Freedom From Religion Has Busy Legal Year

The year 2009 was a busy one for the small staff at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. At times it seemed that whenever we pushed one of organized religion’s grasping tentacles back behind the state-church wall of separation, two sprouted hydra-like elsewhere.

Rebecca Markert, staff attorney, noted in her report to members at FFRF’s 32nd annual convention in November in Seattle that she’d written 187 letters of complaint to various public entities. “The majority of the letters involved religion in the public schools, followed by prayer at government meetings, such as city council or county board meetings. School complaints were mainly over prayer in schools led by or encouraged by teachers or athletic coaches. There were also a lot complaints about rental of school facilities to religious groups.”

While the Foundation was able to rectify some of the constitutional violations with letters, phone calls or advice to members wishing to pursue matters on their own, sometimes it is necessary to litigate.

  • Such was the case in Manitowoc, Wis., where a year after an FFRF lawsuit and two years after its initial complaint, the issue of a courthouse nativity scene still isn’t settled. But the scene was off public property this December due to courthouse construction. The County Board instituted a new policy in September because of the lawsuit, but according to County Executive Bob Ziegelbauer, the policy merely formalizes current procedure. “I hope they don’t feel that they are in any way less welcome than they’ve always been,” he told WBAY-TV, referring to the Catholic Women’s Club, which puts up the creche at the courthouse, where it’s been each December since 1946.

    The Foundation called the display “provocative and divisive.” Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president, noted that a County Board member is on record saying that no atheist signs will be allowed. “The county has made all nonbelievers and all non-Christians feel unwelcome at the courthouse for 62 years,” she said.

  • Depositions were recently given for a federal suit the Foundation filed in October 2008, challenging the law designating a National Day of Prayer and requiring a presidential proclamation. Public Law 100-307 sets the first Thursday in May as the “National Day of Prayer.”

    Included in the list of defendants along with President Obama (originally President Bush) is Shirley Dobson for her role as chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force. The suit alleges that the task force associated with Pastor James Dobson’s Focus on the Family is “working hand-in-glove” with the government to organize the National Day of Prayer.

  • The Foundation and several of its members are also among many co-plaintiffs in Newdow v. Roberts, filed on Dec. 30, 2008, by attorney Michael Newdow in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking to enjoin the Presidential Inaugural Committee from sponsoring prayers at the official Inauguration. The legal complaint punctures some myths and documents that for most of America’s history, no clergy led prayers at inaugurations. The case was dismissed, but the plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

    Prior to the Dec. 15 oral arguments, Newdow objected to the appeals court clerk’s traditional opening cry of “God save the United States and this honorable court” and filed an emergency motion to stop it. The three-judge panel (Judges Douglas Ginsburg, Janice Rogers Brown and Brett Kavanaugh) rejected the request without explanation.

    When District Judge Reggie Walton dismissed the suit, he said he lacked the authority to tell Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. to refrain from prompting Barack Obama with “So help me God” at his inauguration.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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