40th anniversary: The inside story of FFRF’s founding

Cover of FFRF’s 40th anniversary section.

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

This April marks the 40th anniversary of the national founding of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. FFRF actually began as a regional group two years prior. My mother, Anne Nicol Gaylor, then a well-known feminist activist, and I, a college student, were dismayed to learn that local governmental bodies were opening with Christian prayers and decided we’d better do something about it.

Thinking it would seem rather weak to go before the Madison City Council and the Dane County (Wis.) Board merely as a mother-daughter team, we decided we’d identify ourselves as part of a group. We’d been bandying about the concept that freedom of religion necessarily encompasses the right to be free from religion. Anne coined what is now an oft-repeated phrase: There can be no true religious liberty without the freedom to dissent.

That’s the short story of how the Freedom From Religion Foundation was born. An elderly Milwaukee gentleman, John Sontarck, learned of our new venture and agreed to lend his name and moral support, becoming the third member of our nascent group (although, sadly, he died within the year).

A reporter at The Capital Times covered our appeal to a county committee on June 21, 1976. Ed Bark reported: ‘The Dane County Board’s Judiciary Committee didn’t exactly tell Anne Gaylor to go to the devil when she requested the board cease opening its meetings with a prayer Monday night. But several committee members informed her the proposed ban stands a snowball’s chance in hell of being approved . . . 

‘Gaylor told the slightly bemused committee that: ‘It is not the business of governmental bodies to pray. When board members pray publicly, you inflict pressure, compulsion and embarrassment on those of your members and those of your audience who do not accept or share these private religious views.’ ’

After reminding committee members that the Constitution is a ‘godless’ document designed to eliminate entanglements of church and state, Anne suggested they open instead with a reading from the Constitution ‘with special attention to the First Amendment.’ My suggestion that the board ‘pray on your own time’ became the news story’s banner headline. We ended our remarks by thanking the committee for not opening with a prayer. One of the committee members responded: ‘Amen.’

We went on to address the Madison City Council over its equally inappropriate prayer. Despite Bark’s prophecy, and although it took about a year, the city council dropped prayer altogether. The county board dropped explicit prayers, adopting rotating opening remarks by local alderpersons.

That fall, I ended the 122-year abuse of commencement prayers at UW-Madison. With knocking knees, I nervously went before the senior class officers. To my pleasant surprise, the students beamed as I pointed out the inappropriateness of a state university inflicting prayers on a diversity of students of every and no religion. They agreed with me, and the chancellor, rumored to be an agnostic, agreed with them. Within a month, the prayers were halted at the midterm commencements and from that point on.

As the timeline starting at the bottom of each page shows, within the first two years, we had a number of major successes, including winning FFRF’s first lawsuit within about a month of its filing. Satisfying victories brought resulting headlines and individuals seeking to join our new group. A past mistress of the soundbite before the term was known, Anne and her actions generated many wire and TV stories. By the spring of 1978, Anne was asked by onlookers across the country to take FFRF national.

FFRF was formally incorporated on April 5, 1978: ‘To promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church and to educate the public in matters related to nontheism.’

The founding meeting of 15 individuals took place in Indiana on April 8, 1978. My father, Paul J. ‘Jody’ Gaylor, was one of the 15 founders. (An unfailingly devoted cheerleader of my mother, he became FFRF’s hardest-working volunteer.)

The rest is history, as they say. Some, but by no means all, historic highlights are recorded in the timeline on each page of this special section, along with a summary of legal accomplishments (see pages 6-7).

The ease of ending some of those major violations, I confess, gave us in those heady years of the 1970s an unrealistic perspective about how quickly activism could make a difference. We sincerely thought we’d just have to remind the nation of its secular roots and the pendulum would swing back. Perhaps one must not only be a committed reformer but also an optimist to found a controversial cause group!

And here we are today, grown from the original three of us to more than 32,000 members nationwide. I like to say that, as a freethinker in the United States, it may be the worst of times to be in court but the best of times generally, with ‘Nones’ now comprising 24 percent of the adult population and 36 percent of Millennials. About a fifth of Generation Z identify explicitly as atheists or agnostics.

FFRF has grown from an all-volunteer group to 25 full-time staff, including seven staff attorneys and two legal fellows. We produce our own newspaper and our own media, and create our radio and new “Freethought Matters” TV show, and Facebook Live! broadcast in the Stephen Uhl Friendly Atheist Studio.

Our legal work has always set FFRF apart, even before we had the budget to hire our first staff attorney in 2008. We’ve taken well over 70 completed lawsuits with about a dozen ongoing, winning two-thirds of them. We sponsor four student essay competitions and several student activist awards. Since 2006, we’ve never missed a week broadcasting Freethought Radio. And since 2007, we’ve placed thousands of messages on billboards throughout the nation and taken full-page ads in major newspapers. Despite censorship, we’ve placed our ad by Ron (‘unabashed atheist . . . not afraid of burning in hell’) Reagan on national and regional TV markets. We’re proud of our honorary board, including our Honorary President Steven Pinker. (See their well wishes on the back page.)

We’ve grown from a dining-room-table operation to working out of a small rented office to acquiring a historic two-story building, Freethought Hall, in downtown Madison. Membership and staff growth compelled a major building expansion, completed in fall 2015, during  which we added five stories plus a library — thanks to an incredible outpouring of support and some simply extraordinarily generous benefactors, including among many others, Ken Proulx, Charlie Brooks, Steve and Diane Uhl, Brian Bolton, Harold Erickson, Joel Landon and Wanda Beers, Richard and Beverly Hermsen, Rose Zerwick and Leonard Speisman.

Anne, FFRF’s principal founder, died at 88 in June 2015, four years after my father, having lived long enough to tour the nearly completed expansion and to be feted in the Charlie Brooks Auditorium at its first event. She shared my pride that so many dedicated individuals have joined FFRF as members, and that so many professionals lend their talents as part of FFRF’s committed staff.

I never imagined back in 1976 that I would spend my life working for freethought and the First Amendment, although I can imagine nothing more important. Nor would I have imagined that writing a book about bible sexism for FFRF at my mother’s request would be how I would meet my spouse-to-be and partner at FFRF, Dan Barker, who had formerly preached from that nasty bible! We met for the first time on Oprah Winfrey’s ‘AM Chicago’ in 1984. Dan had contacted me after reading my book, briefly explaining he had just left the ministry and was seeking information on FFRF. Busy working two jobs, I was impressed by his story but, infamously, never wrote him back. My mother did, asking Dan to address the upcoming national convention about his ‘losing faith in faith’ story. It was natural she’d suggest that Dan join us as a guest when Oprah put together a show about people losing their religion. When Dan joined the staff in 1987, he promptly set up FFRF’s first computer database, then became FFRF’s public relations director and ‘ambassador of freethought,’ and since then a major freethought author, debater, speaker and co-founder of The Clergy Project.

From the beginning, it was our aspiration to do ourselves out of a cause and a job. Unfortunately, given the increasing threats to secularism and evidence-based social policy in the United States and worldwide, we appear to have job security. Our movement must work even harder to ensure that the candles of the Enlightenment are not snuffed out.

***

There is a back story about how FFRF really came to be founded: my family’s freethought tradition. I’m a third-generation freethinker on my mother’s side of the family. My mother explained that her quiet farmer-businessman father (who died long before I was born) was ‘embarrassed’ by religion. As she grew up, she felt that was the appropriate reaction. Anne didn’t remember her mother, who died when she was two. But my twin brother Ian recently uncovered a fascinating tidbit about our maternal ancestor, George Sowle (or Soule), who came over on the Mayflower as a tutor, not a Pilgrim. Records show that on March 1, 1658, Goodwife Soule, George’s wife, their son John and about 10 others were fined 10 shillings each for ‘frequent absence from the public worship of God.’ There appears to be no ‘God gene’ on my maternal side.

It was also lacking in my father, despite his growing up in a Christian Church Disciples of Christ family. He always said religion ‘never took.’ He despised the hypocrisy of the deacons and other holier-than-thou types in Depression-era segregated Missouri, who would mouth platitudes on Sundays — and ugly racism the rest of the week. The final straw was his humiliating full-body immersion baptism in front of the congregation when he was 12.

My parents wisely let their four children grow up free from religion. They ‘devoutly’ believed that children should be allowed to make up their minds once they were old enough to understand disturbing abstractions such as ‘original sin.’ They abhorred the idea of subjecting young children to neurosis-inducing concepts such as hell and eternal damnation. I like to say (in no apology to Robert Browning) that I was a secular Pippa: God wasn’t in his heaven; all was right with my world.

But my mother realized in so many ways how much was wrong with the world, particularly for women. What opened our eyes to the vital need to keep religion out of our laws and policies was her activism on behalf of reproductive rights. In 1967, as a small-town newspaper editor, Anne wrote the first editorial in the state calling for legalizing abortion. After that, her phone never stopped ringing. She was propelled into the abortion rights movement, beginning an abortion referral service and serving on the national board of NARAL.

As a junior high student, I happily trailed around the state of Wisconsin with my mother as she passionately worked to free women — tabling, speaking, lobbying and doing countless media interviews. When hearings were eventually held on abortion and contraception, we witnessed the rotunda of the Wisconsin state Capitol filled with nuns, priests and bused-in parochial school children. Their testimony invariably began, ‘The bible says . . .’ or ‘God says . . .’ We saw clearly that the only organized opposition to reproductive rights was religious. Abortion law reform came swiftly, but we’d learned a lesson we’d never forget: We must not allow religious doctrine or dogma to hold sway over our civil laws.

As Anne wrote in, ‘Free From Religion’ (from Lead Us Not Into Penn Station):

‘In working for women’s rights, I fought in a battle that would never end, because the root cause of the denial of those rights was religion and its control over government. Unless religion is kept in its place, all personal rights will be in jeopardy.

‘To be free from religion is an advantage for individuals; it is a necessity for government.’

***

To every friend, colleague, Board Member, State Representative, staffer, FFRF member (some of you, such as Dick Hewetson, dear members from the inception), and FFRF’s many generous, generous donors among you, I thank you . . . for making FFRF’s work, accomplishments and future achievements possible. Forward!