The Freedom From Religion Foundation has asked a judge to declare a New Jersey county's millions of dollars in grants for church repair a violation of the state constitution.
FFRF and member David Steketee recently submitted their final brief in support of their motion for summary judgment in a lawsuit filed on Dec. 1, 2015. The suit seeks to protect the rights of New Jersey citizens to not be compelled to support religions with which they disagree.
Steketee, a taxpayer in Morris County, and FFRF are contesting grants to churches by the county's Historic Preservation Trust Fund. Since 2012, the board has awarded more than $4.6 million to such entities, which is more than 40 percent of the money disbursed by the fund.
FFRF's case relies on the religious aid prohibition in New Jersey's Constitution, which states that "No person shall . . . 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 or has deliberately and voluntarily engaged to perform."
FFRF's brief points out that the New Jersey Constitution prohibits the government from spending taxes to "repair any churches," and cites cases where the New Jersey Supreme Court and Appellate Court have enforced this provision, even under circumstances that are less clear. Morris County told the court that it didn't spend tax dollars to "repair" churches, but only to "stabilize, rehabilitate, restore, and preserve" them. "Constitutional obligations cannot be escaped with synonyms," FFRF answered. In addition, the county itself used the word "repair" to describe the challenged grants.
Morris County also argues that denying churches access to taxpayer funds would violate the churches' rights, but FFRF explained that this misses the mark. "The county may not prohibit the churches' free exercise of religion, but this does not mean Morris County must pay the churches' repair bills," FFRF asserts. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld state constitutional provisions very similar to New Jersey's, despite similar arguments against them.
FFRF has asked that the court grant FFRF's summary judgment motion, declare that the grants violate the New Jersey Constitution, prohibit Morris County from issuing similar grants in the future, and require the churches to repay the grants they improperly received. The court will hear oral arguments for the case on Oct. 13. Since Morris County has spent tax dollars on the exact thing the state constitution prohibits, FFRF is confident that it will prevail. With this victory, FFRF will ensure that Morris County taxpayers will no longer be forced to finance religious buildings.
The lawsuit is being handled by attorney Paul S. Grosswald. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew L. Seidel and Diane Uhl 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. The judge assigned to the case is Margaret Goodzeit. FFRF's prior brief can be seen here.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization dedicated to the constitutional separation of state and church, with more than 23,000 members across the country, including almost 500 in New Jersey.
Church must pay property tax on downtown lot in Madison, Wis., that is assessed at $4 million
A Dane County judge has ruled that the Catholic Church must pay taxes on a multimillion–dollar lot it owns in downtown Madison.
Dane County Circuit Court Judge Rhonda Lanford decided on Oct. 4 that a 1.3-acre lot in Madison owned by the Catholic Church is not exempt from property taxes. The Church sued the city last year to recover taxes it paid on the lot, which amount to nearly $100,000 per year.
FFRF filed an amicus curiae brief in June supporting the city of Madison. FFRF's brief questioned how St. Raphael's could retain an exemption while it was really just holding on to the lot as a future site of a $50 million cathedral.
"All Madison taxpayers should not have to pay more taxes while St. Raphael's invests in its other property holdings in Madison and holds the St. Raphael's lot for future development," FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote. "It is precisely for this reason that property must be used to maintain an exemption."
The court granted summary judgment in favor of the city of Madison, holding that land that is tax exempt must be "necessary for the location and convenience of buildings" under Wisconsin law. Since there are no church buildings on the lot, it is taxable.
While the church may some day develop the property, the court found that tax exemptions do not "extend to pre-construction planning of a building." The Church also failed to demonstrate that it was "readying" the property for construction. Judge Lanford noted, "While plaintiff has acquired property in preparation for construction of the new cathedral, it has not submitted plans of any kind into this record."
FFRF is delighted at the ruling.
"This is a victory for taxpayers," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Churches cannot be allowed to abuse tax exemptions by holding on to valuable real estate and expecting local governments to look the other way when they fail to actually use the property for exempt purposes."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Madison, Wis.-based national state/church watchdog organization with more than 23,000 nonreligious members all over the country, including 1,300-plus in Wisconsin.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is renewing its objection to several public university football chaplaincies.
FFRF initially contacted the schools in August of last year to complain about their respective chaplaincy programs as part of a broad national report titled "Pray to Play."
This August, FFRF contacted five major universities still not in compliance with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Those schools are Georgia Tech, the University of Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, the University of Missouri and the University of South Carolina. FFRF plans to contact more noncompliant universities throughout the fall.
Most of the schools involved try to get around the unconstitutionality argument by claiming that any religious services or activities are purely voluntary. But the idea that such religious activities are truly optional is questionable, at best.
FFRF's "Pray to Play" report concluded that "athletes do not view coaches' suggestions as optional." Moreover, "coaches add to this pressure by sending chaplains to talk with players going through difficult times, instead of allowing players to seek out their own religious or professional counseling."
"Courts have summarily rejected arguments that voluntariness excuses a constitutional violation," FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote in a letter to Georgia Tech President G.P. Peterson.
Additionally, these schools employ only Christian chaplains, showing an unconstitutional preference for Christianity. This is in spite of the fact that 44 percent of college-aged Americans are non-Christian and fully a third of millennials identify as nonreligious, according to the Pew Research Center.
In order to aid these universities in protecting their students from religious discrimination, FFRF is also recommending the adoption of a model policy, which includes the maintenance of complete official neutrality in matters of religion. If adopted, this model policy would not only bring the schools into compliance with the law, but would send the message that the universities value the right of every student athlete to hold his or her own religious or nonreligious views, free from direct or indirect coercion or contrary endorsement.
At Georgia Tech, it appears that Derrick Moore continues to serve as its football chaplain and receives compensation from the school for his religious services. Moore prays with the team before games while wielding a sledgehammer at times.
"Apparently, we need to sledgehammer Georgia Tech officials in order to get any meaningful response," Barker adds.
The University of Missouri last year quickly replied to FFRF's letter, stating that it had no intention to change its program.
As with the other schools, it contended that Mizzou's football chaplaincy is acceptable because it is voluntary. Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin wrote that "interaction with the chaplain and attendance at these services is strictly voluntary." But former coach Gary Pinkel invited a chaplain to deliver prayers for the whole team in the locker room.
Also, chaplains Shay Roush and Nathan Tiemeyer are not uncompensated or purely "volunteer." As FFRF's report details, both have received per diem payments for their services, as well as Mizzou-sponsored flights for themselves and their families to bowl games. Such benefits send a clear message to players and the community that these chaplains are working for Mizzou.
FFRF is pleased to report the departure of Chaplain Adrian Despres, about whom it complained last year.
However, it appears that the new University of South Carolina football head coach, Will Muschamp, has decided that he wants "multiple voices available to assist with the spiritual development of student-athletes," as he was quoted in an official statement on Despres' exit. Furthermore, he told a Rotary Club meeting earlier this year, "There's no question being a Christian is very important to me. . . . That's not something I push on our players. It's something I make readily available for our players."
As an initial matter, it is improper for a public university program to "assist with the spiritual development" of students. This cannot be a task of the government under the First Amendment, which excludes government entities from sponsoring religious activity. Whether or not to engage in religious activity is squarely left to private individuals.
Virginia Tech's Director of Athletics Whit Babcock's response to our letter, dated Oct. 15, 2015, indicated that Virginia Tech has taken positive steps regarding its chaplain, but that the program continues.
Following FFRF's exposé, money was repaid to the university after team Chaplain Dave Gittings and his family traveled with the team and stayed in team hotels, received per diem payments for bowl games, and received complimentary season tickets.
However, Virginia Tech appears to have retained its chaplaincy program as a whole. Gittings continues to serve as the team chaplain, and he apparently provides "weekly large group meetings open to the student athletes, small group team bible studies, one on one discipleship, coaches bible studies and a ministry to the ladies who love and support the coach called Behind The Bench."
According to Virginia Tech's Gobbler Connect Organizations Directory, there are more than 60 religious organizations for students to choose from. There is no need for the Virginia Tech football program to provide Christian chaplains in order for the student-athletes to freely exercise their religions.
FFRF has been badgering the University of Wisconsin about its chaplaincy program for many years, however, it has yet to issue a formal response to FFRF's newest concerns.
Father Michael Burke, a Catholic priest, continues to serve as the UW football chaplain. For decades, Burke has traveled with the team, led team prayers and provided religious services, among other chaplain duties. He has access to team facilities and has even participated in recruiting.
Burke has a history of leading the team in pregame prayers. These prayers are coercive. A former Jewish player told a reporter that he had to opt to sit with the group while it was praying and listen silently so as to not appear socially out of place.
FFRF is particularly concerned that the UW football program has been subsidizing Burke's travel with the team. FFRF first exposed the subsidization in the early 1990s. Recent public records that FFRF requested revealed that in the past couple of years UW again paid for Burke's hotel rooms for bowl games, which totaled nearly $2,500. Following FFRF's request for records of Burke's reimbursement, UW belatedly submitted an invoice to Burke for such travel.
We're just days away from the 2016 FFRF annual national convention in Pittsburgh the weekend of Oct. 7-9!
If you haven't registered already, you may still sign up at the door, although you cannot order meals.
Join us for a weekend of great speakers, food, music and more! FFRF has pulled together an exceptional lineup of speakers, including Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss, Susan Jacoby and Jerry Coyne. Many of the other speakers have intriguing, interesting and/or heartbreaking stories to tell about their personal battles or fighting state/church separation. You'll learn a lot and be entertained. What more can you ask for?
Because of the popularity of this year's convention (and the fact that's there's a Steelers game in town that Sunday), hotel rooms at the Wyndham Grand Downtown, site of the convention, are now sold out for that weekend. To find a place to stay nearby, go to hotels.com or your favorite online booking site.
We hope to see you in Pittsburgh! For more information, go to ffrf.org/outreach/convention.
Raihan Abir lived in a constant state of fear that he would be killed.
And for good reason. Which was for bad reasons.
Abir is co-author of Philosophy of Disbelief, a book promoting atheism that became a bestseller in Bangladesh in 2011. He is now the latest Bangladeshi nonbeliever aided by Nonbelief Relief, which serves as the charitable arm of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Abir's co-author, Avijit Roy, was hacked to death in February 2015 on a street in Dhaka by religious extremists.
Rafida Bonya Ahmed, Avijit Roy's wife, survived the assault and is a prominent voice at global forums and the United Nations, calling on the Bangladeshi government to do more to protect atheist writers. She will be speaking at FFRF's convention in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Oct. 8.
On May 12, 2015, Abir's book editor and friend, Ananta Bijoy Das, had stepped out of his home for the daily commute to his job when men wearing masks and carrying machetes chased him and killed him.
"When he was killed, I said there is no way I'm not next," Abir told the Toronto Globe and Mail. "They will target me, of course."
Three people involved in the publishing of the book have been brutally murdered.
Three others have been seriously injured, as religious extremists in Bangladesh target atheist and secular writers. Since 2013, religious extremists have killed more than 50 bloggers, secularists and LGBT activists, according to Human Rights Watch.
"Whenever we started out of the house, he used to ride the motorcycle and I used to look backward all the time to make sure no one's following us or going to do anything to us," his wife Samia Hossain said.
Even as he got off the bike and walked to his job at the university, Abir would leave his helmet on because he feared an attacker would target his head with a machete.
"At least I'll survive the first attack," Abir told the Globe and Mail.
What got Abir into this dangerous predicament began in 2007, when he found comfort in the online world with places like Mukto-Mona — meaning "free thinking" — a website started by Avijit Roy that became a gathering spot for atheist and secular writers.
The people he met through Mukto-Mona became his co-authors, publishers, editors and fellow bloggers. He and others tried to debunk parts of the Quran, bible and Hindu sacred texts. They said religion was a virus that breeds extremism and threatens freedom.
But, in recent years, Islamic extremists began targeting those writers and, in 2015, the violence increased dramatically. Abir would get death threats by text message and email.
"It's not uncommon for Islamic extremists to attack writers and secular people, so I was keeping myself away from going to public meetings and rallies so people don't track me," he told Michael Petrou of Maclean's magazine. "I was taking these kind of precautions because we have to. But in 2015, it got out of control."
It was so bad that Abir decided he had to get out of the country.
Leaving for Canada
Abir went to Canada in June of 2015 to attend a biomedical engineering conference, leaving behind his wife, who was six months pregnant. Neither had any idea when they would see each other again. "I knew that I might not be able to see her for three or four years," Abir told The Guardian.
But, according to The Guardian, Hossain was pleased to see him leave Bangladesh. "When the plane left and was in the air, I knew he would be alive. I was so happy," she said.
It wasn't long before she was able to join Abir in Canada. She applied for a visa to attend an architect's conference and within two months — by then eight months pregnant — she was on a plane to Toronto.
"I thought it would be the happiest day of my life," Abir told The Guardian.
But while his wife was traveling to Canada, he learned that another of his friends, blogger Niloy Neel, had been hacked to death in his home on Aug. 14, 2015.
"It was a really stressful time," Abir said. "We were losing the brightest minds of Bangladesh one by one."
Then, shortly after finding a home to live in, their daughter Sophie was born. His family was then given refugee status in November.
"I kept it very secret that I was in Canada, but somehow they knew," he told Maclean's. "I can't say 100 percent that I am safe. But I feel safe. In Dhaka, I used to wear a helmet all the time and look back while walking forward, but here I don't do that."
Won't give up the fight
He continues to write and edit Mukto-Mona from his Toronto home. He plans to complete his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. He says he won't give up the fight for secularizing Bangladesh.
"Because this dark side, this kind of thing, never [wins]," he told Maclean's. "Maybe they do atrocities, maybe they will kill us. But they won't be winning in the long run. So we'll have to keep on doing what we do — keep informing people about science, about reason, about humanism."
Abir also is focused on helping the many Bangladeshi writers who are still hiding and fearing for their lives.
"We're trying to make connections with the outer world and get them to safe places," he told The Guardian. "We don't have any resources, we're just trying to do what we can. But it is really difficult to fight off machetes with a pen."
The goal of getting back to Bangladesh is on Abir and Hossain's minds. But they know it won't be soon. Abir hopes to go back in two years, while Hossain thinks it will be closer to five years. But they both agree that the murders will have to end before they go back.
"It's not over yet," Abir recently told the Globe and Mail. "Because within this month we'll wake up one day in the morning and say, 'That's our friend. He has been killed.' "
We're only weeks away from the November election and this means many of us are finalizing our voter registrations and pinning down where we're supposed to go to vote. You may be surprised to find that your polling location is in a church. Every election year, FFRF receives questions about the legality of houses of worship being used as polling places.
Only three courts in the entire country have spoken on this issue, and those three have found it to be a permissible practice so long as there are reasonable alternatives available for those who object to voting in a church, such as early voting or absentee voting. However, because only a minority of courts have deemed the practice permissible, it's not well-settled law.
In many places, one-third to one-half of all polling locations are churches. In Rockford, Ill., churches constitute an incredible 80% of the city's polling locations. In Eau Claire, Wis., 53 of 66 wards use houses of worship. In Fayetteville, Ark., churches are used for 16 of the 17 polling places!
FFRF takes the position that this practice is objectionable on many grounds.
There are a whole host of problems with churches being used as polling sites. First, many of these sites are utilized for Christian worship. Religious imagery is pervasive in a lot of these venues and oftentimes are in direct view of voters. FFRF receives complaints of voting booths being underneath paintings of Jesus, large Christian crosses and nearby bibles and posters with biblical verses on them. A church in Eau Claire put the voter registration table at the foot of an 8-foot tall Christian cross. Wisconsin has same-day registration, allowing voters to register on Election Day. Our complainant described his experience as "disconcerting, as if that was the focus of the event, instead of the primary election." As our country becomes more religiously diverse, Christian images and iconography are seen by many as symbols of political intimidation.
At a minimum, if churches are going to be used as polling locations, religious imagery should be removed or covered in voting areas.
Furthermore, there are numerous cases across the country of churches exploiting their position as polling sites to promote their churches or causes. We've received reports of churches handing out literature about their services and posting sign-ups for their bible studies.
In the 2008 election, Shawnee Tabernacle Christian Church in Tobyhanna, Pa., used its status as a polling place to hand out "goodie bags" for voters. These bags were distributed to voters as they were entering or exiting the polling place. Bags contains religious literature included a "Welcome" pamphlet that listed worship services and prayer meeting times, a magazine entitled "PoconoParent," which described a charter school opened and run by the pastor; and an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner sponsored by the church. Following a letter of complaint by FFRF, the Monroe County director of elections indicated they would not use the Shawnee Tabernacle as a polling location in the future.
Just this year, FFRF sent a complaint to Lehigh County, Pa., over its use of churches as polling places. Voters reported that, along with religious imagery, there were tables with displays of church activities. In a partial victory, the county agreed to place portable walls and dividers to cover up some of the religious images voters encountered in the polling area.
The takeaway from these stories is this: churches should not be able to exploit their positions as a polling place in order to advertise themselves and distribute proselytizing materials.
The most egregious abuses, however, come when churches used as polling places also take the opportunity to speak out on ballot initiatives at issue in the election, or take the time to endorse or oppose a candidate. This came up frequently in the past as same-sex marriage bans were considered in states across the U.S.
Using houses of worship as polling places is particularly problematic knowing the psychological consequences of voting in a church. Where you vote can affect how you vote. In a 2008 study, "Contextual Priming: Where people vote affects how they vote," professors Jonah Berger, Marc Meredith and S. Christian Wheeler found that those voting in a school were more likely to support a measure that increased sales tax to fund education. A similar study in 2010, "Deus ex machine: The influence of polling place on voting behavior," by Abraham Rutchick, found that 83% of those voting in churches supported a measure defining marriage as between one man and one woman, while 81.5% of voters in secular locations supported the same measure.
If you have to vote in a church, complain! Usually your city or county representative has the authority to suggest changes to polling places. A local rep is more apt than a bureaucrat to respond to a citizen complaint. Suggest secular alternatives (particularly those with access to persons with disabilities): libraries, public schools (it's educational for students to witness Election Day), fire stations, malls, etc.
If you are forced to vote in a church, take notes or photographs (if allowed by law), especially if you are forced to walk by signs, brochures or posters which would influence voters on issues such as gay rights or abortion. You have the right to vote in an auditorium or hall free of religious messages, crucifixes, etc. Document such violations when you complain to local officials.
FFRF members have been successful in getting officials to choose secular over religious sites. Being a "squeaky wheel," doing homework about available alternatives, and working with local government representatives can yield results.
FFRF does not have the resources to complain about every church used as a polling site, but if the circumstances you encounter are extreme, we can do a backup complaint.
Rebecca S. Markert is FFRF senior staff and managing attorney.