All hail FFRF’s victory!

This license plate was eventually allowed by the Alabama Motor Vehicle Division after FFRF intervened.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has obtained a victory for secularism and free speech in Alabama.

An Alabama resident contacted the state/church watchdog after being told that a request for a personalized “S8TAN” plate was “offensive to the peace and dignity of the state of Alabama” and would not be issued. The individual had been given a temporary plate for a couple of months, but then the Motor Vehicle Division in the Alabama Department of Revenue sent a letter refusing the plate.

Alabama’s regulations concerning the wording of personalized plates are unconstitutional, FFRF informed the Alabama Motor Vehicle Division. Just last year, FFRF and the ACLU of Kentucky won a three-year legal battle on behalf of a Kentucky resident who was denied a license plate saying, “IM GOD.” The state of Kentucky was ordered to pay more than $150,000 in attorneys fees as a result of defending its unconstitutional conduct.

“The Motor Vehicle Division’s restriction of the message because of the viewpoint being expressed violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Alabama Motor Vehicle Division Director Jay Starling. “The Supreme Court has continually struck down viewpoint discrimination by the government.”

FFRF recently learned from its complainant that its communication with the state of Alabama had an effect and that a triumph for free speech was indeed achieved.

“My husband and I are members of The Satanic Temple; its fundamental tenets fit with what we believe,” the person emailed FFRF. “The state of Alabama has no business judging us for our or anyone else’s beliefs.”

The Satanic Temple functions as a secular group that works in part to promote the separation of state and church.

“Some of the reasons we choose ‘S8TAN’ are that it represents to us freethinking, standing for rights, opposing injustice, common sense, belief in science, protecting other’s rights, compassion towards others, treating people with dignity and respect,” says FFRF’s complainant.

FFRF is pleased at ensuring equal protection of viewpoints on license plates in Alabama, where religious messages are permitted.

“Our complainant learned that folks at the Alabama Motor Vehicle Division laughed and said that ‘S8TAN’ would never be on a tag in the state of Alabama,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Now look who is having the last laugh.”

Trisha Ahmed: ‘Getting better is taking me so long, Dad’

Avijit Roy, center, who was murdered six years ago by religious extremists, stands with his wife Bonya Ahmed, right, and step-daughter Trisha in Peru in 2014.

Avijit Roy was killed six years ago in a machete attack in Bangladesh

This article first appeared in the Baltimore Sun on March 1 and is reprinted with permission.

By Trisha Ahmed

My stepfather, Avijit Roy, was a Bangladeshi-American writer and engineer. While visiting Bangladesh, he was violently attacked with machetes and murdered on the street, as he left a book fair with my mother, Bonya Ahmed, who was also attacked and suffered life-threatening wounds. This happened six years ago. Ten days prior to this distressing anniversary, five of the attackers, members of a terrorist group inspired by al-Qaida, were sentenced to death in a Bangladeshi court.

This verdict does not bring me closure — so many questions about the forces underlying his murder remain unanswered. If I could talk with my dad today, this is what I would say.

Dear Dad,

People took pictures of you after the attack. One photo shows your glasses and a chunk of your brain, lying in a pool of your blood on the pavement. I think of this image every few months.

But in the days leading up to the verdict in your murder (yes, it took almost six years for Bangladesh to hear your case in court), I couldn’t stop thinking about your glasses on the ground.

I’m no better at drawing now than I was when you were alive, but I sketched your glasses on a piece of paper. I drew all sorts of sights around D.C. into the lenses of those paper frames: monuments, memorials and other places you’ll never know. I pass by them every day now, as a D.C.-based graduate student at the University of Maryland focusing on investigative journalism.

America doesn’t seem to care much for journalists now. Neither does Bangladesh. But if you were around, I hope you would say: “Journalist? That’s even better than a scientist!”

Which means I didn’t become the scientist you were so excited for me to be.

I couldn’t commit to it after what happened to you. To deal with the trauma of losing you and nearly losing Maa, I became obsessed with other people’s stories. I started collecting them in Baltimore as an undergrad at Johns Hopkins, and then all over America, finding that so many others are also dealing with fathers, brothers, cousins and friends being killed.

You should know that you changed the world, Dad. People marched in the streets for you. Millions of people learned your name. I’m sure you would ask me, excitedly: “Does that mean the world is more rational now?”

I don’t think so.

After you died, the attacks continued. Your attackers were affiliated with a

group known as “al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent.” They didn’t like what you wrote about science and secularism.

In the months after your death, extremists killed your friends. And your publisher. And a bunch of other people you didn’t know. The attacks were graphic, with machetes and ISIS videos and witnesses who might never forget seeing their partners die.

I’m realizing now, after six years, that the news of each murder gashed fresh wounds into scars that were not done healing for you. Getting better is taking me so long, Dad. I’m still mourning you, but also them.

On Feb. 16, some of your attackers were sentenced to death. Knowing they’re going to die doesn’t make me feel better about losing you. Their loved ones will mourn them too.

Though these five were charged with carrying out your attack, so many more were involved in the planning, execution and silencing of Bangladeshi bloggers. Some orchestrators have never been caught, or even identified. After the verdict, Maa asked questions I wish could answer: Where are the masterminds of the attack? Why was one leader killed in police custody, years before the trial?

“Money used to flow in to kill bloggers, publishers and [gay people]” in Bangladesh, one of your publisher’s attackers confessed. So, who funded your murder?

I thought, if the Bangladeshi investigators don’t have answers, then maybe journalists will. Unfortunately, Bangladesh — like many countries now — is imprisoning journalists for speaking out.

Just last year, Bangladeshi journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol mysteriously disappeared for 53 days after criticizing a government official’s alleged sex-trafficking involvement. When he resurfaced, Kajol was then sentenced to seven years in prison, under Bangladesh’s controversial 2018 Digital Security Act, which restricts free speech. Two other journalists were jailed in May under the same law.

Thankfully, Kajol had a kid, who fought for his father’s release and gained international attention. Kajol was released from jail after seven months, instead of seven years.

Cases like his and yours, which are only the tip of the iceberg, keep me up at night. When I finally sleep, you tend to die. I still wake from violent dreams and feel tired all day, desperate for rest. I might have actually forgotten how to rest. But maybe, like you, I’ve never known how.

I remember your late nights writing, your determination to change minds — but most vividly, I remember your songs. When you couldn’t get topics you were writing about, like “intelligent design,” out of your head, you’d turn those words into loud, belted-out tunes. I remember us dancing to them. I wonder, if you were here now, would you still be singing and dancing with me?

There’s little point pondering hypotheticals. But one hypothesis comforts me: As long as there are people like Kajol’s son and your daughter, the world will be forced to provide answers — as we bend societies toward your vision of rationality, of equity, of peace.

Trisha Ahmed is a graduate student at the University of Maryland and reporter at the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism.

FFRF stops prayer by school boards in Indiana and Pa.

School boards in Pennsylvania and Indiana have discontinued injecting religion into their board meetings due to intervention by FFRF.

A concerned Montrose Area School District community member in Pennsylvania alerted the state/church watchdog that the school board had a practice of opening every meeting with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer following the Pledge of Allegiance. Additionally, all nine members of the board were reportedly participating in reciting this Christian prayer, during which students were sometimes present.

And in Indiana, the Griffith Public Schools Board of Trustees opened each of its meetings with a prayer led by a member of the board or a guest, including clergy.

In the Pennsylvania case, FFRF attorney Madeline Ziegler sent a letter to Superintendent Christopher McComb, alerting the district to the unconstitutionality of beginning official district meetings with prayer, especially when students are present.McComb informed FFRF via email that “this practice has ceased and will no longer continue.”

And in Indiana, in an email to FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald, the school board president acknowledged FFRF’s role in the policy change.

“We have concluded that it would be in the best interest of the school district to offer up a moment of silence in lieu of prayer,” wrote School Board President Kathy Ruesken.

The local newspaper reported, “As a reaction to court opinions and a letter from that watchdog group, the board unanimously eliminated the prayer in favor of being neutral with a moment of silence so people can contemplate whatever they wish.”

Meet a staffer: FFRF’s McDonald relishes working on the front lines

Joseph McDonald

Name: Joseph F. McDonald

Where and when I was born: Madison, Wis., in 1991.

Education: All from UW-Madison — B.A. in psychology, ’14; B.A. in social welfare, ’14; Global Health Certificate, ’14; Master of Public Health, ’20; Juris Doctor, ’20.

Family: I am the second youngest of six children.

How I came to work at FFRF: I was, and still am, teaching public education and law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when my mentor let me know that FFRF was hiring a legal fellow.

What I do here: I am the Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow. I primarily have the great privilege of advocating on behalf of members and nonmembers by writing letters to individuals and organizations who have violated the Constitution. I also work on various legal projects in our litigation and legal education teams.

What I like best about it: Not only do I get to advance the things that I believe in, but I also get to advocate for real people. Law school can be an exhaustingly hypothetical playhouse. FFRF’s attorneys, leadership and members make the legal landscape real and I get to be on the frontlines as a legal advocate.

What gets old about it: Working remotely! I know it’s not an inherent part of the job, but it is real, nonetheless. I started with FFRF remotely and I’ve only met a handful of people in-person. I’m excited for the world to get vaccinated so that we can return to the office.

Working from home has been: Exhausting! It’s by far the toughest part of the job. I’m a very person-centered advocate, so when I can’t discuss grievances and gripes in-person with my fellow attorneys, it makes the work all the more difficult.

I spend a lot of time thinking about: Whether I should exercise first or read. It is quite the morning dilemma. I then seem to default to wondering why I got a kitten as she attempts to bite my feet, which is normally how I start my day.

I spend little if any time thinking about: It’s counterintuitive to think about something to then say I don’t think about it. But something I scarcely think about? Harry Belafonte. Yeah, that seems random enough.

My religious upbringing was: I grew up attending a Christian African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. I attended Sunday school and sang in the choir.

My doubts about religion started: Pretty young. I’d say 8 years old. I started to see how people would treat certain folks in the church differently and even tell me not to associate with certain other children. But we were all members of the same church. And, over time, I understood that church was just a social club and religion was the arbitrary social rulebook. By the time I was 13, I realized it had little to do with goodness, but a lot to do with social order and money.

Things I like: Napping in a canoe on the lake in the summer sun.

Things I smite: People who assume their own rightness without ever challenging their own assumptions.

In my golden years: Assuming we’re talking about the crest of life and not the classic David Bowie song, I’d like to spend my time leading students on outdoor retreats.

Meet a member: Executive Board member passionate on state/church separation

Todd Peissig sells chances to win “clean money” (without “In God We Trust” on it) during the FFRF convention in Madison, Wis., in 2019.
(Photo by Ingrid Laas)
FFRF Board Member Todd Peissig

Name: Todd Peissig

Where I live: Medford, Wis.

Where and when I was born: Milwaukee in 1966.

Family: Mother, father and one sister — all atheists and all members of FFRF.

Education: Bachelor of science degree in pharmacy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Why I volunteer for FFRF: I am passionate about state/church separation issues. Church violations do a tremendous amount of damage to many people. I was personally affected for many years, not being able to marry the person I love because same-sex marriage was NOT the law until 2015, all because it was opposed by the Religious Right.

What I do for FFRF: I am an FFRF Executive Board member, and we meet several times per year making  important decisions on the running of the organization and its employees, which is not only fascinating, but also very fulfilling.

What I like best about it: A very enjoyable part of my volunteering is getting to run the “clean money” raffles, along with my partner Eric, at the annual FFRF conventions. However, I consider it a privilege to be just a small part of FFRF, helping it to fight the battles of the state/church violations.

My religious upbringing was: My family was never deeply religious, however, my mother always thought attending church was important only because it was the “thing to do,” since most people where we lived attended church. She eventually realized the uselessness of church and now calls herself an atheist and, along with my father, is a proud Life Member of FFRF.

My doubts about religion started: As I made my way through middle school, then high school I became fascinated with science and realized that the religious teachings made no sense and many were, in fact, factually impossible. By the time I was 18 years old, I asked my parents if I could stop going to church and they were liberal enough to let me make my own decision.

So, I never stepped foot in a church again.

Three words that sum me up: Inquisitive, skeptical and passionate.

Person in history I admire and why: Michelangelo was an Italian sculptor, painter, architect and poet. He seems like he was extremely intelligent and a truly enlightened man for his time. In his lifetime, he was often referred to as Ill Divino (the Divine One) and it seems to me that if you are going to be “divine,” instilling a sense of awe in the eyes of your fellow man is one of the best ways you can accomplish it.

A quotation I like: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” — Voltaire

Things I like: FFRF, traveling all over the world with my partner, eating foods from different ethnic regions, reading, collecting art and antiquing.

Things I smite: State/church violations, right-wing politics, cold weather and desserts made with coconut.

Ways I promote freethought: Besides being a Life Member of FFRF, I am a member of several other freethought groups, always trying to educate myself on the current trends and issues. I always communicate freely with friends, family and co-workers my feelings on freethought issues and educate them on the harm that religion has caused humanity. I like to think that I may somehow “enlighten” them.

Erwin Chemerinsky: Why we need to reshape the federal judiciary

Judicial Doomsday clock, by Steve Benson

This article first appeared in The New York Times on Feb. 11 and is reprinted with permission.

By Erwin Chemerinsky

In just one term, the Trump administration reshaped the federal judiciary. Working closely with a Republican Senate, the Trump White House appointed more than a quarter of all active judges, including three Supreme Court justices and more than four dozen appeals court judges — 245 judges in all, more than other recent presidents in their first terms.

The judges have life tenure and are, by and large, relatively young. Seventy-six percent are men; 84 percent are white. And overwhelmingly, they are staunchly conservative. So, the impact on the federal courts will be significant and extend for decades.

Now that the Democrats have won back the White House and control of the Senate, the party must grab its opportunity and focus on nominating and confirming judges. It’s especially urgent because they have control over the Senate by a single vote, and it’s unclear if they will be able to maintain control after the midterm elections.

To that end, Justice Stephen Breyer should seriously consider stepping down from the Supreme Court in July 2021, at the end of the court’s current term. Justice Breyer will be 83 in August and has been a justice since his 1994 appointment by President Clinton. He should give President Biden the chance to replace him while the Senate is in Democratic hands.

The Senate’s majority leader, Chuck Schumer, must be at least as aggressive in the effort to reshape the judiciary as his Republican predecessor, Mitch McConnell, was. And McConnell was very aggressive. As his former Chief of Staff Josh Holmes put it: “McConnell knows that from a legacy point of view, from a view of center-right America, this is the most important thing you can do.”

The unfortunate fact is that Democrats have not always made filling judgeships a priority. Clinton took office in January 1993 with many unfilled judgeships. Two years later, when the Republicans took control of the Senate, many of those posts remained open. President Obama was also slow in appointing judges.

The Democrats should increase the number of District Court and Court of Appeals judgeships. Entirely apart from helping to restore ideological balance in the federal courts, this increase is desperately overdue. The last significant expansion in the federal judiciary was in 1990, when the Civil Justice Reform Act created 11 new circuit judgeships, 61 new district judgeships, and 13 temporary district judgeships.

Court filings have significantly increased since the last time some new federal judgeship posts were created.

Our courts have been in crisis as a result. From 1990 through the end of 2018, case filings in appeals courts grew by 15 percent and in District Courts by 39 percent.

For example, in the Eastern District of California, which covers the Central Valley up through Sacramento, no new judicial posts have been created in more than 40 years, even as the population of that district grew by more than 5.5 million people. Even before the effects of the pandemic, wait times for civil trials in the Eastern District of California were approaching five years and, for average people seeking relief, there seems to be little or no prospect of ever getting their cases resolved.

It can be nearly impossible for people to get their cases heard in many federal courts because of the colossal logjam of cases. District judges no longer have time to hear oral arguments in many cases. Litigants often are being told that they might want to consider other avenues, like arbitration. Those with deep pockets may be able to wait it out or pay for arbiters to resolve disputes privately, but for most Americans, the current situation is a huge barrier to ever getting justice.

Also, federal judges who are eligible for senior status should take it. Those judges can still handle cases, helping to increase the capacity of the federal judiciary. But by taking senior status, they would also open up their seats and give Democrats a chance to replace them. During the Obama presidency, a number of liberal appeals court judges declined to take senior status when they could have. When they eventually left the bench, it was too late for Democrats because Republicans had taken control of the Senate. President Trump appointed conservatives to take their place.

The importance of the federal courts cannot be overestimated. Criminal prosecutions, civil rights lawsuits, copyright and antitrust matters, claims of religious freedom and countless other matters flow through those chambers. Federal courts also address some of the most pressing problems of our times. They are the last protection against abuses by other branches of government.

The Democrats must make haste and follow the example of their Republican counterparts by making the federal judiciary their urgent priority.

Erwin Chemerinsky is the dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author, most recently, with Howard Gillman, of The Religion Clauses: The Case for Separating Church and State.

Overheard (April 2021)

No more hopes and prayers, thoughts and prayers. A vote is what we need, a vote, not thoughts and prayers.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, vowing that the Senate would vote on the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2021, which passed the House March 17 in a 227-203 vote.

Fox News, 3-17-21


I am being made a criminal for posting a f****ing photograph on Instagram. . . . We are going backwards in time, more backward thinking. It is a violation of the most basic human laws. . . . I don’t think the public know the details of the level of harassment I have been through. It is getting monstrous, and it is a growing tide of censorship and harassment.

Polish heavy-metal singer Adam “Nergal” Graski, after appealing a sentence for blasphemy after stepping on a photo of the Virgin Mary in an Instagram post.

The Irish Times, 2-24-21


It was not surprising that the majority of Pakistan chose to hail my father’s killer as a hero, as they are brainwashed into believing that blasphemy laws are essential to their existence.

Mashal Naseem, daughter of Tahir Naseem, the U.S. citizen who was murdered in Pakistan over blasphemy allegations.

Vice.com, 2-23-21


You used God to enslave my foreparents. You used God to segregate me in school. You used God to put me in the back of the bus. Have you no shame? . . . This is not about God. It’s about men who choose to discriminate against other people because they have the power to do so.

Rep. Al Green of New York, just prior to the U.S. House passing the Equality Act, in a speech targeted to Republicans who have claimed their religion led them to oppose civil rights protections for LGBTQ persons.

The Friendly Atheist, 2-27-21


The truth is, many conservative Christians embraced Rush Limbaugh because they had already embraced a faith that championed an us-vs.-them militancy, the denigration of liberals and feminists, the sexual objectification of women, an appreciation for coarse language and even violence when directed at the right targets, and a thinly veiled misogyny that kept women in their (God-given) place. . . . Crassness, callousness, righteous violence, and even sexual aggression are signs of God-given, testosterone-driven masculinity.

Kristin Kobes du Mez, in her article “No, Rush Limbaugh did not hack your parents’ Christianity.”

Religion Dispatches, 2-22-21


The case against “education savings accounts,” as those attempting to make vouchers seem more appealing call them, is not complicated. There is the issue of separation of church and state when sending taxpayer money to religious institutions. Private and charter schools don’t have to follow the same regulations that public schools do, leaving kids at risk.

Amy Moore, in an op-ed, “Iowa should renew its public schools, not abandon them.

Des Moines Register, 2-20-21


The Supreme Court has increasingly exempted religious believers from government regulations, and it is clear by their statements that individual justices on the right think religion is under siege in America.

Joan Biskupic, in the article, “Right-wing justices think religion is under siege. Will the full Supreme Court follow?”

CNN, 2-17-21


I’m actually not surprised that evangelicals are more likely to believe those kinds of things. Evangelicals are not socially isolated, but they are informationally isolated.

Samuel Perry, a professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma, about how the QAnon conspiracy theory takes hold among evangelicals more than others.

FiveThirtyEight.com, 3-4-21


Atheists, in general, are understudied. And when they are studied, they are not studied well.

David Speed, professor of psychology at the University of New Brunswick in St. John, Canada.

Religion News Service, 3-4-21

FFRF’s convention in Boston still TBD

But save the dates!

Weekend of Nov. 19-21 at Boston Park Hotel

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is cautiously optimistic that its 2021 national convention — scheduled for the weekend of Nov. 19-21 at the Boston Park Hotel, Boston — may take place. But, as Dr. Anthony Fauci wisely advises, we must “Let the science speak.”

FFRF, like the rest of the nation, awaits pandemic mitigation developments and advice, and hopes by mid or late summer to know whether a national conference will be practical and safe. FFRF encourages you to hold that weekend open, and will let you know as soon as we know whether we can hold a post-pandemic “bash” this year!

The amazing roster still includes authors Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem, John Irving, Katherine Stewart and Phil Zuckerman, entertainer John Davidson, Hispanic American Freethinkers’ founder David Tamayo, New York Times court columnist Linda Greenhouse and Black Skeptics Los Angeles founder Sikivu Hutchinson.

Look for updates and announcements in future issues of Freethought Today and on our website, ffrf.org/convo-2021.

We look forward to holding a post-pandemic celebratory bash with these powerhouse speakers and seeing you there, when it’s safe.

Please keep in mind future convention sites and dates: Hyatt Regency San Antonio Riverwalk, Oct. 28-30, 2022, and Monona Terrace Convention Center/Hilton Madison Monona Terrace, Oct. 13-15, 2023.

$3,700 donated to food bank by FFRF’s Denver Metro chapter

Claudette St.Pierre, president of the Denver Metro Chapter of FFRF and an FFRF State Representative, described how the Denver chapter again helped the Food Bank of the Rockies.

She writes: “Our chapter engages in some sort of community charity support every year. In the past, we have donated to Atheists Helping the Homeless, Denver Pride Fest, as well as the Food Bank of the Rockies.

“We had success with a spring Food Bank fundraiser last year when the pandemic was at its peak, so we thought with the winter surge and seeing that more and more folks were suffering from food insecurity, we decided to do another fundraiser. We want to show the community that nonbelievers are just as generous as the religious folks.

“It also helps our members participate in community support without having to ‘volunteer’ or go out of their bubble during the pandemic (we do have many members who are 65 and older). Our chapter matched funds dollar for dollar up to $2,000. We donated over $3,700! Our local members are very generous!”

The Food Bank of the Rockies said the monetary gift would be enough to provide nearly 15,000 meals.

Join the Thomas Paine Day event

Please join the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Freethought Society, the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, the Center for Inquiry and the American Humanist Association as we celebrate the 2021 Thomas Paine Day via Zoom on June 8.

Register at this site: bit.ly/2OLPG2a.

The program begins at 6:45 p.m. Eastern time with a 15-minute Thomas Paine-themed concert by songwriter and recording artist James Klueh.

Melissa Myers (representing Center for Inquiry) and Margaret Downey (representing Freethought Society) are the event co-hosts.

After an introductory statement from U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, a welcome message will be given by co-sponsors’ representatives Annie Laurie Gaylor, Robyn Blumner, Mandisa Thomas, Gary Berton and Downey.

A summary of the life and work of Thomas Paine will be presented in sections by Mandisa Thomas of AHA, Tom Flynn of CFI, Andrew Seidel of FFRF, Downey of FS and Berton of TPNHA.

Sculptor Zenos Frudakis will show the progress of the Thomas Paine statue project and Dan Barker, co-president of FFRF, will perform his original song “The World is My Country.”

After a short break, there will be a question-and-answer session to conclude the festivities.