Boston beckons for FFRF’s exciting convention

Steven Pinker (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Sikivu Hutchinson
Gloria Steinem
Anny Druyan
Margaret Atwood

When you think of Boston, what comes to mind first? The marathon? Baked beans? The Red sox or Celtics? 

Well, for Freedom From Religion Foundation members, maybe it’ll be that FFRF’s 44th annual convention will be held there from Friday, Nov. 19–Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021, at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. (The event is limited to those who are fully vaccinated for Covid-19. See back page for details on “Covid rules.”)

“We look forward to a celebratory event and warm reunion with members,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We’ve put together an amazing line-up of leading authors and freethought and secular activists.”

The conference will open informally on Thursday night, Nov. 18, with early registration and a two-hour appetizer reception at the Boston Park Plaza. Registration resumes at 7 a.m. Friday, Nov. 19, with early morning coffee, tea and breakfast pastries. Registration continues throughout the conference. The full, two-day program formally opens at 9 a.m. Friday and continues through Saturday night. The membership meeting will take place at 9 a.m. Sunday, followed by a short meeting of the State Representatives, concluding by noon.

Headliners previously announced include distinguished author Margaret (The Handmaid’s Tale) Atwood, freethinking feminist Gloria Steinem, Power Worshippers author Katherine Stewart and Secular Studies pioneer Phil Zuckerman. Joining that list are now veteran Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse, whose new book, Justice on the Brink: The Death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Rise of Amy Coney Barrett, and Twelve Months That Transformed the Supreme Court, will be just released, as well as FFRF Honorary President Steve Pinker, whose latest book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, will also be hot off the press. Greenhouse will receive FFRF’s Clarence Darrow Award for her outstanding legal reporting and analysis.

Additionally, the mother-daughter duo of Ann Druyan and Sasha Sagan will end the conference Saturday night following the banquet dinner. Druyan co-authored with Carl Sagan many classic science books, and writes and produces the award-winning “Cosmos” TV series.

Druyan will receive FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award, reserved for public figures who make known their dissent from religion. Her daughter Sasha is author of the well-received new book, For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World.

FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel, author of Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American, will lead a workshop on Christian nationalism and its ties to Jan. 6. Professor Chris Cameron will speak about his book, Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism. David Tamayo, co-founder of Hispanic American Freethinkers, will speak. 

Activists honored at the event will include secular students, Freethinkers of the Year such as FFRF member David Williamson and other recent successful state/church plaintiffs and Black Skeptics Los Angeles founder and author Sikivu Hutchinson, who will be receiving FFRF’s Freethought Heroine Award. Indian actor Sushant Singh, who has protested against Hindu nationalism, is scheduled to receive the Avijit Roy Courage Award.

Megan Phelps-Roper, author of the new book Unfollow: On Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, will receive the Henry Zumach Freedom From Religious Fundamentalism Award.

The event will include a report on FFRF accomplishments by Gaylor and Co-President Dan Barker, an hour-long legal report by FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert and FFRF’s attorneys, a little music at the piano by Barker, FFRF book and product tables, the traditional drawing for “clean,” pre-“In God We Trust” currency, and some complimentary food receptions. There will be opportunities for socializing and meeting with authors during book signings.

There will also be two optional author receptions. After “An evening with Margaret Atwood” Friday night, involving a moderated conversation with author Katherine Stewart, a short private reception for Ms. Atwood will take place, limited to 100 individuals. Tickets to the reception are $500 and will include a copy of The Testaments, her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. 

Friday evening will end with a complimentary dessert reception and hot beverages for all participants.

Gloria Steinem will be interviewed by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor on Saturday afternoon, taking some audience questions, followed by a half-hour reception limited to 50 individuals. That $500 ticket will include a copy of Ms. Steinem’s newest book, The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off! Thoughts on Life, Love, and Rebellion. Both Atwood and Steinem will receive FFRF’s “Forward Award,” reserved for those who have moved society forward.

The schedule and updates will be published in upcoming issues of Freethought Today and on FFRF’s website, ffrf.org/convention-2021.

Pre-registration deadline is Oct. 31, 2021, unless the convention sells out earlier. We encourage you to plan ahead.

FFRF: Records reveal link between the Trump White House, Capitol Ministries

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has recently acquired records confirming that senior officials in the Trump administration used taxpayer-funded time and resources to organize extremist weekly bible studies, including a large event at the Museum of the Bible.

Although Capitol Ministries fortunately appears to no longer be active in the White House, it has not gone away. The group’s founder and president, Ralph Drollinger, remains active on Capitol Hill and at the state level haranguing lawmakers to legislate according to his homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic version of Christianity.

The stated mission of Capitol Ministries, a Christian nationalist organization, is to “evangelize elected and appointed political leaders and lead them toward maturity in Christ.” Drollinger was the likely inspiration for the citation of Romans 13 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to justify the Trump administration’s egregious family separation policy, literally putting kids in cages after separating them from their parents.

Capitol Ministries held a December 2019 event at the Museum of the Bible, where it said attendees “heard from White House cabinet members, U.S. senators and representatives about the importance of teaching God’s word to people in political power and how the Washington, D.C., bible study they regularly attend impacts their lives personally and professionally.” 

FFRF sought public records related to this event from all the departments involved, and the records, although they took well over a year to arrive, confirm several high-level officials’ involvement and the use of staff time to organize and promote the religious event.

The records further reveal details of the event, including an email describing the event as having a panel of “100 new ministry leaders and their wives.” This casual sexism is par for the course for Drollinger, who has said mothers who work outside the home are sinners: “Women with children at home who either serve in public office, or are employed on the outside, pursue a path that contradicts God’s revealed design for them. It is a sin.”

Disgraced former Texas Gov. and ex-Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who resigned his cabinet position in shame after Trump blamed Perry for setting up the infamous Ukraine call that led to the former president’s first impeachment, is now “spearheading CapMin’s nationwide effort to recruit ministry leaders across America to teach the bible in weekly studies to local government public servants in their neighborhoods,” according to Capitol Ministries. FFRF has had a long history of challenging Perry’s improper use of his public offices to promote fundamentalist Christianity, including suing him for initiating an evangelical prayer rally in 2011.

FFRF wins court case vs. Texas Gov. Abbott

FFRF’s Bill of Rights nativity

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has been granted relief in its six-year lawsuit challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s censorship of its Winter Solstice display in the Texas Capitol.

On May 6, U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel ruled in favor of FFRF in its federal challenge of censorship of its freethought display in the Capitol in 2015. Yeakel ordered declaratory and injunctive relief to ensure that Abbott and the State Preservation Board will not violate FFRF’s free speech rights in the future.

“This is a great victory for free speech rights, especially of minority viewpoints, including nonreligious citizens whose voices must be equally respected,” says FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert.

The court, after officially rendering its verdict in favor of FFRF’s First Amendment freedom-of-speech claim, granted it protection from future viewpoint censorship and issued an injunction and this declaration: “It is further ordered and declared that defendants violate the Foundation’s First Amendment rights and engage in viewpoint discrimination as a matter of law when they exclude the Foundation’s exhibit based on the perceived offensiveness of its message.”

FFRF, with help from members and with requisite sponsorship by a legislator, had placed a Winter Solstice display in the state Capitol in December 2015 as a response to a Christian nativity. FFRF’s whimsical display depicted the Founders and the Statue of Liberty celebrating the “birth” of the Bill of Rights (which was adopted on Dec. 15, 1791). 

Abbott, as chair of the Texas State Preservation Board, while permitting the Christian exhibit, ordered FFRF’s display removed only three days after it was erected, lambasting it as indecent, mocking and contributing to public immorality.

FFRF initially won its lawsuit at the district court level, which ruled that Abbott and the State Preservation Board had violated FFRF’s free speech rights. In April 2020, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that FFRF was entitled to more permanent, lasting relief than the district court initially awarded, and sent the case back to that court. On May 6, the district court granted FFRF prospective relief by enjoining Abbott and the board from censoring FFRF’s speech in the future.

Gaylor notes that the fastest-growing segment of the population are the “Nones” — religiously unaffiliated Americans. FFRF has almost 1,500 members in Texas.

FFRF’s relief was greatly delayed, thanks to a stunt pulled by the State Preservation Board. 

Two weeks before the parties’ briefs were due to the district court, the board made slight adjustments to its exhibit policies, including a dubious declaration that all future exhibits in the Capitol would be considered “government speech.” In its subsequent briefing to the district court, FFRF successfully argued that these surface-level changes did not alter the true nature of the forum for citizen speech in the Texas Capitol. The court rejected the state’s argument that FFRF’s lawsuit no longer involved a live controversy and that the case was thus moot.

FFRF is represented by Associate Counsel Sam Grover and Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott, with attorney Rich Bolton of Boardman and Clark LLP serving as litigation counsel.

FFRF wins lawsuit against praying Texas judge

Wayne Mack

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has won its court challenge to stop a Texas judge from conducting courtroom prayer.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt ruled May 21 in favor of plaintiffs FFRF and local attorney “John Roe.” They had sued Montgomery County Judge Wayne Mack over his divisive and unconstitutional practice of opening each court session with chaplain-led prayer. Mack, as a justice of the peace, has jurisdiction over minor misdemeanor offenses and lesser civil matters. Montgomery County is north of Houston, and its county seat is Conroe.

The decision reads: “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.”

FFRF welcomes this judgment declaring at long last that Mack cannot continue abusing his authority to coerce attorneys, litigants and other citizens into participating in his courtroom prayers.

“A courtroom is not a church, and a judge’s bench is not a pulpit,” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Today’s ruling is a victory for the constitutional rights of all Americans and for equal justice under the law.”

FFRF and Roe, who originally challenged the courtroom prayers in March 2017, due to various technical reasons, refiled the case against Mack in 2019.

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. Despite numerous complaints regarding the practice, Mack insisted on opening his court session with chaplain-led prayer. 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.

Since entering the lawsuit, Roe has regularly declined business in order to avoid appearing in Mack’s courtroom. On some matters, where a district court has concurrent jurisdiction with Mack’s court, Roe elected to bring claims in the district court instead of Mack’s court, despite the higher filing fees, higher service fees and the generally slower docket, in order to avoid Mack’s prayer practice. These decisions, motivated by a desire to avoid government-prescribed prayer, are not choices that any attorney or private litigant should have to make, FFRF argued in its briefings.

FFRF’s suit asserted that Mack’s prayer practice is unconstitutionally coercive, with a primary purpose and effect of promoting religion. FFRF noted that Mack’s practices cannot be compared to legislative prayer. Unlike legislative prayer, Mack’s courtroom chaplains directed their prayers to the audience, not the judge. And in the courtroom setting many of the audience members are compelled, under threat of a warrant issuing for their arrest or other ordered penalties, to appear in the courtroom. Judge Hoyt agreed that the prayers were coercive.

While this latest decision resolves the case, the court issued a ruling on March 25 granting FFRF and its plaintiff Roe default judgment against Mack in his official capacity as a judicial officer. Because the state of Texas elected not to defend the lawsuit, plaintiffs Roe and FFRF moved for, and were granted, a default judgment declaring: “Judge Mack’s courtroom prayer practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” Plaintiffs plan to seek recovery of their attorneys’ fees and costs against the state.

“In a time where the wall of separation between state and church is continually chipped away, this decision is welcomed for its straightforward and accurate interpretation of the Establishment Clause, noting the prayer practice ‘flies in the face’ of our traditions,” comments FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert.

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.

FFRF, others make history with White House meeting

FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker and FFRF’s Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel participated in an online meeting with members of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships on May 14.

In a first for secular organizations, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and five other groups met with the Biden White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships on May 14.

Representatives from FFRF, the American Humanist Association, American Atheists, Center for Inquiry, Ex-Muslims of North America and the Secular Coalition for America, which set up the meeting, met with Executive Director Melissa Rogers, Deputy Director Josh Dickson and Program Specialist Ben O’Dell.

“With more than a quarter of the population identifying as a ‘None’ (no religion), it’s vital that our community, our voices be heard in favor of reason in social policy and upholding our secular government,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said, who was present along FFRF Co-President Dan Barker and FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew Seidel.

The cordial meeting, which included discussions of secular priorities, marks a break from the previous administration, where Paula White ruled the roost and meetings began with prayer.

The current meetings have no prayer, no bragging about how religion is being inserted into the federal government. There has been no attempt to funnel government funds to these groups, and much of the emphasis has been messaging on the importance and availability of vaccines. FFRF representatives have been attending and monitoring all of the calls.

FFRF blew the lid off a series of secretive calls the Trump White House held to reassure churches that they could and should request forgivable loans under various SBA programs, including the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). In one call, Trump-allied faith leaders were assured by the federal government that even a discriminatory fly-by-night “church” that provides absolutely no secular social services, and of which the owner is the sole employee, could have its wages covered by taxpayers during the PPP time period. These assurances were made a full two weeks before the SBA released its final rule on eligibility, showing that it had no interest in considering public comments.

Another call was even more explicit, with churches urged to apply for PPP funds before the deadline. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, a member of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council, reported that the Dr. James Dobson Family Institute, which took in $350,000–$1 million, “has literally been kept solvent . . . by the Paycheck Protection Plan (sic).” Dobson noted with obvious glee that in 43 years of leading two faith-based ministries, he had “never asked for, nor received, one cent from the federal government,” expressing his surprise that taxpayer funds could now flow to his ministry.

While FFRF maintains that it is inappropriate for any government action to turn religious Americans into an “in” crowd while secular Americans are “outsiders,” the current White House faith-based office has turned a blatantly Christian nationalist outfit into an office that explicitly acknowledges the separation between religion and government. That’s a step in the right direction.

FFRF lawsuit ends voter religious test

Citizens can now opt out of
‘so help me God’ on Alabama’s form 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has attained a huge constitutional victory for secular voters in Alabama.

FFRF sued the Alabama secretary of state last October on behalf of four Alabama citizens who encountered and objected to a religious test to register to vote.

Now that the state of Alabama has amended all its voter registration forms to allow citizens to opt out of the religious oath, both online and in printed forms, FFRF has voluntarily dismissed its federal lawsuit challenging the uniquely Alabamian mandatory religious voter registration oath.

“The Alabama secretary of state excludes Alabama citizens from being able to vote if they are unable to swear a religious oath,” stated the suit. “The secretary of state’s official policy is to hinder the registration of voters who are unable to swear ‘so help me God.’ This policy violates the rights of the plaintiffs and others under the First and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution.”

As part of a settlement, Alabama Secretary of State John H. Merrill has amended all of the voter registration forms to allow voters to avoid swearing a religious oath. The new “mail in” form provides a check box that says, “Optional: Because of a sincerely held belief, I decline to include the final four words of the oath above.”

Shortly after the suit was filed, the secretary of state began implementing other changes. In November, the office adopted a new administrative rule that allows voters to strike out “so help me God” and provided guidance to county registrars (who add voters to the 

rolls) saying that voters could cross out the language.

The lead plaintiff, Randall Cragun, an atheist, had sought to register to vote in Alabama since November 2019. However, voters submitting this registration form in Alabama had to sign the voter declaration, beginning “I solemnly swear or affirm” and concluding with “so help me God.” The director of elections informed Cragun: “There is no legal mechanism to register to vote in Alabama without signing the oath as it is stated.”

The state of Alabama has dramatically changed its posture, thanks to FFRF’s lawsuit.

FFRF’s plaintiffs Chris Nelson and Heather Coleman (who are married) were able to register using the new form in March. Both of their registrations were accepted by the Shelby County registrars. “We are glad that the state has — at least, begrudgingly — made some concessions to support state-church separation, and that freethinkers in Alabama will continue to push for these reforms,” they say.

The other plaintiffs have expressed their appreciation for no longer being forced to pose as religious in order to exercise such a basic right.

“Because of this suit, I will finally be able to register to vote in Alabama,” says Cragun. “It is disappointing that the state prevented me from voting in the 2020 elections, but I am looking forward to participating in the future, and I now have a better appreciation of the value my voice and other individual voices contribute to shaping the state.”

Adds co-plaintiff Robert Corker, “I am proud to have been a part of this effort to secularize voting in the state of Alabama. I relish more opportunities to foster inclusiveness for nonbelievers in this state.”

Cragun thanked FFRF for stepping in where others wouldn’t. 

“I am so grateful to FFRF for pursuing this case,” he said. “Before FFRF took on the case, I spent a few months contacting attorneys and made no progress. I became discouraged by the idea that the state could infringe on my rights without me having any hope of doing something about it. I have heard people accuse FFRF of coming in from out of state to interfere with local matters, and I think anyone who has taken that rhetoric seriously should know that FFRF is helping protect the rights of its members like me. I never thought that I had much power to protect my rights until FFRF helped give me a voice.”

FFRF is honored to play its part of securing voting access for all Alabama residents.

“The secretary of state was consciously discriminating against nonbelieving voters,” says FFRF Senior Litigation Counsel Patrick Elliott. “We obtained our goal of ensuring equal voting rights.”

The lawsuit had been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, Southern Division. Steven P. Gregory of the Birmingham-based Gregory Law Firm was serving as co-counsel. FFRF Senior Litigation Counsel Patrick Elliott and FFRF Associate Counsel Liz Cavell were also attorneys in the case. The defendant was Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill.

FFRF litigation to correct state/church entanglements is made possible thanks to kind donations designated to FFRF’s legal fund.

$300K secular studies endowment made by FFRF

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to announce the FFRF Secular Studies Endowment at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., the trailblazing home of the country’s first Secular Studies program.

The $300,000 gift, made possible thanks to a bequest by FFRF member and ardent atheist Kenneth L. Proulx, will help the Secular Studies program fulfill its mission to increase understanding of — and disseminate knowledge about — secularism, atheism, agnosticism, humanism, naturalism and freethought in societies and cultures, past and present.

Pitzer College, which is part of the Claremont Colleges, was the first college in the United States to inaugurate a Secular Studies program in 2011. Annually, more than 200 students take a secular studies course. Initiated by Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology and secular studies, the program has six affiliated faculty members representing the fields of history, philosophy, religion, science and sociology. Course offerings include “Sociology of Secularity,” “God, Darwin and Design in America,” “Fundamentalism and Rationalism” and “Anxiety in the Age of Reason.”

Pitzer’s Secular Studies program has an outsized reach, thanks to Zuckerman, founder of the program and an associate dean at Pitzer. Zuckerman has written a number of popular and academic books and papers on secularity, including Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment (2008), Atheism and Secularity (2010), Living the Secular Life (2014), The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies (2016), The Oxford Handbook of Secularism (with John Shook) (2017) and What It Means to Be Moral (2019). He’s a frequent contributor to Salon, the Los Angeles Times, Free Inquiry and Freethought Today.

“This amazing grant aligns perfectly with the goals of both FFRF and the Secular Studies program: to support education around secularism, atheism, and humanism,” comments Zuckerman. “It will help generate more course offerings, student and faculty research and campus programming. I am both thrilled and honored.”

The purpose of the endowment is to broaden, develop and innovate the study of nonreligious people, groups, movements, thought and cultural expressions and increase the canon of scholarship and scope of visibility of secularity.

A wide range of activities and initiatives supported by FFRF’s endowment are envisioned over the years, including course development, research stipends, student travel, distinguished speakers and panelists, symposia or conferences. The college envisions FFRF’s endowment as a lead gift in a goal to someday establish a Center of Secular Studies at Pitzer College.

“FFRF is so pleased to support the critical work of Pitzer’s Secular Studies program,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, “because it values the study of the impact of freethought and skepticism here and worldwide. We consider Phil Zuckerman to be a national freethought treasure.”

U.S. Reps sponsor Day of Reason

Several members of Congress, led by U.S. Jamie Raskin, co-chair of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, are championing a resolution proclaiming May 7 as an annual National Day of Reason. Other sponsors include Reps. Jared Huffman, Mark Pocan, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Jerry McNerney and Pramila Jayapal, all CFC members.

The National Day of Prayer occurs on the first Thursday in May (May 6 this year) as proclaimed by an unconstitutional congressional law requiring the president to encourage citizens to “turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.” FFRF won a historic federal court ruling in 2010 declaring the law unconstitutional, which was later thrown out by an appeals court based on standing, not the merits.

Raskin’s resolution reads:

“Whereas the application of reason has been the essential pre-condition for humanity’s extraordinary scientific, medical, technological, and social progress since the modern Enlightenment;

“Whereas reason provides the vital catalyst for confronting the crises of our day, including the civilizational emergency of climate change, and for cultivating the rule of law, democratic institutions, justice, and peace among nations;

“Where irrationality, magical and conspiratorial thinking, and disbelief in science have undermined the national effort to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, contributing to the death of more than 555,000 people in the United States;

Whereas reason and science are fundamental to implementing an effective coordinated response to beat the Covid-19 virus, which includes improved social confidence in the safety and efficacy of vaccinations and evidence-based solutions to the inequities exacerbated by the pandemic, and involves the federal government, the states, and the scientific and medical communities;

“Whereas America’s Founders insisted upon the primacy of reason and knowledge in public life, and drafted the Constitution to prevent the official establishment of religion and to protect freedom of thought, speech, and inquiry in civil society; 

“Whereas James Madison, author of the First Amendment and fourth president of the United States, stated that ‘The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty,’ and ‘Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives’ and 

“Whereas May 7, 2021, would be an appropriate date to designate as a ‘National Day of Reason’: Now, therefore, be it Resolved, that the House of Representatives supports the designation of a ‘National Day of Reason;’ and encourages all citizens, residents, and visitors to join in observing this day and focusing on the central importance of reason, critical thought, the scientific method, and free inquiry to resolving social problems and promoting the welfare of humankind.”

“We are grateful to Rep. Raskin and other co-sponsors for working so that reason and our secular Constitution will prevail,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said.

Rep. Jayapal

All hail FFRF’s victory!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Trisha Ahmed

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

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

Dear Dad,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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