Outreach & Events - Freedom From Religion Foundation
Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation strongly denounces a piece of pending anti-choice legislation that would endanger the well-being of women across Missouri.

Senate Bill 5, introduced in the Missouri Senate on June 12, it bolted through the two legislative chambers over the past couple of weeks. The state House exacerbated the original bill, adding even harsher language, before passing it. It is now back in the Senate chamber for a final floor vote. If it passes, it will land on the governor's desk and almost certainly become law.

SB 5 imposes several ridiculous, medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion providers under the false pretext of support for women's health. The bill would impose financial burdens on clinics that provide abortions, with the aim of forcing them to shut down and ultimately making it more difficult for women to safely terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

The bill brazenly restricts health clinics from providing necessary medical intervention and adds penalties to existing regulations that include unscheduled inspections of women's health clinics. SB 5 sets up targeted restrictions of abortion providers (TRAP laws) that do not support women's health, as lawmakers deceitfully claim. Additionally, the bill limits regulations of "Crisis Pregnancy Centers," which are misleading anti-choice clinics that distribute fallacious information to women seeking pregnancy tests and information on abortion options. Moreover, the bill grants the attorney general's office the power to prosecute abortion providers.

As if restricting women's access to healthcare and reproductive rights weren't enough, SB 5 also puts Missouri women at risk of losing their jobs and homes. Arguably, the most nefarious part of the bill overturns a St. Louis ordinance passed in the spring in that bans employers and landlords from discriminating against people on the basis of their reproductive health decisions. In other words, SB 5 would allow a women to be evicted and / or fired for using birth control, becoming pregnant while unmarried or aborting a pregnancy. This sensible city ordinance was derided by Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens for its radical implication: that women should be permitted sexual and reproductive independence and privacy without risking financial security. Essentially all women who are sexually active and of a reproductive age have used some form of contraception.

All in all, SB 5 clearly seeks to govern the sexuality of women in the state by theology-based legislation that willfully ignores medical research.

"This unacceptable bill would empower Missouri employers and landlords to govern the intimate choices women make about their bodies and lives," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "It is obvious that in eyes of many in the state government, anti-scientific religious dogma comes before, and may soon hold power over, women's rights and autonomy."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 members and chapters across the country, including over 360 in Missouri. Its purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.

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Plaintiffs Michael Anderson, Larry Madonado and attorney David J.P. Kaloyanides, along with FFRF and 20 other plaintiffs, won a lawsuit against the Chino Valley School District in February 2016, stopping prayers during board meetings.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold a lower court ruling against prayer at meetings of a California school board.

A district court in February 2016 granted summary judgment in favor of FFRF and its 22 plaintiffs, declaring school board prayer in Chino Valley District, Calif., an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. The decision by U.S. District Judge Jesus G. Bernal, Central District of California, also ruled the school board policy and custom of reciting prayers, bible readings and proselytizing violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

FFRF filed its lawsuit in November 2014. After FFRF won at the district court level, the school board voted to appeal the decision in a controversial 3-2 vote at a contentious meeting. On March 31, 2016, the court ordered the district to pay more than $200,000 in attorney's fees and costs.

The board did not contest the other religious conduct in which the school board members engaged, including bible recitation and readings, religious commentary on social and political matters, and proselytizing at the school board meetings. For example, board member James Na told the audience at one meeting that "God appointed us to be here." He also told an audience:
Man, as we were born is flawed. We're not complete. We're not God. . . Pastor Frank Gonzalez was right in his prayers, that I need [to] first look up to Jesus Christ for serving our students...because without that, we'll be flawed just like those judges in superior court or on the local bench.

The purpose behind hosting prayers, reading from the bible, and proselytizing is apparently, as Na stated at one meeting, to "urge[] everyone who does not know Jesus Christ to go and find Him."

Another board member, Andrew Cruz, told the audience at a meeting that the board had a goal: "And that one goal is under God, Jesus Christ." Cruz then read from the bible, Psalm 143:8.

Chino Valley Board meetings feature adults — board members, staff, or clergy — nearly always Christian, delivering a prayer. And those prayers are imposed on students. The board includes a student representative. Students are invited to lead the Pledge of Allegiance, and they and their parents often have cause to attend board meetings.

The school board argues that it is similar to a legislative board, thereby invoking two decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that permit, under narrow circumstances, governmental prayer.

"By attempting to reframe the nature, purpose, and function of a public school board, the school board members in this appeal try to squeeze themselves into the narrow exception of legislative prayer," writes FFRF.

"The meetings of the school board can only be seen as school functions. Appellant school board members here are not a legislative body but rather a specific type of governing body tasked with one and only one duty: to govern all aspects of the public schools for the benefit and well-being of the children who are students within their district," FFRF's brief states. Both the 3rd and 6th Circuit Courts of Appeal have prohibited prayer at school board meetings. Only the 5th Circuit, in the recent McCarty decision, a challenge brought by the American Humanist Association, has ruled otherwise. In that narrow case, the school board in Birdville, Texas, actually dropped prayers in favor of an unregulated student statement following a challenge.

FFRF notes the board's policies and practices have no secular purpose and act to unconstitutionally endorse religion.

"We're confident that the 9th Circuit will firmly agree with us," says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. "Public school boards exist to oversee secular education, and must protect rights of students and their parents by keeping religious devotions and divisiveness out of official school board functions."

Barker observes that FFRF, a state/church watchdog with more than 29,000 nonreligious members, including over 3,500 in California, had the unprecedented experience of having to turn away plaintiffs. "Many parents, students and community members came to us seeking help to curb the religious acrimony created by school board members who are misusing their civil authority to promote their personal religious views," he says.

Public opinion and the law are both with the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Chino Valley.

FFRF v. Chino Valley Unified School District has Case No.: EDCV 14-2336-JGB (DTBx). The brief on behalf of FFRF and its plaintiffs was written by litigation attorney David J.P. Kaloyanides, and FFRF Staff Attorneys Andrew L. Seidel and Rebecca Markert, serving as co-counsel.

1tencommandarkansasFFRF does not condone violating the Constitution by erecting a Ten Commandments monument on the Arkansas Capitol grounds. Nor do we condone breaking the law to remove such a display.

Early today a mentally ill Christian rammed his car into the controversial Ten Commandments monument installed Tuesday on the Arkansas State Capitol grounds. 

Michael Tate Reed, 32, of Van Buren, who is described as a Christian with mental illness who was "off his medication," has been arrested and charged with defacing objects of public interest, criminal trespass and criminal mischief.

Area news outlets report this is not the first time Reed has destroyed a monument. In 2014, Reed was arrested after allegedly destroying the Ten Commandments monument on the Oklahoma State Capitol grounds. Ultimately, the ACLU prevailed in getting that Ten Commandments removed by court order.

This broken Ten Commandments monument also will be challenged, with the ACLU advising it's preparing a lawsuit. Yes, the monument was struck down in a criminal act. More importantly it will be struck down as unconstitutional by a court of law.

There is no need to resort to criminal behavior to uphold the Constitution. Obviously, the motivation of this disturbed individual is unknown (and perhaps even unknown to him), but is unlikely to be about upholding the separation of religion and government.

Whatever his motivation: We are a nation governed by the rule of law. That not only means vandalism will not be tolerated, but it also means that we take our disputes to court.

We are confident the facts in the Arkansas placement of a Ten Commandments monument will result in lawful removal of the bible edicts from the seat of state government.

[Photo Caption: Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert, who sponsored the Ten Commandments law, stands near the monument on June 27]

1tencommandarkansasThe Freedom From Religion Foundation is calling the state of Arkansas' decision to place a massive Ten Commandments monument at the Capitol a huge misstep.

The Arkansas Statehouse passed a law in 2015 sponsoring a Ten Commandments marker. After years of legal disputes, work crews placed the plaque today, June 27, on the Capitol grounds. The placement is unconstitutional, will be costly to taxpayers, and will be regretted, FFRF asserts.

"We expect that this monument will be challenged by Arkansas citizens and that it will be struck down by our courts, which have an obligation to uphold the First Amendment," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "This shameless promotion of religion by legislators will not be allowed to stand."

FFRF opposed the original legislation sponsoring the Ten Commandments monument and also requested that the Arkansas secretary of state abide by his oath of office to support the Constitution of the United States by refraining from placing the monument. The freethought organization's letter noted that the legal precedent often cited in support of the monument, Van Orden v. Perry, actually stands in staunch opposition. Justice Stephen Breyer stated in his opinion, which is controlling:

"[I]n today's world, in a nation of so many different religious and comparable nonreligious fundamental beliefs, a more contemporary state effort to focus attention upon a religious text is certainly likely to prove divisive in a way that this longstanding, pre-existing monument has not."

But Arkansas seems to have willfully defied the intent of the judgment.

"The state lacks any precedent that would allow this modern Ten Commandments to stand," says FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott.

A similar Ten Commandments monument in New Mexico was recently ruled unconstitutional by a federal appellate court. In 2015, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that an identical monument was unconstitutional under the state constitution. In recent years, FFRF has secured court victories removing Ten Commandments monuments from two public school districts in Pennsylvania.

So, a legal challenge to the Arkansas monument is likely, given the divisive history of the marker. In fact, the ACLU has previously said it plans to sue to challenge the monument.

"When Arkansas officials inevitably lose in court, taxpayers will be on the hook to cover the attorneys fees for the plaintiffs," notes Elliott. Those fees in Establishment Clause cases often amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The state of Arkansas should bear that in mind before committing itself to a disastrous course.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a state/church watchdog organization with more than 29,000 members nationwide, including in Arkansas.

[Photo Caption: Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert, who sponsored the Ten Commandments law, stands near the monument on June 27]

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation is raising objections to multiple constitutional violations that have been occurring in an Alabama school system.

FFRF has in recent months received many complaints from several local residents about Jefferson County Schools, based in and around Birmingham.

A resident reported that until very recently Hueytown High included a "class chaplain" position on its student council, whose duties were described as "responsible for devotional or inspirational messages at meetings, programs, banquets, and graduation." This position was initially eliminated for the Class of 2018, but after backlash from parents, it was reinstated with a new name: "class inspirational speaker." The duties of this position apparently remain the same, which is constitutionally problematic.

"The Supreme Court has continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations," FFRF Legal Fellow Chris Line writes to the Jefferson County Schools' legal counsel. "School officials may not invite a student, teacher, faculty member, or clergy to give any type of prayer, invocation, or benediction at a public high school graduation." 

It makes no difference how many students want prayer at school events. As the U.S. Supreme Court has said: "Fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections." With prayers at graduation and other school-sponsored events, the district violates its neutrality toward religion and alienates the 35 percent of young Americans who are not religious.

A concerned parent has also informed FFRF that Nichole Hill, choral director at Pleasant Grove High School, makes proselytizing religious statements each year during the spring concert. During this year's concert, she prayed: "It's only by His blood are we healed. It's only by His one are we one, by His blood. He is everything. Thank you for praising and worshipping with us tonight."

It is wholly inappropriate for a public school teacher to include prayer and religious remarks at a public school choral concert, FFRF reminds the school district. The district has an obligation under the law to make certain that "subsidized teachers do not inculcate religion," to again quote the U.S. Supreme Court.

It has also been reported that the Hueytown Middle School Cheerleaders sold religious T-shirts to raise money for cheer camp. These shirts said: "BE FEARLESS, 2 TIMOTHY 1:7."

It is illegal for school-run group to raise funds by selling shirts decorated with New Testament bible verses, FFRF points out. Public schools must remain neutral on matters of religion. Publishing a bible verse on shirts that are sold to raise money for the school impermissibly entangles the school and district with a religious point of view, violating the principle that state and church must remain separate. Even if students selected the bible verse, or if school employees did not physically sell the shirts, such activity is illegal. Schools must avoid even the appearance of religious endorsement.

FFRF asks that the school district take immediate action to rectify these constitutional infringements so that school-sponsored prayers and religious messages do not recur at future school functions.

"There are lots of constitutional violations in the Jefferson County Schools system that officials seem to be turning a blind eye toward," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "This is completely unacceptable."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 members across the country, including in Alabama. Its purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.

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