Legislative year in review: FFRF has success confronting political challenges head-on

In August, an FFRF contingent met with U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, second from left, at Pocan’s district office in Madison, Wis. Meeting with Pocan were, from left, FFRF Director of Governmental Affairs Mark Dann, FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor and FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel.

By Mark Dann

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been FFRF’s director of governmental affairs for only a few months and already we’ve done so much together. With your help, we’ve been able to build relationships on Capitol Hill, win legislative victories in a divided government, expand and strengthen alliances with allied organizations to advance legislation and build the FFRF supporter base. As we begin 2020, I want to share with you some of our accomplishments from last year and let you know about some of our strategic moves planned for this year.

Building relationships

In the past, we’ve had solid direct relationships with members of Congress on judicial nominations and secular invocations. Now, we’ve greatly expanded the depth and breadth of these relationships. In 2019, we had three members of the Congressional Freethought Caucus (Reps. Jared Huffman, Jamie Raskin and Mark Pocan) appear on FFRF’s TV show “Freethought Matters.” They gave us an in-depth and inside look at how they are working with us, how their secular values shape their decision making, and what they are up against in Congress.

At the FFRF convention in October, Rep. Pocan made headlines declaring that he is part of the 26 percent “of us in this country who don’t follow a specific religion.” (See page 16)

Pocan’s remarks were significant because the Congressional Freethought Caucus represents the breadth of the freethought community. Rep. Huffman, the caucus co-chair, does not believe in a higher power, and Rep. Pocan, who does not identify with a particular religion, has said that practicing a religion is not central to his life. This year, we hope to have more members of the caucus on “Freethought Matters.” We’re also working to have more members of Congress join the caucus to advance our pro-secular legislative agenda and make secularism a higher priority among members.

Legislative victories

Over the past several years, FFRF has been able to help stop the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, which would have allowed churches to become tax-deductible political money-laundering operations. FFRF’s legal team even successfully sued the Trump administration on the same day he tried to sign an executive order undoing that rule.

This past year, one of our key legislative objectives was to make sure all Americans had access to a secular mutual-support recovery option, which is a constitutional right.

Religious 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, are widely available and are often a default treatment option.

We are changing that. We want to expand recovery options for all Americans. Pending passage, we got an insertion into the federal budget that empowers federal agencies to work with secular mutual-support recovery providers. Getting a budget insertion may sound minor, but it is extremely difficult.

It takes a lot of shoe-leather campaigning and help from our excellent partners in the secular community, including the American Humanist Association, Center for Inquiry and the Secular Coalition for America, plus secular recovery providers like SMART Recovery and LifeRing. This year, we hope to have multiple insertions across numerous appropriation bills.

We’re also working with our allies on Capitol Hill to see how we can use the appropriations process to send a strong signal that religious exemptions and a Christian Nationalist agenda will not be tolerated.

Plus, look for hearings that will shed light on the Trump administration’s actions to advance Christian Nationalism throughout the federal government and make religious exemptions a de facto policy of our government.

Stronger together

We can’t stand up to Christian Nationalists on our own and you can’t have too many friends in D.C. We’ve always had solid working relationships with numerous secular organizations. Continuing in that tradition, we’ve greatly expanded our network of allied partners through our legislative efforts, such as the Do No Harm Act, the No BAN Act and the Scientific Integrity Act.

The Do No Harm Act bans religious exemptions to laws guaranteeing fundamental civil and legal rights. We have been working with the ACLU, Interfaith Alliance, Human Rights Campaign, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Through our direct lobbying efforts, we’ve added 33 new co-sponsors and we hope there will be a hearing and legislative action next year.

To advance the No BAN Act, which bars the use of religion or nonreligion as restrictions on immigration, we’ve been working with the National Iranian American Council, National Immigration Law Center, and the ACLU, among others. With our collective efforts, we’ve added 64 new co-sponsors to the No BAN Act.

The Scientific Integrity Act helps to prevent political meddling in public scientific research. The bill has 230 bipartisan co-sponsors and has passed out of committee. We’re working with the Union of Concerned Scientists to get the bill to the House floor by the end of the year.

Building our support

I enjoyed meeting so many of you at the FFRF convention in Madison, Wis., in October. FFRF has maintained about 30,000 members for the past few years. We know that the nonreligious are now 26 percent of the adult U.S. population and there is tremendous opportunity for our membership to reflect the growing diversity of the freethought population. There are now more freethinkers than evangelical Protestants or Catholics. Can you imagine what we could do together if we had the same political clout as Catholics? One of the best things you can do to help us in D.C. is to help grow FFRF nationally.

I know the challenges facing our country and our secular values are immense. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. Yet this year, even with the tumultuous election, we will do what so many of our freethinking trailblazers have done before: Stay focused, lead with our values, act with compassion and move forward together.

Mark Dann is FFRF’s director of
governmental affairs and lives in
Washington, D.C.

Freethought books

The following books are by FFRF members on the topics of religion or freethinking. FFRF does not do book reviews.

A Freethinker’s Gospel: Essays for a Sacred Secular World

By Chris Highland

Pisgah Press (2018)

Paperback ($16.95)

This book is a collection of columns by Highland, first published in the Asheville Citizen-Times from 2016-17. A former Protestant minister and prison chaplain, Highland is now a secular freethinker who muses on the natural world, on being a nonbeliever in a highly religious society, and the commonalities shared between religions.

These essays offer his reflections on interfaith work, the search for self-discovery, and the commonalities that bind us regardless of social, political, economic or religious backgrounds. His insights about the structure of our natural world and what nature can teach us, and the way our society is structured, addressing humanism, the natural world, and sensitive issues of faith, are enlightening and challenging.

Blasphemy for Thinking People

By James A. Haught

Paperback ($11.61)

Blasphemy isn’t a dirty word. It just means to question supernatural claims of religion. That’s almost a duty for intelligent, educated, science-
minded, modern, honest people. However, religious leaders spent centuries executing or jailing those who voiced doubts.

The bible says any such blasphemer “shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him.” In Ancient Greece, many of the first scientific thinkers were prosecuted for “impiety.” The Inquisition burned nonconformists. Finally in this 21st century, it is safe to criticize religion in Western democracies (but not in Muslim nations). Everything in this book is blasphemy — challenging supernatural claims. Now, in the liberated West, you can read it without risking your neck.

Reality vs. Religion

By Dick Melen

Paperback ($7.99)

This book is designed for young adults but may also be helpful for adults who are seeking a reality-based alternative to religion. Realityism is a 21st century philosophy based on reason, ethics and science, with the objective of guiding and understanding life.

The purpose of the Philosophy of Realityism is to improve society by offering a reality-based alternative to religion. Realityism is not a threat to religion, it’s an alternative to religion. Realityism acknowledges the need for some people to have religious beliefs. Realityists have no interest in changing their minds, no matter what we may think of their perception of reality.

Reality vs. Religion
Blasphemy for Thinking People
A Freethinker’s Gospel

In the News (Jan/Feb 2020)

Supreme Court to hear state-church case

The Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that will test the right of religious schools to fire teachers despite job discrimination claims.

Two religious school teachers from California (one of whom has since died) were fired by their Catholic schools. Those schools relied on a Supreme Court precedent giving religious organizations “ministerial exceptions” from laws that apply to other employers.

But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the teachers, prompting the schools to ask the Supreme Court to weigh in. The cases will be combined and heard in the spring.

In 2012, the court unanimously ruled that federal discrimination laws do not apply when religious organizations choose their ministers and leaders. The question is whether teachers can be considered “ministers” and therefore exempted from discrimination laws.

One of the teachers, Kristen Biel, was fired from her school after she revealed that she had breast cancer and needed medical leave to undergo chemotherapy. She sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act and has since died.

The other teacher, Agnes Morrissey-Berru, who is not Catholic, taught for 16 years, but was let go based on her performance. She claimed age discrimination.

In other state-church news, the court is scheduled in January to hear a case from Montana on whether states can be forced to help subsidize tuition at religious schools.

Report: Church of Canada may disappear by 2040

A report commissioned by the Anglican Church of Canada shows there may be no members left in the mainline Canadian denomination in 20 years, according to an article by the Religion News Service.

“Projections from our data indicate that there will be no members, attenders or givers in the Anglican Church of Canada by approximately 2040,” said the Rev. Neil Elliot, an Anglican priest in Trail, British Columbia, who authored the report.

Membership in the Anglican Church fell from a high of 1.3 million in 1961 in membership to 357,123 in 2017, said Elliot.

Catholic school cuts PP from resource page

A Catholic college in Madison, Wis., removed Planned Parenthood from its list of wellness resources, following a petition that demanded the abortion provider be stripped from the school’s website.

The petition at Edgewood College was started by TFP Student Action, an organization that seeks to “proudly affirm the positive values of tradition, family and private property.” On Nov. 19, TFP Student Action announced that the school had removed the Planned Parenthood links from its page.

Pope lifts ‘secrecy’ rule in sex abuse cases

The pope has declared that the rule of “pontifical secrecy” no longer applies to the sexual abuse of minors, in a bid to improve transparency in such cases.

The Catholic Church had previously kept sexual abuse cases secret because it said it wanted to protect the privacy of victims and reputations of the accused.

But new papal documents on Dec. 17 lifted restrictions on those who report abuse or say they have been victims. Church leaders called for the rule’s abolition at a Vatican summit in February.

The pope also changed the Vatican’s definition of child pornography, increasing the age of the subject from 14 or under to 18 or under.

Woman asked to leave flight for ‘Satan’ shirt

American Airlines apologized after a passenger was asked to leave her flight because she was wearing a “Hail Satan” shirt, which the crew members found “offensive.”

Swati Runi Goyal was set to travel from Florida to Las Vegas when she was called up to the front of the plane.  The Key West resident told BuzzFeed News she originally thought she was being upgraded to first class.

“Our crew has found your shirt to be offensive,” Goyal said one of the crew members told her.

Goyal said she originally dismissed this request, but the crew continued to press her, delaying the flight and calling for a customer service agent to come on board and demand she remove the shirt. The 49-year-old said she was given an ultimatum: Change shirts or leave the flight entirely.   

Teens in South encounter more religion in schools

A survey by Pew Research Center shows teens in the South are more likely than in other regions of the country to encounter religion in public schools.

Teens in the South express their religion, such as praying at lunch or before sporting events, more often than other regions. Among Southern teens, 56 percent say they “often” or “sometimes” see other students praying before a sporting event at their public school, compared with 34 percent of teens in the Midwest, 28 percent in the West and 26 percent in the Northeast, according to a Pew survey of 1,811 teens ages 13 to 17.

Nationwide, 41 percent of teens said it’s appropriate for a teacher to lead a class in prayer; 55 percent of Southern teens said it was appropriate. About 82 percent of teens nationwide correctly stated that the Supreme Court had ruled against the practice of teacher-led prayer in public schools.

Fundamentalism, brain damage link found

A new study shows that religious fundamentalism is partly the result of an impairment in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Damage to certain areas of the prefrontal cortex indirectly promotes religious fundamentalism by diminishing cognitive flexibility and openness, which is a personality trait that involves curiosity, creativity and open-mindedness.

According to the article on RawStory.com by Bobby Azarian, religious beliefs can be thought of as “socially transmitted mental representations that consist of supernatural events and entities assumed to be real. Religious beliefs differ from empirical beliefs, which are based on how the world appears to be and are updated as new evidence accumulates or when new theories with better predictive power emerge. On the other hand, religious beliefs are not usually updated in response to new evidence or scientific explanations, and are therefore strongly associated with conservatism. They are fixed and rigid, which helps promote predictability and coherence to the rules of society among individuals within the group.”

The study was published in the journal Neuropsychologia.

Evangelicals: Atheists would strip their rights

In a new survey, political scientists Ryan Burge and Paul A. Djupe found that 60 percent of white evangelical Protestants think that atheists would strip them of their rights, according to an article in the Washington Post on Dec. 23.

“Their fear comes from an inverted golden rule: Expect from others what you would do unto them,” Djupe writes. “White evangelical Protestants express low levels of tolerance for atheists, which leads them to expect intolerance from atheists in return.”

Similarly, 58 percent of white evangelicals believed “Democrats in Congress” would not allow them to exercise liberties, such as holding rallies, teaching, speaking freely, and running for public office.

But 65 percent of atheists and 53 percent of Democrats who listed Christian fundamentalists as their least-liked group said they would allow evangelicals to engage in those constitutionally granted liberties. That’s a much higher proportion of tolerance than the sample overall.

“In fact, when we looked at all religious groups, atheists and agnostics were the most likely to extend rights to the groups they least liked.” Djupe writes.

Citzenship law fuels               deadly protests in India

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi defended a contentious citizenship law that has sparked deadly protests. Modi said during a speech on Dec. 22 that he would not scrap the law, which favors every major South Asian faith other than Islam.

Critics say the law is proof that the government plans to turn India into a Hindu-centric state and marginalize the country’s 200 million minority Muslims.

Hundreds of thousands of Indians took to the streets in opposition of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which the Indian Parliament approved in December. The protests drew people of all faiths, concerned that the law undermines India’s foundation as a secular nation. Around two dozen people were killed in the violent police crackdown, and hundreds were arrested.

Pharmacies sued for not filling prescription

A Minnesota woman is suing two pharmacies, saying they illegally refused to fill a prescription for emergency contraception, according to KSTP News.

After a condom broke, Andrea Anderson’s doctor wrote a prescription for emergency contraception. She called the only drug store in town, Thrifty White, to make sure the morning-after pill would be available. Anderson says the pharmacist refused to fill it based on his “beliefs” and “warned” against trying another nearby pharmacy. Anderson contends this was sex discrimination and violates the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

Anderson said she went to the CVS in Aitkin and was denied service again. A third pharmacy in Brainerd finally gave her the medication. Anderson later filed the lawsuit and a complaint with the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy.

Judge admonished for selective officiating

Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley of McLennan County, Texas, is a conservative Christian and says she’s done nothing wrong by officiating at weddings for straight couples while turning away same-sex couples. The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct published a public warning against the judge on Dec. 9, saying Hensley’s conduct casts doubt on her “capacity to act impartially to persons appearing before her as a judge due to the person’s sexual orientation.”

Hensley, a Republican elected in 2014, claims she’s done her due diligence because she makes sure LGBTQ couples who come to her know of other local officiants who can perform their weddings.

Town rejects invocation prayers at meetings

McHenry Township (Ill.) board meetings won’t open with prayer after trustees shot down the implementation of an invocation at the Dec. 15 meeting.

Trustee Steve Verr requested the item be brought forward, but was the only “yes” vote on the matter.

Trustees voting against the measure said they didn’t want to open the door to some non-Christian groups such as Satanists, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists.

The U.S Supreme Court in 2014 ruled that legislative bodies may open public meetings in prayer, but those prayers can’t be limited to Christian invocations.

Residents in the audience pointed out the legal ruling during public comment.

“If this does pass, I look forward to having Christians, Jewish people and Muslims,” Wonder Lake resident Mike Tauler said. “I look forward to atheists having their invocation. I look forward to members of the Satanic Temple coming to have their invocation. Once you open it up to one, you open it up to all. Don’t forget that.”

Ed Asner visits Freethought Hall

FFRF chapters provide charitable activism

Each year, FFRF offers each of its chapters a $1,000 grant to be used for direct aid and charitable activism.

Here’s what those chapters did in 2019 with the grant money.

Central Florida Freethought Community

During the Florida Humanist Association’s biennial conference in November, the Central Florida Freethought Community supported the FHA’s service project, which included purchasing supplies for distribution by Second Harvest Food Bank, a secular nonprofit serving central Florida. The event involved conference attendees sorting and packaging items for distribution.

Denver Chapter of FFRF

The Denver Chapter of FFRF purchased items for the Atheists Helping the Homeless organization in Denver. This organization distributes items in Civic Center Park to the homeless on a monthly basis and promotes the understanding that nonbelievers are just as kind and generous as religious organizations.

FFRF East Tennessee

FFRF East Tennessee has helped the homeless in Knoxville by collecting and distributing blankets and coats, providing backpacks and personal hygiene items, and offering some warm meals.

FFRF Kentucky

FFRF Kentucky purchased items for senior citizens living in Section 8 housing at American Village in Louisville in July 2019. The chapter purchased beds for residents who had been sleeping on the floor. It also donated pillows, bed linens, wash rags, towels, plates, silverware, blankets, lamps, shower curtains and hooks and personal toiletries.

FFRF Maine

FFRF Maine helped fund shelves and a utility sink for the Litchfield Food Bank. The rest of the grant money was spent on food for the needy in the Litchfield area.

FFRF Portland Area

The Portland chapter donated 50 sets of towels for use by families at Portland Family Homeless Solutions. As the families move on, Portland Family Homeless Solutions gives them the towels to take with them. The Portland chapter also purchased 15 pots, all in the color palette to reduce trauma, to be used throughout the facility to create a calm, safe, and relaxing place for the families.

Grand Rapids Atheists and Freethinkers

The Grand Rapids Atheists and Freethinkers used the funds (plus some additional donations from its members) to support the Boys and Girls Clubs of the North in Grand Rapids, Coloraine and Deer River. The donation has been used primarily to cover the $10 annual membership fee for more than 100 children, whose families cannot afford that fee.

Greater Sacramento Chapter of FFRF

The Sacramento chapter board voted to help the local Gay and Lesbian Center. This support provided 20 HIV tests with counseling, and five “cultural competency and diversity training for any agency, workplace, or school seeking to create an affirming and compliant environment” events.

Lake Superior Freethinkers

Lake Superior Freethinkers expanded its partnership and support for the WE Health Clinic (formerly the Women’s Health Center) in Duluth, Minn. WE Health Clinic is the only abortion services provider in northern Minnesota. Using matching funds, LSF supports the WE Health Clinic through volunteer work and with LSF members serving on WE Health Clinic’s Board and committees. In October 2019, LSF members volunteer during one of the WE Health Clinic’s annual fundraisers.

Portland Family Homeless Solutions was aided by the Portland Area Chapter of FFRF, including, from left, David Jorling, Cheryl Kolbe and Cathy Whiting, along with Emma Hoyle, director of development for PFHS. David and Cathy are on the chapter board and Cheryl is the chapter president.

FFRF calls on IRS to probe Trump rally at megachurch

FFRF made a huge splash in national news in early January when it insisted that the IRS take action regarding a pro-Trump rally hosted by a megachurch in Miami on Jan. 3.

The leader, pastor and self-proclaimed “apostle” of the Ministerio Internacional El Rey Jesús (King Jesus Ministry), Guillermo Maldonado, had urged his congregation to attend this political rally. According to reporting by the Tampa Bay Times, Maldonado told congregants: “Don’t put your race or your nationality over being a Christian. Be mature . . . If you want to come, do it for your pastor. That’s a way of supporting me.”

FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert wrote to Acting Director of Exempt Organizations Examinations Mary A. Epps, urging the IRS to promptly investigate King Jesus Ministry. FFRF called his actions a clear violation of IRS regulations prohibiting 501(c)(3) organizations from participating in a political campaign.

Dozens of news outlets covered the controversy, including CBS, Fox News, Reuters, The New York Times and Newsweek.

The IRS provision, known as the Johnson Amendment, specifies that 501(c)(3) organizations, which include churches and other religious organizations, are prohibited from “participating in or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” While leaders of churches or religious organizations may express their opinions on political matters as individuals, they are, according to this rule, precluded from making “partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions of the organization.”

At the rally, Trump was prayed over by various evangelists, including Paula White, advisor to the president’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative.

Among Trump’s remarks to the cheering crowd of 5,000: “I really do believe we have God on our side. I believe that, I believe that . . . Evangelical Christians of every denomination and believers of every faith have never had a greater champion, then you have right now. We’ve done things that nobody thought was possible. Together we’re not only defending our constitutional rights. We’re also defending religion itself, which is under siege.”

Trump used the occasion to announce that Attorney General William Barr will soon announce a new action to protect prayer in public schools.

“Very soon I’ll be taking action to safeguard students and teachers’ First Amendment rights to pray in our schools,” Trump said.

“In urging congregants to come to a political rally, and in hosting the political rally, King Jesus Ministry appears to have inappropriately used its religious organization and 501(c)(3) status by intervening in a political campaign,” Markert writes. “It violated IRS regulations by seemingly expressing its support for a candidate in the November 2020 presidential election.”

Although Trump has claimed that the Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty “got rid of” the Johnson Amendment, the order did no such thing. The Department of Justice has twice disavowed this notion in open court, after FFRF sued to prove that an executive order cannot overturn enacted legislation. The Johnson Amendment remains in full effect, and churches may not promote political campaigns.

“It would be hard to imagine a more overt and flagrant violation of ethics and the IRS code than this planned rally,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “But perhaps it is not surprising, given the president’s incessant and untrue mantra that the Johnson Amendment has been repealed.”

The El Rey  Jesús megachurch is now claiming that the Trump campaign rented its facilities.

Another impressive year for FFRF’s legal team

Rebecca Markert (Photo by Chris Line)
This visual aid was used to help teach the Ten Commandments to elementary school students in Mercer County Schools. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in FFRF’s favor that plaintiffs can challenge the “Bible in the Schools’ program.

By Rebecca Markert

FFRF’s Legal Team wrapped up another big year in 2019, earning several court victories and hundreds of nonlitigation wins. After adding a few new employees, the legal department was restructured to better position itself for current and future state-church challenges.  The following is a review of how the Legal Team fared in 2019.

Court victories

FFRF ended the year with a victory in Kentucky when a federal court ruled in its favor in a case challenging the denial of an FFRF member’s personalized license plate reading “IM GOD.” FFRF also successfully ended a Wisconsin Department of Justice chaplaincy program. After filing suit, the state DOJ dropped the program in favor of what the DOJ terms an “Employee Support Team.”

The litigation team also got firm legal victories in four other cases:

• FFRF finalized its victory against the Chino Valley Unified School District in California over prayer and bible readings at school board meetings, and FFRF was awarded nearly $300,000 in fees and costs.

• The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in FFRF’s favor in the Mercer County Board of Education case, finding that the plaintiffs have standing to challenge “Bible in the Schools” classes.

• The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal over FFRF’s unanimous victory before the New Jersey Supreme Court barring public grants of tax dollars to repair churches.

• Along with Americans United, the ACLU and the ACLU of Florida, FFRF also successfully challenged discrimination against nontheists seeking to deliver solemnizing messages to start Brevard County Commissioners meetings.

FFRF also renewed its challenge against Texas Judge Wayne Mack’s courtroom prayer practice, this time suing Mack in his personal capacity, as well as the state of Texas, after a district court dismissed its prior lawsuit against the county where the judge holds court. FFRF also carries over five other ongoing cases.

Restructuring

FFRF restructured its legal department into teams for intake (or nonlitigation advocacy), litigation, legal education and training, and in-house. The Strategic Response Team is now under its own banner, headed by Andrew L. Seidel. We added another permanent staff attorney, Chris Line, who’s been with FFRF as a law student intern and legal fellow for the last several years. We also welcomed two new legal fellows, Brendan Johnson and Dante Harootunian, and a new legal assistant, Greta Martens. This brings the legal department’s staff to 10 attorneys and two legal assistants.

FFRF also continued its legal internship program. During 2019, we were lucky to have assistance from four dedicated law students and three undergraduate interns.

Nonlitigation advocacy

In 2019, our intake team processed 3,380 contacts about potential state-church violations, of which 2,958 were unique complaints (i.e., not duplicates).

Our attorneys sent out 1,015 letters to government entities over religious entanglements in government. Letters of complaint were sent to all states except Rhode Island, Vermont and Wyoming. As usual, the majority of these letters involved religion in public schools. We earned 270 nonlitigation victories.

On top of those letters of complaints, FFRF sent more than 1,800 letters in “mass mailings,” educating government officials about state-church violations, including the unconstitutional nature of public-school field trips to the Ark Park in Kentucky.

The top 10 states (where FFRF sent the most letters of complaint) were:

  1. Texas

  2. Alabama

  3. Kentucky

  4. Wisconsin

  5. Florida (tie)

  5. California (tie)

  7. Tennessee

  8. Ohio

  9. Georgia

10. Michigan

The top 10 issue areas were:

  1. Schools

  2. Government funding of religion

  3. Social media

  4. Government prayer

  5. National Day of Prayer

  6. Religious events

  7. Prayer breakfasts (tie)

  7. Religious displays (tie)

  9. Crosses

10. Elections

Amicus briefs

FFRF’s litigation team ended the year with a record eight amicus briefs submitted to courts around the country. Three of these “friend of the court” briefs were filed at the U.S. Supreme Court, including the already decided Bladensburg memorial cross case, and cases to be argued in 2020.

In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, FFRF, along with other secular groups, cogently argued that true religious liberty would be imperiled if the court strikes down a provision of the Montana Constitution that prohibits official funding of religious education. FFRF signed onto a brief in June Medical Services v. Gee, a case concerning Louisiana’s law requiring physicians performing abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals.

These briefs are crucial to adding FFRF’s voice to cases involving religious liberty issues and for standing up for the rights and views of the growing number of nonreligious Americans. The legal department’s restructuring allows FFRF’s attorneys to continue to submit arguments in cases in which FFRF is not a party, but which need to have the freethought perspective represented.

On the road

FFRF attorneys were also sent on the road to educate the public on state-church issues. Elizabeth Cavell presented “Our Constitution, Our Rights” at the When Rights and Religion Collide conference in New York City. Sam Grover spoke about “Civil Rights in the Age of Religious Refusal” in La Crosse, Wis. Ryan Jayne educated students at the high school in Monroe, Wis., during a full day of presentations on constitutional law. Former legal fellow Colin McNamara joined a panel discussion in Louisville on religion in the public schools. Andrew L. Seidel spoke in Arizona on “Why fighting for state-church separation is so important,” among other stops on his The Founding Myth book tour. I had a presentation and discussion with female inmates on their rights at Taycheedah Correctional Facility in Fond du Lac, Wis., titled, “An Introduction to FFRF and Atheism in the Correctional Systems.”

Attorneys also continued educating lawyers and judges. FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott helped organize and emcee a continuing legal education class for the Wisconsin State Bar Association.

Though the landscape is changing, FFRF’s legal department has never been better poised to take on the challenges secular Americans face in upholding the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.

Markert is FFRF’s legal director.

 

FFRF denounces White House Christian ‘takeover’

FFRF has condemned a recent self-proclaimed Christian “takeover” of the White House.

According to several social media posts by Christian musicians and worship leaders, they were invited on Dec. 6 to the White House for a briefing that degenerated into singing, praying and what one attendee claimed was a “#WorshipTakeover,” asserting that the event was “inside the White House right now.” Added another post, “We were invited by this administration to worship inside the White House today.”

Vice President Mike Pence showed up at the event, took some photos and promoted it on social media, writing: “Wonderful stopping by a worship leaders briefing today at the @WhiteHouse! America is a proud Nation of believers and our Administration will always defend the freedom of religion of every American, of every faith!”

Megapreacher and President Trump’s “spiritual counselor” Paula White could be seen sitting in the front row. FFRF has previously condemned the White House’s recent hiring of White because it would blur the line separating state and church.

The event comes on the heels of Pence lying to a group of faith leaders in Michigan. Pence repeated the fib that Trump has destroyed the Johnson Amendment. FFRF has debunked this lie many times. FFRF sued Trump in federal court over his executive order on the Johnson Amendment, and his own Justice Department admitted — twice — to the court that Trump’s order did nothing to alter that rule or its enforcement.

FFRF exposes team baptism

Bradley Byrne tweet

In Alabama, a public school football team on Nov. 21 held a baptism on school property with the head coach and other staff in attendance, which is unconstitutional, asserts the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

FFRF has asked that the school district take the appropriate steps to ensure there will be no further religious rituals, including baptisms, during school-sponsored activities at Reeltown High School in Notasulga.

But U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne of Alabama, who is a candidate for the Senate seat held by Democrat Doug Jones, was clearly aghast at FFRF’s complaint. He sent out this tweet:

“I’m sick of these groups trying to tell us that we aren’t allowed to live out our faith. The Freedom from Religion Foundation needs to pack it up and stop forcing their ungodly, un-American views down our throats. The foundation says they want separation of church and state, but what they really want to [do] is to rip God out of our nation altogether. I’m thankful for leaders like Coach [Matt] Johnson who are doing the right thing and serving as positive role models to our young people.”

FFRF contends that students will perceive the baptism as endorsed by the school, since this religious ritual took place on school property with school staff members present.

“Courts have consistently held that it is illegal for a public school to organize, sponsor, or lead religious activity at public high school athletic events, such as football practice,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to Tallapoosa County Schools Superintendent Joseph C. Windle.

Most importantly, allowing outside adults to perform religious rituals specific to one religion — in this case Christianity — at a team event, ostracizes those students and families who identify as nonreligious or practice a minority religion. The freedom of conscience of all students must be respected.

“It’s an egregious overstep for public school officials to put Christian baptism in the playbook,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

FFRF victories (Jan/Feb 2020)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

Arkansas

A Russellville School District teacher has been reminded of his obligation to refrain from proselytizing to students.

A district parent reported that a sixth-grade science teacher at Russellville Middle School has made several claims to his class that are based on his personal religious beliefs, not scientific fact. The complainant reported that this teacher told students that dinosaurs lived only a few thousand years ago, and that humans and dinosaurs coexisted. He also reportedly told students that Earth is only a few thousand years old and that it cannot be as old as the “atheist scientists” claim that it is.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Mark Gotcher urging the district to take appropriate disciplinary and corrective action regarding this unconstitutional conduct. Gotcher responded via phone and assured FFRF that he has spoken with the teacher and this should not be an issue again.

Colorado

Impermissible religious advertisements have been removed from Douglas County School District property after the district heard from FFRF.

A concerned area resident reported that Douglas County High School in Castle Rock rents space to the Front Range Church each Sunday and was allowing the church to park a large trailer with an advertisement for the church service in the parking lot throughout the week. The trailer was apparently easily visible to students or parents in the parking lot.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Thomas S. Tucker, asking the district to ensure that Front Range Church is only using and displaying messages on school property during times when it is actually renting the property.

The district’s attorney responded via email, informing FFRF that school staff removed all signage/advertising on the trailer. “The trailer now includes no reference to Front Range Church or any church services,” the attorney writes.

Florida

After numerous violations, staff in Volusia County Schools in DeLand have been reminded of their obligation to not endorse religion when acting in their official capacity as public school employees.

Multiple complainants, including a Volusia County parent, reported instances of religious promotion occurring within the district. The district’s director of transportation was regularly posting religious content on his Twitter page, where his bio read: “Volusia County Schools Director of Transportation. Follower and Ambassador of Jesus Christ.”

Additionally, a University High School teacher and student government association president posted an endorsement of a “See You at the Pole” gathering on Twitter. It read: “Amazing prayer circle this morning! Thank U to all who had the STRENGTH to show the COURAGE to share HIS word and RESPECT HIS KNOWLEDGE. . . . I felt HIS presence in the energy generated by our praying hearts and was humbled to hear the voices of young people living in HIS grace!”

In response to FFRF Attorney Chris Line’s letter of complaint, any religious content has been removed from the director of transportation’s twitter page and Superintendent Timothy Egnor has reminded the school staff “that they must remain neutral toward religion and must refrain from actively participating, promoting or endorsing religious activities.”

. . .

The Alachua County Public School District’s attorney has reminded district employees that they may not promote religion at school meetings.

A district employee in Gainesville reported that at a working dinner involving many school personnel, Buchholz High School Principal James TenBieg asked an employee to deliver a religious blessing. The complainant felt coerced into bowing their head and participating in this religious exercise because it was at the direction of the principal and they did not want to risk potential backlash.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to Brian Moore, the district’s attorney, to ensure that the district is no longer including prayer as part of employee meetings or events. Moore responded via email, assuring FFRF that district principals will be reminded this is inappropriate.

. . .

A church’s banner has been removed from Miami-Dade Public Schools property.

A local resident reported that Lake Stevens Middle Schools in Miami had been displaying a banner for World Church International on its fence at all times. FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho, reminding the district that the school may not display religious advertisements. If the church rents the property, it may only put up the signs no earlier than when the rental time begins and must take them down when the rental time ends.

The district’s attorney responded via phone call to alert FFRF that the banners had been removed. Per school policy, they must only be up when the church is renting the school. 

. . .

A Bay County School District teacher has removed a religious reference from his email signature as it constituted an inappropriate endorsement of religion.

A district parent reported that a music teacher at Deane Bozeman School in Panama City was sending emails from his school account with a religious message in the signature line. Every email received by the complainant included the message, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Proverbs 3:5-6.”

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district’s attorney asking that the signature be removed so as not to create the impression of school endorsement of religion. The district’s attorney responded to the complaint, informing FFRF that the religious reference has been removed from the teacher’s district email signature.

Illinois

FFRF has secured two victories for state-church separation in the Maroa-Forsyth School District.

A concerned district parent contacted FFRF to report that a local religious ministry and New Life Pregnancy Center were teaching sex education at Maroa-Forsyth Middle School. New Life describes itself as “a Christ-centered ministry committed to upholding the sanctity of human life by demonstrating the love of Christ.”

New Life’s “Sexsanity” curriculum is based on encouraging abstinence largely through shame and fear, rather than providing educational information.

FFRF sent a letter to President Lindsey Wise, urging the district to replace this sex education curriculum with an appropriate, comprehensive and science-based alternative. The district has assured FFRF that it “will not teach that curriculum again. Period.”

FFRF was later informed by the complainant of a trend of Maroa-Forsyth High School promoting religion on social media. The school’s attorney has committed to addressing all state-church issues with district leadership and will ensure these violations do not recur.

Kansas

Teacher-led prayer has been stopped in North Lyon County USD 251 in Americus.

A district parent reported to FFRF that their child’s music teacher recently prayed with students before a concert at North Lyon County Elementary School. The teacher reportedly told students who don’t believe that they can bow their heads and close their eyes or just stare off into space. The teacher then reportedly read verses from the bible as part of the performance.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Mike Mathes, urging him to make certain that none of its employees were unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters.

Mathes responded to FFRF with assurances that the teacher was “instructed to stop leading prayer, encouraging students to pray, or reading the bible during the school day or as part of a school event.”

. . .

Humboldt USD 258 has taken action to address a complaint of coach prayer within its district.

A local resident reported to FFRF that Logan Wyrick, head coach of the Humboldt High School football team, had been leading his team in prayer after games. FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Kay Lewis, urging the district to investigate the alleged complaint and take immediate action to stop any illegal school-sponsored prayer.

In response to FFRF’s letter, Lewis spoke with Wyrick about the district policies and well-established legal precedent that preclude coach-led prayer in the district. The coach agreed this would not happen again. Additionally, the district athletic director will speak with all district coaches and sponsors in regard to this violation at an upcoming in-service.

Kentucky

A coach in the Glasgow Independent School District has been advised not to lead the team in prayer, organize or otherwise advocate for students to lead team prayer.

A community member contacted FFRF to report that after every practice and game, Jeff Hughes, an assistant coach at Glasgow Middle School, led his team in a prayer session when he discussed his Christian faith. Hughes had described his job as teaching “young men about football and more importantly about Jesus!” Hughes is apparently also involved with the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) club.

FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian wrote to Superintendent Keith Hale, urging the district to take immediate action to stop any and all prayers occurring in district athletic programs.

Hale sent a letter of response, informing FFRF that “Hughes has been advised not to lead the team in prayer, organize or otherwise advocate for students to lead team prayer.”

Missouri

District administrators in Willard Public Schools have taken corrective action to ensure that inappropriate religious references will not occur in presentations in their classes.

A district parent reported that Willard High School’s choir director invited a former student to talk to his class and then posted on social media about how the guest had spoken about “following God’s plan.”

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to the school’s attorney pointing out the constitutional issues with allowing an outside adult access to impressionable public school students to preach to about “God’s plan.” The attorney informs FFRF that the superintendent and the principal reviewed the issue and discussed the inappropriateness with the choir teacher. The teacher was “directed to refrain from similar presentations in the future” and he “readily agreed.” The social media post has since been removed.

Oklahoma

Administration officials in Blanchard Public Schools have “taken affirmative steps” to address a serious state-church violation in one of its schools.

A district parent reported that a science teacher at Blanchard Middle School had been attempting to discredit evolution. The complainant reported that their child was supposed to learn about evolution through an educational video. Before the lesson, the teacher told students that she is Christian and would be fast forwarding through parts of the video that she found offensive as a Christian, and that she felt would be offensive to others. She then proceeded to fast forward through large portions of the video explaining evolution. The teacher showed a second video because the first was “too offensive.” At one point during the second video, the narrator stated that evolution was a fact, at which point the teacher told students that was not true.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Jim Beckman, pointing out that the teacher’s attempt to undermine what she was teaching is both unconstitutional and pedagogically deplorable. Line urged the district to take appropriate disciplinary and corrective action regarding this unconstitutional conduct.

The district’s attorney responded to FFRF’s letter with assurances that administration is taking action to ensure this does not happen again.

. . .

Edmond Public Schools has made changes to an annual holiday program after complaints that including religious elements violated the constitutional principle of state-church separation.

An Edmond Public Schools community member reported that each year, third-grade teachers at Chisholm Elementary had students rehearse a live nativity scene, which the students then went on to perform at the school’s holiday concert in December. Students who participated apparently played various roles, including Mary, Joseph, etc.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to the school’s attorney, pointing out that teaching students the biblical story of the birth of Jesus and having them regularly rehearse a performance of that story impermissibly entangles the school with the bible’s devotional message. The school’s attorney replied via email, informing FFRF that “changes were made to the program.”

. . .

District leadership in Lone Grove School District No. I-32 has taken action to address a serious state-church violation.

A district parent reported that a first-grade teacher at Lone Grove Primary School led students in prayer before a Thanksgiving meal. The complainant reported that before the meal, the teacher boasted that all of the first-grade classes lead children in prayer every day before snack time. This practice has apparently been taking place at the school for years.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Meri Jayne Miller, urging the district to make certain that none of its employees is unlawfully and inappropriately indoctrinating students in religious matters by leading prayer, encouraging them to pray, or setting aside time for prayer.

The district’s attorney responded to the letter of complaint, informing FFRF that neither the superintendent nor the school principal was aware this was taking place and that “the administration investigated and has taken affirmative steps to ensure that this does not happen again.”

South Carolina

Coaches in Greenville County Schools have been reminded of their constitutional duty to remain neutral on matters of religion.

A concerned district parent reported that Woodmont High School football coaches prayed with their players on the field after a football game in October. FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to the district’s attorney Doug Webb to ensure that Greenville County Schools takes immediate action to stop any and all school-sponsored prayer.

Webb informed FFRF in his response letter that district coaches have “been instructed not to participate in any student-initiated prayer but to instead respectfully observe that prayer so that their actions do not show either endorsement or hostility toward that student expression.”

Texas

A Texas public school district has addressed unconstitutional religious promotion by its basketball coaches.

A concerned community member reported to FFRF that basketball coaches at Connally High School in Pflugerville had been leading their teams in prayer. One of the coaches, Bradley Washington, had also established the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) program at the high school. In an online FCA video, Washington stated that “there was no FCA here, and I’m not gonna apologize for trying to pour it into the young kids’ life. Basketball won’t be a part of your life forever, but Jesus will.”

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote a letter to Pflugerville Independent School District Superintendent Douglas Killian, urging the district to take immediate steps to end these illegal practices.

The superintendent responded by email to assure FFRF that the district is taking action to correct these violations. Killian reports he has “reached out to the athletic director and deputy superintendent to investigate and correct and shared to get some training in place with our attorney for the coaches and sponsors.”

Washington

A proselytizing retired teacher is no longer volunteering with students in the East Valley School District No. 90 in Yakima.

A district community member reported that East Valley High School was allowing a retired teacher to proselytize to students and act as an FCA representative, even though the school has no student FCA club. The complainant reported that the FCA representative organized monthly coach breakfasts and meetings with student-athletes after practice ends. The coaches at the school had apparently encouraged students to meet with the volunteer after practice.

FFRF Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent John Schieche, urging the district to ensure that outside adults are no longer being given access to students during school activities.

Schieche informed FFRF that he “met with the retired teacher last spring and informed him that the meetings with students were not permissible.” The retired teacher is no longer volunteering in the school or meeting with students.

West Virginia

District staff members in Berkeley County Schools in Martinsburg were instructed to honor their constitutional obligation to remain neutral on religion when acting in their official capacity.

FFRF was informed that Spring Mills High School football coaches prayed with their players midfield after a football game in September. Pastor Mayor Dale Myers was reportedly brought in to lead the football prayer after the football game.

FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Superintendent Patrick K. Murphy urging the district to stop any and all school-sponsored prayers occurring in any district programs.

The district responded via e-mail, alerting FFRF of the actions it took to investigate the claims and has addressed the legal issues relevant to this situation at its Athletic Council Meeting. “Athletic directors and principals were instructed on what law requires of district employees who are acting in their official capacity when it comes to prayer at athletic events.”