None of the lawsuits taken by the Freedom From Religion Foundation has been frivolous. Had the courts strictly adhered to the separation of church and state, all should have been won. In many of these cases, there was a victory at at least one court level. Even the lawsuits the Foundation has not won have been educational.
- Gaylor v. Risser
- Year of the Bible Challenged
- Round One; Ten Commandments
- Illinois Chapel Litigated
- Ten Commandments Suit in Denver
- In God We Don't Trust
- Money to Enhance Catholic Seminary
- Challenges Creche in Waunakee Park
- A Banner Case
- Christian County Sued
In 1978, the Foundation filed a federal lawsuit challenging public payment of prayers by preachers to open the Wisconsin Legislature. The case languished in federal court for five years without being heard, then was dismissed when the U.S. Supreme Court acted on a similar Nebraska case, Marsh v. Chambers (1983), finding that the prayers were "traditional." The Foundation later prevailed on the Wisconsin Senate to drop paid prayers for at least one session (1985).
Year of the Bible Challenged
The Freedom From Religion Foundation was the first to challenge a Congressional proclamation calling 1983 "The Year of the Bible." Gaylor v. Reagan was eventually dismissed as moot by U.S. District Judge James Doyle when Reagan signed the Congressional resolution. But the lawsuit commanded major headlines, TV talkshows and interviews for the Foundation. The proclamation was delayed following the filing of the lawsuit, and the version that was belatedly signed was also weaker than the original wording proposed.
Round One; Ten Commandments
In 1985 the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit challenging a Ten Commandments monument in a public park in La Crosse, Wisconsin, donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. Preparing for the trial in 1987, the attorney in the case deposed the Eagles official who came up with the idea, who explained how he and director Cecil B. DeMille got together to promote the Ten Commandments, Minnesota granite and DeMille's new epic movie. The federal judge found that, based on a technicality, the La Crosse plaintiff, a lifelong resident, schoolteacher and daughter of the former local Congressman, did not have standing to sue (1987). This case has been revisited by the Foundation with 22 local plaintiffs, and to date, the Foundation has prevailed in court.
Illinois Chapel Litigated
In 1986, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, with Illinois member Steve Van Zandt, filed a federal lawsuit to stop the building of a chapel at the Illinois statehouse. The chapel had been suggested during a visit by TV evangelist Pat Robertson. In December 1986, the Foundation won its lawsuit at the trial level, with a strong, eloquent decision. In January 1988, the appeals court inexplicably ruled that the prayer room had a "secular purpose." The silver lining: the chapel was never used.
Ten Commandments Suit in Denver
The Freedom From Religion Foundation went to Colorado state court to remove a Ten Commandments monument on Capitol grounds in Denver in 1989. The trial judge ruled that the Ten Commandments were the basis of constitutional law in 1992. In June 1993, the Foundation won the case before the Colorado Court of Appeals. The State Supreme Court in November 1994 reversed the appeals court ruling, and the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1995, refused to take the case.
In God We Don't Trust
After numerous requests by its membership, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, with its attorney Robert R. Tiernan, went to federal court in Denver challenging "In God We Trust." The Freedom From Religion sued the federal government in 1994 to have "In God We Trust" removed from currency and as our national motto. The motto was put on all paper currency by an Act of Congress in 1955. The phrase was chosen as our national motto by an Act of Congress in 1956. It first appeared on paper currency in 1957.
As evidence that the "God" motto is considered an endorsement of religion by the public, the Foundation commissioned an independent national survey. Sixty-one percent consider "In God We Trust" religious, and 71% believe it endorses a belief in God. A majority also regard the motto as preferring religion over nonreligion. (Chamberlain Research, poll of 900 adults, conducted May 18-23, 1994)
The Foundation lawsuit was dismissed by a 10th Circuit federal judge on the grounds that "In God We Trust" is not a religious phrase (1994). The Foundation appealed the dismissal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which did not take the case in 1996.
Money to Enhance Catholic Seminary
The Freedom From Religion Foundation won the first round of its lawsuit to block the state of Wisconsin from granting $100,000 to assist building a center, with no strings attached, at St. Norbert Catholic College, DePere, Wisconsin, in a lawsuit filed in 1989. The funding was part of a budgetary maneuver and no public hearing was ever held. In 1990, the Foundation won at the Dane County circuit court level. Judge Robert Pekowsky ruled that the legislation did not contain necessary safeguards to assure that the taxpayers' compulsory donation would be used only for nonreligious purposes. The articles and bylaws of incorporation for the "Norbertines" provide that it is "to be operated within the context of the teachings and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church." In September 1991, a state appeals court overturned the St. Norbert's Victory, and in 1992, the (Catholic-dominated) Wisconsin Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal.
Challenges Creche in Waunakee Park
In early 1991, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, with two local plaintiffs, challenged a lighted nativity scene in a public park in Waunakee, Wisconsin, which was stored, lighted and maintained by the town. The Foundation appealed a decision calling the creche a "secular" symbol in 1992. In 1994, the Wisconsin Supreme Court, unbelievably, upheld the creche, saying the constitution required it to "protect the rights of the majority." The Freedom From Religion Foundation no longer takes lawsuits in state court in Wisconsin!
A Banner Case
In January 1996, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued over the removal of its properly-placed banner, "State/Church: Keep Them Separate," from the rotunda of the Wisconsin State Capitol, at the orders of Gov. Tommy Thompson. The Foundation had obtained a lawful permit to place the sign to counter various seasonal promotions of religion at the State Capitol. The Foundation lost at the federal court level in 1996. However, the State regulations now permit moderate-sized signs.
The Foundation has erected a Winter Solstice sign every year since, which has been called a "tourist attraction."
Christian County Sued
The Freedom From Religion Foundation went to federal court in Missouri to sue over the phrase "So help me, God" on tax forms, on behalf of a plaintiff in Christian County in 1998. The case was dismissed from federal court since it concerned taxes. The Foundation refiled in state court in 1999. In April 2001, the judge ruled against the Foundation, but ordered that the plaintiff or other citizens be allowed to cross out "So help me God."