FFRF awards $23,650! Winners of FFRF’s college essay contest

Essay contests

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is proud to announce the 13 winners and 16 honorable mentions of the 2020 Michael Hakeem Memorial Essay Contest for Ongoing College Students (out of more than 200 entrants). FFRF has paid out a total of $23,650 in award money to this year’s college contest winners.

Ongoing college students up to the age of 24 were asked to write a personal persuasive essay on the topic of “The Necessity of Freethought — Why I am Not Religious.”

This contest is named for the late Michael Hakeem, a sociology professor who was an FFRF board chair and active atheist known by generations of University of Wisconsin-Madison students for fine-tuning their reasoning skills. His bequest has been used to fund college essays since his death in 2006.

Winners, their ages, the colleges or universities they are attending and the award amounts are listed below. 

First place

Asja Misner, 20, Indian River State College (Florida), $3,500.

Second place (tie)

Katherine Lance, 20, Tarleton State University (Texas), $3,000.

Reese Borlin, 19, Southern Illinois University, $3,000.

Third place

Marquez Collins, 19, Savannah State University (Georgia), $2,500.

Fourth Place

Anna Miller, 19, Bryn Mawr College (Pennsylvania), $2,000.

Fifth place

Aaron Hill, 19, University of California-Berkeley, $1,500.

Sixth place (tie)

Eli Faymonville, 19, Northern Michigan University, $1,000.

Hannah Hawkins, 20, Shawnee State University (Ohio), $1,000.

Seventh place

Anne Marie Nester, 19, Georgia Institute of Technology, $750.

Eighth place

Brenna Bigenwald, 20, University of Pittsburgh, $500.

Ninth place (tie)

Kirsten Cohns, 19, Brookhaven College (Texas), $400.

Parker Randall, 20, University of

Texas-San Antonio, $400.

Tenth place

Karsten Barr-Rollins, 23, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (Florida), $300.

Honorable mentions ($200 each)

Hosanna Barrett, 20, West Virginia University

Sonja Bimberg, 18, University of Minnesota-Duluth

Indigo Bistrup-Peterson, 19, Carleton College (Minnesota)

Danika Brousseau, 20, University of New Mexico

Allison Burks, 24, University of Central Florida

Sam Christenson, 18, University of Maryland-Baltimore County

Maya Givens, 20, University of South Florida

Jenna Kornicki, 21, Columbia

University (New York)

Gabriel Lebon, 20, Arizona State University

Winston McCurley, 20, University of Alabama-Huntsville

Justin Mitchell, 21, Ursinus College (Pennsylvania)

Fatima Montero, 18, Moore College of Art and Design (Pennsylvania)

Rachel Panettiere, 19, University of Georgia

Skylar Pinto, 18, Fairleigh Dickinson University (New Jersey)

Danielle Puccio, 19, University of North Carolina

Sharay Ropozo, 21, University of Washington

FFRF thanks Dean and Dorea Schramm of Florida for providing a $100 bonus to students who are members of a secular group, student club or the Secular Student Alliance. The total of $23,650 reflects those bonuses.

FFRF also thanks “Director of First Impressions” Lisa Treu for managing the details of this and FFRF’s other student essays competitions. And we couldn’t judge these contests without our “faithful faithless” volunteer and staff readers and judges, including: Dan Barker, Darrell Barker, Kristina Daleiden, Bill Dunn, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Judi Jacobs, Linda Josheff, Dan Kettner, Katya Maes, Gloria Marquardt, Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey, Sue Schuetz, Lauryn Seering, PJ Slinger and Karen Lee Weidig.

FFRF has offered essay competitions to college students since 1979, high school students since 1994, grad students since 2010, one geared explicitly for students of color since 2016 and a fifth contest for law students since 2019. All contests are open to any students attending a school in North America meeting the age/grade level eligibility, except the students of color contest, which is reserved for students of color to offer special support for a minority within a minority.

FFRF special report — Secret White House calls helped funnel taxpayer money to preachers, churches

The Freedom From Religion Foundation released evidence on July 15 of how the Trump administration secretly turned the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) into a bonanza of tax-paid handouts for churches and religious leaders.

FFRF has provided audio documentation, via a recording it made, of clandestine calls the White House set up with Trump-allied preachers and church leaders specifically to funnel taxpayer money to churches through the PPP. This giveaway to churches is the first time in U.S. history that tax funds have been directly used to pay the salaries of ministers and religious staff for religious purposes. Religious organizations received at least $7.3 billion in forgivable loans, with megachurches and thousands of Catholic dioceses amassing millions.

President Trump’s offering of public funds to religious ministers breaks with 250 years of constitutional precedent. As the Framers of the secular U.S. Constitution understood and discussed at length, religious liberty requires that citizens be free to decide which church to personally support, or to support none at all. Until very recently, even the fiercest opponents of the separation between state and church admitted that forcing taxpayers to pay the salaries of clergy was flagrantly unconstitutional.

The audio of two calls between religious leaders and the White House (which FFRF recorded) confirms that the White House secretly worked to give church leaders special access to PPP, ensuring they could receive top dollars from U.S. taxpayers.

The first such conference call took place on April 3, just as the PPP went into gear and a full two weeks before the Small Business Administration published its final rules on church eligibility — for the first time — for SBA funds. This secret announcement to clergy reveals that the SBA had no intention of listening to public comments on the proposed rule, and had already decided to extend these loans to churches, in spite of the Constitution and any public outcry. At the time of this call, SBA had only awarded about 10,000 of the 661,218 PPP loans.

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.

The second call, 100 minutes on June 22, was even more explicit, with churches urged to apply for PPP funds before the June 30 deadline. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, a member of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council, explained that the Dr. James Dobson Family Institute, which took between $350,000–$1 million, “has literally been kept solvent . . . by the Paycheck Protection Plan (sic).” Dobson explained that in 43 years of leading two faith-based ministries, he has “never asked for, nor received, one cent from the federal government,” expressing his surprise that taxpayer funds could now flow to his ministry.

At that meeting, evangelist Paula White, a White House employee, touted the Trump administration’s blending of state and church, such as inserting “faith directors” into every executive agency and securing grants for religious purposes. She praised Trump for “put[ting] ‘merry’ back in Christmas.”

The calls came in addition to regular White House conference calls specifically hosted for church leaders regarding the pandemic. Trump and Vice President Pence personally participated in at least one such call, which was described as “more like a time for Trump’s faith surrogates to praise Trump rather than to truly reach out to faith communities.”

Under the PPP, which is administered by the Small Business Association, companies with fewer than 500 employees can receive taxpayer-financed loans that don’t need to be repaid so long as they are primarily spent on employee wages. In May, FFRF sounded the alarm that the shocking change in SBA’s rules allowing churches and other faith-based organizations to receive funding meant taxpayers would be forced to pay the salaries of ministers — a flagrant violation of the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.

Trump and SBA, not the CARES Act passed by Congress, allocated these billions to churches. Although the CARES Act extended eligibility for loans from the SBA to nonprofits, which was new, the law does not give the SBA the power to extend this eligibility to houses of worship, nor could it. The Constitution prohibits government funding of religion.

Below are summaries and documentation of what took place during two of the White House’s conference calls with religious leaders:

The first call

On April 3, two SBA representatives joined the surgeon general, White House officials and more than 500 church-related participants to explain that the SBA would release guidelines on PPP loans specific to churches. (The call was led by Jenny Korn, deputy assistant to the president in the Office of Public Liaison.)

Paula White was introduced with her official White House title (“adviser to the White House Faith and Opportunities Initiative”) and began the call with a prayer asking people to “turn from their wicked ways” and convert to her brand of Christianity. The call also concluded with a sectarian Christian prayer, delivered by Supreme Knight Carl Anderson of the Knights of Columbus.

Before sharing reasonable information regarding the pandemic, Surgeon General Jerome Adams discussed his personal religious beliefs (“As was mentioned, I am a Christian”) and explained that prayers are part of the government’s response to the pandemic: “We’re here trying to empower and equip health care professionals, hospitals, public health departments, and especially faith leaders, to do what works to keep our citizens safe from harm. . . . By working together and by supporting our neighbors and each other, and through prayer, we will get through this.”

Deputy Assistant to the President Jenny Lichter reassured the clergy that there would be virtually no limits for churches qualifying for PPP funds. She emphasized that taxpayer funds would be available even to churches that did nothing other than proselytize:

“Faith-based organizations are eligible regardless of whether they provide secular social services.”

Lichter then assured faith leaders that they would still be able to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation or anything else: “A faith-based organization that receives a loan will retain its independence, its autonomy, its right of expression, its religious character, its authority over its internal governance, and no faith-based organization will be excluded from receiving funding because of any limitations it might place on leadership, membership, or employment based on shared religious faith or practice.”

The June call

Paula White, this time introduced as Trump’s “spiritual adviser,” led a similar sectarian prayer to start the call. The prayer vilified non-Christians, contrasting “evil men” with those who are “attentive to godly counsel.”

Following the prayer, White discussed the White House’s role in the PPP program, confirming that she was on the call as a government representative, not as a private citizen. Two panelists then spoke about receiving PPP funds: Evangelical preacher Jentezen Franklin and Dobson, as reported above.

White appears to explicitly thank SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza for funneling PPP money to “so many houses of worship and faith,” something that was not envisioned in the CARES Act itself.

This boondoggle, this swamp filled with fetid holy water, this 10-figure transfer of wealth from the American taxpayer to churches, was thanks to the SBA, not Congress. Trump rewarded his most fervent supporters with billions of taxpayer dollars in clear violation of the Constitution.

Billboard urges ‘social distancing between church and state’

This FFRF billboard has been placed in Denver, thanks to FFRF Member Monty C. Cleworth and FFRF’s Denver chapter.

A new Denver public message couldn’t be more timely: “Practice social distancing between church and state.”

The dictum on a backlit 10-foot-by-23-foot billboard situated on Broadway south of 10th Avenue is brought to city residents by FFRF, thanks to a local donor and FFRF’s Denver chapter.

“Practicing distancing is extremely important these days,” notes FFRF benefactor Monty C. Cleworth. “Not just distancing for COVID reasons, but also distancing between church and state. We wouldn’t want to transmit anything that is unhealthy and dangerous.”

Adds Claudette StPierre, Denver chapter president, “We social distance to prevent the spread of infectious agents like COVID-19. Distancing between state and church is just as important to prevent the spread of religious dogma and doctrine into our government.”

Among local state/church issues is the taxpayer bailout money received by Denver-area churches.

The Catholic Church received up to $3.4 billion of the pandemic relief Paycheck Protection Program, with reports that the Denver Archdiocese’s share was at least $1.9 million.

Legal interns help keep up the fight (from home)

FFRF’s legal interns for summer 2020 are the first to have never worked in Freethought Hall in Madison, Wis. Because of the pandemic, they (and most of the FFRF staff) have been working from home. Here is a look at FFRF’s legal interns.

Name: Sammi Babcock

Sammi Babcock


Where are you from?: I’m originally from Janesville, Wis., but I’ve been living in the Madison area for three years now.

Law school attending: University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Undergraduate school: University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Religious upbringing: Lutheran.

Post-graduate plans/dreams: After graduation, I hope to continue working in public interest, and I would love to come back and work for FFRF someday.

What has it been like working for FFRF during the pandemic? It’s been a wonderful time. Even though working remotely presents challenges, I have still enjoyed my time here immensely. It’s been an amazing experience being able to work with the attorneys and help FFRF in its mission to uphold the separation of state and church.

My favorite part of the job: The opportunity to research and write about a wide variety of issues, such as courtroom prayer and COVID-19 outbreaks linked to churches.

My legal interests are: Constitutional law (more specifically First Amendment issues), intellectual property, and victim’s rights.

These three words sum me up: Determined, thoughtful, deadpan.

Things I like: Sushi, Shakespeare, hiking, Dungeons & Dragons, water-color painting, sketching and poetry.

Things I smite: Olives, Evangelicals, misogyny and humidity.

A fun fact about yourself: I love to visit Renaissance Festivals. I dress in costume, drink mead when possible, and watch historical re-enactments and lectures about Historical European Martial Arts.

Kat Grant

Name: Kat Grant.

Where are you from?: Washington, Ind., originally, now living in Bloomington, Ind.!

Law school attending: Indiana University Maurer School of Law

Undergraduate school: Indiana University (B.A. in political science).

Religious upbringing: Roman Catholic.

Post-graduate plans/dreams: I decided to pursue a career in law because I’m incredibly passionate about advocating for the rights of marginalized and minority communities, and making the world a more equitable place. As long as the work I’m doing is related to that, I’ll be happy!

What has it been like working for FFRF during the pandemic? It’s definitely been a different experience than anyone was expecting for the summer, but the legal team has been great about making us feel welcome, helping us learn, and communicating with us about different projects!

My favorite part of the job: I’m a big nerd, so I’ve really enjoyed any time I’ve had to do any kind of deep dive looking for details and patterns! Also, just the satisfaction of knowing that I’m helping to uphold the principles of state-church separation.

My legal interests are: Constitutional law (specifically First Amendment issues), LGBTQ and disability rights, and the ways that changing cultural attitudes impact the law.

These three words sum me up: Enthusiastic, compassionate,  stubborn.

Things I like: Jazz music, gluten-free baking and Dungeons and Dragons.

Things I smite: Math, Mike Pence, and the fact that the color chartreuse is not pink, but yellow.

A fun fact about yourself: As an undergrad, I was a member of the Indiana University Marching Hundred and Big Red Basketball Band! If you watched an IU football or basketball game between fall 2015 and spring 2019, you just might have seen me playing clarinet!

Ryan Sendelbach

Name: Ryan Sendelbach.

Where are you from?: Rochester, Minn.

Law school attending: University of Wisconsin Law School.

Undergraduate school: University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Religious upbringing: Pentecostal Christian.

Post-graduate plans/dreams: I want to serve in elected office at some point.

What has it been like working for FFRF during the pandemic? I strongly prefer in-person work over online, but FFRF has done everything possible to make the experience a success.

My favorite part of the job: The opportunity to work in such a unique area of law.

My legal interests are: Civil procedure, election law and taxation.

These three words sum me up: Bad at this.

Things I like: Efficiency, exploration and problem solving.

Things I smite: Pessimism, ignorance and closed-mindedness.

A fun fact about yourself: I triple majored in political science, economics and history as an undergrad.

FFRF welcomes 16 new Lifers

FFRF welcomes and warmly thanks its 16 new Lifetime Members.

The newest $1,000 Lifetime members are: Nelson Allison, Nik Blach, Charles Briggs, Ben Graf, Tom Hinkle, Laura Kass, Larry D. King, Eniko (Enci) Lajos  (gifted by Philip Lentz), David Lippes, Ed Livesay, J. Kent Miller, Leighton E. Moss, Gloria Ratner, Richard W. Royer, Ian Saeger (gifted by Ron Saeger) and Kelvin Sun (gifted by Chenni Hsiung).

States represented are Arizona, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

Sign up for FFRF’s online membership meeting on Nov. 14!

The Freedom From Religion Foundation will be offering our first-ever online membership meeting, including legal and other highlights of the year, on Saturday, Nov. 14. The event will include some special greetings and surprises. While the meeting is only online, for the first time the gathering is available to all members, no matter where you live!

We can already reveal that legendary TV actor Ed Asner will appear during the event in a video accepting FFRF’s 2020 Clarence Darrow Award. Asner, who just joined FFRF’s Honorary Board (see page 8), is an Emmy Award-winning actor. Asner toured the country portraying William Jennings Bryan in a play about the Scopes trial and has been an outspoken progressive activist. The award includes a bronze statuette, a miniature of the 7-foot statue by renowned sculptor Zenos Frudakis that FFRF erected on the lawn of the “Scopes Trial” courthouse in Dayton, Tenn.

Our team of “watchdog” attorneys will present legal highlights at the online meeting, and FFRF’s many other actions and achievements over the year will be featured in the hour-long report preceding the short membership meeting.

Please be sure to register online no later than Monday, Nov. 2, or to mail your free registration so it is received by our office (FFRF, PO Box 750, Madison WI 53701) no later than Monday, Nov. 2. See registration form below or register online at: ffrf.org/2020-meeting.

The “FFRF Highlights of the Year” will begin online at 1:30 p.m. CST on Nov. 14, followed by a short membership meeting, which includes the annual treasurer’s report and an election for the State Representatives. The agenda and other info will be published in your fall Private Line, FFRF’s biannual newsletter.

State Reps, who will be voting on a bylaws change and Executive Board elections, will have their annual meeting online on Saturday, Nov. 21 at 1:30 p.m. CST.

Look for additional details in the upcoming fall Private Line, the October Freethought Today and email reminders. (Members who have not shared their email address with FFRF are encouraged to do so. Send your preferred email address to [email protected] and include your full name and mailing address.)

Any FFRF member in good standing (meaning your dues are up to date) is invited to attend the annual membership meeting. Participants will be emailed the agenda and written reports along with instructions to access the meeting and to vote. All registrants of the membership meeting will receive an email with a link to the online ballot to elect the state representatives. You must attend the meeting for your vote to count.

As previously reported, FFRF’s 2020 convention slated for the weekend of Nov. 13-14, 2020, in San Antonio, had to be postponed due to the coronavirus. Almost all scheduled speakers, including Gloria Steinem and Margaret Atwood, have agreed to appear at FFRF’s 2021 convention at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel on the weekend of Nov. 19-21, 2021.

Asner, Camara, Stone join FFRF Honorary Board

Ed Asner
Jeremiah Camara
Geoffrey R. Stone

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to announce three additional members to its Honorary Board of distinguished achievers who have made known their state-church support or their dissent from religion.

The newest members are Ed Asner, Jeremiah Camara and Geoffrey R. Stone.

Ed Asner, movie and stage actor, TV (“Lou Grant,” “Mary Tyler Moore Show”) legend, winner of seven acting Emmy Awards, comedian and dramatist, has been a trade union and political activist, and two-term president of the Screen Actors Guild. He has appeared in dozens of movies and television shows, including as the voice of Ralph in the beloved film, “Up,” and as Santa in “Elf.”

Jeremiah Camara is filmmaker of “Holy Hierarchy: The Religious Roots of Racism in America” (2018), “Contradiction: A Question of Faith” (2013),  and other films, and author of the books Holy Lockdown: Does the Church Limit Black Progress? and The New Doubting Thomas: The Bible, Black Folks & Blind Belief. He’s also creator the widely watched YouTube video series “Slave Sermons.”

Geoffrey R. Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, joined the faculty in 1973 after clerking for Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan. He later served as dean of the law school  and provost of the University of Chicago. Stone is the author of many books on constitutional law, including Sex and the Constitution: Sex, Religion and Law from America’s Origins to the Twenty-First Century (2017).

The FFRF Honorary Board also includes Sean B. Carroll, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Ernie Harburg, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Susan Jacoby, Robin Morgan, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Mike Newdow, Katha Pollitt, Steven Pinker, Ron Reagan, Robert Sapolsky, Edward Sorel and Julia Sweeney.

FFRF legal team stays busy

Apart from dealing with pandemic-related issues, FFRF has also been recently busy fielding a variety of dismaying non-COVID First Amendment violations.

A lot of these (not surprising in an era of physical distancing) involve inappropriate promotion of religion on government social media. And a number of infringements still involve in-person promotion of prayer and religion.

Below is a representative roundup of violations that FFRF has sent complaint letters about in June and July:

Governmental promotion of prayer, religion

• Post Office, Louisville, Miss.: Conducting a daily morning prayer at the mandatory safety meeting.

• Caddo Parish Public Schools, Shreveport, La.: Opening each meeting with prayer, invariably Christian, led by school board members who often mention “Jesus Christ.”

• City of Franklin, Va.: “Blessing” food and beginning a May 22 lunch in honor of public works employees with an invocation “in the name of Jesus Christ.”

• City of Findlay, Ohio: Organizing and participating in a prayer event outside the county courthouse with Christian-only churches. Said Mayor Christina Muryn: “I think that religion, and faith and Christ are an important part of every issue that we face, as individuals and as a community.”

• Gregg County Courthouse, Longview, Texas: Judge Bill Stoudt organizing a June 27 prayer rally, stating his intention was for “everyone to get together and let’s just do some praying.” The lectern featured the official Gregg County seal.

• Christian County Sheriff’s Office, Ozark, Mo.: Sponsoring and promoting a “Day of Prayer” event on Ozark Square, including a post on the official Facebook page containing a Latin cross and New Testament bible verse inviting everyone to pray.

• City of Frankfort, Ky.: Gov. Andy Beshear relentlessly promoting Christianity during official press briefings, such as inviting Rev. C.B. Akins to lead the state in Christian prayer on May 28 at the daily coronavirus update.

• Morganfield Police Department, Morganfield, Ky.: The chief of police leading a group of citizens in prayer while on duty.

• City of Prattville, Ala.: Organizing and hosting a June community prayer event, advertising it on the city’s website and social media pages, holding it in city hall, and streaming it online.

• Abilene ID, Abilene, Texas: Craig Middle School using its text-reminder system for parents to promote attendance at religious events, granting a Fellowship of Christian Athletes coordinator access to the confidential list of phone numbers, reminding parents to send children to FCA meetings, including one at a church.

• Department of Natural Resources, Madison, Wis.: Requiring employees to attend an awards ceremony at a resort wherein DNR chaplains led prayer and invoked Jesus Christ and a presentation was given with overtly religious themes about grieving.

Promoting religion over social media

FFRF has been contacted by citizens around the nation alerting us to many instances in which governmental social media sites are promoting religion. These include:

• Nicholas County Health Department, Summersville, W.Va.: Regularly endorsing and promoting Christianity in social media posts, encouraging citizens to pray, such as in a May 19 post saying “There is power in prayer!”

• Jefferson County Sheriff, Mount Vernon, Ill.: Posting a video on the official Facebook page where the sheriff said he believed truth is found “In God’s word alone,” and that the U.S. and state constitutions are secondary legal authorities below “the word of God.”

• Baker County Sheriff’s Office, Macclenny, Fla.: Promoting religion on its official Facebook page.

• City of Central Fall, R.I.: The mayor announcing an official day of mourning and lament before inviting a Christian pastor to deliver a short sermon, concluding “in the name of Jesus,” all posted on the city’s official Facebook page.

• City of Longview, Texas: Posting a graphic quoting Psalm 37:4 as part of its updated posting on coronavirus cases.

• Hinton Public Schools, Hinton, Okla.: Posting a religious message by a coach on the team’s Facebook page referencing living by the bible. The religious post was removed after FFRF objected, and we were assured it wouldn’t happen again.

• Greenfield Police Department, Greenfield, Wis.: On multiple occasions promoting Christianity on its Facebook page such as images and videos with biblical quotes.

• City of Madera, Calif.: Posting a video address from the mayor on its official Facebook page urging citizens to “continue to rely on your faith . . . We all know we cannot get through this without our lord and savior Jesus Christ,” asking residents to pray.

• Polk County Commissioners, Bartow, Fla.: Deleting comments, then access by members of a local atheist group from the official Facebook page, simply for expressing viewpoints different from the county board’s chair.

Promotions of religion by members of Congress and statehouses

• State Rep. Ric Metzgar, R-Md., who on July 4 posted on his official government Facebook page the bible verse 1 Peter 2:16, urging his constituents to begin “living as servants of God” and seeking the “gift of Jesus’ salvation.”

• U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, who regularly posts religious messages every Sunday, and on other occasions as well.

• U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, who sent an email to constituents urging them to adopt faith as a central fact of their lives and stressing that the United States was founded “on Judeo-Christian values.”

• State Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Fla.: His Memorial Day post on his official Facebook page was a religious message and New Testament verse that began, “We all should thank God every day.”

FFRF salutes its intake and letter-writing legal team, overseen by Legal Director Rebecca Markert, headed by Intake Attorney Madeline Ziegler, with Staff Attorney Chris Line, Legal Fellows Brendan Johnson and Dante Hartootunian, and Legal Assistant Greta Martens. (We will miss Dante, who has departed recently for his federal clerkship in American Samoa.)

FFRF’s legal team includes the intake and letter-writing crew (clockwise from top left): Intake Attorney Madeline Ziegler, Staff Attorney Chris Line, Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson, Legal Assistant Greta Martens and Legal Fellow Dante Hartootunian.

Mark Dann — Two big developments for FFRF in D.C.

By Mark Dann

To paraphrase Taylor Swift: Legislators are gonna legislate. And the Freedom From Religion Foundation is making your secular voice heard in that process.

Congress is resuming normal order and looking to pass appropriations bills to fund the government. FFRF has been using this part of the legislative process to fight for your secular rights. FFRF has also continued to build bridges and cultivate allies in Washington during the COVID crisis by joining the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.


FFRF has been urging the House to use the appropriations process to tell the Trump administration that religious exemptions are not acceptable and that the separation of state and church must be preserved. This year, we’ve worked with our allies in the Congressional Freethought Caucus to focus on inserting strong nondiscrimination language and defunding harmful regulations that promote religious exemptions. The House has delivered.

The appropriations bill includes strong language (Section 248) denying funds to any organization that discriminates on the basis of age, disability, sex, race, color, national origin, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation. In fact, the bill goes further and bars funding for the implementation of several anti-religious-liberty Trump administration regulations and administrative actions that greatly expand religious exemptions in health care (Section 245), the awarding of federal contracts (Section 114) and in abortion and reproductive care (Section 244). (The bill currently retains the Hyde Amendment barring federal funds from being used for abortion care for low-income recipients on Medicaid and Medicare, which FFRF opposes.)

These types of issues — securing rights and denying funding for regulations that harm the separation of state and church — aren’t usually brought up during appropriations. However, these are not traditional times and, with FFRF’s help, the House is recognizing the uniqueness of this moment.

Leadership Conference

Unlike legal victories, policy requires building strong relationships with like-minded organizations. We have achieved a major milestone in this area: FFRF has officially become a member of the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights. The Leadership Conference was born out of the civil rights movement. It was founded by A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (and a freethinker who declared, “Prayer is not one of our remedies,”); Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; and Arnold Aronson, a leader of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council. The Leadership Conference networks FFRF with other like-minded organizations fighting on a whole host of issues that touch on state-church, from making our courts fairer to removing religious exemptions in health care. We’ve been able to share intelligence and coordinate grassroots lobbying, communications efforts and polling data.

The Leadership Conference will make our advocacy more effective and help to increase the impact of your donations and grassroots efforts. Our participation in this group is also raising FFRF’s profile and helping showcase the importance of secular government across a whole host of other issues, including education, science-based policy, global climate change, religious freedom, health care, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, reproductive justice — and so much more.

The news has been brutal over the past four months. But FFRF has never stopped fighting for your rights and taking that fight into new arenas. These two highlights are victories, and we should savor them.

With your help, we can expect more victories and a strong finish in 2020.

Mark Dann is FFRF’s director of governmental affairs and lives in Washington, D.C.

Mark Dann

Christian ‘mask-free’ coffeeshop gets fined

FFRF commends its home county for taking action against an evangelical-run coffeehouse that advertised itself as a “mask-free zone” in violation of a countywide public health order.

FFRF had emailed a complaint letter on July 20 to Public Health Madison and Dane County, asking it to enforce its order requiring indoor masking in shops and stores to defiant establishments such as Helbachs Coffee in Middleton, Wis. On July 21, health authorities fined Helbachs $263.50 for violating the masking requirement. WKOW-TV quotes an official as saying that since the mask mandate went into effect on July 13, the office has received 390 compliance complaints — with 180 of those against Helbachs.

FFRF noted in its letter that employees of the coffeehouse, run by a couple who started divisive “Jesus Lunches” at Middleton High School, had belittled customers, including small children, who entered while wearing masks and reportedly had refused to space out seating to comply with social distancing regulations. The shop also briefly posted a “mask-free zone” announcement warning that it would not admit anyone wearing a mask.

Individuals have picketed the shop, including FFRF staff. FFRF asked officials to suspend Helbachs’ food and drink license if it refused to comply with the mask order.

“Businesses that refuse to abide by the Public Health Madison and Dane County’s regulations risk the health of everyone in their communities,” stated FFRF Legal Fellow Dante Harootunian. Failing to enforce the order puts responsible coffeeshops and comparable businesses at a competitive disadvantage for obeying the law and protecting their customers, he noted. The mask enforcement, FFRF pointed out, had to include businesses whose owners claim that the mask mandate violates their deeply held personal religious beliefs.

Dane County apparently agrees with FFRF. On Aug. 6, it informed Helbachs   that it could lose its drink and food licenses if it doesn’t comply with the mask order.

Photo by Dan Barker
Bill Dunn, former editor of Freethought Today, protests outside Helbachs, an evangelical-run coffee shop in Middleton, Wis., that advertised itself as a “mask-free zone” in violation of a countywide public health order. The store was fined by the county after FFRF (and others) complained.