By C. Boyd Pfeiffer
In the seemingly continuous and contentious kerfuffle between the secular and religious segments of society, the "under God" phrase of the Pledge of Allegiance is constantly tossed about. Today there are bumper stickers which state emphatically "One Nation Under God." In statements and speeches, the point is made that the phrase is from the founding fathers and the formation of this country and that the "under God" part has always been in the pledge. Wrong and wrong.
The pledge was not around in the 1770s and 1780s. As many of us know, the "under God" part was not a part of the original pledge. The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 as a part of a promotion of The Youth's Companion magazine to sell flags to schools for the 400th anniversary of Columbus' landing in the new world. The magazine owner, Daniel Ford Sharp, thought that the country — then less than 30 years since the Civil War — needed a statement that would bring about a sense of unity and loyalty to the country.
The task of writing this statement that could be said in less than 15 seconds was given to editorial staff member Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister, author and Christian socialist. He wanted to include the words "equality" and "fraternity" but demurred, knowing that the nation was not ready for either of these with women (the right to vote came in 1920) or blacks.
The original pledge was: "I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." This appeared in the Sept. 8, 1892, edition of the magazine, then with the widest circulation of any magazine in the country. Different iterations came almost immediately with "to" added in front of the "the republic" and others added up through 1924. The pledge then read as, "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands; one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
It remained that way, becoming the national pledge and called "The Pledge of Allegiance" by an Act of Congress in 1942. The "under God" part, which many secularists, humanists, agnostics, and atheists (myself included) want removed, was not added until 1954.
This was a time period after World War II of the Cold War and the fears of the "godless commies," with us seeking a way to differentiate ourselves from the Soviet Communistic states. As a part of this growing anti-commie trend, on April 21, 1951, the New York branch of the Catholic Knights of Columbus decided to use the "under God" part of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as a part of the pledge, ultimately encouraging this for all 800 branches throughout the country. They continued to push for this and on Aug. 21, 1952, urged making this "under God" part universal for all of the country and sent resolutions to this effect to the president, vice president, and speaker of the House of Representatives.
Rev. George Docherty pressed this point in a sermon at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in D.C., attended by President Eisenhower. This impressed Eisenhower and the inclusion of "under God" was passed in a congressional bill and signed by Eisenhower on Flag Day, June 14, 1954.
The problem with all of this is that it places a religious tone into a secular patriotic pledge, something not agreed upon by all in this country. This government of the USA is (or is supposed to be) secular, to allow everyone privately to practice their own religious preferences. The country's and government's official documents are secular and have nothing to do with religion of any type. The founding fathers did not try to make this a Christian nation or the Constitution a Christian document.
Most importantly, "under God" in Lincoln's day meant "God willing" far different from "under God" of today. "God willing" means if God approves, with God's permission, with God's blessing. "Under God" today means that we are under the control of God, obedient to God, that God is our protector, and God is watching over us.
For those who have different beliefs and yet are patriotic citizens of the country, that is offensive. The Pledge of Allegiance without "under God' served us well for 62 years. It is time for the "under God" part, fearfully cobbled into an otherwise perfectly good pledge, to go.
FFRF stops Louisiana school's prayer
Students at Mansfield High School in Mansfield, La., are no longer being subjected to prayer each day at mandatory morning assemblies.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the Desoto Parish School System in August 2015 objecting to the school's practice of selecting a student to lead the prayer, which was projected to all students in the room. Students were also reportedly required to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
"The Supreme Court has continually and consistently struck down prayers offered at school-sponsored events, even when led by students," Grover said. A public school "must not organize a means for students to promote a decidedly religious message to a captive student audience, thereby isolating and excluding those students who are non-Christian or nonreligious."
On Nov. 19, FFRF's complainant confirmed that a moment of silence had replaced the prayers, and no students were being forced to stand for the pledge.
FFRF halts Ohio band competition prayer
After a complaint by FFRF, Louisville High School in Ohio will no longer include invocations at its annual marching band competition. The 2015 event reportedly began with a minister leading attendees from seven different Ohio public schools in prayer.
Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to the Louisville School District on Oct. 21. "Federal courts consistently strike down school-sponsored prayer in public schools because it constitutes a government endorsement of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and interferes with the personal conscience of students," Markert wrote.
An attorney for the school district informed FFRF on Nov. 24 that the superintendent had reminded "the appropriate parties" of the law on school invocations.
Senior center stops mealtime prayers
Thanks to a series of letters from FFRF, tax-funded senior centers in Maryland have been reminded of their duties to not require prayer for the seniors in their care.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel sent letters to three Maryland senior centers about reports of unconstitutional prayers at mealtimes, typically over a PA system. FFRF's complainant reported feeling as though "kitchen staffers hold our tax-subsidized lunches hostage" until a prayer was said. Seidel also sent letters to the two counties where the three facilities are located, writing to the Baltimore County Department on Aging and the Anne Arundel County Department of Aging and Disabilities. The Maryland Department of Aging also received a letter from FFRF objecting to prayers.
"Government-run or -funded facilities should not host, organize, or facilitate prayers," wrote Seidel. "Not only does scheduling or permitting public prayer to be imposed on all diners at these meals raise concern that the government is endorsing religion, it also violates citizens' rights to be free from religious proselytizing."
FFRF's complainant confirmed that the pre-meal prayers had stopped.
No more religion in Kansas publications
After receiving a letter from FFRF, Unified School District #436 in Caney Valley, Kan., will ensure that religious material is no longer printed in its yearbooks or newspapers.
Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote a letter of complaint after a student forwarded a picture of the 2014-15 Caney Valley High School yearbook with a single large Christian cross on its cover. FFRF also complained about a section from the school's newspaper quoting two students and a faculty member selecting their favorite bible verses and recommending Matthew 28:18-20, which is a command to convert "all people in the world" to Christianity.
"School publications, including yearbooks and school newspapers, must remain neutral toward religion," wrote Seidel. The yearbook cross and newspaper section dedicated to bible verses both create "the appearance that the district prefers religion over nonreligion and Christianity over all other religions."
New superintendent Blake A. Vargas thanked FFRF for "bringing to light practices that could be considered a violation of the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause," and assured FFRF that he would review current practices and ensure that the school would be neutral on religion in the future.
Ohio district ends ties with fundraiser
New Lebanon Local Schools in Ohio will no longer fundraise for the Samaritan's Purse, a religious organization headed by Franklin Graham.
FFRF learned that Dixie Elementary School in New Lebanon has asked its students to participate in a donation drive for "Operation Christmas Child," a project of Samaritan's Purse, for at least three years. The school sent home pamphlets to children explaining, "Operation Christmas Child partners with churches worldwide to reach boys and girls with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. After receiving shoebox gifts, many children are discipled through our Bible study course, The Greatest Journey, where they learn to become faithful followers of Christ and share their faith with others." The pamphlet also instructs readers to, "most importantly," pray for the gift recipient.
"While it is laudable for a public school to encourage young students to become active and involved in their community by volunteering and donating to charitable organizations, the school cannot use that goal as an avenue to fund a religious organization with a religious mission," wrote Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a Nov. 19 letter to the school district.
On Nov. 24, Superintendent Greg Williams notified Markert that the school district's attorney "has led district administration to conclude that it is not appropriate to continue with this project."
FFRF stops concert's religious script
Missouri's Iberia Elementary School previously planned on including a recitation of the "biblical meaning" of verses in "The Twelve Days of Christmas" at its Christmas program. However, after receiving a letter from Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott, the school changed the script prior to the concert.
The religious script claimed religious meanings for each of the verses in the popular, secular holiday song, including claims that Jesus is the "true love" referenced in the first day, the two turtle doves represent the Old and New Testaments, and the six geese a-laying are "the six days of creation."
Elliott's Nov. 10 letter informed the Iberia R-V School District that "having young elementary school students recite the purported 'biblical meaning' to a gathering of elementary school students, teachers and parents gives the appearance that the school endorses the religious message." Moreover, "the content of the script is demonstrably false," and thus, "if music instruction in the District is meant to educate, the Christmas program script is doing a disservice by spreading false and unsubstantiated claims."
FFRF's local complainant reported on Nov. 24 that the program's script had been changed to a secular version.
Future veteran's events to exclude prayer
Coleman High School in Coleman, Wis., will not include prayers in future Memorial Day and Veterans Day assemblies after FFRF sent a letter to the superintendent. Ceremonies for the last two years at least have reportedly included religious prayers and videos.
"We ask that you take action to ensure that future assemblies do not include prayer and otherwise remain neutral toward religion," wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in a Nov. 19 letter to Superintendent Douglas P. Polomis.
"We will make every effort to ensure that future assemblies do not include prayer and remain neutral toward religion," Polomis responded on Nov. 30.
FFRF removes religion from post offices
The Carver, Mass., post office has removed a religious poster from its bulletin board after FFRF pointed out the sign's illegality.
The poster was titled "The Pledges," and in addition to the Pledge of Allegiance, printed a "Pledge to the Bible" and a "Pledge to the Christian Flag." FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler lodged a complaint with the office on July 22, 2015, pointing out that in addition to being unconstitutional, "United States postal regulations prohibit the display of religious materials, other than stamp art, on postal property."
On Nov. 30, FFRF received word from an interim postmaster that the postmaster to whom the letter was addressed had retired, and the poster on the bulletin board had been removed.
• • •
The Alden Post Office in Michigan has removed religious propaganda from the counter in the lobby following a complaint from FFRF. Proselytizing materials subtitled "Evidence for God's Existence and Identity" had been regularly available in the lobby.
Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to Postmaster Lynnette Derror on Nov. 23, quoting postal regulations providing that no literature other than official postal materials could be deposited anywhere on postal premises, and regulations prohibiting the display of religious materials.
On Dec. 3, Derror said she had posted Post Office regulations and "will take steps to insure that there is no literature on the counter daily."
• • •
A painted nativity display was removed and replaced with a secular display in the window of the Rupert Post Office in Idaho after FFRF lodged a complaint.
Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler protested the display, which also included the words "Christmas begins with Christ," in a Dec. 4 letter to the postmaster. "United States postal regulations prohibit the display of religious materials, other than stamp art, on postal property," Ziegler wrote. Furthermore, "by displaying a nativity scene and religious statement on its grounds, the Rupert Post Office is illegally demonstrating a preference for religion over nonreligion, and Christianity over all other faiths."
On Dec. 14, FFRF's complainant reported that the religious scene had been removed, and had been repainted with a display reading "Peace on earth, good will toward men." (Maybe next year they'll include women!)
Prayers ended at faculty meetings
After years of prayers "in Jesus' name" at Missouri's Montgomery County R-II School District faculty meetings, FFRF has ensured that future meetings will be secular.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott called the prayers "unnecessary and divisive," pointing out that they alienate non-Christian and nonbelieving employees. "Their participation in these mandatory meetings is adversely affected by these types of prayers, which turn them into outsiders in their own community and workplace," he wrote.
An attorney for the school district wrote on Dec. 2, saying the district had taken measures to comply with the law regarding religious endorsement at district events.
Religious club no longer teacher-led
The Appleton Area School District in Wisconsin is taking steps to ensure that a Christian club is truly student-run.
FFRF learned that Appleton East High School circulated a flyer for a religious student club, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but listed a teacher's school email and cell phone number as the contact. "We are writing to ensure that the FCA is entirely student-initiated and student-run, as required by federal law," wrote Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne in a Dec. 7 letter to the school district. "In our experience, adults often organize and participate in FCA events. If the FCA club is not student-initiated and student-run, AEHS should dissolve it."
"School and district administration have met with the FCA supervisor and reviewed FCA meeting practices for club operations," wrote Superintendent Lee Allinger in an emailed reply on Dec. 17. "We also took this opportunity to reinforce legal and district requirements."
Allinger also stated that the objectionable flyers had been removed and future flyers would not contain supervisor contact information, and thanked FFRF for sharing its concerns.
Evangelists removed from high school
After FFRF sent a complaint, Barnum Public Schools in Minnesota will no longer allow evangelists access to students at school.
Adults affiliated with the evangelical Christian group Campus Life had been permitted to come into the lunchroom weekly to recruit students to come to church events, a Barnum High School student told FFRF. The group states is purpose as to "minister in the name of Jesus."
"The presence of Campus Life ministers in the school supports their mission of proselytizing," said Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott in a Dec. 16 letter. "No religious organization should have direct access to students at school. This predatory conduct should raise red flags, especially since these adults are conversing with students without parental knowledge."
Superintendent David J. Bottem responded promptly on Dec. 18, informing FFRF that the district had severed its relationship with Campus Life, "effective immediately."
FFRF quashes Texas teacher's prayers
Teacher-led prayers are no longer part of the lunch hour at Alpha Charter School in Garland, Texas, thanks to action taken by the FFRF.
A parent reported their child's second-grade teacher to FFRF for leading her students in prayer every day before lunch. The school principal had not taken action despite being made aware of the situation.
Public schools "must not promote decidedly religious messages to a captive student audience, thereby isolating and excluding those students who are non-Christian or nonreligious," Staff Attorney Sam Grover told the school. Grover also pointed to FFRF's recent successful lawsuit against praying teachers in Emanuel County, Ga., declaring, "FFRF is committed to defending the rights of students in public schools. Given how young and impressionable these students are, this violation of the law is particularly egregious."
The school responded on Dec. 17, saying that they had investigated the situation and met with the teacher in question, who now "understands her responsibility in regards to separation of church and state."
FFRF brings equality to prison website
In Pennsylvania, the York County prison system's website featured a direct link to the website of Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, a Christian organization, despite the fact that several other organizations operate in the prison. However, the county stopped promoting the group on its website after FFRF got involved.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover contended that posting the link solely to one organization "creates the impression that the county impermissibly favors the ministry's religious message, which violates the Establishment Clause."
FFRF's complainant reported on Dec. 20 that the county had removed the link.
Second set of religious displays removed
After persuading the Frisco Independent School District in Texas to remove a sign reading "Pray more, worry less" from the Roach Middle School front office in September, FFRF has prompted the district to remove further unconstitutional religious displays from district property.
Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent a complaint to the district on Nov. 19 to object to religious displays in the school district's Student Opportunity Center. One sign read, "The will of God will never take you where the Grace of God will not protect you," while another proclaimed that "Prayer does not change God – it changes me." The office also contained two crosses with scriptural quotes on them. "All students deserve to learn in an environment free from religious proselytization and endorsement," Grover wrote.
The district's attorney informed Grover on Dec. 2 that the displays had been removed, and that all staff had been reminded to ensure there were no religious displays on school grounds.
Police station won't display nativity again
Next holiday season, the city of Belle Plaine, Minn., will not allow a longstanding nativity scene on public land as it previously had. A local church will display it instead.
Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott and Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne sent the city a letter of complaint on Dec. 15 to protest the nativity display, which the city allowed the Rotary Club to place on the lawn of the police department for at least 60 years. In addition to pointing out the legal issues with the nativity, FFRF requested to put up its own banner if the nativity was not removed. The request was granted, although FFRF's banner was later stolen.
FFRF's local complainant reported on Dec. 17 that the Rotary had been told it would have to move the nativity from 2016 onward.
County clerk removes religious poster
A Colorado county clerk has removed an overtly religious poster from the office where citizens, including same-sex couples, get their marriage licenses, following a complaint by FFRF.
The poster was removed the day after FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel asked Elbert County Clerk Dallas Schroeder to put him in touch with his attorney.
"We're glad that the poster, which was meant to intimidate LGBT citizens and promote Schroeder's personal religion, has been removed from government property," Seidel said. "The government must remain neutral on matters of religion and quoting the bible is hardly neutral."
In an email exchange between several county clerks discussing how to handle same-sex marriage licenses, Schroeder wrote on Aug. 9: "It is a picture of a bride standing on a hill with the groom walking up the hill to meet her. On the bottom I have a portion of the verse in I Corinthians where Paul says, 'Each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.' And cite the verse."
But after being sent several letters from Seidel and asking to speak with his lawyer, Schroeder apparently relented and removed the poster, at least from the sight of county constituents.
Church withdraws request for public funds
After FFRF objected to a Vermont board's proposal to give a grant to a church, the church has rescinded its request. The Waitsfield Select Board had voted to place an item on the Town Meeting ballot in March 2016 to give $1,500 to the Waitsfield United Church of Christ.
"The government may not fund projects for religious worship," wrote Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne on Dec. 8. Jayne also pointed out that the Vermont Constitution prohibits funding of places of worship.
A Valley Reporter article published Dec. 24 said that to avoid controversy, the church representatives withdrew their request at the board's Dec. 21 meeting — though not before castigating FFRF's complainant for inviting "this crackpot Midwestern group into the discussion."
Maybe, just maybe, public school football programs are beginning to understand that it's not OK to have a coach involved in pregame or postgame prayers with students.
FFRF has led the way in getting many high school football coaches around the country to stop participating in any form of prayer with their respective teams during games, practices or other coaching times.
The issue came to national attention in October 2015 when Joseph Kennedy, a high school football coach in Bremerton, Wash., was told to stop praying after games at the 50-yard-line, where many players would join him. But Kennedy did not stop, so the district put him on administrative leave. FFRF has backed the Bremerton School District's decision.
Since then, several other districts around the county have made sure their coaches no longer are involved in any religious rituals during their time as coach or teacher, thanks to FFRF.
In 2015, FFRF sent out 39 letters to dozens of school districts complaining about coaches involved in prayers. So far, 15 of those have resulted in the preferred outcome of coaches not being allowed to participate in any form of prayer with students.
• • •
After getting a letter of complaint from FFRF, coaches for the Tarkington High School football team in Cleveland, Texas, will no longer lead students in prayer. Staff Attorney Sam Grover wrote to the school district on Dec. 1 to object to the practice. "The Fifth Circuit, the controlling Court of Appeals in Texas, has specifically held that coach involvement in prayer at practices and games is unconstitutional because the prayers "take place during school-controlled, curriculum-related activities that members of the [athletic] team are required to attend," wrote Grover.
Tarkington Independent School District Superintendent Kevin Weldon told Grover on Dec. 8 that the district had addressed the matter with its staff to ensure that the district acts in accordance with the law.
• • •
Also in Texas, after FFRF complained twice about instances of coach-led prayer in the Weslaco Independent School District, the district has finally taken steps to correct the problem.
Grover wrote letters on Sept. 17 and Dec. 7 objecting to coach-led prayers at football games in September and November. In each instance, a coach took both teams to the middle of the field and led them in prayer.
"We ask that Weslaco ISD commence an immediate investigation into this situation and ensure that its representatives are not organizing, leading, or participating in prayer with students," Grover wrote.
On Dec. 31, FFRF received a response from an attorney for the school district. "The District has counseled its staff on these matters and expects compliance with the law in all respects moving forward," the letter said.
• • •
And earlier in December, a northern Illinois school district agreed to stop allowing a high school football coach from leading prayers with players at games after a local resident complained to FFRF that Naperville Central High School head football coach Mark Stine prayed with students during games.
On Dec. 8, Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne sent a letter to Naperville Superintendent Dan Bridges, who responded two days later.
"Naperville Community Unit School District 203 is aware that a coach led prayer is not appropriate," he wrote. "The head football coach has been instructed that neither he nor his staff may lead his players in prayer."
• • •
And in November, FFRF sent a letter protesting a praying football coach and other inappropriate religiosity in Florida's Bay District Schools.
Mosley High School head football coach Jeremy Brown "knowingly uses his position to proselytize and preach to students," charged Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, citing a recent WJHG-TV report in a letter sent Nov. 24 to Superintendent Bill Husfelt. "Brown mistakenly believes this is merely a matter of not being 'politically correct,' when in fact it is a gross violation of students' rights of conscience."
For Brown, "the most important thing" about coaching has "got to be sharing Christ with the kids." Brown believes that he is "in the business of earning crowns and not rings," referring a passage from the bible that advocates "preach[ing] to others." He measures success by whether or not "every kid on our football team is saved."
FFRF has not yet heard back on how the district will handle FFRF's request for Brown to stop praying with the team.
FFRF sent a letter to the Juniata County School District in Pennsylania to strongly protest the conduct of a proselytizing bus driver.
A parent reported to FFRF that a bus driver in the Mifflintown, Pa., school district targeted her 5-year-old autistic child for religious indoctrination. The driver reportedly told the child that if she doesn't believe in God, she will go to hell, describing hell as a place where "fireballs" will be shot at her. She also told the child that her parents needed to ask Jesus's forgiveness or they would go to hell, and that it was "bad" that her parents did not have a bible.
Indoctrinating any 5-year-old child, but particularly one with a known disability, is "predatory and an outrageous abuse of her position," charged Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell in the Dec. 14 letter. "The Supreme Court has stressed the importance of protecting students from religious promotion by public school districts."
The parent reported the matter to the district directly, and was told by the transportation director that the driver would be immediately reassigned to another bus while the district investigated. "We commend the district for responding promptly," wrote Cavell. "However, we write to underscore the seriousness of this violation and to seek more specific assurances of the district's action."
Cavell noted that the driver's actions "have caused serious trauma for this young student," who was uniquely vulnerable because "she is more likely than other children to take these threats literally and fixate on them given the fear they've caused." This conduct would be illegal regardless of the child targeted, however, Cavell pointed out.
The letter requests "immediate corrective action," including a reprimand or dismissal of the driver. The proselytizing is "a severe betrayal of parental trust that warrants a formal apology from the district," Cavell concluded.
FFRF is calling out the Brewster County Sheriff's Office in Texas for its plan to promote Christianity on its patrol vehicles.
Sheriff Ronny Dodson announced his intention to place white crosses on all deputy vehicles.
"It is inappropriate and unconstitutional for a government entity to display a Latin cross on its property because it conveys a preference by the Sheriff's Office — and by extension, Brewster County — for religion over nonreligion and Christianity over all minority faiths," explained Staff Attorney Sam Grover in his complaint letter to the sheriff. "When a sheriff mandates the display of a symbol from his preferred religion on county property, not only does he unconstitutionally endorse religion, but also risks alienating the nearly 30% of Americans who are non-Christian."
FFRF calls on Dodson to abandon his plan for the religious decals. Dodson is quoted on the sheriff office's Facebook page as justifying the crosses because "he wanted God's protection over his deputies."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who is proving to be no friend of the separation of state and church (see cover story), backed the sheriff's decision.
"The Constitution demands respect for religious expression rather than hostility toward it and Governor Abbott fully supports Sheriff Dodson's decision to allow his deputies to display the cross on their patrol vehicles," Abbott spokesman John Wittman told MySanAntonio.com.
"We share Sheriff Dodson's concerns for officer safety," noted FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, "but training, planning, and community relations efforts are far more effective than appealing to an imaginary man in the sky."
A total of 16 sites were home to FFRF Winter Solstice signs and Bill of Rights "nativity" displays in 2015.
FFRF offers seasonal displays and banners, including "Keep Saturn in Saturnalia," (a riff on "Keep Christ in Christmas") to counter religious displays on public property.
Here are the locations that hosted signs or diplays in 2015:
1. Springfield, Ill. Capitol ("May Reason Prevail" sign with easel)
2. Austin, Texas Capitol (Sign removed after Gov. Abbott complained. See cover story)
3. Olympia, Wash. Capitol ("Let Reason Prevail" banner)
4. Madison, Wis., Capitol ("May Reason Prevail" with easel, Bill of Rights nativity)
5. Arlington Heights, Ill. (Scarlet "A")
6. Daley Plaza, Ill. ("Happy Winter Solstice," Bill of Rights banner and large scarlet "A")
7. Grundy County, Ill. (Bill of Rights nativity)
8. Franklin County, Ind. ("Happy Winter Solstice" sign stolen and replaced), then defaced.
9. South Bend/St. Joseph County, Ind. (Bill of Rights nativity)
10. Bulloch County, Ga. (Bill of Rights nativity)
11. Sanford, Maine (Stolen)
12. Warren/Macomb County, Mich. ("Keep Saturn in Saturnalia")
13. Belle Plaine, Minn., Police Department (Stolen)
14. Hastings on Hudson, N.Y. ("Reason's Greetings" banner)
15. Manassas, Va. ("Let Reason Prevail" banner)
16. Milwaukee County Courthouse ("May Reason Prevail" sandwich board)
After several FFRF Winter Solstice banners and signs had been stolen or vandalized, it was time to say "enough is enough."
Such vandalism has occurred for years with no consequence for the vandals. So why let criminals censor freethought messages and violate our right to free speech?
So Staff Attorney Sam Grover came up with a great idea to discourage crimes: create a pledge fund for when this happens again so the banners and displays can be "resurrected" in a timely manner and the vandals/thieves will actually be helping FFRF's cause.
FFRF went to social media and asked our supporters to help protect our Winter Solstice displays throughout the country by making a pledge to the Resurrection Pledge Drive. People may pledge any amount they want, but would pay only if any of FFRF's displays are stolen or destroyed.
In early December, FFRF's Winter Solstice banner was stolen from the Franklin County, Ind., courthouse lawn. A new, identical Winter Solstice banner was erected there on Dec. 19.
In the inaugural year of the Resurrection Pledge Drive, 95 freethinkers answered the call, pledging a total of $889 for each FFRF display that was stolen or vandalized. For the vast majority of our displays, this new level of protection worked!
Unfortunately, three displays were harmed after we kicked off the pledge drive. First, FFRF erected a Winter Solstice banner on the front lawn of the Belle Plaine, Minn., police station on Dec. 18, next to a privately sponsored nativity scene. In less than 24 hours, our banner was stolen.
Second, on Christmas Eve, the new Franklin County banner was slashed to bits in a clear act of aggression. The second banner included a warning that "dozens of generous freethinkers have pledged money to FFRF in the event that this banner is stolen or destroyed." Though the second banner was shredded, FFRF's efforts have convinced the town of Brookville to move its nativity scene to private property next December and Franklin County is considering closing the forum on its courthouse lawn.
Third, FFRF's local chapter in Maine put up a Winter Solstice banner in a public park in Sanford. The Sanford banner was stolen on Dec. 30, less than one week after it had been put up.
For all three of these banners, FFRF called on those who pledged to send in their contributions to ensure that FFRF could replace these displays for the 2016 holiday season.
If you want to join in the effort to protect FFRF's freethought displays, then join FFRF's 2016 Resurrection Pledge Campaign. With your help we can ensure that thieves and vandals cannot censor FFRF's freethought message without triggering a donation that will fund even more FFRF displays.
On Jan. 6, FFRF protested the allocation of nearly $20 million per year in taxpayer money to private schools, including religious parochial schools, in New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the bill into law Jan. 5. The money is designated for hiring security.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor objected to the "misappropriation" of taxpayer funds in a letter to de Blasio. "This action will finance religion with millions of taxpayer dollars," she said. "This is not in the best interests of all New York City citizens."
"The NYPD is already tasked with protecting students who attend private schools. If the city sees a need for increased protection, the funds should go to the NYPD, which would then decide how best to use those resources," FFRF notes.
The letter quotes New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm, who said that the religious schools receiving these funds may "embrace homophobia, transphobia, and other horrific ideologies, and subject our young people to them on a daily basis in the classroom." FFRF's letter points out that a city must ensure its funds are not used for discriminatory hiring, and "a prohibition against allowing private schools to discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, or sexual orientation would be an impermissible government entanglement with religion."
"This is the fourth time we have written to you in less than a year regarding the promotion of religion while acting in your official capacity as the mayor of New York City," Gaylor wrote. Among FFRF's recent concerns: the city's ticket giveaway for an appearance by Pope Francis in Central Park in September and a "Mayor's Clergy Advisory Council" in August.
"We are dismayed at the erosion of respect for the wall of separation between state and church by your office. In our pluralistic modern society, increasingly tolerant and irreligious, public funds should not be given to private, often dogmatically intolerant, religious institutions," concluded Gaylor.
Imagine a Muslim state legislator sending out over his official state email a Muslim message to constituents, that not only presumes his viewers share his beliefs, but which invites non-Muslim viewers to convert to his religion.
Imagine, too, that this video has been recorded using a backdrop of the state Capitol, using state equipment and studio time. His message says, in part: "Merry Ramadan. To me and my fellow Muslims, celebrating the season of Ramadan, well, it is one of the most important celebrations of the year. For those who may watch this who are not Muslims, I invite you to consider the hope offered by Muhammad."
Then this legislative video cites Koranic passages that indicate you may be destroyed if you don't believe, but if you believe you may be saved.
Now, imagine the uproar.
We don't have to imagine a Christian legislator making such a state-supported pitch to his religion — because this is precisely what Wisconsin State Rep. Scott Allen, R-Waukesha, has done. "For those who may watch who are not Christian, I invite you to consider the hope offered by the prince of peace," he states in the video.
FFRF complained to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos about this egregious misuse of the machinery of the state — not only to promulgate a legislator's personal beliefs, but to divisively attempt to convert constituents of minority or no religious beliefs.
Vos claims it's making a "mountain out of a molehill." But we know if the case involved a Muslim legislator, a Wiccan or an atheist legislator going overboard, Christian legislators and their constituents would be crying foul.
It's so simple. The government may not take sides on matters of religion. Our government is supposed to be neutral, and leave the practice of religion to private citizens. There is no country where religion flourishes more, and that is because of our First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which, as Jefferson noted, erects "a wall of separation between church and state."
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Dec. 29 that large healthcare companies are not exempt from retirement plan regulations, even if they operate "religious" hospitals.
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) regulates retirement plans, but exempts church plans from requirements such as paying insurance premiums, meeting minimum funding standards and disclosing funding levels to plan participants.
FFRF filed an amicus brief in 2015 in the lawsuit contending that hospitals are not entitled to church privileges.
New Jersey's Saint Peter's Healthcare System employees filed class-action suits against their employers for claiming the church plan exemption. These large non-profit hospital systems have been able to contravene ERISA and underfund employees' retirement plans by claiming the church exemption. The plaintiffs argued the employers are not churches, and are not operated or funded by religious organizations, so their employers should not be able to claim the exemption.
The district court ruled that Saint Peter's could not use the exemption and the Third Circuit has agreed: "The plain terms of ERISA only make these exemptions available to plans established in the first instance by churches. Because St. Peter's is not a church, the exemption is unavailable."
FFRF briefs called the "church plan exemption" itself unconstitutional under the First Amendment because it treats churches preferentially.