Another impressive year for FFRF’s legal team

Rebecca Markert (Photo by Chris Line)
This visual aid was used to help teach the Ten Commandments to elementary school students in Mercer County Schools. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in FFRF’s favor that plaintiffs can challenge the “Bible in the Schools’ program.

By Rebecca Markert

FFRF’s Legal Team wrapped up another big year in 2019, earning several court victories and hundreds of nonlitigation wins. After adding a few new employees, the legal department was restructured to better position itself for current and future state-church challenges.  The following is a review of how the Legal Team fared in 2019.

Court victories

FFRF ended the year with a victory in Kentucky when a federal court ruled in its favor in a case challenging the denial of an FFRF member’s personalized license plate reading “IM GOD.” FFRF also successfully ended a Wisconsin Department of Justice chaplaincy program. After filing suit, the state DOJ dropped the program in favor of what the DOJ terms an “Employee Support Team.”

The litigation team also got firm legal victories in four other cases:

• FFRF finalized its victory against the Chino Valley Unified School District in California over prayer and bible readings at school board meetings, and FFRF was awarded nearly $300,000 in fees and costs.

• The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in FFRF’s favor in the Mercer County Board of Education case, finding that the plaintiffs have standing to challenge “Bible in the Schools” classes.

• The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal over FFRF’s unanimous victory before the New Jersey Supreme Court barring public grants of tax dollars to repair churches.

• Along with Americans United, the ACLU and the ACLU of Florida, FFRF also successfully challenged discrimination against nontheists seeking to deliver solemnizing messages to start Brevard County Commissioners meetings.

FFRF also renewed its challenge against Texas Judge Wayne Mack’s courtroom prayer practice, this time suing Mack in his personal capacity, as well as the state of Texas, after a district court dismissed its prior lawsuit against the county where the judge holds court. FFRF also carries over five other ongoing cases.

Restructuring

FFRF restructured its legal department into teams for intake (or nonlitigation advocacy), litigation, legal education and training, and in-house. The Strategic Response Team is now under its own banner, headed by Andrew L. Seidel. We added another permanent staff attorney, Chris Line, who’s been with FFRF as a law student intern and legal fellow for the last several years. We also welcomed two new legal fellows, Brendan Johnson and Dante Harootunian, and a new legal assistant, Greta Martens. This brings the legal department’s staff to 10 attorneys and two legal assistants.

FFRF also continued its legal internship program. During 2019, we were lucky to have assistance from four dedicated law students and three undergraduate interns.

Nonlitigation advocacy

In 2019, our intake team processed 3,380 contacts about potential state-church violations, of which 2,958 were unique complaints (i.e., not duplicates).

Our attorneys sent out 1,015 letters to government entities over religious entanglements in government. Letters of complaint were sent to all states except Rhode Island, Vermont and Wyoming. As usual, the majority of these letters involved religion in public schools. We earned 270 nonlitigation victories.

On top of those letters of complaints, FFRF sent more than 1,800 letters in “mass mailings,” educating government officials about state-church violations, including the unconstitutional nature of public-school field trips to the Ark Park in Kentucky.

The top 10 states (where FFRF sent the most letters of complaint) were:

  1. Texas

  2. Alabama

  3. Kentucky

  4. Wisconsin

  5. Florida (tie)

  5. California (tie)

  7. Tennessee

  8. Ohio

  9. Georgia

10. Michigan

The top 10 issue areas were:

  1. Schools

  2. Government funding of religion

  3. Social media

  4. Government prayer

  5. National Day of Prayer

  6. Religious events

  7. Prayer breakfasts (tie)

  7. Religious displays (tie)

  9. Crosses

10. Elections

Amicus briefs

FFRF’s litigation team ended the year with a record eight amicus briefs submitted to courts around the country. Three of these “friend of the court” briefs were filed at the U.S. Supreme Court, including the already decided Bladensburg memorial cross case, and cases to be argued in 2020.

In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, FFRF, along with other secular groups, cogently argued that true religious liberty would be imperiled if the court strikes down a provision of the Montana Constitution that prohibits official funding of religious education. FFRF signed onto a brief in June Medical Services v. Gee, a case concerning Louisiana’s law requiring physicians performing abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals.

These briefs are crucial to adding FFRF’s voice to cases involving religious liberty issues and for standing up for the rights and views of the growing number of nonreligious Americans. The legal department’s restructuring allows FFRF’s attorneys to continue to submit arguments in cases in which FFRF is not a party, but which need to have the freethought perspective represented.

On the road

FFRF attorneys were also sent on the road to educate the public on state-church issues. Elizabeth Cavell presented “Our Constitution, Our Rights” at the When Rights and Religion Collide conference in New York City. Sam Grover spoke about “Civil Rights in the Age of Religious Refusal” in La Crosse, Wis. Ryan Jayne educated students at the high school in Monroe, Wis., during a full day of presentations on constitutional law. Former legal fellow Colin McNamara joined a panel discussion in Louisville on religion in the public schools. Andrew L. Seidel spoke in Arizona on “Why fighting for state-church separation is so important,” among other stops on his The Founding Myth book tour. I had a presentation and discussion with female inmates on their rights at Taycheedah Correctional Facility in Fond du Lac, Wis., titled, “An Introduction to FFRF and Atheism in the Correctional Systems.”

Attorneys also continued educating lawyers and judges. FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott helped organize and emcee a continuing legal education class for the Wisconsin State Bar Association.

Though the landscape is changing, FFRF’s legal department has never been better poised to take on the challenges secular Americans face in upholding the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.

Markert is FFRF’s legal director.