Meet a Staffer: Ship it! FFRF office assistant handles various support tasks  

Photo by Chris Line
Monica Schwartz is FFRF’s office assistant and helps ship items, such as the “Ask an Atheist” T-shirt, from the FFRF store (shop.ffrf.org).

Name: Monica Schwartz

Where and when I was born: I was born in Beloit, Wis., in the early ’90s.

Education: I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a B.S. in community and nonprofit leadership and an entrepreneurship certificate.

Family: With my mother, father and sister, I grew up in what I consider to be the most supportive and communicative family I know.

How I came to work at FFRF: I wanted to build my nonprofit acumen by working for a national nonprofit whose mission aligned with mine. I feel lucky to have found that at FFRF.

What I do here: I am the office assistant at FFRF, meaning I pick up the support tasks that help the office stay focused and diligent. Bought anything from the FFRF store? I probably shipped it to you! Received a new-member packet? I may have stuffed it for you! Whatever helps the over-arching goal of keeping state and church separate.

What I like best about it: I get to work with incredibly intelligent and passionate people where there’s endless coffee and witty banter.

What gets old about it: Remember the aforementioned shipping and stuffing? That has resulted in quite a few paper cuts, although I’m learning how to avoid them.

I spend a lot of time thinking about: What it means to be an atheist and how to label my own religious identity.

I spend little if any time thinking about: Whether the Constitution is worth working to uphold. It is.

My religious upbringing was: I was baptized Catholic, but when my mother refused to raise her daughters in a church that didn’t allow women to lead the congregation, I was confirmed in a Methodist church.

My doubts about religion started: One of my earliest memories is of walking up the stairs in my childhood home during the Christmas season, wearing my puffy, red jacket, and thinking, “Jesus . . . God . . . that can’t ACTUALLY be real, right?”

Things I like: I like community. I get the biggest thrill when I know I’ve been a part of something that brought people together. As a loyal Wisconsinite, I also really like cheese.

Things I smite: Close-mindedness, racial and economic disparities, injustice — the usual.

In my golden years: Whenever I’m lucky enough to hit my “golden years,” I hope I will feel as though I’ve done enough; as though I’ve positively impacted lives. Maybe I will reflect on that on a warm beach somewhere . . .

FFRF defeats Gov. Abbott over Capitol nativity display

FFRF has prevailed in federal court against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who ordered the removal of FFRF’s Bill of Rights Nativity display from the Texas Capitol in 2015.

In his decision, handed down Oct. 13, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks for the Western District of Texas – Austin Division, ruled that Abbott violated FFRF’s free speech rights.

FFRF had placed a duly permitted display celebrating the Winter Solstice and Bill of Rights Day, in response to a Christian nativity scene in the Texas Capitol. The display, depicting three 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 (state Rep. Donna Howard).

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. Abbott tweeted that he ordered the display removed because “mocking the Capitol Nativity scene is offensive.”

“Defendants have justified removal of FFRF’s exhibit by arguing the exhibit’s satirical tone rendered it offensive to some portion of the population. That is viewpoint discrimination,” writes Sparks in a 24-page ruling. “Because the ostensibly mocking tone of the FFRF exhibit is defendants’ sole reason for removing the exhibit from the Ground Floor Rotunda, the court finds defendants have engaged in viewpoint discrimination as a matter of law.”

The court also held that a reasonable official in Gov. Abbott’s position would have known that removing FFRF’s display based on its viewpoint would violate FFRF’s First Amendment rights, thus FFRF can sue Gov. Abbott in his personal capacity.

Ken Herman, an op-ed writer for the Austin American-Statesman, agreed with the judge’s ruling.

“The foundation is a church-state separation group with a knack for making its points in ways that can upset some people who sometimes can benefit from a periodic upsetting,” Herman wrote.

Sparks did not find that Abbott’s actions violated the Establishment Clause, but also ruled in FFRF’s favor that FFRF has the right to depose the governor for one hour. Abbott had fought the request for a deposition.

Rep. Howard, who sponsored the display, noted that Abbott’s intervention came only one day before FFRF’s display was supposed to come down. “That does appear to make this more of a political statement,” she said. “It was going to come down anyway.”

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.

“We’d rather keep divisive religious — and irreligious — views out of state capitols. But if the government creates public forums, and permits Christian nativities in them, there must be room at the inn for the rest of us.”

Abbott says the state of Texas isn’t done with this issue.

“Be assured,” Abbott tweeted after the ruling, “this will be appealed.”

FFRF’s Bill of Rights nativity display was removed by Texas Gov. Abbott, but a court decided that Abbott’s action was unconstitutional.
FFRF’s Bill of Rights nativity display was removed by Texas Gov. Abbott, but a court decided that Abbott’s action was unconstitutional.

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 Attorney Sam Grover as co-counsel.

Artist, filmmaker, novelist Scott Burdick isn’t afraid to challenge authority

Scott Burdick works on a drawing of a tribe called the Himba in Namibia, Africa.
Scott Burdick works on a drawing of a tribe called the Himba in Namibia, Africa.
FFRF Life Member Scott Burdick
FFRF Life Member Scott Burdick

I was born and raised in 1967 in a working-class neighborhood in Chicago. I attended the same Catholic grade school as my mother had, and the same Jesuit high school as my uncle had. As an altar boy, I felt God’s eyes on me night and day. Everyone I knew believed in God, so it was just an obvious fact — until my junior year of high school when I decided to read the entire bible. That was when the first cracks appeared.

Catholic schools taught the basics of Darwinian evolution and accepted that Genesis was not literal. I wondered how to separate the myths from the facts. So I read books on comparative religion, the history of how the Catholic Church formed, and the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. Within a year, I realized all religions were equally man-made.

I never had any bad experiences with priests, nuns or the Jesuit brothers — I simply didn’t believe anymore. I didn’t tell anyone I was an atheist, but I did stop going to church, which caused some problems, especially since I was still in Catholic school. Mostly, I felt relief that Big Brother was no longer watching and deciding if I deserved heaven or hell.

After winning a full scholarship to attend The American Academy of Art in downtown Chicago, a famous artist named Richard Schmid asked a group of us young students what we thought about the existence of God. One after the other, each classmate affirmed their belief in God. I was last. My heart was pounding, but I stated my disbelief out loud for the first time. All the other students were shocked. One of them said, “But you’re such a good person!” Then, to my utter surprise, Richard Schmid said, “That’s what I think, as well.” It was the first time I realized I wasn’t alone.

While in art school, a girl in my class told me that her mother gave all their savings to Oral Roberts when the televangelist said God would “call him home” (kill him) if he didn’t raise $8 million. This was in 1987, and the girl had to leave school because of this family disaster. It was the first really negative consequence of religion I witnessed. Years later, while staying at a collector’s house in Tulsa, we were invited to attend an event at a country club where Roberts was a member. I warned our hosts that if I met Roberts, I would tell him the story of my classmate, since I’m not the kind of person who can simply say nothing in the face of such a con artist. I left it up to them if they wanted me to go with them. They decided to take us to a restaurant instead.

After art school, I attended Columbia College for writing and film, and then made a living as a gallery painter, while occasionally doing paid jobs for film. (I worked on a development team for an animated feature called “Spirit” for DreamWorks, as well as writing a couple screenplays for them that never got made.)

Tired of the city, my wife and I moved to North Carolina about 20 years ago. We spend a lot of our time traveling. While in Africa, India, Tibet, Peru, Turkey or wherever else, I love reading the history and religious texts of the culture we’re visiting and then talking to people about their beliefs. Many of those stories and images work their way into my novels and paintings.

I wasn’t active in the freethought movement until a controversy erupted in King, N.C. (the town we live next to). A very brave Afghan veteran, [FFRF Life Member] Steven Hewett, complained about a Christian flag hanging on a veteran’s memorial in our town’s public park. After the City Council took the flag down under threat of a lawsuit, near-continuous protests flared up. At a rally attended by 5,000 flag-waving Christians, speaker after speaker said there was no such thing as separation of church and state and anyone who disagreed should be “encouraged” to leave town. People told local businesses that if they didn’t hang a Christian flag in their window, they would be boycotted. Everyone complied.

I was so angry that I decided to make a documentary called “In God We Trust?” in my spare time. It took me a year to film and edit entirely on my own. I released it on YouTube simply to feel like I had at least stood up these bullies and exposed them for what they were. To my surprise, the documentary was widely seen and ended up as evidence in a lawsuit brought by Americans United against the town of King’s fake public forum that was used to put the flag back up.

A week before I was scheduled to testify in federal court last year, the town finally gave in on all counts. They removed the Christian flag and other statues from the memorial, and the town’s insurance company paid half a million dollars in court costs to Americans United (and $1 to Hewett). All the threatening emails I received as a consequence of the film and trial are merely a bonus, but the most gratifying thing about that film were the handful of religious people in town who told me that watching it changed their mind about why the separation of church and state makes sense even for believers.

Because of this film, Sue Kocher of The Triangle Freethought Society contacted me and asked if I’d film a documentary of the first Reason Rally, which I did with her help. Then she talked me into doing another one with the society and Katherine Stewart on The Good News Club — and then the first interviews for the Openly Secular project.

The most exciting part was interviewing so many of my atheist heroes like Annie Laurie Gaylor, Dan Barker, Richard Dawkins, James Randi, Lawrence Krauss, Adam Savage, and on and on. Because I make good money from my paintings and novels, it’s nice to be able to donate my time to a cause I feel is essential for our future. At every museum show or book signing I do, there are always a few people who come up to me (sometimes with tears in their eyes) and say how thankful they are for my openness about being an atheist, since they cannot come out of the closet for fear of retaliation.

On one panel discussion moderated by George Gallo (writer of “Midnight Run”), I was asked if I ever worried that being so openly atheist might hurt my career. I replied that if you’re afraid to express your honest thoughts and ideas, you probably shouldn’t be an artist, writer, or filmmaker — at least not if you want to do anything of value. Even though George said this was a very good answer, we clashed a few years later when I saw a film he wrote and directed called “Local Color.” In the film, his main character says, “In my opinion, an atheist can never be a great painter. In order to create great art, man must make peace with his own mortality and bow to a higher power.” I called him out on this publicly, and we had quite an extended and heated exchange, though I never succeeded in getting him to see how insulting and ridiculous such a statement was.

My newest novel (The Immortality Contract) is the first one I’ve written that focuses entirely on religion. I give Annie Laurie and Dan credit on the Acknowledgements page, since it was while listening to one of their podcasts that I first came up with the story idea. In the novel, a billionaire atheist scientist (Theon) offers a fountain-of-youth pill to the world free of charge — under condition that the recipient abandons any and all support for religion (especially financial). The pill will only be available in countries with strictly secular governments. Almost overnight, every person on the planet must decide if they have more faith in science and life in this world — or religion and the promise of life in the next. Theon’s goal is the destruction of organized religion and ushering in a golden age of reason and science. Unfortunately, things don’t go as smoothly as he’d hoped. Probably, there won’t be as large an audience for this book as for my science fiction novels, but it was fun to write!

To me, questioning and continuing to learn is what art and living is all about. We’re all works in progress. The saddest thing would be to mistakenly think you know all the answers and give up searching.

To see Scott’s work, visit his website (ScottBurdick.com), his YouTube channel (ScottBurdickArt) or read his novels  (Nihala, The Immortality Contract).

U.S. votes against death penalty ban for gays

A United Nations resolution banning the death penalty for homosexuality was opposed by a total of 13 countries in the U.N. Human Rights Council. While several were in Africa and the Middle East, the United States shockingly voted against the measure, as well.

The resolution passed on Sept. 29 despite U.S.’s vote, with 27 countries voting for the measure.

It was brought forward by eight nations — Belgium, Benin, Costa Rica, France, Mexico, Moldova, Mongolia, and Switzerland — that have made global LGBT rights a priority.

“It is unconscionable to think that there are hundreds of millions of people living in states where somebody may be executed simply because of whom they love,” responded the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.

Previous efforts by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia to block or water down the resolution failed

Good without God? More are saying it’s possible

Most U.S. adults now say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values, according to the Pew Research Center.

The latest survey shows that 56 percent of Americans believe you can be good without God, up 7 percentage points since the last survey in 2011. Pew also reports that almost every religious group is more likely to say you don’t need God to be good than they did in 2011.

According to the Pew report, “This increase reflects the continued growth in the share of the population that has no religious affiliation, but it also is the result of changing attitudes among those who do identify with a religion, including white evangelical Protestants.”

The growth in the share of Americans who say belief in God is unnecessary for morality aligns with the growth in the share of the population that is religiously unaffiliated. In the 2011 Pew survey, religious “nones” constituted 18 percent of the sample. In 2017, the share of “nones” rose to 25 percent

Not everyone in U.S. has First Amendment rights?

Nearly one in five Americans incorrectly believes that Muslim citizens don’t have the same First Amendment rights as other American citizens. Also incorrectly, one in seven believes that atheists aren’t protected by those rights.

These are among the findings of a new study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, which also found that a fraction of Americans surveyed — 15 percent — named freedom of religion when asked to name the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.

Those rights are: freedom of religion, speech and the press, and the right of assembly and to petition the government.

“These results emphasize the need for high-quality civics education in the schools and for press reporting that underscores the existence of constitutional protections,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

More than one-third of those asked (37 percent) could not, unprompted, name a single First Amendment protection.

And only a quarter of Americans (26 percent) could name all three branches of the government (legislative, executive and judicial).

New Zealand’s new prime minister agnostic

Jacinda Ardern, the head of New Zealand’s Labour Party, is set to become the country’s next prime minister. She is a former Mormon who became an agnostic in her 20s.

Ardern, 37, will be the youngest leader in New Zealand in more than 150 years. A staunch feminist, Ardern refused to answer whether she has considered having children, saying no male politician would be forced to answer that question.

Jacinda Adern
Jacinda Adern

She said that she left Mormonism because of its anti-gay prejudice. “Even before the Civil Union Bill came up, I lived in a flat with three gay friends and I was still going to church every so often, and I just remember thinking ‘This is really inconsistent — I’m either doing a disservice to the church or my friends,’” she said.

Clergy abuse records released in New Mexico

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe has released hundreds of pages of court records regarding sexual abuse allegations against clergy members following an order by a New Mexico judge, marking the largest disclosure of such records since alleged victims began suing the archdiocese nearly three decades ago.

The documents, released Oct. 18, include letters showing church leaders knew of sexual abuse allegations that had been leveled against three priests from the 1960s through the 1980s. The records show that the diocese repeatedly assigned priests accused of sexually abusing children to areas where they could abuse again, the Albuquerque Journal reports. The records include letters and reports from psychologists to church leaders that detail allegations against three priests.

Judge rules against Barker on House invocation

Chaplain barred FFRF co-president from delivering invocation

A federal district judge in Washington, D.C., issued a ruling Oct. 11 that legitimizes the exclusion of nonbelievers from the nation’s legislative chambers.

U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer, a Bush appointee, ruled against plaintiff Dan Barker, co-president of the FFRF. Barker sued House of Representatives Chaplain Patrick Conroy, a Roman Catholic priest, for barring him as an atheist from delivering a guest invocation. Also named as a defendant was Paul Ryan, speaker of the House, who oversees the chaplain’s office.

“To decide that Mr. Barker was discriminated against and should be permitted to address the House would be to disregard the Supreme Court precedent that permits legislative prayer,” Collyer wrote. Although the court found that Barker was injured, and that the defendants did not have legislative immunity, she ruled that none of the defendants was ultimately responsible for that injury.

The judge claimed that the chaplain was powerless to allow Barker to give the invocation, due to House rules, yet also dismissed Barker’s claim against the House itself. The decision fails to identify who, if not the House chaplain and the House itself, could be sued for implementing a rule excluding nonbelievers from participation.

Under her ruling, the program — in which members of the House invite a religious leader of their choice to open a session with an invocation — remains closed to community leaders representing the 23 percent of Americans

FFRF wins housing allowance challenge

FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor stand with Ian Gaylor, right, who holds a photo of President Emerita Anne Nicol Gaylor, after they had won a court victory challenging the clergy housing tax allowance.
FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor stand with Ian Gaylor, right, who holds a photo of President Emerita Anne Nicol Gaylor, after they had won a court victory challenging the clergy housing tax allowance.

A federal judge for a second time has ruled in favor of FFRF’s historic challenge of a housing tax allowance that uniquely privileges clergy.

At issue is the constitutionality of a provision in the tax code that excludes from gross income a housing allowance paid to a “minister of the gospel.”

Rep. Peter Mack, sponsor of the 1954 law challenged by FFRF, argued that ministers should be rewarded with a clergy allowance for “carrying on such a courageous fight against this [a godless and anti-religious world movement].” The clergy allowance is not a tax deduction but an exemption — allowing housing allowances paid as part of clergy salary to be subtracted from taxable income.

In 2013, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled in FFRF’s favor in its original challenge. Crabb’s finding sent “shockwaves through the religious community,” according to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, which bitterly fought the ruling, along with just about every religious denomination in the country.

In November 2014, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out that victory — not on the merits, but on the question of standing — arguing that FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor hadn’t yet sought a refund of their housing allowance from the IRS. Accordingly, they sought them and when denied, went back to court.

FFRF renewed its challenge of the housing allowance in April 2016. Sued are Steve Mnuchin, U.S. secretary of the treasury, and John Koskinen, IRS commissioner. The case also had religious intervenors as defendants.

Plaintiffs are Barker and Gaylor, and Ian Gaylor, representing the estate of President Emerita Anne Nicol Gaylor, whose retirement was paid in part as a housing allowance.

“Although defendants try to characterize [this provision of the tax code] as an effort by Congress to treat ministers fairly and avoid religious entanglement, the plain language of the statute, its legislative history and its operation in practice all demonstrate a preference for ministers over secular employees,” writes Crabb, for the Western District of Wisconsin.

“As I noted in the earlier lawsuit,” Crabb writes, “there is no reasonable interpretation of the statute under which the phrase minister of the gospel could be construed to include employees of an organization whose purpose is to keep religion out of the public square.”

Any reasonable observer would conclude that the purpose and effect of the statute is to provide financial assistance to one group of religious employees without any consideration to the secular employees who are similarly situated to ministers, Crabb noted. “Under current law, that type of provision violates the establishment clause,” she adds.

“In reaching this conclusion, I do not mean to imply that any particular minister is undeserving of the exemption or does not have a financial need for one. The important point is that many equally deserving secular employees (as well as other kinds of religious employees) could benefit from the exemption as well, but they must satisfy much more demanding requirements despite the lack of justification for the difference in treatment.”

The manner in which our housing allowance has been used borders on clergy malpractice. — Pastor William Thornton

Crabb also discusses financial benefits to even wealthy ministers: “Thus, an evangelist with a multimillion dollar home is entitled under § 107(2) to deduct the entire rental value of that home, even if it is not used for church purposes. (“Joel Osteen lives in a $10.5 million home and is entitled to exclude the fair rental value of that home so long as he spends that money on the home and his church allocates that amount to housing.”).”

The benefit of the tax exemption to the clergy is enormous. The congressional Joint Committee on Taxation has reported that the exemption amounts to $700 million a year in lost revenue. Religion News Service calculated the allowance increases the takehome pay of some pastors by up to 10 percent. This is because churches benefit, since taxfree salaries lower their overhead. Christianity Today found that 84 percent of senior pastors receive a housing allowance of $20,000 to $38,000 in added (but not reported) compensation to their base salary.

“The manner in which our housing allowance has been used borders on clergy malpractice,” William Thornton, a Georgia pastor and blogger, told Forbes magazine in 2013. “A growing subset of ministers who are very highly paid and who live in multimillion dollar mansions are able to exclude hundreds of thousands of dollars from income taxation.”

Clergy are permitted to use the housing allowance not just for rent or mortgage, but for home improvements, including maintenance, home improvements and repairs, dishwashers, cable TV and phone fees, paint, towels, bedding, home décor, even personal computers and bank fees. They may be exempt from taxable income up to the fair market rental value of their home, particularly helping well-heeled pastors. The subsidy extends to churches, which can pay clergy less, as tax-free salaries go further.

Becket, the law firm that represents a group of intervening clergy, released a statement labeling Crabb’s decision “a devastating blow” that “threatens churches across the country with nearly $1 billion in new taxes.”

Becket said an appeal will be filed with the Chicago-based United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

The case was filed on behalf of FFRF by litigator Richard L. Bolton. Gaylor et al v. U.S. Treasury has case number 3:16-cv-00215.