Outreach & Events - Freedom From Religion Foundation
Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

Religion has recently sundered Arizona.

Three times in the past few days, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has learned about the divisiveness of government prayer in that state.

First, the Phoenix City Council laudably opted for a moment of silence, as FFRF has advocated for years (after a not-so-laudable emergency measure to avoid an invocation by the Satanic Temple). Its meeting dragged on for hours, with scores of citizens commenting passionately on the issue. 

Next, the Legislature prohibited any invocations that do not call on a higher power. Arizona state Rep. Juan Mendez delivered a historic atheist invocation to the Statehouse in 2013. (FFRF presented him our Emperor Has No Clothes award for this brave act of open secularism.) Mendez gave another secular invocation in 2014. But this year, he was banned from doing so because his opening remarks would not address a higher power. This clearly violates the U.S. Supreme Court precedent (Town of Greece v. Galloway) that allows government prayer but only if minority faiths and atheists are heard, too.

Finally, FFRF is getting reports that at a Feb. 9 Chino Valley Town Council meeting, the mayor ejected a rabbi who protested the mayor's prayer "in Jesus' name." FFRF had written on behalf of local complainants to the Town Council on Jan. 14 explaining that the prayers were illegal and divisive.

According to local media, Mayor Chris Marley initially promised to stop delivering prayers, but then changed his mind and gave a Christian invocation. He initially read a "disclaimer," claiming the prayer was only his personal belief. Rabbi Adele Plotkin started to complain. Marley warned she would be removed if she continued, so she stopped. After Marley ended his prayer in Jesus' name, Plotkin stood up and loudly protested. Marley had a police officer remove the rabbi from the room. So much for free speech and petitioning the government for redress of grievances.

The divisiveness of mixing religion with government is no surprise to FFRF. We get thousands of complaints every year — nearly 5,000 last year — from citizens around the country who are alienated and ostracized when their government endorses one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.

Christian prayers at government meetings alienate non-Christians, but they also violate one of Jesus' teachings from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus condemns public prayer as hypocrisy: "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men." Matthew 6:5-6.

Jesus' point is simple: People who wear their piety on their sleeves are hypocrites. Government officials are free to pray at any time — before, during or after their meetings. But that is not enough for some, who misuse their office to promote their personal religious views. In the process they denigrate themselves, their office, their community, their religion and, according to the bible, Jesus himself.

Government prayer has been divisive since the beginning. As Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman points out in an article for Bloomberg View, it has no place in government.

Officials need to get off their knees and get to work.

Two parents have joined an October lawsuit challenging an annual nativity performance at Concord High School in Elkhart, Ind.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Indiana filed the original suit on Oct. 7, 2015, along with a local parent and student.

For several decades, Concord High has organized a "Christmas Spectacular" each winter. Every performance for the public, of which there were four in 2014, "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," notes the original complaint. Read the lawsuit here

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 "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.

Jack Doe, a student at the school and a plaintiff in the original lawsuit, is a member of the performing arts department, and John Doe is his father. On Monday, concerned parents of two other Concord High School students who also participate in performing arts have become plaintiffs as John Noe and John Roe. (Attendance and performance at the "Christmas Spectacular" is mandatory for students enrolled in the performing arts department.)

The new parent plaintiffs are also seeking anonymity in order to protect their families from the vitriol and open hostility the Doe family has received. This includes a death threat that was sent to FFRF in December, targeting Staff Attorney and co-counsel Sam Grover and a family that some have speculated is the Doe family.

"I will make it my life's mission to one day (in the next weeks, months or even years) when you think this is all done and forgotten about, to find you and the [redacted family name]," reads the email. "I will cut you into pieces and feed you to the fishes in the Elkhart River (Please note that I will enjoy this)."

The missive ends on this note: "Do yourself a favor, and believe me, when I say: NO ONE WILL STOP ME!"

U.S. District Judge Jon DeGuilio issued a temporary injunction on Dec. 2 barring the school from holding the nativity pageant with student actors. Read the ruling here.

In addition to adding two new families as plaintiffs, the updated complaint challenges the nativity enactment as it was modified during the 2015 "Christmas Spectacular," where the school used mannequins in place of live student performers. FFRF and the ACLU note that this modified nativity scene is no more legal or appropriate than the original show. Both versions exist solely to promote Christianity during a school-sponsored performance in violation of the Constitution. The updated complaint can be seen here

"We had hoped the school district would simply do the right thing and adopt a neutral stance toward religion as it is required to do under the Constitution," says Grover.

"We are grateful to the new plaintiffs who have joined and strengthened our case, despite the backlash in the community," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "This controversy shows how divisive it is to bring religion into our public schools."

FFRF has a national enrollment of 23,000 nonreligious members, including more than 300 individuals in Indiana.

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Freedom from discrimination in Madison

Anita Weier was honored as Freethought Heroine for introducing a historic ordinance to make "nonreligion" a protected class in Madison, Wis. The ordinance passed with no dissent on March 31. Weier, former assistant city editor for The Capital Times, is an FFRF member who served as an alderperson for two terms (2011-15).

By Anita Weier

I decided to add "nonreligion" as a protected class in Madison's Equal Opportunities Ordinance because the ordinance already protected religious people from discrimination, so it seemed only fair and equitable to protect the nonreligious.

A protected class is a group of people whom city officials believe needs protection from discrimination in housing, employment or public accommodations. Madison's ordinance now lists 27 protected classes, including sex, race, color, national origin, citizenship status, age, handicap, marital status, arrest record or conviction record, sexual orientation and others.

I believe that discrimination against atheists and other nonreligious people is widespread, affecting employment, public school practices and selective price discounts. In Paris, 12 workers for an atheistic publication – Charlie Hebdo – were murdered. In Madison, the Freedom from Religion Foundation now does not publicize its address because of threats.

Discrimination continues

A major study, "Atheists as 'Other,'" published by the University of Minnesota in 2006, revealed that "atheists are less likely to be accepted, publicly and privately, than any others" from a long list of marginalized groups. The study looked at attitudes toward groups such as immigrants, racial minorities, gays and Jews from the 1960s to the present, and found that every group had made great strides in social acceptance except for atheists. More Americans would disapprove of their children marrying atheists than any other class.

Locally, some businesses have offered discounts to those who show a church bulletin. The Freedom From Religion Foundation also has encountered refusals by companies to make T-shirts, print brochures or post bill- boards. Last year a television network refused to air an FFRF TV ad made by Ron Reagan.

Therefore, I believe that atheists, agnostics and humanists need to be protected when applying for jobs and housing and using public accommodations.

As you know, the Religious Right has assumed substantial control over our state and federal governments, a situation that leaves the nonreligious in a perilous situation. For instance, South Carolina's state law requires "that the president of the University shall not be an atheist or infidel." Texas prohibits religious tests for public office, provided the person "acknowledges the existence of a Supreme Being." Atheists running for public office do not tend to "out" themselves.

Atheist parents have been denied custody of their children because of atheism in several states, including Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Tex- as. Imagine the furor if this had been done to parents because they were Jewish or Mormon.

Writing the ordinance

My first step in amending the ordinance was working with a city attorney to make an official proposal. I made a mistake in using the word "atheist," which raises more ire among some than terms such as "agnostic." Also, I realized that nonreligion could protect more people. So I amended my proposal.

I also faced a time crunch, since I would be leaving the council in April 2015, having decided not to run again. Frankly, because of dislike of atheists, I would not have introduced this mea- sure if I were running for re-election.
I waited until January to present the measure because I did not believe that the Christmas season would be a politically favorable time.

My amendment was first submitted to the City Council, which referred it to the Equal Opportunities Commission for a recommendation. The EOC in turn referred the proposal to its Employment Subcommittee. That committee approved the amendment with no opposition, though two members abstained, saying that their employers might not like their name connected to such a proposal.

I encountered more opposition at the Equal Opportunities Commission, where the vote was 5 in favor, 3 against and one abstention. Opponents tend to be religious people.

Then I started explaining my amendment to my fellow City Council members. I was very encouraged by immediate support from many, including a relatively conservative alder (for liberal Madison). Ultimately, 14 of 20 council members signed on to cosponsor the measure, which I believe took some political courage. After testimony by five atheists and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the council approved the amendment unanimously on a voice vote. Though no one voted no or abstained, a few were silent.

I was surprised to find that my amendment was a first, that no other localities had approved such a protection. I am extremely proud of our City Council for setting this important precedent.

Click here to watch the ad. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is launching a new ad campaign on the "Rachel Maddow Show."

The spot starts airing tonight, Tuesday, Feb. 9, and will be running periodically as funds allow on the popular talk show, which is broadcast weekdays at 9 p.m. Eastern time.

The commercial depicts the famous lines delivered by presidential candidate John F. Kennedy to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute . . . where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly on the general populace."

FFRF urges viewers to "restore respect for America's secular roots." The ad makes this appeal: "Help the Freedom From Religion Foundation defend the wall of separation between state and church. Join us at FFRF.org. Freedom depends on freethinkers."

"In this election year, we want to remind America that to be elected in the past, presidential candidates had to pledge allegiance to our secular Constitution," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Today, unfortunately, there seems to be a de facto religious test for public office."

The 30-second spot is accompanied by a piano rendition of "America the Beautiful" recorded by FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. The ad concludes with the strains of "Let freedom ring" and the image of a Lincoln penny with "In Reason We Trust" replacing "In God We Trust."

FFRF debuted the TV ad in 2012 on MSNBC and CBS.

Buzz Kemper narrates the commercial, and it's produced for FFRF by John Urban Productions.

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