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Lord’s Prayer out, silence in

Another Pennsylvania school board has decided to drop prayer at board meetings after getting a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The Octorara Area School Board in Atglen voted Sept. 17 to substitute a moment of silence for Christian prayer to open meetings.

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert had written an Aug. 17 letter to board President Lisa Bowman on behalf of a local complainant about the illegal recitation of the Lord's Prayer as an invocation. She reminded the board of numerous court rulings that said scheduled prayer at school board meetings is unconstitutional.

While the school hasn't formally notified FFRF of the change, according to a LancasterOnline story, the decision was made Monday. The story said Vice President Brian Norris told the board it must honor the law and that members could meet privately to prayer before the meeting.

The advice to pray privately didn't sit well with everyone, the news story said: "Three school board members, however, stepped down from the official table to protest the change. Board member John McCartney Jr. walked to the end of the table and knelt in prayer as the school board began its new tradition of a moment of silence."

Bowman was out of town but told the board in a letter: "The board should not put the district at [financial] risk. It could affect taxpayer and student programming."

The Grove City and Big Spring school boards also voted recently to stop praying before meetings after getting FFRF letters.

"Courts rightfully look with suspicion at imposition of religious ritual by public school boards," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Students who sit on boards or attend meetings shouldn't be subject to prayer they may not want to participate in or even witness."

The Anti-Defamation League had also protested the prayers.

As a result of a recent complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, it appears sectarian prayer by Christian clergy over the loudspeaker at University of Tennessee-Knoxville football games will be dropped.

FFRF complained Sept. 13 to Chancellor Jimmy Cheek about the practice, in which an announcer asks all attendees to rise for the invocation, delivered by a Christian member of the clergy who invariably invokes Jesus Christ.

A letter from Cheek was faxed to FFRF mid-afternoon today, which indicated the University would conform its practice toChaudhuri v. State of Tennessee, a decision FFRF brought to the school’s attention, in which the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that nonsectarian prayer or a moment of silence at public universities is permissible. 

“While we are pleased that UTK is moving in the right direction, the wisest policy is to drop prayer entirely,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Students, alums and fans come to the games to watch players, not to recite prayers! Prayer hosted by a public university is unnecessary, embarrassing and divisive. It’s just plain bad manners to knowingly inflict prayer on those of us who are not religious and believe nothing fails like prayer.”

Religious ritual hosted and endorsed by a public university excludes the one in four young persons who is nonreligious, according to PEW, and more than 430,000 Tennessee adults who identify as nonreligious, ( American Religious Identification Survey 2008).

Gaylor said to ensure nonsectarianism UTK must cease inviting clergy, who are inextricably identified with their denomination, to lead prayer. Gaylor said as a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison she stopped graduation prayer there by pointing out it excludes many students, including foreign students, and unites church with a state-funded institution.

“I have no faith in prayer, but I do have faith in the power of secular students to mobilize and educate.”

FFRF, which is based in Madison, Wis., has more than 18,500 members, including 285 in Tennessee. FFRF has halted illegal prayer at many public schools in Tennessee, at high school graduations, sporting events and even in kindergarten. “We believe the same Establishment Clause precedent which protects public school students at lower levels from school-sponsored prayer should be applied to public university students,” she said.

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Texas school halts football bible banners

The Kountze High School Lions will no longer run through banners inscribed with religious messages before the start of football games in Kountze, Texas.

On Sept. 17, Stephanie Schmitt, Freedom From Religion Foundation staff attorney wrote Superintendent Kevin Weldon of the Kountze Independent School District:

"It is our information and understanding that Kountze High School cheerleaders regularly display religious banners that the football team runs through before athletic competitions. We understand that each week a different bible verse is displayed for all to observe. Enclosed please find photocopies of recent banners containing bible verses. You must take immediate action to stop these religious banners from being part of school-sponsored events. It is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor or lead religious messages at school athletic events."

Schmitt cited a long list of court cases that have held such displays "constitute an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. A reasonable Kountze student would certainly perceive the banners 'as stamped with [their] school’s approval.' "

While FFRF hasn't received an official response from the school district, a Sept. 18 story from KIII-TV in Corpus Christi said the banners are banned.

In a statement to KIII, Weldon said, "I commend [the cheerleaders] for what they stand for. But I called legal counsel and even though it's led by students, it should not be allowed to go on."

According to cheerleaders, the bible banner idea came from an instructional camp they attended. "Coaches preach devotionals before games. We wanted to show our support for our boys," Meagan Tantillo said. 

Kountze [pronounced Coontz] has about 2,100 residents. According to Wikipedia, it was the first U.S. city with a Muslim mayor, African-American Charles Bilal, in 1991. It's also home to the world's only known pair of married armadillos, Hoover and Star, married June 10, 1995.

Tantillo said the squad made Christian signs for Tuesday's volleyball game against Warren High School. Warren High volleyball players gathered with Kountze players in prayer Tuesday, KIII reported.

FFRF, a state/church watchdog has about 18,500 members nationwide and more than 900 in Texas.

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Defenders of the Constitution

FFRF’s current legal team includes three interns who are first-year law students. From left are Ben Zich, Wake Forest University; J.J. Rolling, UW-Madison; and Maddy Ziegler, UW-Madison. To Maddy’s right are staff attorneys Andrew Seidel, Rebecca Markert, Patrick Elliott and Stephanie Schmitt.

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Point, Counter-point?

FFRF member Justin Vacula made good use of an FFRF Action Alert to show up as the sole protester at the June 8 Catholic rally at Courthouse Square in Scranton, Pa. Justin is also a plaintiff in FFRF’s suit challenging Pennsylvania declaring 2012 as the Year of the Bible. Interviewed at the rally by Go Lackawanna, he said, “The Constitution is explicitly godless. It’s a secular document. The government is anything but founded on religion. A lot of the founding fathers were deistic. These people are talking about religious freedom, but if they’re really for religious freedom, it wouldn’t be about their Christian beliefs.”

Could this be a women’s health expert disguised as a nun in Scranton, Pa.? (Justin Vacula photo)


FFRF led a protest of the Fortnight of Freedom rally by the Catholic Church at the Federal Courthouse in Madison, Wis., on June 8. Bottom photo: Dan Barker being harangued. (Photos by Andrew Seidel)

I am writing to tell you about the June 8 Catholic rally in New York City. I found out where it was being held from the email that FFRF sent, which included a banner to print out.

It was much too large to print on my home printer at home, so I called my local Staples early the next morning to find out if they could print it from an email forwarded to them. The result was a beautiful 1x3-foot laminated banner on heavy paper for a very reasonable cost, saying “Quit the Church — Put Women’s Rights Over Bishops’ Wrongs.”

The rally was held in front of Federal Hall at 26 Wall St. in Manhattan. A speaker told attendees the site was selected because it was where James Madison introduced the Bill of Rights in the First Congress. The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause forbids government from establishing religion in any way.

This was the crux of the Catholics’ argument, that their so-called “religious freedom” was trampled on by the Obama administration’s health care proposal, later altered in a compromise, to ensure that all women had access to reproductive health care services, particularly contraception, which is contrary to the Catholic point of view.

I was interviewed and photographed by a journalist from the Brooklyn Diocese. He said he was seeking “opposing voices” to balance coverage of the event. I gave permission to use this material.

I can’t tell you how many people came up to me and photographed the banner and said things such as that they would pray for me, etc. I got into discussions with several people and tried to articulate why I believed that what the Catholic Church called “religious freedom” was in reality an attempt to prevent any woman, including those who worked for a Catholic employer, from having access to contraceptives through their health insurance.

I argued in vain that no one was required to use contraception even if available in their health care program. Over and over people said that “contraception is easy to get and cheap, about $9 a month, and so women can get it if they want it. The Catholic Church just doesn’t want to pay for it.”

I was the only opposing voice there, as far as I could tell. There seemed to be 100 to 200 demonstrators, many with signs being handed out opposing “ObamaCare” and abortion and anything else that the Catholic Church opposes in this regard. There were prayers and hymns. Speakers included, among others, a Catholic female physician, a lawyer and Martin Luther King Jr.’s granddaughter (or so I was told).

The rally’s organization and the fervor of the onlookers was very sobering and made clear the enormous battle being waged as well as the reality of what we are up against.

I learned that it’s very difficult to be a minority of one in the face of such numbers. At least I still have my beautiful banner for another day!

Fairfid Caudle is a Lifetime Member from New York.

First Amendment heroes Jessica Ahlquist and Ellery Schempp celebrate the Reason Rally with FFRF. (Photo by Andrew Seidel)

June 25 was the 50th anniversary of the Engel decision. I write in remembrance and appreciation.

Engel v. Vitale was decided 7-1 on June 25, 1962, in a truly landmark Supreme Court case, regarding prayer in public schools. It was seminal to maintaining the “wall” of separation of church and state (as Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson later described the principle).

Before Engel, the court had decided differently as to how much various governments could “accommodate” to prevailing religious sentiments, in the Everson (1947) and Zorach (1952) cases, and ducked the school prayer issue in Doremus (1952), conflicting with the McCollum case of 1948 as to how high the wall should be.

Engel came down squarely on maintaining a high wall. The decision was written by Hugo Black for the majority, concurred with by Douglas; the only dissent was from Potter Stewart. The decision went against the amicus arguments submitted by 22 state attorneys general and particularly against the attorney for the Archdiocese of New York.

This 50th anniversary is to celebrate the real people who made this history, and did so on behalf of their children. I honor Steven Engel, Lawrence Roth, Daniel Lichtenstein, Monroe Lerner, Lenore Lyons. (Engel and Lichtenstein were members of Jewish congregations; Lerner was a member of the Society for Ethical Culture; Lyons was a member of a Unitarian Church; the Roths were nonbelievers.)

And I honor the vital role that the New York ACLU played in this case and later ones, in support of First Amendment principles, and the attorneys who argued so eloquently and persuasively. (It has always seemed to me that successful Supreme Court cases should properly be known by the names of the attorneys, not the litigants.)

Engel was decided one year earlier than the Abington v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett cases. I remember it well. I had just graduated from Tufts and was off to adventures in Greenland that summer. But my immediate reaction was that Engel paved the way, and we could not now lose Abington.

Indeed, Engel was an important precursor to the 1963 case of Abington v. Schempp, Murray v. Curlett and to many later cases: Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), Stone v. Graham (1980), Lee v. Weisman (1992), Santa Fe School District v. Doe (2000) and especially Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and Roe v. Wade (1973).

My family had no direct connection to the Engel/Roth families, but there is an odd coincidence. Steven Engel described how they moved to a community called Roslyn, N.Y. The Schempp family lived in Roslyn, a part of Abington Township, in Pennsylvania. We often got mail for Roslyn, N.Y., and I learned that Engel often got mail for us, especially after the Abington-Murray decision. Steve had hoped that the 1962 decision would be the end of it, but the 1963 decision reopened the nasty letters.

All the primary people are now gone. Steve died in 2008. In 2005, I met him in his apartment on Long Island, and we had a lovely conversation. His interests were far-ranging, but he acknowledged that separation of church and state were no longer central for him. He was sad that his friend Larry Roth had died. He recalled the hatred he faced during the court case, the swastikas scrawled in wet concrete in front of his house, the threats against his 7-year-old son (Roth’s children were ages 10 through 13) and the social ostracism the children faced in school. He was worried about whether his grandchildren would be “tainted.”

One thing to keep in mind: In 1959, leading up to 1962, there was no support for these families from groups such as American Humanists, Americans United, FFRF, etc. Some, such as FFRF, did not exist then. It is important to realize how isolated secularists were in 1962, and also in the shadow of the McCarthy era (“under God” being added in 1954). The ACLU was vital.

I think there are important things to incorporate from the Engel decision. Some memorable quotes from the opinion:

• “We think that, by using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents’ prayer, the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause. There can, of course, be no doubt that New York’s program of daily classroom invocation of God’s blessings as prescribed in the Regents’ prayer is a religious activity. It is a solemn avowal of divine faith and supplication for the blessings of the Almighty. The nature of such a prayer has always been religious, none of the respondents has denied this, and the trial court expressly so found.”

• “When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain. But the purposes underlying the Establishment Clause go much further than that. Its first and most immediate purpose rested on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion.”

• “We think that the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that, in this country, it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government.”

Prayer is no part of the business of government. Could there ever be a more succinct focus on the proper business of governments?

I celebrate the Engel decision on this 50th anniversary. Honors go to the Engel, Roth, Lichtenstein, Lerner and Lyons families, and to the ACLU.

Ellery Schempp, an FFRF Lifetime Member, protested bible reading and devotional prayers at his own high school, a protest that turned into the subsequent landmark Abington v. Schempp decision in 1963 by the U.S. Supreme Court. He is a retired scientist who often speaks about his involvement in the Schempp case and the importance of keeping religion out of government.

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Hispanic American Freethinkers

At left and right, respectively, are Lorena Rios, vice president, and David Tamayo, president, of Hispanic American Freethinkers, Reston, Va. They visited in June with Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker at FFRF’s offices in Madison, Wis. Tamayo founded the the group in 2011 as Librepensadores Washington. It’s online at

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Meet an Intern: Susan Lund

Susan Lund
Name: Susan Lund.
Where and when I was born: Kenosha, Wis., May 13, 1987.
Family: I have a wonderfully supportive family made up of my parents, Barb and Steve, and my older sister, Libby.
Education: I earned my B.A. in linguistics from the University of Minnesota in 2009 and recently received my J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School. 
My religious upbringing was: I was baptized and confirmed at a large Lutheran church, and my family later became members of a very small liberal Lutheran church.
How I came to work as an FFRF legal intern: I didn’t discover FFRF until law school, but I immediately applied when I learned about the organization and heard that they were hiring legal interns. I was finally able to work with FFRF during my third year of law school, and they allowed me to stay on as a law clerk since my graduation. 
What I do here: I spend most of my time doing legal research and writing. This involves looking into allegations of state/church violations, finding case law to back up FFRF’s legal assertions, and sometimes writing memos to supervising FFRF attorneys informing them that I don’t think there is a legal basis to pursue a complaint. I get to spend some time talking to members about ongoing complaints and cases, which I especially enjoy. 
What I like best about it: Besides growing professionally at FFRF, I’ve grown immensely on a personal level. Through exposure to enlightened coworkers, distressed complainants and freethought literature, I’ve developed more in-depth perspectives about my rejection of religion, religion’s role in society and the necessity of state/church separation. 
Something funny that’s happened: I once emailed the Dawkins Foundation with a minor legal question so that I could better address a complaint. I got an email back from Richard Dawkins himself! This was while I was reading his book The God Delusion. I was starstruck. 
My legal interests are: I aspire to practice public interest law in Wisconsin. I have a wide range of experience and hope to use it to help people who are impoverished and/or disenfranchised through a combination of direct legal work and big-picture policy work. Anyone hiring?
My legal heroes are: Whistleblowers and dissenters, courageous people who put so much at stake and often sacrifice greatly to provoke positive change. 
These three words sum me up: I really want to blow this question off, but I’m going to attempt it: honest, passionate, analytical.
Things I like: Crafts, cooking, learning, sharing, live music, reading, exploring, social justice. 
Things I smite: Paternalism, close-mindedness, arrogance. 
Today’s most important legal issue is: Expansion of corporate personhood rights. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has played out in a number of scary ways that have huge implications for the democratic process. A recent Wisconsin example is the ridiculous amount of corporate money that entered Governor Walker’s recall election and, I believe, ultimately secured his victory.
This is relevant to state/church separation because the corporate personhood framework is being used to justify the Catholic bishops’ rejection of President Obama’s mandate for insurance to cover birth control. Employers can only object to health care provisions on religious grounds at the expense of the rights of its employees to access that health care. In essence, I believe that a system that entitles corporations to First Amendment rights drowns out human rights.

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