Court: Judge can pray while case pending

Judge Mack

An appeals court has disappointingly issued a stay order in a case that the Freedom From Religion Foundation recently won over a praying Texas judge.

A panel of judges from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on July 9 ruled that a Texas judge could continue his courtroom prayers while his appeal is pending. FFRF and its attorney plaintiff “John Roe” have so far prevailed in the challenge of Judge Wayne Mack’s practice of hosting chaplains to deliver prayers to open court sessions.

On May 20, U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Hoyt ruled that the prayers were coercive and violated the Establishment Clause. The constitutionally sound decision had declared: “The court is of the view that the defendant violates the Establishment Clause when, before a captured audience of litigants and their counsel, he presents himself as theopneustically inspired, enabling him to advance, through the chaplaincy program, God’s ‘larger purpose.’ Such a magnanimous goal flies in the face of historical tradition, and makes a mockery of both religion and law.”

However, the stay order freezes that decision. Judge Andrew Oldham, a President Trump appointee, authored the July 9 opinion, which states, “The judge has made a strong showing that the district court erred.” The three-judge panel issued a stay of the district court’s order and found that Mack was likely to prevail on the merits.

“We are disheartened that people who have cases before Mack will continue to have to participate in unconstitutional prayers while this case proceeds,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The First Amendment must protect individuals from judges who wield their power to coerce participation in religious exercises.”

Mack, a formerly ordained minister who attended Jackson College of Ministries, made the unprecedented decision to solicit chaplains to open his court sessions with prayer, a practice not replicated by any other court in the country. Attendees have reported Mack surveying the courtroom during prayers, causing concern that their cases would be affected if they did not participate. Mack’s bailiff announced the prayers, stating that anyone could leave during the prayer, but then locked the courtroom doors. Mack entered, talked about his chaplaincy program, introduced a chaplain, and gave the name and location of the chaplain’s church. While everyone in the courtroom remained standing, the chaplain, who was almost always Christian, delivered a prayer, with no guidelines regarding permissible content.

The stay decision is not a final ruling on the case. Mack and FFRF will file briefs with the 5th Circuit on the appeal later this year.

FFRF and Roe are being represented by FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover, with FFRF Associate Counsel Elizabeth Cavell and Attorney Ayesha Khan of Washington, D.C., serving as co-counsel.

‘Freethought Matters’ is back on the air

Richard Dawkins will be a guest on the second episode of the ‘Freethought Matters’ fall season.

The 2021 season of FFRF’s lively TV show “Freethought Matters” debuts on Sept. 5 in 12 cities.

A “Best of” show begins the season with diverse highlights from previous seasons that you may have missed.

The following week (Sept. 12), FFRF hosts famed geneticist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist and author of the blockbuster, The God Delusion, is interviewed about a range of topics, including his latest book, Books Do Furnish a Life: Reading and Writing Science. He talks about doing the last interview of Christopher Hitchens before his death, the evolving life of “memes,” a word he coined, anti-science U.S. attitudes and, yes, why God is a delusion. 

Other new guests for the 2021-22 season include Candace R.M. Gorham, a former minister who is now a mental health counselor and author of the forthcoming book, On Death, Dying, and Disbelief, and is author of the earlier  book, The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking Out on Religion and Others Should Too.

And Professor Jay Rosenstein, recipient of the Peabody Award for his fascinating documentary “The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today,” about the dramatic challenge of religious indoctrination in the public schools taken by Vashti McCollum and her family in the late 1940s, resulting in a landmark ruling in her favor by the Supreme Court. The show will include clips from the riveting film.

For those who don’t get a chance to view it live on television, all episodes are available to watch on FFRF’s YouTube channel or through FFRF’s updated website at (You can find it under the “News” category and then under “Videos.”)

“Freethought Matters” airs Sundays in:

• Chicago, WPWR-CW (Ch. 50), 9 a.m.

• Denver, KWGN-CW (Ch. 2), 7 a.m.

• Houston, KUBE-IND (Ch. 57), 9 a.m.

• Los Angeles, KCOP-MY (Ch. 13), 8:30 a.m.

• Madison, Wis., WISC-TV (Ch. 3), 11 p.m.

• Minneapolis, KSTC-IND (Ch. 45), 9:30 a.m.

• New York City, WPIX-IND (Ch. 11), 8:30 a.m.

• Phoenix, KASW-CW (Ch. 61, or 6 or 1006 for HD), 8:30 a.m.

• Portland, Ore., KRCW-CW (Ch. 32), 9 a.m. Comcast channel 703 for High Def, or Channel 3.

• Sacramento, KQCA-MY (Ch. 58), 8:30 a.m.

  San Francisco, KICU-IND (Ch. 36), 10 a.m.

• Seattle, KONG-IND (Ch. 16 or Ch. 106 on Comcast), 8 a.m.

• Washington, D.C., WDCW-CW (Ch. 50), 8 a.m.

P.S. Please tune in or record according to the times given above regardless of what is listed in your TV guide (it may be listed simply as “paid programming” or even be misidentified). To set up an automatic weekly recording, try taping manually by time or channel. And spread the word to freethinking friends, family or colleagues about a TV show, finally, that is dedicated to providing programming for freethinkers!

FFRF victories (September 2021)

By Casandra Zimmerman

Cross display removed by Pennsylvania DOT

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has removed a cross display on a state-owned utility pole.

A concerned resident reported to FFRF that a Christian cross was displayed on public school property. Upon further inspection, the cross was found to be on state property and FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line wrote to the DOT insisting that a sign saying “Jesus still saves” be taken down. 

Assistant District Executive Thomas J. McClelland said the cross display had been removed from the utility pole, and the electric company deemed it a potential safety issue, as well.

Bible verse taken off jury summonses in Pa.

A resident in Fayette County, Pa., reported receiving a jury summons containing the bible verse, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

Staff Attorney Christopher Line sent a letter to Commissioners Janet Trees and Lauren Mahoney-Yohman asking for the bible verse to be removed from all jury summonses. 

Trees responded in July and said that upon receiving the FFRF letter, the bible verse was immediately removed from all jury summonses. 

Prayers ended at Alaska school board meetings

The school board in Yupiit, Alaska, has stopped scheduling prayers at school meetings after receiving a letter from FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line.

The letter was sent to Yupit School District Superintendent Cassandra Bennett and Board President Willie Kasayulie. 

The response received was, “Cassandra is no longer with the district. They stopped including the invocation.”

Faculty member removes religious quote on email

A faculty member at Anoka Ramsey Community College in Minnesota has removed a religious quote from an email signature after being informed by FFRF that it is unconstitutional to promote personal religious beliefs in an official capacity. 

FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald wrote to President Kent Hanson, urging him to tell the faculty member to remove the bible verse: “We write to ask that this email signature be changed so as not to create the impression of university endorsement of Christianity over all other religions, or religion over nonreligion.” 

Hanson responded, assuring FFRF that the faculty member voluntarily agreed to remove the quote from the email signature.

School no longer requires standing for the pledge

An elementary school in Silver Consolidated Schools in New Mexico has stopped requiring students to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance after receiving a letter from FFRF. 

A concerned parent from Jose Barrios Elementary contacted FFRF explaining that their child was reprimanded for declining to stand for the pledge, which is recited over the school’s loudspeaker every morning. 

Staff Attorney Christopher Line sent a letter to Superintendent William Hawkins, reminding him of the many court cases ruling that forcing children to recite the pledge in school infringes upon a student’s First Amendment rights. 

The superintendent responded, saying that all principals, including Joe Barrios Elementary school, will be reminded they cannot disrespect a student’s right to freedom of speech by requiring them to stand for the pledge.

Ga. commission removes creationism module

The Georgia Professional Standards Commission has removed a module in the Georgia Educator Ethics Assessment indicating that a teacher should teach creationism regardless of their beliefs.

To obtain a license to teach in the state, a certain set of ethical standards must be tested and one question posed was about whether teaching intelligent design in schools is illegal.

FFRF Staff Attorney Christopher Line sent a letter to Brian Sirmans, commission chair, asking that the module be removed from the assessment.

Director of Rules Management and Educator Assessment, Anne Marie Fenton,  responded to FFRF, saying that the module has been removed.

Union Station stops playing Christian music 

Union Station in Raleigh, N.C., has stopped playing Christian music through its PA system. 

A patron of Union Station reported to FFRF that a Christian radio station was being played over the PA system. FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote a letter to Manager Richard Costello, urging him to keep in mind that the public train station serves all types of religious and nonreligious people. She also asserted that Christian music will very easily alienate patrons who are not Christian.

Costello responded to FFRF, writing that the matter was being addressed and assured that no further occurrences would take place.

Superintendent ends religious remarks

The Ohio Hi-Point Career Center superintendent has stopped including religious remarks in convocation speeches after hearing from FFRF on the matter.

FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald wrote to Superintendent Rick Smith about the religious speech he gave at the convocation ceremony, asking him to cease promoting his own beliefs and religion. McDonald reminded Smith that this case had already been settled in the Supreme Court, where “high school graduations must be secular to protect the freedom of conscience of all students.”

Smith responded, saying he plans to avoid making religious remarks in the future.

FFRF ensures that Ga. deputy behaves lawfully

FFRF has made certain that a Georgia deputy ceases to behave in an unlawful manner.

Chief Deputy Jonathan Blackmon had been using his position within the Polk County Sheriff’s Office to promote and endorse his personal religious beliefs, and the Polk County Sheriff’s Office was regularly posting Blackmon’s religious messages on its official Facebook page. 

FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Polk County Sheriff Johnny Moats. 

“I was advised by our administration to inform you that all the Facebook posts would be removed and that there will not be any future posts placed on the sheriff’s office official page,” says a recent email from the sheriff’s office. 

School district to stop religious messages

A Georgia school district is rectifying a constitutional breach, thanks to the FFRF.

A concerned local resident informed FFRF that Graysville Elementary School gave students backpacks containing bibles and other religious materials. Children came home from school with a bible, a list of local Baptist churches, and a note asking them to “visit them and become part of the Catoosa Baptist Association family.” 

After FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line wrote to Superintendent Denia Reese, the district’s legal counsel replied, “The school has been instructed to physically view the inside of any bags or similar items and to remove religious endorsements before giving them to any other students.”

N.C. employee stops giving out pamphlets

After hearing from FFRF, a license plate renewal office in North Carolina told an employee to stop giving out pamphlets containing bible verses and “how-to” guides on “gaining salvation.” 

FFRF was informed by a concerned Morehead City community member about the unconstitutional religious distribution. Staff Attorney Christopher Line wrote to the office, asking that it ensures that religious literature no longer be distributed in its office and to remind employees of their obligation to remain neutral toward religion. 

FFRF received a response from Sandra Cannon of the Morehead City License Plate Agency, who assured FFRF that she did not condone the distribution of religious materials, told the employee to remove all religious literature from the office and promised that it would not happen again. 

School stops forcing religion on art projects

A Tallassee, Ala., art teacher has stopped an art project requiring students to participate in religious assignments, such as making students draw a picture of a cross with graphite pencils. 

A concerned Tallassee community member notified FFRF that religious indoctrination could be occurring in an art teacher’s classroom, including encouraging kids to “add a creative saying or bible verse on top” of projects. 

Staff Attorney Christopher Line’s  letter to the Superintendent of Tallassee City schools asked it to “take immediate action to ensure that (the teacher) is no longer giving religious assignments to students or in any way promoting or endorsing religion through their role as a district employee.”

In response to FFRF’s letter, the school district sent teachers a guide regarding religion in schools, and the teacher that was noted in the letter has retired. 

FFRF hails survey showing rise of ‘Nones’

Religion chart 1
Religion chart 2

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is celebrating findings that show a shrinking white Christian majority and a stable percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans.

The Public Religion Research Institute’s “2020 Census of American Religion” documents that white Christians, previously a supermajority, have declined by nearly a third in the last few decades, from 65 percent in 1996 to a low of 43 percent in 2017. Today, white Christians comprise 44 percent of the population.

The number of “Nones,” those with no religious affiliation, has tripled since the 1990s, to comprise 23 percent of the U.S. population in 2020. “The increase in proportion of religiously unaffiliated Americans has occurred across all age groups but has been most pronounced among young Americans,” the report states.

Ryan Burge, a researcher from Eastern Illinois University, said that Generation Z, those born after 1996, are “the least religious generation we’ve had in American history.”

“At the same time, the rate of disaffiliation is continuing,” he continues. “However, Gen Z has a long way to go before they all show up in the data. It will be eight more years until the youngest members of this cohort reach adulthood.”

The “Nones” have made substantial inroads in all sectors. One in five Black Americans and one in five Hispanic Americans today is religiously unaffiliated. More than a third of multiracial Americans are religiously unaffiliated, as are 28 percent of Native Americans. Asian-Americans and Pacific Islander Americans are overall the most likely to be religiously unaffiliated, at 34 percent.

Burge says the age factor will only increase the number of Nones in the future.

“Consider this: every day in America, hundreds of people from the Silent Generation (19 percent Nones) and the Boomers (25 percent Nones) die off and are replaced by members of Generation Z (45 percent Nones) having their 18th birthday,” writes Burge. “This, by itself, will make the United States much less religious in 2030 than it was in 2020.”

A majority of white Americans still identify as Christian, breaking down as 50 percent Protestant, 23 percent evangelical, 27 percent mainline Protestant and 19 percent Catholic. Jews are at 2 percent and Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or other religions make up less than 1 percent of the white U.S. population. 

Seventy-two percent of Black Americans, three-quarters of Hispanic Americans, 34 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islander Americans and 60 percent of Native Americans identify as Christian.

“This groundbreaking study shows how important it is that we ‘Nones’ must flex our collective muscle, through our ballots and our lobbying presence, to ensure that our government and courts know we are here,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “White Protestant evangelicals represent only 14 percent of the population, yet their views, which are often Christian nationalist, are so disproportionately represented in Congress, statehouses and on court benches.”

Survey stats

• Over the last few decades, the proportion of the U.S. population that is white Christian has declined by nearly one-third. As recently as 1996, nearly two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) identified as white and Christian. By 2006, that had declined to 54 percent, and by 2017 it was down to 43 percent.

• Since 2006, white evangelical Protestants have experienced the most precipitous drop in affiliation, shrinking from 23 percent of Americans in 2006 to 14 percent in 2020. 

• Only 16 percent of Americans reported being religiously unaffiliated in 2007; this proportion rose to 19 percent by 2012, and then gained roughly a percentage point each year from 2012 to 2017. The proportion of religiously unaffiliated Americans hit a high point of 26 percent in 2018 but has since slightly declined, to 23 percent in 2020.

• Americans ages 18–29 are the most religiously diverse age group. More than one-third of young Americans (36 percent) are religiously unaffiliated.

• White evangelical Protestants are the oldest religious group in the U.S., with a median age of 56, compared to the median age in the country of 47. Religiously unaffiliated people are among the youngest median age at 38, just behind Muslims (33), Buddhists (36) and Hindus (36). 

• Both major political parties are majority Christian, with 83 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of Democrats identifying as Christian. Two-thirds of Republicans (68 percent) identify as white and Christian, compared to 39 percent of Democrats

• The share of religiously unaffiliated people among Republicans has increased dramatically. In 2006, just 4 percent of Republicans identified as unaffiliated. That proportion more than doubled to 10 percent in 2013 and continued to grow to 13 percent in 2020.

• The share of unaffiliated Democrats also more than doubled between 2006 (9 percent) and 2013 (22 percent). From 2013 to 2018 (28 percent), the share of unaffiliated Democrats grew slightly each year, before dropping to 23 percent in 2020. 

Religious diversity

The religious diversity index is calculated so that a score of 1 signifies complete diversity — every religious group is of equal size — and a score of 0 indicates a complete lack of diversity and one religious group comprises the entire population of a given county.

The average religious diversity score by county in the U.S. is 0.625.

Religious diversity is highest in urban areas. The five highest religious diversity scores are:

Kings County, N.Y. (0.897)

Queens County, N.Y. (0.896)

Montgomery County, Md. (0.880)

Navajo County, Ariz. (0.876)

Santa Clara County, Calif. (0.876)

Religious diversity is lowest in the southern part of the U.S. and in rural areas. The lowest diversity scores among counties with more than 10,000 residents are:

Noxubee County, Mississippi (0.228)

Panola County, Mississippi (0.281)

Conecuh County, Alabama (0.283)

Amite County, Mississippi (0.284)

Marion County, Mississippi (0.284)

Religiously unaffiliated Americans are spread throughout the country but are most concentrated in the West and the Northeast. The five highest concentrations of religiously unaffiliated Americans in counties with greater than 10,000 residents are (by percentage):

San Juan County, Wash. (49)

Multnomah County, Ore. (48)

Glacier County, Mont. (45)

Humboldt County, Calif. (45)

Tompkins County, N.Y. (45)

Nearly four in ten (39 percent) religiously unaffiliated Americans live in urban areas, 44 percent live in suburban areas, and 17 percent live in rural areas.


Meet FFRF’s 2021 summer interns

Each summer, the FFRF Legal Team hires law school students as full-time interns to help with FFRF’s heavy workload in fighting state/church separation entanglements around the country.

Here is a closer look at this year’s group.

James Aird

(University of Wisconsin Law School)

Where did you grow up?

Proctor, Minn., a small railroad town right outside of Duluth. 

Were you raised in a religious household?

I was raised Catholic, although I wouldn’t describe my parents as especially religious. My mom just felt it was her duty to raise us at least with some religious education. Our priest growing up was very well-liked, but when he rotated out to a new church, the new priest was much more dogmatic and he (along with a similarly orthodox catechism teacher) opened my eyes to the problems with church doctrine. At some point around, then I picked up some Hitchens and Dawkins books and never looked back. 

Where did you attend college as an undergrad?  

Ironically enough, the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. My sisters had all attended previously, and I received a generous scholarship. While the college was founded by nuns, it has in recent decades become much more secular in its day-to-day operations.    

Why did you want to be a legal intern for FFRF?

FFRF excited me because of its impact litigation. Going from processing real estate transactions to assisting with civil rights litigation was a huge step for me in feeling like the work I do really matters. 

What is your favorite part of working for FFRF?

I have really enjoyed working with the litigation team on their pending cases. Beyond learning a ton about the religion clauses and the merits of these cases, I have also learned a lot about civil procedure and motion practice in federal court.  

What is one thing that you think people might not know about you? 

I love to cook!  On the menu this week: spicy korean bulgolgi lettuce wraps.

Matthew Hansen

(University of Wisconsin Law School) 

Where did you grow up?

Wausau, Wis. 

Were you raised in a religious household?

My father was raised Catholic and my mother was generally irreligious. I was fortunate that my parents gave me the education, freedom and tools I needed to decide for myself the lens through which I wanted to view the world.  

Where did you attend college as an undergrad?

University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Why did you want to be a legal intern for FFRF?

One of the high school choir teachers in my hometown held a Christmas concert where he required the public school choir to sing exclusively Christian music. The issue ruffled a lot of feathers on the school board and animated the local religious and secular populations. The controversy gained enough attention for FFRF to get involved, which is where I first heard about the organization. While in law school, I have had the honor of serving as a teaching assistant for undergraduate classes on constitutional rights and political philosophy. Part of this experience allowed me to teach Establishment Clause jurisprudence to political science students, which opened my eyes to the energy and enthusiasm young people have for the topic and the frustration and confusion they have about more recent Supreme Court decisions. This experience solidified my passion for the topic and drove me to apply to FFRF to help combat Christian nationalism, the theft of the court system, and to oppose the degradation of the high wall which has historically separated state and church. 

What is your favorite part of working for FFRF?

The staff at FFRF are all phenomenal, each one has a visible passion for what they do and want nothing more than to make their county a better, more tolerant and less dogmatic place. Being part of a meaningful movement is highly rewarding and instills a sense of purpose in everything I do at FFRF. In many ways, FFRF feels like the front line in a rapidly changing legal and social battle over the religious character of our nation and it’s an honor to be a part of that.  

What is one thing that you think people might not know about you? 

I used to be a nationally ranked Kubb player. Kubb is a Swedish lawn game, sometimes called Viking chess, with a growing following in the upper Midwest. 

Raghen Lucy

(Hamline School of Law)

Where did you grow up?

Williston, N.D.

Were you raised in a religious household?

I was raised in a blended religious household (one Methodist parent and one Catholic parent).

Where did you attend college as an undergrad?  

Minnesota State University, Mankato, where I studied philosophy, politics and economics.

Why did you want to be a legal intern for FFRF?

I was first introduced to FFRF when my Secular Student Alliance chapter in Mankato hosted Dan Barker for a debate in 2018. I wanted to spend my last summer before law school gaining practical experience in the legal field and contributing to the vital cause of state/church separation. This legal internship has allowed me to do both!

What is your favorite part of working for FFRF?

My favorite part of working for FFRF has been working with such a great staff. Everyone has been nothing but friendly, helpful and forthcoming with advice for the future. I am thankful for this opportunity to work with individuals who serve as role models and inspirations for my own legal career.

What is one thing that you think people might not know about you? 

I made a playlist on Spotify that has 57 hours worth of my favorite music.

Alex Moore

(University of Wisconsin Law School) 

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a small conservative community in East Texas. 

Were you raised in a religious household?

Yes, I attended multiple religious activities a week for most of my childhood. 

Where did you attend college as an undergrad?

University of Texas at Tyler.

Why did you want to be a legal intern for FFRF?

Re-establishing the separation of state and church is vital to progress and equity in our country. I also deeply appreciate that FFRF makes a specific effort to protect the rights of children. 

What is your favorite part of working for FFRF?

I know that everything I am working on provides support to nonreligious people who often do not have a voice in their community. 

What is one thing that you think people might not know about you? 

I recently fulfilled a lifelong dream of learning how to solve a Rubik’s cube. It is very exciting!

Michael Sayle

(University of Arizona College of Law) 

Where did you grow up?

My family moved around a lot when I was growing up. But notable places would include Memphis, Washington (both state and D.C.), Texas (San Antonio and Longview), Arkansas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Suffolk (England). I also spent the first five years post-undergrad teaching English in Hunan Province, China. After finishing my graduate degrees, I spent four years in Qingdao, China, as the head of the English for Academic Purposes Program at the University of Arizona Global Campus (in partnership with Ocean University of China). Home, however, is Tucson, Ariz.

Were you raised in a religious household?

Very. We attended church at least every Sunday, and for different stretches of time when my folks were feeling particularly compelled, we’d attend Sunday night and Wednesday night. I was baptized at the age of 16, which is late for a lot of people in that denomination. I felt I had to go through a questioning stage before believing I had good reasons for “accepting the gospel,” and at the time, I thought reading through apologetics books was genuine questioning. I was, of course, mostly assuaging some cognitive dissonance by indulging in a heaping dose of confirmation bias. 

Where did you attend college as an undergrad?

I went on to attend a private Christian university in Arkansas, where I studied mission work with the intent of becoming a missionary. The more I studied the academic literature about its central text, the more ecumenical my outlook became. I feel this had more to do with how increasingly untenable a literal interpretation of the text became. After graduation, as the years passed, I slowly came to realize that any truth in the religion was incidental to the human desire to understand the world they find themselves in.

Why did you want to be a legal intern for FFRF?

FFRF has been essential in protecting the Establishment Clause from erosion by religious actors, and I wanted to be helpful in that regard. I also knew it would give me good exposure to and experience in the way public interest law works.

What is your favorite part of working for FFRF?

I get to spend a lot of time researching religious incursions into government. It’s been fulfilling to be a part of holding government actors accountable for pushing their religious beliefs onto other people.

What is one thing that you think people might not know about you? 

I love working with and learning about languages and linguistics, especially where syntax and semantics intersect with second language acquisition and psycholinguistics.

Sukhvir Singh

Raghen Lucy
Sukhvir Singh
Michael Sayle
Matthew Hansen
Alex Moore

(Rutgers Law School) 

Where did you grow up?

I was born and lived the first part of my life in Astoria, Queens, N.Y., and moved to Morris Plains, N.J., when I was 10.

Were you raised in a religious household?

Yes, I was raised in a Sikh household. 

Where did you attend college as an undergrad?  

I attended Rutgers University, majoring in cultural anthropology and American studies.

Why did you want to be a legal intern for FFRF?

I wanted to be an intern for FFRF because I wanted to contribute and be a part of its goals, but also to learn from very skilled attorneys who seek to advance secular objectives. 

What is your favorite part of working for FFRF?

My favorite part of FFRF is when I receive an email presenting a victory in a case or challenge FFRF was involved in because it shows the success and hard work of everyone involved. It reminds me of the tangible difference we make in the lives of secular individuals across the country. 

What is one thing that you think people might not know about you? 

I love sports and one day hope to be in a position where I can have part ownership of a team of any kind.

Overheard (September 2021)

If they’re [the Catholic bishops] going to politically weaponize religion by ‘rebuking’ Democrats who support women’s reproductive choice, then a ‘rebuke’ of their tax-exempt status may be in order.

U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, in a tweet about the Catholic Church potentially not allowing communion to President Biden and other Catholic politicians who vote for pro-choice measures.

Twitter, 6-18-21

We’re beyond apologies, we need to talk about accountability. If Nazi war criminals can be tried at an elderly age for their war crimes, I think we should be tracking down the living survivors of the church — being the priests and the nuns — who had a hand in this.

Chief Jason Louie, Lower Kootenay Band, commenting on Pope Francis’ belated plans to meet in December with Canadian Indigenous leaders about the church’s role in cultural genocide, neglect and abuse. Almost a thousand human remains recently have been found at Catholic-run residential schools for Indigenous children removed from their families.

The New York Times, 7-1-21

It’s like choosing which side of the flat Earth we’re going to jump off.

Infectious disease physician Luana Araujo, during Brazil’s parliamentary inquiry into the government’s (mis)handling of the pandemic. More than 520,000 Brazilians have died of Covid-19. but President Jair Bolsonaro has promoted hydroxychloroquine and other useless treatments. 

The New York Times, 7-6-21

I need you to understand something and I say it without any hyperbole: White Evangelicals need to be stopped, now. We’ve seen this play out throughout history and we know how it ends. We know what unchecked religious extremist is capable of and we know the cost of the silence and inaction of good people. 

John Pavlovitz, longtime Christian pastor, writer and activist., 6-12-21

I was frightened by the Religious Right in its triumphant phase. But it turns out that the movement is just as dangerous in decline.

Michelle Goldberg, in her column, “The Christian Right is in decline, and it’s taking America with it.”

The New York Times, 7-9-21

It is a world in which demons are real, miracles are real, and the ultimate mission is not just transforming individual lives but also turning civilization itself into their version of God’s Kingdom: one with two genders, no abortion, a free-market economy, bible-based education, church-based social programs and laws such as the ones curtailing LGBTQ rights now moving through statehouses around the country.

Stephanie McCrummen, author of the article “An American Kingdom: A new and rapidly growing Christian movement is openly political, wants a nation under God’s authority, and is central to Donald Trump’s GOP.”

Washington Post, 7-11-21

It isn’t bringing me closer to Christ, it’s giving me U.T.I.s.

Lindsay Perez, 34, a  young Mormon woman baring all about the gynecological harm of itchy, scratchy, non-breathing Mormon “magic” underwear.

New York Times, 7-22-21

On almost every subject you can name, science is the answer, whether it’s the climate crisis, whether it’s a health crisis, whether it’s our preeminence in the world of technology, science, science, science, science. To say that wearing a mask is not based on science, I think, is not wise, and that was my comment.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, after calling House Minority Leader Mike McCarthy a “moron” over his objection to the return of a mask mandate on Capitol Hill.

Yahoo News, 7-28-21

It was clear the terrorists perceived themselves to be Christians. I saw the Christian flag directly to my front. Another read ‘Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president.’ Another, ‘Jesus is King.’”

Washington, D.C., Officer Daniel Hodges, describing the pervasiveness of Christian symbols among those who attacked him and other police officers during the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Washington Post, 7-27-21

You were concerned that the governor was imposing his own religious beliefs on others?

“I was. I had a problem with that being imposed upon 6.8 million Tennesseans.”

Dr. Michelle Fiscus, in an interview with Phil Williams of Nashville television station News Channel 5, on how Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s delayed the rollout of a Covid-19 vaccine because he believed the Johnson & Johnson vaccine contained fetal tissue. Fiscus was fired on July 12 as the top vaccine official in Tennessee, allegedly to appease Republican state lawmakers who were angry about efforts to vaccinate teenagers., 7-28-21

While most people to the left of the Christian Right view the Project Blitz playbook with revulsion, I see it as a gift to democracy. The playbook and their accompanying briefings and events laid bare their intentions and their game plan. We were handed a vital tool for the defense of democratic values and, arguably, the wider defense of democracy itself. The things that happened in response, I think, are underappreciated, even by some of those who should be taking great pride in their victories.

Researcher Frederick Clarkson, who first exposed the existence of Project Blitz, the secretive Christian nationalist playbook to enact Christian legislation in dozens of states., 7-24-21 

Today the question is whether these Christians only support democracy in instrumental ways. And the answer we are getting from many quarters is that they were supportive of democracy as long as they were in charge.

Robert Jones, CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, in an interview.

Religion Dispatches, 7-20-21

Crankmail (September 2021)

Here is the month’s assortment of letters and correspondence from the lesser side of humanity. Printed as received.

Losers: You are a bunch of atheist who get offended by religious people is absolutely hysterical. It sounds like you are all nothing but a bunch of lawyers trying to find ways to sue people and make money. As the saying goes.., the only good lawyer is a dead lawyer! Now stop bothering people you fucking assholes! When the time does come you will get what is coming to you! — John Barrington

Y’all should just mind your own business: Please leave people that want ti pray alone y’all just give it a rest yiur pokimg your nose inti things thats best left alone if people want ti pray let them it dont matter where they are or when just let them do it im a nonpracticing jew and if i should chosse ti pray i will and dint care where i am at. — Ed Cohen III

God is real: Dear atheist every single one of you know that God does exist. The truth of that is in your dna. It is still their so you will have zero excuses when you stand before God. God is not sending you to hell. YOU YES YOU are choosing to go to hell. God is just giving what you want. Their is so much evidence of Gods Existence that you choose to ignore. More then just enough evidence will be made available that even you will know you are guilty. Come to your senses because you do know that GOD does exist. — Charles Deneveau

Get out: You may assist me–rather the RESPECTABLE citizens of this country–by leaving it. Our forefathers came here, not to get away from religion, but to have the right to practice whatever RELIGION they believed in. Atheism is NOT a religion. You do have the right not to believe in God but you do NOT have the right to try to change the foundation of this country. If you don’t like that religion is practiced here then GET THE FUCK OUT. I find it amusing that the only program that will air your ridiculous diatribe is that disgustingly liberal CBS Sunday Morning, which I was forced to watch by a dear, but ignorant, friend (ignorant to how unbelievably stupid the liberal left is & how they, like you, are a danger to our country). I wish you this–you get a terminal case of the drizzling shits & live forever with it, with only coarse sandpaper with which to wipe your sorry ass. — Monica Bloedorn

Atheist: You atheist is so out of control. I have friends that is atheist and their pissed off at the ones that gets offended all the time or has a problem with something. Or wait mainly wants media attention. I told every local and national tv network including radio network to not broadcast your lawsuit against the school. I will also tell the judge to throw out the lawsuit and do not allow any appeals for your side. Atheist can’t win all the time. — Mike Dunbar

Stop Harassing Christians: You guys are pathetic! Stop harassing judges and Christians over their beliefs. You are fighting a losing battle! How does it feel knowing that you pathetic scum are losing? You idiots enjoy killing babies? Well, your judgement will come and I hope you ALL burn in the pits of HELL for eternity! —  Daniel Davidson 

It’s too late: I need to know your official views on the death shot Covid Vaccine which is not a vaccine.  Also your views on extraterrestrial life, kundalini energy, reincarnation, telepathy.  Moses was under the influence of ETs and displayed alien tech in his “miracles.”. 

Also, anyone who has studied it knows astrology works.  It is mathematics and physics and frequency and resonance. The USA is being swiftly taken over by Communists.. Every goddamn ad on TV promotes race mixing and marriage.  Ads for death dealing drugs are rife on TV.  White men are portrayed as dumb and weak  oafs. 

The USA has only a few months left to survive and in any case it will never go back to what it was. Stand to the line or be food for buzzards. — Kent Meyer

Your fate: Do you realize the founders could end up with the same fate as Madalyn Murray O’Hair? God is not mocked, what a man sows he shall reap! Google who she is and her fate. You’ll be surprised. — Connie Garvey

your nosy nose: Mind your damn business & your own state’s business & keep your fat nosy nose out of the Great State of Texas. You are now trying to bother UMC here in Lubbock, Tx. about a message they have on the UMC building & saying people who worked there complained about it & if that happened, it was probably some idiot who moved from Wisconsin to Lubbock & they just couldn’t accept what they were seeing. If you don’t believe in God, then why does it bother you so much. This country was founded on Christianity & you can’t convince me otherwise. Y’all are phony as the day is long, just shut up & mind your damn business! We don’t care what YOU think!! Laughing at your ignorance. — Sue Lankford 

We don’t care!: Hate to break it to y’all but we literally do not care what y’all think of us in our little podunk town. Nobody is pressured into anything here I can assure you that, but at the same time…. How can you earn respect if you don’t show it? This little town is built off that. It’s hard to understand our lives in this little town, if you’ve never lived it. To say they were forced is over exaggerated… to say they was pressured is over exaggerated. — Kevin Keen

Sad: U know this is not the country I grow up and lived in it’s a sad day when people turn their backs on praying in schools or anything else that has God in it . It’s a sad day the people who want prayer at games bibles in school has rights to . U should be ashamed of yourselfs I’m not saying I’m sorry for believing in god he’s my savior . What’s going on here . Is wrong I’ll pray for these people have mercy on their souls kids at this game prayed they did it bc that’s what they wanted to do — Bill Newman

Winners of FFRF’s high school essay contest

Student essay contest

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is proud to announce the winners of the 2021 William Schulz High School Essay Contest. FFRF is awarding $21,350 in scholarship money for this year’s contest!

College-bound high school seniors were asked to write an essay based on this prompt: 

“Write a personal statement about why you trust science over faith, and why you think society should do the same. Please include an example of how religious faith has obstructed science or analyze a historic or current issue related to religion vs. science.” 

After reviewing 220 essays, FFRF awarded 11 top prizes and 17 honorable mentions.

Winners are listed below and include the college or university they will be attending and the award amount. All students were 17 or 18 when they submitted their essays.


Ava Bertolotti, Northeastern University, $3,500.


Ellianna Thayne, University of Washington, $3,000.


Jeremiah Brown, Rochester Institute of Technology, $2,500.


Elizabeth Getty, University of Minnesota, $2,500.


Adam Pierce, University of California-Berkeley, $2,000.



Andrew Delaney, University of California-Berkeley, $1,500.


Alexis Martin, University of Miami, $1,000. 


Laura Streminsky, Boston University, $750.


Caleb Buell, University of Alabama, $500.


Ashley Levstik, University of Texas-San Antonio, $400.


Alaina Adderley, Plymouth State University, $300.

Honorable mentions ($200 each)

Ainsley Anderson, Tulane University.

Elizabeth Andraschko, University of Wisconsin.

Benjamin Ash, Arizona State University.

Neil Dervis, University of Central Florida.

Shamsul Haque, University of Virginia.

Trinitey Hayward, University of Arkansas.

Anna Hendrick, College of William and Mary.

Neha Kumar, New York University.

Isabel Li, Scripps college.

Adrianna Martinez-Lainez, Seattle University.

Eliane Odefey, Middlebury College.

Carlin Padgett, Western Washington University.

Haden Ringel, University of Chicago.

Gavin Ruby, University of Colorado-Boulder.

Garret Snitchler, University of Nebraska.

Josiah Wilson, Indiana State University.

Ares Zhang, University of Washington-Tacoma.

Those who are not named winners receive a complimentary FFRF membership for a year and are offered a book or freethought product as a thank-you for entering.

The high school contest is named for the late William J. Schulz, a Wisconsin member and life-long learner who died at 57 and left a generous bequest to FFRF.

FFRF thanks its “Director of First Impressions” Lisa Treu for managing the details of this and FFRF’s other annual student competitions. And we couldn’t judge these contests without our “faithful faithless” readers and judges, including: Don Ardell, Dan Barker, Darrell Barker, Bill Dunn, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Linda Josheff, Dan Kettner, Sammi Lawrence, Katya Maes, Amit Pal, Dave Petrashek, Sue Schuetz, Lauryn Seering, PJ Slinger, Karen Lee Weidig and Jenny Wilson.

FFRF has offered essay competitions to college students since 1979, high school students since 1994, grad students since 2010, students of color since 2016, and law school students since 2019.

First place — High school essay contest: Ava Bertolotti 

Ava Bertolotti

The prophets of doom have data

FFRF awarded Ava $3,500 for this essay.

By Ava Bertolotti 

Since I first read Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark in middle school, Sagan’s observation that “it is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring” has become my debate catch-all. 

Science should be the bedrock of debating: It is objective, it is logical, it is evidence-driven and evolves with the facts. Especially in the emotionally fraught, combative political sphere, science clears the water rather than muddying it. Science is a self-correcting, self-critical process that professes no claim to perfection, unlike some religions.  

Climate change used to keep me up at night. Praying — in English, in Arabic, staring at the ceiling, as branches were whipped past my window by the near-90 mile-per-hour winds of Hurricane Sandy — did not make me worry less about a tree crashing through the walls at any moment. 

In my half-Catholic, half-Muslim family, religion was more often a source of conflict than of comfort. We visited my extended family in Turkey in 2018, two years after a violent coup attempt. Turkey’s 2017 ban on teaching evolution in schools was nearly as heavy a blow to my faith in the stability of its secular democracy as the 2016 press crackdown.  

I trust in science because it can explain the disconcerting changes I see in ecosystems: As mulberry groves and giant Turkish snails wither in the heat of record-hot summers, as frogs disappear from the pond behind my high school in New Jersey, I find that cataloging for citizen science databases feels more productive than wringing my hands. 

In seventh grade, I surfed Science News, only to plunge into debates over vaccines, abortion, stem-cell research, evolution and climate change in the comments sections. I could understand — not empathize with — moral objections to certain issues, but the religious climate-change deniers confounded me. They were impervious to facts and figures. Some invoked God’s will to justify their nonchalance; some argued my laptop use was an electricity-sucking sin; some touted the coming of Judgment Day. They didn’t bat a virtual eyelash when I cited distribution maps that showed U.S. emissions wreaking havoc on Global South countries, the Majority World that contributes almost nothing to the crisis. They vociferated about sin but said nothing about justice. Internet trolls are not the worst offenders in the denial-sphere. Fossil-funded inactivists make the same arguments in Congress.  

Prayers might make some feel better, but out of politicians’ mouths they are complacent platitudes. Science is a springboard for action; it is the best tool we have to combat climate change.  

Ava, 17, is from Springfield, N.J., and attends Northeastern University.

“I’m a half-Italian-American, half-Karachai-Turkish climate justice and scientific literacy activist,” Ava writes. “I will be majoring (possibly on the pre-law track) in international affairs and environmental studies at Northeastern University next year, with minors in anthropology and sociology.” 

Second place — High school essay contest: Ellianna Thayne

Ellianna Thayne

Love in the face of faith

FFRF awarded Ellianna $3,000.

By Ellianna Thayne

When I was a little girl, I spent many nights at my grandparents’ home. I was old enough to kneel at the foot of their bed for prayer, but still too young to decide truth from fiction, belief from instruction. 

I would describe my relationship with the Christian god as short and sweet. Before the age of 10, I had bundled up the courage to stop praying, and when I didn’t fall victim to holy wrath, I moved past religion and developed an interest in science instead.

In the honors program at the University of Washington, I plan on pursu-ing a career in neuroscience. Despite moving forward into my future, I couldn’t help but feel that I’d plunged back in time when I learned that my grandparents, whom I had spent so much of my childhood with, were homophobic. 

I was undeterred, certain that when I told them about my girlfriend they would move past a few outdated verses and accept me. Instead, my grandparents stopped speaking to me. “It’s not like they don’t love you still,” my mom told me. “They just don’t think God does. It’s the church, honey. It’s the church.” 

In the grand view of the world, I received a light punishment for my sexuality. Women like me have been persecuted in the name of the Christian doctrine for hundreds of years, executed for the supposed sin of homosexuality. When the church and state are one, we are victims of the law; when they are not, we are victims still of the church’s culture. While not all who follow Abrahamic religions believe that homosexuality is morally wrong, a significant number base their homophobia in faith. They say it’s not as God intended, that it’s unnatural.

In the eyes of science, however, homosexuality is entirely natural. Studies conducted over the past 50 years have found that human sexuality has many potential neurobiological sources, all of which indicate that sexual orientation, whether gay, straight, or in between, is an innate result of being human. Homosexual relations have been observed in many other species of animals as well. In fact, not so long ago, two male penguins “adopted” an egg and raised it together in a Berlin zoo. 

When it comes to acceptance of our sexual natures, I firmly believe that science should be the determining factor. We should not, cannot, allow religion to dictate the morality of homosexuality when we know it is neurologically natural. If we as a global community wish to truly evolve, we must move past the limitations of religion and realize that love is what binds humanity, no matter the orientation.

Ellianna, 18, is from Seattle and attends the University of Washington.

“I have won three awards for writing, one through the Seattle Public Library and two through my school, and I am a soon-to-be published author,” Ellianna writes. “My dream is to continue on to the neuroscience program and, after graduation, build a career as a trauma psychiatrist working with international organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders.”