Name: Ralph Francis Guertin.
Where I live: Green Valley, Ariz.
Where and when I was born: Stafford, Conn., in 1938. My parents were living in Indian Orchard, Mass. (a suburb of Springfield), and that is where I grew up.
Family: My wife, Nu Nu Mae, died last year. She was a native of Myanmar (Burma) and was teaching the Burmese language at Yale when I met her. We were married for 50 years. My daughter and granddaughter live in Massachusetts.
Education: Clarke School for the Deaf (now Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech) in Northampton, Mass.; Classical High School in Springfield, Mass.; B.S. in physics from Worcester Polytechnic Institute; Ph.D. in physics from Yale University.
Occupation: Retired as a physicist/engineer. Last worked for Raytheon in Arizona. Company was awarded a patent that includes an advanced mathematical formula I developed which can improve the ability of a missile to hit its target.
Person in history I admire and why: Albert Einstein, due to his theory of relativity.
A quotation I like: “The one who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the one who is doing it.” — Chinese proverb. I included it in a speech I gave at a Clarke School graduation that included a criticism of those who claim that deaf children cannot communicate well via speech and that they should be educated with sign language.
These are a few of my favorite things: Physics and advanced mathematics, baseball (I’m a Boston Red Sox fan), basketball, which was founded in my home city of Springfield, Mass., and chess.
These are not: People who say I’m headed for hell and try to get me to adopt their religion. By the way, my parents raised me as a Catholic and were shocked when I told them that God was a fiction and I was not going to church any more.
My doubts about religion started: While I was at Worcester Polytechnic and became firm after a few months at Yale University.
Clarke alumnus, engineer and physicist gives back
Ralph Guertin was profiled in the 2012 issue of Clarke Speaks magazine, the publication of the Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech. It is reprinted with permission:
Ralph Guertin, ’53, has led a life of extraordinary accomplishment. After losing his hearing at the age of 7 due to meningitis and measles, Ralph graduated from Clarke and went on to the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where he graduated with a 4.0 GPA, and Yale University, where he earned a Ph.D. in physics. His distinguished career has encompassed work in academia, government, and the corporate world, including positions at the University of Nijmegen, the Middle East Technical University, Rice University, the University of California at Berkeley, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.
Among his numerous professional achievements is a mathematical algorithm that is a key component of a patent associated with a sophisticated defense system. An inveterate traveler, Ralph has visited England, Portugal, France, Turkey and the Straits of Gibraltar on his many trips around the globe — but Clarke Northampton holds a special place in his heart. “I loved the high-quality academic programs, particularly science, math, and history, which prepared me well for a challenging academic career learning alongside hearing students. I remember enjoying the many active discussions we used to have about national and world events, both inside and outside of the classroom. I was also inspired by the achievements of Clarke School’s alumni.”
Ralph served on Clarke’s Board of Trustees from 1984 to 2004 and was the speaker at Clarke’s 1984 graduation ceremony.
Now settled in Arizona with his wife, Nu Nu Mae, Ralph’s generous annual contributions are a way of giving back to the school.
“I believe strongly in providing deaf children with the opportunity to attend Clarke and benefit from its exceptional teaching staff,” said Ralph. “Clarke makes it possible for individuals who are deaf to realize their potential in a society where most people can hear. I want other children to benefit from Clarke by learning to communicate via spoken language, as well as to benefit from the knowledgeable Clarke teaching staff who encourage each child to succeed.”
FFRF has proudly raised its unique flag to honor freethought and to protest a New Hampshire town’s Ten Commandments monument.
On Jan. 2, FFRF Member Richard Gagnon hoisted the “A” flag in Somersworth, N.H. The flag remained up in the “Citizen’s Place” traffic island through the end of January. The red “A” was adopted by Richard Dawkins as a symbol of atheism and agnosticism.
“Let us all come together as believers and nonbelievers. Judge us not by who we are. Judge us by how we treat one another,” Gagnon said.
In 2017, the city installed two flagpoles near a contentious Ten Commandments monument for community groups to celebrate events. The addition of something other than a Judeo-Christian symbol is an attempted gesture by the city to get around legal precedent against stand-alone Ten Commandments markers on public property.
“The 3,000-pound monolith was knocked down in August 2016, setting off a new round of discussions as to whether or not the religious symbol violates the constitutional provision of separation of church and state,” the local paper reports. “In determining whether the Ten Commandments monument should be restored, Mayor Dana Hilliard offered a plan to create a citizen’s park, adding two flagpoles which could be used by civic groups to celebrate important events.”
FFRF’s flag was initially meant to go up on Dec. 4. Due to an anticipated backlash to a December display, Hilliard suggested a postponement, and Gagnon agreed to the move. Hilliard declared January as “Diversity and Tolerance Month.”
FFRF has asked for several years that the Ten Commandments monument be removed. In the meantime, FFRF hopes the flag will provide some balance, albeit temporarily, to Somersworth’s blatantly Christian endorsement.
Legal Department earns more than 300 victories
By Rebecca Markert
FFRF’s legal department in 2017 had its most productive year to date. Not only were FFRF’s nine in-house attorneys busy protecting the wall of separation, but they also demonstrated the prominence and stature of the staff, as they were routinely called on by attorneys and constitutional scholars across the country for legal advice.
Over the past year, FFRF earned more than 300 victories to keep religion out of government after sending out more than 1,500 letters of complaint. The number of victories will continue to grow, as many complaints lodged last year will still have responses roll in this year. FFRF attorneys wrote to government officials in 47 states (all but Vermont, Rhode Island and Hawaii) and the District of Columbia.
A significant portion of that total consisted of letters warning 350 school districts across the United States against allowing the Todd Becker Foundation into public schools to convert students. The letter included a special report, “Closing the Doors: Why the Todd Becker Foundation Must Not be Allowed in Public Schools,” drafted by Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott and Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow Christopher Line. The Todd Becker Foundation targets high school students, seeking to convert them to fundamentalist Christianity. The foundation is a Christian ministry that travels throughout the Midwest putting on assemblies in public schools.
The number of total letters does not include the many follow-up letters sent or the time FFRF’s legal staff spent responding to questions from FFRF members and members of the general public. More than 4,300 queries about potential violations were lodged with FFRF last year, mostly through our online form: Report a State/Church Violation.
The top 10 states (where FFRF sent the most letters of complaint):
8. Missouri (tie)
8. North Carolina (tie)
10. Georgia (tie)
10. Illinois (tie)
Top 10 issue areas:
1. Public schools
2 Religious displays
3 Government prayer
4. Government funding to religion
5. Crosses on public property
6. Holiday displays
7. National Day of Prayer (tie)
7. Social media (tie)
9. Legislative prayer
Friend of the court briefs
FFRF submitted seven amicus — or friend of the court — briefs in religious liberty cases around the country. Being able to draft and submit more briefs in federal courts around the country provides FFRF a chance to weigh in on Establishment Clause cases it’s not part of and gives FFRF the opportunity to offer its voice to cases that touch on religious liberty and rights of nonbelievers. Two of those briefs were filed before the U.S. Supreme Court.
FFRF submitted an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in the Muslim travel ban cases involving President Trump’s restrictions on travel from certain Muslim-majority countries. FFRF’s brief argued that the executive order on the travel ban violates the Establishment Clause. The administration was explicit in its first order that immigration policies should restrict Muslim refugees and favor Christian refugees. FFRF also made the novel argument in its brief before the Court that the executive order violates Article VI of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits a religious test for office or public trust. New iterations of the travel ban caused the court to remove the case from its calendar and new lawsuits are wending their way through the courts. FFRF will submit another brief if necessary.
FFRF also filed an amicus brief in the famous case, Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, heard before the U.S. Supreme Court in December 2017. A Colorado baker refused to bake a cake for a gay marriage, contending his rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment let his place of public accommodation discriminate against gay customers. FFRF argued that the baker seeks to radically redefine “religious freedom” as the right to impose one’s religious beliefs on others.
Legal staff news
FFRF hired Madeline Ziegler as a full-time intake attorney, after her tenure as the Cornelius Vanderbroek Legal Fellow. Ryan Jayne also joined our legal team as a staff attorney after his tenure as the Diane Uhl and Eric and Elaine Stone Legal Fellow.
Our legal fellowship program continued with the hiring of two new fellows: Chris Line, who was an intern/extern with FFRF for the duration of his law school career at the University of Wisconsin Law School, was awarded the Patrick O’Reiley legal fellowship; and Colin McNamara started with FFRF in September as the Robert G. Ingersoll legal fellow after graduating from the University of Richmond School of Law in Richmond, Virginia.
FFRF also hosted seven law student interns, including two students from top 10 law schools.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s newly created Strategic Response Team has wasted no time fighting for your rights — with two successful outcomes already in the books.
While the behind-the-scenes legal work has been happening for years at FFRF, the Strategic Response Team is a formalization of the framework of FFRF’s ongoing “rapid response team,” combined with a revved-up legislative agenda as part of FFRF’s ongoing Educate Congress Campaign.
As the new director of strategic response, FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel oversaw two big issues: helping defeat some Trump judicial nominees and helping protect the Johnson Amendment as debate over the tax package began.
Seidel identified one judicial nominee who stood out as particularly unqualified: Jeff Mateer. Mateer garnered notoriety when his comments about trans kids being part of “Satan’s plan” surfaced. He’s a long-time nemesis of FFRF and state/church separation. FFRF had even faced off against Mateer in court, besting him in our lawsuit removing a Jesus portrait from public schools in Jackson, Ohio. At that time, Mateer represented First Liberty Institute, a theocratic law firm seeking to tear down the wall of separation that FFRF guards. First Liberty, Seidel quips, “is basically the anti-FFRF.”
Of the many groups opposing Mateer’s nomination, FFRF was the only one to compile a definitive record of his unfitness for office. Seidel and FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne authored and submitted a full report to Senate Judiciary Committee members cataloging Mateer’s many “sins.” Seidel and FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert traveled to Capitol Hill in early November, speaking with Senate Judiciary Committee staffers about Mateer and the report.
“We’ve tangled with Mateer before and knew he would be a disaster for the federal bench,” explains Seidel, who put in countless hours watching Mateer’s talks and reviewing his written record. “We pulled out all the stops to end his hopes of a lifetime appointment.” Mateer’s nomination was ended late last year.
The Strategic Response Team also stepped up FFRF’s ongoing work to help protect the Johnson Amendment, which keeps nonprofits nonpartisan. Under it, churches and tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofits may not endorse or oppose political candidates. They may discuss and advocate on issues; they may not use tax-exempt resources for political purposes.
The House version of the tax reform bill gutted the Johnson Amendment. The Senate version left it untouched.
The team tracked every attempt to repeal the Johnson Amendment and mobilized FFRF members from across the country to contact their senators and representatives, arming them with the tools and talking points needed to make an impact.
Other state/church separation groups and nonprofits also worked to keep the amendment intact. The final bill left the Johnson Amendment alone.
“This win for secularism is probably bigger than most people realize. It keeps billions of dollars in dark money out of churches and stops a desperate religious power grab,” explained Seidel.
“FFRF has done more than our members know,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, when discussing the Johnson Amendment victory. “We’ve had 30 meetings with legislators about this issue and did a lot of behind-the-scenes work to protect this important rule.”
The Strategic Response Team has four basic duties:
• Representing freethinkers with elected officials.
The team oversees FFRF’s Educate Congress Campaign. Unveiled in 2017, the campaign involves FFRF attorneys taking turns lobbying in Congress and in state legislatures. Three week-long lobbying campaigns involving six attorneys took place in 2017.
• Overseeing FFRF action alerts, a thankless task that Editorial Assistant Molly Hanson handles with aplomb.
In 2017, more than 100 alerts, many at the federal level, went out, utilizing Engage software, making it a matter of seconds for members to easily contact members of Congress over timely legislation.
• Following legislation that impacts state/church separation, for good or ill.
“We tracked about 75 pieces of legislation in 2017,” said Jayne, who is assigned to the response team for that purpose. Prior to September, FFRF Junior Counsel Sam Grover ably tracked legislation, also testifying before Wisconsin legislative committees.
• Overseeing rapid response.
“We keep our finger on the pulse of secularism and work to quickly respond to any challenges,” explains Seidel.
This includes writing letters about potential violations; drafting FFRF statements in response to important legal developments or current affairs; and writing op-eds, letters to the editor, blogs and articles to educate the public on these issues.
Also involved in the team are Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, Markert and Director of Communications Amit Pal. All staff attorneys participate in the Educate Congress Campaign.
An Alaska city wisely chose not to dole out money to a local church after the FFRF raised objections to the proposed move.
The Sitka City Assembly was prepared to allocate $5,000 from the city’s Visitor’s Enhancement Fund to help repair St. Michael’s Cathedral. City Attorney Brian Hanson had reviewed concerns that funding this church would violate the First Amendment and initially (and erroneously) concluded that the grant would be permissible.
FFRF challenged this assessment. Hanson failed to properly apply the Supreme Court’s 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) test. Other cases have shown that Lemon’s second prong (that a governmental action’s principal or primary effect must neither advance nor inhibit religion) does not allow grants that support religious activities, FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne asserted. Two subsequent cases, Tilton v. Richardson (1971) and Community House, Inc. v. City of Boise (2007), in particular affirm this.
The city’s potential funding of St. Michael’s Cathedral advanced religion even more obviously than the unconstitutional actions in Tilton v. Richardson and Community House, FFRF contended. Repairing a building that is used for religious worship, and that has the sole stated mission of winning converts to a particular religion, unconstitutionally supports both that religious worship and that religious mission.
The Sitka City Assembly eventually paid heed to FFRF’s counsel.
“After deliberation that spanned several meetings, St. Michael’s Cathedral will not receive $5,000 from the city for exterior work,” a local radio station reported. “At a short meeting on Tuesday, the Sitka Assembly voted 4-3 against donating the money for renovations to the historic building. The ordinance, originally presented to the assembly on Nov. 7, continued to stir up debate over the separation of church and state.”
A Sitka Assembly member who voted the right way understood the implications of giving the church the city grant.
“It’s pretty clear that by doing this, you will be advancing the church’s goal,” Aaron Bean said. “Any money that they wouldn’t have to otherwise pay a contractor to do the work that they’ve been neglecting for years is going to end up furthering their agenda.”
During the lunch break at FFRF’s 40th annual convention on Sept. 16 in Madison, Wis., a dozen freethinkers gathered in a side room at the Monona Terrace Convention Center to participate in a town hall-style discussion.
By Alec Loftus
“Are there secret atheists in Congress?”
“Is Google replacing God?”
You won’t hear these questions in the sleepy political town halls aired on CNN. But participants teed off on the topics without hesitation at the first-ever Secular Town Hall.
The event was produced by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which works to elevate the voices of America’s fastest-growing religious demographic: nonbelievers.
Moderated by Emmy-awarded journalist Cara Santa Maria, the forum was held at the Monona Terrace in Madison this fall, featuring a dozen participants from a variety of states and professions.
The group included Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and students representing the Millennial generation. Ten of the dozen participants identified as atheists, with the others identifying as agnostic or secular.
According to Pew Research, nearly a quarter of Americans nationwide identify as nonreligious, representing a huge increase over the past decade. However, 91 percent of the 535 members of the U.S. House and Senate are Christians, and no member has publicly stated his or her disbelief in God.
Santa Maria asked participants if they think atheists are secretly serving in Congress.
“It’s statistically inevitable that some of the people in elected office are atheists,” responded Chris Calvey, a microbiologist from the Midwest. “But they are too afraid to be honest about it because they want to get re-elected.”
Added Calvey, “It’s currently political suicide to be open about your nonreligious views, but I think that’s changing as the demographics are changing.”
New groups like Run for Something and Our Revolution, born of the failed campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, are recruiting thousands of young candidates to run for office, with an emphasis on supporting LGBTQ candidates and candidates of color.
If these organizations want to break the hegemony of the Religious Right, they could also issue a call for candidates who are open atheists.
According to Pew Research, Millennials are leading the exodus from organized religion in America. A full 35 percent of Millennials now identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” while three-quarters say they don’t attend church on any regular basis.
Participant Molly Hanson, a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison who also is an editorial assistant at FFRF, said Millennials are turned off by organized religion because of its historically negative views of LGBT rights and marriage equality. She said that for Millennials, the technology in their pocket is their new religion.
“Technology is answering a lot of the mysterious questions that people needed religion for in the past. Now you can just ask Google,” said Hanson. “God isn’t as necessary anymore.”
When asked if atheists face discrimination, Marie Schaub, a mom from Pennsylvania, said that sometimes people confuse atheists with Satanists: “If we don’t believe in God, we certainly don’t believe in his enemy.”
Schaub told a story about her campaign to remove a massive Ten Commandments monument outside of her daughter’s middle school, which was successful with support from FFRF’s attorneys.
Another UW-Madison student, Micayla Batchlor, spoke about coming out of the closet as an African-American atheist and facing tension from her family and others in the predominantly Christian black community.
“With the stereotypes that go along with (being black), who would we be if we gave into those same stereotypes?” said Batchlor. “It’s hard for people to put me into a box, which I think shouldn’t happen in the first place.”
To elevate these voices, FFRF has been pushing public broadcasting networks to air the Secular Town Hall as educational programming to balance out their many hours of dusty, religious-themed shows like “Ancient Roads: From Christ to Constantine.”
“The secular demographic is the fastest-growing in America, yet the Religious Right controls all three branches of government,” said Santa Maria. “This town hall is designed to help people learn what secular Americans are passionate about.”
FFRF Member Alec Loftus is a Boston-based media consultant who helped produce the Secular Town Hall. He is a graduate of UW-Madison.
By Dan Barker
Central America has been battered by religion for centuries. Today, the evangelical invasion is challenging the Catholic Church in numbers and power. Even though Honduras and Guatemala are officially secular, their governments are entangled with religion.
But there is hope!
On Nov. 8, I flew to Tegucigalpa to participate in a number of events at the invitation of a vibrant new group of freethinkers, Librepensamiento Honduras (Honduras Freethought). As soon as I got off the plane, I was taken to the national Radio Globo for a lengthy live interview about atheism and secularism, and to promote our public events the next day. I was then interviewed by the famous Johnny Lagos, editor and publisher of El Libertador. Because of his work to expose corruption in government, Lagos was a target of an unsuccessful assassination attempt.
The next day, I appeared on two popular national morning television shows, for more than 30 minutes each, and recorded another national TV show on the right-wing SITV (which has been compared to Fox News), hosted by the famous “Chano,” which aired later in the week. They were all interested in my preacher-to-atheist story, and in the fact that there are active nonbelievers in the country.
I also spoke to a group of about 100 enthusiastic atheists, humanists and feminists at the Hotel Excelsior, and later to a similar-sized group, accompanied by a local comedy troupe.
On Nov. 10, before sightseeing in mountain towns outside of Tegucigalpa, I was invited to debate Carlos Portillo, a Christian pastor who is the former minister of religion for the Honduran government, on national CHTV, hosted by the well-known Armando Villanueva. That show (see bit.ly/2z70Bu3) lasted about 90 minutes. I pointed out that the biblical God is bloodthirsty and then asked, “Is genocide good?” Portillo responded that genocide is parcialmente bueno — partially good.
I was extremely impressed with the efforts, connections and successes of the young professional freethinkers working for a secular government in Honduras.
The following day, I flew to Guatemala City to participate in a conference put on by the Guatemalan Humanists. The event took place in a chapel in a former Jesuit seminary that has been converted by the Spanish government into a cultural arts center in the city of Antigua, the former colonial capital. Political scientist Carlos Mendoza and psychologist Natalia Marsicovetere joined me as we discussed “The politics of religion.” (See the event at bit.ly/2BaFJ2G)
The churches wield enormous power in Central America. They can marshal the vote, and the government knows it. When Portillo asked me on the air why the church, which is trusted by the people, should not try to clean up political corruption, I responded that you can’t cure one corruption with another corruption. The best hope for the world is a completely secular government.