By PJ Slinger
In their new book, Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic, Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore discuss the laws and legal cases of nonreligion and atheism in the United States. They heavily reference FFRF’s role in the chapter, “The Atheist Awakening,” including calling FFRF a “pesky atheist activist organization.”
Kramnick and Moore, longtime professors of government and history, respectively, at Cornell University, also wrote the classic book The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State in 1996.
“I had been working some on the concept of religious freedom, that there were ways in which it was becoming a claim of privilege,” Moore has said previously. He added that “those with no religious belief are the fastest-growing segment of the population. Atheism is the strongest form of that, and historically, it was despised in early American history.”
The book gives a shout-out to FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor and her late mother, Anne Nicol Gaylor. They write: “Strikingly, even though Madalyn Murray O’Hair founded the American Atheists in 1963 and led it for many years, most leaders of atheist and secular organizations today are men. (An important exception is the mother-daughter team Anne and Annie Laurie Gaylor. The former in 1978 founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisconsin; the latter still leads it.)”
Brief history of FFRF
The book offers a brief description of the founding and history of FFRF:
“The Freedom From Religion Foundation is among the largest organizations of atheists and agnostics in America. It was founded in 1978 in Madison, Wisconsin, by Anne Nicol Gaylor, who, after graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, owned and managed several small businesses, ran a suburban weekly newspaper, and was an abortion-rights activist. As head of the FFRF from 1978 to 2005, she grew its membership from the three people around her kitchen table to an activist group [now] with 33,000 members in 50 states and Canada. Gaylor, who died in 2015 at the age of eighty-eight, has been succeeded by co-presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor, her daughter, and her son-in-law, Dan Barker, an ex-evangelical Christian minister. The FFRF has published two popular books by Annie Laurie Gaylor, which echo Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s atheist writing. Woe to the Women — The Bible Tells Me So is about sexism in religion, and, since publication in 1981, has been reprinted five times. The other, Women Without Superstition: No Gods — No Masters (1997), is a 600-page anthology of writings of 19th- and 20th-century women freethinkers.”
But Kramnick and Moore save much of their discussion of FFRF for its legal fights:
“It has won some important victories. Following a 1995 suit brought by it against its home state of Wisconsin for designating Good Friday a legal holiday, the federal District Court ruled in 1996 that the holiday was indeed a violation of the First Amendment because ‘the promotion of Christianity is the primary purpose of the law.’ In another case rich with historic symbolism, the FFRF brought suit against the Rhea County School District in Tennessee for allowing religious instruction in the county’s public schools.
“The Scopes trial put Rhea County on the world’s map in 1925. The issue in 2001 was the county allowing students from Bryan College, named after the trial’s religious hero, William Jennings Bryan, to teach the bible to public elementary school students for thirty minutes a week during the school day in three county schools. Bryan College refers to itself as a Christian school and its motto is ‘Christ Above All’: its mission statement reads, ‘Educating students to become servants of Christ to make a difference in today’s world.’ In June 2004 the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower District Court judgment that the school board’s practice of allowing the teachings of the Christian bible as religious truth was a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Not content with just its court victory, the FFRF has spent $150,000 to place a statue, erected in 2017, of Clarence Darrow, the famous agnostic lawyer who defended Scopes, in front of the Rhea County Courthouse to stand near the statue of Bryan put there in 2005 by Bryan College.
“The FFRF wins 75 percent of its cases, but sometimes loses on procedural grounds. The foundation in 2004 brought suit against President Bush’s executive order establishing a faith-based initiative to fund religious charities, since faith-based organizations are ‘singled out as being particularly worthy of federal funding because of their religious orientation, and the belief in God is extolled as distinguishing the claimed effectiveness of faith-based social services.’ When Hein v. FFRF reached the Supreme Court in 2007, the court ruled 5-4 against FFRF, holding that taxpayers had no standing to challenge executive actions taken by the White House, only legislative governmental action.”
Godless Nation also gives FFRF much credit for its “in-your-face” advertising, in newspapers, on billboards, and, perhaps most notably, on television.
“Newspaper ads have been a particularly favored promotional tool for the FFRF. . . . FFRF, as we note at length below, has become the pre-eminent gadfly of American civil religion in the last decade with its numerous lawsuits and in-your-face atheist billboard campaigns. Nothing better illustrates its role in the Atheist Awakening than its full-page ad in The New York Times on Sept. 24, 2015, on the occasion of Pope Francis’ address to a joint session of Congress. Under a huge picture of two tablets listing the ten “sins” of the Catholic Church, including ‘Banning Contraception,’ ‘Criminalizing Abortion,’ and ‘Denying Catholic Women’s Rights to Religious Equality,’ the ad text read: Regardless of what Pope Francis’ message is, Congress shouldn’t be ‘blessing’ him or handing him a government-endorsed pulpit. The framers of our godless Constitution wisely envisioned what John F. Kennedy described as ‘an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish — where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope . . . where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.
‘A memorable highlight’
“The FFRF’s 2015 ad, with its tear-out reply form to join the foundation at the bottom of the page, was a memorable highlight of a day rich in the symbolism and contradictions of the American secular government’s embrace of God. Pope Francis spoke in the House of Representatives below the inscription of ‘In God We Trust’ and before, among others, nine Supreme Court justices, six of them Catholic and three Jewish. None was from America’s Protestant majority.
“Not quite two years later, on May 25, 2017, the FFRF took out another full-page ad in The New York Times after President Trump delivered the commencement address at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. The foundation replied to Trump’s proud declaration there that ‘America is a nation of true believers.’ Above a huge caricatured head of the president that took up nearly half the page was the retort: ‘Mr. President — We are NOT a Nation of Believers.’ Below the president’s picture, the text insisted, ‘We are one nation under a Godless Constitution. We the people are free to believe or disbelieve,’ followed by the assertion that ‘a quarter of the U.S. population today in nonreligious — true nonbelievers. . . . Join the Freedom From Religion Foundation.’”
“By far the most controversial atheist use of television occurred in 2014, when the FFRF produced a 30-second commercial with President Reagan’s son, Ron Reagan, proudly proclaiming his atheist convictions. It was refused by CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, and Discovery, and shown only on CNN and Comedy Central. Three years later, in 2017, [MS]NBC finally agreed to run it along with CNN again. In it the president’s son says to the TV audience, ‘Hi, I’m Ron Reagan, an unabashed atheist, and I’m alarmed by the intrusion of religion into our secular government. That’s why I’m asking you to support the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation’s largest and most effective association of atheists and agnostics, working to keep church and state separate, just like our Founding Fathers intended. Please support the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.’
“Michael Reagan, the adopted son of the late president and a conservative commentator, is now boycotting NBC and CNN for airing this commercial and took to Twitter to note that ‘our father is crying in heaven.’”
PJ Slinger is editor of Freethought Today.