RSS Feed

Outreach & Events

Past Conventions

2015 Convention  
Madison, Wis.

Events Archives

Appearances, Debates, Speeches and More

Foundation Books

ps tn

Lead Us Not Into Penn Station:Provocative Pieces

National Convention

September 15-17, 2017



Published by FFRF

Upcoming Events & Appearances

Appearances, Debates, Speeches and More

%973 %America/Chicago, %2013

Letter Box

Our Pop Which Art in Heaven

"Saw this in Northern Alabama, in Lawrence County: hilly and very rural. I almost wrecked the car," writes Pennsylvania Foundation member J.K. Folmar.

"With corporate names on everything these days, I wonder if this is the only 'cold drink,' as it is referred to in the South, allowed in the sanctuary."

In The News

Colson Prison Ministry Protested

An evangelistic blitz of Wisconsin prisons conducted by Prison Fellowship Ministries, run by Watergate ex-con Chuck Colson, was protested by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in July.

Colson's ministry initiated "Operation Starting Line" in the year 2000, promising to "preach the gospel to all prisoners in America." The ministry invaded 29 state and federal corrections facilities in Wisconsin during July 14-22, conducting programs as long as six hours.

"Prisoners are the ultimate 'captive audience,' " Foundation spokesperson Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote Dept. of Corrections administrator John Litscher, protesting the "unparalleled access to state prisoners in a way which entices, encourages and promotes attendance at these religious events."

The Foundation formally requested records on the state's agreement with Colson's group, which has pledged campaigns in all 50 states, "until every prisoner in every prison in America has had the opportunity to hear the Gospel and respond."

FFRF Complaint Upholds Ordinance

A city of Madison ordinance prohibits placement of signs on city sidewalks, but this did not deter religionists who placed this sign promoting their vacation bible school outside Crestwood Public School in Madison in June.

It took two days and complaints to three different offices to get it removed, but the ordinance was upheld.

Unhappily, Wisconsin changed its constitution several decades ago to allow religious groups to rent public school space. However, churches are supposed to pay a fair rental, which always bears checking out. One of our complaints once revealed no rental at all charged to a vacation bible school that used the entire public school building, including gymnasium and kitchen.

Although they have their own buildings, churches seek out public school space for the prestige and appearance of endorsement. --Anne Nicol Gaylor

Published in Back Issues
%972 %America/Chicago, %2013

Emily Dickinson: Pagan Sphinx

"That no Flake of [snow] fall on you or them--is a wish that would be a Prayer, were Emily not a Pagan." (letter of 1878 to Catherine Sweetser)

"Knew I how to pray, to intercede for your [broken] Foot were intuitive--but I am but a Pagan." (letter of 1885 to Helen Hunt Jackson)

When Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) died, she was virtually unknown to the public. Only seven of her poems had been published, several without permission, and they attracted little notice. Today, she is widely hailed as one of the greatest American poets, perhaps the greatest. Her poems are staple cargo in junior high, high school, and college literature courses. Never married, she spent almost her entire life in the capacious family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father was an influential political figure--lawyer, judge, legislator, first citizen. In her later years, she rarely left the house or entertained guests. She communicated mainly by notes and letters. She habitually wore white. Her sequestered lifestyle earned her the epithet Queen Recluse. Few people, then or even now, know she was also Queen Pagan. She died a barbed foe of Chrstianity.

"All men say 'What' to me," she told Thomas Wentworth Higginson,[i] an eminent litterateur and dutiful correspondent. The phraseology--eccentric, pixie, and oblique--is vintage Dickinson. She meant people were baffled by her, even though, she protested, she couldn't fathom why. Since Higginson--now, through the fiendish vagaries of fortune, branded a doltish mentor oblivious to her genius--would later describe her as his "partially cracked poetess at Amherst" (L570), she had picked a dubious confidant. Recounting his first meeting with her twenty years before, Higginson in a posthumous tribute wrote: "She was much too enigmatical a being for me to solve in an hour's interview" (L476). And, perhaps, in a lifetime.

Dickinson's enigmatic nature shrouds her evolution from Christian manqu? to pagan. She had histrionic propensities that obscure the line between her true beliefs and those she feigned. Intermittently in her 1,775 poems and approximately 1,100 extant letters (many poems accompanied the letters), she struck poses and adopted personas. "When I state myself as the Representative of my verse," she told Higginson, "it does not mean me--but a supposed person" (L412). In early professions of impiety, she had a penchant for hyperbole and self-dramatization that render her claims hard to evaluate. Later, an authentic infidel, she accommodated orthodox sensibilities. Long after she had chucked belief in a hereafter, she continued to quote promissory biblical verses to assure bereaved relatives and neighbors they would be reunited with their deceased loved ones. When she was herself bereaved, she accepted the ministrations of clergymen. She even solicited platitudes on immortality, plucking "at a twig of evidence" (P501).

In the late 1850s (she was born in 1830), she began couching her thoughts in a cryptic style that muffled her heterodoxy. "Tell all the truth," she advised, "but tell it slant" (P1129). Occasionally, she was too oblique--some might say cunning--to be scrutable. "The whole truth about Emily Dickinson will elude us always," said Richard Sewall, her biographer. "She seems almost willfully to have seen to that" (S668).

From an early age, the seeds of heresy lay dormant in her. As an adolescent, she had a willful streak that bridled under compulsion. Immensely intelligent and observant, she kept her own counsel. "How," she marveled, "do people live without any thoughts. How do they get the strength to put on their clothes in the morning?" (L474). Her mother she classed with the mindless (L404). She never joined the family church because she couldn't testify to any visitation of the Holy Spirit, the ticket for membership. She stopped attending in her late twenties. She stopped attending in her late twenties because she couldn't testify to any visitation of the Holy Spirit, the ticket for membership. At fifteen, after one of the revivals that periodically convulsed Amherst, she wrote her friend Abiah Root: "I was almost persuaded to be a Christian. I thought I never again could be thoughtless and worldly. But I soon forgot my morning prayer or else it was irksome to me. One by one my old habits returned and I cared less for religion than ever" (L27).

Her disinclination to swap this world for the next one waxed ever stronger: "The world allured me & in an unguarded moment I listened to her siren voice. From that moment I seemed to lose interest in heavenly things. Friends reasoned with me & told me of the danger I was in. I felt my danger & was alarmed, but I had rambled too far to return & ever since my heart has been growing harder" (L30-31).

Anon, the siren world had lured her to the precipice: "I do not feel I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die" (L38).

Shocking words from a fifteen-year-old catechized at the First Church in Amherst, a Congregationalist assembly. There, ministers blazoned hell in all its lurid specificity as the wages of sin. For years, sermons on the Day of Doom spooked Dickinson. At twenty-three, she wrote Elizabeth Holland, an enduring friend and wife of a popular author: "The minister today preached about death and judgment, and what would become of those who behaved improperly--and somehow it scared me. He preached such an awful sermon I didn't think I should ever see you again until the Judgment Day. The subject of perdition seemed to please him somehow" (L309). The Hollands embraced a "creedless, churchless, ministerless christianity" and an avuncular, "sunshiny" God (S600; L713). Their friendship helped Emily slough off lingering anxieties about the fire that never quenches. Hell, she would later write, "defies typography" (P929).

At Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where she spent two terms after she graduated from Amherst Academy in 1847, proselytism was rampant. Thrice weekly, the founder of the school, Mary Lyon, exhorted the students in plenary assembly. Once a week, she counseled them in groups. Guest sermons abounded. "Many," wrote Dickinson, "are flocking to the ark of safety" (L60). She wasn't among them. On the basis of self-inventories, students at Holyoke were classified as Christians, Hopers, or No-Hopers (S361). Dickinson left as she came, a No-Hoper.

After she returned to Amherst in the summer of 1848, she sporadically rued her lapsed state, albeit her sincerity is hard to gauge. In letters to pious schoolmates, she descanted on her intractable naughtiness: "I am one of the lingering bad ones, and so do I slink away, and pause, and ponder, and ponder, and pause, and do work without knowing why--not surely for this brief world, and more sure it is not for heaven--and I ask what this message [of Christ] means" (L98-99). She was a menace to the innocent: "You are out of the way of temptation and out of the way of the tempter--I didn't mean to make you wicked--but I was--and am--and shall be--and I was with you so much that I couldn't help contaminate" (L83).

She simulated the forlorn heroine in a mawkish tearjerker: "What shall we do my darling, when trial grows more, and more, when the dim, lone light expires, and it's dark, so very dark, and we wander, and know not where, and cannot get out of the forest--whose is the hand to help us, and to lead, and forever guide us?" (L98). In the next breath, she segues into an impish identification with the archfiend: "Where do you think I've strayed and from what new errand returned. I have come from 'to and fro, and walking up and down' the same place that Satan hailed from when God asked where he'd been" (L99).

By the mid-1850s, her break with orthodoxy was irreparable. She had embarked on a quest for truth unfettered by doctrinal constraints and herd prescriptions. Like Herman Melville, she forsook the safe port of conventionalism for "landlessness"--deep, earnest, independent, risky musings. The perilous odyssey exhilarated her: "You are nipping in the bud fancies which I let blossom," she wrote Abiah. "The shore is safer, but I love to buffet the sea--I can count the bitter wrecks here in these pleasant waters, and hear the murmuring winds, but oh, I love the danger!" (L104). To her pious friends, that way madness lay. To Dickinson, salvation:

Much Madness is divinest Sense-- 
To a discerning Eye-- 
Much Sense--the starkest Madness-- 
'Tis the Majority 
In this, as All, prevail-- 
Assent--and you are sane-- 
Demur--you're straightway dangerous-- 
And handled with a Chain-- (P435)

As her paganism ripened, she demurred at Christian nonsense.

She twitted the glitzy New Jerusalem vouchsafed to the elect. It was a thronged "Corporation" devoid of privacy (L374), an interminable Sunday where "recess never comes" (P413). Worse, the voyeuristic proprietor never traveled or slept: "If God could make a visit / Or ever took a Nap / So not to see us--but they say / Himself a telescope / Perennial beholds us" (P413). Even the saints didn't quite believe in the "Heaven further on"--despite opiate assurances from the pulpit: "Narcotics cannot still the Tooth / That nibbles at the soul" (P501).

Everlasting bliss was an oxymoron. Happiness lay in the chase, not the catch: "To possess is past the instant / We achieve the Joy-- / Immortality contented / Were anomaly" (P1036). Dickinson had never been keen on eternity. At fifteen, she wrote Abiah: "Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you. I often get to thinking of it and it seems so dark to me that I almost wish there was no Eternity. To think that we must forever live and never cease to be. It seems as if Death would be a relief to so endless a state of existence" (L28). Ecstasy fed on evanescence: "That it will never come again / Is what makes life so sweet" (P1741).

Pluckier than Pascal, Emily wagered on this life: "I cannot help esteem / The 'Bird within the Hand' / Superior to the one / The 'Bush' may yield me / Or may not / Too late to choose again" (P1012). Besides, "Who has not found the heaven below / Will fail of it above" (P1544). Eternity was "obtained in time" not as an infinite temporal progression, but in moments of heightened sensibility to life (P800). The soul, she guessed, is inseparable from the body: "The Spirit lurks within the Flesh / Like Tides within the Sea / That make the Water live, estranged / What would the Either be?" (P1576).

The Christian God she treated with sarcasm, contempt, indignation, and amusement. Her parents, she told Higginson, "address an Eclipse every morning, whom they call their 'Father'" (L404). The Eclipse was also Papa Above (P61), the gentleman in the air (L217), the little God with Epaulettes (L880), a small Deity (P694), our old neighbor (P623), and--now paraphrasing--a conceited tyrant (P1317), vindictive dunce (P267), thievish scofflaw (P116), lethal intruder (P1462), homicidal burglar (P49), cold assassin (P1624), and sadistic inquisitor (P536).

As in a Kafka novel, the Inquisitor arraigns us for an unspecified offense: "The Crime, from us, is hidden," though "he is presumed to know" (P1601). In an indiscreet moment, he made us wicked, but we must sue him for pardon: "'Heavenly Father'--take to thee / The supreme iniquity / Fashioned by thy candid Hand / In a moment contraband-- / Though to trust us seem to us / More respectful--'We are Dust'-- / We apologize to thee for thine own Duplicity" (P1461).

In letters to intimates, Dickinson routinely zinged the duplicitous Papa: "Vinnie [her sister] rocks her Garden and moans that God won't help her. I suppose he is too busy getting angry with the Wicked every day" (L582). "God's little Blond Blessing we have long deemed you, and hope his so-called 'Will' will not compel him to revoke you" (L633). "Why," she mused to Mabel Loomis Todd, who edited a posthumous collection of her poems, "should we censure Othello [for the jealous murder of Desdemona] when the Criterion Lover says, 'Thou shalt have no other Gods before Me'?" (L889). After President Garfield's abortive battle for life, she wrote her cousins Louise and Frances Norcross: "When we think of his lone effort to live and its bleak reward, the mind turns to the myth 'for His mercy endureth forever,' with confiding revulsion" (L711).

Her attitude toward Jesus was mixed. As risen Savior, he was a fickle suitor who pledged his troth then hightailed it: "Within thy Grave! / Oh no, but on some other flight-- / Thou only camest to mankind / To rend it with Good night" (P1552). While he gallivanted through the heavens, his followers mourned his sham demise: "Some Arrows slay but whom they strike-- / But this slew all but him-- / Who so appareled his Escape-- / Too trackless for a Tomb" (P1565). Despite promises, he received no callers: "At least to pray is left--is left / Oh Jesus--in the Air--I know not which thy chamber is-- / I'm knocking everywhere" (P502).

As Son of Jehovah, he was a pretentious bore. As Son of Sorrow, our compatriot: "When he tells us about his Father, we distrust him. When he shows us his Home, we turn away, but when he confides to us that he is 'acquainted with grief,' we listen, for that also is an acquaintance of our own" (L837). The Crucifixal Clef was a universal key though only one crucifixion was memorialized: "One Crucifixion is recorded--only-- / How many be / Is not affirmed of Mathematics / Or History-- / One Calvary--exhibited to Stranger-- / As many be / As persons--or Peninsulas" (P553). Gethsemane was "a province in the Being's Center"--Dickinson, the Empress of Calvary, one of its habitu?s.

When the Amherst sphinx styled herself a pagan, she meant she didn't believe in the biblical God. What sort of deity, if any, she did believe in is hard to pinpoint. Her tracks crisscross.

According to Richard Sewall, in "her own personal theology, the World and Man and God were all but coordinate" (S67). In one place, she chides atheists as benighted souls who "Stake an entire store / Upon a Moment's shallow Rim / While their commuted Feet / The Torrents of Eternity / Do all but inundate" (P1380). Since she equated eternity with heightened consciousness, her atheist could be anyone with straitened perception or unfurnished imagination. Elsewhere, she assimilates God to thought: "The Brain is just the weight of God / For heft them--Pound for Pound-- / And they will differ--if they do-- / As Syllable from Sound" (P632). She also said, "The Supernatural is only the Natural disclosed" (L424), shades of naturalism or pantheism.

She mocked anthropomorphic conceptions of deity (P1689). She sifted Omnipotence from "God the Father--and the Son": "Omnipotence has not a Tongue-- / His lisp is Lightning and the Sun" (P420). Omnipotence was also life itself: "To be alive--is Power-- / Existence in itself / Without a further function-- / Omnipotence Enough" (P677). She distrusted the Enlightenment claim that the orderly motions of celestial bodies "substantiate" a Designer: "If Aims impel these Astral Ones / The ones allowed to know / Know that which makes them as forgot / As Dawn forgets them now" (P1528).

Still, she did say someone "tailored the nut" and "prepared this mighty show" (P1371, 1644). One of her popular poems, a junior high favorite, reads: "I never saw a Moor-- / I never saw the Sea-- / Yet know I how the Heather looks / And what a Billow be. / I never spoke with God / Nor visited in Heaven-- / Yet certain am I of the spot / As if the checks were given" (P1052). Since the poem was written in the 1860s, it can't be dismissed as a spasm of pious juvenilia. Perhaps the poem was enclosed in a consolatory letter to a believer. Scholars estimate only about one-tenth of Dickinson's letters have survived. (Dickinson kept copies of poems she sent with letters.) She may also be using "Heaven" and "God" figuratively. The "spot" might be within her. Because of her occasional pious effusions (or what seem such), coupled with her friendships with members of sundry sects, scholars have tried to lasso her into Christian Spritualism, conservative Unitarianism, liberal Unitarianism, Episcopalianism, eucharistic Presbyterianism, and "moderate" Evangelicalism.

My guess is she died an agnostic. "Faith is Doubt," she told Susan Dickinson, her sister-in-law and beloved confidante (L912). Emily preferred mystery to certitude, spry to calcified belief: "On subjects of which we know nothing, we both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps believing nimble" (S462). The ceaseless vacillation galvanized her spirit: "Sweet Skepticism of the Heart / That knows and does not know / And tosses like a Fleet of Balm / Affronted by the snow" (P413).

In a way, Emily Dickinson was a polytheist. She worshiped Nature, Love, Truth, Beauty, and Words--in indeterminate order. "Those who lift their hats shall see Nature," she said, "as devout do God" (S612). "If we love Flowers, are we not 'born again' every day?" (L899). Love was "the joyful little Deity / We are not scourged to serve" (L695). Any human face she loved "put out Jesus'" (P640). Truth was God's "twin identity" (P809). To Beauty, she lifted her prayers: "Have mercy on me / But if I expire today / Let it be in sight of thee" (P1654). The "Word made flesh" was poetry that "breathes distinctly" and "has not the power to die" (P1651).

Her final letter, written to her Norcross cousins shortly before she slipped into a terminal coma, read simply: "Called back."

Cryptic, of course.

Copyright 2001 by Gary Sloan.

A retired English professor in Ruston, Louisiana, I am a frequent contributor to freethought publications. My "Mark Twain's Secret Vendetta with God" appeared in the May 2001 issue of Freethought Today.

Freestanding secular poems by Dickinson selected by editor. Note the irreverent imagery in her poem about Indian Summer.

[i] The Letters of Emily Dickinson, vol. 2, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, Cambridge: Belknap Pr. of Harvard UP, 1958, p. 415. Subsequent references to Letters are parenthetically indicated in the text by L followed by page number. Letters has three volumes, but the pagination is continuous. Two other sources are similarly cited in the text: 
S=Richard Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson, 2 vols., New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974. 
P=The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, Boston: Little, Brown, 1960. The number that follows P is the number Johnson gives to the poem, not a page number. Johnson? numbers are used in many anthologies.


Page maintained by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and hosted by the Internet Infidels.

Published in Back Issues
%971 %America/Chicago, %2013

Creationists Do Not Give Up

As I write this, Placer County is the fastest growing county in California.

It was a statistic I read in the Sacramento Bee, but the evidence is all around me. Expanded highways, new roads, and housing developments take shape daily. New churches send out bulk mail literature touting their neighborliness. People move in before the rest of the houses on their street are finished, and most everyone, new and old, throughout the county looks just like me . . . white.

But that doesn't mean they think like me. Placer County is a conservative area where a large portion of people attend church and applaud "family values" as promulgated by George W. The major city is Roseville. The majority celebrate Christmas in a big way, frown on abortion, and have trouble understanding anyone who doesn't follow suit.

But because most people are relatively well-educated, we liberals who reside among them did not expect an attack on the schools. Most mainstream churches accept Darwin's Theory of Evolution. But somehow I and my fellow liberals hadn't noticed that many of these new churches have people who spout fundamentalist philosophy.

We became aware that a problem was brewing when the local paper, The Press Tribune, wrote that the Roseville City School District board (for kindergarten through eighth) was considering teaching Intelligent Design along with Evolution. The feeling was that children should be exposed to both "theories." The very conservative Press Tribune, which had published articles and letters in the past that attacked feminists as well as the U.N., seemed largely sympathetic to Intelligent Design.

Shocked, we began to mobilize. Freethinkers called other liberals. My husband, Hank, and I contacted members of Atheists and Other Freethinkers (AOF) in Sacramento. Hank also called the National Center for Science Education. Some liberals assured us they would be in the audience the night of the School Board meeting.

On June 14, the date of the School Board meeting, eleven liberals whom we knew personally came, and three others who had just moved into the area also attended, plus three members of AOF in addition to us, one from the very posh Granite Bay, Placer County's fanciest address. So that made 17 of us that we could identify. Undoubtedly some others in the audience supported Darwin, too.

The board conducted other business first, and when they got to item number 13.2 called Science Standards Adoption, they called on Hank first. A retired health physicist, he explained how science uses the term "theory" as opposed to the way the general public uses the word. He also pointed out some discrepancies in human anatomy which would discredit the idea of an Intelligent Designer. For example the eye and the spine are far from the perfection you'd expect in an Intelligent Designer, and the appendix, of course, is nothing but trouble. Explaining the illogic of Intelligent Design by using scientific arguments took the five minutes allotted to him.

They called me next, and I stated that Intelligent Design was just the latest ploy by the creationists to get religion into the schools, that creationism had been designated a religion by the Supreme Court of the United States in Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987. I pointed out that Intelligent Design wasn't mainstream religion but that it was religion. I also expanded on Hank's argument that an Intelligent Designer would not have designed such a feeble specimen as humans, and asked: "Why would an intelligent designer design fleas and termites or birth human babies who arrive unable to fend for themselves?"

Gregory Shearer spoke next. A Sacramento City College lecturer, he said he represented many scientists who believe that an Intelligent Designer may be responsible for life on earth. He brought up what he called "irreducible complexity," a term coined by the Creationists.

Next to speak was Kathy Twisselman of Rocklin, a Placer County community member. She purported to have many scientists in her family, all of whom, she stated, believed in Intelligent Design. She said, "Life is far too complex, even at the single-celled level, to be called chance."

Paul Storey, fellow member of AOF, pointed out the incredible genetic similarities between various life forms. He also refuted some of Shearer's and Twisselman's arguments.

The board voted four to one to follow the state science standards. In the board discussion following, trustee Kelly Lafferty said that there are provisions for parents to have their children opt out of sex education and she believed the same option should be available for students who encounter the Theory of Evolution. She was the lone holdout, and she stated that this wasn't the end, that teaching evolution in the schools would be fought.

Board President Marcia Krummell said that because the Theory of Evolution is part of the state and district standards, teachers will teach it to students. "We are holding the teachers accountable for teaching to the standards," she said.

Later the four members of the board who voted to uphold Darwin stated that they were grateful to those of us who educated them with our statements.

The Press Tribune, for the most part, reported the meeting correctly. They did, however, state that the crowd was equally divided. We beg to differ.

Audience applause for the Creationist, Intelligent Design proponents came from only two or three people.

Cleo Kocol is a Life Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a longtime Humanist and feminist activist, and is the author of several novels.


Page maintained by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and hosted by the Internet Infidels.

Published in Back Issues

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit issued a 2-1 ruling on July 2, 2001, upholding the decision by the city and county of Denver, Colorado, to exclusively permit a Christmas display on the steps of the city-county building, including a creche and secular "trimmings," and excluding a winter solstice protest display by the Denver chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. District Judge Carlos Marguia and Circuit Judge Kelly signed on to the majority opinion.

The case is: Julie N. Wells; Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.; the Colorado chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc., vs. City and County of Denver; Department of General Services of the City and County of Denver; Wellington Webb, Mayor; Thomas J. Migaki, Manager of the Department of General Services, and John Hall, director, Division of Public Office Buildings.

The lawsuit was handled by attorney Robert R. Tiernan, a recent director emeritus of the chapter. Tiernan is asking the entire Tenth Circuit for an en banc (full panel) review of the ruling.

Tiernan noted: "That question is, when government speech in a public forum includes a religious symbol of one faith (the creche) does it not have an obligation to allow expression in that forum by other religions and those who disagree with religion? If the government refuses, isn't it giving a preference to one religion over all other religions and non-religions in violation of the First Amendment?"

Excerpted below is the history of the lawsuit, followed by the dissenting opinion.

* * *


Every year, the City and County of Denver ("the City") erects a holiday display on the steps leading up to the east entrance of the City and County Building ("the East Steps"). The East Steps "are the primary entrance to the City and County Building . . . the primary access . . . into the second floor rotunda area of the building." The 1999 display included a creche, tin soldiers, Christmas trees, snowmen, reindeer and other animals, an array of lights, and a shed containing Santa Claus and his elves. The display also contained a large sign with the message "Happy Holidays from the Keep the Lights Foundation and the sponsors that help maintain the lights at the City and County Building," situated to the far right of the display ("Happy Holidays sign"). The Happy Holidays sign, which was built by the City's carpentry shop using public funds, listed six corporate sponsors. The sponsors' contributions to the non-profit Keep the Lights Foundation were used to reimburse the City for part of the cost of the display. The display was surrounded by a fence and monitored by motion detectors and security cameras. The fenced-off area occupied more than two-thirds of the East Steps' total square footage, leaving open a broad central corridor to allow public access to and from the building.

On November 12, 1999, the plaintiffs wrote a letter to Defendant John Hall, the Director of Public Office Buildings for the City and County of Denver, requesting permission to place a sign "inside this year's Christmas display area" and quoting the text of the proposed sign ("Winter Solstice sign") as follows:


At this season of 
may reason prevail.

There are no gods, 
no devils, no angels, 
no heaven or hell. 
There is only 
our natural world.


"I believe in an America 
where the separation of church and state 
is absolute." 
John F. Kennedy -- 1960 Presidential campaign



[The FFRF had written a similar letter in 1998. Denver responded to the 1998 letter by summarily denying "the foundation's request 'to have its holiday message included in the Christmas display'. . . ."] On November 28, 1999, having received no response from Denver, Ms. Wells placed the Winter Solstice sign "on the steps of the City and County Building inside the area fenced off for the City's display. Written on the back of the sign was the Eighth Commandment: "Thou shalt not steal." Denver removed the sign the following morning.

Plaintiffs filed this action on December 13, 1999, seeking a preliminary injunction to compel the City "to allow the Plaintiffs to exhibit their winter solstice display on the steps of Denver's City and County Building within the fenced-off area where Defendants' Christmas holiday display is exhibited for as long as the latter display is on exhibit." At the hearing on that motion, held December 23, 1999, it became clear that Plaintiffs' action included a challenge to the City's policy against unattended displays on the East Steps. At the close of the hearing, during which both parties had presented testimony and arguments, the court denied Plaintiffs' motion. Upon the parties' stipulation that the court's oral ruling "be entered as the final order and judgment," the court advanced and consolidated the trial on the merits with the hearing for preliminary relief, entered a final judgment in favor of the defendants, and dismissed the action with prejudice.

On appeal, Ms. Wells and the FFRF claim that the district court erred in failing to require Denver to justify (1) the exclusion of the Winter Solstice sign from the City's fenced-off holiday display, or (2) the ban on private unattended displays on the East Steps. They contend that both restrictions violate their free speech rights under the First Amendment. One of the plaintiffs' objections to Denver's unattended display ban is their claim that the policy, by virtue of being unwritten vests unbridled discretion in city officials. They also claim that both restrictions are selectively enforced, and that the district court erroneously denied them the opportunity to develop a factual record on those claims. In addition to their free speech challenges, the plaintiffs assert violations of their rights under the Free Exercise, Establishment, and Equal Protection Clauses.

* * *

No. 00-1040, Wells v. City & County of Denver 
BRISCOE, Circuit Judge, dissenting:

I respectfully dissent from the majority opinion. First, I disagree with the conclusion that the display on the Denver steps is solely government speech. Second, I disagree with the conclusion that Denver has a neutral policy of banning all unattended displays from the steps. Third, I disagree with the majority's analysis of the Establishment Clause issue.

Standard of Review

In a First Amendment case, this court performs an independent examination of the record to ensure protection of free speech rights. Hawkins v. City & County of Denver, 170 F.3d 1281, 1285 (10th Cir.), cert. denied, 528 U.S. 871 (1999). "In cases involving the First Amendment, the de novo standard is appropriate . . . [A]n appellate court has an obligation to make an independent examination of the whole record in order to make sure that the judgment does not constitute a forbidden intrusion on the field of free expression." Horstkoetter v. Dep't of Pub. Safety 159 F.3d 1265, 1270 (10th Cir. 1998).

Government Speech

The majority concludes that the display on the steps is government speech rather than private speech. This conclusion is significant because "when the State is the speaker, it may make content-based choices." Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 U.S. 819, 833 (1995). I agree with Wells that the holiday display is not solely government speech, but contains private speech, because it includes a billboard which states [see below]:

from the
Keep the Lights Foundation
and the sponsors that
help maintain the lights at the
City and County Building
News 4
Spirit of Colorado
Coors Light
King Soopers - AAA of Colorado
Denver Rocky Mountain News
Rock Bottom Brewery


This large billboard is the only sign evident from the photos of the display included in the record and it appears to dominate one side of the display.

The majority states that the billboard with the list of sponsors is a thank you from the city to the sponsors, making it government speech. However, the language of the billboard is not phrased as a thank you from Denver to the sponsors. Rather, it is a greeting from the sponsors to the public. To a passerby, the billboard does not appear to be from Denver, but from the sponsors, all of whom are private entities. The billboard shows that those private corporations have co-sponsored the holiday display, also making the display their speech as well as Denver's speech.

In determining this is government speech, the majority relies on the four-factor "test" in Knights of Ku Klux Klan v. Curators of University of Missouri, 203 F.3d 1085 (8th Cir. 2000). However, it is not clear whether the court in Knights of KKK was creating a test to be applied in all government speech cases, or whether it was identifying the factors that evidenced government speech in that case. An additional factor relevant to the inquiry is who the listener believes to be the speaker.

In Knights of KKK, it was clear that the government was speaking. Similarly, in Downs v. Los Angeles Unified School District, 228 F.3d 1003, 1009-11 (9th Cir. 2000), it was clear to the reader that the bulletin board constituted government speech, as presented by a state-employed teacher. In the present case, it is not clear to the reader/listener that the government, rather than the sponsors, is the speaker. All of the factors identified by the majority (purpose of the sign, who paid for and built the sign, legal responsibility of the display) address who is actually responsible for the message on the sign. While I agree that Denver owns and controls the sign, there is no way for the casual reader/listener to know this. To a passerby, the sign and the message are from a group of private organizations, and the holiday display is at least in part their speech. I dissent from the majority holding that the display is government speech.

Neutral Policy

The majority also concludes that Denver has a content-neutral policy of banning all unattended displays from the steps. Because the steps are either a traditional or a designated forum, such a policy would be a constitutional time, place, and manner restriction. See Capitol Square Review & Advisory Bd. v. Pinette, 515 U.S. 753, 761, 783-84 (Souter, J. concurring), 803 (Stevens, J. dissenting) (1995). However, I disagree with the conclusion that Denver has such a policy.

John Hall testified that private unattended displays are not permitted on the steps or the interior sidewalk and that this unwritten policy had been in place since at least 1985. However, on the two occasions that Wells requested information about the need for a permit related to her sign, she was not told of such a policy. An anonymous caller inquiring about adding a menorah to the holiday display was not told about this policy. Following the Columbine tragedy, a display of cards, flowers, and stuffed animals, remained on the interior sidewalk in front of the steps of the building for over ten days. Further, the annual Christmas display is itself an exception to the policy, as it is replete with unattended displays and signs.

The majority states that the fact that the policy was not identified to Wells or the anonymous caller does not mean it does not exist, and that the Columbine display was a one-time exception. However, Denver's failure to enforce the policy consistently should come under very close scrutiny. See Members of City Council of Los Angeles v. Taxpayers for Vincent, 466 U.S. 789, 816 (1984) ("To create an exception for appellees' political speech and not these other types of speech might create a risk of engaging in constitutionally forbidden content discrimination."). If Denver is permitted to make exceptions to its policy that private unattended displays are not permitted on the steps or interior sidewalk, or if Denver is permitted to make these exceptions without any established standards, it has the sort of unbridled discretion that permits viewpoint discrimination and violates the First Amendment. See Schad v. Borough of Mount Ephraim, 452 U.S. 61, 84 (1981) (Stevens, J., concurring)

("[M]unicipalities may regulate expressive activity--even protected activity--pursuant to narrowly drawn content-neutral standards; however, they may not regulate protected activity when the only standard provided is the unbridled discretion of a municipal official."). The majority reasons that the discretion is not unbridled because it has been exercised only for the Columbine tragedy. However, there is no indication that the policy was enforced prior to Wells' request, only that the policy existed. Further, the fact that Denver has not exercised its discretion to permit an exception to its policy on numerous occasions does not make the exercise of its discretion any less unbridled. There are no clear restrictions on the City's discretion or established standards which would in any way restrict the City when granting an exception to its policy banning unattended displays.

Because the policy of disallowing unattended displays from the steps is unwritten and subject to exceptions for which there are no standards, the policy is not a content-neutral time, place, and manner restriction, and it does not pass constitutional muster.

Establishment Clause

The majority concludes there is no Establishment Clause violation because we previously have found the Denver display to be constitutional and because the unattended display ban passes the test created in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). I disagree.

The case of Citizens Concerned for Separation of Church & State v. City & County of Denver, 508 F. Supp. 823 (D. Colo. 198 1), aff'd, No. 82-1022 (10th Cir. May 14, 1984) (unpublished order), is not persuasive or controlling authority, for the resolution of the Establishment Clause issue presented. Citizens dealt with the question of whether the display's inclusion of a creche was unconstitutional. It did not address the question of whether including a creche while excluding other religious messages was constitutional. This court has not addressed the question of exclusion of religious messages from holiday displays.

I agree with the majority that a content-neutral policy banning all unattended displays would pass the Lemon test. However, because such a policy does not exist here, I would apply theLemon test to the decision to exclude Wells' sign, rather than any alleged policy to ban all unattended displays. Under the Lemon test, the statute or action must have a secular purpose, the primary or principal effect must neither advance nor inhibit religion, and it must not foster excessive government entanglement with religion.

Under Lemon, the first question is whether the decision to prohibit Wells' sign has a secular purpose. Denver argues that its purpose in prohibiting the sign is to keep the steps from being blocked. However, this justification is meaningless since Wells proposed putting the sign within the fenced-off display which Denver already had located on the steps. Denver has not identified any other secular reason for its decision.

Under Lemon, the second question is whether the principal or primary effect is one that neither advances nor inhibits religion. In Conrad v. City & County of Denver, 724 P.2d 1309, 1316 (Colo. 1986), the court held that the holiday display's primary effect was not to advance or inhibit religion. However, the court noted that the presence of a nativity scene may have the remote and incidental effect of advancing religion.

Hall testified that when an anonymous caller asked if she could put a menorah in the holiday display, Hall told her that she could not. Thus, Denver has taken the position that, as regards religious items, only items pertaining to the holiday of Christmas are welcome in its display. Wells' sign, like the menorah, represents an alternative religious perspective that Denver has opted to exclude from its display. The decision to exclude Wells' sign and a menorah from the display sends the message that Denver supports Christianity and does not support other religions or religious viewpoints. When the City creates that impression, it violates the Establishment Clause. Because the decision to allow only Christian symbols in the display and to prohibit other religious perspectives has the primary effect of promoting or inhibiting religion, Denver's decision fails the second prong of the Lemon test.

Under Lemon, the third question is whether the decision fosters excessive government entanglement with religion. To determine this question, we are required to inquire as to whether there is excessive administrative entanglement and whether the government action causes continuing political strife over aid to religion. The answer to both of these questions is no. The only administrative responsibilities involved are to deny the requests of all persons who wish to have their non-Christian religion represented in the display. This is not complicated and has not taken much administrative time. The only political strife that exists is caused by litigation such as the present case. A plaintiff cannot create strife by litigating and then arguing that the policy causes strife. Therefore, Denver's decision passes the third prong of the Lemon test.

Because the decision to exclude Wells' sign violates the first two prongs of the Lemon test, I dissent from the opinion's holding that there is no basis for concluding there is an Establishment Clause violation established in the present case.

I would reverse the district court's dismissal of Wells' claims and remand for further proceedings.


Page maintained by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and hosted by the Internet Infidels.

Published in Back Issues

This Faith Works document showing its pervasively religious agenda has been entered into the court record (see "FFRF vs. Ashcroft").


The essence of this ministry is to develop a community of believers that would foster rigorous honesty; first with God, second with oneself and third with the body of Christ. We believe that if a person can approach his relationship with the Lord with brutal honesty, he can begin to be honest with himself. When a person is honest with God and oneself he can develop relationships with other believers, which is a tremendous source of God's grace and healing. It is our experience that the two most common hindrances to an effective ministry are denial and fear. "Perfect love casts out all fear" 1 John 4:18.

Once we establish this community, we can begin to fulfill God's command of love for the Brethren found in 1 John 3:16 which states, "This is how we know that the love of God has been manifested in our lives; Christ Jesus laid down His life for us. Likewise we ought to lay down our lives for each other." This will then become the vehicle of our proclamation of the Gospel as Jesus stated in John 13:34-35, "They will know that you are My disciples by the love that you have for each other."

The core of our program is to invite residents into this relationship and to meet as many of their needs as God grants us the resources. Since most of the struggles these men are dealing with stem from addictions to drugs and alcohol, we combine the AA model with the Scriptures. As we all work through the "steps" together, we believe that developing relationships between the staff and clients will enable all of us to deal with addiction in a more healthy and hopeful way.

Evangelism and the 12-steps

When approaching the FaithWorks model in light of evangelism, we begin with the evaluation of the individual client. The "typical" man who comes to the Center is a homeless hard-core street addict, a non-church related or religious man who is disconnected from society, his family and God. To find common ground (with an understood and accepted language and point of reference) we look to the 12-Steps as a way to begin our dialog about Christ. This then provides a confessional approach to viewing one's moral responsibility, the accepting of God's forgiveness and the potential for new life.

To the addict who is looking for help and sobriety, AA is a place of safety and employs a language and conveys a message that he already accepts and appreciates. To abruptly ask this man to denounce what he is comfortable with and to learn a new set of principles and ideas that is presented to him as "different" is in my opinion the wrong place to start. Rather we look to the similarities and the overlaps of Christian Theology as seen through the Steps. We try to take the knowledge that the individual already has, and build an introduction to God through the person of Jesus Christ.

We rely heavily on the Christian experience of the staff member who has successfully, through Christ, combated addiction and homelessness and is now reconnected to society, his family and God. I also believe that if one bases this new relationship between staff and client in friendship and in the spirit of Christ, much can be accomplished. The key is a relational approach and not on the acceptance of the individual based on a shared belief system. Once we are on the right path in fulfilling Christ's command to love our neighbor, the soil is fertile for evangelism. This holistic approach incorporates a value of the person being expressed in a supported community context.

AA has a sixty-one year track record of bringing hopeless men and women into awareness of sin and reliance on God as a way to live the abundant life. At BMTC we take what is useful from AA's methods, but aim much higher--to bring our clients directly to Christ. Although we are not an AA house, we do think some of its methods are useful in calling homeless addicts to Christ. Our approach is scripturally linked to the Apostle Paul's method of evangelism, "becoming all things to all men in order to win a few" 1 Corinthians 9:22.

Preparing Hearts for the Gospel

The pathway of evangelism must be paved with an incarnate expression of the second great commandment--love your neighbor as yourself. In our context of working with men who have destructive addictions we try to discern what love "looks like" to a man in this condition. St. Francis of Assisi once said, "Preach the gospel at all times. . . but seldom use words." A key passage like the good Samaritan provides important instruction to our staff members on earning the right to be heard.

Our commitment as a staff to the mandate of Matt. 25:31-40 (Parable of the sheep and goats) represents the tangible expression of love that opens hearts to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, ". . . for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you visited me. . ." We also believe in extending this passage to: "when I was uneducated you educated me, when I was confused you counseled me, when I was unemployed you trained me and helped me get a job, when I was homeless you found me a home, etc."

To us this indicates that Christ Himself understands the priority for first addressing the basic needs of the individual. The importance of first meeting a man's physical needs then turning his attention to his spiritual condition cannot be understated. Once this task is complete, we can then introduce our Christian message. We often hear from our men, "why do you love me" and our response is because He first loved us. They understand as we do that love comes from sacrifice, that Christ's love for us is sacrificial. The embodiment of this agape love is seen supremely in the Cross. Our men begin to understand His sacrifice through our giving of our lives to them. We affirm the dignity and worth of each individual regardless of their societal failure, and in so doing they begin to accept their moral responsibility to others and to God.

Moving on towards Spiritual Maturity

Because we believe that all that we do as men is spiritual, we invite the men to see us live out the Gospel in our everyday lives as staff members of FaithWorks. It is in this broad context that we understand our role of discipling men, to shape clients [sic] personal lives and sense of moral responsibility, beginning with small baby steps. We believe that God calls us to be responsible in a loving Christian sense within all the areas of our lives. For example, we do not believe that an individual can be an exceptional employee and not be a good father to his children; or that he cannot be an active vital member of his church and not be present in the lives of his wife and children back home. We must come to an agreement that a life that pleases the Lord is one that does not separate the natural world from the spiritual world.

Just like an expert chess player knows the proper order in which to strategize his moves, we evangelize first, building a dialogue of trust, then initiate discipleship when appropriate. After a man evidences authentic Christian conversion, our discipleship efforts include a more traditional approach. We believe in the necessity of church membership, attendance of Bible studies, gaining a spiritual mentor, as well as some more non-traditional aspects.

Building a Bridge to the Community

The Christian community has played an integral role in bringing friendship and the love of Christ to the men at FaithWorks. From our inception, we knew that if we could build a bridge from churches to FaithWorks, a dynamic occurrence of ministry would be present. The idea is to start several meetings where the Christian community could be invited into the men's lives (recovery groups, Bible study, computer training, etc.). The meetings themselves are not to be the focal point, but simply a place where the outside community can build friendships and trust with our men, which is the fertile soil for Christ's work. From this platform the volunteer can now invite the client into his life of faith (church, outside Bible studies, place of employment, trips to ball games or museums, breaking bread together in their home or a simple cup of coffee). A friendship takes root where both the client and the churchman could receive the blessing of Christ and of friendship. We have seen tremendous success with some of these non-traditional approaches to discipleship.

In the past seven years I have seen the obvious ways the outside community can be of benefit to us. But the more interesting dynamic is to see faith expressing itself in love through social action that grows to become the embodiment of the Gospel. The Gospel does not manifest its power until the men of faith leave their individual experience with God and are called to love throughout the world to the least of these. See Isaiah 6:1-8.

Reconnecting to Society

The events that take place in the life of our clients during their stay at FaithWorks are not the primary focus of our recovery plan. It is relatively common, within an environment of acceptance and love, for our men to be "successful" inside the parameters of the program. The true challenge is equipping a man to re-enter society with the best possible chance for permanent success and recovery.

Our goal is to see every graduate become a member of a church, attend Bible studies, gain a spiritual advisor, and whenever possible, obtain Christian counseling services. For the men who have not yet experienced Christ's redemption, we insist that they get involved in outside AA meetings, find a "home group" and obtain a sponsor. Our hope in these cases is that their recovery will remain intact and at the very least they will still be exposed to an invitation to God, understanding that they probably will not step foot in a church.

Even for the recovering addict who is now Christian, he continues to have a need for an environment of acceptance, in the midst of his particular sin patterns and temptations. It is our experience that most church groups or even Pastors do not have the ability to hear the confession of recovering addicts without judgment or condemnation. They certainly can celebrate their conversion, but seldom have the wisdom or insight to handle their struggles. We believe that the ministry of confession is foundational to the success of any recovery program. Therefore in these cases we refer our graduates to an AA community as well as a church community.

Understanding our New Life

A common tension with recovering addicts that often emerges relates to the ongoing battle with addiction in contrast to their new identity as Christians. This tension arises once a man is considered "saved," then he identifies himself with Christ, and not as a hopeless addict. I do not want to diminish the positive attitudes of the new man. There is, in my opinion, a strong case to be said for all the scripture references that exhort us to dwell on the positive aspects of the faith: Colossians 3:1-17, "For your life is now hid with Christ in God" - Galatians 2:20, "Christ that lives in me!" - Ephesians 4:17-34, "To put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness."

There must be a healthy tension that is respected between addiction and the new life that God calls us to, especially for the newcomers. The addict deals with strong temptations to cope with the problems of life through his addiction. Again, we believe in the ministry of confession and creating an environment where one will not feel judged or condemned. We want to build an open dialogue in order to communicate God's love and concern while hearing their confession. We cannot create and [sic] environment where a man feels that if he shares honestly the problem of wanting to drink or drug again that he will be labeled as a second class Christian. The danger of doing this cannot be overstated.

As a result of this tension there are many questions with regard to Christian liberty that we simply must continue to wrestle with. Of course none of us would suggest that because we are now "new creatures in Christ," that we can now drink alcohol responsibly or continue to be associated with people and places where we were active in our addiction. One problem that often occurs when this new Christian comes to believe that struggle is over, that the recovery process is canceled when he comes to Christ. At this point there is no respect for any practical tools in order to defend himself from the power of addiction. Time goes on and temptation comes and of course he does not have any systems in place where he can run for help. He then relapses, back on the street disconnected from God and the Church because he does not understand he [sic] vulnerability to addiction and his new life as a Christian.

I believe the combative tools that God calls us to use is building a community where friendship is primary and its fruit are: honesty, confession, vulnerability, loyalty, acceptance and forgiveness. Saint Augustine said, "The knowledge of yourself produces humility, and the knowledge of God produces love."

The addict learns that he had a deep "soul sickness," and it is only by connecting to God through profession, confession, prayer and involvement in a worshipping community that he has any hope of sustaining a life in recovery. AA teaches this but stops short of recommending Christ to all. However, at FaithWorks we do.


Page maintained by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and hosted by the Internet Infidels.

Published in Back Issues

Following three years of negotiations by the Freedom From Religion Foundation with the City of Milwaukee, it was agreed on July 19 to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the lawn of City Hall.

According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the bible monument was the first to be donated to a government by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. The granite, tombstone-like monument was given to the city in 1955 and was placed near the entrance to the City Hall annex two years later.

Actor Yul Brenner, who played the Pharaoh in Cecil B. De Mille's movie, "The Ten Commandments," came to Milwaukee in 1957 for the dedication.

The campaign to place Ten Commandments monuments beside city halls, courthouses and in public parks was concocted by Judge E.J. Ruegemer of St. Cloud, Minnesota, who wanted to promote the bible edicts and Minnesota granite, and by filmmaker De Mille, who wanted to promote his bible epic.

Ruegemer told the Milwaukee Journal at that time:

"This will be the first time in the history of our country that a Ten Commandments monolith will be placed in a public building."

The Foundation renewed its push to remove the Ten Commandments from the Zeidler Municipal Building when a lawsuit over a similar marker in Indiana was before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which governs Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois. The appeals court ruled last December that the monument's presence at city hall was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. Pending Elkhart, Indiana's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Milwaukee officials agreed to remove the marker if the appeals decision stood. The Foundation agreed not to bring a lawsuit in the interim.

In June, the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal, letting the 7th Circuit decision stand as prevailing law.

"We would have a slam dunk in court based on the 7th Circuit decision and Milwaukee's representation," said the Foundation's attorney James Friedman.

The Foundation has also renewed previous requests to remove Ten Commandments from city parks in the Wisconsin towns of La Crosse and Monroe.

In the 1980s, the Foundation sued La Crosse over its Ten Commandments marker in Cameron Park, owned by the city, but lost the case on a technicality, not its merits. Lifelong resident and schoolteacher Phyllis Grams, a Foundation member, was the principal plaintiff. The Foundation's college essay competition is named in honor of the late litigant, who remained feisty in the face of harassing phone calls during publicity about the lawsuit in the conservative city.

Foundation members are requested to inform the Foundation office of any Ten Commandments monuments on public property in the states of Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, so that the Foundation may take action to have them removed.

"How nice to end this original violation--to remove the first set of bible edicts illegally placed on public property. We expect other such victories to follow," commented Anne Gaylor, Foundation president.

Send information (photographs are helpful) on Ten Commandments violations to: Anne Gaylor, FFRF, PO Box 750, Madison WI 53701.


Page maintained by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and hosted by the Internet Infidels.

Published in Back Issues
%965 %America/Chicago, %2013

FFRF vs. Ashcroft

The Freedom From Religion Foundation's challenge of government-funded religious social services--a federal lawsuit challenging public sponsorship of Milwaukee's "Faith Works" program serving male addicts--will be the first such case adjudicated in the nation.

Both sides have asked for summary judgment (no trial). Justice Barbara Crabb of the Western District of Wisconsin has not yet decided on that motion and a trial date of September 24 is still scheduled.

The Foundation's attorney, Rich Bolton, filed a brief and reply briefs in May making the Foundation's strong case that more than $750,000 in public funds have been appropriated unconstitutionally to fund a ministry.

New developments include the filing in July of a "friend of the court" brief in support of public funding of Faith Works by the office of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Another wrinkle is the resignation of Faith Works director Bobby Polito, apparently to take a position as a "faith-based adviser" to former Wis. Gov. Tommy Thompson, who now directs the Department of Health and Human Services. As governor, Thompson intervened to grant discretionary welfare reform money to Polito's Faith Works. Both Thompson and Polito are Catholic.

Faith Works, whose bylaws describe it as "inherently Christian" and which describes itself as "faith-based," makes church attendance a hiring consideration.

Guidelines to employees read, in part:

"We are a Christian faith-based treatment center. . . . We are as individuals to be growing in our own faith life by regular church attendance, prayer, Bible study and seeking Spiritual direction from a Pastor/Shepard [sic] in our faith community."

Its Statement of Faith, Theology & Spirituality (turn to pages 4-5 to read the entire document) calls religion an integral part of Faith Works and describes its purpose as developing a "community of believers."

Faith Works' document notes it "combines the AA [Alcoholics Anonymous 12-steps] model with Scriptures," that "12-steps is a way to dialog with Christ," and that it approaches its work "in light of evangelism," to "introduce God through the person of Jesus Christ."

Its "aim is to bring homeless addicts directly to Christ and open hearts to the gospel of Jesus Christ."

"Our goal," Faith Works states, "is to see every graduate become a member of a church, attend bible studies, gain a spiritual counselor" and obtain Christian counseling.

Faith Works brags: "AA stops short of recommending Christ to all. However, at Faith Works we do."

At a staff meeting on January 12, 2000, Polito asked that everyone read over the Statement of Theology and follow it: "This program is an evangelistic outreach to sinners, not a discipleship program."

The participants' day begin with chapel at 7, followed by noon prayers and nightly bible study at 8, plus daily AA meetings which are "faith enhanced." Faith Works, a longterm residential program, is held in a rented convent bearing a permanent cross on the front entrance, and is filled with religious posters, wall hangings and bibles as well as church recruitment literature.

Faith Works, which promises jobs to its graduates, has a goal to hire many of its own graduates, who are then paid with public funds.

Polito officially has described his program as an "Ongoing Ministry of Jesus."

He has publicly stated: "We feel that helping people recover from addiction means that we must enable them to see their need for Christ and respond to Him in faith."

The Foundation's brief notes: "Faith Works was apparently singled out for special praise and attention precisely because Faith Works is a faith-based organization. In these circumstances, a reasonable observer would form the impression that government support for Faith Works constitutes official endorsement."

In the fall of 1998, Wis. Sen. Bob Welch, as an undisclosed Faith Works officer, summoned top officials from the state Department of Corrections (DOC) to his office to lobby for funding of Faith Works, describing it as faith-based, making use of prayer and the bible. The DOC agreement required a waiver for the nonbidding contract and the Governor's approval. Welch recruited Rev. Susan Vergeront, a former legislator with political connections, to obtain major funding from the Governor's office, using discretionary funds through welfare reform. The governor granted $600,000 to Faith Works.

Polito also pursues public funding by pressuring Wisconsin-to-Work (W2) agencies to subcontract with Faith Works. Response has been lukewarm in part due to the expense of paying for the 9-month residential treatment.

Gov. Thompson handed Polito a podium at the GOP Platform Committee in June 2000 to lobby for government funding for his program, and arranged a campaign stop at Faith Works in July 2000 by George W. Bush.

Neither the state nor the DOC has imposed any restrictions on Faith Works' religious content, even after the Foundation filed its lawsuit last October. A state official instrumental in reviewing Faith Works' grant proposal admitted that funding of religious activities is impermissible, even under the Charitable Choice provision of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act.

The Foundation asserts that Faith Works uses the evangelistic opportunity provided by the lengthy residential program to promote religion to vulnerable clients, whom Faith Works' co-founder Rev. Vergeront coldly described as "addicted men who economically and socially are all but dead."

Faith Works, which intervened in the lawsuit to become a co-plaintiff, contends the Corrections contract involves voluntary assignment by men on parole or probation. However, records of the January 12, 2000 meeting reveal that Polito openly warned staff not to divulge the fact that the program is supposedly voluntary.

In proposals to government agencies, Faith Works defined success as based in part on the "blending of government money with a faith-based institution, measured by ongoing funding streams and fundraising ability."

While boasting of great success, Faith Works' statistics appear to be unreliable and are not regularly updated. The majority of men appear to drop out of the program.

"Here, the State of Wisconsin is illegally coercing the plaintiffs to support a substantially religious program, just as if the state was supporting a church, or buying bibles, or paying for construction of places of worship.

"The State essentially becomes a patron of a religious establishment," the Foundation brief stated.

"The voluntariness of participation in religious activity does not make it constitutional to publicly subsidize the activity over the objection of unwilling taxpayers."

Invoked as precedent in the lawsuit is the Foundation's April victory before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling direct funding to parochial schools unconstitutional.

"We're arguing this is direct funding of religion in its purest sense," says Bolton.

Also precedent is the 1966 Kerr decision by the 7th Circuit finding that Alcoholics Anonymous' 12-step program constitutes a religion.

Representing Faith Works is Daniel Kelly, a Milwaukee attorney who graduated from Pat Robertson's law school and who lost a case to the Freedom From Religion Foundation last year.

Kelly argues, as does the U.S. Attorney General's office, that it is "discriminatory" if the state funds secular social services but refuses to fund overtly religious agencies.

"The issue in this case is whether the State is required to pay for religious advocacy whenever it buys secular social services. If the answer to that question is 'yes,' then the Speech and Free Exercise Clauses of the Constitution have eaten and swallowed the Establishment Clause," Bolton wrote in a reply brief.


Page maintained by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and hosted by the Internet Infidels.

Published in Back Issues

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

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator

Contribute to Nonbelief Relief

FFRF privacy statement