FFRF’s Strategic Response Team is getting it done

By Andrew L. Seidel

The Strategic Response Team. Sure, it’s a cool name, but what does it actually do? The team is part of FFRF’s legal squad. We are Jacks and Jills of all trades, tasked with:

1. Lobbying, tracking, analyzing and educating about pending legislation.

2. Shaping public opinion with articles, editorials and letters to the editor.

3. Drafting statements, press releases, action alerts and articles for FFRF.

4. Working to stop imminent state/church violations.

FFRF launched the Strategic Response Team after its 2017 national convention when the somewhat informal “rapid response” crew was formally reorganized. Our inaugural year was a success. Here are some highlights:

We tracked 115 bills, more than 80 percent of which were negative in regard to state-church separation. Most notably, we opposed bills pushed by “Project Blitz,” a scheme aimed at codifying Christian nationalism into state statutes that features a wide variety of bad bills, including displaying “In God We Trust” in public schools. By mid-year, eight states had laws about posting “In God We Trust” in public schools, some adopted several years ago. This year, we’re already tracking similar bills in another nine states (Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, South Carolina, South Dakota).

On the bright side, much of the legislation we opposed last year failed.    For instance, we opposed a bill in West Virginia requiring all schools, including elementary schools, to teach bible classes, and we opposed a bill in Mississippi forcing public school teachers to recite the Ten Commandments in class. Neither of those bills advanced.

Perhaps our biggest legislative victory was successfully defending the Johnson Amendment from sustained assault, an attack that continues this year.

Another important victory was convincing the Florida Constitutional Committee to retain the state’s No Aid Clause, which prohibits taxpayer funds from flowing to churches. A huge win, if not racy.

We couldn’t have done that without your help. The Strategic Response Team works to mobilize FFRF members, and since the last convention, you have made 29,672 connections with legislators on the 109 action alerts we sent out. That total number of connections is actually much

“In God We Trust” map

higher because that tally only includes calls and emails to federal legislators, not contacts with state and local officials or contacts by other means.

A lot of those connections were about Trump’s judicial nominees. Two stand out: Jeff Mateer and Brett Kavanaugh.

One of the Strategic Response Team’s biggest victories was preventing Mateer from receiving a lifetime appointment on the federal bench. Mateer worked at First Liberty Institute, the Christian anti-FFRF group, and would have been a disaster for state-church separation. To stop him, we authored the most comprehensive record of Mateer’s unfitness. Other groups used this report to build a narrative against Mateer, as did the media and members and staff on the Senate Judiciary Committee. We worked with journalists to publicize Mateer’s troubling ties to First Liberty Institute and the Texas attorney general. We even put together an effective, popular video compiling Mateer’s most egregious moments, urging viewers to oppose his confirmation. President Trump rescinded Mateer’s nomination in December.

We put in as much work to oppose Brett Kavanaugh, but without the success. The Strategic Response Team vetted every possible Trump Supreme Court nominee and drafted press releases and reports on each of the final four. This allowed FFRF to issue a statement on Kavanaugh less than two minutes after his name was announced. We also collaborated with other groups, including helping to draft a letter opposing Kavanaugh that other secular groups signed onto under the umbrella of the Secular Coalition for America and which Sen. Mazie Hirono introduced into the record. As part of that collaboration, FFRF attorneys reviewed more than 10,000 documents from Kavanaugh’s time in the Bush White House, uncovering some important memos that were lost in the later media narrative.

The Strategic Response Team also works to shape public opinion. We do this with FFRF statements, op-eds and articles. We drafted 44 statements on a variety of issues, from the new “religious freedom” division at the Department of Health and Human Services to the pope accusing abuse victims of “slandering” a bishop. We pulled together 50 press releases on legal and legislative issues and another 50 articles, op-eds, blogs and letters to the editor.

An article I wrote for ThinkProgress (“The White House bible study group that influenced Trump’s family separation policy”) shifted public discourse on both that policy and the bible study.

This is just a sample. The Strategic Response Team handled more than 450 separate projects last year. Most of them you’ll never hear about. By its nature, much of our work is behind the scenes and there’s a lot that we do for which we cannot be publicly credited. We can say that your interests are being well represented, including on Capitol Hill. So well, in fact, that we’re highly motivated and inspired by our work this past year to redouble our efforts. Andrew L. Seidel is an attorney and the director of FFRF’s Strategic Response Team.

It’s over! Chino Valley case finally ends with victory for FFRF and Constitution

The praying, proselytizing and bible-reading school board in Chino Valley (Calif.) voted to respect the First Amendment and minority rights by not appealing a major Freedom From Religion Foundation victory to the U.S. Supreme Court.

FFRF, with 22 local parents, students and employees of the Chino Valley School District, triumphed in July before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (the largest in the country) against prayer at Chino Valley School Board meetings. These meetings, which resembled church revivals more than public gatherings, opened with prayer and regularly included board members reading from the bible and proselytizing. “The board’s prayer policy and practice violate the Establishment Clause,” a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit had ruled unanimously. The appeals court reaffirmed FFRF’s victory in December by denying a petition by the school board to rehear the case.

On Jan. 17, the Chino Valley School Board voted 3-2 not to further appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. FFRF welcomes the new board’s display of good sense. (The composition of the board changed following the November elections.)

“We’re so pleased reason and our Constitution have prevailed in protecting the rights of students and parents to be free from proselytizing by their school board,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The fact that we had so many members of the community with us shows how the school board was riding roughshod over the rights of students.”

The display of sectarian religiosity at board meetings was brazen. Then-Board President James Na injected Christianity into many of his official statements to parents and students at meetings. For instance, at one such meeting, Na “urged everyone who does not know Jesus Christ to go and find Him,” after which another board member closed with a reading of Psalm 143.

“These prayers typically take place before groups of schoolchildren whose attendance is not truly voluntary and whose relationship to school district officials, including the board, is not one of full parity,” the appeals court had ruled.

U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal had initially decided in FFRF’s favor on Feb. 18, 2016, finding that “permitting religious prayer in board meetings, and the policy and custom of reciting prayers, bible readings, and proselytizing at board meetings, constitute unconstitutional government endorsements of religion in violation of plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights.”

The previous school board, pressured by a local megachurch to which three members had belonged, had voted 3-2 to appeal the decision. The three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit was not impressed: “The prayers frequently advanced religion in general and Christianity in particular.” And in an acknowledgment of the presence of nonbelievers in California, the court also emphasized how discriminatory the prayer practice was toward secular local residents.

“The purpose of respecting religious diversity, to the extent that it does not encompass nonreligious belief systems and their diversity, is itself constitutionally suspect,” it stated. “Atheists and agnostics comprise 4 percent and 5 percent of the California population, respectively. Neither the purpose of respecting religious diversity nor the means of doing so via prayer acknowledges or respects the beliefs of nonreligious citizens in the district.”

Bernal had ordered the school board to pay more than $200,000 for the initial case. Costs and fees associated with the appeal ran to $75,000 for a total of more than a quarter million dollars.

FFRF and the plaintiffs were represented by Attorney David J.P. Kaloyanides, FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert and FFRF’s Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national state/church watchdog organization that has more than 31,000 nonreligious members and 20 chapters all over the country, including almost 4,000 members and a chapter in Sacramento.

Meet a member: From ‘Family Guy’ to passionate freethinker

Name: David Williamson.

Where I live: Orlando, Fla., since 2012.

Where and when I was born: Pensacola, Fla., in 1971.

Family: In 2013, I married my partner in activism, Jocelyn Williamson. Together we are raising her 15-year old son and I have a 26-year-old son in the Coast Guard.

Education: My childhood was spent in many places, but I finished high school in Spartanburg, S.C. I have an associate in science degree in golf course management from Florida Gateway College and a bachelor’s degree in occupational safety and health from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Military service: I served four years in the Navy.

Occupation: After college, I worked as a golf course superintendent and about 10 years ago I moved into occupational safety.

Tell us about your FFRF chapter: Jocelyn and I founded the Central Florida Freethought Community in 2012 out of a passion for keeping religion out of government. We found the best way to do activism is to build a community of like-minded people and to form relationships with allied organizations and individuals who share our goals. Even if we don’t agree with everyone on everything, we can work together where our values align. Today we have a thriving organization that serves the Orlando area locally and the state of Florida in other ways.

We have nearly 1,000 Meetup members, 1,700 email subscribers, and 2,891 Facebook fans. There is a monthly speaker series, regular social events, occasional secular invocations, and the annual Freethought Cruise, where a national-level speaker is brought in for a weekend or a week-long getaway.

We have worked with FFRF on two lawsuits: literature distribution in Orange County Public Schools and secular invocations at Brevard County Commission meetings.

Group management has changed a lot since the days of the paper newsletter, so we find ourselves trying to grow and be dynamic while meeting the needs of those who look to us as a resource.

How I got where I am today: A 2008 episode of the “Family Guy” was how I first heard about Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. It had a profound effect on me and helped me realize the value of clear thinking and the harm that religious dogma has visited upon civilization. That created a path for me into freethought where I found a desire to be part of fostering communities for people who want to be free from the question, “So, what church do you attend?”

Where I’m headed: My aim is to ensure Orlando always has an active freethought community. With a short supply of people interested in leadership, I and the rest of our board members need to work on identifying and empowering fans and followers who care about the same things we do, but don’t yet know how to get involved.

Person in history I admire and why: I really should spend more time studying history, but I am a huge fan of two types of activists. I admire regular people who have the courage to come from a minority position and speak out about what matters to them. I also have great respect for people who are in a majority and who take the time to understand the impacts their privilege has on others. I think we should all strive to be those types of people whenever we can.

A quotation I like: “Freedom begins with freethinkers.” — Anne Nicol Gaylor, FFRF co-founder.

These are a few of my favorite things: Modestly priced dark chocolate, heated discussion among family and friends, kicking pastors out of public schools, and Oxford commas.

These are not: People who care about what happens in our world but do not get involved to change it frustrate me as much as eating my vegetables.

My doubts about religion started: I have no memory of a god-belief — thank God.

Before I die: I hope to see a majority of Americans regain an understanding and appreciation of the secularism which pre-dated the rise of the “Religious Right.”

Ways I promote freethought: Along with community development and being open about my atheism, I am creating personal relationships with local clergy so we can resolve and prevent issues of religion in government together. An organization I have recently been asked to join is the Central Florida Commission on Religious Freedom (real religious freedom). We host an annual summit open to the public and smaller discussions during the year where religious leaders get together to discuss how religious freedom affects our various communities. Working with religious people to help us maintain “Jefferson’s wall” is an area of focus I hope to write and talk about more soon.

I wish you’d have asked me: To come work full-time at the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

FFRF Member David Williamson (right), director and co-founder of the Central Florida Freethought Community, and Danny de Armas, senior pastor at First Baptist Orlando, discussed the commonalities in their approach toward religion and government during a video segment on the Orlando Sentinel’s website in reaction to the annual National Religious Freedom Day on Jan. 16.
David Williamson

In memoriam: John Hodges: Be irreverent

FFRF Member John Bryan Hodges died of a heart attack on Nov. 27, 2018.

He was born May 9, 1952, in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Oxon Hill, Md. From there, he moved to Blacksburg, Va., to attend Virginia Polytechnic Institute, where he studied economics, electrical engineering and philosophy.

After graduation, he lived in Denver for about seven years before returning to Blacksburg, where he lived until his death, just one month before his scheduled retirement from the National Bank of Blacksburg.

John was a very kind person with a prodigious memory and keen sense of humor, able to recite jokes from comic strips he had enjoyed, humorous stories, poetry and quotes from serious articles and books.   

With a lifelong interest and dedication to philosophy, he was a humanist, writing that what matters most is how we treat other people and the natural world. 

As he often ended his writings, “Do justice, love mercy and be irreverent.”

John Hodges

In memoriam: Deborah Welch dies at 46

Deborah Welch

Deborah Gail Welch, 46, died unexpectedly at her home in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, on Jan. 20.

She was born March 2, 1972, to Doris Luna and Douglas McTaggart. She married Arno Kilianski and they had an adopted daughter Samantha Mondegreen.

As expressed in her obituary, the family wished for any donations in her honor to be made to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Diabetes Canada or PFLAG.

In memoriam: Prominent scientist, activist Alice Bennett dies at 89

FFRF Life Member Alice Swenson Bennett, 89, died Jan. 27 in Indianapolis.

Alice was born Aug. 16, 1929, in Chicago and completed high school at age 16. She graduated three years later from Western Michigan College, majoring in chemistry and biology. She received her master’s degree in biological chemistry from the University of Michigan in 1952. She married Carson Bennett in 1953 and had two sons, Lawrence and Thomas. She completed her Ph.D. in biochemistry at Purdue in 1968.

Alice taught for 31 years in the Biology Department at Ball State University, teaching molecular biology, biophysics and radiation biology, among other subjects. She made contributions to breast cancer research and authored many research publications. She served as chair of the University Senate at Ball State and was an advocate for faculty and staff. She received many awards for her hard work in academics, First Amendment rights, voting rights, needs of low- and middle-income persons, separation of church and state, women’s rights, equality and social justice. She was a consistent supporter of those who found themselves in challenging times and needing assistance.

Alice was a devoted volunteer in a wide variety of community activities. Some of her most rewarding accomplishments were volunteering and supporting the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, American Association of University Women, League of Women Voters and National Organization for Women. Alice was a strong supporter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and The Center for Inquiry.

Alice Bennett

Overheard (March 2019)

The doctrine of fetal personhood represents a sharp break from the great traditions of Western law that, at their philosophical core, seek to preserve space for the individual to live free from the tremendous power of the state. . . . That this doctrine is acquiring the force of law within the United States should deeply concern Americans — men and women — who value their freedoms.

Editorial, “The Future of Personhood Nation.”

The New York Times, 1-10-19


You shouldn’t need a bible to tell you to protect our planet, but it does anyway.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, responding to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who dismissed Ocasio-Cortez’ push for the Trump administration to take action on climate change.

Twitter, 1-23-19


Whether they’re atheist, Opus Dei, Buddhist or Muslim should have no bearing on our assessment of their fitness for office. Yet I can’t help but feel anxious that both of Donald Trump’s main global envoys, [Mike] Pompeo and [Mike] Pence, have a conflict between their private beliefs and what they publicly claim to be doing.

Financial Times journalist Edward Luce.

Raw Story, 1-15-19


I think the number of women fleeing from the Saudi administration and abuse will increase, especially since there is no system to stop them. I’m sure that there will be a lot more women running away. I hope my story encourages other women to be brave and free.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, the Saudi woman who fled from her country and family and was given asylum in Canada, in her first TV interview.

NPR, 1-15-19


It isn’t too late to wipe outdated laws off the books and make the procedure more accessible to low-income women and more available to everyone. And it is certainly high time to make abortion rights a voting issue in elections.

Editorial, “Roe v. Wade is at risk. Here’s how to prepare.”

The New York Times, 1-21-19


You cannot deny what happened. You cannot deny that there was significant abuse in the Catholic Church. You cannot deny that it was not handled appropriately. And you can’t deny that people were hurt.

New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, flanked by survivors at a press conference, after signing the Child Victims Act. The bill, extending reasonable statutes of limitation for victims of child sexual abuse, languished for 13 years, opposed by religious groups, Boy Scouts of America and, particularly, the Roman Catholic Church, which spent more than $1.8 million since 2012 lobbying against it.

The New York Times, 1-29-19


My Christian school had “Slave Day.” One day a year, each member of the junior class was auctioned off to other students to be owned for a day. The auctioneer — a teacher — sometimes held a whip. Students stood on a box while being auctioned. It was a fundraiser for our prom — real money was exchanged. Sometimes, the auction took place in the sanctuary. In 2001, it was changed — in name only — to Servant Day. I do not recall any conversations about race and white supremacy.

Laura Hagen of Minnesota, in response to The New York Times’ request for experiences with Christian schooling after hashtag #ExposeChristianSchools went viral.

The New York Times, 1-31-19


By giving legal cover for discrimination, the Trump-Pence administration is encouraging providers to deny people health care based on their own homophobia or misogyny, while worsening health care access and forcing some to forgo care altogether.

Dr. Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a statement after the Department of Health and Human Services announced it is close to finalizing a conscience protection rule that would allow people to discriminate in health care settings.

Rewire News, 1-28-19


Hopefully in the future we can put in place some common-sense guidelines that would bar hate groups from earning money through Arizona license plates. State dollars should not be funding an organization that works to strip residents of our state of their human rights and human dignity. It’s appalling that we’ve already sent over a million dollars to this extremist hate group.

Arizona state Sen. Juan Mendez, an open atheist, who proposed a bill for the DOT to make public the names and missions of each entity receiving funds from specialty plates. Currently, $17 of every $25 from the specialty plates is sent to Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled as a hate group.

The Friendly Atheist, 2-6-19

Heads Up poetry column: Checkmate

CHECKMATE

God is all-knowing and all-powerful.

—The Baltimore Catechism

. . . and the Lord hath taken away.

—Job, 1:21

Busy as you were, God,

when you were alive,

you always found time

to torment the woman I love—not just

that old kid stuff, her tonsil

-ectomy,

append

-ectomy,

those casual tweaks, your afternoon’s

amusement—no,

I mean the really dirty tricks, the mast

-ectomy,

blighting her beautiful body,

and then of course her hyster

-ectomy,

the doomed flesh gouged away

just as you pre-ordained,

and listen, God, I haven’t forgiven you

her hacksawed knees, those twin

-ectomies,

nor am I overlooking

your other little favors:

her tricky heart, thinning bones,

lazy glands—and when you gave her

your best shot, that sneaky stroke,

you thought it’d be Strike

Three, right? Well,

not on your life, big boy,

she’s tougher than you thought,

and now that you’re dead,

she’s dancing on your grave.

Steven Pinker ad for FFRF to air nationally

For the first time since 2012, CBS has permitted FFRF to advertise nationally, not just in limited markets.

FFRF’s newest ad, featuring Enlightenment Now author Steven Pinker, will air on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” (11:35 p.m. Eastern) for three consecutive days. The 30-second spot will run on Monday, March 25, Tuesday, March 26 and Wednesday, March 27.

In the ad, Pinker urges viewers to join the FFRF in its fight to prevent religion from creeping into U.S. government. Pinker has served as FFRF’s first honorary president since 2013.

“Hi, I’m Steve Pinker. In my book, Enlightenment Now, I show that the world has become a better place as reason has been overcoming superstition and tribalism. But the values of the Enlightenment are under attack. That’s why I’m a proud member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation’s largest association of freethinkers, working to keep the state and church separate. Please join me in supporting the Freedom From Religion Foundation to ensure that our government is driven not by religion, but by reason.”

Pinker is one of the world’s premier intellects and cognitive psychologists, and serves as the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He’s been named on the Time 100 list of the world’s “Most Influential People.” Among his other best-selling books are The Blank Slate, The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works.

CBS continues to refuse to air FFRF’s other television commercial featuring Ron Reagan (“Not afraid of burning in hell”) nationally or regionally on CBS-owned affiliates.

FFRF ad featuring Steven Pinker.

Meet an intern: FFRF intern works doggedly for legal team

Name: Liana McGregor

Where and when I was born: Madison, Wis., in 1995.

Family: It’s just me and my parents, Tom and Anita, and the dogs, Emma and Bailey.

Education: University of Wisconsin-Madison class of 2018. I majored in political science.

My religious upbringing was: None. My parents are agnostic and they raised me to be open-minded and respectful of all religions.

What I do here: Anything they want me to, but I mostly prepare letters for the legal department. When I’m not drafting letters, I’m usually working on a research project or mass mailing for one of the attorneys.

What I like best about it: I’ve learned so much from everyone here, and everyone is so helpful and patient. My writing skills have really improved, and I like to see how the attorneys edit the drafts I give them.

Something funny that’s happened: The legal assistant throws things at me, but sometimes it’s candy so I can’t complain.

My legal interests are: Social justice, constitutional law, women’s rights and prison reform.

My legal heroes are: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sir Thomas More and Sally Yates.

These three words sum me up: Caring, skeptical, sleepy.

Things I like: Cooking, hiking, reading, and hanging out with my dogs.

Things I smite: Intolerance, canned corn and dirty fingernails.

I wish you’d asked me: More about my dogs.

Liana McGregor