The Freedom From Religion Foundation is appealing a constitutionally dubious New Jersey judgment that allows for taxpayer funding of churches.
In January, a New Jersey state court ruled that tax dollars could be utilized to repair or maintain churches, despite a state constitutional provision barring such use. FFRF has asked the New Jersey Superior Court's Appellate Division to overturn this opinion and uphold the state's constitution.
FFRF and member David Steketee filed suit in late 2015 against Morris County, challenging public grants of tax dollars to repair or maintain churches. FFRF, with Steketee, a taxpayer in Morris County, contested more than $4.5 million in grants to churches since 2012 by the board's Historic Preservation Trust Fund. FFRF specifically challenged $1.04 million in allotments to Presbyterian Church in Morristown to allow "continued use by our congregation for worship services," and allotments to St. Peter's Episcopal Church to ensure "continued safe public access to the church for worship."
FFRF contends the grants clearly violate Article I, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution that guarantees: "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."
In its Notice of Appeal, FFRF states that it will ask the appellate court whether the trial court erred "in holding that Article I, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution, which prohibits the use of tax revenue to build or repair any churches or places of worship, is not violated when a municipality gives tax revenue to churches with active congregations to repair church buildings as part of an Historic Preservation Trust Fund program."
In her opinion last month, N.J. Superior Court Judge Margaret Goodzeit recognized "FFRF's mission and its endeavor to promote a healthy separation of church and state. Without organizations like the FFRF, one check that keeps the balance even disappears." Despite this nod to FFRF's important work, the court dropped the ball by holding that Morris County taxpayers can be forced to support churches, says FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne.
The court provided what FFRF deemed "scattershot justifications," such as claiming the state has a "long history [since 1990] of making historic preservation grants to active houses of worship." But an illegal practice does not become legal just because it has gone unchallenged for a few decades.
FFRF is confident that the appeals court will uphold New Jersey taxpayers' right to not be forced to fund religion, churches and worship.
"The appellate court will recognize the strong constitutional logic of our position," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "The good citizens of New Jersey — of any or no faith — should not be compelled to dole out hard-earned tax money to Christian churches."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to the constitutional separation of state and church, with more than 27,000 members across the country, including 500-plus in New Jersey.
The lawsuit is being handled by attorney Paul S. Grosswald. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew L. Seidel and Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne are co-counsel.
Due to the efforts of groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker won't be enjoying a free Christian cruise to Alaska.
Concerned Wisconsinites had contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation (headquartered in the state) to express concern that Lifeshape, a Christian organization, had offered Walker and his wife a complimentary religious summertime Alaskan cruise.
In announcing his participation, Walker had encouraged others to pay to join him on the voyage, which, he said, would have included "nightly inspirational messages" such as "faith in the public arena" and "faith-driven entrepreneurship."
FFRF was troubled that the cruise was ramming through the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and was violating the State of Wisconsin Code of Ethics. Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote a letter to the governor expressing their concerns. Walker was leveraging his public office in order to promote his personal religion and was making blanket generalizations about the religious beliefs of Wisconsinites and Americans.
FFRF strongly urged Walker to change his mind and stay ashore. Protests by FFRF and like-minded organizations seem to have had an effect.
"Officials confirmed they have canceled the 'inspirational' cruise that Walker and first lady Tonette Walker were planning to lead on Aug. 12-19," reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "'We were notified by Lifeshape that it was canceled due to scheduling issues,' said Walker spokesman Tom Evenson."
"'Scheduling issues' is most often an excuse for calling off a controversial venture," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "We're tickled that our protest played a part in Walker tending to state business, instead of sailing off on a free-of-charge Christian jaunt."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization based in Wisconsin itself with 27,000 members across the country, including more than 1,400 in Wisconsin. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to represent the views of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics and nonbelievers).
The Freedom From Religion Foundation wants a blasphemy law in a town in Oklahoma taken off the books.
FFRF was contacted by a concerned local citizen about an ordinance in the city of Edmond that criminalizes blasphemy against Christianity. Ordinance 8.12.090 in the City of Edmond Code of Ordinances states:
It shall be unlawful and an offense for any person to circulate any literature or use any language within the corporate limits of the City of Edmond, that casts profane ridicule on God, Jesus, or Christianity, which in its common acceptance is calculated to cause a breach of the peace or an assault. (1954 Code § 255).
This ordinance, like all blasphemy laws, violates the First Amendment.
"The Supreme Court has long recognized that the First Amendment 'mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,'" FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel writes to Edmond City Attorney Stephen Murdock. "This law promotes religion, specifically Christianity, over nonreligion and other minority religions. It establishes Christianity as the chosen religion and denigrates the free exercise of all others by placing the religious sensibilities of Christians on a pedestal and punishing those who might attempt to ridicule them."
FFRF adds that while it may be permissible to put a restriction on speech that is calculated to cause a breach of the peace or an assault, it is not permissible to extend this restriction only to speech that ridicules God, Jesus, or Christianity. Though this ordinance was written more than 60 years ago and would be unenforceable because it violates multiple provisions of the Constitution, it still sends a message of the city's endorsement of Christianity.
The U.S. Supreme Court has summed it up: "From the standpoint of freedom of speech and the press, it is enough to point out that the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them which is sufficient to justify prior restraints upon the expression of those views. It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures."
Today, nearly 30 percent of adults in the United States are non-Christian, and that number is rising. Among Millennials (those born after 1981), more than 43 percent are non-Christian, either practicing a minority religion or no religion at all. The city of Edmond has an obligation to make its laws nondiscriminatory and welcoming for all of its residents, not just those in the Christian majority.
"It's startling that in this day and age, a city still has a statute that criminalizes speech against religion," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "It is completely out of tune with modern sensibilities."
FFRF is a national nonprofit organization with more than 27,000 members across the country, including in Oklahoma. Its purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.