- FFRF and AHA take on cross in Pensacola public park
- FFRF sues to remove cross in park in Santa Clara, Calif.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association filed suit over a government-owned cross in the city of Pensacola, Fla. on May 4, 2016. One version or another of the cross, which sits in Bayview Park, has stood for more than 50 years.
The city refused to comply with both groups' demands to remove the cross, leaving FFRF, AHA, and four Pensacola residents with no choice but to sue.
The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the cross violates the Establishment Clause, and issue an injunction ordering the cross to be removed.
FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert and Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler represent the plaintiffs, along with AHA Legal Director David Niose and Senior Counsel Monica Miller.
The case, no. 3:16-cv-00195, was filed in Florida federal court and sits before Judge Roger Vinson, a Ronald Reagan appointee.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, with member Andrew DeFaria, sued the City of Santa Clara, Calif., on April 20, 2016, to remove a large Latin cross from a city park. The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.
The cross is located at Memorial Cross Park and apparently commemorates the 1777 Spanish Catholic mission. The Santa Clara Lions Club donated the cross in 1953 and the city has owned and maintained it ever since.
FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert initially complained to the city about the unconstitutional display in 2012. To date, despite assurances from the city over the years to "resolv[e] the matter in an expeditious and responsible manner," no action has been taken to remove the cross. The city has, however, removed the sign reading "Memorial Cross Park."
FFRF and DeFaria are represented by Attorney David J.P. Kaloyanides. FFRF senior staff attorney Rebecca Markert and Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler are serving as co-counsel. The case, No. 5:16-cv-02072, sits before Judge Lucy H. Koh, an Obama appointee.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation renewed its challenge against the IRS U.S.C. § 107 in a federal lawsuit filed on April 6, 2016, in the Western District of Wisconsin. FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker name as defendants Jacob Lew, U.S. secretary of the treasury, and John Koshkinen, IRS commissioner. The lawsuit challenges the clergy housing allowance, which permits clergy to be paid partly through a housing allowance which is subtracted from taxable income. Rep Peter Mack, the sponsor of the 1954 law, argued that ministers should be rewarded for "carrying on such a courageous fight against this [a godless and anti-religious world movement]."
The FFRF couple, who are married, are being paid in part by FFRF through a housing allowance. Their request for a housing allowance refund for the year 2012 was denied by the IRS. Anne Nicol Gaylor, president emerita, requested a refund which was not received prior to her death last year. Her son Ian Gaylor is also a named plaintiff representing the Anne Nicol Gaylor estate.
FFRF is asking the court to rule the provision unconstitutional because it provides preferential and discriminatory tax benefits to ministers of the gospel. The section "directly benefits ministers and churches, most significantly by lowering a minister's tax burden, while discriminating against the individual plaintiffs, who as the leaders of a nonreligious organization opposed to governmental endorsements of religion are denied the same benefit." Clergy are permitted to use the housing allowance not just for rent or mortgage, but for home improvements, including maintenance, home improvements and repairs, dishwashers, cable TV and phone fees, paint, towels, bedding, home décor, even personal computers and bank fees. They may be exempt from taxable income up to the fair market rental value of their home, particularly helping well-heeled pastors.
Gaylor v. Lew has case number 3:16-cv-00215.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, with the Antelope Valley Freethinkers and its head David Dionne, sued the Antelope Valley Union High School District on April 12, 2016 after the school district repeatedly refused to advertise scholarships offered by the groups because of their atheism.
The groups sought to have scholarships on the topics of “Being a Young Freethinker in the Antelope Valley,” “Young, bold and nonbelieving: Challenges of being a nonbeliever of color,” and “Why I’m Good Without God: Challenges of being a young nonbeliever” listed alongside other scholarships, including scholarships that require recipients to be Christians and write about their faith. The district said that the freethought prompts appeared to “promote anti-religious expression” and had “aggressive” and “argumentative undertones towards religion.”
After repeated unsuccessful attempts to convince the district to back off its unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination, the groups filed suit in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California. California attorney David Kaloyanides represents the plaintiffs along with FFRF’s Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel and Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler. The case, No. 2:16-cv-02487, sits before Judge Manuel Real, a 92-year-old Lyndon B. Johnson appointee.
In California, Lake Elsinore Unified School District's "Student of the Month" luncheons with the local Chamber of Commerce will no longer be religious events, and a praying coach has been taken to task.
The monthly lunches that honored students for their academic achievements took place on school property and were attended by school staff and government officials. They also typically included a Christian prayer, and, one year, Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ was given to the honorees.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to the school district on July 23, 2015, asking the district to "discontinue prayer and the distribution of religious literature at future school-sponsored activities."
The district replied on Aug. 20, claiming that the Student of the Month events were not sponsored by the district. Seidel rebutted the letter on Sept. 15, pointing out that district employees were "volunteer administrators" and the district was thanked in the programs as a sponsor.
On Feb. 12, the district informed FFRF that changes had been made to the Student of the Month ceremonies. The district is no longer a sponsor, it vowed not to mandate or encourage student participation in prayers, and the chamber agreed to implement a "secular inspirational message" in lieu of prayer.
The district also noted that it had directed the Elsinore High School football coach to refrain from requiring prayer and participating in student prayers.
FFRF has again ensured that staff at Akron Public Schools in Ohio will not be permitted to wear "Jesus Is My Hero" T-shirts in school. FFRF first dealt with the shirts in 2013, which promoted the Buchtel Community Learning Center's athletic program.
The district notified all staff in October of 2013 that wearing the donated shirts was a violation of policy. "Unfortunately," said Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a letter to the district's attorney, "I'm writing again because our complainant informs us that these T-shirts have made appearances once again, worn by coaches at football practices."
On Feb. 9, the district's attorney told Markert that the district's athletic director and the school principal were notified, and told staff "that, while acting in their official capacity as school officials, they are prohibited from engaging in actions that could be seen as an endorsement of religion, in violation of board policy."
The public library system in Madison, Wis. decided in February not to close its central downtown branch for a March private event for the Dalai Lama. FFRF, whose office is located across the street from the library, was one of the community voices objecting to the planned event.
"We write to express concerns that granting this proposal would raise the appearance of government-religion entanglement, and also would be a disservice to the local community," said FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in a letter to the library's board of directors.
The board unanimously voted the proposal down on Feb. 4.
The Johnson City Police Department in Tennessee is taking steps to ensure it is abiding by the Constitution regarding its "Adopt-a-Cop" program.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent a letter on Dec. 8 objecting to the program, in which community members "adopt" a police officer, and includes praying for the officer every day.
In a Feb. 2 response, an attorney for the department acknowledged that the department could have done more "to dispel the public's perception that the department itself was operating and 'pushing' this program," and assured FFRF that the department recognized its obligation to separate church and state.
The superintendent of Dalton Local Schools in Ohio will no longer post religious messages on his official school Twitter feed, after FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote the school district's attorney a letter on Jan. 25, 2016. The tweets called for prayer, encouraged belief in God, and promoted Christian church events. "Anyone viewing this school-sponsored Twitter feed would understand that the superintendent is endorsing his personal religion over all others," said Jayne.
Attorney Susan C. Hastings responded on Feb. 2 informing FFRF that the superintendent would establish a separate Twitter account for personal communications.
And at West Orange-Stark Elementary School in Orange, Texas, FFRF got involved when it had heard from parents that bibles were being handed out to students.
"There is no excuse or justification for this practice. It is unnecessary, offensive and illegal," FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote in a Jan. 6 letter to West Orange-Cove School District Superintendent Rickie Harris.
In a response dated Feb. 1, lawyers for the school district said that they had counseled the school about the rules governing such issues. "We anticipate no further issues in the future," the legal firm stated.