Ongoing Lawsuits - Legal - Freedom From Religion Foundation

Alabama voters file lawsuit challenging required “So Help Me God” oath

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit on behalf of four Alabama citizens, challenging a mandatory voter registration oath that concludes, “so help me God.” Alabama is the only state to require voters to sign a religious oath in order to register to vote. In all other states, voters are provided a completely secular registration form or are not required to submit an oath or affirmation at all.

Randal Cragun, the lead plaintiff, has sought to register to vote in Alabama since November 2019. He contacted the secretary of state’s office in order to ask about registering without the oath and was told that there is no way to register without signing the oath as it is stated.

The lawsuit explains that the secretary of state is able to create and amend voter registration forms. In other situations, government officials routinely allow those who are taking oaths to make a secular affirmation instead.

The plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgement that mandating the oath, without a secular option, is unconstitutional. The plaintiffs also seek a permanent injunction prohibiting the secretary of state from requiring voters to swear "so help me God,”and ordering the secretary of state to provide forms that permit voters to register without swearing a religious oath.

The case (No. 2:20-cv-01517-ACA) is before Judge Annemarie Carney Axon in the Northern District of Alabama. Attorney Steven Gregory is representing the plaintiffs along with FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott and FFRF Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell.

FFRF sues Texas judge again to end courtroom prayer practice

FFRF filed a lawsuit against Justice of the Peace Wayne Mack on May 29, 2019, due to his refusal to end the divisive practice of opening each of his court sessions with chaplain-led prayer.

Despite numerous complaints regarding the practice, which is not commonly done in other courtrooms anywhere in the country, Judge Mack insists on opening his court session with chaplain-led prayer. Attendees have reported Judge Mack surveying the courtroom during prayers and feeling that their cases may be affected by how they chose to react.

Judge Mack has his courtroom bailiff announce the prayers and state that anyone may leave the courtroom and their case will not be affected, although the courtroom doors are locked to those outside. Then Judge Mack enters, talks about his chaplaincy program, introduces a chaplain, and gives the name and location of the chaplain's church. While everyone in the courtroom remains standing, the chaplain, who is almost always Christian, delivers a prayer, with no guidelines from Judge Mack regarding permissible content.

The lawsuit comes after FFRF’s initial lawsuit against Montgomery County, challenging the same practice, was dismissed without prejudice on September 27, 2018, for lack of redressability, without reaching the merits of the constitutional claims. U.S. District Court Judge Ewing Werlein Jr., for the Southern District of Texas in Houston, dismissed the original case because the only defendant was Montgomery County, which has no control over Mack’s courtroom practices.

The anonymous “John Roe” plaintiff is being represented by FFRF Associate Counsel Samuel Grover, with FFRF Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell and Attorney Ayesha Khan of Washington, D.C. serving as co-counsel. The current lawsuit is Case No. 19-cv-1934 in the Southern District of Texas, with Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt presiding.

FFRF and Parkersburg residents sue to stop City Council Prayer

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation and two local members filed suit on July 31, 2018, against the City of Parkersburg, W.Va., in a challenge to the City Council’s practice of reciting the “Lord’s Prayer” at each meeting.

Parkersburg residents Eric Engle and Daryl Cobranchi assert in the case that their ability to participate in city meetings has been negatively impacted by the prayers. Council members and the majority of meeting attendees recite the Lord’s Prayer in unison at the beginning of the bi-monthly council meetings. At least one member of the City Council has been openly hostile to people who do not participate in the prayer.

The plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment on April 27, 2020, which would prohibit the City Council from continuing to open its meetings with the Lord’s Prayer. The case (No. 2:18-cv-01198) is before Judge John T. Copenhaver, Jr., of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.

FFRF and coalition sue to remove Arkansas Ten Commandments monument

1AK10CommandThe Freedom From Religion Foundation and a coalition of plaintiffs filed a lawsuit on May 23, 2018, against Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin seeking the removal of a massive Ten Commandments structure from the grounds of the Arkansas Capitol.

FFRF and its co-plaintiffs assert that this installation is in clear violation of constitutional precepts. The plaintiffs include FFRF, the American Humanist Association, the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, as well as seven individual plaintiffs who are religious and nonreligious citizens of Arkansas.

“The state of Arkansas has erected an enormous religious monolith on government property in blatant disregard for the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the suit states. “The new monolith — a 6-and-one-third-foot tall Ten Commandments statue — stands prominently on the state Capitol grounds.”

The suit details how the Arkansas Legislature initiated this unconstitutional move.
“In 2016, the Arkansas General Assembly enacted Act 1231, the Ten Commandments Monument Display Act,” it states. “The purpose of the act was to permit the placing of a monument to the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Arkansas state Capitol. The exact text of such a monument was prescribed by the General Assembly.”

The plaintiffs seek a declaration that the monument is unconstitutional, an injunction directing the defendant to remove the monument, and costs and attorneys’ fees. The lawsuit was consolidated with a case brought by the ACLU of Arkansas. The conjoined cases (No. 4:18-cv-00342) are before Judge Kristine G. Baker of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. Attorney Gerry Schulze is representing the plaintiffs along with FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott, and AHA attorneys Monica Miller and David Niose.

FFRF Sues Kentucky Jail for Records Related to “Night of Prayer”

FFRF is suing a Kentucky county jail for failing to comply with the Kentucky Open Records Act.

On October 6, 2017, FFRF requested records from Laurel County Jailer Jamie Mosley related to a "Night of Prayer" held at Laurel County Correctional Center (LCCC) on August 29, 2017. During that event, Laurel County citizens and churches were invited to the jail to pray for inmates, their families, their victims, and jail staff. The jail erected a tent on the premises for the event where Christian ministers, community members, and staff gathered and a local church choir performed. Inmates were taken from their cells and escorted to the tent to interact with the crowd. The main event of the evening saw attendees locking hands and forming a "prayer chain" throughout every floor of the facility.

FFRF sent four specific requests for LCCC's records related to the Night of Prayer and two specific requests for records related to substance abuse programming and religious programming. A few weeks later, Jailer Mosley provided a few responsive records, but stated that he was withholding the vast majority of the requested records based on a variety of exemptions set forth in Kentucky's state law, many of which were inapplicable and nonsensical. For example, claiming that turning over certain records would render the jail vulnerable to a terrorist attack, or that producing certain records would be overly burdensome while at the same time claiming that the jail is not in possession of the records at all.

On November 17, 2017, FFRF asked the Kentucky Attorney General's Office to review the jail's response. On December 21, 2017, the Attorney General issued a formal opinion stating that the Jailer Mosley and the Laurel County Correctional Center had violated the Kentucky Open Records Act in their response. Jailer Mosley and LCCC had 30 days to appeal that opinion but did not. Kentucky statute therefore provides that the Attorney General's opinion has the force of law. FFRF has sued to enforce that opinion.

FFRF is asking for an award of incurred costs, including reasonable attorney's fees. Additionally, it is requesting statutory penalties of up to $25 per day from the date of the request to the date of production for each document that the Laurel County Correctional Center is required to produce in this action. The case was filed in the Laurel County Circuit Court in London, KY. Michele Henry of CraigHenry PLC is handling the case on behalf of FFRF.

FFRF, parent, sue to end 75 years of bible classes in W.Va. school system

FFRF filed a civil rights lawsuit against Mercer County Schools on January 18, 2017, over the school system's egregiously unconstitutional "Bible in the Schools" classes for elementary school students. Joining FFRF as primary plaintiffs in the case are Jane Doe, an atheist and member of FFRF, and her child, Jamie Doe. Elizabeth Deal and her daughter, Jessica Roe, joined the case on March 28, 2017.

The bible instruction, taught by itinerant teachers who possess "a degree in Bible," began in first grade. Classes were held in 15 elementary schools, one intermediate school and three middle schools. The classes met weekly and lasted 30 minutes in elementary schools and 45 minutes in middle schools. The curriculum was equivalent to Sunday school instruction.

Due to the lawsuit, the school system suspended the Bible in the Schools classes for the 2017-18 school year.

On Nov. 14, 2017, Judge David Faber dismissed the case on jurisdictional grounds, finding that one family did not have standing and that the case was not yet “ripe” for review. Elizabeth Deal and Jessica Roe filed an appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (Case No. 17-2429). 

On Dec. 17, 2018, the Fourth Circuit unanimously ruled in favor of Elizabeth Deal and her daughter, reversing the district court. The court held that the plaintiffs could pursue an injunction against the bible classes and remanded the case for further proceedings.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied Mercer County's petition to hear the case on Oct. 7, 2019, which finalizes the Fourth Circuit’s decision. The case is now proceeding before Judge Faber in the Southern District of West Virginia.

In April 2019 the defendants moved to dismiss the case as moot on the basis that the Board adopted a resolution ending Bible in the Schools in elementary schools. In March 2020 Judge David Faber granted part of this motion, dismissing the plaintiffs' claims for injunctive relief as moot.

FFRF won a court victory before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ending similar bible instruction in Rhea County (Dayton), Tenn., schools in 2004.

Marc Schneider is serving as primary litigating attorney and FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott is co-counsel.

WINNING! FFRF vs. Abbott challenges Bill of Rights display censorship

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit on February 25, 2016, challenging the remove of its approved Bill of Rights "nativity" 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 placed at the Capitol in 2014 and 2015. The display also featured a sign celebrating the Winter Solstice.

In its complaint, FFRF charged that Abbott and the other defendants violated the free speech, equal protection, and due process rights of FFRF. FFRF also charged 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 complaint asked for Abbott to be held personally liable for his actions in censoring FFRF's speech.

On October 13, 2017, Judge Sam Sparks ruled that the State Preservation Board violated FFRF’s free speech rights when it removed FFRF’s display from the Capitol as a matter of law. FFRF then voluntarily dismissed its other, unresolved claims in order to secure a final judgment against Governor Abbott and the Board, which was entered on June 19, 2018.

Abbott appealed the district court's ruling to the 5th Circuit in July 2018, where he argued that the district court entered an impermissible declaration that doesn't properly constrain the Board's future conduct. Abbott did not challenge the district court's ruling that he and the Board engaged in viewpoint discrimination by removing FFRF's display. FFRF filed a cross-appeal, arguing that it is entitled to an injunction and that the Board's "public purpose" requirement is unconstitutional on its face. The arguments on appeal are now fully briefed and the parties are awaiting oral argument.

FFRF is represented by Associate Counsel Sam Grover and Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott in the case, with attorney Rich Bolton of Boardman and Clark LLP serving as litigation counsel. The case currently before the 5th Circuit is Appeals Docket # 18-50610.

In April 2020 a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals released a unanimous opinion in favor of FFRF. This judgement remanded the case to the Western District of Texas, who previously ruled in FFRF’s favor, in order to fashion a remedy. This will better protect the right to place displays in the future, as well as ensure similar constitutional violations cannot happen to other organizations.

The case is currently before Judge Lee Yeakel of the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Texas, the case number is 1:16-cv-00233.

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