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2012 Student Essay Contest

FFRF Brian Bolton Graduate/Mature Student Essay Contest for Grad Students and Students Age 25 and Older

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has awarded graduate students (or any students 25 or older) $9,100 in this year's essay competition. Students were asked to describe "Why God and Government Are a Dangerous Mix – Especially in an Election Year," in 850-1,000 words. There were six major winners with a tie for fourth place, plus seven honorable mentions. The winners are: 

  • First place ($3,000): Elizabeth Pipal, Harvard Graduate School of Design.
  • Second place ($2,000): Wilson Melón, Purdue University.
  • Third place ($1,000): Lynn Wilhelm, North Carolina State University.
  • Fourth place ($500): Bryan Johnson, Colorado State University.
  • Fourth place ($500): Vicky Weber, Colorado State University.
  • Fifth place ($300): Jemille Bailey, Columbia University.
  • Honorable Mention ($200): Anastassia Smorodinskaya, Columbia University.
  • Honorable Mention ($200): Antwon Kennedy, Kennesaw State University.
  • Honorable Mention ($200): Ashley Miller, University of South Carolina.
  • Honorable Mention ($200): Justin Vacula, Marywood University.
  • Honorable Mention ($200): Kristina Beverlin, University of Kansas.
  • Honorable Mention ($200): Maria Rodriguez, University of Connecticut School of Law.
  • Honorable Mention ($200): Wanda Thompson, Western Governor’s University.

The awards are made possible by the generosity of FFRF Lifetime Member Brian Bolton, a retired psychologist, humanist minister and university professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas. FFRF would also like to extend a warm thank you to FFRF members Dean and Dorea Schramm for providing the honorable mention awardees with a $50 bonus.

FFRF Michael Hakeem Memorial College Essay Contest

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has awarded $7,800 to 10 college students in this year's essay competition. Students were asked to describe "Why I am an out of the closet atheist (freethinker)," in 750-900 words. There were five major winners, plus five honorable mentions. The top five essays can be found on pages 12-14 of the September issue of Freethought Today. The winners are: 

  • First place ($3,000): Laila Shalikar, University of California at Berkeley.
  • Second place ($2,000): Savannah Roland, College of Charleston.
  • Third place ($1,000): Casimir Klim, Columbia University.
  • Fourth place ($500): Anna Biela, Purdue University.
  • Fifth place ($300): Eric Ouellet, Carleton University.
  • Honorable Mention ($200): Kate Heetland, University of Northern Iowa.
  • Honorable Mention ($200): Leah Aeby, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
  • Honorable Mention ($200): Lukas Deem, University of Central Arkansas.
  • Honorable Mention ($200): Michaelyn Everhart, University of Kansas.
  • Honorable Mention ($200): Omar De Los Santos, Yale University.

This year's awards were made possible by the Michael Hakeem Memorial, endowed by his bequest. Mr. Hakeem was a well-known sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an FFRF officer and active atheist. FFRF would also like to extend a special thank you to FFRF members Dean and Dorea Schramm for providing each student with a $50 bonus.

FFRF Herbert Bushong Annual Essay Contest for High School Seniors Who Are College-Bound in the Fall

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is pleased to announce the 2012 Herbert Bushong High School Essay Award Winners. FFRF has awarded $11,250 to 13 college-bound high school seniors in this year's essay competition. Seniors were asked to "describe a moment when they stood up for Freethought and/or that made them proud to be a freethinker," in 500-700 words. There were seven winners in the top five, with two ties for fourth and fifth place, plus six honorable mentions. Their essays can be found on pages 11-15 in the August Freethought Today. The winners are: 

  • First place ($3,000): Jordan Halpern, University of California-Davis. 
  • Second place ($2,000): Danielle Kelly, University of Montana in Missoula. 
  • Third place ($1,000): Joseph Price, UCLA. 
  • Fourth place tie ($500): Nicole Schreiber, New York University. 
  • Fourth place tie ($500): Sarah Hedge, Northwestern. 
  • Fifth place tie ($300): Rebecca Ratero, Rutgers. 
  • Fifth place tie ($300): Samantha Biatch, Smith College. 
  • Honorable Mention ($200): Abigail Dove, Swarthmore College. 
  • Honorable Mention ($200): Amedee Martella, University of Colorado-Boulder. 
  • Honorable Mention ($200): Cheyenne Tessier, The George Washington University (Cheyenne will defer her university enrollment for a year to do humanitarian service in Senegal with Global Citizen).
  • Honorable Mention ($200): Jarrett Browne, Wright State University. 
  • Honorable Mention ($200): Kaitlin Holden, Winthrop University. 
  • Honorable Mention ($200): Zach Gowan, USC Upstate. 

Nonagenarian Herbert "Harry" Bushong has endowed this year's contest. FFRF would also like to extend a special thank you to FFRF member John Moe for endowing the honorable mention awards of $200 and FFRF members Dean and Dorea Schramm for providing each student with a $50 bonus.

An appeals court ruled today that a Michigan mayor can censor nonreligious speech, while continuing to endorse a nativity scene in the city atrium.

A 3-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled against the Freedom From Religion Foundation's fight against city hall censorship at Christmastime.

"The Sixth Circuit incorrectly characterized this case as a religious-symbol-on-government-property case, when in reality this case is about free speech," noted FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert.

Mayor James Fouts of Warren, Mich., routinely placed a nativity scene in the Warren Civic Center, a primary municipal building also containing the public library. FFRF and one of its members, Douglas Marshall of Warren, wrote letters protesting the display. On Dec. 8, 2010, Fouts wrote FFRF that "all religions are welcome to celebrate their religious seasons with a display in city hall." Marshall tried in vain repeatedly to obtain permission to place an FFRF winter solstice sign in the city hall atrium.

FFRF's winter solstice sign, specifically coined to counter religious displays on government property, reads:

"At this season of the Winter Solstice, let reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

In December 2012, Fouts called FFRF's sign "highly offensive," and compared FFRF's request to place its sign saying "there are no gods," to putting up a "sandwich board saying that there is no Santa Claus." Fouts stated: "I cannot and will not sanction the desecration of religion in the Warren City hall atrium."

"We are not a Christian nation. Under our secular constitution, city governments should be forbidden to endorse one religion over another, or religion over nonreligion, much less sitting in judgment of what is or isn't a 'desecration' of religion," said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

FFRF filed the lawsuit after the mayor invited other individuals and organizations to place items in the atrium of city hall, and after the mayor denied FFRF's request based solely on its Winter Solstice message — a fact completely ignored by the 3-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit.

The panel found the holiday display to be government speech, but fails to reconcile this decision with its recently-decided Satawa ruling in May 2012, which allowed a private individual to erect a large nativity scene on the median of a highway in Michigan, calling it a public forum. Douglas Marshall placed a banner last December on the median, although it was tampered with, then stolen.

Judge Sutton, who wrote the opinion, is considered one of the most conservative judges on the Sixth Circuit.

All three judges were appointed either by Bush I or Bush II. A New York Times analysis of appeals court appointees last fall showed that 63% of the appointments on it were made by Republican presidents.

FFRF asked the court to enjoin the mayor from barring the FFRF sign, and find that the city had violated the rights of FFRF and its member.

Sutton wrote that "a government may provide benefits to faith-based entities if the benefits are available to secular and religious entities alike," clearly contradicted by Fouts' action, or "may invoke the divine through words and symbols if they have religious and historical meanings or faith-based and solemnizing effects, and in the process offer at most incidental benefits to any one faith or to faith in general."

The decision makes no note of Fouts' declaration of the atrium as a public forum for religion, but decides the case based on the Lynch v. Donnelly decision (reindeer by a nativity display supposedly removes the religious message). Sutton also quotes Justice William O. Douglas declaring, "We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being" in a 1952 case. But Sutton failed to add that in the very next sentence, Douglas added: "We guarantee the freedom to worship as one chooses. We make room for as wide a variety of beliefs and creeds as the spiritual needs of man deem necessary." Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. at 313-314.

Justice Douglas explained his statement in McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420, 563 (1961):

"[I]f a religious leaven is to be worked into the affairs of our people, it is to be done by individuals and groups, not by the Government. This necessarily means, first, that the dogma, creed, scruples, or practices of no religious group or sect are to be preferred over those of any others...

The First Amendment commands government to have no interest in theology or ritual; it admonishes government to be interested in allowing religious freedom to flourish — whether the result is to produce Catholics, Jews, or Protestants, or to turn the people toward the path of Buddha, or to end in a predominantly Moslem nation, or to produce in the long run atheists or agnostics. On matters of this kind government must be neutral."

In 2004, FFRF won a solid victory in the Sixth Circuit in Doe v. Porter, a case successfully challenging devotional religious insruction in Dayton, Tennessee elementary schools, conducted by bible students.

"We extend our our warmest gratitude to plaintiff Douglas Marshall, and to our pro bono counsel Danielle Hessell," said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. FFRF intends to seek review by the entire Sixth Circuit panel.

Read original complaint with exhibits of Fout statement

Mexican Fiesta will no longer give discounts for attending Catholic Mass per the terms of a settlement with Richard Halasz, a Freedom From Religion Foundation member from Milwaukee.

Mexican Fiesta, an annual festival held each summer in Milwaukee on the Summerfest grounds, had advertised a discount for attending a Catholic Mass that was held on the festival grounds prior to the opening of the festival. The regular rate at the gate was $13 but Mass attendees were charged only $5. FFRF first objected to the discriminatory discount on August 14, 2012, informing festival organizers that it was a violation of Wisconsin's public accommodations law to charge attendees of Mass a lower rate. On August 21, FFRF advised festival organizers that it would file a complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Equal Rights Division if the festival went forward with the discount.

Halasz, an atheist, attended Mexican Fiesta on August 26, 2012, and was not able to obtain the discount that Mass attendees received. FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott filed a complaint with the state's Equal Rights Division for violating Wis. Stat. 106.52(3)(a)(2), which prohibits places of public accommodation from providing preferential treatment on the basis of creed.

The settlement agreement provides that "future Mexican Fiesta promotions will not be timed to coincide with times of entry or exit of the annual Mass." Mexican Fiesta issued an apology to Halasz for his experience at last year's festival and issued an $8 refund. Halasz agreed to withdraw his complaint and he and FFRF agreed to waive the recovery of any attorneys' fees.

Halasz shared his appreciation of FFRF, saying, "I am thankful to the Freedom From Religion Foundation for standing up for our First Amendment and civil rights!"

Elliott added, "I'm glad to see that this could be mutually resolved and that all attendees will be treated on an equal basis this year."

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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