Legal Department earns more than 300 victories
By Rebecca Markert
FFRF’s legal department in 2017 had its most productive year to date. Not only were FFRF’s nine in-house attorneys busy protecting the wall of separation, but they also demonstrated the prominence and stature of the staff, as they were routinely called on by attorneys and constitutional scholars across the country for legal advice.
Over the past year, FFRF earned more than 300 victories to keep religion out of government after sending out more than 1,500 letters of complaint. The number of victories will continue to grow, as many complaints lodged last year will still have responses roll in this year. FFRF attorneys wrote to government officials in 47 states (all but Vermont, Rhode Island and Hawaii) and the District of Columbia.
A significant portion of that total consisted of letters warning 350 school districts across the United States against allowing the Todd Becker Foundation into public schools to convert students. The letter included a special report, “Closing the Doors: Why the Todd Becker Foundation Must Not be Allowed in Public Schools,” drafted by Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott and Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow Christopher Line. The Todd Becker Foundation targets high school students, seeking to convert them to fundamentalist Christianity. The foundation is a Christian ministry that travels throughout the Midwest putting on assemblies in public schools.
The number of total letters does not include the many follow-up letters sent or the time FFRF’s legal staff spent responding to questions from FFRF members and members of the general public. More than 4,300 queries about potential violations were lodged with FFRF last year, mostly through our online form: Report a State/Church Violation.
The top 10 states (where FFRF sent the most letters of complaint):
8. Missouri (tie)
8. North Carolina (tie)
10. Georgia (tie)
10. Illinois (tie)
Top 10 issue areas:
1. Public schools
2 Religious displays
3 Government prayer
4. Government funding to religion
5. Crosses on public property
6. Holiday displays
7. National Day of Prayer (tie)
7. Social media (tie)
9. Legislative prayer
Friend of the court briefs
FFRF submitted seven amicus — or friend of the court — briefs in religious liberty cases around the country. Being able to draft and submit more briefs in federal courts around the country provides FFRF a chance to weigh in on Establishment Clause cases it’s not part of and gives FFRF the opportunity to offer its voice to cases that touch on religious liberty and rights of nonbelievers. Two of those briefs were filed before the U.S. Supreme Court.
FFRF submitted an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in the Muslim travel ban cases involving President Trump’s restrictions on travel from certain Muslim-majority countries. FFRF’s brief argued that the executive order on the travel ban violates the Establishment Clause. The administration was explicit in its first order that immigration policies should restrict Muslim refugees and favor Christian refugees. FFRF also made the novel argument in its brief before the Court that the executive order violates Article VI of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits a religious test for office or public trust. New iterations of the travel ban caused the court to remove the case from its calendar and new lawsuits are wending their way through the courts. FFRF will submit another brief if necessary.
FFRF also filed an amicus brief in the famous case, Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, heard before the U.S. Supreme Court in December 2017. A Colorado baker refused to bake a cake for a gay marriage, contending his rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment let his place of public accommodation discriminate against gay customers. FFRF argued that the baker seeks to radically redefine “religious freedom” as the right to impose one’s religious beliefs on others.
Legal staff news
FFRF hired Madeline Ziegler as a full-time intake attorney, after her tenure as the Cornelius Vanderbroek Legal Fellow. Ryan Jayne also joined our legal team as a staff attorney after his tenure as the Diane Uhl and Eric and Elaine Stone Legal Fellow.
Our legal fellowship program continued with the hiring of two new fellows: Chris Line, who was an intern/extern with FFRF for the duration of his law school career at the University of Wisconsin Law School, was awarded the Patrick O’Reiley legal fellowship; and Colin McNamara started with FFRF in September as the Robert G. Ingersoll legal fellow after graduating from the University of Richmond School of Law in Richmond, Virginia.
FFRF also hosted seven law student interns, including two students from top 10 law schools.