Mobile Menu

Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

Body Autonomy

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is cheering the news that Texas’ draconian six-week abortion ban has been temporarily halted. However, the threat is far from over as religious extremists take steps to undo this latest move.

On Wednesday, Oct. 6, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman issued an order that blocks Texas’ abortion ban, which has created hardship and pandemonium since going into effect on Sept. 1. The law prohibits Texas abortion physicians from providing abortion care to women who are at least six weeks pregnant. For context, this is typically two weeks after a missed period, when most women do not even know if they are pregnant. Shockingly, the ban also deputizes private citizens to act as abortion bounty hunters.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court upended decades of legal precedent by declining to block the clearly unconstitutional anti-woman, anti-science law, claiming that applicants failed to meet their burden to stay the law. In response to this inaction, the Justice Department sued the state of Texas on Sept. 9, charging that the law “is invalid under the Supremacy Clause and the 14th Amendment, is pre-empted by federal law, and violates the doctrine of intergovernmental immunity.”

Meanwhile, the horrific law has upended the lives of thousands of Texans facing unwanted pregnancies, forcing those who can find the means to travel lengthy distances to neighboring states to receive abortion care. This has not only endangered women’s health in Texas, but also in bordering states, where the demand is delaying appointments for all patients, as well as exacerbating existing inequalities for rural and low-income women, including women of color.

In his ruling late Wednesday night, Pitman expounded upon these damaging effects: “From the moment SB 8 went into effect, women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution. … That other courts may find a way to avoid this conclusion is theirs to decide; this court will not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of such an important right.”

Still, there is much uncertainty and the fight is far from over. Just one hour after Pitman blocked the law, Texas filed a notice that it would petition the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to undo Pitman’s order and leave the law in place. Abortion providers fear that they may be sued retroactively if the ban goes back into effect, since the law includes a provision that says: “Doctors who perform abortions or other people who assist a pregnant person based on a court decision that is reversed later on cannot rely on that original order as a defense if they’re sued.”

“Judge Pitman commendably took the action that was the Supreme Court’s duty,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We are seeing the damage of three Trump appointments tilting the high court to an extremist majority.”

So while this temporary injunction is a step in the right direction, it is not enough. The Senate must pass the Women’s Health Protection Act to ensure that SB 8 and all other abortion bans — as well as anti-abortion harassment — stop. Then a robust discussion on court reform is essential if individual liberties are to be protected in the United States. Photo by Chris Line

Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church has abused more than 300,000 French children since 1950, according to an explosive report that an independent commission has just released. The Freedom From Religion Foundation applauds the work of the investigators and once again urges the U.S. Department of Justice to initiate a similar, long-overdue investigation.

Jean-Marc Sauvé, president of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church, said that the Catholic Church had shown “deep, total and even cruel indifference toward victims.” To put the numbers into perspective, the French clerics or church-related laypersons on average abused one child or minor every two hours for 70 years.

The major report includes many first-hand accounts of abuse, such as one survivor who described being raped as a fifth-grader by a cigar-smoking priest on a camping trip. The priest instructed the child to sleep close to the entrance of his tent so that the priest could easily access him at night. “I felt like I was part of a game to him, waiting for him to come out of his lair,” the survivor said.

The staggering number of victims, including more than a quarter of a million young boys (who were 80 percent of the reported victims), confirms yet again the Catholic Church’s history of systematically harboring and protecting abusers. The massive, 2,500-page report took three years to compile. It estimated the number of perpetrators at about 3,000 priests or clerics, collectively allowed to abuse hundreds of thousands of children due to what the head of the inquiry called “an institutional cover-up” by the church. The report was based in part on more than 6,000 testimonies from survivors and witnesses.

The abuse and cover-up by the Catholic Church in France is no anomaly. A blistering 1,400-page grand jury report about abuse in Pennsylvania detailed thousands of instances of sexual abuse in six of the state’s eight dioceses. It also revealed disgusting practices, such as when priests would give the most pliable, reticent victims a gold cross, marking the children for predation by other abusive priests.

Washington, D.C., and at least 21 other states have conducted such investigations, with similar results. Earlier this year, following requests by FFRF and other groups, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul initiated an investigation that the Milwaukee Archdiocese is refusing to fully cooperate with.

FFRF has repeatedly called for a federal investigation into clergy child sex abuse in the United States, asking both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Merrick Garland to take action.

Just in the United States, we have seen major abuse cases settled in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Miami, Delaware, Houston, Dallas, Iowa, Milwaukee, Chicago, New York, Buffalo, San Diego, St. Paul and Minneapolis, Louisville, Denver, Portland, Phoenix, Seattle, Ohio, Kentucky, Montana, and more. This pattern has been taken seriously enough by other countries that they have launched national investigations, including Germany, Australia, Ireland and others in addition to the French investigation that led to the recent report. Every one of these reports reveals a shocking prevalence of abuse and cover-up by the church.

“The United States is decades behind other countries in holding churches accountable for complicity in child sex abuse,” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, who authored the first nonfiction book on abuse in the church in 1988, published by FFRF. “It has been clear beyond any doubt that this is a systemic problem, and every new report confirms that, all around the world. A federal investigation is long overdue.”

Billboards Oct. 5

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has put up side-by-side billboards in Houston urging churchgoers, including Joel Osteen followers, to stay home.

The 14-by-48-foot bulletins, featuring a stained-glass window motif, offer advice to “Sleep in on Sunday” and “Enjoy life now — there is no afterlife” instead of displaying bible verses. The Houston boards, positioned on U.S. Highway 59 South, are part of a campaign FFRF is taking around the country targeting what the state/church watchdog calls “irresponsible megapreachers.”

Osteen is known for promising “The prosperity gospel,” a self-serving brand of evangelism preaching that the biblical deity blesses with material wealth believers who give the most to God’s chosen — such as Osteen.

The prosperity gospel has certainly been prosperous for Osteen, who is worth millions of dollars and has a home valued at about $10 million. Osteen’s wealth is the source of much consternation and speculation. Lakewood Church is the largest church in the United States, with a ministry to match, according to the Houston Chronicle, spending roughly $90 million during the fiscal year ending March 31, 2017. (As a church, Lakewood Church, of course, is not required to divulge to the IRS or the public its tax-free income and expenditures.) Despite its wealth, the church has received a highly controverial $4.4 million Paycheck Protection Program loan from the U.S. government.

Osteen’s reputation took a hit a few years ago when he only reluctantly opened up the doors of his 16,000 capacity megachurch — which was once home to the NBA’s Houston Rockets — to serve as a shelter after Hurricane Harvey.

FFRF, the nation’s largest association of nonbelievers with 35,000 members (including 1,400 members in Texas), is advising the good folks of Houston to “kick the habit — and become a None [as in unaffiliated].” Gallup revealed this year that America’s reported church attendance dropped below 50 percent for the first time in eight decades, with a minority of Americans (47 percent) saying they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque.

The proportion of the U.S. population that is white Christian has declined by nearly a third in the last few decades, with a corresponding rise of the “Nones.” Roughly one in four adult Americans now have no religion.

“Sleep in on Sunday — spend relaxing time with your family or communing with nature or volunteering to help someone — instead of wasting time and money with a parasite like Osteen,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “The only afterlife that ought to concern any of us is leaving our descendants and planet a secure and pleasant future.”

FFRF aimed similar billboard messages last month at Nashville megachurch pastors Kent Christmas and Greg Locke, who are both Christian nationalist proponents.

FFRF Supreme Court Building

The Supreme Court began its fall term two days after tens of thousands of citizens marched to signal to the court their support for abortion rights, and as a new poll reveals plummeting public approval of the institution after it failed to block a clearly unconstitutional Texas abortion ban.

The justices must be feeling the heat, because they’ve started to make public statements, with four extremist justices, notably the newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett, spouting the most defensive comments. Shortly after the controversial abortion decision by the court, she said, “My goal today is to convince you that this court is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks.” (Shades of Nixon’s “I am not a crook”?)

Barrett, whose nomination is a case study in the politicized nature of the Supreme Court process, nevertheless insisted that the court isn’t politically driven. Irony of ironies, she delivered her speech at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, named for the very senator in attendance at her lecture who led the campaign to steal two seats on the high court. First, Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader refused to hold a hearing for Merrick Garland, nominated by President Obama, when he still had 11 months left in his presidential term. McConnell stole that seat, claiming that in an election year, voters should determine which president nominated Justice Antonin Scalia’s replacement. (McConnell thus preserved the right-wing ideological tilt of the court.)

McConnell then reversed course after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death on Sept. 18, 2020. Showing no compunction or embarrassment over his hypocrisy, McConnell rushed through President Trump’s appointment of Barrett in the midst of the 2020 national presidential election. Only 30 days after she’d been nominated, Barrett was confirmed on Oct. 26, 2020, about a week before Election Day, when more than 60 million Americans had already voted.

Last week, Justice Samuel Alito denounced critics for portraying the court as “sneaky” and “sinister,” claiming critics are trying “to intimidate” the justices. The Catholic justice, one of six Catholic justices — five of whom vote in a conservative bloc — complained to an audience at Notre Dame Law School that the court has been cast as “a dangerous cabal . . . deciding important issues in a novel, secretive, improper way, in the middle of the night.”

Those are his words, not ours. Did Alito forget that the majority issued its ruling not to block the Texas ban shortly before midnight? That cavalier last-minute ruling has created a crisis for abortion care in Texas and bordering states that is growing worse daily. As Reuters has documented, there are many more shadow docket (emergency ruling) cases being issued without full review, which are bypassing federal appeals courts, privileging religion and buttressing Trump policies.

Justice Clarence Thomas, known for his near-silence on the bench during non-pandemic times, also spoke defensively to a Notre Dame audience. Apparently criticizing advocates for court reform and expansion, he said, “I think we should be careful destroying our institutions because they don’t give us what we want when we want it.” What Thomas, who seems to see his role as being justice disciplinarian, intends to give us is the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, which he has said has “no basis in the Constitution.”

Liberal justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor have also been speaking out. Breyer told National Public Radio that the decision by the court majority not to block the Texas ban was “very, very, very wrong.” In Breyer’s new book, The Authority of the Court and the Peril of Politics, however, he cautions against “political intervention” on the court. Sotomayor, who has replaced Ginsburg as the voice of dissent on the court, told a group of law students about her frustration over having to write so many dissents and warned, “There’s going to be a lot of disappointment in the law, a huge amount.”

“Can our nation truly have an independent judiciary if the judicial nomination process has been politicized to this extreme degree? How can we rebalance and depoliticize the court after McConnell has brazenly stolen two seats for political reasons?” asks FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation continues to call for court reform and expansion as necessary to safeguard liberty, since the federal judiciary already has been “packed” by McConnell and Trump with hundreds of judges chosen precisely because they’ve passed extremist litmus tests.

David Williamson

The nonbelieving community in Central Florida is asking Polk County commissioners to finally be civil and considerate toward freethinkers in their monthly meeting tomorrow.

Sarah Ray, director of Atheist Community of Polk County, was given the opportunity in May to deliver an invocation before the board. She offered a respectful secular message of equality and diversity, exhorting Polk County to embrace many traditions: “We are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Humanists, atheists, agnostics, unaffiliated, uncertain and so many others.” She concluded by saying: “There is one thing on which we all agree: We share the goal of making Polk County — our county — the best place it can be. And we unite here today around that noble aim and common purpose.”

In an uncalled for afterword, Polk County Commissioners’ Board Chair Rick Wilson followed her invocation by asking everyone to stand and bow their heads and then delivered a Christian prayer:

Father God, thank you for this day and for Your mercy and grace. We ask Your guidance and blessings on this meeting and our county. In Jesus’ name, amen.

This Tuesday, Oct. 5, David Williamson, director of the Central Florida Freethought Community, will again be delivering a secular invocation. Williamson needs to be treated with respect and the discriminatory conduct exhibited at the May 4 meeting shouldn’t recur, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Atheist Community of Polk County, Central Florida Freethought Community (a chapter of FFRF), and Americans United for Separation of Church and State are asking Polk County commissioners. If the board cannot treat invocation speakers equally, the practice of having an invocation needs to be eliminated entirely, they recommend.

“Citizens, including Polk County’s nonreligious citizens, are compelled to come before local government bodies like the board on important civic matters, to participate in critical decisions affecting their livelihoods, property, children and quality of life,” the letter states. “The prayers exclude the 22 percent of Polk County residents who are not religious. It is coercive and intimidating for these nonreligious citizens to come to a public meeting and be required either to make a public showing of their nonbelief or to show deference to a religious sentiment they do not believe in, but which their board members appear to endorse.”

If the board insists on continuing to host prayers at public meetings, it must not discriminate against any person delivering an invocation, the organizations demand. Secular invocations must be treated the same as Christian prayers, as the board’s policy acknowledges: “This policy is not intended, and shall not be implemented or construed in any way, to affiliate the board with, nor express the board’s preference for or against any faith or religious denomination.”

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — which has jurisdiction over Florida — has condemned discrimination against minority beliefs in invocation practices. In Pelphrey v. Cobb County (2008), the court held that a county commission violated the Establishment Clause by removing Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons from a list that it used to select invocation speakers. And in Williamson v. Brevard County (2019), a case involving FFRF in which Williamson was the lead plaintiff, the court ruled that a county commission violated the Establishment Clause by discriminating in favor of mainstream, monotheistic religions in its invocation practice. After the case returned to the district court, the defendant county agreed to a settlement that prohibited it from continuing its discriminatory practices and required it to pay $490,000 in damages and attorney’s fees to the plaintiffs.

“My only expectation is that Chairman Wilson treats me the same way he would like me to treat him if our roles were reversed: with the dignity and respect deserved by anyone who comes to address the board or to offer an invocation,” Williamson remarks.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 1,700 members and the Central Florida Freethought Community chapter in Florida. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

October 01, 2021

Strategic Response Team

SRT and Mark Dann

FFRF’s Strategic Response Team is a nimble squad that encapsulates FFRF’s two main purposes: to educate the public and keep state and church separate. It’s a bit of a renaissance team, but the usual work falls into four basic categories:

  1. Shaping public opinion with articles, editorials, press and media;
  2. Working to stop imminent legal violations before they happen or derail other legal work—what we call rapid response ;
  3. Monitoring and lobbying state governmental affairs, including bills that impact FFRF’s mission.
  4. Monitoring and lobbying federal governmental affairs, including bills that impact FFRF’s mission.

FFRF Attorney Andrew L. Seidel is the director of strategic response and runs the team. Ryan Jayne is the full-time SRT attorney and Mark Dann (working in D.C.) is Director of Governmental Affairs. The three make up the full-time core of the team.. Also providing support to SRT are FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, Director of Communications Amit Pal, Editorial Assistant Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey and FFRF’s legal team, overseen by Legal Director Rebecca Markert.

By its nature, a lot of SRT’s work is behind the scenes. But please know that FFRF’s Strategic Response Team is fighting for you.

Christian Flag

The U.S. Supreme Court today continued an ominous trend in agreeing to take an appeal regarding a demand that a Christian flag be flown over Boston City Hall.

The high court announced that it will hear the case, Shurtleff v. City of Boston, which will determine whether the city violated the free speech clause by refusing to fly a Christian group’s blatantly sectarian flag.

The organization, called Camp Constitution, had demanded that the city display the Christian flag, which features a blue rectangle in the corner with a blood-red Latin cross. This is the same flag that was paraded by Christian nationalists, intermingled with symbols of white supremacy, during the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, FFRF points out.

Today’s development signals there are at least four justices on the high court who disagree with the appeals court’s reasoning in the case, which held that flags on the city’s flagpoles constitute government speech. Therefore, the city is “entitled to select the views that it wants to express,” the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, quoting a 2009 Supreme Court case.

Boston’s City Hall has three flagpoles, one that flies the U.S. flag along with the POW/MIA flag, one that flies the Massachusetts flag and a third flagpole flying the city flag. Occasionally, another flag replaces the city flag with city approval for limited periods of time. The Supreme Court seems inclined to hand over that space for an obviously majoritarian religious display.

“The conservative justices who control the Supreme Court continue to take cases that advance Christian privilege,” warns FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert. “It is not clear why the court felt that this case merited a spot on the court’s limited docket.”

The composition of the plaintiffs’ team leaves much to be desired. Camp Constitution’s purpose is “to enhance understanding of the country’s Judeo-Christian moral heritage.” Liberty Counsel, which is representing the plaintiffs, is a Christian nationalist outfit that has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“The Supreme Court’s action today is frankly shocking and alarming,” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Boston is not a Christian city, and the United States is not a Christian nation. Clearly no American city ought to fly a Christian flag at its seat of government.”

Gaylor notes that the high court’s recent troubling actions, including its failure to help Texas women exercise their constitutional right to abortion and its shadow docket rulings privileging religion, show why court correction and reform is crucial if civil liberties are to survive the Trump high court.

FFRF had previously joined a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the city’s position and it is considering filing a brief with the Supreme Court. The state/church watchdog will host its 44th annual convention in Boston this November.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.