At last! N.J. county ordered to pay FFRF in church funding case

A year after the Freedom From Religion Foundation won a resounding victory halting millions in tax dollars flowing unconstitutionally to repair churches in Morris County, N.J., a judge finally ruled on May 11 that FFRF and its attorneys are entitled to attorneys’ fees.

FFRF and its local member David Steketee filed suit in December 2015 seeking to stop Morris County from issuing further historic preservation grants to churches after it awarded $4.6 million in tax dollars to repair 12 churches.

More than half of its total trust fund assets had been bestowed on churches, including $1.04 million in allocations to the Presbyterian Church in Morristown to allow “continued use by our congregation for worship services.”

FFRF’s win ultimately may save New Jersey taxpayers millions of dollars, even hundreds of millions over the next decade, since the grants to churches may have proceeded in a similar vein in all 21 counties.

The grants violate Article I, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution, guaranteeing: “nor shall any person be obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary to what he believes to be right.”

The complicated case, with many judicial maneuverings, resulted in a strong unanimous decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court in April 2018, ruling the public funding of churches unconstitutional.

The county sought to appeal that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied its petition in March 2019. Despite this resounding loss at the country’s highest court level, the county then filed an outrageous request in federal court in April 2019, not only seeking to enjoin the plaintiffs from recovering attorneys’ fees, but also to resume the unconstitutional grant program. The district court granted FFRF’s motion to dismiss the county’s legal request in December 2019.

Finally, the Superior Court of New Jersey has ordered a total of $217,949.15 to FFRF’s attorneys, including $124,687.50 to outside counsel Paul Grosswald and $28,875 to constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, who defended FFRF at the Supreme Court level. FFRF was reimbursed the remainder for the work of its staff attorneys Andrew L. Seidel and Ryan Jayne.

FFRF seeks summary judgment against council prayer

FFRF has filed a motion for summary judgment against a West Virginia city’s unconstitutional prayer practice.

FFRF and two of its local members sued the city of Parkersburg, W.Va., in 2018 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, to challenge the City Council’s formal recitation of the Christian “Lord’s Prayer” to officially open every City Council meeting. The recited version is a biblical translation of Matthew 6:9–13 and concludes with a Christian doxology. Council members lead the prayer and are joined by city residents at each meeting in reciting it. FFRF charges that the prayers violate well-established law and exclude residents who are non-Christian.

“The practice continues today in the face of plaintiffs’ objections and well-established law barring legislators from reciting prayers from exclusively one faith in local government meetings,” the brief states. “Through its commitment to this practice and tradition, Parkersburg has essentially adopted the Lord’s Prayer as the official prayer of the city.”

“To non-Christians, the practice conveys a message of exclusion to plaintiffs,” the brief adds. “The influence of elected officials — vested with the legislative and policy-making authority of the city — leading a communal recitation of a doctrinal Christian prayer pressures plaintiffs to participate. As a result, plaintiffs have withdrawn from attending public meetings, though they remain interested in taking part in their local government.”

The city of Parkersburg has filed a brief of its own in response, asking for judgment in the city’s favor.

The local plaintiffs include Daryl Cobranchi, who in the past had frequently attended meetings and been directed to stand for the Lord’s Prayer, a practice, he notes, that has made him conspicuous by his nonparticipation and which “assigns to second-class status anyone who is not Christian.” Likewise, Eric Engle, also a Parkersburg resident, follows city matters and has felt uncomfortable and pressured to participate in the Christian prayer during public meetings.

At least one member of the City Council has been openly hostile to nonparticipants, the lawsuit charges. Councilman Eric Barber glared at attendees who sat during the prayer at a meeting. At the end of that prayer, Barber positioned himself near his microphone, pressed the button, and shouted, “Amen.”

The 4th U.S. Court of Appeals held in 2017 that sectarian legislator-led prayers were unconstitutional in the case Lund v. Rowan County, N.C. The opinion said, “The principle at stake here may be a profound one, but it is also simple. The Establishment Clause does not permit a seat of government to wrap itself in a single faith.” Given the similarities between Parkersburg’s prayer practice and the Rowan County practice struck down by the 4th Circuit, Lund controls this case, FFRF asserts. Most importantly, both cases involve prayers promoting a single faith delivered exclusively by lawmakers year after year.

Because the city of Parkersburg is in fact promoting a single faith, the plaintiffs are entitled to judgment in their favor, FFRF concludes. FFRF seeks a permanent judicial injunction enjoining the inclusion of the Lord’s Prayer as a ceremonial prelude to Parkersburg meetings. In addition, FFRF asserts, plaintiffs are entitled to nominal damages for their past injuries arising from the city’s prayer practice.

Cross removed from Illinois city mural

FFRF was successful in persuading the city of Effingham, Ill., to remove an image of a cross from a mural outside a tunnel under a street overpass facing a school. The removal occurred around May 23, according to the Effingham Daily News.

Painted in 2001, the city mural previously showed an American flag with a white Latin cross with light emanating from it. FFRF sent a letter Dec. 18 to Mayor Mike Schutzbach after hearing about it from a concerned citizen.

Effingham mural without the Latin cross. (Submitted photo)

In memoriam: Jan Brazill was advocate for women’s issues

Jan Brazill

Longtime FFRF Member Jan Brazill died on May 15 in Denver at age 93.

Jan was a frequent contributor to the pages of Freethought Today. In one column, she wrote: “A world without religion could concentrate on the greater good for humanity, employing science and logic rather than dogma. The time, energy and resources now expended on religion could be devoted to preserving our fragile environment for future generations and ensuring that every individual has the means to experience the fullness of the life we’re given.”

She was born to a farming family in Rosen, Ohio, on Nov. 27, 1926. She was the fourth and youngest child with two older sisters and a brother. After high school, her sisters entered secretarial school, but Jan enrolled in college as an English major at a time when not many women took that route.

After college, she took a summer job in Bar Harbor, Maine, on a lark and met and fell in love with Bob Kenney. They had a daughter, Barbara, their only child. Jan became a single parent in the mid-1950s, going to work in the transportation office at Dow Air Force Base in Bangor, Maine. She loved going to the ocean, particularly Acadia National Park, to explore the tidal pools or feed the sea gulls.

She married again in 1962 to George Brazill, and when Dow Air Force Base closed, the family moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., where she worked at the Air Force Academy as a computer programmer/systems analyst in the early days of computing. She was known for her strong work ethic and persistence when approaching computer problems, often serving as the go-to person for program “bugs.”

Jan always had an adventuresome spirit. She and her husband went to Germany in 1981 for four years, where she worked for NATO and traveled at every opportunity.

After her husband had a heart attack, she relocated with him to El Paso, Texas, to live at a lower altitude. There, Jan became active in liberal causes, especially those that dealt with women’s issues. When George’s health improved, they returned to Colorado Springs and Jan retired from civil service.

She and George moved to the Inn at Garden Plaza in 2009. Jan took on many tasks in retirement. She wrote countless letters to the editor in support of what she believed in and was a columnist for the Freethinkers magazine. She was a strong supporter of women’s choice and volunteered at Planned Parenthood with her husband for escort duty.

Jan was a champion of rational thinking and being informed. She facilitated the Inn’s Philosophical Café sessions on Wednesday mornings, researching and presenting information on issues of the moment, especially dealing with political, scientific and environmental topics. The Café was one of the highlights of her week.

She played dominoes and bridge and read vociferously. Generous with her time and attention, she loved to sit with friends over a glass of wine at the inn. Jan was a good listener, always eager to have a spirited conversation.

“Dan and I, who met and corresponded with Jan for many years, as did FFRF founder Anne Gaylor, were very sad to learn of Jan’s death,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF’s co-president. “She was an FFRF member since 1979, who ardently supported women’s right to be free from religious control.”

Mark Dann: The doctor might not see you, even in a pandemic

Mark Dann

By Mark Dann

You perhaps have a medical horror story — probably more so in these times. Now picture your situation made much worse due to religious bigotry.

When I was in the emergency room with my husband, it was one of the worst days of my life. He was losing sight in one of his eyes, which was restored after a week of intense treatments. Think about how agonizing the process was, even with a team of dedicated, honest, hard-working professionals. Then, imagine a medical worker, system or administrator deciding to stop treating you because of a religious objection to your very existence.

The Trump administration has taken extraordinary measures to weaponize religious freedom (as envisioned with the Denial of Care Rule), using it to justify discrimination, advance Christian Nationalism and erode the separation of state and church.

First, Trump signed Executive Order 13798 in May 2017, requiring federal agencies to expand religious exemptions wherever possible. Then the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative executes that order. Agencies have responded by establishing divisions such as the Religious Liberty Task Force at the Justice Department, the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division at Health and Human Services, and the Commission on Unalienable Rights at the State Department. These divisions have pushed numerous regulations designed to promote Christian Nationalism and a legal avenue for discrimination. 

At a recent House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee hearing on “The Administration’s Religious Liberty Assault on LGBTQ Rights,” Evan Minton from California testified about how he was denied critical care at the Mercy San Juan Medical Center near Sacramento because of his gender transition. Minton remembers “being so devastated that I collapsed to the ground, I felt distraught and helpless that the hospital was refusing to treat me simply because of who I am.”

Minton’s story is becoming common in the Trump era. There’s the Miracle Hill Adoption case in South Carolina, for example, among many instances of religion-based discrimination in employment and health care. This type of intolerance is setting up a “separate but equal” system of legalized discrimination in the distribution of public services that allows publicly funded departments and service providers to pick and choose which members of the public they want to serve (the right kind of Christians) and which ones they don’t (everyone else).

The pro-secular majority in the House is pushing back. It is advancing the Do No Harm Act that would ban religious exemptions for publicly funded services. Congress is asserting itself in the budget and appropriations process. Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., is calling for the Christian Nationalist policy division at the Department of Health and Human Services to be defunded. The Congressional Freethought Caucus co-chairs, Reps. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., and Jamie Raskin, D-Md., are calling for strong nondiscrimination language to be inserted into the non-defense appropriations bills and to deny funding for regulations and entities within departments that seek to discriminate using the guise of religious liberty.

The best protection against the Christian Nationalist agenda and religious exemptions is for it to be soundly rejected. If not, picture, in the near future, the worst day you are having, in an emergency room, in a medical system rife with religious exemptions, and then the humiliation and dire consequences of being told to go somewhere else.

Now, imagine there’s a pandemic.

Mark Dann is the director of governmental affairs for FFRF.

Protesters gassed for Trump church photo

Steve Benson cartoon

Talk about theocratically clearing the stage.

On June 2, without any warning, federal officers dispersed rubber bullets and tear gas into a crowd of peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square next to the White House — to empty the area so that President Trump could take part in a pandering photo-op at a church.

Video footage has caught the terror and cries of alarm by the peaceful demonstrators as they were suddenly set upon. Explosions sounded and demonstrators cried out. After the police dispersed the protesters, Trump self-righteously walked to St. John’s Episcopal Church, across from the White House, where he piously stood silently, displaying “a bible.” (When a member of the media asked him, “Is that your bible,” Trump replied, “It’s a bible.”) Trump was holding the bible upside down.

The bible has for far too long been used as a weapon of white supremacy. U.S. slaveowners were able to turn to this “holy” book containing many verses ordering or sanctifying slavery to justify its long, shameful reign in America.

For instance, Leviticus 25:44-46 promises: “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves . . . and they will become your property. You can . . . make them slaves for life.” This is not just a “passage from the bible.” It is supposedly “God’s word.” (FFRF’s website catalogs other pro-slavery biblical edicts from Dan Barker’s book, God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction.)

The violence took place almost immediately after Trump had delivered a speech in the Rose Garden threatening to deploy the U.S. military if public officials didn’t take action to “dominate the streets.”

Rev. Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, has publicly condemned Trump’s visit. “I am outraged,” Budde told the Washington Post, noting Trump did not give her notice or ask for permission to visit the church. “Everything he has said and done is to inflame violence,” Budd said.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, head of the denomination, had his own criticism of Trump for using “a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes.”

FFRF is adding its freethinking voice to the chorus condemning the president.

“We have seen a lot of pandemic pandering from various governors and the White House,” says Dan Barker, FFRF co-president. “But it was shocking to see a president jeopardize the safety and well-being of his fellow Americans just so that he could engage in theocratic posturing.”

FFRF convention 2020 update

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the status of FFRF’s 2020 national convention in San Antonio the weekend of Nov. 13-15 is to be determined.

FFRF hopes to have a definitive announcement later this summer about whether it will hold the convention.

Registration for the convention has been suspended until that decision has been made.   

If the convention is canceled, there will be full refunds. We discourage members from making hotel reservations and flight arrangements until final decisions are announced. Please check future issues of Freethought Today for more information on this evolving situation.

Caption contest (June/July 2020)

Caption contest

Here is the June/July FFRF caption contest. To enter, please write a witty or humorous caption for this photo. Email your response to [email protected].org by July 8. The winner, chosen by FFRF staff, will receive an FFRF T-shirt! We will announce the winner and runners-up in the August issue. If you’ve taken any photos that you think would be good for this contest, send them to [email protected].

Overheard (June/July 2020)

It was during a hearing on a bill that’s being pushed across the country to mandate “In God We Trust” displays in our public schools. Instead of talking about religious pluralism and separation of church and state, several Education Committee members decided to display their ignorance and hold a trial for evolution.

The bill in question may seem small, but it’s part of a nationwide effort to reshape our nation’s history while opening the door for things like anti-LGBTQ bigotry.

Joseph Couch, who is running for a Nebraska state Senate seat, under the “Why Am I Running?” section of his website.

JosephCouch.com


“Broadly and generically, I am not a regular church-attender. I have evolved into less a Roman Catholic religion person to someone who tries to keep a degree of spirituality about them. I look upon myself as a humanist. I have faith in the goodness of mankind.” Is that still accurate?

By “Q&A” interviewer Brian Lamb, repeating what Dr. Anthony Fauci had said previously regarding his religious leanings. Fauci responded, “Totally accurate today.” 

C-SPAN, 5-4-20


On the one hand, churches argue that the free exercise clause of the First Amendment entitles them to special exemptions from stay-at-home orders. On the other hand, they also assert that churches can and must be treated just like nonreligious organizations when it comes to taxpayer funding.

Nelson Tebbe, Micah Schwartzman and Richard Schragger in the article, “Churches have been hypocritical during the pandemic.”

Washington Post, 5-13-20

FFRF welcomes 17 new Lifers

FFRF welcomes and thanks its 17 new Lifetime Members. The newest $1,000 Lifetime Members are John Bocek, Linda Bocek, Dr. Richard R. Crowder, Carol Cubbage, Mary Duchinsky, Christopher Grove, Mary Hand, Cathi Harding, Kathy Hudson, Joseph R. Irvine, Judith Johns, Candelaria Leyvas, Meg Mahoney, Jason Massey, J.M. Nelson, Todd Shreve and Stephen Warren.

States represented are Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington as well as British Columbia, Canada.