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1santaclaraLocal media tweet showing before and after photographs

A 14-foot granite cross in a public park in Santa Clara, Calif., was recently removed, following a federal court challenge by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

FFRF and a local member sued the city in April 2016, after FFRF had attempted for four years to persuade the city to remove the cross without litigation.

The cross was donated by the Santa Clara Lion's Club in 1953 for the decidedly nonsecular purpose of marking the site of the second Spanish Catholic mission, which had been established in 1777.

As part of the ongoing settlement, the city has donated the cross to the Catholic Santa Clara University. FFRF did not receive prior notification about the removal, learning via South Bay NBC (see tweet above) that it was no longer in the park as of late Friday, Jan. 13.

"We're happy that the city divested itself of this religious symbol, and that the Constitution is now being complied with," says FFRF Managing Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert.

Markert and other FFRF staff had written or phoned the city on more than a dozen occasions since first contacting the city over the Establishment Clause violation in April 2012. The city had indicated in 2012 that it looked forward "to resolving this matter in an expeditious and responsible manner."

"It's a very rational way to begin the New Year — sending a strong message of support of the wall of separation between religion and government," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Reason and the Constitution have prevailed."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and its member had asked the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California — San Jose Division, to declare the city cross in violation of Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the No Preference Clause of Article I, § 4 of the California Constitution.

FFRF v. City of Santa Clara is being litigated on behalf of FFRF by David J.P. Kaloyanides, with FFRF attorneys Rebecca Markert and Madeline Ziegler serving as co-counsel. The case, No. 5:16-cv-02072, remains before Judge Lucy H. Koh, a President Obama appointee, until the final settlement papers are signed.

For Immediate Release

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association's Appignani Humanist Legal Center are criticizing the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for unconstitutionally requiring an inmate to participate in a religious program as a condition of parole.

The inmate, who identifies as an atheist, is required to take part in the Therapeutic Community program as part of his correctional plan. When he objected to the religious elements of the program and requested to enroll in an alternative, secular program, he was informed that his only alternative was to remain imprisoned for his maximum sentence. In response to this violation of the inmate's constitutional rights, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association's Appignani Humanist Legal Center are demanding that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections turn over copies of materials from the Therapeutic Community program, including those that mention faith, a higher power or other religious concepts to ensure that participation in a religious program is not a condition of parole.

"Prisons are an inherently coercive environment where inmates are under intense pressure to comply with officers' orders and state-sponsored programs," notes FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover. "Inmates necessarily give up many rights when placed behind bars, but they retain their right of conscience and their free exercise right to reject religion. Our letter asks the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to respect that right."

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor is concerned about the message that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections' action is sending.

"It's more than distressing to see a nonreligious inmate forced either to partake in religious therapy offensive to his conscience, or be punished with continuing imprisonment," she says. "Professed piety cannot used as a 'get out of jail' card, nor may nonreligious inmates be denied secular therapy."

The American Humanist Association has expressed its disquiet.

"The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections cannot promote religion or require inmates to participate in religious programs to receive benefits. Doing so violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which guarantees that all citizens have the right to be free from religious coercion by the state," said Monica Miller, senior counsel at the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

"While the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections certainly should provide drug treatment programs, forcing someone to attend a religious treatment program to receive parole blatantly discriminates against atheists and nonreligious inmates," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. "There are plenty of secular treatment programs, such as SMART Recovery, which are inclusive to both religious and nonreligious individuals because they do not mention religious issues."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association and give the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections 10 days to turn over the requested materials in a letter, which can be viewed here.

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Freedom From Religion Foundation Contact:
Annie Laurie Gaylor, 608-256-8900, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Sam Grover, 608-256-8900, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

American Humanist Association Contact:
Merrill Miller, 202-238-9088 ext. 105, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate. The organization has more than 26,000 nonreligious members and chapters all over the country, including 800-plus and two chapters in Pennsylvania.

Founded in 1941 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., the American Humanist Association (AHA) works to protect the rights of humanists, atheists, and other nontheistic Americans. The AHA advances the ethical and life-affirming philosophy of humanism, which—without beliefs in any gods or other supernatural forces—encourages individuals to live informed and meaningful lives that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

Special thanks to the Louis J. Appignani Foundation for its support of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

1AllStaffAttorneysThe 115th Congress began earlier this month, and a new president will be inaugurated in a week's time. We know both branches of government pose a serious threat to our cherished constitutional principle of separation between state and church. We need your help ...

FFRF is already working hard to ensure cabinet officials are properly vetted during their nomination hearings. We are also bracing for legislative battles to overturn secular policies we once thought secure. And then there's the issue of the current vacancy on the Supreme Court — and potential future vacancies.

We're going to have to work hard to ensure this new administration doesn't undo in our lifetime every good thing to happen to freedom of conscience, scientific progress, and personal and civil liberties. And it's going to require ALL of our best efforts.

Become a citizen lobbyist — it's easy!
You can be active through lobbying your own representatives. It's easy to do — and very effective. I know because I worked on Capitol Hill right out of college.

Constituent feedback is important to representatives –— lest you think it doesn't matter or they don't pay attention. They do. I worked in a Senate office during the George W. Bush administration when the country was debating the Iraq War. My boss received thousands of letters on this issue. (This doesn't include faxes, emails, and phone calls.) They're barraged with mail from ordinary people like you.

He paid attention to what his constituents were saying and why. He took that into consideration when casting his vote, and so do current members of Congress. And while my boss was very cognizant of what the people of his state wanted I know this story was not unique on the Hill. Many staffers for other representatives were tasked with similar duties.

What you say and how you say it matters. Here are a few tips on making legislative contacts effectively.

1. Write a letter or email
Postcards and petitions are fine, but they don't get the same type of attention that a personally written letter or email does. It's easy to tally a mass-generated postcard or get a number from a petition and continue with the day, but having to read a personalized message and figure out what a constituent is writing about and why makes a lasting impact. If I had to read a letter to figure out if a constituent is in the yes or no column, I remembered their story and was more likely to put it in the representative sampling of letters my boss would receive.

Twitter and Facebook didn't exist back then, but my comrades who are still on the Hill say that tweeting your legislator or writing on Facebook is ineffective. They don't read them or do anything with them unless the messages are harassing (or perhaps going viral).

2. Call the office — email is the next best thing
It's always better to make a connection the old-fashioned way by calling someone on the phone. Make them talk to you about the issue. And, by the way, they have to be nice to you and take down all your information! (But please extend the same courtesy and be nice to them – they don't need to respond to people being vulgar.)

You can also make a huge statement with call-in campaigns. The days when our front office staff was flooded with calls affected every staff member. You can be sure when a senior policy advisor is pulling a shift on the front phones, the senator or member of Congress is going to hear about it!

A personalized, unique email message is far more effective than a mass template, so when possible, add your own language. FFRF is introducing software that will make the Action Alerts we'll be sending you easier for you to use, whether you choose to phone or email.

3. Make a connection with your representatives' staff members
If you can make a connection with the staff members in your representatives' home offices, that will be helpful. If they know who you are, your thoughts will likely come up during staff meetings. You may also be called on for your opinion if you're able to demonstrate expertise in a particular issue area.

4. Show up at a town hall or city council or county board meeting
This can't be emphasized enough. They cannot ignore you and your questions if you're standing right in front of them. Go to a town hall and ask them to explain their positions. Go to the city council and county board meetings and let them know you exist, you're one of their constituents, and they're accountable to you. Recently, FFRF was able to help the city of Madison pass an ordinance that includes atheism as a protected class. This was in large part because our attorneys Patrick Elliott and Andrew Seidel and some local members showed up at committee and council meetings and met with the alders about this. They were able to answer their questions and quell their fears.

With this new administration, it's not going to be easy. But it's nothing new — nothing our movement hasn't seen before.

We've harnessed energy to get out there after devastating blows to the wall of separation, like the recent Town of Greece v. Galloway decision, which upheld the practice of prayer, even sectarian prayers, before legislative meetings. Our members have been outspoken. They've been coming out of the closet and delivering secular invocations at city council and county board meetings across the country. We're turning negatives into positives.

And we've seen positive changes — changes that seem inconceivable even a decade ago. When I started at FFRF eight years ago, we had 12,000 members. Now, we've more than doubled that. When I started at FFRF, I'd take calls on state/church complaints and members would tell me they were the only atheists in their town. But now, we receive calls from multiple people about the same issues in the same town. We're still witnessing phenomenal growth in the United States of the nonreligious. A quarter of adults and a third of Millennials identify as having no religion. This movement cannot be denied.

FFRF is going to be fighting like hell to make sure the Christian Right doesn't trump reason and our First Amendment. We'll be working overtime to safeguard our constitutional right to be free from the imposition of religions and religious doctrine from our government. But we can't do it alone. We need your help, and hope this short primer will give you confidence about how easy it is for you to affect legislative change.

We're fired up and ready to take this on. You should be, too.

By FFRF Managing Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert

 

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A New Jersey state court has decided that tax dollars can be utilized to repair or maintain churches, despite a state constitutional provision barring such use.

Superior Court Judge Margaret Goodzeit ruled on Jan. 9 against the Freedom From Religion Foundation's challenge of Morris County's church-funding practices.

FFRF and member David Steketee filed suit in late 2015 against Morris County, challenging public grants of tax dollars to repair or maintain churches. FFRF, with Steketee, a taxpayer in Morris County, contested more than $5.5 million in grants to churches since 2012 by the board's Historic Preservation Trust Fund. FFRF specifically challenged $1.04 million in allotments to Presbyterian Church in Morristown to allow "continued use by our congregation for worship services," and allotments to St. Peter's Episcopal Church to ensure "continued safe public access to the church for worship."

FFRF contended the grants clearly violate Article I, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution that guarantees: "nor shall any person be obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary to what he believes to be right."

In its opinion, the court recognized "FFRF's mission and its endeavor to promote a healthy separation of church and state. Without organizations like the FFRF, one check that keeps the balance even disappears." Despite this nod to FFRF's important work, the court dropped the ball by holding that Morris County taxpayers can be forced to support churches, says FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne.

Goodzeit created an exception to Article I, Paragraph 3, brushing aside binding precedent because the controlling case involved educational grants rather than historic preservation grants. The court provided what FFRF deemed "scattershot justifications," such as claiming the state has a "long history [since 1990] of making historic preservation grants to active houses of worship." But an illegal practice does not become legal just because it has gone unchallenged for a few decades.

The decision even cited a N.J. Supreme Court ruling that allowed the government to rent space to churches. However, as Goodzeit herself pointed out, that case involved no cost to New Jersey taxpayers. Here, taxpayers are funding repairs so that the churches can, in the churches' own words, continue to "worship" and conduct "worship services."

Goodzeit also argued that "the extension of a general service to religious groups [does] not constitute sponsorship." But sponsorship is not required for the government to violate New Jersey's no-aid clause.

"It's especially disappointing that this ruling came down the same week we will be celebrating the anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "That pioneering legislation provided the template for New Jersey's wise constitutional bar against forcing citizens to support or repair places of worship."

FFRF is confident that the New Jersey Court of Appeals will uphold New Jersey taxpayers' right to not be forced to fund religion, churches and worship.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to the constitutional separation of state and church, with more than 26,000 members across the country, including 500-plus in New Jersey.

The lawsuit is being handled by attorney Paul S. Grosswald. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew L. Seidel and Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne are co-counsel. FFRF v. Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders, Case No. C-12089-15 is in the Chancery division of Somerset County in New Jersey state court.

Photo via Shutterstock by Bobkeenan Photography

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Senate finally acknowledges freethinkers

The U.S. Senate is finally addressing the concerns of freethinkers.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation's largest nontheistic organization, sought to put these matters front and center in a list of questions it recently sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee to ask Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the attorney general nominee. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a member of the committee, seemed to be channeling the letter during the confirmation hearings. 

On the first day, Whitehouse asked Sessions his views about Justice Department attorneys "with secular beliefs," since Sessions had in the past criticized such lawyers.

Whitehouse asked: "And a secular person has just as good a claim to understanding the truth as a person who is religious, correct?"
Sessions replied: "Well, I'm not sure."

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Watch the video here.

The back and forth, as Slate reports, stunned the Senate into silence.

On the second day of the hearing, Whitehouse again stood up for secular attorneys — and, by extension, all secular Americans — saying that they shouldn't be punished for being nonreligious.

In its letter, FFRF specifically highlighted Sessions' problematic views on this subject.

During a panel discussion at the Republican National Convention last July, in reference to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's comment that "there is no objective stance, but only a series of perspectives," Sessions reportedly stated, "If you have secularization in the world and don't believe in a higher being, maybe you don't believe there is any truth."

FFRF asked: Is it Sessions' contention that not believing in a god makes someone categorically an undesirable citizen?

During the hearing, Whitehouse closely echoed FFRF's line of questioning.

FFRF again expresses its concerns at Sessions' troubling perspective on the issue and applauds Whitehouse for his defense of the nonreligious.

"Sessions doesn't seem to have let go of his biases, making him unfit for the attorney general position," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Sen. Whitehouse deserves cheers for highlighting and combating this narrow-mindedness."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), representing more than 26,000 members across the country, has as its purposes the protection of the constitutional principle of separation between religion and government, and the education of the public about nonbelief.

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

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