Name: Bernard (Ben) Barwick.
Where I live: Madison, Wis.
Where and when I was born: Milwaukee, Wis., 1945.
Family: Wife, Marie Barwick.
Education: Finance degree, self-taught sculptor.
Occupation: Accountant for 27 years, sculptor for 15 years, and took more than 100 volunteers to teach spoken English in China for 11 summers between 2002 and 2013.
Military service: Three years in the Army as records clerk in Alaska and Colorado.
How I got where I am today: It was 90% luck and 10% perspiration.
Where I'm headed: A long and adventurous retirement.
Person in history I admire and why: Lord Bertrand Russell. He was instrumental in clarifying my thinking on religion and the purpose of life. He was also one the most brilliant and prolific writers in history, on everything from mathematics and science to philosophy and ethics and morals.
Quotations I like: "Live to experience, experience to live." — myself
"To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance." — Oscar Wilde
"There is no sin except stupidity." — Oscar Wilde
These are a few of my favorite things: Non-material things: love, experience and knowledge. Material things: art. I practiced sculpture as a hobby for about 28 years. I was passionate about it. I read many books, studied many styles and went to very many museums, galleries and exhibitions. I got to be a pretty good sculptor of various materials. When I turned 50, and believed that I was financially OK, I quit accounting and became a professional sculptor. I could not wait to get up in the morning and often worked late into the night, seven days per week. By this time, I was tired of lifting stone and breathing stone dust, so I switched from stone sculpture to clay sculpture and cast my work in bronze and high tech resins. During the course of my sculpture career I obtained relative success, won many awards, exhibited and sold in several countries. It was a great journey.
These are not: Arrogance, ignorance and procrastination.
My doubts about religion started: I was raised a strict Catholic. When I was 20 years old, I was confined to a hospital bed for 1 1/2 years. I had a lot of time to read and learn. When I left the hospital, I was an atheist. I had questions about my faith before that, but this was an opportunity to really study and challenge what was taught to me.
Before I die: Experience, experience, experience! I have had a very fortunate and wonderful life. I experienced and accomplished a thousand times more then I ever thought that I would. But there is so much more to experience and challenge and enjoy.
Ways I promote freethought: I'm a Life Member of FFRF. I live my beliefs, defend them and support FFRF.
I wish you'd have asked me: Am I afraid to die? Absolutely not!
Name: Timothy Nott.
Where and when I was born: Milwaukee, Gen X.
Education: UW-Madison, B.A. in English with an emphasis in creative writing.
Family: Wife Michelle and daughter Violet.
How I came to work at FFRF: I was looking for a change in career when I heard about an opportunity for a technologist at FFRF. Days later, evangelist Franklin Graham came through town on his "Decision America" tour. I don't believe his speech had the desired effect where I am concerned.
What I do here: I'm here to make sure our digital efforts are as effective as our legal team, our support of community activists and our print publication.
What I like best about it: I believe strongly in making decisions based on data and feel very at home at an organization brimming with people who favor proof over fantasy.
What gets old about it: Stairs. This place is riddled with stairs.
I spend a lot of time thinking about: How we can use technology to allow our members to make a bigger impact on their communities.
I spend little if any time thinking about: Wondering whether I might be drinking too much coffee.
My religious upbringing was: A fairly liberal — and therefore conflicted — brand of Catholicism.
My doubts about religion started: I started to question religion as a child once I realized all people didn't believe the same thing. How could we all be right in our methods of telling others that they are wrong?
Things I like: Science fiction — I need a break from hard data once in a while. Coffee. My wife. My daughter. My pets. In no particular order.
Things I smite: Things that beep. Why does every electronic device have to beep and have LEDs that don't turn off when not in use?
In my golden years: I intend to be an unappreciated artist of some sort. Retirement seems like the optimal time to do something that pays nothing.
Nonbelief Relief, a charity established last year by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, recently gave a $5,000 stipend to a prominent Bangladeshi writer who has found asylum in Canada. (See story on front page.)
Nonbelief Relief's aid will tide over Raihan Abir and his family as they establish themselves in Canada and obtain visas for study and work. He received previous aid from the Center for Inquiry to help in his first year in Canada.
Abir is the 11th Bangladeshi nonbeliever or blogger aided to date by Nonbelief Relief in the face of hit lists going after atheists. Most of them are still in transition and cannot be named. The Islamic State and al-Qaida have claimed credit for recent vicious executions of those targeted for nonbelief.
Nonbelief Relief is working with a loose international coalition, including Center for Inquiry and Rafida Bonya Ahmed, to vet those needing assistance.
Nonbelief Relief exists as a humanitarian agency for atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and their supporters to improve this world — our only world. Nonbelief Relief seeks to remediate conditions of human suffering and injustice on a global scale, whether the result of natural disasters, human actions or adherence to religious dogma. Such relief is not limited to, but includes, assistance for individuals targeted for nonbelief, secular activism or blasphemy.
The charity this year has now spent about $50,000 in grants to individuals whose lives have been imperiled because of public atheist activism.
To help Nonbelief Relief help others in the name of the community of nonbelievers and replenish its coffers, please make tax-deductible donations to Nonbelief Relief via FFRF. Indicate "Nonbelief Relief" in the memo of your check payable to FFRF (mailed to FFRF, PO Box 750, Madison WI 53701) or use the handy drop-down designation on FFRF's website donation page (ffrf.org/donate), to ensure your gift goes to the charity. (If you wish, you may further designate your gift for endangered nonbelievers in Bangladesh.)
Aid for flood relief
On behalf of nonbelievers, Nonbelief Relief gave $10,000 in flood relief to a hard-hit school district in Louisiana.
FFRF has asked that it be used for the repair or rebuilding of Livingston Parish Public Schools infrastructure or buses.
On the same day $10,000 was funneled to help the Livingston public school district, which suffered loss of many school buses and other major flooding damage, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor also sent a polite but pointed letter to Superintendent Rick Wentzel.
The letter says, "It has come to our attention that the parish public schools website has a banner message reading in part, 'Praying for all of our Livingston Parish people – Superintendent Rick Wentzel.'" FFRF, extending "sincerest sympathies for the tragedy facing the school district" and greater area, notes that the school district has an obligation to concentrate on secular, not religious, needs.
"A famous freethinker of the 19th century, Robert Green Ingersoll, once wrote, 'The hands that help are better far than lips that pray,'" Gaylor adds. "To that end, Nonbelief Relief is very pleased to provide the practical assistance of $10,000 in flood relief to the Livingston Parish Public Schools."
In the United States, diversity has generally been considered an asset. It is frequently cited by public figures as both a source of national pride and a worthy ambition. It is an oft-stated goal of Fortune 500 companies, private colleges and entire sectors of the U.S. economy. And even if Americans don't claim much diversity in their own social networks, few believe that our differences are not something to be celebrated. At one point it was even argued that America's religious vitality hinged on its diversity — greater competition between places of worship would contribute to a more vibrant religious culture. However, new evidence suggests that religious pluralism could work in the opposite direction — undermining the vitality of America's religious communities.
The American religious landscape is transforming rapidly. At one time, religious diversity meant Baptist, Methodist and Episcopalian. Today, it encompasses a multiplicity of religious traditions such as Sikhism, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism, as well as an increasing variety of noninstitutional belief systems such as humanism, skepticism, atheism and subjective spirituality. Racial and ethnic shifts have also changed the face of Christianity. The U.S. was once a predominantly white Christian country, but fewer than half of Americans (45 percent) identify as white Christian today.
We don't know for sure that America's religious pluralism is causing a drop in religious vitality — there are reasons to think the two might simply be related — but there are a number of different ways diversity might erode commitment. The practical effect of rising religious diversity is to expose Americans to ideas and views that could challenge their religious beliefs. This weakening of America's religious consensus means there is far less social pressure to conform to religious norms. For young people coming of age today, America's Christian heritage is no longer a given, and being Christian is not viewed as a critical component of national identity.
Geographically, states with greater religious variety tend to exhibit lower levels of overall religiosity. No state is more religiously uniform than Mississippi. Half of the state's population identifies as Baptist and 54 percent are evangelical Protestant. It's probably no coincidence that Mississippi is also one of the few states with constitutions that prohibit atheists from serving in elected office. According to Gallup's 2016 rankings of the most and least religious states, Mississippi has the honor of being the most religious state in the country. In contrast, Oregon ranks high in terms of religious diversity — no one religious tradition makes up more than 20 percent of the state's population — and falls near the bottom in Gallup's ranking. Only four states are less religious.
Diversity within our immediate social networks may also serve to weaken our ties to a religious community or strengthen our resolve to remain unattached. Americans who report greater religious diversity in their social networks demonstrate much less regular religious involvement. A new analysis based on a Public Religion Research Institute study of Americans' social networks found that Americans who report greater religious diversity among their close friends and family are less likely to engage in religious activities. Sixty-three percent of Americans who have religiously diverse social networks say they seldom or never attend religious services, compared with only about one-third (32 percent) of those who count coreligionists as their closest friends and family members. This is true for religious Americans as well. In fact, even when controlling for different demographic attributes, including religious identity, Americans with more religiously diverse social networks demonstrate lower rates of religious participation and are less apt to say religion is important in their lives than other Americans.
Religious diversity could even subvert our initial exposure to religion. Religiously mixed marriages are more common than ever, and Americans raised by parents of different faiths report much lower levels of religious activity in childhood than those raised in religiously unified households. Nearly 6 in 10 (58 percent) Americans raised by parents who shared the same religious background say they attended religious services weekly or more often. Only 40 percent of Americans raised in religiously mixed households report attending services regularly as children.
Americans raised in mixed religious households are also less likely to have prayed regularly with their family and to have attended Sunday school.
Of course, it is possible that religious diversity is not directly precipitating a decline in religious identity and engagement. Parents of different faith backgrounds might de-emphasize religious activities in an effort to reduce conflict in the home — a phenomenon supported by social network theory — but it might also be that people who marry outside their particular denomination or tradition care less about their religious identity in the first place. Religiously diverse states might attract more secular residents because they offer a more accepting and tolerant religious climate.
And yet, it is difficult to imagine that weakening social pressure and greater exposure to diverse religious perspectives, including those that are critical of religion, would have no effect on the decisions we make about our own religious lives.
Diversity is now simply a fact of American religious life. It does not signal the end of religion, but it may make it easier for Americans to abstain from religious involvement and encourage other types of spiritual and philosophical explorations. It may also make atheists more willing to "come out," something that can be exceedingly difficult, especially in very religious communities.
Organized religion has never been in jeopardy of dying out due to a single traumatic event. Instead, it is a cumulative series of unanswered challenges that pose the greatest risk. Religious diversity might not represent a dramatic threat to religion, but it may represent another small hole in an already sinking ship.
Daniel Cox writes for Public Religion Research Institute and specializes in survey research, youth politics and religion. He has co-authored several academic book chapters on topics relating to religious polarization and gay and lesbian issues in the black church.
Western civilization has entered the long-predicted Secular Age, when the power of religion over society gradually recedes.
Europe started the shift after World War II. Churchgoing diminished until only a fringe of Europeans attend worship services today — fewer than 10 percent in some nations. The young especially ignore faith.
The secularizing trend spread to Canada, Australia, Japan and other democracies.
Now it's occurring in America. People who tell pollsters that their religion is "none" have increased rapidly to one-fourth of the U.S. population. They're expected to continue rising because one-third of Americans under 30 have ceased worshipping.
This trend has political significance because those who don't attend church often tend to be strongly liberal, progressive and Democratic in their values. The "none" segment may decide the Nov. 8 national election.
"The Decline of Religion is the GOP's Real Demographic Crisis" is the title of a research report by journalist Matthew Sheffield, who is writing a book on the trend. He points out that Republican Mitt Romney clearly won the 2012 presidential election, as far as U.S. churchgoers are concerned — but churchless voters killed Romney in state after state.
Sheffield wrote: "In seven key states — Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and New Hampshire — Mitt Romney won the majority of the Christian vote but ended up losing overall because he was defeated so soundly among non-Christians."
Polls show that "none" voters backed Romney's opponent, then-Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, in 2012 by these huge margins: Virginia, 78 percent to 22; Pennsylvania, 74 to 25; Florida, 72 to 26; Wisconsin, 73 to 25; etc.
"It is safe to say that the Godless Gap cost Mitt Romney the election," Sheffield concluded.
Young "nones" generally are tolerant and humane. They support the right of gays to marry. They support women's right to choose to end pregnancies. They would halt the death penalty. They would legalize marijuana. They support universal health care.
They reject most of the Puritanism embraced by many within the GOP and its fundamentalist wing. They instead embrace Democratic values.
White evangelicals vote Republican as forcefully as "nones" vote Democratic. Currently, both segments are evenly balanced — each comprising one-fifth to one-fourth of U.S. voters.
But here's a crucial difference: White evangelicals are shrinking, while the churchless grow relentlessly. The trend bodes a brighter future for liberal politics (although many "nones" don't bother to vote).
It's fascinating to watch the culture evolve.
When I became a young reporter in Charleston, W.Va., during the 1950s, Appalachian Bible Belt taboos were locked into law. It was a felony to be gay. It was a felony for a desperate girl to end a pregnancy. It was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath. Mixed-race marriage was against the law.
It was a crime to sell a cocktail, lottery ticket or anything akin to a Playboy magazine. Schools had mandatory teacher-led prayer. It was a crime for an unwed couple to live together or even share a bedroom.
All those religion-based laws slowly vanished as society turned more secular. Few people noticed because we all were too busy with daily life — but morality gradually flip-flopped. Former crimes became legal.
The secularizing trend seems unstoppable. It gradually bolsters progressive values of the Democratic Party. White evangelicals remain the heart of the GOP — but they're losing ground as "nones" slowly outnumber them.
James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
FFRF does not endorse or promote any candidates for public office.
Today's major religions — Christianity and Islam — make absolutely contradictory and irreconcilable claims. Each faith believes its holy book is the literal "word of God," accepted on faith that everything in it is historical fact infallibly written by scribes inspired by God.
Christianity says Jesus is a god; Islam states Jesus is not a god. This means that one of them is dead wrong. Worst of all is the claim by both Islam and Christianity that those who believe in the wrong god will be condemned to hell. Such idiocy.
The Christian tale has always been difficult to swallow by other religions, just as the dogmas of other religions can't be accepted by Christians. So let's look at Christianity critically from the perspective of other faiths and see if their skepticism is justified.
The earliest writings known in the New Testament are letters believed by Christian scholars to have been written by the apostle Paul between about 50 and 70 CE (Common Era), which is a few decades after Jesus' alleged death around 30 CE. Paul traveled extensively between Jerusalem and Rome from 5-67 CE, and authored the "Pauline Letters," or epistles — seven books in the New Testament.
What is absolutely remarkable about them is they do not portray Jesus as a historical person. All of Paul's sources are divine — no human sources whatsoever. Paul only mentions his source of knowledge of Jesus as God or God's revelation, or indirectly from the Old Testament.
In the more than 300 references to Jesus in Paul's seven authentic letters, Paul does not mention even one single fact that "connects Jesus with an earthly life." We hear nothing about his virgin birth, the date he was born or died, whether he was married or single. Nothing about Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, his sermons, his miracles or anything about his personal appearance. Paul's silence on Jesus' history and earthly accomplishments is unthinkable. The simplest explanation is that there never was a historical Jesus.
The heart and soul of Christianity is the belief in a supernatural and historical Jesus. The New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — believed to have been written anonymously between about 70 and 110 CE — all insist that Jesus was well-known throughout Jerusalem and the Mediterranean world. And his unprecedented miracles were allegedly "witnessed by multitudes." The entire city of Jerusalem reportedly went wild acclaiming him as he entered triumphantly. He was dramatically arrested and placed on trial before the whole city of Jerusalem. His death and resurrection were supposedly accompanied by spectacular supernatural events: angelic appearances, earthquakes and a supernatural darkness that covered an entire region for hours.
Christians have always claimed that the events in Jesus' life were the best-attested events in human history. And, additionally, the first century is known as one of the best-documented historical periods. Yet we have no texts of anyone who says anything whatsoever about the "incredibly famous events" declared in the gospels.
Eyewitnesses to Jesus
Jesus supposedly lived from about 4 BCE (Before the Common Era) to 30 CE. Yet there is not a single mention of him by his contemporaries — not by Romans or Jews — during his entire lifetime.
For instance, Seneca the Younger, in his book On Superstition (where he criticizes every known cult and religion) makes no mention whatsoever of Jesus or Christianity. And Gallio, Seneca's older brother, also never heard of Jesus or Christians. Yet this makes no sense, since he was the magistrate who heard Paul's case (Acts 18:12-17). And there is the Jewish historian Justus of Tiberias, who lived in Galilee not far from Jesus' hometown and wrote a history of the kingdom of Judah, covering the entire time when supposedly Jesus lived. But there was not one mention of Jesus.
And, finally there was Philo-Judaeus, one of the most prolific writers in the ancient world, most of whose works were preserved. He lived before, during and after the alleged time of Christ, and was in or near Jerusalem when Christ reportedly made his triumphal entry and when the crucifixion and resurrection occurred, and during the alleged earthquakes and supernatural darkness. It is astonishing he never once mentioned Jesus, the crucifixion, resurrection or the miraculous events associated with him.
This pervasive silence of Jesus occurred in spite of the fact that the Christian church doggedly preserved every scrap of documentation that mentioned him or Christianity. Many ancient Christian scholars, such as Origen and Eusebius, were near fanatical in referencing or quoting authors who attested to Jesus or Christianity. Any mention of Jesus in first- or second-century literature would therefore have had the highest probability of preservation.
Thus, we can be certain that Philo or any other first- or early second-century author never spoke of him. Yet the same writers had much to say about other less interesting messiahs — but nothing about Jesus.
It is inconceivable that all tens of thousands of Romans and Jews living in Judea during the first century could have missed everything about Jesus' life and his miracles. And if you assume Jesus was the son of God and therefore "the most important historical person to walk the Earth," the complete omission by all his contemporary writers is deafening. We simply have no eyewitness record of Jesus ever existing.
Aside from having no proven eyewitness of Jesus, there is absolutely nothing written outside of the bible to confirm Jesus' life, death and return from the dead during the first century and most of the second century. From Jesus' death until at least 112 CE, not a single word of Jesus is mentioned in any non-biblical source. He is never discussed, challenged or talked about in any surviving Roman or Greek source of the period.
Not until 112 CE, when the author Pliny the Younger, governor of a Roman province, in a letter to his emperor, asked how to handle secret meetings of a group called "Christians." And in 115 CE, Tacitus, in writing his history of Rome, mentions a "Christus" who was executed at the hands of Pontius Pilate. However, the word "Christians" in Pliny's letter is believed to have originally been "Essenes," and later changed by Christian forgers. And the passage by Tacitus is also believed by Christian scholars to be a forgery and is not quoted by ancient historians until the 15th century. Everything else referring to Jesus outside of the bible dates later than 120 CE, long after any eyewitness would have died.
Literary fraud was rampant in the early years of the Old and New Testaments. After about 120 CE, the quantity of bogus literature about Jesus and early Christianity exploded to an immense scale, making the task of sorting truth from fiction almost impossible. And, beginning about the second century and continuing for hundreds of years, almost any literature that disputed the existence of Jesus or Christianity was methodically destroyed or deleted from references by church officials.
One of the greatest crimes in human history was the total destruction of the library at Alexandria in 391 CE, perpetrated by Christian fanatics. They destroyed absolutely priceless scrolls and documents that hid the truth about the pagan origin of their religion and its alleged founder. As many as 700,000 hand-written manuscripts were lost, and it is believed to have set back civilization at least 1,000 years.
Presenting myth as fact became popular under the Roman Empire. Thus, a large part of faith literature is fabricated, yet passed off as true. Letters were similarly forged. This was the norm, not the exception. In fact, based on all of the references cited, most Christian faith literature in its first three centuries is fabricated. The phrase "pious fraud" was coined to describe what Christian fathers deemed a pious act to employ deception and fraud. Tom Harpur, an ordained priest and professor of New Testament studies, said, "The great world religion actually rests on a foundation of falsehood and forgery."
Josephus' Jesus reference
Embarrassingly for Christians, the closest historical support for the bible in all of the first century is an outright forgery. In the year 93 CE, Flavius Josephus, a respected Jewish historian from Judea, published his Antiquities of the Jews.
Josephus lived in the same area where Jesus allegedly lived and taught. Antiquities contains a disputed paragraph many Christians believe as historical evidence for Jesus. The short passage, three sentences long, presents a glowing summary of Jesus' miraculous career. This paragraph is obviously a Christian fabrication inserted into the text where it is totally out of context, and is so blatantly counterfeit that no historian today can deny it as a later Christian forgery.
The major giveaway is that the Jesus passage does not appear in Josephus' works until the fourth century. There was absolutely no reference to the Jesus passage anywhere for the first 200 years of Josephus' works, in spite of the fact that Josephus' histories were immensely popular by ancient scholars and their writings are filled with references to him. The passage could not be referenced, obviously, as it did not exist.
The Jesus passage is first quoted repeatedly by the notorious Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea — known to have been responsible for many revisions and blatant forgeries. The bishop was an advocate of what he called "holy lying." Over two dozen complaints from his contemporaries still survive. Eusebius apparently altered and doctored the facts constantly, and is believed by many Christian scholars today to have inserted the entire Jesus passage.
Mythical, invented Jesus
The earliest writings in the New Testament by Paul portray a celestial, mythical Jesus rather than a real and historic one. The only reason people believe that Jesus really existed as a historical person lies in the contents of the New Testament that were written decades after Paul, when Christian apologists had time to embellish his story with earthly characteristics. There were no eyewitnesses and no other source, document or otherwise, that independently corroborates the historical reality of Jesus.
So we are left with two choices: Either much or all of the New Testament was fabricated to grossly exaggerate Jesus' fame and accomplishments — which went completely unnoticed by society — or he was an outright mythical character that the gospels clearly succeeded in inventing.
We can now more easily understand why billions of people in other religions believe Jesus was mythical, and, with it, the foundation of Christianity.
FFRF member Paul Davis is an engineering geologist in southern California, specializing in earthquake fault and landslide investigations.
After more than a quarter century of legal battles, the lawsuit over the Mount Soledad cross in La Jolla, Calif., has come to an end.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Sept. 7 ruled an end to the case because the issue is now moot — the 29-foot-tall cross (43 feet with the base) is no longer on public grounds after a private organization purchased the land.
"Once again, courts have definitively ruled that the government may not place permanent Christian crosses on public land," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "That's a major victory. But taxpayers have been cheated of their view, and prime real estate, by nearly three decades of machinations by the city of San Diego, members of Congress and even the Pentagon, interceding to 'save the cross.'"
In July 2015, the Mount Soledad Memorial Association agreed to pay $1.4 million to buy the cross and the land beneath it from the Department of Defense. It took more than a year from that point for the plaintiffs, which included FFRF Life Member and California State Representative Steven Trunk, to review the sale and other details.
Trunk testified that he was "a veteran who served his country during the Vietnam conflict [but] I am not a Christian and the memorial sends a very clear message to me that the government is honoring Christian war veterans and not nonChristians."
The controversial case began in 1989 when the city of San Diego and the federal government were first involved. It traveled throughout the court systems several times, including twice to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Opponents of the cross said that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibiting the government from endorsing one religion over another. Proponents said that the cross is a local landmark and a secular sign of service and sacrifice by veterans.
"I think this now resolves the case," said David Loy, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial Counties. "The government doesn't own the cross or the land underneath it any more. The government is no longer in the business of endorsing religion."
The cross site initially was on land owned for decades by the city of San Diego. And it was the city that was the first defendant in the initial suit in 1989 filed by Vietnam War veteran and atheist Philip K. Paulson, who earned FFRF's premiere Atheist in Foxhole award.
In 1991, U.S. District Judge Gordon Thompson ruled that the cross was unconstitutional and had to be moved off public land.
After that, the city tried to sell the property, but the courts wouldn't allow that, stating that the terms of the sale were unconstitutional because they gave a preference to buyers who planned to keep it as a religious symbol.
In 2006, the U.S. Congress intervened and took the property by eminent domain, then turning it over to the Defense Department for use as a war memorial.
More litigation followed, including by Trunk, who replaced Paulson after his death in 2006. Then, in 2008, U.S. District Judge Larry Burns in San Diego ruled that the cross was not a religious symbol, but one of service and sacrifice. So again that ruling was appealed, and in 2011 the 9th Circuit ruled in favor of Trunk, saying the cross was a "distinctively Christian symbol." Trunk earned FFRF's third Atheist in Foxhole award for his work on this case.
Another appeal followed before last year's sale of the property went through.
Jim McElroy, the lawyer for Trunk who has been involved in the case for two decades, said the long battle was worth it.
"From our perspective, I think I can say that after 25 years we finally got the message through, that a 40-foot, 20-ton ubiquitous symbol of Christianity on public property is not constitutional," he told the Los Angeles Times.
A Ten Commandments mural at O'Donnell (Texas) High School was covered with dark paper after the school got a letter from FFRF challenging the constitutionality of the painting.
Shortly thereafter, the paper covering was torn down by the students. School staff then placed an American flag over the mural, hoping no one would rip that down. So far the flag remains up, but students have been posting sticky notes around the flag with bible verses and faith-based messages.
O'Donnell School District Superintendent Cathy Amonett even went so far as holding a school assembly that day so she could explain that the covering was due to fear of a lawsuit by FFRF.
While a lawsuit is an option, it's is not the preferred choice and is normally a last resort. FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover sent the letter Sept. 7 to the school, asking for a written response on what steps it will take next. "By displaying a religious message in its entryway, O'Donnell ISD infringes on its students' constitutionally protected religious freedom," he wrote in the letter.
"The whole point is to educate the school district on why this is illegal and ask that they voluntarily remove the display," Grover said. "At this point, we're very hopeful the school district will do the right thing."
But Amonett isn't sure yet what the school will do.
"The next step is I'm going to do some more investigation," she said, "and get with the school leadership, and the community, and the students, and we will decide what we need to do to protect the school, while also honoring it."
Texas state Sen. Charles Perry even got involved, stating, "I am proud of the hundreds of students at O'Donnell that are standing up for their faith and starting a movement to save the Ten Commandments at their school. Our office is working to ensure the school is in touch with the necessary experts to explain their rights and determine a plan of action."
So far, the school is not taking further action. At a public forum on Sept. 13, all of the speakers (students and residents) were in favor of keeping the mural up. But, as Grover points out, "Everyone's not happy with it. First of all, because someone locally contacted us . . . Our constitutional rights in this country are not subject to majority rule. The Constitution protects from the tyranny of majority rule."
While pleased that a live nativity pageant in an Indiana public school has stopped for now, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is disappointed following a federal ruling Sept. 14 saying a school may employ mannequins in a Christian manger scene during a Christmas celebration.
U.S. District Judge Jon E. DeGuilio for the Northern District of Indiana issued the 37-page ruling in a case brought by FFRF and the American Civil Liberties Union, with parent and student plaintiffs. The federal suit challenged a live student tableau of students as part of Concord Community Schools' annual "Christmas Spectacular."
The ACLU and FFRF won a preliminary injunction Dec. 2, 2015, against the live nativity. The nearly 50-year violation involved students reenacting the supposed birth of the Christian savior, as school officials read passages from the New Testament and devotional Christmas hymns dominated the musical program.
The district responded to the lawsuit by adding one Chanukah song and one Kwanzaa song to its program. After the preliminary injunction, it replaced the student actors in its nativity scene with mannequins, but kept the usual 20 minutes of devotional Christmas songs performed by students during four public concerts.
The decision held that the 2015 change from a live nativity enactment to a static nativity display did not violate the Establishment Clause. The ruling left untouched the court's earlier decision enjoining the live nativity.
The court's ruling was predicated on what it saw as significant changes to the school district's program, brought on by the litigation. The judge called the changes sufficient to avoid any constitutional problem with the 2015 concert.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said, to the contrary, that in fact the unannounced inclusion of a manger scene was a disturbing shock and offense to the plaintiffs observing the concerts.
FFRF and the ACLU note that staging a nativity scene, live or otherwise, during a school event has no secular or educational purpose.
"The nativity scene and the concert's heavy focus on the religious aspects of Christmas send an exclusionary message to our clients and others that the school prefers Christians over nontheists and people of other faiths," noted ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Heather Weaver.
The case is still ongoing. Judge DeGuilio has asked the parties to submit supplemental briefing on how to remedy the violations to plaintiffs' rights occurring in 2014 and earlier. Those issues should be fully briefed by the end of October.
FFRF thanks its local plaintiffs, who are under a protective order, for their willingness to challenge this longstanding violation despite community uproar and threats delivered against anyone perceived to be involved in the case.
Unconstitutional tie-up in preschool ends
An unconstitutional tie-up between a Wisconsin school district and a parochial preschool has been nixed following an FFRF complaint.
In Beaver Dam Unified School District, 3-year-old public school students with developmental delays were often being sent to private preschools. FFRF's complainant, who has an eligible child, was offered only one choice: a Catholic school, St. Katharine's, whose preschool is named God's Little Miracles. To quote the school itself, its "program is based on the theme 'Thank you, God.' "
"It is wildly inappropriate for the School District to send 3-year-old public school students to private schools for religious instruction," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in June to Stephen Vessey, superintendent of the Beaver Dam Unified School District.
The School District investigated the situation and told St. Katharine's what it would have to do to comply with the law and district policy. St. Katharine's decided to stop participating altogether in the 3K program rather than make any changes, revealing that religious instruction was its primary goal.
"After being advised of the changes that would have to be made to the 3K program, [St. Katharine Drexel] School indicated it no longer wished to provide the Early Childhood (3K) program to district students, and the district has accepted the school's withdrawal from participating in the program," Vessey recently replied. "Any students who were enrolled in the school's Early Childhood program by the district for the coming school year have since been moved to a program offered at a different site."
Elementary school bible club shut down
FFRF has caused a religious club to be disbanded at a California elementary school.
Club Monarch, an afterschool bible club, was run in part by teachers and routinely given preferential treatment at Mariposa Elementary School in Brea, Calif. The club was mentioned in the weekly newsletter and listed in the school calendar. There were posters around the school exclusively advertising the club. At a back-to-school night, the principal effusively praised and recommended the club.
FFRF reminded the school that this sort of collaboration was unconstitutional.
"It is a well-settled principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that public schools may not advance, prefer or promote religion," FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote to Brea Olinda Unified School District Superintendent Brad Mason back in March.
After reviewing school records obtained through an open records request, including over 2,500 pages of emails about Club Monarch going back only two years, FFRF wrote a follow-up letter in May stating that its apprehensions had been confirmed.
FFRF has now received confirmation that its advice has been followed. "Club Monarch has ceased to operate at Mariposa Elementary School and does not operate at any other district school sites," the school district's legal firm has written to FFRF.
FFRF ends religious film screenings
The Christian movie "Facing the Giants" won't be shown to Medina Middle School's seventh-graders in the future, FFRF has ensured.
A parent of a student at the Dyer, Tenn., school brought the issue to FFRF's attention. The film follows a struggling high school football coach who inspires his team to believe in the God and to use faith to win football games.
Showing "Facing the Giants" in a public school "promotes Christianity over all other religions and nonreligion and violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment," FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert informed the Gibson County Special School District.
Eddie Pruett, the district's director of schools, replied that the teacher was reminded that multimedia must be approved by the principal, and was told that "Facing the Giants" was not an appropriate movie to show the class.
FFRF gets religious group to pay fees
FFRF has made certain that a Wisconsin religious organization will pay full rental fees at local public schools.
Mission of Hope has held several events at public schools in Waupaca, Wis. Among other activities, the events include a prayer tent staffed by local church members to "pray with and for" visitors. Records that FFRF obtained revealed that the School District of Waupaca forgave Mission of Hope the $180 facility fees and $100 nonprofit kitchen use fees for past such events at the Waupaca Learning Center Elementary School.
FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote earlier this month to Waupaca School District Superintendent Greg Nyen. FFRF's complaint was taken seriously and received an appropriate response.
"I understand your concern regarding the need for separation of church and state," wrote Nyen. "I am hereby providing you said assurance that in the future, charges for facility usage will be applied to Mission of Hope as it would any other outside organization."
Prayer discontinued at N.D. graduations
After including multiple prayers to Jesus at its 2016 graduation ceremony, Watford City High School in North Dakota has assured FFRF that the constitutional violation will not be repeated.
"High school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students," FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliot wrote to McKenzie County School District Superintendent Steven Holden. "It makes no difference how many students wouldn't want prayer or wouldn't be offended by prayer at their graduation ceremony. As the Supreme Court has said, 'Fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.' "
Holden responded on Aug. 2, explaining that, after consulting with the school board and school district attorney, the district would ensure prayer would not be part of future ceremonies or other school-sponsored events.
No more pastors at school bible club
A bible club at a Nevada middle school will no longer be led by pastors, thanks to FFRF. A parent of a Bob Miller Middle School student contacted FFRF after reading the club's description in the yearbook: "Pastors come to the club every Tuesday and teach the students morals mentioned in the bible."
"It is illegal for public schools to allow adults to lead religious instruction on school property during the school day," wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler in a July 21 letter to the Clark County School District. The Equal Access Act forbids adult participation in student religious clubs.
General Counsel Carlos L. McDade told FFRF on Aug. 2 that administrators were "reminded that the bible club must be student-led and that the club must not be directed, conducted, controlled, or regularly attended by nonschool persons."
Teacher instructed to stop praying
The Academy for Scholarship and Entrepreneurship in the Bronx, N.Y., will stop including teacher-led invocations in its graduation ceremonies.
The decision was prompted by a July 14 letter from FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, who pointed out that the Supreme Court has specifically struck down prayers at public school graduations. "The district has a duty to remain neutral toward religion," Markert wrote. "By scheduling prayers at graduation, the district abridges that duty and alienates the 35% of young Americans who are not religious."
Carron Staple, superintendent of Bronx High School Districts 8, 9 and 11, responded that the teacher's actions were against New York City Department of Education regulations. Staple said the prohibition had been discussed with the school's administrative staff, who understood the invocation could not recur.
Principal won't pray with students
Bakersfield High School Principal Connie Grumling will not pray with students in the future. Grumling had met with students to pray at the flagpole.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel lodged a complaint with the Kern High School District in Bakersfield, Calif., in August 2015. "Federal courts have held it is unconstitutional for public school employees to participate in the religious activities of their students," he said. This is "to avoid any perception of government endorsement of religion."
On Aug. 9, Seidel spoke with the district's general counsel, who said that the prayer was an "isolated incident" that had been addressed by the administration.
FFRF downs religious signs at Florida school
The Osceola County School District is now limiting church advertising on its property.
The My Grace Fellowship Church holds its services at the Westside K-8 School, and previously was permitted to leave lawn signs promoting the services on the school's grounds. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel objected to this practice in a June 13. "Advancing, preferring, and promoting religion is exactly what a school does when it allows a church to prominently place a permanent advertisement for students, parents, school employees, and anyone passing by to see," said Seidel. "[The church] must put up the signs no earlier than when the rental time begins and take them down when the rental time ends."
An attorney for the school district reported the matter resolved on Aug. 24.
Softball coaches leave prayer circle
After receiving a letter from FFRF last year, West Virginia's Putnam County Schools has finally instructed softball coaches at Buffalo High School to stop praying with students. A photo from the state championship game showed players, coaches and fans holding hands in a circle around the field for a post-game prayer.
"While students may engage in prayer on their own, school staff, including coaches, cannot lead, direct or participate in such religious activities," FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert reminded the district in June 2015.
After FFRF followed up several times, the district replied on Aug. 11 that the incident was addressed by administrators and that the district was obtaining legal training on the Establishment Clause.
Elementary school graduations secularized
FFRF has put a stop to several egregious constitutional violations at a kindergarten graduation ceremony at Valley Elementary School in Pikeville, Ky.
The school's 2016 ceremony included a teacher-led prayer and the students singing, "Jesus Loves Me," which they had reportedly been singing in their music classes for most of the school year. "It is coercive and inappropriate for a teacher to lead a prayer at a school function, and then to order the performance of 'Jesus Loves Me' by the students," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a June 9 letter to the Pike County Schools.
General Counsel Neal Smith wrote back to FFRF on Aug. 23, saying he "cautioned our administration that open prayer at school-sponsored events should not take place and that faculty-led singing of hymns, such as 'Jesus Loves Me,' should also be avoided."
FFRF quashes Utah school board prayer
The Wasatch County Schools in Heber City, Utah, have reluctantly agreed to stop praying at School Board meetings.
Previously, meetings regularly included Mormon-style prayers delivered by the superintendent, School Board members, and other district employees. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Superintendent Terry Shoemaker and School Board President Mark Davis on May 3. "Federal courts have struck down school board practices that include this religious ritual," he said, citing several cases, including FFRF's recent victory against the Chino Valley (Calif.) Unified School District's praying school board.
Superintendent Paul A. Sweat replied Aug. 23 that he believed the cases FFRF cited were "wrongly decided," but said the board had stopped conducting prayer for the time being. Sweat concluded by expressing his hope that the Supreme Court would soon extend the Greece v. Galloway decision approving of some prayers at meetings of legislative bodies.
School district cuts religious presenter
Staff in the Little Rock (Ark.) School District won't be subjected to religious lessons at staff meetings in the future.
At Mabelvale Middle School's Aug. 9 teaching staff meeting, the school invited a Baptist pastor to give a presentation, which included retelling biblical stories and other religious remarks. FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott called out this unconstitutional presentation in an Aug. 18 letter. "By imposing religious messages on its employees at district-sponsored events, the district is violating constitutional limits on government religious endorsement," he wrote.
Replying promptly on Aug. 23, an attorney for the school district acknowledged that part of the presentation could be perceived as an endorsement of religion, and said the superintendent would send a written notice to all district principals "to remind them not to allow presentations at mandatory teacher meetings or in-service training which endorse a particular religious position or message."
Lunchtime religious school group disbanded
FFRF has gotten an outsider-led lunchtime religious group at an Illinois public school disbanded.
School administrators at Harrisburg Middle School were allowing a Baptist minister to lead a religious session during lunch hour. He offered free pizza and soda to students who joined the group.
It was inappropriate and unconstitutional for the district to offer religious leaders access to befriend and proselytize students during the school day on school property, FFRF stressed. No outside adults should be provided carte blanche access to minors — a captive audience — in a public school.
After waiting for months for a response, FFRF Legal Fellow Jayne sent a reminder letter, and this time Harrisburg School District Superintendent Michael Gauch responded.
"Following the school board's directive, school administration instructed the local minister that he would no longer be allowed to come onto school property and meet with students during the lunchtime or anytime during the instructional day," Gauch wrote.
Ohio commissioners to find secular inspiration
The Lorain County Board of Commissioners in Ohio is replacing invocations with secular quotations at its meetings after hearing from FFRF.
Christian prayers and bible readings by the commissioners were prior staples of the meetings. "It is coercive, embarrassing, and intimidating for nonreligious citizens to be required to make a public showing of their nonbelief (by not rising or praying) or else to display deference toward a religious sentiment in which they do not believe, but which their Board of Commissioners members clearly do," FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert said in a letter to the board.
Markert explained that unlike the prayers by outside religious leaders approved by the Supreme Court in Greece v. Galloway, federal courts have struck down prayers led by commissioners themselves.
A county attorney said the board disagreed with FFRF's position, but had decided to discontinue the prayers anyway, replacing them with a secular "quote of the day."
FFRF ends Louisiana prayer violations
Thanks to FFRF, the Calcasieu Parish Public Schools have resolved two constitutional violations. Westlake High School will no longer broadcast prayers at football games. Vinton Elementary School will not repeat an incident that occurred on Aug. 7, when the community was invited to come to the school for prayer and a tour of the facilities.
FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover first wrote to the school district in September 2015 about the football prayers, receiving no response despite several follow up letters. Grover wrote again on Aug. 26 about the elementary prayer event. "Hosting a prayer event at a public school alienates non-religious students and families, as well as those who practice a minority religion," he said. "A public school district should seek to be inclusive of all students and families, not just those in the religious majority."
Gregory Belfour, the school's attorney, responded just a few days later this time. He said the superintendent would communicate the "constitutional limitations" on government-sponsored prayer to the Vinton principal, and school administrators at Westlake had been advised to stop promoting prayers at football games.
Florida police prayer event canceled
The Ocoee, Fla., Police Department will no longer host a "Prayers for Police" event after FFRF sent a letter of complaint.
The department put on the event in May at a church, listing the purpose on a flier as "a period of unity as police chaplains, community leaders and members of the community join together to pray for the police profession." The event was advertised on social media and hosted on police property. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel notified the department that this entanglement with religion was unconstitutional. "Although we fully support remembering fallen police officers, it is OPD's constitutional obligation to find a religiously neutral means of doing so," said Seidel.
An Ocoee City Attorney responded on Aug. 2, saying the city would no longer host the event.
FFRF stops school's Christian music
Students in the weight room at Tecumseh High School in Tecumseh, Mich., won't be forced to listen to Christian music, thanks to FFRF.
FFRF received a report from a local resident that a physical education teacher played the religious music during workout sessions in the weight room during the summer. "Playing Christian music to an audience of students using the weight room is a violation of student and parental rights," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a letter to the Tecumseh Public Schools superintendent. "It is illegal for a district employee to promote Christianity through religious music while acting in his or her official capacity."
Superintendent Kelly M. Coffin thanked Markert for bringing the matter to the school district's attention and said that the school principal reminded the teacher of "his constitutional duty to remain neutral toward religion while in a public school setting."