- FFRF and ACLU-KY challenge rejection of personalized license plate
- FFRF and members file suit against Latin cross on county seal
- FFRF sues Congress for invocation discrimination
- FFRF and AHA take on cross in Pensacola public park
- FFRF sues to remove cross in park in Santa Clara, Calif.
- Gaylor v. Lew challenges IRS clergy housing privileges
- FFRF, member sue Shelton, Conn. over viewpoint censorship
- FFRF vs. Abbott challenges Bill of Rights display censorship
- FFRF sues Morris County, N.J., over grants to churches
- FFRF, ACLU bring suit challenging public school’s live nativity scene
- FFRF, AU, ACLU sue Brevard County (FL) over discrimination of nontheists
- FFRF sues over school board prayer in Chino Valley, Calif.
- FFRF and parent seek removal of Ten Commandments monument in front of Pa. public school
FFRF and the ACLU of Kentucky filed suit on November 22, 2016 on behalf of Ben Hart, who was denied a personalized license plate by the State of Kentucky. Hart's request for a personalized license plate reading "IM GOD" was rejected by Kentucky DMV officials who claimed the message was "obscene or vulgar," but then later said that it was because the plate was "not in good taste."
The lawsuit challenges certain portions of the regulations governing personalized license plates as unlawful, namely those that allow government officials to deny plates based on vague notions of "good taste" as well as those barring personalized plates from communicating religious, anti-religious or political messages.
Hart seeks approval of his license plate application, and a finding that certain provisions are invalid to the extent they allow government officials to deny personalized plates solely because they communicate messages about politics or religion.
The case (No. 3:16-cv-00092) is before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and several of its local members filed suit on August 16, 2016, against Lehigh County, Penn., to remove a Latin cross from the official county seal and flag. The case was brought in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
FFRF is a plaintiff, as are members residing in the county who have encountered the religious symbol on governmental property and documents, such as on letterhead, numerous official county forms and reports, the county’s website, a display in the Board of Commissioners meeting room and even on flags prominently displayed at the entrance of county buildings. Joining FFRF in the suit are four county residents, Stephen Meholic, David Simpson, John Berry and Candace Winkler.
By adopting and displaying a seal and flag with a Latin cross, the county is violating the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The purpose is religious, not secular, and “has the primary effect of both advancing religion and expressing defendant’s preference for Christianity above all other religions and nonreligion,” the plaintiffs contend.
FFRF and its co-plaintiffs are seeking a declaration that the religious symbols on the county seal and flag are unconstitutional, a permanent injunction against displaying them, nominal damages, costs and attorney fees.
On the 2016 National Day of Prayer, May 5, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed suit against Congress for refusing to allow Co-President Dan Barker to deliver the House of Representatives invocation as a guest chaplain.
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan sponsored Barker to deliver a guest invocation in February of 2015. Barker fulfilled all of the chaplain office's requirements, but House Chaplain Patrick Conroy denied Barker's request in January 2016, noting in a letter to Pocan that Barker had "announced his atheism publicly" and therefore was not a true "minister of the gospel" eligible for the honor of appearing in front of Congress.
FFRF is asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to declare that barring atheists and other nonreligious individuals from the position of guest chaplain violates the Constitution and RFRA, and that requiring guest chaplains to invoke a supernatural power violates Article VI's ban on a religious test for a public office or trust. The organization is also bringing an Establishment Clause claim under the First Amendment of the Constitution, pointing out the chaplain's office is showing an unconstitutional preference for religion over nonreligion.
Judge Rosemary M. Collyer, a Bush appointee, presides over the case, No. 1:16-cv-00580.
Conroy and the rest of the defendants filed motions to dismiss on September 30, 2016, which FFRF responded to on November 14, 2016.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association filed suit over a government-owned cross in the city of Pensacola, Fla. on May 4, 2016. One version or another of the cross, which sits in Bayview Park, has stood for more than 50 years.
The city refused to comply with both groups' demands to remove the cross, leaving FFRF, AHA, and four Pensacola residents with no choice but to sue.
The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the cross violates the Establishment Clause, and issue an injunction ordering the cross to be removed.
FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert and Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler represent the plaintiffs, along with AHA Legal Director David Niose and Senior Counsel Monica Miller.
The case, no. 3:16-cv-00195, was filed in Florida federal court and sits before Judge Roger Vinson, a Ronald Reagan appointee.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, with member Andrew DeFaria, sued the City of Santa Clara, Calif., on April 20, 2016, to remove a large Latin cross from a city park. The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.
The cross is located at Memorial Cross Park and apparently commemorates the 1777 Spanish Catholic mission. The Santa Clara Lions Club donated the cross in 1953 and the city has owned and maintained it ever since.
FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert initially complained to the city about the unconstitutional display in 2012. To date, despite assurances from the city over the years to "resolv[e] the matter in an expeditious and responsible manner," no action has been taken to remove the cross. The city has, however, removed the sign reading "Memorial Cross Park."
FFRF and DeFaria are represented by Attorney David J.P. Kaloyanides. FFRF senior staff attorney Rebecca Markert and Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler are serving as co-counsel. The case, No. 5:16-cv-02072, sits before Judge Lucy H. Koh, an Obama appointee.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation renewed its challenge against the IRS U.S.C. § 107 in a federal lawsuit filed on April 6, 2016, in the Western District of Wisconsin. FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker name as defendants Jacob Lew, U.S. secretary of the treasury, and John Koshkinen, IRS commissioner. The lawsuit challenges the clergy housing allowance, which permits clergy to be paid partly through a housing allowance which is subtracted from taxable income. Rep Peter Mack, the sponsor of the 1954 law, argued that ministers should be rewarded for "carrying on such a courageous fight against this [a godless and anti-religious world movement]."
The FFRF couple, who are married, are being paid in part by FFRF through a housing allowance. Their request for a housing allowance refund for the year 2012 was denied by the IRS. Anne Nicol Gaylor, president emerita, requested a refund which was not received prior to her death last year. Her son Ian Gaylor is also a named plaintiff representing the Anne Nicol Gaylor estate.
FFRF is asking the court to rule the provision unconstitutional because it provides preferential and discriminatory tax benefits to ministers of the gospel. The section "directly benefits ministers and churches, most significantly by lowering a minister's tax burden, while discriminating against the individual plaintiffs, who as the leaders of a nonreligious organization opposed to governmental endorsements of religion are denied the same benefit." Clergy are permitted to use the housing allowance not just for rent or mortgage, but for home improvements, including maintenance, home improvements and repairs, dishwashers, cable TV and phone fees, paint, towels, bedding, home décor, even personal computers and bank fees. They may be exempt from taxable income up to the fair market rental value of their home, particularly helping well-heeled pastors.
Gaylor v. Lew has case number 3:16-cv-00215.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, with member Jerome H. Bloom, filed suit March 22, 2016, in U.S. District Court, Connecticut, against the city of Shelton and its mayor and parks director after their request to put up a display in a city park was denied. The American Legion, which boasts a religious mission to “bring all Americans closer to their Creator,” has been allowed to erect a display every December for at least four years in Constitution Park in Shelton featuring heralding angels. When Bloom and FFRF sought permission in November 2015 to counter such religiosity by placing a sign asserting, among other things, that there are “no angels,” they were turned down because the city deemed it “offensive to many.” FFRF is suing over impermissible viewpoint discrimination, asking the judge to enjoin the city from excluding its display in the future.
The case was filed in the courtroom of Judge Janet Bond Arterton (appointed by President Clinton) on behalf of the plaintiffs, by Laurence J. Cohen, of Springfield, Mass., with FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell and FFRF Diane Uhl Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne serving as co-counsel. FFRF v. City of Shelton has case number 3:16-cv-00477.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit in the Western District of Texas, Austin division, on February 25, 2016, challenging the remove of its approved Bill of Rights display from the Texas State Capitol by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. FFRF had a permit and a legislative sponsor for its display. Abbott as chair of the Texas State Preservation Board ordered the display taken down only three days after it was erected on Dec. 18, 2015, lambasting it as indecent and mocking and contributing to public immorality. The whimsical exhibit, designed by artist Jake Fortin, commemorates the “birth” of the Bill of Rights (which was adopted on Dec. 15, 1791), depicting the founding fathers and the Statue of Liberty crowded adoringly around a manger scene containing the constitutional document. FFRF placed the display to counter a Christian nativity display at the Capitol. FFRF charges that Abbott and the other defendants violated the free speech, equal protection and due process rights of FFRF. FFRF also charges that Abbott’s action was motivated by animus toward FFRF and its non theistic message, following “a history of hostility directed at FFRF” by Abbott. The case, No. 1:16-cv-00233-SS, sits before Judge Sam Sparks.
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.
The defendants attempted to move the case to federal court, but the New Jersey District Court agreed with FFRF that the defendants did not have any grounds to move the case and remanded it back to the New Jersey state court.
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."
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.
On Sept. 14, 2016, Judge Jon DeGuilio ruled that the school district had adequately changed its performance so as not to violate the Establishment Clause. A nativity scene still appeared on stage at the 2015 Christmas Spectacular, but it did not include live student performers or a broadcast narrative of the biblical story of the birth of Jesus. It appeared for less than 2 minutes, rather than 20 as in previous years. The case is still ongoing. The parties are currently briefing the court on appropriate declaratory relief and nominal damages. FFRF has the option to appeal the final ruling.
- Press Release
- Motion for Preliminary Injunction
- Motion for Protective Order
- Preliminary Injunction
- Amended Complaint
- FFRF’s Memo Supporting Summary Judgment
- Concord’s Memo Supporting Summary Judgment
- FFRF’s Response on Summary Judgment
- Concord’s Response on Summary Judgment
- Opinion on Summary Judgment
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.
In May, the parties each filed motions for summary judgment, asking for the case to be decided.
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 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.
On October 2, 2015, the defendants made a cross-motion for summary judgment, which plaintiffs opposed.
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.
On February 18, 2016, the Court ruled in FFRF's favor, finding that "permitting religious prayer in board meetings, and the policy and custom of reciting prayers, Bible readings, and proselytizing at board meetings, constitute unconstitutional government endorsements of religion in violation of plaintiffs' First Amendment rights."
The school board voted to appeal the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in a controversial 3-2 vote at a contentious school board meeting. The defendants filed their official notice of appeal on March 16, 2016.
On March 31, the court ordered the district to pay more than $200,000 in attorney's fees and costs.
FFRF 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.
On August 9, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that Schaub did have legal standing to challenge the monument. The three judge panel unanimously found that her removal of her daughter from Valley High School due to the Ten Commandments monument, and prior contact with it, were sufficient for her to bring the case.
The court reversed and remanded for further proceedings on Schaub's claims and remanded for consideration of whether FFRF has standing on the basis that Schaub was a member when the suit was filed.
Judge McVerry ruled in a companion case that a similar monument violated the Establishment Clause.
- Complaint (9/14/12)
- FFRF 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)
- Opinion on Standing (7/27/15)
Third Circuit Court of Appeals: