the principal purpose and effect of advancing religion."

A video of the 2014 Nativity performance can be viewed here.

FFRF has brought suit in conjunction with the ACLU of Indiana and the national ACLU. Attorneys on the case include Sam Grover and Ryan Jayne of FFRF, Gavin Rose of the ACLU of Indiana, and Daniel Mach and Heather L. Weaver of the ACLU. FFRF v. Concord Community Schools, Case No. 3:15-cv-00463, is in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division. Judge Jon DeGuilio has been assigned to the case.

FFRF, AU, ACLU sue Brevard County (FL) over discrimination of nontheists

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, together with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, filed a federal lawsuit on July 7, 2015, challenging censorship of nontheists by Brevard County (Fla.) Board of County Commissioners. The lawsuit asserts that Brevard County's persistent rejection of atheists, humanists and other nontheists who want to deliver solemnizing messages to start meetings violates the U.S. and Florida Constitutions.

The plaintiffs in the case include the Central Florida Freethought Community (a chapter of FFRF) and its chair David Williamson; the Space Coast Freethought Association and its president Chase Hansel; the Humanist Community of the Space Coast and its president Keith Becher; and Brevard County resident Ronald Gordon.

Litigators include Alex Luchenitser and Legal Fellow Joshua Hoffer at Americans United; Nancy Abudu and Daniel Tilley of the ACLU of Florida; and Daniel Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief; and FFRF Senior Staff AttorneyRebecca S. Markert and Staff Attorney Andrew L. Seidel.

The case, Williamson v. Brevard County no. 6:15-cv-01098-JA-DAB, has been assigned to Senior District Judge John Antoon, a Clinton appointee, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Orlando division.

Press release 
Complaint 

FFRF backs Georgia family in suit over elementary school prayer

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.

Read FFRF's press release

Complaint
Exhibit 1
Exhibit 2

FFRF sues Walker administration for open records violation

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.

FFRF News Release: "FFRF sues Walker administration over open records violations"
FFRF Complaint
OCI Answer
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

 

FFRF sues over school board prayer in Chino Valley, Calif.

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 the plaintiffs' request and ordered that pseudonyms be used from the case.

FFRF Complaint
FFRF Amended Complaint
FFRF Motion for Protective Order
Zuckerman Declaration 
CVUSD Brief Opposing Protective Order 
Order granting pseudonyms 

FFRF press releases:
FFRF adds 18 plaintiffs to school board prayer suit in Chino, Calif.
FFRF sues praying school board in Chino Valley, Calif.

FFRF and the other plaintiffs moved for summary judgment and submitted a memo to support that motion on Sept. 28, 2015. Plaintiffs argued that the legislative prayer exceptions in cases like Marsh v. Chambers and Town of Greece v. Galloway do not apply in the school context. Instead, the court ought to analyze this case as it would any other school prayer case. Defendants opposed this motion, but Plaintiffs had the final say in their reply.

FFRF Motion for Summary Judgment
FFRF Memo in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment
FFRF Reply in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment

On October 2, 2015, the defendants made a cross-motion for summary judgment, which plaintiffs opposed.

CVUSD Motion for Summary Judgment and Memo
FFRF Memo Opposing CVUSD Motion for Summary Judgment

In November, 2015, the Court ordered additional briefing on the issue of standing, raised by the defendants. FFRF submitted a supplemental brief in support of standing to the court at the court's request. The defendants objected to this submission, even though they were able to reply and even the court asked for the briefing.

FFRF Supplemental Memo in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment
CVUSD Objection to FFRF Declarations

FFRF and parent seek removal of Ten Commandments monument in front of Pa. public school

NewKenTenCommFFRF and a parent filed 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's complaint stated that the continued presence of the Ten Commandments on district property was an unconstitutional advancement and endorsement of religion.
The parties filed for summary judgment on Dec. 12, 2014 before Judge Terrence McVerry of the Western District of Pennsylvania.

McVerry ruled on July 27, 2015, that the parent of a student, Marie Schaub, and the student did not have standing to bring the lawsuit.

FFRF's summary judgment brief discussed the plaintiffs' contact with the monument, which included a visit to the school for a karate event, use of the school's swimming pool, and visits to the school on other occasions. FFRF's brief argued, "This direct unwelcome contact with the Monument satisfies any standing burden that the Doe Plaintiffs have." FFRF's statement of facts in the case highlighted another form of unique injury to the family. Ms. Schaub withdrew her child from the school because of the Ten Commandments Monument.

Judge McVerry ruled in a companion case that a similar monument violated the Establishment Clause.

On Aug. 25, 2015, the plaintiffs filed notice of appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

District Court:

Third Circuit Court of Appeals:

FFRF sues IRS over "parsonage exemption"

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.”

Complaint
Motion to Dismiss
Amended Complaint
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.

Government’s Appellate Brief
FFRF Brief
Government’s Reply Brief
Plaintiff’s Supplemental Brief Regarding Standing

Amicus Briefs filed in support of Government:

Becket Fund for Religious Liberty 
Foundation for Moral Law
Liberty Institute
National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs
Alliance Defending Freedom
Church Alliance
Christian Legal Society - Part I
Christian Legal Society - Part II

Amicus Brief filed in support of FFRF:

Center for Inquiry - Amicus Brief

On November 13, 2014, a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the exemption.

Decision for 7th Circuit
FFRF news release: "FFRF faults 7th Circuit timidity on clergy privilege case"

FFRF, ACLU sue Virginia school over Ten Commandments (Sept. 15, 2011)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia filed a federal lawsuit Sept. 13 against the School Board of Giles County, Va., for unconstitutionally endorsing religion by displaying the Ten Commandments. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Roanoke on behalf of a student at Narrows High School, Narrows, Va., and the student's parent. The plaintiffs also filed a motion for them to remain anonymous due to the potential for retaliation and for a protective order barring defense counsel and court personnel from disclosing their identities. FFRF first objected to the display in December 2010 when the Commandments were posted in all six county schools. The district responded by taking the displays down, then put them back up after a church congregation and others pressured the board. On advice of legal counsel, they were again later removed. In June, after FFRF and ACLU of Virginia sent a joint letter of objection to another plan to repost the bible edicts, the board voted 3-2 to post them again, with other documents, in the misguided belief that the documents would put the display on stronger legal footing. The display at Narrows High School is in a main hallway where the student plaintiff by necessity encounters it daily. The display "promotes a particular faith to which Doe 1 does not subscribe," the suit charges. "Doe 1 understands the current display to be merely a continuation of the board’s longstanding policy, practice, and custom of promoting the Ten Commandments in the school." Given the public outcry when the Commandments were removed and the clamor for their reinstallation, "any alleged secular purpose for the current displays are, and will be perceived as, a sham," the plaintiffs contend. Hundreds of students wearing Ten Commandments t-shirts walked out of a high school this spring. Other believers crowded school board meetings.

The plaintiffs seek a declaration that the policy and postings are unconstitutional, a permanent injunction prohibiting Giles County Public Schools from displaying the Commandments, nominal damages and attorneys' fees and costs. The Supreme Court ruled in Stone v. Graham that public schools may not post the Ten Commandments. "One has only to read the first commandment, 'Thou shalt have no other god before me,' than to realize why a public school may not post such a command. It is none of the business of a school board whether a student embraces one god, ten gods or no god at all! The First Commandment is the antithesis of the First Amendment," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Plaintiffs' attorneys are FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott and Rebecca Glenberg, Thomas Okuda Fitzpatrick of the ACLU of Virginia and Frank Feibelman, ACLU of Virginia cooperating attorney.

Legal Complaint (September 13, 2011)
Brief in Support of Protective Order
Brief in Opposition to Protective Order
Reply Brief Supporting Protective Order

Motion to Dismiss
Response to Motion to Dismiss

Protective Order
Defendant's Answer

FFRF stops illegal sub shop church bulletin discount (Aug. 21, 2011)

On Aug. 15, 2011, FFRF Staff Attorney Stephanie Schmitt wrote a letter of complaint to an Ardmore, Okla. Quizno’s sandwich shop complaining about a sign on the counter of the restaurant, which read, “Sundays Only: Trade ‘This’ Sundays Church Bulletin for 10% Discount.” The complainant informed FFRF that when asked if a bulletin could be brought in from a non-Christian organization, such as an atheist group, an employee responded, “No, it has to be a Christian church.”

Schmitt informed the Quizno’s owner that this was a violation of the Civil Rights Act as well as Oklahoma law and urged the owner to “discontinue these discriminatory actions by eliminating the discount altogether, or by making the discount available to all members of [the] community.”

On Aug. 21, 2011, the complainant informed FFRF that they had recently asked the same employee at the Ardmore Quizno’s if they still had the Sunday discount. The employee replied that it had been discontinued because “some atheist was threatening to sue.” 

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