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.”
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.
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.
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.”
The Christian Nationalists, neo-Nazis, racists and anti-government militia who attacked the U.S. Capitol and our democracy on Jan. 6 have been roundly denounced. But the Freedom From Religion Foundation believes it is also important to call to account the Christian Nationalist views of most of the 147 disruptors inside Congress who voted later that night to deny the will of the voters.
More than a quarter of the members of Congress taking shelter for their lives while a seditious mob rampaged through the heart of our democracy ended up siding with the insurrectionists to try to deny Joe Biden his lawfully won presidency.
What do we know about these members of Congress, including eight senators? Besides being all Republican, mostly white and mostly male, what do they have in common?
Their religious identity. And more than that, the Christian Nationalist flavor of their religious views (145 of the 147 identify as Christian; the exceptions are Reps. David Kustoff and Lee Zeldin, both Jewish). Almost half of the 138 House members who objected to the Electoral College count were evangelical Christians.
A disproportionate number of members of Congress claim to be Christian (88 percent versus 65 percent of the general population), but fully 98 percent of the certification naysayers identify as Christian. Many who voted to overturn the presidential election fall into religiously extremist categories.
Christian Nationalists believe, by definition, that the United States is or should be a Christian nation, actively seek to pass laws to privilege religion and Christianity, and impose their religious views on all citizens. They want to turn the godless U.S. Constitution upside down, granting sovereign authority to their “King, the Lord Jesus,” rather than “We the People.” That would be a theocracy, not a democracy.
Although some of these Christian Nationalists who voted not to certify the election results are newcomers, the majority are previously seated members with standard resumés, but with declared zealous views. Almost all are stringently opposed to abortion and LGBTQ rights, typically bragging of perfect 100 percent scores from the National Right to Life Committee and Heritage Action For America. Most are dyed-in-the-wool archconservatives, also with high ratings from the NRA and a variety of other ultraconservative lobbying groups. Many proudly trumpet their Christian Nationalist beliefs, are publicly prayerful and evince hostility to the separation between state and church.
It is not unusual for these members of Congress to list church membership on their official bios, and to add that they’ve served as deacons or taught Sunday school. Many have made the news for controversial views.
“Our nation is properly examining the white supremacist, anti-government, Christian Nationalist ideologies of the insurrectionists who broke into the Capitol to steal the election,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “But many members of Congress share at least some of these extremist views and are essentially dedicated to overthrowing the secular principles of our government.”
Is America finally waking up to the threat Christian Nationalism poses? FFRF, which has been educating about the dangers of theocratic extremism for decades, is hopeful the attack on the Capitol has opened the nation’s eyes.
“Photos, videos and reportage illuminate the links between this attack and Christian Nationalism,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Bibles, shirts, flags, placards, patches, crucifixes, crosses and prayers were omnipresent during the attack.”
The New Yorker published striking video (bit.ly/2MAX3YG) of insurrectionists praying to Jesus on the floor of the Senate. (It comes at about the 8-minute mark of the video.) Luke Mogelson, a veteran war correspondent and a contributing writer at The New Yorker who has been reporting on the violent edges of the Trump movement and was at the Capitol, captured the moment.
Jacob Chansely, aka “Jacob Angel” and “QShaman,” who — bare-chested, face-painted, adorned in furs and a horned Viking hat — figures prominently in footage from the Capitol insurrection, led the Christian prayer. Following the prayer, he scratched out and left a threatening note on Vice President Mike Pence’s desk. Chansely removed his horned hat and started to pray as the
demonstrators in the chambers threw up their arms in supplication.
Chansely was indicted on Jan. 11 for his role in the putsch. A photo of Chansely shaking hands with Rudy Giuliani in November has since surfaced. (Giuliani, Trump’s attorney, called for “trial by combat” at the Save America rally preceding the raid on the Capitol.)
Peter Manseau, the curator of American Religious History at the National Museum of American History for the Smithsonian, has crowdsourced a project on social media with scholars, religion journalists, activists, writers and others, including FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel. They have been cataloging the connections with the hashtag #CapitolSiegeReligion.
Christian Nationalism is not going away even though its champion is no longer president. FFRF will continue to work to expose the insidious, anti-democratic nature of Christian Nationalism and its role in the attempted overthrow of our government.
FFRF is part of a coalition of service and advocacy organizations that have filed suit against the former Trump administration for rolling back civil rights protections for beneficiaries of federal programs.
The prior federal rules had required faith-based organizations providing critical, taxpayer-funded services (like food and shelter) to inform recipients of their legal rights to be free from discrimination, not to have to attend religious programming, and to have the opportunity to get a referral for an alternative provider.
The new rule, which went into effect Jan. 19, makes it harder for already marginalized populations to access essential social services as the United States continues to reel from a historic pandemic and economic collapse.
The Trump administration’s rollback is arbitrary and capricious. Among other things, it provided no reasonable explanation for the rule change, failed to account for its harms, and failed to consider obvious alternatives to the changes they finalized — all in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.
The lawsuit was filed by a group of plaintiffs: Freedom From Religion Foundation, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, SAGE, the New York City Anti-Violence Project, Ark of Freedom Alliance, American Atheists and the Hindu American Foundation. Filed against the Trump-led Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, Education, Homeland Security, Justice and Labor, the suit seeks to reverse the unlawful rollback of these important protections.
Democracy Forward, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Lambda Legal represent the plaintiffs.
“On its last day in power, the Trump administration shredded important religious freedom and nondiscrimination protections for many of America’s most vulnerable populations and made it harder for them to access taxpayer-funded services in the midst of a pandemic and severe economic downturn,” the groups say in a joint statement. “The outgoing administration’s new rule unlawfully curtails the religious freedom and nondiscriminatory access to services of people seeking to obtain food, shelter, and other essential, federally funded services from faith-based organizations.”
The organizations add, “We’re taking our fight against the Trump administration’s unlawful rollback to court so that those in need of help can continue to get it without fear of discrimination or unwanted proselytization.”
FFRF felt an urgent necessity to join in the lawsuit.
“The Trump administration’s perversion of religious freedom continued until, literally, its last day,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We’re determined to ensure that individuals not believing in the majority creed know their rights and are empowered to protect themselves against discrimination and marginalization while receiving vital social services.”
On Dec. 17, the Trump administration finalized its sweeping rule, which eliminates common-sense requirements that were put in place in 2016. Those requirements were the result of a historic effort to reach consensus on how religion and government should interact in the context of federally funded social services. The Trump administration’s rollback unlawfully puts the interests of religious organizations, which provide a significant slice of federally funded social services, ahead of the rights and needs of the vulnerable populations they serve.
As a result of the 2020 rule, FFRF plans to spend additional time and resources educating beneficiaries and providers who take part in social service programs about the rights of participants. One of the ways FFRF is doing that is by distributing “know-your-rights” material for program participants.
FFRF is also planning to conduct an education campaign directed at faith-based entities that receive federal financial assistance to remind them of the remaining nondiscrimination requirements under the new Trump rules. FFRF further plans to launch an education campaign aimed at secular organizations that serve vulnerable populations in order to enable those groups to support the people they serve in advocating for themselves when receiving services from faith-based organizations.
FFRF has in the past pursued complaints about faith-based organizations receiving federal financial assistance.
A new Freedom From Religion Foundation report issued on Dec. 15 exposes the Christian Nationalist takeover of the federal courts and the damage this is causing to the separation of state and church.
Over the past four years, President Trump has stacked the federal courts with ultraconservative judges, thanks to the blocking of President Obama’s judicial appointments and the holding open of vacant seats by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump has made three Supreme Court appointments, 53 appellate court appointments and 170 district court appointments, drastically outpacing his predecessors. In fact, the outgoing president vowed to continue nominating judges through the end of the lame-duck 116th congressional session.
The capture of the courts is alarming, given the power the courts hold over the interpretation of the Constitution and its impact on our rights, FFRF underscores in its report. The judges on the federal bench are appointed for life, which may be up to four or five decades. Their influence often lasts even longer.
To make matters worse, political calculations have dictated Trump’s judicial appointees. In 2016, 81 percent of white evangelical Christians voted for him, and in return they’ve gotten a federal judiciary willing to codify religious privilege while stripping the rights of minorities. That’s why the federal judges that have been appointed by Trump are religious ideologues who are dramatically redefining religious liberty and undermining core, cherished constitutional principles that keep religion out of government.
“We are only seeing the early stages of the coming radical changes to how religious liberty is defined in America,” the report warns. “As Trump appointees continue to decide cases in the decades to come, we will continue to see ‘religious liberty’ used to undermine the laws that keep us all safe and protect us from discrimination. We will continue to see courts give their ‘blessings’ to government favoritism of religion.”
For instance, in a 5-4 decision in July, the Supreme Court allowed public health state-level pandemic restrictions on church services to stand. Just four months later, thanks to newly appointed Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the court flipped on this issue. The Constitution did not change — just personnel. The court ignored the legitimate public health reasons for state and local governments to place restrictions on church services that are commensurate with restrictions placed on events posing similar risks. For the Christian Nationalist justices, religion must occupy a place of privilege. This ruling clearly signals that the new Christian Nationalist majority is ready to move full steam ahead to weaponize and redefine religious liberty, with dangerous consequences.
The report places a spotlight on some prominent Trump appointees, such as Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Barrett and Judges Kevin Newsom, David Stras and James Ho — and their misbegotten judicial philosophies.
“Our godless Constitution separates church from state, and federal courts have long defended that founding American principle,” the report concludes. “Our nation has always understood religious freedom is a protection, not a weapon. The conservative Christian Nationalists who’ve captured the courts have turned these and other hallowed principles on their head.”
Read the full report, principally authored by FFRF Attorney Elizabeth Cavell with research and assistance from FFRF Legal Fellow Joseph McDonald, at ffrf.us/judicial.
Evangelist Franklin Graham has started off the New Year with a doozy of a warning.
In a pair of tweets on Jan. 1, he wrote: “Joe Biden has warned of a ‘dark winter’ for our nation. But the dark winter we’re facing is not just due to Covid-19, it’s due to the moral decline and political corruption we see throughout the U.S.” and “We could face a dark period of history as God turns his back on our nation because of its sins and our politicians embracing, and even flaunting, sin.”
Biden, of course, predicted a “very dark winter” if pandemic mitigation measures dictated by science, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, continue to be politicized. But isn’t it theocratic leaders who have led America astray, who should be “repenting” their science-denying, religion-embracing ways?
Graham has also unctuously praised President Trump’s sanctimonious remarks on Dec. 31 that “a society without religion cannot prosper.”
Shouldn’t the question instead be whether a society with religion — at least the kind of theocratic influence on government and social policy besetting the United States — can prosper? The entanglement of religion and politics arguably is, if not the cause, then a major contributing factor of so much that has gone wrong with the pandemic response in the United States.
And the buck stops with the former president — and those who elected him.
Whether Trump believed what he was saying or was engaging in purely cynical political pandering, as was widely assumed, is not relevant. What is relevant is that Trump — in denying the pandemic, ridiculing masks, undercutting his administration’s own scientists, holding superspreader events, in short, golfing while America is burning up with Covid — was playing to his base. That base is white evangelicals and Christian fundamentalists, 81 percent of whom voted him into office (with Trump also winning the lion’s share of Protestant and Catholic votes in 2020). It can be argued that religion and its dumbing down of America got us into this political nightmare in the first place.
These evangelicals and fundamentalists — many of them Christian Nationalists inimical to the constitutional principle of separation between religion and government, as well as to individual liberties — themselves are the products of their anti-science, anti-intellectual faith.
They reject evolution, so is it any wonder they are “skeptical” of the science of infectious diseases? They’ve been taught to equate their beliefs and wishful thinking, e.g., “alternative facts,” with reality. They’ve been indoctrinated to bow down to a male authority figure. A chilling poll showed that 29 percent of white evangelicals believe that Trump was “anointed by God.”
And their unlikely messiah never stopped playing to his base, regardless of the consequences. One of the most symbolic moments of 2020 was when Trump triumphantly displayed a bible in front of a D.C. church after ordering military police to terrify and scatter peaceful citizens to clear a path for his pandering photo-op.
In the earliest days of the pandemic, while Trump was being briefed on its true nature, he promised, “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” He has made so many statements asserting the pandemic will “just disappear” that CNN created an interactive “Covid disappearing Trump comment tracker”! In October, less than a week after contracting Covid-19, Trump was terming it “a blessing from God.”
Trump unrelentingly attacked science, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the front-line medical profession and the media for its objective coverage of the pandemic and his role in botching the administration’s response. Trump undercut testing, endlessly claiming “We have more cases because we have more testing!” Trump’s religious base, including QAnon supporters, was encouraged to embrace conspiracy theories against the vaccination.
The anti-science policy was set prior to the pandemic, not only by the Trump administration’s dismantlement in 2018 of the federal unit responsible for pandemic preparedness established by Obama, but by its disparagement of climate-change science.By November 2020, the administration, driven by fundamentalist “dominion” theory, had not only withdrawn from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, but had rolled back more than 100 environmental rules and regulations.
It was a small step, then, during the pandemic to attack science-based health and safety policies. Trump appointees in the Department of Health and Human Services began editing weekly reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the coronavirus. U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, of South Carolina, said his investigators found a “political pressure campaign” to “cripple the nation’s coronavirus response in a misguided effort to achieve herd immunity.”
Extremist governors and legislators took their cue from Trump, greatly delaying social distancing and masking orders, including deferring to churches wanting to hold in-person worship services. The Freedom From Religion Foundation legal team has been kept busy contacting public officials over pandemic prayer proclamations, including one by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt. He largely failed to use his civil authority to enact pandemic mitigation measures, yet felt it his right to direct constituents to set aside a day of prayer and fasting to respond to the pandemic!
Trump’s thousands of irresponsible tweets and comments gave many evangelical ministers a green light to defy public health orders. Among countless megachurch leader deniers is Pastor John MacArthur, who maintains “There is no pandemic” as he openly defies public health rules at his Los Angeles church every Sunday, even though congregants have fallen ill and a visiting pastor died of Covid-19. County health inspectors seeking to monitor the church have been blocked by security guards claiming it’s “a Jesus Life Matters protest.”
Fortunately, many religious leaders, especially those in mainstream churches, synagogues and denominations, have done the right thing in the pandemic. Yet all too many ultraorthodox synagogues and churches, including several Catholic dioceses, continue to sue over state restrictions limiting gatherings. In December, four churchgoers refiled a previously settled lawsuit against Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, challenging his generous executive order allowing church attendance so long as churches practice basic distancing and hygiene practices. They should be thanking Northam for protecting parishioners.
That lawsuit is one of many citing a grievance that “secular work is favored” while “religious activities are disfavored.” At root, church officials appear to be smarting over the realization that they are not “essential.” The U.S. Supreme Court, remade by Trump’s three appointees, issued a shocking Thanksgiving decision to enjoin New York’s pandemic policy to limit church gatherings in high-cluster areas. Unfortunately, with Trump having appointed more than a quarter of the federal judiciary based on Religious-Right qualifications, there will be many more such rulings, long after Trump is gone.
For fundamentalists of whatever stripe, unfortunately, science remains an enemy. Since fundamentalists never admit they’re wrong, it does look as if our nation is indeed headed for “a very dark winter.”
On the bright side, we’ve seen widespread adoption by the general public of pro-science slogans, such as “Science works!” “Operation Warp Speed” is proof. Last year, the House passed the Scientific Integrity Act as part of the Heroes Act, which would require science-based federal agencies to adopt a scientific integrity policy. The Freedom From Religion Foundation will be working to help ensure it passes the 117th Congress.
Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
FFRF speaks out
In the wake of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, a direct consequence of President Trump’s encouragement, the Freedom From Religion Foundation called on Congress to take immediate action against him.
In a Jan. 6 press release, FFRF said: “There must be consequences for any U.S. president who behaves like a strongman dictator and who continually voices his refusal to honor election results and our nation’s unbroken history of peaceful succession. Congress needs to take action now.”
FFRF also called on President Biden to eschew the bible during his swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 20 and to refrain from saying, “So help me God.”
FFRF has made several statements about the unparalleled threats to our democracy and secular Constitution, which may be found under news releases and blogs at ffrf.org/news.
FFRF’s Legal Department has been busy ensuring the wall of separation between state and church is high despite all the obstacles thrown our way in 2020. The pandemic changed how and where we work, but it hasn’t changedwhat we do. Last year, as our homes became our offices, we still continued to advocate for your rights and work to keep our government free from religion through litigation, persuasive letters to government agencies asking them to resolve violations, and education on the importance of state/church separation.
There were some staffing changes in 2020. Our legal team bid farewell to our legal fellow, Dante Harootunian, whose fellowship ended in August.
We welcomed a new legal fellow, Joseph McDonald, who recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a dual degree: a Juris Doctorate and a Master’s in Public Health. Our team welcomed a new intake legal assistant, Stephanie Dyer, who is also a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin. Both Joseph and Stephanie were onboarded remotely and have adapted to our “work from home” office environment well.
• In 2020, FFRF secured two court victories and finalized a victory in another case. FFRF, together with Humanistas Seculares de Puerto Rico (HUSE) filed a lawsuit against Puerto Rico’s education secretary and the principal at Luis M. Santiago School challenging an hour-long Christian prayer practice led by teachers at the school every other Monday that students were required to attend. Because of her secular humanist beliefs, our plaintiff mother had been keeping her children home during the school-led prayers. The children were threatened with tardy marks for arriving late to class in order to avoid the prayers. At a mediation session in March, the defendants agreed to permanently prohibit teacher-led prayers at the school and to remove any tardy marks from the students who avoided school during the prayers. And importantly, the secretary of education agreed to circulate a memo on nondiscrimination to Department of Education employees and to conduct a training for all employees at the school on avoiding religious endorsement.
• FFRF favorably settled a case it filed with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) against Secretary Ben Carson’s Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD had a pattern and practice of denying fee waivers on Freedom of Information Act requests “where disclosure of the requested documents is likely to cast the agency or HUD Secretary Ben Carson in a negative light.” The agency had denied waivers in FFRF’s requests over records relating to the White House bible study. In April 2020, we settled the case after it agreed to issue guidance to employees on fee waivers, provide mandatory training, and to pay the attorneys’ fees to both groups — which totaled nearly $18,000.
• In April, FFRF won its case at the appeals court level against censorship of its Bill of Rights “nativity” display in the Texas Capitol by Gov. Greg Abbott. The unanimous opinion by the three-judge court panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted FFRF additional relief. The judgment sent the case back to the district court that previously ruled in FFRF’s favor, to issue a more expansive remedy to protect FFRF’s right to place displays in the future and to ensure a similar constitutional violation cannot happen to other organizations.
• In May, a year after FFRF won a resounding victory halting millions in tax dollars flowing unconstitutionally to repair churches in Morris County, N.J., a judge ruled that FFRF and its attorneys are entitled to attorneys’ fees. The Superior Court of New Jersey 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, along with the ACLU and AU, finalized the victory in a case against the Brevard County Board of County Commissioners. The board agreed not to resume its past practice of discriminating against people who do not belong to mainstream, monotheistic religions when selecting invocation speakers to open board meetings.
• Right before the election, FFRF filed a lawsuit on behalf of four Alabama citizens, challenging a mandatory voter registration oath that concludes, “so help me God.” Alabama is the only state to require voters to sign a religious oath in order to register to vote. In all other states, voters are provided a completely secular registration form or are not required to submit an oath or affirmation at all. Our suit seeks a declaratory judgment that mandating the oath, without a secular option, is unconstitutional and a permanent injunction prohibiting the secretary of state from requiring voters to swear “so help me God.” It also asks for an order to the secretary of state to provide forms that permit voters to register without swearing a religious oath.
One of the most impressive accomplishments in 2020 was the number of amicus briefs (or “friend of the court” briefs) FFRF was able to submit in state and federal courts across the country. FFRF submits these briefs to help guide the court in decision-making and are invaluable in contributing the voice of freethinkers and the nonreligious in cases involving religious liberty. Our attorneys submitted a record number of 10 amicus briefs in 2020! Four of these were filed at the U.S. Supreme Court for cases involving religious exemptions and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Two were filed in our home state at Wisconsin’s Supreme Court and involved religious exemptions to the restrictions involving the pandemic. Others involved other exemptions to stay-at-home orders, prayer at school, a nativity scene on public property and the Muslim travel ban.
In 2020, our intake team processed over 2,000 contacts from members of the public over state/church concerns. Our staff attorneys and legal fellows sent nearly 600 letters of complaint to government agencies over state/church violations. FFRF also sent over 350 letters in “mass mailings” educating government officials on state/church violations, including letters to governors regarding the constitutionality of prohibiting in-person worship services during a pandemic.
Our final achievement for 2020 was publishing a report on Trump judges entitled, “Religious Liberty Under Threat: The Christian Nationalist Capture of the Federal Judiciary.” (See summary on Page 1.) This report exposes the Christian Nationalist takeover of the federal courts and the damage this is causing to the separation of state and church. The report describes in alarming detail how over the past four years, President Trump stacked the federal courts with ultraconservative judges who will now hold their positions for life.
As you can see, the pandemic has not slowed our legal team. As we enter 2021, we will continue to fight for you and for our right to have a secular government.
Rebecca Markert is FFRF’s Legal Department director.
For the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the results of the U.S. presidential election mean the Christian Nationalist takeover of the federal government should end. The Joe Biden/Kamala Harris administration will mean a renewed chance to advocate for secularism and a return to rational debate.
“We the People” have spoken. Unfortunately, the Senate is unlikely to flip (barring two positive outcomes inGeorgia seats up for runoff elections), which will complicate recovery from a Christian Nationalist executive. However, the results overall look like a victory for science over faith, for reproductive and individual rights over theology, and for reason over ideology.
After years of playing defense, FFRF can now push forward.It appears there is a path cleared to achieving gains for FFRF’s movement to keep religion out of government and public policy.
Donald Trump was carried into office on a crest of Christian Nationalism four years ago, a wave that was hostile to everything FFRF works for. We trust the relentless religious assault we’ve been beating back for four years will diminish — and we’ll do everything in our power to ensure that.
FFRF is poised for the opportunities ahead. Our team of attorneys and 30-some staff, and our 33,000 members, are the watchers on the wall separating state and church. We’re the largest U.S. association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics) and the third-largest association of nonbelievers in the world. We’ve added a strategic response campaign, a D.C. lobbyist, and our educational efforts have played a major role in the secular surge. We’ll continue to fight and remain vigilant no matter which party is in the White House or controls Congress.
FFRF has been working with our allies to develop a common secular agenda that Congress and the new administration can quickly implement. We look forward to repairing damage inflicted on secularism and its values. This will entail repealing many Trumpian executive orders, regulations and extrajudicial bodies (such as the Religious Liberty Task Force), but must also include major judicial reform.
Unprecedented obstructionism in the Senate blocked President Obama not only from nominating Merrick Garland to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, but also from filling more than 100 seats on the federal bench. The Trump administration has since packed the courts with more than 200 individuals handpicked by the Federalist Society, including unqualified zealots who do not reflect the American people, trampling Senate rules and norms along the way. An illegitimate process allowed Trump to make his third Supreme Court appointment in the midst of the national election — an appointment that clearly endangers abortion and LGBTQ rights, as well as decades of First Amendment precedent separating religion from government.
FFRF has a talented legal team, and it believes that any legal defense of the First Amendment — of the cherished American principle of the separation of state and church — must necessarily mean reforming our federal courts. We face a hostile federal judiciary, more dedicated to Christian Nationalism than the rule of law.
Regardless of the Supreme Court, we’re gaining in the court of public opinion — reflected in the increasingly secular U.S. demographics. But we can’t let theocratic court-packing jeopardize civil rights, the Establishment Clause and our nation’s future. Even with the election results, it is clear that for reason, humanistic values and our secular Constitution to prevail, our nation will need to unpack, correct and rebalance the judiciary.