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Lead Us Not Into Penn Station:Provocative Pieces

National Convention

November 2-4, 2018



Published by FFRF

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Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering


The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s lawsuit to have nonbelievers included in our nation’s legislative chambers is not immediately affected by the announcement that the current House chaplain will retire.

“The in-house chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives is stepping down next month after seven years in the post,” Roll Call reports. “Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, 67, a Catholic priest of the Jesuit order, has served in the post since 2011.”

Conroy is the defendant in a historic lawsuit filed by FFRF Co-President Dan Barker for barring him as an atheist from delivering a guest invocation. Also named as a defendant in Barker v. Conroy is House Speaker Paul Ryan, who oversees the chaplain’s office and who is also stepping down at the end of the current congressional term. Both Conroy and Ryan are defendants in their official capacity and FFRF will be battling their replacements when the time comes.

The state/church watchdog filed an appeal last December of a district court ruling that legitimized the current congressional marginalization of nonbelievers. U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer ruled in October against opening up the hallowed sanctum of our country’s lawmaking to freethinkers.

The case began when U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., who represents Barker’s district in Madison, Wis., requested that Barker give the opening invocation before the House. Usually, such sponsorship is all that is necessary to be named guest chaplain.

But Conroy purposefully stonewalled. Although the chaplain has no written requirements for guest chaplains, Conroy required proof of Barker’s ordination, which Barker, a former minister, produced. Then Conroy declared that Barker could not deliver the opening invocation because he lacks belief in “a higher power.” Barker responded by submitting a draft of his invocation, in which he noted that he could indeed invoke a “higher power”: “There is no power higher than ‘We, the People of the United States.’”

Conroy did not budge, prompting the litigation.

“All 60 House chaplains have been Christian,” Roll Call notes. And no atheist or agnostic has been allowed to officially offer the opening invocation before Congress, a state of affairs that has closed off our lawmaking body to the almost one-fourth of Americans (including 38 percent of Millennials) who are nonreligious.

“Shouldn’t the House of Representatives be representative?” asks Barker.

There’s an additional issue here. Congress spends about $800,000 a year on prayer-making, including the annual salary of $172,000 for departing House Chaplain Conroy, as well as a salary and office for the Senate chaplain. Conroy’s sole duty, Barker has pointed out, is to “offer a prayer at the commencement of each day’s sitting on the House” — roughly 135 times per year — a duty that Conroy delegates to a guest chaplain approximately 40 percent of the time. FFRF calculates that in 2011 Conroy earned $1,659 per prayer.

FFRF is calling for the chaplaincy to be steered in a radically different direction.
“Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi need to pick someone who is, at the least, much more open-minded — if they need to pick anybody at all,” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit organization based in Madison, Wis., is the largest U.S. association of freethinkers, representing over 33,000 atheists, agnostics, and other freethinking American citizens.


Photo of David Steketee

A major court victory by the Freedom From Religion Foundation will save New Jersey taxpayers many millions of dollars by terminating an unconstitutional boondoggle.

The New Jersey Supreme Court, in a 7-0 decision today, upheld the state Constitution’s ban against taxpayer funds being used for “building or repairing any church or churches.” In Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Morris County, FFRF and member David Steketee filed suit in late 2015 against the county, challenging public grants of millions of tax dollars to repair or maintain churches. The state high court’s ruling corrected a lower court’s shocking refusal to apply the state Constitution’s plain command.

FFRF and Steketee originally protested more than $5.5 million in funding to churches since 2012 by the Historic Preservation Trust Fund. The lawsuit specifically challenged $1.04 million in allotments to Presbyterian Church in Morristown, which, in the words of the church, would allow “continued use by our congregation for worship services,” as well as disbursements to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church to ensure “continued safe public access to the church for worship.” All of the churches that received the grants have active congregations.

FFRF contended the grants violate the unambiguous command of 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.” This taxpayer protection predates the creation of the United States and was seen by Thomas Jefferson and other Founders as an essential guarantee to prevent the government from establishing religion and forcing citizens to support churches or religions in which they disbelieve.

The lower court ruling claimed an unprecedented exception to this admirably clear command, holding that Morris County was justified in ignoring this constitutional mandate because the funds were part of a historic preservation program. Fortunately, the state’s top court has corrected this mistake, overruling the trial court and holding that the New Jersey Constitution means exactly what it says.

“We find that the plain language of the Religious Aid Clause bars the use of taxpayer funds to repair and restore churches, and that Morris County’s program ran afoul of that longstanding provision,” the Supreme Court states. It agrees with FFRF's central contention that not being taxed to support a church is a central issue of religious freedom of conscience.

FFRF is elated at the constitutionally correct decision.

“It’s shocking that it took a trip to the New Jersey Supreme Court to enforce such a plain constitutional command,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “New Jersey taxpayers can breathe a sigh of relief that their constitutional religious liberty rights have been protected."

FFRF cannot emphasize enough the significance of the N.J. Supreme Court decision.

“This is not just a win for secular citizens, but for every New Jersey taxpayer,” explains FFRF constitutional attorney Andrew L. Seidel. “Governments in New Jersey cannot force Muslims to bankroll temples and yeshivas, compel Jews to subsidize Christian churches and Catholic schools, force Christians to fund mosques and madrassas or nonbelievers to support any religion. It’s a win for all.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to the constitutional separation of state and church, with more than 33,000 members across the country, including 500-plus in New Jersey.

FFRF extends its gratitude to plaintiff David Steketee, who has vigorously fought to uphold the rights of Morris County taxpayers since before this case was filed. The lawsuit was handled by attorney Paul S. Grosswald. FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel and Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne were co-counsel.


Famed television host and special-effects wizard Adam Savage will be speaking at the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s convention in San Francisco in early November.

Savage achieved renown as the co-host of “Mythbusters” on the Discovery Channel. The series, which ran for many seasons, aimed (as the title suggests) at debunking myths, rumors and stories. Savage is bringing back the highly popular program on the Science Channel later this year as host and executive producer in a children’s version titled “Mythbusters Jr.”

Savage’s talents are many. His special effects work has been featured in several films, including “Star Wars” and “Matrix” movies. He has also had a career as an actor.

Savage is famously and outspokenly an atheist. He has repeatedly made that clear and has been recognized by the freethinking community.

“I’ve tried to instill in [my sons] a set of humanistic values with which they would be productive citizens of the planet,” Savage said while being honored by the American Humanist Association last year. “And when I say productive, I don’t just mean having a good life for themselves and their families, but also the act of aiding and abetting the improvement of life for all.”

Savage will be addressing attendees at the FFRF convention in the Golden Gate City from Nov. 2-4, joining several other eminent personalities, including legendary writer Salman Rushdie, actor John de Lancie (of “Star Trek” fame), secular activist Ensaf Haidar, ex-Muslims of North America co-founder Sarah Haider, irreverent actress Julia Sweeney and stand-up comedian Leihann Lord.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to present Adam Savage to its convention in San Francisco.

“Adam Savage is a multifaceted personality, and nonbelief is a big part of who he is,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “Our members will relish getting to know him better.”
Convention registration is only $60 per member, $65 per companion, $110 non-member, and free for students and children. For an even more fun time, sign up for the discounted package that includes the two group meals on Saturday, including FFRF’s irreverent Nonprayer Breakfast, and save $20. The convention is being held at the arresting downtown Hyatt Regency, which has the world’s biggest hotel lobby and rooms featuring floor-to-ceiling windows. Room can be reserved for Thursday. Friday and Saturday nights at $235 plus tax. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., is the largest U.S. association of freethinkers, representing over 33,000 atheists, agnostics, and other freethinking American citizens.

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The Problem With America 2.0

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