By Rebecca Markert
In 2016, the Freedom From Religion Foundation earned more than 260 solid victories to keep religion out of government after sending out 1,073 formal letters of complaint.
The total number of victories will certainly grow, as many complaints lodged in 2016 will still roll in this year. FFRF wrote letters to errant public officials in 49 states (all but Wyoming) and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
The number of total formal letters sent out do not include the many follow-up letters sent or the time FFRF's legal staff spent responding to questions from FFRF members and members of the general public. More than 4,500 queries about potential violations were lodged with FFRF last year, most through our online form: Report a State/Church Violation.
Mass mailings were not included in the above total, either. FFRF staff attorneys often send mass educational letters to government officials, most of which involve letters to superintendents educating them on the law with regard to religion in public schools.
Of the 1,508 letters sent as mass mailings last year, most (1,390) were to superintendents in Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Indiana, and Ohio warning against public school field trips to the Ark Park, and to registers of deeds (99) regarding religious marriage certificates.
The top 10 states (where FFRF sent the most letters of complaint) were:
7. Illinois tied with Tennessee
9. Alabama tied with Georgia
The top 10 legal issue areas were:
1. Religion in the public schools
2. Miscellaneous issues
3. Religious displays
4. Government funding to religious organizations
5. Prayer or religious statements by government officials
6. Elections (churches electioneering or churches serving as polling places)
7. Holiday displays
8. Cross displays
9. Prayer at legislative meetings, such as city councils and county boards
10. In God We Trust displays (most being decals added to law enforcement vehicles)
To assist in processing these complaints, FFRF hired a full-time legal intake coordinator (Seth Wrinkle) and a full-time legal assistant (Whitney Steffen) to replace FFRF's first legal assistant, Calli Miller (who left FFRF to attend Harvard Law School).
FFRF staff attorneys were also busy assisting our network of attorneys in litigation cases around the country. In the first half of the year, FFRF filed a whopping eight lawsuits and two of those quickly settled in FFRF's favor. For all of 2016, 11 new lawsuits were filed. (See sidebar for lawsuits.)
Staff attorneys also filed seven amicus briefs with courts around the country, including in two cases regarding religious exemptions in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). FFRF filed an amicus curiae brief in Dane County Circuit Court to support the city of Madison levying taxes on property that the St. Raphael's congregation owns and the court ruled in favor of taxation. Another amicus brief was filed against a Florida Christian school that wants to broadcast pregame prayers at state championship football games. FFRF supported the American Humanist Association in two of its cases, filing amicus briefs in cases involving a cross display in Bladensburg, Md., and school board prayer at Birdville Independent School District in Texas. Finally, FFRF submitted a brief in defense of free speech in an ongoing case regarding Minnesota's assisted suicide law.
Rebecca Markert is the FFRF's managing staff attorney.