Religious plaque removed from courthouse

A religious plaque has been removed from the wall of this St. Louis County, Minn., courthouse after FFRF complained.
The religious plaque prior to being removed.

After hearing from FFRF, a Minnesota county on March 5 removed a Ten Commandments plaque that was long on display in one of its courthouses.

It was brought to FFRF’s attention that Saint Louis County was prominently displaying a plaque that contained the Ten Commandments and a bible passage underneath the Saint Louis County seal in the county courthouse in Hibbing, Minn.

The plaque read, “God’s Laws,” with the commandments listed underneath and the biblical passage: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, you shall love your neighbor as yourself” . . . Mark 12:30-31.

FFRF wrote to County Administrator Kevin Gray, warning the county that Ten Commandments displays within or near courtrooms unconstitutionally affiliate the justice system with biblical prohibitions rather than secular law.

“Given the content of the display, a reasonable observer would view it as an endorsement of religion,” wrote FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott. “The display directly connects Saint Louis County and the district court with Christianity.”

The Saint Louis County attorney’s office notified FFRF that the plaque had been removed.

“After careful consideration, a determination was made to remove the plaque from public display,” Gray said in a public statement. “As you might presume, the law and norms have developed considerably since the plaque was initially installed decades ago. The county attorney’s office researched applicable law, including relevant federal Supreme Court decisions on this topic, which contributed to the decision to direct property management to remove the plaque earlier this week.”

Kelly Grinsteinner of the Hibbing (Minn.) Daily Tribune asked Dana Kazel, St. Louis County communications manager, whether the county had received much feedback from the public on the topic.

“We don’t have an exact number because different people are contacting different offices or individuals, but it hasn’t been a huge amount,” Kazel to Grinsteinner. “We’ve also received several inquiries from people asking if they can have the plaque to display.”

After the plaque was removed from the courthouse walls, St. Louis County Commissioner Michael Jugovich, whose office is in the courthouse, attached it to his office wall.

“We want people to come take a look at it,” Jugovich told Grinsteinner. “We understand that this might not be their first choice, but it’s still in the building it belongs in. People should have the opportunity to see it. It looks good here, and we believe in the message it conveys.”

FFRF has filed an open records request into the issue and will be following up on the case.

FFRF celebrates legislative victories

FFRF’s Associate Counsel Sam Grover, left, and Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott stand in front of the U.S. Capitol during a lobbying trip last year.

By Ryan Jayne and Andrew L. Seidel

Every January, state legislatures around the country reconvene and lawmakers introduce bills addressing nearly every imaginable topic. They jockey for publicity and, in an election year, use this as an opportunity to pander as much as to legislate. As a result, FFRF receives a flood of reports about bills that impact the separation between state and church. Some of these bills are good, others are bad, a handful are truly dangerous, and a few are so silly that all you can do is laugh.

Our new Strategic Response Team gives FFRF new teeth to monitor legislation and to mobilize FFRF’s 33,000 members so that we can more effectively support good bills and defeat bad ones. In the first few months of 2018, the team already has more than 20 solid legislative victories. All the bills discussed below were analyzed by our group and you — our wonderful members — got involved to help shape this country’s legislative landscape.

First, let’s take a look at the ridiculous bills that have thankfully died well-deserved deaths. These come in two varieties: bills that are pandering wastes of time and would have no effect other than pleasing religious constituents, and bills that are so obviously unconstitutional that they would have been immediately struck down by the courts.

Oklahoma state Sen. Nathan Dahm proposed SB 1457, which would have given “Almighty God” ownership of all wildlife in the state. Dahm is a self-proclaimed product of missionaries and home-schooling. As one of FFRF’s attorneys observed, Dahm has no business legislating the lives of citizens, let alone wildlife. In Idaho, HB 419 sought to prevent courts from enforcing “foreign” laws, aiming at Sharia law. ( Mississippi HB 130 would have declared the bible as the state book. Really, Mississippi? Don’t you have pride in your native authors?)

It’s easy and appropriate to ridicule such bills — and we have — but lawmakers are wasting taxpayer time and money writing, debating and promoting these bills. Every minute spent on pandering do-nothing bills is a failure of lawmakers to find real-world solutions to the real problems affecting their state.

The second variety of silly pandering bills — the wildly unconstitutional type — are more numerous. Mississippi killed a bill to require public school teachers to display and recite the Ten Commandments (HB 1100); Wyoming rejected a bill to declare same-sex marriages “parody marriages” (HB 167); and Alabama had a bill that would have required public schools to teach creationism (HB 258). One Georgia lawmaker even proposed a bill because of a letter FFRF sent to a school district about a praying coach. The bill, SB 361, purported to allow public school coaches to pray with (impose prayer on) their students. The bill died.

Indefensible bills

These indefensible bills would have faced immediate court challenges from FFRF had they passed. However, even unconstitutional bills, if passed, are harmful because they embolden government employees to violate the U.S. Constitution by giving them the false security that they are protected by state law. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and state laws that conflict with it are unconstitutional. Pious lawmakers may want to use their public office to promote their imaginary friend, but FFRF members and constituents reminded them about what U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin said when he was a law professor at American University: “People place their hand on the bible and swear to uphold the Constitution; they don’t put their hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the bible.”

More alarming are bad bills with legal and practical impact that would not have necessarily been immediately doomed in court. These include private school vouchers in Iowa (HS 651) and Idaho (H590); a bill that would have allowed healthcare providers in New Hampshire to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation (HB 1787); and Iowa bills allowing anti-transgender discrimination (HF 2164) and requiring public schools to offer bible classes (HF 2031). Three professors of religion, one from each state university, opposed the bible class bill with some behind-the-scenes help from the Strategic Response Team. FFRF thanks those professors, our members and local activists for helping us defeat these and many other harmful bills.

FFRF has also stopped bad bills that have unfortunately gained traction in other states. We are continuing to fight against these bills as they pop up in other states, and we are looking for the best way to challenge these laws in states that have passed these bills.

Florida, meanwhile, was considering amending its constitution to remove the “No Aid Clause,” a crucial religious liberty right that protects taxpayers from being forced to bankroll churches. In the wake of the disastrous Trinity Lutheran Supreme Court decision last year, this too has become a worrying trend. Following energized opposition from FFRF and other groups, including detailed testimony from Andrew L. Seidel, FFRF’s director of strategic response, Florida’s attempt failed. This victory echoes the major success of upholding and enforcing a similar clause in New Jersey’s Constitution this month in FFRF’s 7–0 win at the N.J. Supreme Court. Most states have similar provisions and you can count on them staying under fire in the near future.

Supporting good bills

We are also happy to report that FFRF has supported several positive bills that have passed in 2018. In Alabama, HB 76 closed a loophole that allowed religious child care centers to dodge basic regulations. This senseless free pass allowed for rampant abuse and neglect to go unchecked, including reports of regulators identifying severe problems at a child care center only to find it rebranded as “faith-based” just days later so as to escape any punishment.

Supporters of Alabama’s HB 76 pointed to these abuses and others, and even instances of children dying because of the religious exemption. Last year, conservative Christian groups successfully killed the bill, arguing that the bill “removes religious liberty protections.” But religious liberty does not create a right to abuse or neglect children. This year, with FFRF’s support, HB 76 passed with flying colors.

Hawaii passed HB 2739, the “Our Care, Our Choice Act,” which makes it the sixth state to adopt a “Death with Dignity” law, allowing terminally ill, mentally competent patients to voluntarily request prescription medication that would allow the person to die in a peaceful manner rather than requiring them to endure an undignified death by letting their illness run its natural course.

While these laws have long been controversial, modern “Death with Dignity” laws have safeguards to address reasonable secular objections. The only objections that remain — and they always show up in opposition to these bills — are religious in nature, something along the lines of “only God gets to decide when someone dies.” This is no way to legislate, of course, which FFRF was happy to remind Hawaii’s lawmakers. FFRF is also supporting similar bills in New Jersey and several other states against religious objections.

Lobbying for you

This isn’t exhaustive and we’ll be racking up more victories as the legislative year moves along. As this goes to print, two of our attorneys, Patrick Elliott and Seidel, are lobbying for your interests on Capitol Hill.

That Mississippi would even consider choosing the poorly written bible as its “state book” is shameful. That it did so when prominent authors like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Richard Wright have such strong ties to the state (and when Mark Twain featured Mississippi in some of his American classics) is in poor taste. To paraphrase Faulkner, never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion, against injustice and lying and greed. If you do, you will change the Earth.

Your legislators, at all levels of government, need to hear your voice. Remember that some of the worst bills are advanced because lawmakers think that’s what their constituents want them to do. Remind them that you are a secular voter and constituent and want them to ditch theocratic bills in favor of real solutions to real problems.

If you’re not signed up for FFRF’s action alerts, please do so. You can sign up by simply texting “FFRF” to 52886, emailing your contact info to [email protected], or calling the FFRF office.

Ryan Jayne and Andrew L. Seidel are constitutional attorneys at FFRF.

Convention speech: Kelly Helton — Be heard! Together we can make a change

Kelly Helton (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Kelly Helton speaks at FFRF’s convention in Madison in 2017. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Kelly Helton and her father, FFRF Member Jim Helton. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

This is the speech given by Kelly Helton at FFRF’s 40th national convention on Sept. 15, 2017, at the Monona Terrace and Convention Center in Madison, Wis.

She was introduced by FFRF Social Media Coordinator Lauryn Seering:

Kelly Helton was named FFRF’s 2017 Thomas W. Jendrock Student Activist. At just 13, she is one of the youngest student activist awardees in FFRF’s history. Kelly is a middle-school feminist and freethinking activist. She has represented her generation by speaking at many protest rallies, including at events organized by Planned Parenthood, the March for Science, the Tri-State Freethinkers, NaNoCon, International Women’s Day and the regional gathering of the January Women’s March. Her father is FFRF Life Member Jim Helton, who is the organizer of the Tri-State Freethinkers.

Please welcome a freethinking feminist of Generation Z — Kelly Helton!

By Kelly Helton

“When equal rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up. Fight back. By attempting to defund Planned Parenthood, you have declared war on women. I am here to tell you that we are not damsels in distress tied to the tracks. We are the train!”

Those were the words I heard at the Statehouse in Ohio. I was there because I hid in the backseat of my dad’s car after my mom told me I couldn’t go because it was not safe due to counterprotesters.

When we got there and the counterprotesters barged in, my dad and I got separated and I ended up by the podium next to the senators. My dad was on the other side of the room. My mom saw me on the news with my dad nowhere in sight. He got in so much trouble, but I never did. At that moment, I decided I would no longer be silent and my voice would be heard.

At the next Planned Parenthood rally, I asked to speak. There, I told the crowd I did not understand why people wanted to defund Planned Parenthood, deny access to birth control, restrict abortion, or refuse to teach comprehensive sex education that was medically and scientifically accurate. In the end, I realized that it wasn’t me who did not understand those issues.

The real problem was that my legislators did not understand those issues.

My next opportunity came on International Women’s Day. I expanded on my original speech to cover pay equality. I asked the crowd the following questions: When I grow up, why should I get paid less for the same job that my brother does? Why should women of color get paid even less than me?

I then got an opportunity to do a speech for a Swiss TV special about the separation of church and state in American public schools. In my choir class, we were singing religious songs. I was not comfortable singing religious songs — and those songs shouldn’t have been there in the first place. My dad told me to talk to my teacher. And that’s what I did. My teacher did not want to make me feel uncomfortable. She knew who my dad was and didn’t want to get sued.

Stand up, speak out

In the end, she removed the religious songs. I wasn’t the only student who felt this way, but I was the only student who was willing to stand up and say something. It is amazing what one person can accomplish if they stand up for the rights of others and speak out for those who cannot.

I also had an opportunity to speak about atheism in front of the Tri-State Freethinkers. My call to action was this: In order to change the world around us, we must first let the people around us know who we are.

If I can stand up here and shout, “I am an atheist,” then perhaps you could come out of the closet so people realize they actually know an atheist. If everyone did this one simple thing, then maybe the next time I get on stage and shout, “I am an atheist,” no one will care. And how cool would that be?

Out of all the speeches I’ve done, the March for Science in Cincinnati was my favorite. Standing on stage and looking out into a crowd of over 10,000 people was an amazing experience. I will never forget it.

Learning the truth

Some of my past teachers, when talking about the big bang theory and evolution, have told us these are just theories and we can believe what we want. How can you teach something you don’t even understand?

If you are a teacher, here are some of the things we want to learn: The Earth is more than 4.5 billion years old (and it is not flat, either)! We want to learn about evolution from Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin, not Ken Ham.

Neil deGrasse Tyson says the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it. Humans are the main reason for climate change. Bringing a snowball to the Senate floor during winter does not disprove climate change.

We want to get our science information from scientists. We do not want your agenda, we do not want your politics, we do not want your beliefs. We want unadulterated science.

As a 13-year-old girl, I am often the voice of reason in a room of unreasonable adults. This became very clear to me on lobby day when I attempted to speak with some of my representatives.

I also do not stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. We are one nation indivisible. By adding God, you have instantly divided us. And not only in my classroom, but across the entire nation.

I realized something this year. If we speak out against injustice and speak up for equal rights, we can make a difference. We need all of you to speak up and speak out at your local school boards and city council meetings.

Individually, we can make a difference, but together, we can make a change!

Convention speech: Jerry Bloom — Thoughts in full Bloom

Jerry Bloom stands with his Freethinker of the Year plaque. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Jerry Bloom speaks at the FFRF national convention in Madison, Wis., in 2017.(Photo by Ingrid Laas)

Here is an edited version of the convention speech Jerry Bloom as a 2017 Freethinker of the Year. Bloom was introduced by FFRF Attorney Ryan Jayne:

Jerry Bloom, an FFRF member from Shelton, Conn., reached out to us in November 2015 when he became aware that the city of Shelton had allowed the American Legion to put up a religious angel display in December in a city park ironically called Constitution Park. Jerry applied for a permit to put up FFRF’s Winter Solstice display in the park. He was denied. The city said no because it thought that people would find the display offensive. Jerry then readily agreed to be the lead plaintiff in our federal lawsuit. As a result of the lawsuit, during the holiday season in 2016, the city permanently agreed to stop hosting any angel displays in Constitution Park and allowed FFRF to put up its display elsewhere.

In addition to being a staunch state-church activist, Jerry is a retired RN and a U.S. Army veteran. On behalf of FFRF, I am delighted to name Jerry Bloom as a Freethinker of the Year.

By Jerry Bloom

Thank you, everyone.

I am an atheist. However, I would like to give religion its due. Some of the greatest art humankind has ever produced has been inspired by religion. Where would the world be without the Sistine Chapel, David, the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, “Ode to Joy,” or Handel’s  “Messiah”? These are things we can all relate to and understand and recognize as beautiful.

• • •

I’m not going to talk about the other side of what religion has done. Instead, I’d like to give you a short history lesson. On All Saints Day in 1755, a natural disaster enabled us to become what we are today. On that date, an enormous earthquake struck in the Atlantic Ocean that leveled the city of Lisbon, Portugal. It rang church bells in Paris. It was felt in Moscow. Bays drained in Norway. A 50-foot tidal wave struck soon afterwards, killing thousands. This was 9:30 in the morning as the city of Lisbon’s populace was going to church. And people were very fraught. How could God do this to them on All Saints Day? Essentially, what that did is usher in the era of Enlightenment, where people actually questioned the existence of a benevolent all-loving God.

Unfortunately, religion survived the Age of Enlightenment. So here we are today.

• • •

In his introduction, Ryan summed up the case against Shelton pretty succinctly. Oh, by the way, I’m suing Shelton again. For years now they have had a “God bless Shelton Police” sign on the lawn of their police department, flanked by American flags. I approached the mayor and asked him to remove it. He refused. I made an appointment with the police chief, but he was a no-show. So they really didn’t leave me an alternative.

• • •

There’s approximately 1 billion of us nonbelievers in the world. There are 7 billion people in the world. How does our one-seventh convince the sixth-sevenths that they’re wrong? Mass marketing. But it’s going to take more than placards and billboards.

• • •

I learned that although religion is a mind-altering thing, the Food and Drug Administration has not considered it a drug. I went down and asked. They were very upset about that question. However, I suggest that it be limited to those of the age of consent or at least with the cognitive capacity to see and smell BS when they hear it and see it.

Also, I’d like to draw upon our governmental resources. The Federal Trade Commission should be involved with false advertising in the cases of televangelism when it’s to request donations to gain God’s favor. This is something that they should be able to verify easily to substantiate their claims. Additionally, religion should be required to do the same thing to maintain its tax-exempt status.

• • •

I don’t think it’s quite this high now, but the Roman Catholic Church owned 168 million acres of land worldwide. This has been reduced, of course, because of the payouts and settlements that they have had over the years. If they were unable to provide this evidence of their deity’s existence and have their tax-exempt status stripped, it would pretty much mean their extinction in this country.

• • •

Sigmund Freud thought that religion was the “universal obsessional neurosis” of humanity. Here’s an original, and I think this one’s better: “Religion is the accepted insanity and the plague that afflicts humanity. It is a multibillion-dollar tax-exempt industry that peddles snake oil, which makes people stupid about reality.”

Thank you.

Convention speech: Marie Schaub — On the winning side of a monumental decision

Marie Schaub
Marie Schaub waits for her turn to speak at FFRF’s convention in Madison, Wis., in 2017.
FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott stands with Marie Schaub, who was given FFRF’s Freethinker of the Year award.

Here is an edited version of the speech Marie Schaub gave as one of FFRF’s four 2017 Freethinkers of the Year. She delivered it on Sept. 16, 2017, at FFRF’s 40th annual convention in Madison, Wis. Schaub was introduced by FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott:

I was co-counsel on Marie Schaub’s lawsuit against the Ten Commandments monument at the school that her daughter was set to attend. Five years later, I’m proud to be awarding Marie the Freethinker of the Year Award.

As you proceed through a lawsuit, each side can request information from the other side. The school district requested extensive information from Marie, including any social media posts that she wrote on the subject of religion. If you’re Facebook friends with Marie, you would know this is thousands of posts. So we had to disclose literally thousands of pages to the district’s attorneys. It brings a smile to my face to think of them reviewing each of Marie’s defenses of freethought. Maybe they even learned something.

Marie, as the only publicly named plaintiff in the case, has been vilified in her community. In 2016, FFRF honored her with the Atheist in a Foxhole Courage Award. After the 3rd Circuit ruling and after our convention in 2016, FFRF and our attorney Mark Schneider were able to negotiate a victorious settlement.

In March of 2017, the biblical monument was finally removed. Marie, we thank you for being a champion of the First Amendment!

By Marie Schaub

Hello, everyone, and thank you for being here today!

2017 has not been a good year for controversial monuments. I’m sure most of you have heard of the Christian man who ran over the Ten Commandments monolith in Arkansas while streaming it live on Facebook. It was certainly entertaining to watch! But I was relieved to hear that it was not one of my fellow atheists.

Confederate monuments have been dropping like Trump’s approval ratings. Some have been toppled over and others have been vandalized beyond repair. While I can appreciate their passion and understand their frustration, it’s important to exhaust every legal avenue that is available before taking such drastic measures of civil disobedience.

Believe me, there were many nights where I imagined tying a chain around that religious monument that sat outside my kid’s public school and yanking out the damn thing with my truck. But doing so would not only hurt our cause by tarnishing our image, it would have probably ended in jail time for me.

There was a 6-foot tall, 2,000-pound religious monument that stood outside of Valley High School, unchallenged, for over 60 years. The decalogue was placed at the end of two main foot paths leading up to the front side of the building. A very similar monument at another nearby public school was recently ruled unconstitutional, thanks to the help of FFRF, and it was relocated to private property.

‘How is this possible?’

I remember the first time I saw the huge stone as a visitor at my child’s karate event at the school in 2006. My main feeling was confusion, like, “How is this even possible?” But I was also sickened by a feeling of helplessness. It wasn’t until 2011 that my family and I transferred to the New Kensington/Arnold School District.

We live in a small suburb of Pittsburgh. Where I’m from, there is a church on every block. The tax base is low and the number of senior citizens is high, but that didn’t stop the district from trying to defend an unconstitutional, coercive message that negatively affected nonbelievers and people of other faiths.

It was in 2012 that I first heard of a group known as the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Our local news station was discussing the monument that I had encountered several years before. That’s when it hit me. My daughter was in middle school, but eventually she would have that religious rock facing her on a daily basis. It was then that I filed my complaint.

After numerous depositions, continuations and motions, the judge said that my daughter and I did not have standing because she had not yet been harmed enough, basically saying our suit was premature. But that did not stop us.

After some discussion, FFRF Attorney Patrick Elliott, who held my hand throughout this entire process, informed me that we were going back to court on appeal at my request. The panel of three judges unanimously agreed that the potential danger to my child was imminent and that I did have standing. This meant the case would go back to the lower court to be heard on its merits.

Important fight

After five long years, we did it! I am proud to be a part of such an important fight for the separation of state and church. After the case was moved back to the lower court, the school realized it was going to lose. It agreed to move the monument and pay $165,000 in legal fees. That’s only a fraction of what was spent over five years of litigation. As a plaintiff and parent, it was never about the money.

It is unfortunate that it took so many years. My daughter will finish her senior year elsewhere due to this interference, but now when I drive by Valley High School, I think of the huge lesson the community learned and about the kids who will not have to walk in the shadow of its inappropriate message.

Our win did not go unnoticed. The view from my living room window of my neighbors’ house across the street includes a cutout cross on their property. All over southwestern Pennsylvania, these cardboard cutouts are popping up in response to our victory. They do not realize that I support their rights to have whatever they want on their private property, and that every time I see them, it reminds me of our fight and our victory. Apparently, my neighbors can erect a life-size crucifix, yet they cannot seem to put out one recycling bin.

I have received my fair share of crank mail, but for as many negative messages I have received, I have gotten just as many, if not more, positive ones. Many people have since reached out to me to tell me that I have inspired them to speak out against inequality and that is why I am here today. I want to tell you to stand up for your rights and the rights of others.

As of today, the one-ton granite slab is in storage at an unknown location. It was secretly removed overnight at the beginning of March. Its new home will be at a Catholic school approximately two miles from its original placement. And even though the private school admits it needs a new roof, updated gym, and funding for families, it started a GoFundMe campaign with a goal of $75,000 for the monolith. They claim they want to use the money to place the donated monument on a foundation and they want to buy a fancy, new, lighted sign to put up next to the 60-year-old stone. After falling short of their original goal, they lowered it to $25,000. At last check, they weren’t even up to $5,000.

I have really enjoyed being a small part of this great movement and I hope to continue my involvement long after I am forgotten.

I would like to personally thank Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Anti-Defamation League, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, the Sikh Coalition, the Union for Reform Judaism, and, of course, the Freedom From Religion Foundation! Thank you, FFRF, for everything you have done for me and my family and for all of the hard work you do.

Convention speech: Jesse Castillo — Religious stickers crossed off the list

Jess Castillo speaks at the 2017 FFRF national convention in Madison, Wis. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Jesse Castillo (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

Here is an edited version of the speech Jesse Castillo gave as one of FFRF’s Freethinkers of the Year. He delivered it on Sept. 16, 2017, at FFRF’s 40th annual convention in Madison, Wis. Castillo was introduced by FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover:

Two brave members, Kevin Price and Jesse Castillo, served as local plaintiffs essential to the survival of FFRF’s lawsuit against Brewster County, Texas. It took courage and conviction to do what they did. They live in Brewster County and were willing to be named plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the aggressive religious endorsement of crosses on police vehicles. It took even more courage because they were active in the law enforcement community. After we filed, the office took down the crosses.

Jesse Castillo was born in Spain during his father’s military service and grew up in Panama, New Mexico, Louisiana and Florida. In the early 1990s, he served in the U.S. Army, graduating from Army Ranger School. He then earned a degree from Miami-Dade College and later moved to Brewster County, where he took a job in law enforcement.

Thank you, Jesse, for standing up for the First Amendment. You are deserving of the title: Freethinker of the Year.

By Jesse Castillo

I’m really glad that the Freedom From Religion Foundation has no problem messing with Texas.

I’m not originally from Texas. My wife and I, along with our three boys, moved to Alpine, Texas, in 2007. Alpine is in Brewster County, which is the largest county in Texas. However, its population is only about 9,000, and about 6,000 of those live in Alpine.

About two years ago, Christian crosses began appearing on our local sheriff’s police vehicles. The crosses were basically large stickers in the shape of a Christian cross that were placed on the back windows of some of the police vehicles. The crosses also featured a thin blue line representing support for law enforcement.

Not all of the police vehicles from the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office had these Christian crosses on them, and the sheriff himself, Ronny Dodson, didn’t actually order his deputies to display them. He just allowed his deputies to place the crosses on their assigned police vehicle if they wanted to. Of course, some of his deputies went ahead and did just that. The sheriff told our local newspaper that allowing the crosses to be displayed in this manner was his way of showing his support for his deputies.

Those Christian cross stickers that were used back then are still being sold in a small print shop in our town, and our lawsuit actually led to the boosting of sales. The crosses are currently displayed on many private vehicles in Alpine. Of course, we were not trying to stop people from placing crosses on their personal vehicles.

During the time crosses were being displayed on police vehicles, there was some online debate on the Sheriff’s Department’s Facebook page. And there was a popular post on its Facebook page that had thousands of likes and was highly shared. This particular post stated: “Dodson wanted God’s protection over his deputies and the thin blue line on the crosses stands for law enforcement.”

So, it was a belief among some Christians that just the mere presence of a cross could help protect law enforcement officers. Well, as an atheist, I can think of real ways for increasing the safety of our police officers. Better training or even better equipment would be much more effective than relying on a cross.

I have friends and family members that seem to think it’s not that big of a deal, and they definitely don’t think that something like this is important enough to sue over. Well, it is. It is worth taking action to try and stop violations like this to prevent bigger problems down the road. Crosses on government property obviously go against our nation’s principle of the separation of church and state. For our county, it was basically saying: “Our sheriff’s department knows which religion is the one true correct religion, and if you believe in that religion, too, then you are on the right side.” It was very divisive.

When our local police officers were displaying these crosses, it made me (and others) wonder if our sheriff’s deputies were going to be fair and impartial to a public that includes people of different faiths, or to people like myself who identify as atheist.

Road to atheism

I wasn’t always nonreligious. I grew up going to Christian churches and I was actually very enthusiastic about Christianity at an early age. But shortly after reaching adulthood and entering the U.S. Army, I had already seen too many inconsistencies in the bible and inconsistencies in what I was being taught in churches. I eventually decided that I could no longer call myself a Christian. I still believed in God and I had a strong fear of burning in hell, which kept me tormented and believing in God longer than I should have. But, through the years of analyzing my own beliefs about spirituality and about reality, I moved closer and closer to becoming an atheist.

Before I had ever met an open atheist, I basically believed that a more religious person would be a better person and an atheist would probably be a person who was more prone to engaging in immoral behavior. But, the first open atheist I ever got to know on a personal level turned out to be a person with good moral character, who had a good work ethic, and who had a good sense of humor. He was someone I admired and even looked up to. Having known this atheist, and many other atheists, helped to break down my misconceptions about what it means to be an atheist, and also what it doesn’t mean to be an atheist.

So, I think it helps when religious people get exposed to atheists who are open about their religious views, and it’s especially helpful when they get to know an atheist on a personal level. It’s important for atheists to not shy away from religious discussions. I recently had an atheist friend tell me that he doesn’t ever like to engage in religious discussions with people because he says you are never going to change their minds. That may be true, but I know from experience that you can get them to question their own beliefs, and over time they can change their stance.

It is very important for government to stay out of religion so that people can be more comfortable expressing their own religious views publicly. I would hate to think that if we hadn’t sued our county and allowed them to promote Christianity in that way, that it would have led to some closeted atheists to decide to remain closeted.

I happen to know a few closeted atheists and I know two that have come out recently. People should feel free to discuss religion without our government telling us which religion they think is the correct one. I actually enjoy it when Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses come knocking at my door. It gives me a chance to share my views and ask them questions, too. As an atheist, I also have some good news to share.

Potential for profiling

Another problem with having the Sheriff’s Department displaying Christian crosses has to do with the potential for profiling. I have never heard of a case of police profiling against an atheist before, but because some Christians already think atheists are just bad people and somehow morally bankrupt, I wouldn’t put it past a religious fundamentalist with crazy ideas who happens to be a police officer to begin feeling emboldened and to act out in the name of his or her religion, especially when their department is giving them a wink and a nod. I just think that mixing law enforcement with religion is a very bad idea.

I have not faced any backlash over this lawsuit yet, and I just wanted to mention that Sheriff Dodson’s family members are actually really good people. I have known his son for many years and worked with him in the past, and the sheriff’s wife is a fantastic veterinarian who has taken care of my pets and my co-plaintiff Kevin Price’s pets for many years. They have been good to me before the lawsuit and they continue to be friendly toward me even after the lawsuit. As I said, our town is very small, but most people I have met there are very good people. I think they just made a bad decision and I’m glad we were there to correct it.

I really want to thank the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the two outstanding attorneys involved in this case, Sam Grover and Randall Kallinen. I also want to thank my good friend and former co-worker Kevin Price, who couldn’t be here today. Thank you!

Letterbox (May 2018)

Jet Mitchell

Support, not prayer, keeps me positive despite Stage IV cancer

Although it may not be in the cards for me to have long years in this lifetime, I want to become a Lifetime Member. I hope this membership will support the important work FFRF is doing and will continue to do.

I grew up in an extremely strict fundamentalist evangelical Christian home, in which rigid rules were the norm. Coming to atheism as an adult, and breaking away from family beliefs, was a long process, but well worth the journey. Reading about Dan Barker’s journey was particularly relevant to me, as I grew up a Christian pianist and accompanied church choirs in Baptist and evangelical Christian churches from age 13 to 25.

The happiness and joy I experience now is exponentially better than my childhood memories. Not believing, and enjoying this life only, is truly a better experience than an illusive promise of a better life to come. As many people celebrated Easter, I was delighted to visit friends, have a bite of chocolate, and think about the day in terms of life and happiness, minus any religious overtones.

The work you are doing with the Clergy Project, in addition to the important legal work, must continue. As a licensed Nevada attorney, I fully appreciate the advocacy work being done on behalf of those of us who choose not to be believers.

When I was diagnosed in 2016 with Stage IV metastatic triple-negative breast cancer (with no family history and having run at least one half marathon in all 50 states) at a young age, it caught me quite by surprise. However, my nonbeliefs have been strengthened, seeing an amazing outpouring of love and support from people far and wide.

I am being kept alive by my current chemotherapy treatments, and I trust that science will one day find a cure for Stage IV cancer. In the meantime, I rely on world-class doctors and the best medicine money can buy. While I am here, instead of saying a prayer, I constantly thank my amazing support team, which keeps me quite active and positive. And I’m still running half marathons.

Finding atheists in the cancer community is rare, but here we are. We find support in each other and in the science that continues to progress in search of a cure.

When I read FFRF updates, I am encouraged. I hope that FFRF continues to cultivate support from young nonbelievers, who will continue rational thought agendas for years to come.

Please accept my good thoughts for the work you do.

Jet Mitchell

Nevada


40th special section was trip down memory lane

Congratulations on 40 years of FFRF! Thank you for the lapel pin you sent all the members. I will cherish it and wear it often.

Also, a big thanks for the insert in the April issue that provided a joyous and informative trip down memory lane. (I remember just 4,000 members!) What Anne and Annie Laurie Gaylor and Mr. Sontarck began has been and is amazing! Anne was so very smart and kind and sweet, and I remember fondly her asking for donations to “spruce up” the original Freethought Hall. Who could resist? We all wanted to help and be a part of something special. The work of FFRF is crucial for the success of our country, whether the religious believe it or not.

Best wishes to the entire staff. You guys mean the world to me and “I love you to the moon and back.”

Shirley McClellan

North Carolina


Give Barker’s book to religious visitors

I’ve enclosed a check for a copy of Dan Barker’s book, God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All of Fiction. This is the third copy I’ve ordered and I will be ordering more.

At least twice a year I‘m visited by church leaders wanting me to attend their local establishments. Of course, I state my opposition to organized religion, which leads to a tension-filled debate that I am not qualified to win because I lose my temper too quickly.

So, I am trying another method. I’ll let Dan Barker speak for me through his book. I will offer those visitors a copy of Dan’s book.

I would urge all FFRF members who don’t like doorway debates to let Dan’s great book argue for them. You don’t have to buy a lot of copies. Just do what I do: Buy a copy as needed. For me, that’s about two a year.

If you’re not good at face-to-face debating, the gift of education can be offered at its best in Dan’s fascinating tome.

Herb McClelland

Ohio


It’s tough being only freethinker at this home   

I am 81 years old and in an “olden agers” home with about 200 other “patients.” Some are OK, but my daughter put me in this home for my safety. Ha! I am dying from them. I must be the only freethinker here.

Anyway, I have included a small donation for you. I love your work.

Carole Rosenberg

California


Atheism altered life’s course due to final exam

My now grown children are very happy that their dad is, and always has been, an atheist. They know that if I hadn’t been so irreligious, they would not have been born!

The reason dates back to my high school final exam in Norway in 1956. I had my eye on graduate school to study applied physics, which required top grades in all important subjects, including Norwegian composition. Back there and then, all final written exams were graded in secrecy by a team of graders who did not know you, while your teacher had no say in in the grading. I had nailed down all the important grades in the various math and physics subjects, except for Norwegian composition. For that final exam, you had to describe how the various kinds of arts were being made available to the different segments of society — in the past, contemporaneously, and, finally, including your own ideas for the future.

I wrote my heart out, about 30 handwritten pages, but with my anti-religion attitude, I totally ignored the impact of religion! That was a major mistake, which dropped me down to a grade not sufficient for the very hard to get into applied physics study. Therefore, I had to settle for my next choice, mechanical engineering, which totally changed the rest of my life in terms of career, where to work, where to live, who I might meet, etc.

So, if I had included religion in my essay, as I should have done to make my composition complete, in all likelihood I would have received the grade I was used to and ended up on an entirely different track in my life. That means I would never have found my future Swedish wife, who I met while skiing in Squaw Valley. After a few years of inter-Scandinavian dating, we got married on a Friday the 13th, further underscoring my distaste for superstition. Yes, we are still married, looking forward to our 45-year anniversary on July 13 this year — another Friday!

Without that particular wife, I would never have been blessed (sorry!) with the two wonderful children we have, a son who’s an Oscar-nominated sound designer, and a daughter who’s an international sales manager for a German medical firm. Both are nonreligious, fortunately, and both were married in civil ceremonies.

As my son, without a single “B” in his academic life, so wisely cracked: “Hurray for that ‘B’ in Norwegian, Dad!”

Jorg Aadahl

California


Twain novel brought out the freethinker in me

A book that deserves some FFRF publicity is Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger. I first encountered it in the early 1950s at age 10 or 11 and it set me on the path that led to a life membership in FFRF.

I was raised in an ethnic Baptist church. My ties to it were 90 percent ethnic and 10 percent religious. That book shredded the religious ties.

When I was 14, my parents hauled me off to a strictly English-speaking church “for the good of the children.” It killed the religion in me quite dead. My parents had no idea how much good it did me!

As a University of Michigan freshman in 1960, I made friends with an outspoken atheist who had an outspoken atheist boyfriend (later husband). Whoever heard of such people in 1960? Not I! I had an “aha” moment. “So that’s what I am!” Those two showed me how to be proud and unafraid.

The Twain novel was the single most influential book of my life.

Kathleen Yagelo

Michigan


Breast cancer led to new acceptance of self

I have wanted to become a Lifetime Member for many years.

Relationship and career decisions I have made over decades — that were not in my own best interest — were the result of an upbringing based on patriarchy, obedience and submission. It was only after two serious bouts of cancer that I accepted myself as wholly worthy and equally human (sans a couple of breasts). I agree with the early Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice H.S. Orton, who said, “There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution and war . . . as religion.”

Colleen Pace

Michigan


Use Freethought Today to thwart proselytizers

I was sitting on my front porch re-reading an old issue of Freethought Today when I spotted Jehovah’s Witnesses coming up the driveway. They went into their spiel and offered me literature to read. Without hesitation, I said that I would read theirs if they would read mine and then handed them the copy of Freethought Today. They glanced at it, looked at me like I was the devil himself, turned and fled the scene.

Needless to say, it made my day. When I relate this story to friends, it always brings a smile or chuckle.

Lawrence Power

Florida


Bible is most-printed, but likely not most-read

In response to Andrew Z. Colvin’s letter (March issue) decrying the bible as the most-printed book in the world, I suggest he take heart that’s it’s probably not the most-read book in the world. Many copies sit unopened in hotel drawers and on shelves. And some of the most bible literate people are nonbelievers, probably because there’s a high correlation between actually reading the bible and totally rejecting it and the religions that thump it.

Joan Reisman-Brill

New York


De Blasio weakening state-church separation

When I attended public schools in New York City decades ago, we were off for the week of Christmas and Easter (euphemistically called “winter break” and “spring break”). This is still the case. Good Friday was a regular school day, the last day before “spring break.” However, under our “progressive” mayor, Bill de Blasio, who hails from ultra-left wing Park Slope in Brooklyn, the public schools will now be closed on Good Friday, as well. This was never the case before. This is the same mayor who has ordered the public schools closed for Muslim and Chinese holidays, in addition to the Christian and Jewish holidays they have long recognized. Soon enough, I am sure he will have the schools closed for Hindu and Buddhist holidays, too. The teachers and students love him, the parents, not so much.

And so the separation of church and state continues to be weakened under de Blasio, whose pandering to the Hasidim is a scandal by itself.

Dennis Middlebrooks

New York


Positive results by FFRF make it all worthwhile

I am so glad that I decided to join FFRF a few years ago. I saw your news release about FFRF celebrating the Johnson Amendment victory. This type of feedback is so welcome it’s almost beyond words. Keep up the good work.

Jim Maroney

Indiana


FFRF lapel pin fosters occasional dialogue

I just wanted to let you know how great I think the FFRF lapel pin is. I wear it everywhere. People will ask me what the pin is for, and I proudly state that I am a die-hard member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. When they ask what that is, I say it is a tremendous group of nonbelievers to keep religion out of government, who believe in the strict separation of church and state. Occasionally a person (usually an old fuddy-duddy) will claim that this is a Christian nation and we need to put God into every aspect of life. I ask them if they know that Jesus was not a Christian but a Jew, and this provokes various responses.

Anyway, just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate the new lapel pin and how proud I am to be an FFRF member. We may be a small group, although I have seen a number of changes since originally joining the group — including the impressive new headquarters — but we still get a lot done through litigation, amicus briefs, letters, etc.

You should be very proud of how far FFRF has come. Keep up the great work!

Allen P. Wilkinson

California


‘Sacrificial weekend’ was a welcome relief

Congratulations to Gordon Lamb who authored “A sacrificial weekend” (April issue). His tongue-in-cheek rendition of the conversation between God the father and God the son is a welcome relief from the ultra-serious stuff we hear and read all the time. Of course, those who are afraid of burning in hell will not see the humor (though they sorely need it), but that’s their problem. Me? I’m going to get cremated anyway.

Raymond Hellkamp

New York


Ideas of God, afterlife seem too doubtful

While visiting my family one day, my Aunt Joyce loudly declared that no one can be moral without God. I saw a dozen eyes quickly dart to me and I hastily slid away. I longed to say what I thought about this ignorant comment, and though no one would actually “see the light” from anything I could say, my mind was reeling with verbal comebacks. I grinned at them all and removed myself to my room, refusing to be baited and hooked.

I closed my eyes to imagine myself responding to my self-righteous aunt from hell. Religion had been used to kill more people than all of the natural disasters on the planet. Countless women were tortured and burned alive as witches, simply because they had learned about the healing power of herbs. I could have quoted directly from the bible, where God tells “his people” to slaughter all the people of another tribe, with the exception of the comely girls, his gift of sex slaves.

I understand that it is built into our genes to avoid pain and death and I have great admiration for those who give or risk death to protect others, but the idea that there is a god that will take you to a place where you will live for eternity seems extremely doubtful to me. Mind you, I would love to be able to have wings and be able to play a harp, but I fear after a few centuries I would get bored of it.

At any rate, there is the problem that there are at least a hundred different versions of religions. Can they all be right about what happens after death? I am sick and tired of the “my god” is bigger than “your god” wars. I feel that religion is the most dangerous concept to the continuing existence of the human race. One final thought: If there was such thing as an omnipotent being, why would it need to be worshipped?

Karen Leonard

California

Kevin Price: Imagery can help create false reality

Kevin Price

Here is an edited version of a column Kevin Price wrote for FFRF after learning he was named a Freethinker of the Year Award recipient. Price was unable to be at the convention to accept the award in person because he was in Rojava, Syria, as part of the YPG (Kurdish for People’s Protection Units) in the fight against ISIS.

He (along with Jesse Castillo) were the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Brewster County Sheriff’s Department for placing Christian crosses on police vehicles.

By Kevin Price

When I first got in contact with FFRF about the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office Latin crosses, it did cross my mind that there could be some blowback. But to me, having an irrational government that clearly enjoys and wants more inequality is worse than possibly getting shunned slightly, as had ended up happening over the months following the first press mentions of Jesse’s and my name.

I figured early on in the process of the lawsuit being written that if we had hidden our names from the public, that could give the sheriff’s office and its wannabe theocratic supporters fuel for making bad arguments, by making it seem like we were ashamed of what we were doing, or more idiotically, arguing that we “knew” we were doing something wrong.

We discussed the issue and decided it was best to not hide our names. Being open about our identities sent the sheriff’s office the message that we were not afraid and that we were proud of what we were doing to hold them accountable. I think government employees should be open and public when criticizing the government when it steps out of line. But lots of people don’t have that option, due to having to protect themselves and their families from threats and harassment. Since the sheriff’s office gave a metaphorical middle finger to equality and secular government, I was happy to let it know exactly who was giving it a metaphorical middle finger right back.

Since I was a federal law enforcement agent at the time, it was particularly frustrating that the sheriff’s office and county attorney acted like there was no problem with putting Latin crosses on public vehicles designed to be used in law enforcement activities. The powers-that-be in the Texas state Capitol acted like they needed to deliberate for weeks or months on the issue before saying anything about it.

Dishonest fakery

This is dishonest political fakery; it doesn’t take someone more than a few minutes to figure out they were violating the Constitution. If they are so incompetent that basic research takes months, there should be some basic competency requirements passed for politicians to meet before they are allowed to take office. Basic competency requirements apply to people applying for law enforcement jobs, so why should our politicians, representatives, governors and presidents not have to? But I’m sure they were just stalling in the hope that people would just forget about the crosses. They were just being dishonest.

But the sheriff’s office should be fully capable of being knowledgeable on constitutional issues, individual laws and case law. Somehow it thought what it was doing was legal, despite no evidence whatsoever. What was it using to determine the legality of its actions? Mob popularity? Personal preference? Faith? It seems it was, and yet none of those things are law enforcement tools in a society that seeks any kind of justice, human well-being and progress.

Do state agencies want people to get used to the idea of police being particularly religious? Maybe then nonreligious people won’t even apply for law enforcement jobs and people who are more religious (Christian, of course) would have a better hegemonic grip on the nation? Are they saying that government work in general requires belief in their favorite deity? I would answer “likely yes” to those questions.

This is a no-brainer, yet the sheriff’s office totally failed to execute a task that its jobs require them to do. It is totally unprofessional and irresponsible for law enforcement to just jump to a random conclusion because it prefers it. These are people whose actions can severely affect other people’s lives, and yet the concept of investigating something before acting unequivocally (by placing the crosses on the vehicles) was beyond them.

Marginalizing others

Similar crosses with “Support BCSO” (Brewster County Sheriff’s Office) printed on them are pretty common now in Alpine, as if supporting its attempt to do away with equality and marginalize other religions and those with no religion is “supporting” the sheriff’s office. Law enforcement should be anti-dogmatic. But by closing the doors to criticism, the state of Texas was making it clear it wanted to hold onto this dogma of one-religion government imagery and attempt to close the doors on criticism of the sheriff’s office by falsely making it appear that the idiots in the state Capitol were working on a decision on the matter for a laughably long period of time.

Thinking about why going after church-state separation violators is so important, I would say that, historically, religions have been used by authoritarian, irrational and fascist states to easily acquire a base of supporters who will agree with anything the state does and provide itself with ideologically motivated state enforcers of some sort, such as police and military members who are ideologically aligned as much as possible with leadership. This wouldn’t be hard to accomplish, considering that military and police personnel consist of a miniscule percent of the population.

A path to domination by an authoritarian state tends to involve the denial, cover-up or destruction of other religions, the nonreligious, any cultural or ethnic groups and other things that are deemed not acceptable to the superiority and domination-obsessed group.

In the case of the sheriff’s office crosses, those superiority-obsessed groups would be the state of Texas and Brewster County. This can to a degree be accomplished with imagery. Creating state-sponsored imagery implies a religious state or implies one dominant religion is an attempt to erase other different beliefs or views. It is also an attempt to get people to accept an irrational reality where one religion is seen as practically synonymous with the state or nation. This damages freedom, as there can be none without equality. It also insinuates that the patriarchal structures that go along with Christian scriptures are synonymous with the state or nation.

So, at least two structures of inequality are being pushed by church-state separation violators: patriarchy as advertised by Christianity, and the illusion of a Christian hegemonic state. These are a clear indication of an ideology of domination being exercised by the political Christian right wing.

People will say that we shouldn’t worry, that this is really a far cry from what theocratic fascist states like Turkey or Daesh do. But, given the framework of the Constitution, laws and weak democratic and legal processes available in the U.S., the trend of attempts of religionization of the U.S. government and monopoly of corporate and elitist influence over the country could easily continue and snowball.

This trend paints a picture of an elite group that is trying to slowly push the United States into being an authoritarian state. Some will say it is already here. I say that organizations like FFRF are highly important now because we cannot put too much trust into our elitist corporate-bought representatives and senators to correct problems. When democracy fails, as it can in any situation, not just church-state separation cases, the legal system can and has been successfully used to correct things.

By just sticking to imagery in public spaces, though, an out-of-control state can eventually create the image of a false reality where all or most people are Christian, or, that all people accept the government being Christian.

What has been occurring (state sponsorship and promotion of Christianity) in the United States is what I believe to be a modernized and nonviolent (yet still seriously damaging, such as the ineptly titled “religious freedom” bills) version of what any authoritarian state has done in the past to diminish the power of any potential opposition groups or to create a common fear of ideas and beliefs deemed unacceptable to the state that could threaten its power.

Thanks again and keep up the good work!

In Memoriam: Matt Stark fought hard for civil liberties

Matt Stark

Matt Stark, former president and executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the ACLU, died on April 10 at age 88.

He was a Lifetime Member of FFRF, as is his surviving wife, Terri, who said, “FFRF was Matt’s favorite organization.” She will be completing a publication Matt had compiled on the history of 20 years of church/state battles in Minnesota.

“I support organizations with which I have fundamental agreement, such as FFRF, and I think what you guys are doing is absolutely wonderful,” Stark said in a January 2015 “Meet a Member” profile in Freethought Today. “Later in my life, when I came across FFRF, of course, I was absolutely delighted. I worked with Anne Nicol Gaylor and even sent FFRF a check to help put up a portrait of her in the new lobby!”

Stark was born Jan. 27, 1930, in New York City and remained there until he attended college at Ohio University. He earned two degrees in English and education in 1951 from Ohio University before attending the University of Minnesota, where he earned a master’s in educational psychology in 1959. He then earned a Ph.D. in educational administration and counseling at Western Reserve University in 1963.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota knew Stark well. “Matt was a friend to all who hunger for justice and fairness in our society, and his tireless advocacy helped to inspire me to run for office,” Ellison told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in a news story about Stark’s death on April 15.

Stark first worked for the University of Minnesota, where he, through the ACLU, got in touch with Martin Luther King Jr.

“Martin Luther King Jr. and I developed a program where students at University of Minnesota were trained by me and others to go down South to Montgomery, Selma, etc., live there and work with black and white people positively concerned about race relations,” Stark said. “I met Dr. King through the ACLU and was his legal liaison.”

After leaving the university, Stark served as the Minnesota ACLU’s president for six years and then was its executive director from 1973-87. From there, he served on the board of directors, mostly as president, until 1998.

“Our clients are not the Nazis or the people who own porno stores,” Stark said, as reported in the Star Tribune. “Our client is the Bill of Rights. When we defend the Nazis or anyone unpopular, we’re not saying we necessarily agree with them. We’re defending their constitutional rights to peacefully assemble, or whatever. It’s only when we defend and win rights for the most hated in society that we’re protecting the rights for us all.”

“He was a zealous advocate for civil liberties,” Teresa Nelson, legal director for the ACLU of Minnesota, told the Star Tribune. “He was unwavering in his positions.”

He was a staunch supporter of reproductive freedom and state-church separation. He also was an early proponent of LGBT rights.

In 1970, ACLU Minnesota supported LGBT rights and in 1971 filed suit when two Minnesota men were denied a marriage license. It was the first time someone had sued over the right to marry a person of the same sex. The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, although it refused to hear the case. It took 43 more years, but same-sex couples are now free to marry.

Terri Stark told the Star Tribune that although Matt knew he would lose that case, he also knew that eventually “gay people will have the same constitutional protections and liberties as everybody else,” she said. “He lived to see that come to fruition.”

“We send our warmest condolences to Terri on her loss. The movement has lost a monumental figure as well as a personal friend,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We admired Matt for the 30-plus years we knew him for his dedicated service to the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.”

In Memoriam: State Rep. Michael Jacobson was a regular at conventions

Longtime FFRF Member Michael Jacobson spent the final year of his life with his partner, Lawana Al-Dhari.

Freethought Today is very sad to report the death of FFRF Lifetime Member Michael Jacobson, 74, who first joined FFRF in 1991. Mike died of pulmonary fibrosis on April 13 at his home in Las Vegas.

Born in Philadelphia in 1944, he had a brief marriage at 18, divorced at 19, joined the Army, then attended the University of Utah. He performed various odd jobs until he found his niche in land sales.

His partner of one year, Lawana Al-Dhari, reports that Mike closed his final land sale three days before his death. He even took a road trip the weekend before his death to Arizona, armed with 20 daily liters of oxygen, to visit his good friends, FFRF Life Members and Freethought Hall benefactors Joel Landon and Wanda Beers, to celebrate Joel’s 80th birthday.

Mike attended annual FFRF conventions “religiously” and long served as Nevada’s FFRF state representative. He was an ardent supporter of freethought and the separation of state and church, and belonged to many secular groups, but, according to Lawana, felt closest to FFRF. He was a founding member of the (Philadelphia) Freethought Society, run by Margaret Downey initially as a FFRF chapter, and was active with that group until moving to Nevada.

He missed the 40th annual FFRF convention last fall, after being informed he needed emergency heart surgery. It turned out his lungs were in worse shape than his heart. Suffering from constant oxygen deprivation, after five months on hospice care, Michael “willed himself to die.” Lawana reported that the evening before his death, Mike, who had lost 50 pounds, enjoyed a big “last supper.”

“We will miss Michael’s cheery and supportive presence so very much,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “He will leave a hole in our movement.”