Linda Greenhouse: Religious crusaders at Supreme Court’s gates

This article first appeared in The New York Times on Sept. 12 and is reprinted with permission and edited for space.

By Linda Greenhouse

The Supreme Court’s decision in last term’s big religion case, on the constitutionality of a Latin cross that stands 40 feet tall on public land in Bladensburg, Md., left both sides in the religion wars unsatisfied. The court’s several opinions, adding up to seven votes to keep the cross in place, disappointed the secularists who brought the lawsuit seeking to have it removed. But the narrow holding, based on the history of this particular monument, was even more frustrating to those who hoped that the court, already tilting noticeably in favor of religion in particular contexts, would go further and adopt new rules for lowering the barrier between church and state across the board.

It seemed to me then that the court was just biding its time. Newly configured with the arrivals of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh and the departure of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court used this case as a warm-up exercise while the justices took one another’s measure on the subject that lies at the very heart of the country’s culture wars. The court would have plenty of opportunity to make its next move.

Sooner than I expected, that time has arrived. In late June, a week after issuing the decision in the cross case, the court placed another important religion case, this one ostensibly concerning the channeling of public money to religious schools, on its docket for the term that begins in October. Other cases are rapidly filling the queue of new appeals seeking the justices’ attention. None has received much notice outside the conservative religious networks propelling these cases to a court that shows every sign of being receptive. . . .

The new case, to be argued in December, presents this question: “Does it violate the Religion Clauses or Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution to invalidate a generally available and religiously neutral student-aid program simply because the program affords students the choice of attending religious schools?”

It’s an interesting question, but an odd one in the context of this case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, brought to the court by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian litigating group that has been a leader in the school choice movement. The reason the question is odd is that if the answer is yes, the logical consequence is that a state that once had a program offering financial support to religious and nonreligious schools alike (in this case, in the form of a tax credit to tuition-paying parents) and that subsequently shut down the program entirely can be deemed to have violated a principle of religious neutrality.

Can that possibly be the law? The Montana Supreme Court found the tax-credit program, in its entirety, to violate the state Constitution’s “stringent prohibition on aid to sectarian schools.” The state court didn’t address the federal Constitution. Usually, the justices view a state court decision that relies on “independent and adequate state grounds” as inappropriate for Supreme Court review.

This case reminds me of an old Supreme Court decision that, not surprisingly, the Institute for Justice doesn’t cite in its petition: Palmer v. Thompson, a case from the height of the civil rights movement. Rather than integrate its public swimming pools, the city of Jackson, Miss., simply closed them. The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Hugo Black, rejected the argument that the city, having deprived both white and black residents of a place to swim, had violated the equal-protection right of its black citizens.

There are differences between the two cases, of course, but the question remains: Why did the Supreme Court agree to hear the Montana case? I think the reason lies with a case from Missouri that the court decided two years ago, a case that the Institute for Justice cites throughout its 36-page petition. In Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, the court held that the state could not exclude a church from eligibility to compete for a state grant to resurface its school playground. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the exclusion manifested a religious discrimination “odious to our Constitution.”

Strong words, but the chief justice’s opinion contained an unusual footnote: “This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.” Say what? While five other justices signed the chief justice’s opinion, two of those, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, dissented from the footnote, thus depriving it of majority status. When the Supreme Court rules, Gorsuch wrote, it does so on the basis of “general principles.” He added: “General principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise — whether on the playground or not.”

Roberts knows that as well as Gorsuch. His footnote has all the earmarks of having been designed to secure the agreement of Kennedy, whose position at the ideological center of the court over many years exacted a high degree of deference from colleagues seeking to get or hold his vote. The frequent result was that his colleagues signed on to opinions more narrow than they would have preferred. In granting review of this unlikely case, the court’s new majority hopes to move the ball forward. . . .

The most intriguing new appeal waiting for the justices’ review is . . . Ricks v. State of Idaho Contractors Board, which presents a single straightforward question: whether the Supreme Court should overturn a 19-year-old decision, Employment Division v. Smith. That was the case in which the court refused to grant a religious exemption to two members of the Native American Church who had been denied unemployment benefits after being fired as counselors for a private drug rehabilitation group for their ritual use of peyote, an illegal hallucinogen. The First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause does not provide religious exemptions from neutral laws of general applicability, the court ruled. The decision set off a bipartisan, multireligious uproar that led to the swift enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, requiring a “compelling justification” to “substantially burden religious exercise,” and designed, as the law’s title suggests, to overturn the court’s decision. The court subsequently ruled that Congress lacked authority to apply this law to the states, where Employment Division v. Smith remains the law unless a state has enacted its own Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Ricks v. State of Idaho Contractors Board was filed on behalf of a man who says he believes that a Social Security number is a link to the devil. In 1996, Congress passed a law called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, aimed in part at making it easier to track down taxpayers who were behind on child support payments. In exchange for a federal grant, states had to agree to require Social Security numbers on applications for professional licenses. When George Ricks refused to provide his number, the state denied him a contractor’s license.

Idaho has its own version of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but the state’s Court of Appeals found that the state law was unenforceable in such a case because it was pre-empted by the federal law that imposed the Social Security number requirement. The state court treated Ricks’ religious objection as sincere, but held that under Employment Division v. Smith, he couldn’t prevail. The Idaho Supreme Court declined to review the appeals court’s decision.

The petition argues that Employment Division v. Smith was wrongly decided, “contrary to the text and historical meaning of the Free Exercise Clause,” and is now “ripe for revisiting.” Conspicuously absent from the petition is a quotation from the majority opinion in that case, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, a secular saint, if there ever was one, in the eyes of judicial conservatives. Scalia’s opinion is worth quoting nonetheless. He explained that Oregon, the state involved in that case, might well have chosen on its own to carve out a religious exemption from its unemployment law, which refused benefits to people who lost their job because of criminal behavior. Then he continued:

“But to say that a nondiscriminatory religious practice exemption is permitted, or even that it is desirable, is not to say that it is constitutionally required, and that the appropriate occasions for its creation can be discerned by the courts. It may fairly be said that leaving accommodation to the political process will place at a relative disadvantage those religious practices

Bladensburg cross cartoon by Steve Benson

that are not widely engaged in; but that unavoidable consequence of democratic government must be preferred to a system in which each conscience is a law unto itself or in which judges weigh the social importance of all laws against the centrality of all religious beliefs.”

I thought Scalia had it right 19 years ago, and I think his opinion is even more relevant today, when claims for conscience-based carve-outs from legal requirements are rampant and are being granted by the courts and the executive branch with little regard for the harm these exemptions cause to third parties — for example, to employees who don’t share their bosses’ objection to birth control, as in the Hobby Lobby case five years ago. For those determined to see Employment Division v. Smith overturned, Ricks’ case is a perfect vehicle. His religious belief is benignly eccentric, and granting him an exemption would cause no third-party harm — except to the principle that Justice Scalia invoked.

The chance that the court will take up the Ricks case has to be seen as better than fair. Idaho at first waived its right to respond to the petition, a strategic choice that is quite common at the court, made in the knowledge that the justices will never grant a petition that lacks a response. But last Friday, in a little-noticed order, the court ordered the state to respond and gave it 30 days to do so. . . .

Last January, the court denied a petition brought on behalf of a public high school football coach in Bremerton, Wash., who lost his job after refusing the school system’s order to stop praying on the 50-yard line at the end of every game. The coach, Joseph Kennedy, brought his case as a First Amendment free-speech claim, not as a claim about the free exercise of religion.

The free speech rights of public employees are complex, and the record in this case was unclear as to the school system’s motivation for the coach’s dismissal. The court spent three months wrestling with the petition before finally denying it. Justices Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh published a statement explaining why they agreed that the case was procedurally flawed. (The agreement among the four was significant, because it takes the votes of only four justices to grant a case.) In a final paragraph at the end of their six-page statement, the four did a remarkable thing, pivoting abruptly from the speech issue, which the petition presented, to the religion issue, which it didn’t. They offered a blunt criticism of Employment Division v. Smith, writing that “the court drastically cut back on the protection provided by the Free Exercise Clause.” They went on to criticize a 1977 decision that limited religious exemptions under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They made it obvious that they wanted to overturn both. “In this case, however,” they concluded, “we have not been asked to revisit those decisions.”

Translation: Bring us a case, the right case. Less than six months later, the Ricks appeal arrived. By the end of the court’s new term, nine months from now, the shadow cast by the 40-foot cross in Bladensburg that loomed so large not so long ago may disappear into the new church-state landscape now emerging before our eyes.

FFRF Member Linda Greenhouse, the winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize, writes about the Supreme Court and the law. She reported on the Supreme Court for The New York Times from 1978 to 2008, and is the author of several books.

Billboards protest Kentucky’s new ‘In God We Trust’ law

FFRF has launched a two-pronged campaign to combat Kentucky’s unwise new law requiring “In God We Trust” to be displayed in every public school.

FFRF has put together an art contest with a cash prize for the best student artwork protesting the new law. The Kentucky law specifically states that “In God We Trust” displays may be in the form of “student artwork,” opening the door for clever student artists to create art displays that conform to the law’s text but not its intent, says FFRF.

Meanwhile, FFRF placed its own protest artwork — an eye-catching cartoon by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Benson — on several billboards in Louisville in October. The cartoon jocularly points out there are many different gods humans have worshipped, not just one, and that many choose “none of the above.”

The billboards went up in Louisville at Bardstown and Bonnycastle, Barret and Rufer, Berry, Fegenbush, and Frankfort and Frank.

Any student currently enrolled in a Kentucky public school who disagrees with the new law requiring posting of “In God We Trust” is invited to submit a poster design or other artwork. The artwork must contain the phrase “In God We Trust,” but must either protest the motto, subvert the religious intent of the new law or otherwise show why “In God We Trust” is not an appropriate motto to place in a public school.

The grand prize is $500, with honorable mention awards of $200 each. Every student winner will also receive a “clean,” pre-“In God We Trust” $1 bill. Go to surveymonkey.com/r/C2C6GQ5.

Ann Pollard shows off FFRF’s newest billboard in Louisville, Ky. Ann and her husband, Richard Heath, are both members of FFRF and the Kentucky Secular Society. Ann says this site is near where the Secular Society holds meetings of “Reasonable Living” every Sunday morning.

Judge can’t spread religion, FFRF says

The proselytizing judge in the Amber Guyger case has inadvertently confessed to the validity of an ethics complaint against her, FFRF points out.

FFRF had complained to the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct when Judge Tammy Kemp presented convicted murderer and former Dallas police officer Guyger with a bible at the close of the trial on Oct. 2. Dozens of media outlets that covered the case also reported on FFRF’s complaint to the judicial conduct commission, including The New York Times, Washington Post, Fox News, CNN, MSN, USA Today and NBC, among many others.

Courtroom video had shown that following the sentencing and victim impact statement, Kemp had left the courtroom and returned with her personal bible. She had then gifted her bible to Guyger, providing her directions on how and where to read in the religious text.

Kemp said: “You can have [my bible]. I have three or four more at home. This is the one I use everyday. This is your job for the next month. Right here. John: 3:16. And this is where you start, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’”

She continued, “He has a purpose for you. This will strengthen you. You just need a tiny mustard seed of faith. You start with this.”

These judicial actions were inappropriate and unconstitutional, FFRF contended. Government employees may not use the power and privilege of their offices to preach their personal religious beliefs, FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker emphasized.

FFRF notes that Kemp appears to have generally handled a difficult and widely publicized trial with grace and aplomb, but that her decision to preach the bible to a criminal defendant was a serious First Amendment violation and signaled to everyone watching that she is partial to Christian notions of forgiveness.

In a formal follow-up letter on Oct. 10, FFRF brought the commission’s attention to Kemp’s appearance on CNN on Oct. 8, during which she admitted that she was fulfilling her religious duty during that episode rather than her secular duty as a judge: “I kind of thought about my responsibilities as a person. And ironically, I was standing in a spot where I had been standing when I was inducted as a judge in this courtroom, and I remembered that one of the charges that I was given was to do just, to love mercy, and to walk humbly.”

Kemp is not referring to the oath she took as a judge, but is instead citing Micah 6:8 from the bible, which states: “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Kemp effectively doubled down on her message that her primary duty is to her religion and not to our secular Constitution, and that those who might desire favorable treatment in her courtroom would do well to appeal to her Christian beliefs.

Many people were upset with Kemp’s decision to hug Guyger, but FFRF notes that the hug isn’t relevant to FFRF’s complaint. Its request for a formal ethics investigation rests solely on Kemp’s use of a state judicial power to promote her personal religion.

“We believe that our criminal justice system needs more compassion from judges and prosecutors, but here compassion crossed the line into coercion,” Gaylor and Barker had written in the original complaint. “And there can be few relationships more coercive than between a sentencing judge in a criminal trial and a citizen accused and convicted of a crime.”

In the News (Nov. 2019)

Judge halts Michigan’s pro-gay adoption rules

A federal judge in Grand Rapids, Mich., halted a new state policy that bans state contracts with foster and adoption agencies that refuse to work with gay couples.

The state’s settlement and comments made by Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel about the policy show “that the state’s new position targets St. Vincent’s religious beliefs,” U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker wrote in his Sept. 24 opinion.

In his opinion, Jonker said Nessel “is at the very heart of the case” in part because of comments she made on the campaign trail in which she described supporters of the state’s prior policy as “hatemongers” and said she “could not justify using the state’s money” to defend “a law whose only purpose is discriminatory animus.”

Justice Dept. sides with Catholics over firing

The U.S. Department of Justice has defended a Roman Catholic archbishop’s decision that led to the firing of a gay, married teacher, stating that the First Amendment prohibits courts from interfering in how a religious group applies its teachings.

The Justice Department’s civil rights division filed a statement of interest in a lawsuit brought by Joshua Payne-Elliott, an educator fired in June from his job at Cathedral High School, which is part of the Indianapolis archdiocese.

Payne-Elliott says the archdiocese interfered illegally in his teaching contract by demanding that the school fire him. The school was supportive of the teacher but faced serious repercussions if it disobeyed Archbishop Charles Thompson’s mandate.

Tennessee county gives $15K to bible museum

A bible museum in Collierville, Tenn., is getting $15,000 in taxpayer money.

Members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners each are allotted $200,000 a year to “give back to the community,” which can be used to fund a variety of projects, including cultural programs, community development activities and infrastructure improvements. On Sept. 23, Commissioner David Bradford said he would give $10,000 from his funds for the Bible Museum on the Square. Commissioner Mick Wright said he would add $5,000 more. The board then unanimously voted in favor of those grants.

FFRF did send a letter to the County Board prior to the meeting, stating that the grant “violates taxpayers’ religious liberty by forcing them to support a liberty they don’t believe in.”

Broader rights sought for marriage officiating

The Center for Inquiry argues that a Texas law is unconstitutional because it gives religious celebrants the ability to solemnize a marriage but denies nonreligious celebrants that same right.

In Texas, those allowed to conduct marriage ceremonies are a licensed or ordained Christian minister or priest, a rabbi, a person who is an officer of a religious organization and authorized by that group to conduct a ceremony and a current or retired judge. Officiating at a wedding without authority is a Class A misdemeanor.

CFI says the law deprives couples of the opportunity to have a meaningful but nonreligious ceremony.

U.S. District Judge Jane J. Boyle rejected the CFI arguments in an August decision, saying the law at most provides an “indirect or incidental” benefit to religion.

Two more members join Freethought Caucus

Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., and Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill., have recently joined the Congressional Freethought Caucus.

Both Wild and Casten won their seats in 2018.

The caucus was announced in 2018 by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., the only openly nonreligious member of Congress. The two additions bring the total to 12 members.

The other members of the caucus are: Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.

Family hid dinosaur fossil for 150 years

A God-fearing family in Victorian England buried a giant dinosaur fossil out of concern it could threaten the family members’ Christian beliefs. After about 150 years, the family finally unearthed the prehistoric fossil.

The Ichthyosaurus fossil was discovered in 1850 by the family of Julian Temperley in England. The Burnham & Highbridge Weekly News reported the family members were builders’ merchants and unearthed the relic while digging in a quarry.

After returning the fossil to their home, the family decided to bury it as they didn’t want to feel they were “denying God” and the creation story by displaying it. This was several years before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species.

Supreme Court to take on state/church cases

With the U.S. Supreme Court term back in session, here are some cases the Freedom From Religion Foundation is watching closely.

Funding religious education

FFRF will be filing a friend-of-the-court brief in the most prominent state/church case so far accepted by SCOTUS, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. The case, at its core, is an attempt to compel states to fund religious education. The plaintiffs argue that a state constitution that prohibits funding to religious schools violates the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution. If the plaintiffs prevail, taxpayers will be forced to fund religious education in Montana, and the decision will directly affect the enforcement of state/church separation nationwide in the realm of funding religious schools.

“This case could have a horrendous impact on the rights of citizens under state constitutions around the country,” FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott comments. “Depending on how broadly the justices decide the case, it could potentially undo one of the bedrock principles on which this nation was founded: that taxpayers may not be forced to subsidize churches and church schools.”

Abortion regulations

SCOTUS announced that it will hear June Medical Services v. Gee, making this the first abortion case the court will hear since Justice Brett Kavanaugh replaced Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had voted in several cases to protect Roe v. Wade.

The case centers around a 2014 Louisiana law requiring that doctors at abortion clinics have admitting privileges at a local hospital. This regulation and ones like it are an insidious attempt by anti-choice legislatures to impose such burdensome, medically unnecessary restrictions on clinics that they are forced to close.

The law was declared unconstitutional by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that it imposed an “undue burden” on abortion access.

LGBTQ discrimination

The Supreme Court is hearing three landmark employment discrimination cases that address whether it is legal to fire workers because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda, Bostock v. Clayton County and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC all center on whether the existing federal ban on sex discrimination similarly forbids employment discrimination against LGBTQ workers.

Very often, the religious beliefs of employers are used as justification for discrimination against LGBTQ employees. In Harris Funeral Homes, Aimee Stephens, a trans woman, was fired from her job because, her boss argued, it would violate “God’s commands” if he allowed Stephens “to deny her sex while acting as a representative of the organization.”

The cases will not only determine the future of discrimination protections for LGBTQ employees, but have the potential to undermine much of America’s existing workplace anti-discrimination law and lay dangerous groundwork for the expansion of “religious liberty” being invoked as a legal justification for discrimination.

FFRF’s Reagan ad ‘won the night’ during debate

The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s “unabashed atheist” commercial with Ron Reagan ruled the internet during the Oct. 15 Democratic debate on CNN.

The 30-second spot (the first freethinking ad believed to have ever run during a presidential primary debate) aired twice during the debate itself, and also during the primary debate pre-show and post-show. The name of Ron Reagan, the progressive son of President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan, was the most searched term on Google in the course of the debate, as Google itself acknowledged. His name was among the top 20 trenders on Twitter. A story about the ad also appeared on the homepage of the Fox News website.

Reagan says in the ad: “Hi, I’m Ron Reagan, an unabashed atheist, and I’m alarmed by the intrusion of religion into our secular government. That’s why I’m asking you to support the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation’s largest and most effective association of atheists and agnostics, working to keep state and church separate, just like our Founding Fathers intended. Please support the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”

Not surprisingly, the ad received a lot of media coverage, albeit sometimes grudgingly.

“Ron Reagan crashed the Democratic presidential primary debate Tuesday night with a plug for an atheist group that turned his name into the top trending search on Google — as he declared that he was ‘not afraid of burning in hell,’” reported the right-leaning New York Post. And Fox News stated, “Ron Reagan was not on stage Tuesday night for the Democratic presidential primary debate, but his provocative plug for a prominent atheist group earned him the top spot on Google after he declared himself a ‘lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.’”

The ad aired several more times the next day on “The Lead with Jake Tapper,” “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer” and “Anderson Cooper 360.” CBS, NBC, ABC and Discovery Science networks have refused the ad since 2014, but it has previously run periodically on CNN, Comedy Central and Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor is delighted about the effect of the ad.

“It just shows how much of an impact a freethought perspective can have, if it’s given a chance,” Gaylor says. “People are hankering for an uncensored freethinking point of view, and it’s to CNN’s credit that it allowed this.”

FFRF thanks members who have donated to FFRF’s Advertising Fund for making possible this major campaign.

Twitter reactions to the ad were either quite positive or highly negative, with few straddling the middle ground.

A screenshot taken during the broadcast of the Democratic debate on Oct. 15 shows FFRF’s Ron Reagan ad, which ran twice during the debate.

Therrin Wilson: Reason, not religion, gave me a path out of poverty

This article first appeared in the University of Tennessee Beacon.

By Therrin Wilson

M

Therrin Wilson on an FFRF billboard.

y mother raised me as a Baptist Christian. We attended bible studies every Thursday and church service every Sunday. Church provided a welcoming environment for us to connect with the wider African American community and I was a devout, young believer. 

Outside of church, however, my mother and I encountered a barrage of struggles, with chronic homelessness at the top of the list. Not having a regular place to live took a major toll on me as a young kid trying to keep up with my lessons in school and cope with fitting in with the other students.

Furthermore, my mom could not afford to buy me glasses, which was indeed a problem for a kid with 20/450 vision. During our period of homelessness — and for me, near blindness — I turned to God in every way that I could. But even as I was reaching out to God every day, we continued to be homeless.

At a certain point, I decided to put my communication with God aside and turned to reason and self-reliance. I wanted a better life for my mother, and also wanted to pursue my dream of becoming an optometrist — both of which required education and resources that our church could not provide.

I worked hard to get my first job at Walgreens and continued working fulltime through high school. While this job was not enough to pay for a home for me and my mother, at least it was enough to feed us and pay for items of necessity, like my first pair of coke-bottle glasses.

I got our family out of poverty, not because of God, but rather thanks to old-fashioned bootstrapping hard work and reason. Many of my friends and family argued that God allowed us to rise out of poverty, but it was precisely the opposite. Only when I turned away from prayer and turned to reason did I gain the freedom of will and thought to take the reins in life.

Starting when I was about 15 years old, my realization that there were many contradictions and troubling ideologies in the bible led me to first question God. Many questions began to arise in which I could find no logical answer or response. As a budding scientist, I learned of the empirical method, which means that ideas must survive all questions and tests of reason in order to be adopted as knowledge. I used my scientific thinking to put God to the test.

From researching the origins of the scripture, it occurred to me that God did not create us, but rather we created God to have a pretense of the reality that we don’t understand. I realized that in order to advance in my scientific field, there was no room to believe in something that was incapable of being proven through the test of reasoning. Thus, I rejected God as a fantasy no different than the Tooth Fairy.

I also realized that I do not need to believe in God to pursue my happiness in life, or to do good unto others in the mold of the bible’s teachings. I still support those members of the African American community and others who use religion to connect.

However, for me, I’m as proud to be an atheist as I am to be an African American.

You may flip the script and ask, “What is the evidence to support my worldview as an atheist?” It’s pretty straightforward, through reason and scientific thinking, I have lifted my family out of poverty, gained my vision, and am now receiving my bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

From there, I plan to attend graduate school and become an optometrist, helping others who suffer from the same vision problems I have experienced.

And I have been “good without God,” in the sense that I have conducted more than 100 hours of community service while in college. All in all, my story is proof that God is not needed to be happy or successful and that atheists are capable of having just as much (or more) moral authority as religious people claim.

For those who underestimate their abilities to be prosperous without divine intervention, I say: Be yourself, be human, and be the best you can be with or without God.

Therrin is in his final semester at the University of Tennessee. In 2018, he earned honorable mention in FFRF’s students of color college essay contest.

First step for secular recovery funding

A vital first step has been made to help remedy a major problem: Most mutual support recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotic Anonymous are religious in nature.

Thanks to advocacy by FFRF on this issue, a recently released federal budget includes a request that federal tax dollars can be awarded to secular, evidence-based recovery programs. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which manages billions of federal tax dollars, is responsible for these grants.

FFRF and its governmental affairs director, Mark Dann, based in D.C., have been working alongside a secular coalition to ensure that government funding aimed at combating substance abuse and mental health issues can go to secular, evidence-based programs, such as SMART Recovery and LifeRing. Many areas do not have adequate access to secular recovery programs, in large part due to a lack of funding and awareness.

If this measure passes, secular recovery organizations will be available to millions of people, thanks to the billions of federal dollars that are being dedicated to fighting the addiction crisis. This would be a monumental boon to these underfunded programs. Access to these programs will provide reliable recovery resources to those in need and provide more options than religious-based services.

Although this is a major victory, the request has not yet been passed. The measure must still be passed by the Senate and signed into law by the president.

FFRF victories (Nov. 2019)

By Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey

California

A religious song will no longer be a part of graduation ceremonies at Delano Joint Union High School.

A community member reported that Cesar E. Chavez High School’s Titan Choir has performed John Rutter’s 1981 composition “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” at commencement for at least the last 10 years. The song is a prayer set to music, FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell pointed out to the district. The lyrics to this song come directly from the biblical “Priestly Blessing” (Numbers 6:24-26), a biblical benediction of sacred importance in Christian worship.

“This piece will not be a part of future graduation ceremonies,” Superintendent Jason Garcia informed FFRF in a response letter. “Additionally, staff members have been instructed not to use this piece, to select other musical works of appropriate solemnity for this portion of the graduation ceremony and to clear the selection in the future with district administration.”

Colorado

A religious display has been removed from Pomona High School in Arvada after FFRF illuminated the issue.

An area resident reported that a school resource officer at the district displayed a crucifix on the wall of his office. The complainant was made aware of this violation after the Denver Post included a photo of the officer with the crucifix in his office this past June.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line sent a letter to the district urging it to ensure the crucifix is removed and that school officials are not impermissibly endorsing their personal religious beliefs to students. According to a response letter from the district’s attorney, the officer has removed the cross from his office.

Colorado

A Harrison Schools District Two parent reported to FFRF that during a back-to-school event, Sand Creek International Elementary in Colorado Springs handed out packets that depicted students who were wearing various Christian symbols, including a fish with the word “Jesus” and several Latin crosses.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the district urging it to refrain from handing out materials that include religious messages or iconography, pointing out the district’s constitutional obligation to protect the rights of conscience of impressionable students. The district responded by email informing FFRF that the issue has been rectified and will not occur again.

Florida

A Florida school district has taken action to address unconstitutional prayer at official staff events following a complaint from FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line.

A district employee reported to FFRF that Jill Kolasa, director of student services at Hernando County Schools, regularly led staff members in prayer at official district meetings and functions. She apparently had acknowledged that she doesn’t know what everyone’s beliefs are, but that she nonetheless asked everyone to bow their heads while she and other staff members led a prayer. The complainant reported that they feared they would be discriminated against if they had left during the prayers or reported this violation themselves. The district’s attorney sent a letter of response to FFRF, assuring that the district has taken appropriate action to address these concerns.

Georgia

The Harris County School District in Georgia has addressed protocol for school visitors after FFRF took issue with a religious leader proselytizing to students during school hours. 

A district parent reported that a man called “Pastor Trey” from Cascade Hills Church was regularly visiting lunchrooms in the district, sitting down with students and asking them about where they go to church and inviting them to attend his youth group. The complainant reported that Pastor Trey makes their child very uncomfortable and that they try not to be noticed by him.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to district Superintendent Roger Couch, informing him that the district cannot allow non-school persons to treat schools as a recruiting ground for their religious mission. Couch assures FFRF that “the appropriate protocols for visitors, parents and volunteers are being addressed to maintain a safe and orderly school climate free of carte blanche access to minors in public schools.”

Iowa

A religious sign has been removed from Bettendorf Police Department property following a complaint from FFRF.

A local resident reported that the department was permanently displaying a bible quote —  “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” — Matthew 5:9” — in its patrol briefing room. This religious display was unveiled on the official Bettendorf Police Department Facebook page.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to the department, pointing out the constitutional issues with branding its property with this explicitly Christian message, excluding both staff and community members who do not adhere to these religious beliefs. After receiving the letter, Chief Keith T. Kimball responded to FFRF via email with assurances that the wooden sign along with the accompanying social media post had been immediately removed.

Kentucky

A Harrison County Schools principal has removed a bible quote from his email signature following the advice of FFRF.

A Harrison County Middle Schools parent reported to FFRF that the school principal included the bible passage “Fear of the Lord teaches wisdom; humility precedes honor. — Psalm 15:33” in official emails he sent on behalf of Harrison County Schools.

FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell wrote to district Superintendent Harry Burchett, reminding the district of its obligation to ensure that employees do not use their official position to proselytize to students. The school district’s attorney has since assured FFRF the bible quote has been removed from the principal’s signature.

Louisiana

Future Iberville Parish School Board staff programs will no longer include prayer, thanks to FFRF.

A district community member reported that a school-sponsored graduation ceremony was organized to include an opening prayer from the Rev.Clyde McNell Sr., a pastor at the Pilgrim Baptist Church, and a blessing of food from a district employee.

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover reminded the district that scheduling prayers at district events is unconstitutional. Superintendent Arthur Joffrion responded to FFRF’s complaint.

“The Iberville Parish School Board takes its obligations under the First Amendment seriously,” Joffrion wrote. “As a result, we have carefully reviewed the issues raised in your letter. In light of those concerns, we intend to address the permissibility of future program content with the appropriate program staff.”

Missouri

Prayer has been permanently discontinued at a Licking, Mo., district’s staff meetings after FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line pointed out the constitutional issues with such district-sponsored religious messaging.

A district staff member reported that the district held a staff meeting at Licking High School at which one pastor in attendance was asked to stand in front of the school staff and give a Christian prayer. The school superintendent provided the pastor with a microphone and the pastor requested that staff bow their heads before reciting a prayer. Once the prayer was complete, the superintendent spoke to the staff about the role local pastors played in providing vacation bible school for district students to attend.

The district’s attorney sent a response to inform FFRF that the prayer offered at the beginning of the meeting has been “permanently discontinued.”

Ohio

Claymont City Schools in Dennison, Ohio, will implement a new policy regarding student speeches at graduation after attendees were subjected to a Christian prayer at this year’s commencement.

An area resident and former Claymont student reported that each year Claymont High School includes a prayer as an official part of the graduation ceremony. This year, it was titled “Farewell to Seniors Speech,” but was clearly a Christian prayer with blatantly religious content.

The school’s attorneys informed FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line that while this year’s speech was solely initiated and led by the student speaker, with no previous approval from the district, in the future the content of speeches will need to be submitted and approved by district officials.

Tennessee

FFRF has persuaded Cumberland County Schools in Tennessee to hold a district-wide training event regarding the permissibility of religious displays in schools after getting several complaints from community members.

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line has written to the district multiple times about religious displays in schools, most recently regarding bible quotes on a classroom wall at Stone Memorial High School. A student reported to FFRF that a teacher has “Fight the good fight of FAITH — 1 Timothy 6:12,” “I press on toward the goal — Phil. 3:14,” and “Pray, because you are not the center of the universe.”

The district’s attorney sent a response informing FFRF that Principal Scott Maddux instructed the teacher to remove the posters that contained the biblical verses from his room. Additionally, the attorney noted plans to have conducted a training on these issues before the start of this school year.

Wisconsin

A teacher in the La Crosse School District has been reminded of the obligation to remain neutral on matters of religion after FFRF objected to his appearance in a Fellowship of Christian Athletes promotional video.

FFRF was made aware that a Central High School employee appeared in an FCA promotional video, introducing himself as a teacher and coach at the school before discussing his “relationship with Jesus Christ” and his intent to start his own FCA club soon.

FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne wrote to District Superintendent Randy W. Nelson, reminding the district that teachers may not lead student religious groups and asked for written assurances that no employees, including this teacher, will be permitted to found or lead religious student organizations in the school district of La Crosse. Nelson sent a gracious response, thanking FFRF for informing him of the teacher’s involvement in the video.

“Please be assured, while none of our secondary schools currently have FCA clubs, we recognize any formation of such clubs would need to be student initiated and voluntary,” Nelson wrote. “We have followed up with this new employee to ensure that he understands he may not organize, direct or conduct such clubs in the district.”

Abbott vs. FFRF case heard by 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover is pictured outside the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, after delivering oral arguments in the lawsuit Abbott v. FFRF on Oct. 10. He was accompanied by Richard L. Bolton, the outside litigator working with FFRF on the case, who took this photo. Grover defended FFRF’s victory in its challenge of censorship by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who had ordered the removal of FFRF’s famous “Bill of Rights Nativity” display from the Texas state Capitol, while permitting a Christian nativity display to continue.

FFRF’s whimsical cut-out display shows three Founding Fathers and the

FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover

Statue of Liberty celebrating the “birth” of the Bill of Rights, which occurred on Dec. 15, 1791. A federal district judge ruled in FFRF’s favor in June 2018. Abbott appealed the case on what FFRF considers to be a flimsy argument based on a technicality: that the presiding judge used past-tense language in his decision declaring that Abbott had abrogated FFRF’s free speech rights. Meanwhile, FFRF also appealed a law that Abbott had cited in censoring FFRF’s display, requiring that displays in the Capitol serve a “public purpose.” FFRF argues that the law is unconstitutionally vague, and grants unbridled discretion to the governor.

The three-judge appellate panel that heard the case, was comprised of  these federal judges: Senior Judge W. Eugene Davis, a Reagan appointee, Judge James E. Graves, Jr., an Obama appointee and Judge Stephen A. Higginson, also an Obama appointee.