Billboards target ‘megapreachers’

This billboard by FFRF was up for a month in the Nashville area in September.

FFRF kicked off in Nashville a national billboard campaign in September targeting what FFRF calls “irresponsible megapreachers.” 

The 14-by-48-foot billboards, in a stained-glass-window motif, gave the advice to “Sleep in on Sunday” and “Enjoy life now — there is no afterlife.” 

The eye-catching billboards were on I-24 West, west of Briley Parkway, and on Lebanon Road, a mile east of Andrew Jackson Parkway. They went up in early September and were up for a full month. The billboard messages were directed at megachurch pastors Kent Christmas of Regeneration Nashville, and Greg Locke of Global Vision Bible Church, and, of course, their flocks. 

Locke is the incendiary preacher who has perpetuated QAnon conspiracy myths and has castigated the pope, Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks. He has called President Biden “demon-possessed,” Vice President Kamala Harris a “jezebel demon” and claimed they oversee “child-trafficking” tunnels underneath the White House. Locke termed Donald Trump the “legitimate” leader of the United States in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. Most concerningly, the pastor was in the mob outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection, praying with a bullhorn — and hyped the riot ahead of time. After the riot, he was banned by social media. Unfortunately, Locke remains influential, with more than 2 million followers on Facebook. 

Kent Christmas, who is founding pastor of Regeneration Nashville and heads Kent Christmas Ministries International, has likewise insisted that Trump won the presidential election, and that the presidential race was “a war between heaven and hell.” Christmas, who is stridently opposed to abortion and gay rights, and routinely spouts off about “demons” and “sin,” claims to be a prophet of doom. 

In its billboard campaign, FFRF advised the good folks of Nashville to ignore these figures.

“It would be far better to sleep in on Sunday — or commune with nature or volunteer to help someone — than to waste time getting infected with disinformation by either of these blowhards,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “The only afterlife that ought to concern any of us is leaving our descendants and planet a secure and pleasant future.”

Locke recorded a video of himself burning a copy of the book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American, written by Andrew L. Seidel, FFRF’s director of strategic response. “America would be kinder, healthier and happier if fewer people listened to Locke and more listened to their conscience. Don’t waste another minute swallowing the hate spewed by these peddlers of outrage,” says Seidel. “Take a nap instead.”

Gaylor notes that the “truly good news” is that church attendance in the United States is dropping off precipitously, with less than half of Americans claiming to belong to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 70 percent church membership in 1999.

Similar billboard messages from FFRF will soon be aimed at Houston megapreacher Joel Osteen.

FFRF condemns Supreme Court’s blow to Roe

Texas abortion cartoon

In a shocking action, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an order officially declining to block Texas’s draconian abortion ban.

In a 5-4 ruling, the high court rejected a request to bar enforcement of the law, contending that applicants failed to meet their burden to stay the law. The one-paragraph opinion was unsigned. Gratifyingly, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s liberal bloc — Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan — in dissenting.

The Texas law that went into effect Sept. 1 is the most restrictive abortion law in the country, banning abortion procedures after six weeks of gestation — which is two weeks after a missed period and before most women even know that they are pregnant. Outrageously, the law deputizes private citizens to file civil suits against abortion providers or anyone who assists someone in obtaining an abortion, offering a “bounty” reward of $10,000 and attorneys’ fees for a successful lawsuit.

Roberts, joined in his dissent by Kagan and Breyer, noted that the Texas law is “not only unusual, but unprecedented” and “appears to insulate the state from responsibility.” Given the novelty of the law and the questions still before the court, he stated he would have blocked implementation of the law “to preserve the status quo.”

Sotomayor, who has become the new voice of dissent on the high court, wrote her own passionate dissent, also joined by Breyer and Kagan, appropriately calling the order “stunning.” She termed the law “a breathtaking act of defiance — of the Constitution, of this court’s precedents, and of the rights of women seeking abortions throughout Texas.” She castigated the majority for “bury[ing] their heads in the sand.” Her footnote noted the immediate and devastating impact of the court’s failure upon pregnant people in Texas.

Kagan issued her own dissent, also joined by Sotomayor and Breyer, highlighting concerns that the shadow docket ruling departed “from the usual principles of appellate process.” She added, “the majority’s decision is emblematic of too much of this Court’s shadow-docket decision-making — which every day becomes more unreasoned, inconsistent, and impossible to defend.”

The unsigned majority opinion acknowledged that the fight is not over, contending “this order is not based on any conclusion about the constitutionality of Texas’s law, and in no way limits other procedurally proper challenges to the Texas law, including in Texas state courts.”

The case will continue in the lower courts. Later this year, the Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, involving the constitutionality of a Mississippi law banning abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy.

“The court’s action has stripped millions of Texans of their fundamental rights under our Constitution and has effectively overruled Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood,” says FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert. “This decision makes clear that we cannot rely on the current Supreme Court — packed with ultraconservative Christian nationalist justices during President Trump’s term in office — from abiding by the rule of law. 

The only path forward is to fix our broken federal judiciary through legislation.”

FFRF’s new Reagan ad airs on Colbert, Maddow TV shows

A fresh version of an iconic Freedom From Religion Foundation ad featuring Ron Reagan premiered on Rachel Maddow’s and Stephen Colbert’s highly watched TV  shows.

The updated ad, in which the “unabashed atheist” is still notably “not afraid of burning in hell,” debuted on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show.” It ran six times, from Sept. 7 through Sept. 9, and then from  Sept. 14 through Sept. 16.

The new 30-second spot also appeared six times on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” on CBS nationally, from Sept. 20 through Sept. 22 and from Sept. 28 through Sept. 30.

This year is the first year that the CBS national network has accepted the ad. 

In the updated TV spot, Reagan, a former ballet dancer, is still seated on stage in an empty auditorium — but the new ad is more colorful, with added technical pizzaz and a few minor modifications. Reagan’s memorable lines still sing:

“Hi, I’m Ron Reagan, an unabashed atheist, and I’m alarmed, as you may be, by the intrusion of religion into our secular government. That’s why I’m asking you to join the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation’s largest and most effective association of atheists and agnostics, working to keep state and church separate, just like our Founders intended. Please join the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”

Ron also recorded a more intimate 50-second digital spot reflecting on what’s changed since he first recorded the spot in 2014.

Reagan, who is the son of President Reagan and Nancy Reagan, has spoken on FFRF’s “Freethought Matters” TV show about why he stopped attending church as a 12-year-old and what happened when he told his father. He has received FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award for his outspoken, life-long identification as an atheist and advocate of the separation between religion and government.

After FFRF aired the ad during several Democratic presidential debates carried by CNN in 2019, Reagan was credited with “winning” and becoming the top trending search on Google.

“We are so grateful to Ron for continuing to lend his celebrity to the Freedom From Religion Foundation,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “Everywhere we go, including in Congress, the public now recognizes FFRF, thanks to Ron, and realizes there are many atheists and freethinkers in America, including the son of a conservative president.”

Annie Laurie Gaylor: Goodbye, and thank you, Ed Asner

Ed Asner cradles FFRF’s Clarence Darrow award given to him in 2020.

By Annie Laurie Gaylor 

Meeting and interviewing Ed Asner, who died Aug. 29, has to be one of the most serendipitous and memorable moments from a lifetime spent working with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. 

Our meeting all began in late 2019, when Amit Pal, our director of communications who previously worked with The Progressive magazine, noted that Ed would be in town for a fundraising play for the publication. He asked me: “Would you like me to see if FFRF can interview him?” I remember replying, “Sure! But that seems like a long shot.”

To my great delight, Amit and The Progressive came through, and we set up an appointment to record an interview with Ed Asner for FFRF’s TV show, “Freethought Matters,” in FFRF’s Stephen Uhl Friendly Atheist Studio in our office in downtown Madison, Wis. His daughter Liza, who was associated with the fundraising show and indicated she is an atheist, was extremely helpful and emailed about directions. Shortly before they were due to arrive, there was a knock on the back door by my first-floor office. It was Liza, unsure where to park. She asked if I could come out and direct them after I told her she was in the wrong driveway. I ran out in my high-heeled shoes and no coat into the icy December morning and got into the backseat of the car to direct her.

“Who’re you?” asked Ed, who was sitting in the front seat.

I told him my name. He immediately began serenading me with the old Scottish ballad I am named for. “Maxwellton’s braes are bonnie,” he belted out, “where early falls the dew.” He was still singing by the time we got around the block and into the proper driveway. As I got out, I asked him: “Would you be willing to sing that song during the interview?”

“Sure,” he replied.

And indeed he did. After Dan Barker and I introduced Ed as the legendary seven-time Emmy-winning actor and progressive activist, we interviewed him about his freethinking credentials. Before the first segment ended, I reminded him that he had said he would be willing to sing “Annie Laurie.” He said, “Say please.” I did — and the rest is history.  

He was so gracious that I dared another request. After the show, when he was willing to pose with the crew, I told him our young staff of almost 30 were so excited to learn he was in the building. Would he be willing to meet them in our lobby? 

“Sure.”

While waiting for the staff to assemble, I pointed out to him the framed photo of my mother in the Anne Nicol Gaylor Lobby, and mentioned that she was FFRF’s principal founder and had died in 2015. He glanced at me sympathetically and asked her age when she died. “Eighty-eight,” I told him. He nodded sympathetically, then asked about my dad. “He died in 2011 at 84,” I told him. He reminded me so much of my father —  in particular his gruff, humorous demeanor. They were the same generation, a generation we are quickly losing.

I also showed him the Clarence Darrow statuette on display in our lobby — a miniature of the 7-foot-tall statue created by sculptor Zenos Frudakis, which FFRF placed in Dayton, Tenn., on the lawn of the courthouse where the Scopes trial was conducted. I explained that the actor John De Lancie, who had portrayed Clarence Darrow in a play opposite Ed Asner as William Jennings Bryan, had helped dedicate the statue at the unveiling.

Ed raised his eyebrows when I told him John had been given the first award. “What about me?” he asked. Soon after, we arranged to name Ed Asner our 2020 Clarence Darrow Award honoree, and, during the lockdown, he sent a video speech accepting the statuette, which he cradled in his arms. In that short acceptance speech, Ed said: “You are so essential to a democracy. It’s not easy to challenge religion in America, but it’s most necessary.”

I recently emailed him to ask if he would give us permission to use that endorsement publicly in our materials. 

“Sure,” came the reply.

Last week, I was watching the Netflix TV series “Grace and Frankie,” co-starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. Lo and behold, there, at the end of the fourth episode, was Ed. He was in an electric scooter and his diction seemed a wee bit less firm, but he commanded the screen, as always. The pandemic slowed production, and the rest of the episodes are still being filmed. I hope Ed was able to complete his role in that filming. His work ethic, right to the very end, is so amazing, and his commitment, including going on the road in the ice and snow in late 2019 to do a fundraiser for The Progressive magazine, and stopping on the way to visit us here at FFRF.

Ed Asner touched so many lives as an actor and an activist, and I’m ever grateful he spared so much time for us at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. 

Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of FFRF.

‘Notorious RBG’ gains a home at FFRF

Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker pose with the bust of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is thrilled and honored to have been chosen as the  recipient of a sculpted bust of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, created and gifted by world-renowned sculptor and FFRF member Zenos Frudakis. The sculpture now adorns the Anne Nicol Gaylor Lobby and greets visitors to FFRF’s office, Freethought Hall, in downtown Madison, Wis.

The sculpture features RBG’s iconic dissent collar. Ginsburg, who prevailed in many cases, had increasingly become the voice of dissent on the high court. She noted: “Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.”

“It will encourage and inspire FFRF staff and members to double down in our work to protect constitutional rights for tomorrow,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, who is pictured above with FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.

Zenos fashioned the bust out of clay to mourn Ginsburg’s death at 87 last fall. It was then completed in bronze. An official unveiling will take place in the future.

Andrew L. Seidel: Committee can’t ignore Christian nationalism

Andrew L. Seidel
Washington, D.C. | U.S.A. – Jan 6th, 2021: Trump Initiated Riots in at the Capitol

This column was first published on Religion Dispatches on July 28 and is reprinted with permission.

By Andrew L. Seidel

On July 27, for the first time, we heard about Christian nationalism in a government conversation about the Jan. 6 insurrection. The conversation some of us had been having about Christian nationalism may have entered the mainstream in the wake of that attack, but politicians — even those promising to get to the bottom of the attacks — ignored the role this political theology played in the attack. They can ignore it no longer. 

Christian nationalism is an identity based around the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, that it’s based on Judeo-Christian principles, and, most importantly, that it has strayed from that foundation. It’s a political identity based on lies and myths. It’s a permission structure that uses the language of return, of getting back to our godly roots, to justify all manner of hateful public policy — and even attacks on our democracy.

On Jan. 6, I watched in horror as this wave of Christian nationalism broke over our Capitol, threatening the peaceful transfer of presidential power for the first time in American history. I’ve been deeply immersed in the insurrection investigation ever since, seeking to understand and write about the role Christian nationalism played on that horrible day. Some of that work will appear in a new epilogue for the paperback of my book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American, which focuses on the Jan. 6 terrorist attack. Every day I learn more about how the permission structures within Christian nationalism motivated the terrorists and how it cuts across the other motivations and identities we saw that day, including the absurd QAnon conspiracy. They believed that they were fighting for God’s chosen one. And if God was on their side, who could be against them? 

Trump’s second impeachment featured the first full airing of the Jan. 6 attacks. But, despite the conversation entering the mainstream, nothing was said about the Christian nationalist aspect of this assault. I feared — and still fear — that the Jan. 6 Select Committee would do the same.

When Rep. Liz Cheney trotted out in her opening statement the Christian nationalist war cry frequently heard in the lead up to Jan. 6, “One nation, under God,” I was worried all over again that they were going to ignore, or cover for, Christian nationalism. 

But then the politicians listened to testimony of four police officers who were on the front lines that day. They spoke of the violence inflicted upon them. The injuries they suffered. The number of times they were electrocuted. The fingers trying to gouge out their eyes and seize their guns. How they were dragged into the mob and beaten. The chemicals they were doused with. The surgeries they’ve endured. The many colleagues that have resigned. One of their fellow officers took his own life. 

They spoke about their anger with the cowardice and indifference of the politicians who deny the seriousness of the assault, many of whose lives were saved by these very officers. They spoke about the odious racial slurs and racism they faced that day. And finally, one of them, Officer Daniel Hodges, who was the officer trapped and nearly crushed to death between the doors as the mob surged through the Capitol, spoke about the Christian nationalist aspect of this assault, though not in those terms: 

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

That Christian flag was carried into battle against America — carried alongside the Confederate flag. It was carried against the police officers protecting the beating heart of our democracy. The terrorists didn’t just parade the flag on the battle lines opposite Hodges, they carried that Christian flag onto the floor of the U.S. Senate. They attacked, they conquered, they paraded their flag on the vanquished ground . . . and then they said a prayer to Jesus in that Senate: 

“Thank you for allowing the United States of America to be reborn. Thank you for allowing us to get rid of the communists, the globalists, and the traitors within our government. We love you and we thank you. In Christ’s holy name we pray. Amen.”

The idea that “the United States of America [should] be reborn” and reborn “in Christ’s holy name,” which is how the prayer concluded, is central to Christian nationalism. We cannot understand what happened on Jan. 6 without understanding Christian nationalism. 

The officers who testified demanded justice. They demanded accountability. They turned to this committee, made up of U.S. representatives whose lives they saved, who represent the democracy they saved, and they asked for justice and accountability. Our country needs it. 

But we will only get that reckoning if we grapple with the role that Christian nationalism played in violently assaulting our democracy. Let’s hope this select committee doesn’t ignore, or worse, cover for, Christian nationalism. Let’s hope this select committee listens to Officer Hodges. Because on Jan. 6, Christian nationalism proved that it is indeed un-American and that it will not go gently into the obsolescence for which it is bound. If we refuse to identify and confront this threat, it will strike again. The terrorists made that clear.

Andrew L. Seidel is FFRF‘s director of strategic response.

Erwin Chemerinsky: Religious objections to vaccine shouldn’t matter

Erwin Chemerinsky
Covid-19 vaccination record cards issued by CDC.

This column first appeared in the Los Angeles Times on July 23 and is reprinted with permission.

By Erwin Chemerinsky

Policies requiring vaccination against Covid-19 need not include, and should not include, exceptions for those who have religious objections to vaccinations.

Many universities, including the University of California, are requiring vaccination for all students, staff and faculty returning to campus. Many employers, public and private, are doing so as well. These policies are essential to protect public health. The virulent delta variant of the coronavirus has made it imperative to ensure vaccination of as many people as possible.

Unfortunately, though, many of these policies have an exception for those who have a religious objection to vaccination. These are neither required by the law nor are they desirable as a matter of policy because they make it possible for anyone to circumvent the vaccine mandate.

The University of California’s mandatory vaccination policy, for example, has an exception for those who object on religious grounds. It states that this is because the law requires such an exemption, declaring: “The University is required by law to offer reasonable accommodations to . . . employees who object to vaccination based on their sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance.”

This is simply wrong as a matter of law. No law requires such a religious exemption. In terms of free exercise of religion under the First Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled more than 30 years ago in Employment Division vs. Smith that the Constitution does not require exceptions to general laws for religious beliefs. In an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court said that as long as a law is neutral, not motivated by a desire to interfere with religion and of general applicability to all individuals, it cannot be challenged based on free exercise of religion. In June, in Fulton vs. City of Philadelphia, the court reaffirmed this legal test.

Laws that require vaccination are the epitome of a neutral law of general applicability: a requirement that applies to everyone and that was not motivated by a desire to interfere with religion. Even if this were not so, the government can infringe on religious freedom if its action is necessary to achieve a compelling interest.

Stopping the spread of a deadly communicable disease is obviously a compelling interest and vaccinations are the best way to reach that goal. No one, in practicing his or her religion, has a constitutional right to endanger others.

Indeed, a number of states, before Covid-19, created mandates for children to be vaccinated against other communicable diseases without making exemptions for religious beliefs. Without exception, the lower courts have upheld these mandates as constitutional.

Nor do federal employment discrimination laws require a religious exception for employees. In the 1977 case Trans World Airlines vs. Hardison, the Supreme Court said that employers do not have to bear more than a “de minimus” cost in accommodating employees’ religious beliefs. Vaccine exemptions could impose a significant cost on employers in terms of illness and therefore clearly are not required.

Religious exemptions, like in the University of California policy, are for those with “sincerely held religious beliefs.” But how can this possibly be determined?

The Supreme Court has said that religious beliefs are personal, and it does not matter whether they are in accord with the teachings and dictates of a particular faith. Under this broad principle, any person could get a vaccination exemption merely by stating that he or she has a religious objection against it.

Such an easy opt-out could make the mandate illusory. That is why the only way to have a meaningful vaccination requirement is to apply it to everyone — except those for whom vaccination is not medically advisable.

As people return to the workplace and to campuses the spread of Covid-19 remains a great danger, especially with the highly transmissible delta variant circulating. The unvaccinated not only endanger themselves and other unvaccinated people, but also those who cannot get the vaccine for medical reasons. And now, there are growing reports of breakthrough infections of fully vaccinated individuals.

Universities and employers have the legal right to make sure that everyone is vaccinated. And they have the moral duty to protect health and lives.

Erwin Chemerinsky is dean of the University of California – Berkeley School of Law. He is the author of a forthcoming book, Presumed Guilty: How the Supreme Court Empowered the Police and Subverted Civil Rights.

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.