By Rebecca Markert
In 2017, FFRF’s legal team had its most productive year ever, and that roll continued throughout 2018. The legal team has had a triumphant winning streak since 2016, and in 2018 alone FFRF won six lawsuits, four of which were solid victories at the appellate level.
We filed six new lawsuits, including:
• Against the city of Parkersburg, W.Va., over the Lord’s Prayer being recited at city council meetings.
• Against the state of Arkansas over the Ten Commandments display at the state Capitol (filed jointly with the American Humanist Association).
• Against the Wisconsin Department of Justice over its chaplaincy program.
• Against the IRS on behalf of Nonbelief Relief over preferential exemptions for churches from filing the 990 form.
• And two cases against government entities over open records requests violations.
We are carrying over 11 ongoing lawsuits and are starting 2019 handling a record 17 lawsuits!
But litigation isn’t the only area where FFRF has seen significant victories. In 2018, FFRF’s nine in-house attorneys achieved roughly 315 nonlitigation victories after sending out more than 1,200 letters of complaint to government entities and officials demanding they keep religion out of government. The number of victories will continue to grow, as many complaints lodged last year will still have responses roll in this year.
The number of letters does not include the many follow-up letters sent or the time FFRF’s legal staff spent on responding to questions from FFRF members and members of the general public. Last year, more than 3,500 state/church inquiries were addressed by FFRF’s legal intake team.
The top 10 states (where FFRF sent the most letters of complaint) were:
5. Florida (tie)
5. Kentucky (tie)
Once again, religion in our public schools topped the issue areas FFRF’s legal team addressed in 2018. Letters of complaint about prayer in schools, religious assemblies, religious clubs led by teachers or in elementary schools, and bible distributions were mainstays of the legal team’s work this past year. These are also the complaints our team prioritizes, given the young age of the students involved, their impressionability, and that they’re a captive audience for these proselytizing school officials.
Another interesting topic dominating our work this year was social media. This new and burgeoning area of state/church complaints involves religious postings by government entities on official government social media pages. Case law is still pretty scant in this area, but it’s clear to FFRF that these postings violate the Constitution. These violations come in many forms, including Facebook postings, tweets and viral videos.
The top 10 issue areas:
1. Religion in public schools
2. Social media
3. Religious displays
4. Government prayer
5. National Day of Prayer
6. Government funding to religion
7. Holiday displays
FFRF’s legal team also submitted five amicus briefs (also called friend- of-the-court briefs) this past year. These added FFRF’s voice to high profile cases such as Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and Trump v. Hawaii at the U.S. Supreme Court. We also argued in defense of “no aid” provisions in state constitutions in a case before the Colorado Supreme Court involving a school voucher program (Taxpayers for Public Education v. Douglas County School District). FFRF also argued in a brief to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that a Christian school does not have a free speech right to take over a public address system for prayer at state championship games in Cambridge Christian School v. Florida High School Athletic Association.
FFRF, joined by Americans United, filed a brief in support of a humanist in custody in Nevada who is trying to gain benefits for his humanist group just as any other “faith group” would receive at the correctional center.
Finally, FFRF’s legal department marked its 10-year anniversary in October 2018. Since FFRF first hired me in 2008, we’ve grown considerably. Kristina Daleiden joined the legal team as a second legal assistant in September 2018. She’s been with FFRF as a program assistant since 2017.
This brings our legal team to a total of 11 full-time staff: Seven permanent staff attorneys, two legal fellows and two legal assistants.
Rebecca Markert is FFRF’s legal director.