Outreach & Events - Freedom From Religion Foundation
Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

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Supreme Court leans over slippery slope

Missouri preschool case could be bad news for state-church separation

In what could be a dangerous precedent, the Supreme Court of the United States appeared to lean toward breaking down a portion of the state-church wall that has prevented religious institutions from receiving public money.

A Missouri day care and preschool owned by Trinity Lutheran Church had requested a grant from a state fund to help refurbish a playground's blacktopped surface with rubber particles. Missouri's Constitution, like those in 38 other states, prohibits sending tax money to churches and church schools. When the state denied the funds, the school sued.

On April 19, most of the Supreme Court justices showed signs that they would be willing to allow funds to go this project, contending it is not specifically religious in nature and would therefore be discrimination based on religion. Only Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg indicated they felt it was a slippery slope that should not be crossed.

Sotomayor said she did not see how the state's refusal to fund a playground violates the First Amendment. "No one is asking the church to change its beliefs," she said. "If the issue is discrimination based on religion, what about the benefits that go to churches? There's plenty of people who would think the tax exemption goes too far."

When Ginsburg asked the church attorney if it could "demand as a matter of federal constitutional right that the playground be funded, even though they have an admission policy that favors members of their church?" he said, "Yes."

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank thinks the lawsuit is another attempt by conservatives to chisel away at the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

"It was about interest groups whose business model depends on perpetuating the culture wars trying to frighten people into thinking Christianity is under siege," he wrote. "It was a springtime version of the annual 'war on Christmas.'"

The case could lead to a major shift in the law on church schools and public funding. Lawmakers in many states have been pushing hard for vouchers and scholarships to allow public funds to support religious schools.

It was unclear from the argument whether the justices would rule broadly in favor of church schools or focus narrowly on the playground because it had nothing to do with worshiping or teaching religion.

It initially appeared that the case might resolve itself when Missouri's new Republican governor, Eric Greitens, announced that the state would no longer deny grants to church schools, thereby making the case seemingly moot. But the justices proceeded as if the case were still under the previous state policy.

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Church may form own police force?

Despite FFRF objection, Alabama Senate OKs bill

The Alabama Senate has voted to allow a church to form its own police force.

Lawmakers on April 12 voted 24-4 to allow Briarwood Presbyterian Church in a Birmingham suburb to establish a law enforcement department. The measure now goes to the House, and if it passes there, as expected, it will go to Gov. Kay Ivey for her signature.

The church says it needs its own police officers to keep its school and 4,000-person congregation safe.

Critics of the bill argue that a police department that reports to church officials could be used to cover up crimes.

FFRF has notified Alabama Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Allen Treadaway and other members of the major problems with the bill.

"Our Founders sought to move away from this violence by relegating government and religion to separate spheres," FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote. "Authorizing a church police force is precisely the unconstitutional unification of religious zeal and secular power they sought to avoid."

The state has given a few private universities the authority to have a police force, but never a church or non-school entity.

Experts have said such a police department would be unprecedented in the United States.

"The Alabama Statehouse is hurtling down an extremely slippery slope," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "A constitutional wreck is in the offing unless it changes course."

The ACLU of Alabama also urged lawmakers to vote no to the Briarwood police force.

"Vesting state police powers in a church police force would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment," Randall Marshall, the ACLU's acting executive director, wrote in a memo. "These bills unnecessarily carve out special programs for religious organizations and inextricably intertwine state authority and power with church operations."

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FFRF supports the Johnson Amendment

Americans oppose mixing church and politics

"Americans already argue about politics outside the church. They don't want pastors bringing those arguments into worship." — Scott McConnell, executive director, Lifeway Research (Southern Baptist Convention)

President Donald Trump has said he wants to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. The argument for abolishing it is that it restricts the free speech rights of churches and other religious groups.

But FFRF, like most Americans, is strongly against repealing the Johnson Amendment.

Four out of five Americans oppose politicking from the pulpit, according to a 2016 survey by LifeWay Research, the Southern Baptist Convention's research arm. Fully 79 percent oppose pastors endorsing candidates during a church service. More than 8 in 10 believe it's inappropriate for churches to use their resources for political campaigns.

The Pew Research Center confirms that "most Americans oppose political endorsements from churches." Pew Research found that only 33 percent of Republican respondents and 26 percent of Democrats approved of churches endorsing political candidates.

It doesn't prohibit free speech

Pastors and clergy are free to personally endorse and support candidates, and often do. Under the Johnson Amendment, they can also sermonize or comment on moral issues (war, abortion/contraception access, civil rights, poverty, etc.). They can even comment on the job performance of public officials. They can engage in nonpartisan "get out the vote" campaigns.

What the Johnson Amendment wisely prevents is intervention in a political campaign by any 501(c)(3) tax-exempt group, including churches.

Why does it prohibit politicking?

Being a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) — in which donations to the organization are tax deductible — is a major privilege. American taxpayers essentially subsidize 501(c)(3)s, with the understanding that they will engage in charitable or educational endeavors, not political campaigning. It would undermine the very nature of 501(c)(3)s to funnel tax-exempt money to political campaigns or use tithes for partisan purposes. The Johnson Amendment is a neutrally applied law that properly bars any (c)(3) nonprofit, not just churches, from engaging in partisan politicking.

What would a repeal do?

Basically, it would convert churches into unaccountable PACS. (Churches are financial black holes, uniquely exempted from filing the Form 990 tax return that other (c)(3) groups must file with the IRS. Church donations to political campaigns would be uniquely untraceable and unregulated.)

It also would allow individuals to make unlimited tax-deductible contributions to political campaigns via church tithes and donations.

And it would allow any 501(c)(3) nonprofit (not just churches) to campaign on behalf of candidates.

What would the 'Free Speech Fairness Act' allow?

All 501(c)(3) nonprofits (not just churches) could campaign on behalf of candidates, meaning formerly nonpartisan voter registration drives could endorse specific candidates.

Church congregations could be converted into political machines. For example, church bulletins could be converted into campaign fliers, sermons into political endorsements, congregations into unregistered PACs.

No need to 'fix' amendment

The Johnson Amendment isn't a threat to our democracy. But allowing tax-exempt entities to engage in political campaigning would be. It would destabilize our political system by creating an avenue for unregulated money to finance political campaigns with zero accountability.

Repeal of the Johnson Amendment would also negatively impact churches. Inevitably "less tax-deductible contributions would go to churches and charities for their core activities, especially in election years," Father Thomas Reese wrote in the National Catholic Reporter. "Money would be diverted from churches and charities to tax exempts devoted to politics."

Ugly political fights would divide congregations and denominations.

The hasty calls to repeal the Johnson Amendment are so ill-considered they haven't even addressed the disparate treatment of (c)(4) lobbying groups, equally barred from engaging in partisan politicking. Observers have pointed out lobbying groups would be incentivized to adopt (c)(3) status, further eroding the tax base and blurring the line between education, lobbying and partisan politicking.

What others are saying

"Churches would be smart to oppose repeal." — Father Thomas Reese, National Catholic Reporter

"For 60 years, this law has played an essential role in maintaining public confidence in, and support for, the charitable community . . . Allowing the endorsement of political candidates is tantamount to allowing political agents to use the public's goodwill towards the charitable sector as a vehicle to advance, through financial contributions, their own partisan political will." — Daniel Cardinali, president and CEO of Independent Sector

"Nonpartisanship is vital to the work of charitable nonprofits. It enables organizations to address community challenges, and invites the problem-solving skills of all residents, without the distractions of party labels and the caustic partisanship that is bedeviling our country." — Tim Delaney, president of the National Council of Nonprofits

To read more, go to: ffrf.org/johnson-amendment.

Looking to get away for a few days with other like-minded people? Then join the Central Florida Freethought Community on a five-day cruise to the Bahamas in March 2018.

FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker will be the special guests and will speak during the cruise (and Dan may even play the piano).

The trip is March 3-7, 2018, and leaves from Port Canaveral, Fla. Ports of call in the Bahamas include Great Stirrup Cay and Nassau. You'll be traveling on the Norwegian Epic, which includes an aqua park with a 200-foot Epic Plunge, a bowling alley, an ice bar and a Vegas-style casino, among many other amenities and activities.

Go to FreethoughtCruise.com to sign up or to get more information. Book now for the best prices and choose from one free amenity per cabin. Full payment isn't due until Dec. 1.

This op-ed first appeared in The Capital Times in Madison, Wis., on April 4.

By Ingrid Andersson

I recently attended the premier of the documentary "Playing Dr." by Owen Road Productions. The film focuses on the 20-week abortion ban passed in Wisconsin in 2015. Apparently, few Wisconsinites have heard of this ban. Abortion at 20 weeks is rare.

The law is based on the "junk science" assertion that fetuses at 20 weeks feel pain. I don't know whether or not fetuses feel pain. I am told there is reputable science that suggests plants feel pain. Pain appears to be a ubiquitous self-protective mechanism throughout Earth's plant and animal families.

But everyone knows pain is subjective. How can the potential and brief pain of a 20-week abortion be placed over a raped girl's pain? Or over a devastated couple's pain when they hear, at their 20-week ultrasound appointment, that their fetus is developing abnormally and will certainly die? Nobody talks about the very probable eventual pain of a growing little body wracked with nonviable deformities. These are the realities behind 20-week ultrasounds.

As if that pain were not enough, Wisconsin offers no option to a pregnant woman after 20 weeks, even in the case of lethal fetal anomalies, except to continue pregnancy for weeks on end, until her body goes into the pain of labor and gives birth to a baby already dead or dying.

What is "pro-life" about that? Who, exactly, is blocking women from basic humane and preventive health care — and why? What is moral about forced pregnancy and motherhood, under any circumstance?

There is a long and documented history of maternal suffering and mortality prior to safe and legal abortion, whether due to the relentless burdens and terror of unwanted pregnancy, or to the dangers of unsafe abortion methods. We should be celebrating safe and legal abortion for what it is: Pro-life!

Yet the word "abortion" triggers a strong negative reaction — sometimes murderous — in Americans. It is a conditioned cultural reflex. The reaction is triggered in spite of little or no understanding of abortion in real practice or real lives. In women who choose abortion, the reaction can induce guilt and shame. In providers of abortion, it induces fear for personal and family safety. Women like myself, who grew up grateful for reasonable access to abortion (in an era when Roe v. Wade stood intact as a brilliant and revered piece of judicial writing) tend to stay silent on the subject, to avoid personal or professional repercussions.

I believe the pro-choice majority must hold accountable the individuals who program American minds against abortion. They are in our capitols, media, pulpits, mosques and special interest groups. By separating abortion from dogma, maybe we can make progress against critical threats to life.

While Wisconsin is one of the most restrictive states for abortion, it is one of the most liberal for gun possession and industrial polluters. As Garrison Keillor puts it, "It would appear that the Republicans believe the right to life ends 15 minutes after birth."
I believe we who have had abortions can reframe abortion discourse in America by telling our real abortion stories. We can reclaim the language of morality and our right to sustainable life. We can begin our stories with the words of the late Anne Gaylor, a great Wisconsin truth-teller and co-founder of FFRF and the Women's Medical Fund: "Abortion is a blessing."

FFRF Life Member Ingrid Andersson is a nurse-midwife with Community Midwives in Madison, Wis. She is on the board of Women's Medical Fund, Inc., an organization founded in 1972 to help fund abortions in Wisconsin, and a member of the Madison and Dane County Fetal and Infant Mortality Review team. Ingrid wrote this article after one of her prenatal clients discovered, during her 21-week ultrasound, that the fetus had multiple lethal anomalies. Ingrid dedicates this article to that woman, as well as to her own 80-year-old mother, Karolina Johnson, a survivor of Chicago mafia abortions during the pre-Roe era.

FFRF attorney shoots commercial at Ken Ham's $100M Ark Encounter

By Andrew Seidel

It is a monstrosity — a $100 million lie directed at children. What better place to show the importance of the FFRF's work than this taxpayer-funded monument to ignorance? So we shot our latest commercial at Ken Ham's Ark Encounter.

Here were some of my takeaways.

Low attendance

It's been a rough few months for Ham. His ark opened to a dismal crowd, and the numbers were so bad that he had to revise his attendance estimates after three months. Grant County, which gave Ham $175,000, and nearly 100 acres of land for $1, is upset because the ark has "not brought [the county] any money." Williamstown, the town nearest to the ark, made a similar complaint months ago.

Oh, and let's not forget that FFRF forced a Virginia town, Christiansburg, to cancel its city-planned, city-sponsored trip to the ark.

I visited the ark on a weekday in February — not what you'd expect to be a busy day — but still, it was deserted. There was nobody on our tour bus. There were no lines. I half expected to see the cliché of a tumbleweed spiraling through the exhibits. We ate a truly terrible buffet lunch in the ark's cafeteria, which was also desolate.

There was one large group of people at that table behind me, but they were contractors working on expanding the park. From noon to 12:30 p.m., what should be the busiest time, perhaps 35 people came through a dining room that seats 1,500.

When Ham was seeking public tax benefits and incentives, he hired a company that predicted his park would get 2 million visitors every year; about 5,800 people each day. The state hired an independent company that estimated about 325,000 for the first year, dropping to 275,000 a year after that. That's about 900 a day, and then 750 a day thereafter.

The reality we witnessed favors the state's study. I asked one of the workers in the forsaken commissary how many people were expected to visit the park that day. "About 450," she responded, nearly 1/13th (or 8 percent) of Ham's predicted average. Clearly Ham's wishful thinking isn't influencing reality.

Childish defensiveness

The tone of the exhibits is defensive, overly so. Every sign brought to mind a child caught standing over a pillaged birthday cake, icing smeared all over his face, vehemently denying an obvious truth.

Take this sign, one of the first we encountered: "Skeptics often mock the concept of the ark and its animals, so they develop questions designed to make the ark look foolish. However, when one thinks about the ark from a biblical perspective, the skeptics' questions end up looking foolish."

A belief in the literal truth of the ark story is foolish; this belief doesn't need any help from us. Let me translate this sign for you: "Skeptics think the claim that this really happened is false, as dictated by reason, common sense, science, logistics and about a million other simple facts. But, if you ignore reason and facts and just listen to the bible, we're right!" This is nothing new — and it doesn't take $100 million to regurgitate it.

But that's the argument: Ignore that reasonable voice, listen to your preacher. Genesis 7:20 says that the waters submerged the world's highest mountains in 15 cubits (22 feet) of water. We are supposed to ignore the many nagging questions that claim presents. Questions such as:

  • Is there even enough water to rain that much? It would take, conservatively, about ten Atlantic Oceans to rain as much as the bible claims.
  • The ark was surfing at nearly 30,000 feet above the normal sea level for a year. How did these people and animals breathe at that elevation?
  • How did they withstand the -40 F temperatures at that altitude?
  • How did the animals survive after the flood? The flood would have wiped out every ecosystem and all the food that went along with it.

Ham's park attempts to answer the most obvious questions, such as: "How did Noah fit 9 million species on the ark?" But Ham fails miserably at this. The answers all boil down to that sign: The bible is right, everything else is wrong. And in trying to answer the skeptics, the entire ark comes off as whiny, uptight, and petulant — just like the child and the ruined birthday cake. Reality simply cannot be denied, even with $100 million.

Unconvincing

The first real exhibit consists of a bunch of empty cages. Rather than animals, speakers play a soundtrack that includes animals squawking and squealing, with a storm in the background. The visitor is meant to feel what it would be like on the ark, but, if anything, it's underdone.

Think about what it would be like on that boat with thousands of defecating, caged animals, one window, no ventilation system, no lights, and the worst storm in history raging. And think about living like that for a year.

Like the first exhibit, everything is meant to show how plausible the ark story is, but applying the slightest thought shows just how unconvincing it all truly is.

How does one fit those 9 million species on the boat? According to Ham, Noah didn't. He took on animal "kinds," which don't appear anywhere in the scientific taxonomy. The breakdown goes: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. You'll notice that "Kind" isn't on there. But "Kind" does appear in the bible, so Ham hangs his creationist hat on that hook. Anyway, Ham says that Noah took on kinds that later evolved (he painfully tries to say it's not evolution), into all the species we see today.

My favorite exhibit, by far, was the "Pre-Flood World." Ham intends this section to show that the world was so evil that it deserved to be slaughtered. It is meant to show humanity's wickedness. The "Senseless Slaughter, Abuse of Creation" mural is a prime example.

Ham is trying to argue that the "senseless slaughter" of animals is "wicked." But Ham built the ark because his god senselessly slaughtered almost every single creature on Earth! God is infinitely more wicked than this gleeful gent. Ham built his park to venerate the same wickedness he's condemning. The mural perfectly, if inadvertently, encapsulates the cognitive dissonance religion requires.

As the serpent in the ark says: "If I can convince you that the flood was not real, I can convince you that Heaven and Hell are not real." True enough.

Ignoring bible

Believers frequently overlook the inconvenient parts of the bible and Ham is no different. For most of the ark, Ham sticks to the bible. But not all of it. There is at least one huge error and one huge omission.

The error is that the ark isn't waterproof. Genesis 6:14 says that the ark is "covered inside and out with pitch." Ham's ark is not. Pitch is a black, tar-like waterproofing substance. As you can see, Ham took the terrible liberty of ignoring his god's word and leaving out the pitch.

I found Ham's omission disappointing, though unsurprising. Ham missed this atheist's favorite part of the ark story: the end.

We all know most of the story: God is so angry with his playthings that he murders everyone. And not just people, but every animal, too. To his credit, Ham does not shy away from the fact that this story centers on what would have been the most colossal genocide in history.

Everyone but Noah, his unnamed wife, his three sons (Ham, Shem, and Japheth), and their three unnamed wives, is murdered. The supernatural barbarian saves this family because, as he tells Noah, "you alone are righteous before me in this generation."

Believers assume that "righteous" means moral, but that's because they forget the end of Noah's story. After the family disembarks, Noah plants the first vineyard, gets soused, and passes out. Naked. His son, Ham, stumbled on the scene. When Noah awakens from his stupor, he's angry that Ham stumbled upon his nudity. Instead of self-introspection, Noah curses Ham's son Canaan — his own grandson — to be a slave.

He blesses his son Shem and then says, "let Canaan be his slave." He does the same for his son Japheth.

What kind of morality is this? Who would worship such a tyrant? Who would construct a $100 million monument to this immorality? It turns out, nobody. Even Ham, an intransigent biblical literalist, ignores this ending, as far as I could tell.

Oh, and I almost forgot. According to Ken Ham, there were dinosaurs on the ark.

Kelly received a $1,000 scholarship in part thanks to FFRF member Thomas W. Jendrock. She will also be speaking as a student activist at FFRF's 40th annual convention Sept. 15-16. (See back page for convention details.) She is the 12-year-old daughter of Life Member Jim G. Helton of Kentucky, founder of Tri-State Freethinkers, who notes all of Kelly's activism is initiated by Kelly herself.

By Kelly Helton

My activism started in elementary school when my brother Grover challenged the school by refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. I saw firsthand how one person could make a difference. So I decided I would sit, as well. The difference was I sat in the front of the class at the time, so everyone could see. Several other students ended up sitting once they realized it was an option.

In middle school, we were singing so many religious songs that one of my classmates said, "I feel like I'm in church." Clearly, this was an issue. So, I told my teacher how singing religious songs made some of my classmates and myself feel uncomfortable. My teacher knew who my dad was and didn't want to be sued, so she said she would try to figure something out. The next day, all the religious songs were removed from my class. However, the other classes still had religious songs. Since my choral teacher continues to put religious songs in our classes, the Tri-State Freethinkers will be sending out a letter.

I have been volunteering at Planned Parenthood for quite some time now. I go to almost every protest and rally. One day, we were going to the state Capitol and we knew there were going to be counterprotesters. My mom was concerned, so she told me I wasn't allowed to go. My dad was getting ready to leave and I knew I had to go, so I snuck into the back seat of his car. As he was getting onto the highway, I popped out of the back seat and said, "I told you I was going!" We had to meet other supporters to catch a chartered bus, so there was no time to turn around.

My dad called my mom and told her what happened. She was furious, but there was nothing my dad could do. She told him not to let me out of his sight. When we got there the counterprotesters separated us. I ended up by the podium with state senators and my dad nowhere in sight.

Afterward, my mom asked how things went and if there were any problems. My dad told her everything went fine and he stood by my side the whole time. Unfortunately for him, I was on the front page of the news, pictured next to the senators with my dad nowhere in sight!
I wanted to make a difference so I asked my dad if I could speak at a Planned Parenthood rally. My dad spoke with Stephanie from Planned Parenthood and gave me most of his speaking time. Ever since then I have been requesting to speak. So far, I have spoken at Planned Parenthood, International Women's Day in Cincinnati, Tri-State Freethinkers and NaNoCon.

The most important issue the world faces is the struggle for equal rights. I felt I could make a difference locally, so I started to speak up and encourage other people to speak up as well.

This special scholarship of $5,000 is generously endowed by longtime FFRF members and supporters Richard and Beverly Hermsen.

By Cidney Fisk

During my junior year of high school, I protested an amendment to the Colorado Constitution that would give fetuses personhood status. I wore a costume urging voters to vote "no" on the amendment. I was asked to take the costume off because of my student government teacher, who claims, "God made babies, and abortion is murder."

Later in that year, I posted on Instagram that I "don't particularly like attending Delta High School." After this was noticed by staff members, I was called into the counseling office where two faculty members waited for me. They had asked me to remove my post. They told me my behavior was "negative" and if it continued they "would hate to see me lose leadership positions and letters of recommendation." This was a threat.

They also told me I could not fight every battle, citing my objections to school policy. After a while, I felt as though other secular students probably felt the same way and deserved a safe space. I sought to start a secular student alliance, but was denied a staff facilitator.

In October of my senior year, I found out through a staff member that we would be forced to watch a presentation on sexual education that was entitled the "W.A.I.T. Training Program." I researched the program and read reviews on it and found it was a faith-based program. I questioned the staff about the program. They promised it would be perfectly legal and fine.

My parents, a friend and I attended a presentation by Shelly Donahue, a traveling speaker of faith-based abstinence-only information. While there, she attributed the downfall of America and the increase of sex to Planned Parenthood and the Obama administration. Religion was cited several times throughout the presentation.

Donahue then appeared for an assembly at Delta High School on Oct. 18, 2015. I had organized a silent protest in which my friends and I wore shirts with anti-abstinence-only sex-ed slogans.

In Donahue's slideshow that accompanied the presentation, a crucifix appeared on every slide. In her presentation, she noted that "Having sex before marriage brings you further from God."

In both my junior and senior years, I was a member of student government classes. I was awarded A's in both semesters in class during my junior year, as well as in the first semester of my senior year.

But when college application and scholarship deadlines rolled around, my application for the Boettcher full-ride scholarship was flagged by a member of the foundation. I also had met all the qualifications for the Daniels full-ride scholarship. I was denied both scholarships and didn't make it to semifinals or finals in the application process.

When I applied to college, the guidance counselor refused to send in my transcripts to the places I applied. I had submitted my request far before the deadline. Three days before it was due, my transcripts still were not in. After several confrontations by my parents with the counselor, my transcripts barely made it to my chosen schools on time.

Another instance where I felt harassed was when Delta Middle School was handing out Gideon bibles, and allowing students to hassle others for not accepting the bibles. This prompted the Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers and the Satanic Temple to try to distribute their literature in Delta Public Schools. When the school board decided that it had to let them do so, the Grand Junction Sentinel interviewed me about what I had thought about the issue. I came out publicly as an atheist in this article.

The day before and of the distribution, death threats against me and any other atheists were posted on message boards on Facebook. Most of the threats were made by fellow students. My dad filed a police report and notified the administration. Neither of them did anything about it.

The day after the article was published and the distribution occurred was a Saturday and the first day of spring break. In the days prior, I had checked my grades and all was fine. But that Saturday, my grade in Student Council/government went from a 98 to a 69.

The teacher had input three months' worth of F's. I had no idea what caused this dramatic drop. My parents and I emailed the teacher who had dropped my grade. When I returned to school, the teacher and my principal called me into a meeting in which they had tried to explain the decline of my grade. They mentioned the newspaper article four times and assured me it was not about that. I think that's suspicious. In the end, they noted my "questioning of authority," particularly religious authority, as the reason for my decline in grades. They told me I was being highly disrespectful. They told me that if I wanted my grades to go up, I would "shut up" and "fake it 'til I make it."

After graduation, I told my story to some blogs and media outlets and once again became a target of harassment.

Students from Delta High School and members of the community said horrible things about me on social media, urging me to be exiled, calling me an attention whore and a liar, and criticizing my parents for raising me. There was even a planned protest to cut truck pipes and blow exhaust on me and my family during my scholarship presentation organized by Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers.

But in the end, I found solace in the secular community. My move to Denver has been life-changing. I no longer feel like a criminal for not believing in a god.

"I am a 2016 Delta High School graduate. I'm a freshman at the University of Denver, where I am studying political science and public policy. I'll be turning 20 this year. I enjoy traveling with my college debate team in order to participate in British parliamentary style debate. So far, I've made it to Colorado Springs, San Diego and Tacoma. I'm excited to be engaged in both secular and political communities, and I can't wait to see what the future holds for me."

Nicole received a $2,000 Thomas Jefferson Student Activist Award from FFRF. This scholarship is made possible thanks to generous FFRF members, a Washington couple who prefers to remain anonymous. (See accompanying story.)

By Nicole Niebler

Even though I've been an agnostic atheist since high school, I had not been exposed to any sort of activism until college. Growing up in a conservative Catholic family in suburban Milwaukee, I only started to stand up for secular values when I joined the Freethought Society at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, now known as the UW-Eau Claire Secular Student Alliance (SSA). Joining the Freethought Society instilled a drive in me to stand up for progressive values and set me on a path toward more secular activism.

My turning point for secular activism was planning an impromptu counterdemonstration to combat the hate brought to campus by inflammatory preacher "Brother Jed." Fellow SSA members and I created and held signs next to him that stated various positive messages, such as "Smile. You're beautiful!" among other secular, uplifting phrases. Although seemingly miniscule, that first event sparked my passion for secular activism.

At my first SSA conference that following summer before I transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I met officers of a group called Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics (AHA) from UW-Madison. While I had already applied for an officer position with the group, little did I know I would meet some of the most inspiring and treasured people. Their friendship, kindness and introspection would heavily impact my life.

With my graduation right around the corner, I have been the president of AHA for two years after serving as a volunteer and a service chair for a year. With AHA, I have helped the organization host several prominent speakers, lead two annual Freethought Festivals, participated in numerous weekly secular peer support meetings, and hosted more social events than I could possibly count.

The mission of AHA is to build a secular community and to promote a discussion of one's faith or lack thereof on campus. This mission is one I fully stand behind and have poured thousands of hours into fulfilling because I believe it is of utmost importance to provide welcoming secular communities for young people in a world where nonbelievers are seen as immoral, angry, pessimists and where Christianity is a necessity of being a good human being.

This unequal societal juxtaposition of immoral nonbelievers to moral Christians fuels me to continue to be an activist. Recently, I filed a complaint against a local housing complex — the Lumen House — regarding its discrimination against non-Catholics via an unfair rental scholarship for Catholics that must be signed by the priest of a Catholic church. I refuse to stand by while fellow students and citizens of Madison are discriminated against simply because they do not follow a particular religion. Everyone deserves to be treated equally, regardless of religious beliefs, affiliations or lack thereof.

Among other things, I am a humanist. I will do everything within my power to fight for what's right, whether that is providing a community for those looked down upon in society, taking a stand against discrimination and unequal treatment, or being a positive example of an agnostic atheist for friends and family members to illustrate that we can be good without God.

A native of Pewaukee, Wis., Nicole Niebler attends the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is pursuing a major in dietetics and a certificate of global health. In her spare time she enjoys singing and playing ukulele at open mic nights, painting, and cooking from scratch.

A Washington State couple, who prefer anonymity, this spring gifted more than $250,000 (one share of Berkshire Hathaway stock) to FFRF.

They have approved $150,000 to be held in reserve for the Thomas Jefferson Student (or Youth) Activist Awards, and the rest to create the Robert G. Ingersoll Legal Fellowship for two years. The FFRF Board has recently created two legal fellowships, which are one- to two-year positions to be filled by new law school graduates. The fellowships supplement the work of FFRF's current five staff attorneys. The first Robert G. Ingersoll Legal Fellowship will begin this year.

The couple, who are Lifetime Members of FFRF, have funded a $1,000-a-year Thomas Jefferson Student Activist Award for more than a decade, and indicated they wish to ensure the award continues. The scholarships will be $1,000 to $2,000, and will be awarded at least annually.

The 2017 Thomas Jefferson Student Activist Award has gone to Nicole Niebler. See her write-up about her activism on this page.

"We are so tremendously grateful to our two members, who live a modest lifestyle, for their incredible generosity," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "They will make it possible for FFRF to continue to recognize and reward activist students, and to retain eager and dedicated law school graduates to enhance FFRF's legal department."

Gaylor notes it was "terribly exciting" to oversee a gift of stock from Warren Buffett's famed Berkshire Hathaway. "I'm a big fan," she says. Buffett is an agnostic whose earnings now underwrite many valuable charities as established by himself or family members, including funding of abortions for indigent women in the many states that deny Medicaid recipients abortion services on religious grounds.

"This couple has been so supportive on so many fronts," adds FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. "On behalf of the many young people who will benefit from this major gift, thank you to you-know-who-you-are!"

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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