FFRF welcomes its 10 newest Life Members

FFRF is proud to announce and recognize its 10 newest Lifetime Members plus one Immortal.

The 10 new Lifetime Members are Thomas V. Claringbold, Halina Greenstien, Robert Greenstien, Thomas Harburg, Bachir Jirari, Katherine O’Brien, Michael Polito, Dan Tebbs, Peter Viviano and Jeffrey Worthington.

Individual Lifetime Memberships are $1,000, designated as membership or membership renewal, and are deductible for income-tax purposes, as are all donations to FFRF.

States represented are California, Connecticut, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico and Washington.

One member has become an Immortal: Milton McCune. The Immortals category is a donation designation for those members who have contacted FFRF to report they have made provisions for FFRF in their estate planning.

FFRF also offers After-Life Memberships for a $5,000 donation for those who want their donation to “live on” after them.

Jeff Prebeg: ‘ATHE1ST’ plate was first step in my activism

By Jeff Prebeg

Two years ago,

FFRF Member Jeff Prebeg shows off his “ATHE1ST” license plate that he was able to get from the state of Pennsylvania after FFRF stepped in to help. Turn to page 3 to read Prebeg’s story of the license plate and his activism.

I became an atheist activist. While I’ve been an atheist for much longer, it wasn’t until some sad and troubled times that I sought a community. Through podcasts and social media, I recreated myself and began the fight for the separation of church and state. But more importantly, I wanted it to be OK for other atheists to come out and be proud. In that time, I made some lifelong friends and connections that aid me to this day.

In those days, I applied for a vanity license plate — “ATHE1ST” — and was promptly denied by the state of Pennsylvania. With the help of FFRF, specifically attorney Andrew Seidel, I was able to receive my license plate. And my car has been a billboard for atheist activism to this day!

Very recently, an exchange happened with that tweet from a fellow atheist friend from across the country. Muffy, as she’s known online, asked me how it has been driving around with that plate. Our conversation was interesting enough for me to have the honor of sharing my experiences with you.

My car is older — a 2005 Chevy Aveo — so I went in with the knowledge that something drastic might happen to it. But I’ve learned not to let the enemies win in the face of injustice, so I proudly have several other atheist bumper stickers to go along with my license plate. I’m privileged enough that I don’t have to terribly worry about the car itself, so I’m happy to be a billboard. And so far, I haven’t had much of anything to worry about.

While living in the relatively religious (Roman Catholic) city of Pittsburgh, it’s still not the Bible Belt or a deeply rural area where such vandalism is likely to occur. I’ve seen a few scowls, but the experience has mostly been very positive. I’ve had the occasional horn honks and middle fingers flown my way, but the cheers and thumbs-up far outnumber them. I also am a cautious and courteous driver. I never want to cut someone off and have them think, “That darn atheist!” It also has become a rallying point for my local secular organization. People know me and my fight and have been very supportive.

I once took a road trip to Indianapolis to visit friends (Hi, Dan and Natalie!) and that definitely caused me some anxiety. I can say it was harrowing to drive my tiny little car with all its atheist paraphernalia on a big highway in Indiana and see giant trucks come speeding up behind me. But truth be told, nothing happened at all. No one paid me any attention the entire time out, there, and back.

Again, I’m privileged to have had nothing happen. As I’m now a part of this select club, I pay close attention to the news stories of vandalized cars and plates bent and damaged. Honestly, I wish all those could have the experience I’ve had, and while I hope this, I know it’s something I signed up for.

In these troubling times for state-church separation, I have a big target on my back as a soldier in that fight. But honestly, as I’ve come to learn about myself, I relish it. Discussions that have cropped up because of it, while sometimes hard or scary, are absolutely necessary. Another Twitter follower told me how he wept as he read my news story because his job all but prevented him from being an out atheist but he was so happy an internet friend could be.

And I’ve come to learn, that’s my role in this important fight. I have the privilege and ability to be out, so I’m going to use it to my fullest. I’m going to be as out and proud as possible, to hopefully aid those who can’t. And if I can be honest, I’m so excited for that day, because it is coming.

Jeff Prebeg is an FFRF member from Pittsburgh.

Meet a Member: Trucker goes from Jew to Buddhist to None

Jonnie Benzimra and his wife Denise Brown.

Name: Jonnie Benzimra.

Where I live:  Mentor, Ohio.

Where and when I was born: Richmond, Surrey, England. Richmond has been swallowed up by Greater London and is now known as Richmond upon Thames. I was born in 1954, which makes me soon to be 64, but I am NOT going to break out into the Beatles song.

Family: Two sisters in Britain and a brother in Toronto. Both my folks are deceased. My father was a staunch socialist (a bit of a dirty word here) and my mother was a very popular Maltese Jewish housewife — fiery Mediterranean blood. Here, I have an English wife who has two sons from a previous marriage. We both originally married Americans and had been divorced for about six years each. We met each other through friends who said, “Oh, I know an English girl down the road.” We have been together 15 years, married for 10 of them. I have removed the word “step” from my sons’ introduction.

Education: I went to a Jewish secondary school that I had to travel all the way across London to attend. Before then I was the only Jew in a local primary school and had to stand outside class while they taught Church of England stuff. I remember being bored, but I didn’t know how nice it was to escape that indoctrination. I joined the choir because I loved to sing and ended up “praising the Lord” — in song, anyhow.

I didn’t do very well in school. My desperate parents sent me to college hoping I would snap to and become the doctor my mother so wanted. I didn’t. My father, who was considered brilliant, reassured me that I wasn’t unintelligent, but just not so academic — a very kind heart.

Occupation: At 17, I became a shopkeeper, a grocer. For a year and a half, I opened and operated a successful whole food and health food shop in Wales, selling brown rice, rolled oats, buckwheat, Mung beans and honeys from around the world.  A huge young community had emigrated from all points Britain to South Wales for cheaper housing and land. I was now 19 and gave it all up to go overland to India and Kathmandu, Nepal, in 1973. I sold the shop, and even with many changes of hands, it still runs today.

I have been a grocery shop owner, a traveler, a truck driver, a roadie for many different rock bands, an arc lamp spotlight engineer and operator for the entertainment industry, and a salesman in America for the winter months of all the years of the 1980s. I have also been an actor and a well-known actor’s assistant. I am a long-distance truck driver again. 

As a driver, I am stunned at how much religion is hung all over passing trucks. Many trucks have huge crosses lit up in the front. There is a chapel in every truck stop. It’s amazing how religious these truck drivers are. I am a little quiet about my Noneness, fearing a little retribution. (I will always remember being shocked during the burning of Beatles records after John Lennon said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.)

I wish we had a recognizable symbol for Nones. I would hang it up front of my truck and leave it to others to decipher. I always thought religion was a very private thing, kept to oneself and not forced down other throats.

Religion (or lack thereof): I was brought up in a Jewish home. My Maltese mother kept a kosher kitchen, while my atheist but traditional Jewish Brit of a father took us all out for the occasional bacon sandwich.

Although I had my bar mitzvah at 13, I didn’t believe in any of it. I did it all for the love of singing, and the grand party, with presents that came after.

When I came back from India, I was so proud that I had not found a guru like everyone else.  Even my friends and family were discovering spirituality with one guru or another. ’Twas the times. I was an atheist like my dad.

Fourteen years later, I was in India again and looking into Buddhism. I was a Jew who found Buddhism. A BuddJew, as we were known. I dove deep into that for three years with my first wife. I lived and worked at this Buddhist Center in Dharamsala, India, where the exiled government of Tibet is based. The evangelical Christians would come and thump their bibles on the Dalai Lama’s podium proselytizing. Buddhists had to just let it happen and not intervene or use force.  Very upsetting. We Buddhists were accused of being godless (which we were) and not having a real religion at all (which I was proud of). I kinda believed in reincarnation, but only to a point. It was the Mahayana Buddhist teachings of the Hell Realms that finally sent me running, pulling out my hair. Not from fear of those hellish realms, but their ridiculous invention to control the masses. We do good in this world because it’s the right way to conduct ourselves. Kindness is everything. Not the fear of going to hell or heaven or sitting next to God or getting a favorable rebirth when we die. “Do good for goodness’ sake,” my father used to quote.

I went back to India in 2007 with my present wife. On our last day, we went around the Delhi Railway Station and its lands with a street child who spoke English, who showed us how he used to live and how other kids were copping along with the organization to help those street kids. It was a wonderful chance to see and understand and help where we could. A lady joined our group at the last minute and purposely pulled out her crucifix from her blouse when talking to the kids in their home. I thought of all those missionaries trying to corrupt these Hindu/Muslim/Nones into her own beliefs. She did not represent the rest of our touristy group and I asked her to put crucifix away. She didn’t, and voices rose. I felt truly embarrassed in front of these kids and their organizers.

My motives were not conversion. Hers . . .?

My favorite quotation: It is stuck on the back of my car as an often-renewed bumper sticker and has been for more than 10 years: “My karma ran over your dogma.”

The other day I heard on NPR that FFRF had won another case where religion was forced down our throats through the public arena of park areas. I am very proud of being a member of FFRF and hope that kindness given around the world is done for its own sake instead of heaven’s sake.

Judge: Texas Gov. Abbott violated FFRF’s rights

FFRF has triumphed in federal court against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who had ordered the removal of its winter solstice Bill of Rights nativity from the state Capitol in 2015.

In a final judgement, issued June 19, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, for the Western District of Texas — Austin Division, declared that Abbott violated FFRF’s free speech rights.

FFRF, with more than 32,000 nonreligious members, including over 1,300 Texas members, had placed a duly permitted display celebrating the winter solstice and Bill of Rights Day in December 2015, in response to a Christian nativity at the Texas Capitol. The whimsical display, depicting Founding Fathers and the Statue of Liberty celebrating the “birth” of the Bill of Rights (adopted Dec. 15, 1791), had the requisite sponsorship from a Texas legislator.

Abbott, as chair of the Texas State Preservation Board, ordered FFRF’s display taken down only three days after it was erected, lambasting it as indecent, mocking and contributing to public immorality.

“Defendants violated FFRF’s First Amendment rights and engaged in viewpoint discrimination as a matter of law when the FFRF exhibit was removed from the Texas Capitol building under the circumstances of this case,” Sparks ruled.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor praised the ruling as a very strong decision for FFRF, for free speech and for the rights of nonbelieving citizens. “The Constitution, with its precious Bill of Rights, and reason have prevailed over governmental censorship and discrimination against nonbelievers.”

FFRF received an initial ruling in its favor that Abbott and the State Preservation Board had violated its free speech rights in October 2017. But there were two roadblocks to achieving the final judgment. First, Abbott appealed the district court’s ruling that he also could be sued as an individual (as well as being named defendant in his official capacity as governor). The district court wished to hold a trial to decide FFRF’s personal capacity claims against Abbott and its Establishment Clause claims. Since neither of these side issues were necessary to securing FFRF’s right to place its display in the Texas Capitol in the future, it decided to dismiss the claims, clearing the path for the victorious final judgment.

The case is Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Governor Greg Abbott, Case No. A-16-CA-00233-SS.

FFRF was represented by attorney Richard L. Bolton with FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover as co-counsel.

“We’re pleased to finally have this lawsuit wrapped up,” says Grover. “Now we wait to see whether Gov. Abbott and the Texas attorney general’s office will follow the law and allow us to place our display again, or whether they appeal this decision and waste more state resources to fight against one of our nation’s most foundational free speech principles.”

Gov. Abbott and the executive director of the Texas State Preservation Board are expected to appeal the decision.

FFRF’s “nativity” display.

With Kavanaugh’s nomination, our civil liberties are in trouble

FFRF is asking you, our members, to call your senators to strongly oppose Kavanaugh. Call 202-224-3121.

Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh will be a disaster for the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and tilt the court to the religious right for more than a generation.

“If Kavanaugh is confirmed, he will unquestionably eviscerate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” warn FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It seems unlikely the cherished wall of separation between state and church protecting true religious liberty could survive intact. Many of our hard-won freedoms would be gutted.”

There’s no sugarcoating the game-changing nature of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement announcement on June 27. Kennedy was a swing vote. As the Duke Ellington song goes, “It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing.”

Kennedy was often a disappointment, but his vote really counted when it counted. To give Kennedy his due, he has stood up for secularism in at least four major opinions, although more often voting against strict state/church separation. He even authorized some landmark civil rights cases, including the 1992 Weisman decision evicting commencement prayers and the clergy who gave them from public high schools, and the Obergefell verdict approving marriage equality in 2015. (Notably, Kennedy did not swing in our direction when FFRF’s Hein decision was before the court in 2007.)

Although Kennedy’s record in keeping state and church separate has been spotty at best, replacing him with Kavanaugh will lead to decisions with majority opinions that are far more emphatically hostile to secularism and true religious freedom. It will go from a 5-4 court with Kennedy sometimes swinging to FFRF’s side, to an entrenched 5-4 “anti” court, leaving only Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 85, Stephen Breyer, 80, and the more youthful Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor on the “correct” side.

Further, Kennedy was always a hopeful check against the most egregious cases of government actors using their position to promote religion. With Kavanaugh, the court will be more willing to accept cases that will allow it to drastically repeal Establishment Clause precedent  from the last 70 years, confident that it will always have the five votes it needs.

Kennedy importantly sided with the preservation of Roe v. Wade in several major cases. It is frightening to see CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin tweet his prediction: “Abortion will be illegal in 20 states in 18 months.”

Kavanaugh, a former clerk for Kennedy, would be a threat for a host of important progressive and humanist issues. The 53-year-old Catholic, who currently serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, has seemingly never met a regulation he wouldn’t strike down, including regulations to prevent another financial collapse as in 2008, to protect clean air, clean water, and fight climate change, to enforce safety standards for the auto industry, uphold the Affordable Care Act and protect workers.

Of most relevance to the work of FFRF is Kavanaugh’s disturbing history of working to privilege religion, harm women’s rights and tear down the wall separating state and church.

Two recent decisions illustrate his views, revealing that Kavanaugh seems “less driven by the law than by ideology,” notes FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel, who, with FFRF’s Strategic Response Team, researched his record.

Kavanaugh dissented in a 2017 case garnering national attention and concern, involving a pregnant, unaccompanied minor immigrant under detention, whom the Trump administration was preventing from exercising her right to end an unwanted pregnancy. Kavanaugh wrote that forcing the 17-year-old girl to continue her pregnancy for so many weeks she risked being unable to obtain an abortion was not an “undue burden.” Conversely, in a 2015 case, Priests for Life v. HHS, he wrote a dissenting opinion calling it a “substantial burden” on religion for a religious organization wanting to opt out of the contraceptive mandate to be asked simply to fill out a five-blank form — name, corporate name, date, address, signature.

“In Kavanaugh’s legal world, it burdens religion to fill out five blanks on a form, but it’s not a burden to force a teenager to carry an unwanted pregnancy. That is alarming,” adds Seidel.

Kavanaugh’s record

Even while working in private practice he submitted amicus briefs on a number of cases involving the Establishment Clause, always on the wrong side.

In the landmark 2000 case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the last big school prayer case decided by the high court, it ruled unconstitutional prayers delivered over the school public address system at school-scheduled, school-sponsored events, including student led.

Kavanaugh wrote an amicus brief defending the imposition of prayers upon students on behalf of U.S. Rep. Steve Largent, a former football player. Throughout the brief, Kavanaugh argued that the case was about “banning” students’ religious speech. It was really about a public school (with its own tradition of imposing prayer) handing religious students a government-owned megaphone to impose the prayers on other students at public school events. That distinction is crucial, and Kavanaugh’s inability to grasp it is disturbing.

Kavanaugh uses inflated language to disparage advocates of state-church separation — in other words, those of us who support the First Amendment — as “absolutist[s],” “hostile to religion in any form,” advocating for an “Orwellian world,” and seeking “the full extermination of private religious speech from the public schools” and “to cleanse public schools throughout the country of private religious speech.”

In an astonishing paragraph, he portrays Christians as beleaguered and downtrodden folks “below socialists and Nazis and Klan members and panhandlers and ideological and political advocacy groups of all stripes,” rather than the privileged majority they are.

In one of the most concerning passages in the brief, Kavanaugh sends a clear signal that he does not think the Supreme Court should even apply legal tests to the Establishment Clause. In other words, it appears he would happily overrule the critical rule of law laid out in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), known as “The Lemon Test.” The Lemon Test simply says a government action violates the Establishment Clause if it (1) doesn’t have a secular purpose; or (2) has the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, or (3) fosters excessive entanglement between religion and government. Kavanaugh wrote: “In Establishment Clause cases, the search for an overarching test is not always necessary, and can sometimes be counterproductive or even harmful.”

State-church hostility

The D.C. Circuit dismissed a case taken by atheist Michael Newdow challenging the addition of “so help me God” to the presidential oath and inaugural prayers. Notably, religious language is not present in the oath laid out in Article II of our secular Constitution, yet it is typically added by the chief justice during inaugurations.

When the court threw out the case on procedural grounds, Kavanaugh wrote separately to say that the challengers (including FFRF) should have lost on the merits “because those long-standing practices do not violate the Establishment Clause.” Essentially, Kavanaugh relied on a long history of use of the words “so help me God,” supposedly, he wrote, dating back to George Washington. But Washington never uttered those words. The history of “so help me God,” is considerably shorter. The phrase has only been in regular use since World War I. In any event, that a constitutional violation is longstanding does not make it any less a violation. The argument from tradition is a poor argument which concedes that there is no better reason to continue the practice, and it is disconcerting that Kavanaugh would have relied on it to uphold violations of the First Amendment.

Backed voucher scheme

Kavanaugh represented pro-voucher Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in a constitutional challenge to Florida’s school voucher legislation. Florida plaintiffs — including a branch of the NAACP, the Florida Education Association, and the AFL-CIO — sued Bush and the Florida Department of Education over the allocation of public funds to private schools through a voucher system. The Florida Supreme Court held the voucher system Kavanaugh defended was unconstitutional.

He went back to Florida to help Bush litigate the outcome of Florida’s electoral votes in the disputed Bush-Gore 2000 presidential election. More successful there than with the vouchers, Kavanaugh then went to work in the George W. Bush White House as associate counsel to the president. Bush nominated him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 2003, and after a bitter fight that lasted three years, he finally was seated in 2006.

Would Kavanaugh hold the president accountable for wrongdoing?

While still in private practice, Kavanaugh was a key member of Kenneth Starr’s team investigating President Clinton and was a prominent voice calling for Clinton’s impeachment. But in a turn that seems hypocritical, he has lately written that presidents are under such extraordinary pressure they “should be excused from some of the burdens of ordinary citizenship while serving in office.” This statement was likely received well by Trump, facing a dogged and productive investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.

Another Catholic

The Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office, but one would think there was a requirement that Catholics hold a majority on the Supreme Court. Although Catholics are about 20 percent of the overall population, five of the nine current justices are Catholic, including outgoing Kennedy. The Kavanaugh nomination would retain the lopsided Catholic majority, and be a lost chance for more diversity (such as a nonreligious justice or even a Protestant!).

The National Review endorsed Kavanaugh partly because of his zealous Catholicism: “He is a lector at his parish, and he volunteers with Catholic charities, teaches and mentors in Catholic (and other) schools, and coaches his daughters’ Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) basketball teams.”

FFRF is committed to fighting any nominee who is so clearly hostile to American secularism.

“This is the legal fight of the century for America. Our nation’s future, our constitution and our civil rights hang in the balance,” says Gaylor.

FFRF graphic

FFRF, CFI: No state funding for ministry

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Center for Inquiry are warning the North Carolina Legislature against religious financial boondoggling.

The two secular groups were contacted by several concerned state taxpayers about a proposal to funnel a quarter of a million in tax dollars to a religious ministry, Cross Trail Outfitters. The state’s currently proposed budget for 2019 seeks to give $250,000 from the state Health and Human Services Department to the Christian ministry “for purposes of promoting wellness and physical activity for youth seven to 20 years of age.”

As FFRF and CFI point out in their letter to Gov. Roy Cooper, Cross Trail Outfitters’ outdoor activities are unabashedly religious in nature.

Cross Trail Outfitters, which describes itself as an “independent, interdenominational ministry,” aims to promote Christianity by “guiding the next generation to Christ through the outdoors.” The group’s first stated goal is to “build a relationship with boys ages 7–20 and lead them to Christ or a better understanding of Him. To equip youth to passionately pursue a lifetime of service to Jesus Christ and fellowship with Him through the outdoors.”

The ministry’s website features a photo of two adults performing a baptism on a child and a video showing an adult leader instructing children to remove their hats to pray. Testimonials from parents of the group corroborate that the group’s activities in the state are heavily religious.

FFRF and CFI underline that North Carolina’s proposed grant to Cross Trail to directly fund its religious mission violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from financially supporting religious activities.

The secular groups are requesting assurance that the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services will refuse to disburse any funds to Cross Trail Outfitters.

FFRF rated ‘least biased’

FFRF news and reports, including Freethought Today, have been rated as “least biased” by the Media Bias / Fact Check website.

According to the site, which rates hundreds of media outlets on a sliding scale from “extreme left” to “extreme right,” FFRF was right in the middle under “least biased.” The site says that that rating means “these sources have minimal bias and use very few loaded words (wording that attempts to influence an audience by using appeal to emotion or stereotypes). The reporting is factual and usually sourced. These are the most credible media sources.”

Under “factual reporting,” FFRF was given the rating of “high.”

The Media Bias site also wrote in its “Notes” section about FFRF: “In review, their news reporting uses minimal loaded words and typically links to low-biased sources. From a political perspective, the mission is to simply keep church and state separate. Overall, we rate the Freedom From Religion Foundation as least biased and high for factual reporting.”