Special report: Christian nationalism and Jan. 6

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty have together published “Christian Nationalism and the January 6, 2021, Insurrection,” a comprehensive report of how Christian nationalism played an integral role in last year’s Capitol insurrection. 

“Even with the voluminous coverage of the events of Jan. 6, 2021, one area that has not yet been studied enough is the role that Christian nationalism played in bolstering, justifying and intensifying the attack on the U.S. Capitol,” writes Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee.

The full report will be available in February. 

“Drawing on reporting, videos, statements and images from the attack and its precursor events, this report contains the most comprehensive account of Christian nationalism and its role in the Jan. 6 insurrection,” Tyler writes. 

The contributors include Tyler; Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry, authors of Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States; Katherine Stewart, author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism; Dr. Jemar Tisby, author of The Color of Compromise; and Andrew L. Seidel, director of strategic response at FFRF and author of The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American, which was just released in paperback with a new epilogue that’s about Jan. 6. 

The report includes an overview of Christian nationalist demographics and statistics, and a look at who is behind the network of money and power that support Christian nationalism. The bulk of the report includes the evidence compiled by Seidel. It concludes with potential solutions of how to combat Christian nationalism. 

“The scale and severity of the Jan. 6 attack warrant a dedicated report of this kind.” 

Insurrectionists carry a large wooden cross outside the Capitol on Jan. 6. (Shutterstock photo)

FFRF legal department kept busy in 2021

By Rebecca Markert

The legal department at FFRF has been working tirelessly to protect the wall of separation and to represent nonbelievers at every turn.

There’s been a lot of work this past year. It feels like it’s been nonstop:  from continuing violations stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic to dealing with a new ultraconservative U.S. Supreme Court taking more and more cases with an increased interest in religious liberty. 

I would like to thank our amazing legal department staff. Our attorneys and assistants weren’t just working remotely half of last year — they were at home during a global health crisis. They deserve kudos for rolling with the punches. 

Here are some of our notable achievements from 2021.

Court victories

In the past year, FFRF filed one new lawsuit, and has five ongoing cases. Two we have won, but they’re on appeal. We also closed one case permanently, a victory for FFRF.

Cragun v. Merrill

Victory! FFRF represented four Alabama residents who filed suit in the U.S. District for the Northern District of Alabama on Oct. 1, 2020, challenging a religious oath ending “so help me God” that voters were required to sign in order to register to vote. As part of a settlement, the Alabama secretary of state changed the voter registration forms and the applicable regulations. New voter registration forms allow voters to opt out of signing a religious oath. 

MAZON v. HHS 

FFRF joined a coalition of service and advocacy organizations in a lawsuit at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against eight federal agencies for undoing rules that protect those receiving social services from being discriminated against. The Trump administration adopted new rules that do not require faith-based organizations to inform recipients of their legal right to be free from discrimination, not have religious programming, and to refer recipients to an alternative provider if requested. The Biden administration has indicated it will undo these provisions and will likely propose new rules in 2022. The case is stayed pending the adoption of the new rules. 

FFRF v. Gov. Greg Abbott 

FFRF filed a federal lawsuit in 2016, challenging Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s removal of its approved Bill of Rights “nativity” display from the Texas State Capitol. FFRF had a permit and a legislative sponsor for its display. Abbott, as chair of the Texas State Preservation Board, ordered the display taken down three days after it was erected on Dec. 18, 2015, lambasting it as indecent, mocking and contributing to public immorality. In 2018, the district court entered judgment against Abbott and the State Preservation Board for violating FFRF’s free speech rights. The state appealed the case to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court on the basis that the district court was not permitted to issue the remedy that it provided to FFRF. The 5th Circuit ruled in FFRF’s favor in April 2020 and remanded the case for a final remedy. The district court issued a favorable ruling in May 2021. Texas appealed that decision to the 5th Circuit, arguing that the case had become moot. An opinion is likely forthcoming this year.

FFRF v. Mercer County Bd. of Ed. 

FFRF filed a civil rights lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia against Mercer County Schools in early 2017 over the school system’s egregiously unconstitutional “Bible in the Schools” classes for elementary school students. In late 2017, the district court dismissed the case on jurisdictional grounds. FFRF appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court, which, in late 2018, ruled in favor of FFRF and found that the plaintiffs have standing. The school system sought an appeal to the Supreme Court, which declined to take the case. In October 2021, the parties engaged in mediation and settlement discussions, which will likely resolve the lawsuit. 

Cobranchi v. Parkersburg 

FFRF and two Parkersburg, W.V., residents sued the city of Parkersburg in a challenge to the City Council’s practice of reciting the “Lord’s Prayer” at each meeting. Council members and most attendees recite the Lord’s Prayer in unison to start each bi-monthly meeting. At least one member of the council has been openly hostile to people who do not participate in the prayer. FFRF is awaiting a decision on its summary judgment briefing. 

Orsi v. Martin

FFRF and a coalition of plaintiffs filed a district court lawsuit on May 23, 2018, against Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin seeking the removal of a massive Ten Commandments structure from the grounds of the Arkansas Capitol. The plaintiffs include FFRF, the American Humanist Association, and the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, as well as seven individual plaintiffs. The case is proceeding slowly, with summary judgment briefing expected to be filed in early 2022. 

FFRF v. Judge Wayne Mack

FFRF refiled a lawsuit against Justice of the Peace Wayne Mack in 2019 for opening each of his court sessions with chaplain-led prayer. On May 21, 2021, the district court judge ruled in favor of FFRF and local attorney “John Roe,” finding that Mack’s courtroom prayer practice violated the Establishment Clause. Mack filed an immediate appeal and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the district court’s decision. The case is being briefed on the merits and a decision is expected in 2022. 

Amicus briefs

FFRF staff attorneys filed five amicus (or friend-of-the-court) briefs in 2021. Four of those were filed at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Carson v. Makin 

FFRF pointed out to the Supreme Court that Maine’s refusal to fund sectarian schools is supported by a proper understanding of the First Amendment. The First Amendment ensures that taxpayers are not compelled to subsidize a religion that is not their own. Also, the “no aid” principle avoids government entanglement with religious education. 

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health 

FFRF filed a brief with the Supreme Court that identified religion as the center of anti-abortion legislation. Mississippi’s total ban on abortion after 15 weeks was motivated by religious ideology. FFRF argued that judicial review of pre-viability abortion prohibitions is hampered by governments that obscure their true purpose in adopting abortion prohibitions. 

Ramirez v. Collier 

A person on death row brought suit over Texas’ denial of his request for a minister to “lay hands” on him and audibly pray with him in the execution chamber. FFRF argued to the Supreme Court that the death penalty, which stems in part from biblical roots, violates the First and Eighth amendments. FFRF’s brief also asserts that if executions are allowed, end-of-life accommodations must be made equally available to all, not just the religious. 

Shurtleff v. Boston

An organization called Camp Constitution requested to fly the Christian flag at Boston’s City Hall. The city refused to allow the display. FFRF, joined by Center for Inquiry, argued that Boston correctly denied the request because the city’s flag poles are not open for free speech for the general public. The city’s concern in not violating the Establishment Clause is a reasonable justification for the denial. 

Kluge v. Brownsburg Schools

FFRF filed a brief on behalf of the Secular Student Alliance, arguing before the 7th Circuit that public school teachers do not have the right to subject students, including transgender students, to the teacher’s religious whims. Based on his Christian beliefs, an Indiana teacher refused to call transgender students by their first names. The school system refused to grant FFRF permission to file the brief, which supported the school’s position, indicating that FFRF’s name and mission are disfavored by public school officials. The court granted permission for FFRF to file on behalf of SSA.

Nonlitigation advocacy

In 2021, our intake team processed 1,874 contacts from members of the public over state/church concerns. Our staff attorneys and legal fellows sent 592 letters of complaint to government agencies over state/church violations. We received 167 victories from these complaints, with more to come this year. FFRF also sent out “mass mailings” educating government officials on violations, including the state of religion in public schools in Florida, mask mandates in Wisconsin, and the National Prayer Breakfast.

Educating the public

In November, FFRF issued a report, “Casting Light: The Sunshine State’s Problems of Religion in its Public Schools,” calling attention to the myriad unconstitutional activities taking place in public schools all over Florida. The report documented serious, systemic Establishment Clause violations in Florida public schools, ranging from teachers imposing their personal religion on students to administrators establishing chaplaincies. Florida school districts must educate staff and adopt sound policies ensuring all school-sponsored programming, including athletics, are free from religious activity and pressure. The report has been sent to every Florida school district. 

In August 2021, just before the school year started, FFRF released a short report about prayer walks in public schools, a bizarre but growing phenomenon whereby community members gather and walk through and/or around the schools praying for the upcoming school year. FFRF’s report shows why such events — typically involving religious leaders praying, sermonizing and even sprinkling “holy water” over school grounds — are constitutionally impermissible. 

FFRF also made it a priority these last two years to increase legal scholarship on state/church separation, particularly after seeing the dangerous use of (often inaccurate) history as rationale in our cases. To that end, FFRF gave a grant to Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island to put on a symposium titled “Is This a Christian Nation?” The virtual symposium was held in September 2020, but the important part of this scholarship was the journal published as a result. All presenters wrote articles that were printed in a special issue of the law school’s law review in the spring of 2021. FFRF then sent copies of the journal to every Supreme Court justice and appellate court judge in the country.

As we dive into 2022, FFRF’s Legal Department is poised to meet the challenges of the new Supreme Court, remains passionate about protecting the right to a government free from religion, and is dedicated to ensuring the wall of separation between state and church is protected to ensure true religious liberty for us all. 

Rebecca Markert is FFRF’s legal director.

FFRF gets legal, historian support in prayer case

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has received briefing support from Americans United for Separation of Church and State on behalf of 13 well-known historians and legal scholars in its federal lawsuit against a praying Texas judge.

On behalf of “John Roe,” the national state/church watchdog filed suit against Montgomery County Justice of the Peace Wayne Mack for opening each of his court sessions with clergy-led prayer.

FFRF welcomes the amicus brief in support of FFRF and its plaintiff, an attorney who regularly practiced in Mack’s court and objects to the courtroom-prayer practice.

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. 

Mack’s bailiff announced the prayers, saying that anyone could leave during the prayer, but then locking 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. Attendees have reported that Mack has surveyed the courtroom during prayers, causing concern that their cases would be affected if they did not participate.

Mack’s main defense throughout the lawsuit has been that his prayer practice enjoys a long and unbroken history in this country, a claim he has advanced without expert support from a single historian.

The “friend of the court” brief filed by Americans United on behalf of the scholars and historians demonstrates that Mack’s history claim is false. The brief first traces the history of the development of religious freedom in America, citing the views of key founders such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, noting that the Establishment Clause was intended in part to prevent governmental religious coercion.

The historians’ brief then picks apart Mack’s dubious claim of historical legitimacy. “Proper historical analysis reveals that there was no long, unbroken, or established history of courtroom prayer in the United States,” the brief asserts. “Instead, it shows that courtroom prayer is not consistent with the purpose of the Establishment Clause, would not have been supported by the Founders whose ideas the Establishment Clause reflects, and was rare around the time of the ratification of the First Amendment.”

FFRF and Attorney Roe, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, previously dispatched Mack’s bogus history argument when they won their case in district court. In May 2021, U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, writing: “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.”

A second amicus brief, filed in support of plaintiffs by the nonprofit Institute for Justice and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, argues that a panel of judges on the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals misstated the law in holding that lawsuits against state officials (such as Mack) cannot arise under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and must instead be brought as an equitable cause of action recognized in Ex Parte Young. While this highly technical issue was not raised by the parties on appeal, and did not need to be resolved in order to adjudicate the issues on appeal, Judge Andrew Oldham, a Trump appointee, nevertheless advanced this novel and unprecedented interpretation of the law in his written opinion. IJ and FIRE urge the 5th Circuit to address and overturn this incorrect holding when resolving the case on the merits.

“We’re grateful for the support of these groups, historians and legal scholars in documenting the truth — that courtroom prayer cannot be excused as a historic practice,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Mack’s conduct is coercive, inappropriate, ill-mannered and unconstitutional.”

The case is now on appeal before the 5th Circuit. FFRF and Roe are represented by FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover, with Attorney Ayesha Khan of Washington, D.C., serving as co-counsel.

Rep. Raskin to highlight Thomas Paine event

The New Yorker’s 2021 “Person of the Year” U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin will provide the closing remarks during an online celebration of Thomas Paine’s birth. 

Please join Paine enthusiasts on Jan. 29 at 4 p.m. (EST) for a Zoom celebration. The event is presented by the newly formed Thomas Paine Memorial Association (TPMA), a nonprofit organization with the purpose of educating the public and installing statues of Thomas Paine in Washington, D.C., and other places of significance to the life of Thomas Paine.

Actor Ian Ruskin will speak about his experiences portraying Thomas Paine. Freethought Society President Margaret Downey will be talking about the many Thomas Paine-themed activities she has sponsored. Sculptor Zenos Frudakis will join from his studio in Glenside, Pa., and TPMA board members will be introducing themselves. Board members speaking at the event are Robyn Blumner, John de Lancie, Ann Druyan, Gary Berton, Thomas Legg, Christopher Cameron, Julia Sweeney, Marnie Mosiman de Lancie and Annie Laurie Gaylor.

To register for the event, go to: bit.ly/3qjCAYH.

FFRF’s Strategic Response Team had banner year

FFRF’s Strategic Response Team (SRT) had another highly successful year in 2021.

The SRT handles FFRF’s rapid response, legislation and lobbying work. The SRT is tasked with: 

Federal lobbying; tracking, analyzing and educating about pending legislation; and mobilizing FFRF’s membership with action alerts.

Responding to current events for FFRF with statements, letters and articles.

Shaping public opinion with articles, editorials and letters to the editor.

Stopping imminent violations and correcting the public record with letters.

The team has three full-time members: Andrew L. Seidel, Ryan D. Jayne and Mark Dann. Also attached to SRT are FFRF communications team members Amit Pal and Casandra Zimmerman, FFRF’s legal team and FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker. 

SRT has leveraged virtual opportunities last year to work more effectively on FFRF’s dual missions. It had its busiest, most productive year on record. 

Federal lobbying

SRT governmental affairs elevated FFRF’s profile and influence on Capitol Hill and deepened our relationship with congressional offices, especially with Reps. Jared Huffman and Jamie Raskin. We’ve had a huge boost from our amazing and longtime intern Charis Hoard.

One interesting trend is that offices are coming to us for help instead of the other way around. That is the best kind of progress a lobbying team can see and what we’ve been working toward for years. 

In 2020, SRT began crafting a legislative agenda for FFRF, and, in 2021, SRT has been implementing it. A key part of the agenda was to make FFRF a vital partner in advancing the Congressional Freethought Caucus’ agenda. FFRF has been recognized by the CFC as a thought leader and a primary mover in the secular movement. 

Seidel moderated a Freethought Caucus panel discussion on the Jan. 6 insurrection with Amanda Tyler of the Baptist Joint Committee, political scientist Juhem Navarro-Rivera, and Robert Jones of PRRI. Rep. Raskin, who now sits on the Jan. 6 Select Committee, attended and asked questions and Seidel was able to guide and direct the conversation. 

Expanded alliances

Outside of Congress, FFRF is sought for its expertise and effectiveness. We met nearly 100 times with allied organizations to advance our mission. FFRF was the only secular organization invited to a meeting with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. We’ve partnered with Demand Justice on judicial reform bills, including for meetings on the Hill. Leadership Conference asked us to lead a group of health care organizations in writing recommendations for the Biden Administration on how best to interpret the nondiscrimination provisions of the Affordable Care Act to avoid unnecessary religious exemptions in health care. The Leadership Conference also relied on FFRF to lead meetings with seven key Senate offices on prioritizing judicial nominees. 

Tracking legislation

SRT tracks and acts on federal bills and bills in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. We tracked 1,117 separate bills; opposed 70 percent, supported 28 percent, and watched the remainder with optimistic neutrality. Of the 781 bad bills, 123 (16 percent) became law. Of the 311 good bills, 46 (15 percent) became law. 

Of the over 1,000 bills that SRT tracked, the most common state/church-adjacent bills were threats to reproductive health care. The next most common were bills that threatened LGBTQ rights, such as transgender athlete bans that typically prohibited transgender girls from participating in sports at their K-12 public schools.

In Missouri, Oklahoma, and Nebraska we helped to stop bills that would have plastered “In God We Trust” on public school walls. A bill to add bible studies to Missouri public school curricula was also defeated, as well as a uniquely awful bill in North Dakota that categorized everything that wasn’t conservative Christianity as “the religion of secular humanism.” 

After a slowdown of Project Blitz bills last year, there were renewed efforts to insert Christian nationalism into state law through this coordinated scheme, which has ceased calling itself “Project Blitz” due to bad publicity (which we gleefully fomented). 

Following the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court, the biggest push by Christian nationalists by far was for outright challenges to Roe v. Wade. The most notorious of these was Texas’ SB 8, the constitutionality of which the Court is currently considering. However, dozens of similar bills all over the country are waiting in the wings for the Supreme Court to gut Roe. 

In total, we tracked 497 bills aimed at curbing abortion access, spanning 47 states. We would not have been able to track all of these bills without the tremendous help of Barbara Alvarez, FFRF’s first Anne Nicol Gaylor Reproductive Rights Intern.

Shaping opinion

In the past, FFRF would often hear about a violation happening imminently. SRT would work to stop these violations before they occur and without derailing the legal team. Most SRT rapid letters are sent when fast action can change the media narrative or stop the spread of disinformation. SRT’s ordinary response time on these letters, from notification to mailing, is less than an hour. We averaged about one such letter each week. 

A letter to the Wisconsin Attorney General asked for an investigation of the Catholic Church in the state, which we used to springboard a lobbying effort on the front. Jayne led the effort, which was successful and was the first time FFRF registered a state lobbyist. Jayne also met with state legislative offices to revise state laws to give clergy sex abuse survivors a chance at justice with kinder statutes of limitation.

SRT published 49 op-eds, articles, blogs, and letters to the editor. We are writing less for our in-house blog and instead writing for larger, prestigious outlets with a reach beyond our choir. 

Religion Dispatches has made Seidel an unpaid “senior correspondent” and all Religion Dispatches articles also go to FFRF members, who receive notifications about these pieces. 

Responding to news 

The frenetic pace of the media cycle makes SRT more important than ever. SRT’s goal is to respond to issues that concern FFRF and its missions before our members even have a chance to report them. These are essentially self-directed complaints, and they tend to be popular or newsworthy.  

We sent 58 statements for FFRF (up from 40) on a variety of issues, from elections, to the Supreme Court, to the January 6 insurrection and its fallout, to PPP abuse, and shifting demographics. SRT creatively issued a statement on the one-year anniversary of Trump’s COVID Day of Prayer, showing how harmful it is to rely on prayer instead of science. The issues we wrote on were diverse and included persecution of atheists abroad and Scotland repealing its blasphemy law. 

And much more

Our latest push is on the National Prayer Breakfast, and we sent every congressional sponsor a letter detailing the reasons they ought not to attend or sponsor the sectarian event this year.  

Another example is rebalancing the courts. It’s hard to measure progress in this area, but we’re seeing it. SRT’s constant meetings on the Hill, coordination with other groups, and repetitive messaging is making a difference. Biden and the Senate have confirmed more judicial nominees at this point than ever. Relatedly, Rep. Jerry Nadler’s press release on “Expand[ing] the Supreme . . . Legislation to Restore Justice and Democracy to Judicial System,” quoted FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, which we believe is the first time FFRF has been positively quoted in a congressional press release. 

Jan. 6th report

Seidel has coordinated an intensive and comprehensive report on “Christian Nationalism and the Jan. 6, 2021, Insurrection” with Baptist Joint Committee, Katherine Stewart, Sam Perry and Andrew Whitehead. Seidel conceived the idea in the wake of the attack. Christian nationalism influenced the attack far more than most people realized and more than could be explained in a short epilogue. See Page 1 and Pages 14-15 for a preview of this report.

Legislative wins

• The STOP FGM Act of 2020, which prohibits female genital mutilation, was unanimously passed by the House and the Senate and signed into law.

• The Blasphemy Resolution, which calls on the president and the State Department to prioritize the global repeal of blasphemy laws, passed the House and the Senate.

• The Equality Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, passed the House.

• The Women’s Health Protection Act, which protects the right to access abortion in every state, passed the House.

• The NO BAN Act, which eliminates the Muslim Ban (which could be turned against atheists abroad seeking a safe haven), limits presidential authority to suspend or restrict immigration, and prohibits religious discrimination in immigration-related decisions, passed the House. 

• Biden’s budget historically omitted the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds going to abortions. 

• We continue to build support for other key bills such as the Do No Harm Act, Judiciary Act of 2021, District Court Judgeships Act of 2021, and the Supreme Court Ethics Act.

By the numbers

• 60 statements for FFRF on a variety of issues. 

• 49 articles, op-eds, blogs and letters to the editor. 

• 54 press releases for FFRF on legal and legislative issues. 

• 49 rapid response letters written.

• Comments on 6 formal rule changes.

• 85 media appearances.

• 90 meetings with legislators on Capitol Hill or at the White House. 

• 94 action alerts that connected more than 6,100 FFRF supporters and legislators 52,678 times. 

• 1,513 bills analyzed and 1,117 tracked. 

• More than 1,000 separate SRT projects.

Grad/older student essay contest winners

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is proud to announce the 10 top winners and 12 honorable mentions in the 2021 Brian Bolton Graduate/Older Student Essay Competition.

FFRF has paid out a total of $17,850 in award money for this contest.

Students were asked to write an essay on the dangers of religious extremism in 21st century America.

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

FIRST PLACE

Elias Rodriguez, 27, University of Texas at Dallas, $3,500.

SECOND PLACE

Devin Vertrees, 26, Johns Hopkins University, $3,000.

THIRD PLACE

Hannah Howell, 23, Stanford University, $2,500.

FOURTH PLACE

Kyra Miller, 22, Rutgers University, $2,000. 

FIFTH PLACE

George Jean-Babets, 29, Boston College, $1,500.

SIXTH PLACE

Benjamin Schreiner, 26, American University, $1,000. 

SEVENTH PLACE

Katherine Ferran, 26, Michigan State University, $750. 

EIGHTH PLACE

Lydia Taylor, 21, University of Denver, $500.

NINTH PLACE

Hanna Talsky, 29, Florida School of Massage, $400. 

TENTH PLACE

Daniella Germonprez, 28, Vanderbilt University, $300.

HONORABLE MENTIONS ($200 each)

Victoria Cheung, 30, University of Michigan.

Kristen Chew, 29, Lock Haven University.

Brandon Cooper, 29, California Institute of the Arts. 

Carina Garcia, 23, California State University, Stanislaus.

Daniella Leon, 29, Mesa Community College.

Lawrence Mullen, 25, University of Buffalo.

Scout K. Myracle, 28, University of Memphis.

Jenna Slater, 30, California Institute of Integral Studies.

Daniel Spaulding, 25, Concordia Seminary.

Myranda Sullivan, 28, Arizona State University.

Chelsea Westfall, 29, Northern Arizona University.

Cassidy Yñigez, 23, Texas A&M University.

FFRF thanks “Director of First Impressions” Lisa Treu for managing the details of this and FFRF’s other student essay competitions. FFRF would also like to thank its volunteers and staff for reading and judging the essays, including Donald Ardell, Dan Barker, Bill Dunn, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Stephen Hirtle, Greta Martens, Amit Pal, PJ Slinger and Casandra Zimmerman.

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.

Science and reason must prevail over religious exemptions

Steve Benson cartoon

Failure to be fully vaccinated in the United States — where the vaccines have been long available for free and where most children are now eligible — is, to state the obvious, prolonging the pandemic. 

There’s no excuse —not even a religious one — in a secular nation predicated on science, not to do one’s part to stop the spread of Covid-19 and its ever-growing variants. Atheists and nonbelievers can take pride that we are the most vaccinated sector in the United States. Unfortunately, white Christian evangelicals, the least vaccinated and most resistant group, wield disproportionate political power to disrupt rational public health policy.

The remedy is at hand, yet vaccine mandates and even “vaccine passports” at the state, public school or other local levels remain the exception. Lawsuits, mostly by religious politicians, individuals or entities, abound against existing mandates, including President Joe Biden’s OSHA rule that companies with 100 or more employees must require vaccination. Litigation, backlash and resistance greet mandates, and the demand for religious exemptions from public health rules is growing.

Public health policy emphatically does require universal mandates, yet confusion reigns over the legality of religious exemptions. 

Vaccine mandates are neutral. A vaccine mandate is a neutral rule that applies to everyone, religious or not. The mandate doesn’t discriminate among religions, just as the novel coronavirus doesn’t “discriminate” among who it infects. 

Vaccine mandates are constitutional. The government’s authority to protect the health and safety of citizens is well-established. The Supreme Court ruled vaccine mandates constitutional over 100 years ago in Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), and has affirmed that ruling multiple times over the past century. Jacobson involved the constitutionality of a regulation by the board of health in Cambridge, Mass., to require vaccinations in response to a smallpox epidemic. The Supreme Court held that the mandate represented a valid exercise of the state’s police power and affirmed that “a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members.” 

The Supreme Court again found, in Zucht v. King (1922), that the school district of San Antonio, Texas, could constitutionally exclude unvaccinated students from attending district schools. In Prince v. Massachusetts (1944), the Supreme Court concluded that “[t]he right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.” In Employment Division v. Smith, (1990), the court reaffirmed that the free exercise clause does not “require religious exemptions from . . . health and safety regulation such as . . . compulsory vaccination laws.” 

Mandatory vaccinations are longstanding. Mandatory vaccinations date to a decision by George Washington, as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, to order an 18th century version against smallpox, which he termed the “most dangerous enemy.” It was a good thing he did, as historian Thomas Schactman notes: “Nothing that Washington did had a greater impact on the outcome of the war than his actions to protect his troops from death by smallpox.” The infection rate among the American soldiers dropped from 17 percent to 1 percent in a year. 

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have long required school-aged children to receive vaccines for measles, rubella and polio. The state of Mississippi does not provide for any exemptions from school vaccinations.

Religious entities do not oppose vaccination policies. No major U.S. religious denomination opposes vaccination outright, with only a few tiny Christian denominations as outliers. 

Legal and practical problems in “accommodating” religious exemptions. As Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman warns, “Employers who choose to accommodate religious exemptions . . . have to investigate subjective matters on which they have no expertise,” noting the exception invites “every phony and crank to escape a basic measure needed to protect those around them.”

Curtis Chang, who is affiliated with Duke Divinity School and is cofounder of Christians and the Vaccine, points out in a New York Times guest essay that any institution considering religious exemptions should require applicants to demonstrate they’ve consistently refused other immunizations for religious reasons. Most evangelicals have historically chosen to be immunized against polio, measles, tetanus and other diseases.

The burden should be on the individual seeking the exemption anyway. Government officials rolling out vaccination mandates have misguidedly assumed they have a legal duty to offer an exemption.

Who’s behind anti-vaccine backlash? Arch-conservative governors, uniformly Christian and rightwing, are outracing each other to ban Covid mandates, such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who’s banned private entities from mandating vaccination. Other Christian nationalist governors include Ron DeSantis, of Florida, who banned vaccine passports, and Arizona’s Doug Ducey, who’s using Covid funds to reward private schools for banning masking. Multiple states with Christian right-dominated legislatures are suing Biden over the OSHA rule. Litigating private entities include Christian Employers Alliance, defended by Alliance Defending Freedom. Among petitioners against the OSHA rules are Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis. Liberty Counsel is spearheading anti-mandate challenges.

It’s no coincidence that zealous evangelical Gov. Abbott, who signed SB 8  — the notorious law careening Texas into the land of The Handmaid’s Tale — has been among the most aggressive public officials in banning Covid mandates, hypocritically condemning them as federal “overreach.” Mandatory motherhood is not government “overreach,” but a jab in the arm to protect health and defeat a pandemic is? The religious motivation to ban both abortion and Covid mandates is irrefutable.

Two closely-watched lawsuits involve Christian, anti-abortion healthcare workers in Maine and New York State. The Maine religious healthcare workers, so far losing their lawsuit, have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene. Sooner or later this or a similar case will be scheduled for the Trump court’s “shadow” or regular docket. Then, watch out. We can expect to see the Religious Freedom Restoration Act invoked to assert that those with “sincerely held religious beliefs” are above the law. Clearly, individuals who deny science and/or who place their idiosyncratic religious beliefs above the health of patients don’t belong in the health care or nursing home care professions.

“Religiously-motivated anti-vaxxers challenging mandates act like not being vaccinated is somehow a courageous act of personal integrity,” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It is in fact the height of selfishness. These latter-day Know-Nothings fail to grasp or honor the fact that vaccinations work not only by providing protection to the individual, but to the community through herd immunity.” Unfortunately, the current estimate is that we will only reach Covid-19 herd immunity when 90 percent or more of the population is vaccinated. 

As the centuries-old battle of science versus faith continues unabated, the Freedom From Religion Foundation will continue our vital work to ensure that reason and science — not religious obstructionism — end up prevailing in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. The United States and the world have a long way to go, and irrationality is still “the most dangerous enemy.”

Thanks to FFRF Attorney Chris Line for his research and drafting of much of this statement.

FFRF’s Capitol exhibit marks 25 years

FFRF Legal Assistant Stephanie Dyer, Director of Operations Lisa Strand and Freethought Today Editor PJ Slinger installed the two displays in the Wisconsin Capitol on Dec. 1

FFRF’s annual Winter Solstice exhibit is celebrating its (almost unbroken) silver jubilee at the Wisconsin Capitol.

The secular display is back in FFRF’s hometown legislative building for a breathtaking 25th time after a pandemic-forced hiatus last year. A gilt sign in the Madison-located Statehouse features FFRF’s traditional message from its principal founder Anne Nicol Gaylor. 

A major addition to the exhibit in the rotunda for more than half a decade now is FFRF’s whimsical Bill of Rights “nativity.” The irreverent cutout by artist Jacob Fortin depicts Founders Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington gazing in adoration at a “baby” Bill of Rights while the Statue of Liberty looks on.

‘Casting Light’ report: FFRF calls out Florida’s multiple violations

Casting Light

A new report by the Freedom From Religion Foundation is calling attention to the myriad unconstitutional activities taking place in public schools all over Florida — and proposing an easy fix.

“Casting Light: the Sunshine State’s Problems of Religion in its Public Schools” (ffrf.us/sunshine) documents serious, systemic Establishment Clause violations in Florida public schools, ranging from teachers imposing their personal religion on students to administrators establishing chaplaincies. The report has been sent to every Florida school district.

“These abuses of power fly in the face of well-established law, but school district employees and officials are taking cues from state officials,” states FFRF. “Florida state government seems intent on putting Christianity into Florida’s public schools.”

“Casting Light” points to a number of such instances. For example, the Florida Board of Education attempted to amend social studies standards, insisting that “Judeo-Christian values influenced America’s founding ideals and documents.” After a public outcry, the standards were removed, but in last-minute, opaque political maneuverings at a July meeting, the board added “the Judeo-Christian tradition” back into one standard. And after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, even as the Florida Legislature ignored the pleas of students for meaningful reforms, it passed a law requiring every public school to display the Christian Nationalist motto, “In God We Trust.” With state level leaders like this, it’s no wonder teachers and staff feel comfortable flagrantly violating court precedent protecting students’ rights of conscience.

FFRF’s report examines typical Florida public school violations reported to FFRF and focuses attention on some of the worst-offending districts. There are 67 public school districts in Florida, and FFRF has received complaints about religious promotion occurring in nearly all of them. Among the worst offenders are Orange County Public Schools (against which FFRF actually filed a lawsuit over censorship of literature), Polk County Schools and Marion County Schools. FFRF also gives an example of one district, Hillsborough County Public Schools, that took proper corrective action.

When FFRF receives complaints directly from affected parents, students and others, FFRF reaches out to district administrators to bring these problems to their attention and engage their cooperation. FFRF asks school districts to investigate the complaints, stop unlawful practices, and educate staff in their district to prevent problems from recurring. “Many districts respond to FFRF complaints by doing exactly that,” notes FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert. “But it is rare to receive such cooperation from most Florida public school districts.”

The law is clear, FFRF’s report emphasizes: Public schools must be neutral toward religion. Public school teachers, for instance, may not participate in student-initiated prayer, lead their students in prayer, encourage students to pray or otherwise endorse religion to students. The Supreme Court has also continually struck down prayers at school-sponsored events, including public school graduations and school athletic events. The Establishment Clause prohibits public school boards from scheduling or conducting prayer as part of their meetings. Public schools may not provide religious instruction. The distribution of bibles to students at public schools during the instructional day is prohibited. And public school districts must not allow outside religious groups or individuals school resources or unique access and opportunities to befriend and proselytize students during school events and on school property.

Religious imposition in public schools is unconstitutional and exclusionary, FFRF contends. Currently, 24 percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated and another 7 percent belong to religious minorities, making nearly one-third of our population non-Christian. Nationally, 21 percent of younger Americans — those born after 1999, i.e., all current public school students — identify as either atheist or agnostic. By ignoring complaints of systemic, unconstitutional religious promotion in schools, Florida school districts are signaling to a significant, growing segment of the community that they are second-class citizens. Even more important, such school districts, by flouting established law and legal precedent, are communicating the wrong lesson to all students, staff and parents, regardless of religious belief or lack of religious belief.

In short, FFRF’s report concludes, public schools exist to educate, not indoctrinate. Florida school districts must educate staff and adopt sound policies ensuring all school-sponsored programming, including athletics, are free from religious activity and pressure.

FFRF and its active local chapter, the Central Florida Freethought Community, are eager to assist school districts in adopting policies and practices that respect the rights of conscience of all students and members of the district community. All officials have to do is ask.

Prop 3 a big mistake for Texans, FFRF contends

Voters in Texas unwisely approved Proposition 3, a ballot measure amending the state Constitution to prohibit the state from limiting worship services even for public health considerations, such as in the event of another pandemic. FFRF is disappointed with this result, which may lead to easily preventable deaths in the future.

“One harsh lesson the United States learned over the past year is that deadly viruses don’t care about religious liberty,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “Texas can’t ever claim to be a ‘pro-life’ state with this on the books.” 

Time and again, worship services have turned out to be super-spreader events during Covid outbreaks. The most dangerous events have been those where many people are gathered indoors, in close proximity, especially where they are talking or singing. Many lives were unquestionably saved by states that closed bars and halted concerts, and by multiple governors who correctly recognized that worship services are similarly risky events.

Unfortunately, the ultraconservative religious bloc of the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as religious public officials and preachers, demanded that public health restrictions not apply to in-person worship services. The high court’s majority disingenuously compared worship services to patronizing grocery or liquor stores, even though nobody spends hours singing or sitting in close proximity to other customers at such locations. Justice Elena Kagan correctly noted at the time that “this foray into armchair epidemiology cannot end well.”

Now, even if Texas state actors realize their mistake, they have tied their own hands and will be unable to protect constituents. In the event of a wave of a new Covid variant, or another pandemic altogether, Texans will continue to gather in-person to pray for the health of their fellow citizens. Those prayers will not only go unanswered, but the very act of gathering to pray will galvanize the spread of a virus that would otherwise be mitigated by effective quarantine measures that apply equally to all.

“This is worse than anyone realizes,” says Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel. “The text is not limited to a pandemic. If there were an active shooter, a hurricane or tornado or flood, chemical spill, terrorist attack, or if the church is structurally unsound, overcrowded, and full of fire hazards, the government is now powerless to save the lives of religious worshippers.”

This problem is not limited to Texas, FFRF notes. Eight other states have passed bills with a similar effect, and such bills were introduced in another 15 states this year.

Preachers and religious Texans will not be the only victims of this massive lapse of judgment. Neighbors, health care workers, and citizens in need of hospital beds will also be needlessly harmed in the event of another pandemic. It was reckless for Texan lawmakers to place this measure on the ballot, and foolishly dangerous for voters to support it.

“This sounds an awful lot like human sacrifice,” quips Barker.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is committed to working to ensure that reason — not religion — prevails in America’s medical policies.