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Lead Us Not Into Penn Station:Provocative Pieces

National Convention

September 15-17, 2017



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Note: Below the following call to action is a copy of the letter FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor sent to Washington State Lt. Governor Owen over inappropriate prayer at the Jan. 14 State Senate session. Click here to view the letter as PDF. We encourage you to read the letter and then speak out against the prayer. 

Take Action!

Please contact the following members of the Washington State government and urge them to take steps to "prevent future constitutional violations by dropping legislative prayer."


The Honorable Brad Owen
Lieutenant Governor and President of the Washington State Senate
Office of the Lt. Governor
PO Box 40400
Olympia, WA 98504-0400
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Senator Mark Schoesler
Republican Leader
PO Box 40409
Olympia, WA 98504-0409
Click here to send an email 

Senator Ed Murray
Democratic Leader
PO Box 40443
Olympia, WA 98504-0443
Click here to send an email 

Hunter Goodman
Secretary of the Senate
P.O. Box 40482
Olympia WA 98504-0482
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The Honorable Brad Owen
Lieutenant Governor and President of the Washington State Senate
Office of the Lt. Governor
PO Box 40400
Olympia, WA 98504-0400

Re: Unconstitutional Legislative Prayer

Dear Lt. Governor Owen:

On behalf of Washington members of our national organization, which works to protect the constitutional principle of the separation between state and church, I am writing to strenuously object to the overtly political and offensive prayer delivered by Pastor Jon Sanne at the Washington Senate’s first session on January 14, 2013. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is an educational association with 19,000 nonreligious members nationwide, including more than 800 members in Washington. We also represent the 25% of the Washington population, 1.3 million Washingtonians, who are explicitly nonreligious. (Thirty percent of Washingtonians are not Christians).

It is our understanding that Sanne, Pastor of the Calvary Chapel in Olympia, gave an invocation addressed to his “Heavenly Father,” asking the “Lord, [to] bring us back into line with the timeless truths and wisdom of Your Word [the Bible].” Sanne asked his god to “lead us to a blessing, being one nation, under You.” Sanne also took the opportunity to lobby the Senate to overturn the gay marriage bill and referendum, by inviting his deity to “strengthen marriage as You’ve ordained it for our good and Your Glory.” Sanne concluded: “We openly and humbly ask these things in the name of Your Son the Living Savior, Jesus Christ.”

This incident is a perfect example of all that is wrong with mixing government and religion, including legislative prayer. Legislative prayer is unconstitutional, exclusionary, divisive and serves no legitimate secular purpose.

The Prayer is Unconstitutional

As the Supreme Court explained: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” W. Va. State Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943). The Court has rigidly enforced the rule that “The government may not . . . lend its power to one or the other side in controversies over religious authority or dogma.” Employment Div. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 877 (1990).

In sponsoring sectarian legislative prayers, in this case to Jesus, the Washington government, which invited Sanne, is weighing in on three controversies. First, the government is inappropriately taking a side in what is arguably the most enduring religious controversy: god’s existence or non-existence. Second, the legislature is endorsing Christianity by scheduling and approving an overtly Christian prayer. Legislative prayer may not be sectarian. On January 13, 2012, the Supreme Court declined to review a Fourth Circuit decision that overturned a legislative prayer policy because the prayers “continued to reference specific tenets of Christianity.” Joyner v. Forsyth County, 653 F.3d 341, 344 (4th Cir. 2011). That decision held that continual, Christian prayers at a legislative sessions leads “to exactly the kind of ‘divisiveness the Establishment Clause seeks rightly to avoid.’ ” Id. 355. Thirdly, the Washington Senate has appeared to lend its power and imprimatur to a homophobic diatribe. This body owes an apology to Washington citizens, particularly the LGBTQ community, for this outrageous and inappropriate incident.

According to news reports, Senator Mark Schoesler invited Sanne to give the prayer. Schoesler was quoted saying: “He prayed. I asked him to speak, and I don’t censor prayer.” That is precisely why legislative prayers should not be offered. There is no means of assuring that officiants will abide by the narrow exceptions carved out by the Supreme Court.

The prayer here flagrantly exceeded the constraints of the 1983 Supreme Court decision, Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983), which carved out the narrow exception. The Marsh exception allowed for nonsectarian, nondenominational prayer under certain circumstances. The prayer may not be “exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.” The Supreme Court has reiterated, “not even the ‘unique history’ of legislative prayer, can justify contemporary legislative prayers that have the effect of affiliating the government with any one specific faith or belief.” County of Allegheny v. ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 U.S. 573, 603 (1989). The Court explained, “The legislative prayers involved in Marsh did not violate this principle because the particular chaplain had ‘removed all references to Christ.’ ” Id.

The Marsh decision is often misunderstood or misrepresented. Therefore, it is important to see how courts interpret the decision. Time and again, federal courts overturn government-sponsored prayers that are sectarian, denominational, or invoke a particular faith or deity.

When the legislature invites officiants to pray and schedules official prayer, it has a responsibility to ensure that they are nonsectarian. We understand the reluctance to ensure religious speech meets constitutional requirements, but the solution is not to ignore those constitutional requirements, it is to stop conducting government prayer.

Sanne used his status as a “man of God” to lobby the legislature on an issue that has been decided in Washington courts and by the voters. He attempted to use religion to leverage legislation. It is no distortion to say that the purpose of his prayer was to exhort the gathered officials to prohibit gay marriage in the name of Sanne’s god.

The Prayer is Exclusionary

Government officials represent more that just Christians; they represent all their constituents including atheists, agnostics, Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, Hindus and other minority religious views. The Senate’s active participation in a Christian prayer in your official capacity unabashedly promotes that religion over other religions and over nonreligion. Officials may, as private citizens, attend any religious functions they like, the church of your choice, pray, etc. But the federal and state Constitutions — and good etiquette — dictate that government officials avoid prayer in their official capacity and refrain from allowing religious rituals at official ceremonies.

By scheduling prayer, the Washington government sends the message “to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.” County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, 492 U.S. 573, 595 (1989) (quoting Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 688 (1984)).

The Prayer is Divisive

The framers of our Constitution recognized that religion is not unifying, but divisive. James Madison thought, “to employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy” was “an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.” He also thought “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

The Supreme Court has also recognized the divisiveness of religion. In McCreary County, the Supreme Court wrote, “…the divisiveness of religion in current public life is inescapable.” 545 U.S. 844, 881 (2005). In Van Orden v. Perry, Justice Breyer wrote in his dissent that the purpose of the First Amendment is to “avoid that divisiveness based upon religion that promotes social conflict, sapping the strength of government and religion alike.” 545 U.S. 677, 698 (2005). An early Wisconsin Supreme Court justice put it most eloquently:

“There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state, as religion. Let it once enter our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed.” Weiss v. District Board, 44 N.W. 967, 981 (1890)(Orton, J. concurring).

James Madison, the primary architect of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, and our fourth president, opposed government prayers and congressional chaplaincies. In his Detached Memoranda, Madison wrote, “Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom? In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion . . . The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles.” Madison was equally critical of presidential and governmental prayer.

“Religious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings & fasts are shoots from the same root… Although recommendations only, they imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers.” Id.

The U.S. Constitution is a godless and secular document, whose only references to religion in government are exclusionary, such as prohibiting a religious test for public office. It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that the government cannot promote one religion over another, or religion over nonreligion. The framers did not pray when adopting our Constitution. Surely if the founders did not need prayer to write the document that founded our nation, the Washington Senate can successfully conduct its secular business without prayer as well.

We ask that you take immediate action to prevent future constitutional violations by dropping legislative prayer. We would appreciate hearing from you at your earliest convenience.

Very truly,

Annie Laurie Gaylor

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Shawna Scott

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Balen & Mayan Essak

Essak Family

FFRF has awarded Mayan and Balen Essak each $1,000 student activist awards. Freethought activism runs in the family (see sidebar).

For several years, our Wisconsin public high school’s football team has partnered with a private, Catholic high school to create a competitive team. For years, the team’s logo was a simple MS, combining our schools’ first initials.

Last year, our graphic arts program assigned students a project to create a new logo, combining our high school’s logo, a greyhound, with the private school’s logo, a Catholic bishop’s hat with a cross on it. The winning design would replace the old logo. After passing through the football coach, principal and many other school authorities, a design that cleverly combined the logos was chosen and printed on decals for helmets.

For most of the season, the cross-bearing helmets went unbeknownst to us until the school newspaper printed an article about them with a few weeks left in the season. Publication of the situation prompted an immediate response.

The day the paper came out, one of us, along with some other upset peers, brought it to the assistant principal’s attention that we were unhappy with a religious symbol representing our football team and public school. We felt that it was unfair to force people to wear a cross on their heads if they wanted to play football. It was a clear issue of separating church and state.

We brought it to the attention of our parents as well, who, that night, emailed the school board and principal explaining that without swift action, we would be contacting the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

At the school board meeting that one of us attended, the board acknowledged our request. They all had been unaware of the new logo and voted unanimously and with minimal discussion to remove the decals as quickly as possible.

Taking responsibility for the mistake, the principal apologized and had the decals removed before the next game. Unfortunately, many people were unhappy with the decision. One school board member received many emails and phone calls from disapproving citizens across the nation, but there were many local protesters, too.

We had to explain countless times to oblivious peers why having a cross on a public school’s football helmet isn’t acceptable. Many felt that since a private school was involved, they should be allowed to have their symbol represented on the team’s logo.

They couldn’t understand that when a private school partners with a public school, they need to follow the public school’s rules. Students at the private school may have signed up to be represented by a cross, but anyone attending a public school can expect complete freedom from religion in all representations of their school and all school-sponsored activities.

Another common complaint was that since we weren’t football players, and because we weren’t actually wearing the cross, we weren’t directly affected by the logo and shouldn’t care or make such a big deal about it.

On the contrary, it did directly affect us. At every single football game our team had played so far this season, people saw our football team associated with Christianity. People seeing our school as a Christianity-endorsing institution doesn’t just affect the football players. It affects anyone associated with our school district.

Just because we’re not football players doesn’t change the morality of the situation. In the theoretical but entirely possible situation that we wanted to play football, we should not be forced to wear a cross on our heads. The helmet logo was morally and legally wrong; whether or not we play football doesn’t change that.

Some other arguments were even more outlandish. This was one of the emails a school board member received: “Everyone wonders why America is in decline. The answer is simple, our country was founded with Christian values . . . and every time we disavow his image or the cross we are a little less blessed each day. . . . I don’t know what your religious affiliation is, but if you are a Christian . . . think about putting God ahead of your job and political motivations. . . If they don’t like it, tell them to go to another school . . . If you are a liberal, you won’t understand me.”

Obviously, America was not founded on Christian values but on moral principles, which contradict this point of view. Another email received in response to the decision stated, “This has nothing whatsoever to do with separation of church and state and you know it. What it shows is that today’s society is determined to shield this generation from Christianity and remove all mention of God from our lives. Our great country was founded on the belief of personal and religious freedoms and you have now done your part to squash that freedom.”

Actually, it did have to do with separation of church and state. Also, not forcing Christianity upon others seems more like freedom from religion than the freedom suggested in this email.

To us, this issue seems absolutely self-evident. By separation of church and state, it is unacceptable to place any religious symbols on a public school’s uniforms. How so many people are naïve about this idea is bewildering to us. Working to remove the cross from our school’s helmets was a rewarding experience, but also an eye-opening one.

Sadly, far more people than we had ever imagined are completely oblivious to religious symbols in public settings and are too ignorant to other points of view to understand why the cross had to be removed. Hopefully, this has been a learning experience for all.

We just hope that if a situation like this arises, and we aren’t there to fight for our freedom from religion, someone else will.

good friday plaintiffs

Jennifer and Sam Essak (at right), parents of Mayan and Balen, as state employees were among the victorious plaintiffs in FFRF’s lawsuit declaring unconstitutional Wisconsin’s Good Friday holiday in 1996. “We’re thrilled to see two generations of commitment to the First Amendment in the Essak family,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. Also pictured by the Robert La Follette bust in the Wisconsin Capitol in 1996 were Good Friday plaintiffs (left) Dan Barker, Michael Hakeem, Richard Uttke and Annie Laurie and Anne Gaylor.

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