Year in review: FFRF prevails in record 9 lawsuits in 2017

By Rebecca Markert

FFRF prevailed in nine lawsuits last year, the most ever in a single year for FFRF, with three of those victories occurring in the span of eight days. FFRF also filed four new lawsuits in 2017. It won:

FFRF v. City of Shelton

FFRF, with member Jerome H. Bloom, filed suit March 22, 2016, in U.S. District Court, Conn., against the city of Shelton and its mayor and parks director after their request to put up a display in a city park was denied. In February 2017, FFRF reached a successful settlement with Shelton in which the city agreed not to allow private unattended displays in Constitution Park, the source of the original censorship.

FFRF v. New Kensington-Arnold School District

FFRF and two parents filed suit on Sept. 14, 2012, against the New Kensington-Arnold School District in Pennsylvania in a challenge to a 6-foot-tall Ten Commandments monument in front of Valley High School. The federal lawsuit was victoriously settled on Feb. 15, 2017, when the school district agreed to remove the Ten Commandments marker and pay attorneys’ fees.

FFRF v. City of Santa Clara

FFRF, with member Andrew DeFaria, sued the city of Santa Clara, Calif., on April 20, 2016, to remove a large Latin cross from a city park. FFRF initially complained to the city about the unconstitutional display in 2012. In January 2017, the city removed the cross and donated it to Santa Clara University, a Catholic institution. The settlement was finalized in March 2017 and the city of Santa Clara agreed to pay attorney fees.

FFRF also won in the first round in the following lawsuits:

Kondrat’yev v. City of Pensacola

FFRF and the American Humanist Association filed suit over a government-owned cross in the city of Pensacola, Fla., on May 4, 2016. On June 19, 2017, Senior U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson ordered the cross in Bayview Park removed within 30 days. The city has retained the Becket Fund for its appeal to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and oral arguments are set to be heard by the court in the spring.

FFRF v. Gov. Greg Abbott

FFRF filed a federal lawsuit on Feb. 25, 2016, challenging the removal of its approved Bill of Rights display from the Texas State Capitol by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott only three days after it was erected on Dec. 18, 2015, lambasting it as indecent, mocking and contributing to public immorality. On Oct. 13, 2017, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ruled that Abbott violated FFRF’s free speech rights. Abbott is appealing the ruling.

Gaylor v. Lew

FFRF renewed its challenge against the clergy housing allowance, which permits clergy to be paid partly through a housing allowance, which is subtracted from taxable income. FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker’s request for a housing allowance refund for the year 2012 was denied by the IRS. On Oct. 6, 2017, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb issued a declaration that the tax benefit is unconstitutional. In December 2017, she issued an order to the IRS to stop enforcing the exception.

FFRF v. County of Lehigh

FFRF and several of its local members filed suit on Aug. 16, 2016, against Lehigh County, Pa., to remove a Latin cross from the official county seal and flag. On Sept. 28, 2017, Judge Edward Smith ruled that the Lehigh County seal and flag violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The county has voted to appeal FFRF’s victory.

Williamson, et. al. v. Brevard County

FFRF, together with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, filed a federal lawsuit on July 7, 2015, challenging censorship of nontheists by Brevard County (Florida) Board of County Commissioners. On Sept. 30, 2017, U.S. District Judge John Antoon struck down the Brevard County, Fla., Board of County Commissioners’ exclusion of nontheists from giving pre-meeting invocations. The county has filed a notice of appeal.

FFRF v. Mercer County Board of Education

FFRF filed a civil rights lawsuit against Mercer County Schools on Jan. 18, 2017, over the school system’s egregiously unconstitutional “Bible in the Schools” classes for elementary school students. The bible instruction, taught by itinerant teachers who possess “a degree in Bible,” begins in first grade. Classes are held weekly and include creationism and other religious instruction. The district dropped the bible classes as a result of FFRF’s lawsuit. So, on Nov. 14, 2017, Judge David Faber dismissed the case on jurisdictional grounds, finding that one family did not have standing and that the case was not yet “ripe” for review. Two of the plaintiffs filed an appeal to the 4th U.S.  Circuit Court of Appeals. FFRF could refile the lawsuit should the school system resume bible classes.

FFRF files 3 new lawsuits

FFRF v. Judge Wayne Mack

FFRF filed a lawsuit against Justice of the Peace Wayne Mack on March 21, 2017, due to his refusal to end the practice of opening each of his court sessions with chaplain-led prayer.  FFRF is joined by several local plaintiffs, including Jane Doe and John Roe, attorneys who regularly practice before Judge Mack, and Jane Noe, a Montgomery County.

Hart v. Thomas

FFRF and the ACLU of Kentucky filed suit on Nov. 22, 2016, on behalf of Ben Hart, who was denied a personalized license plate by the state of Kentucky. Hart’s request for a personalized license plate reading “IM GOD” was rejected by Kentucky DMV officials who claimed the message was “obscene or vulgar,” but then later said that it was because the plate was “not in good taste.” The lawsuit challenges certain portions of the regulations governing personalized license plates as unlawful, namely those that allow government officials to deny plates based on vague notions of “good taste” as well as those barring personalized plates from communicating religious, anti-religious or political messages.

FFRF v. Trump

On the National Day of Prayer (May 4, 2017), FFRF filed a lawsuit against President Trump, challenging his “religious liberty” executive order as it pertains to church politicking. As advertised by Trump, the executive order effectively provided preferential treatment to churches and would result in obligations on secular nonprofits that are not imposed on churches. In motions to dismiss filed in August and December, Trump’s lawyers admitted the religious liberty order does nothing and that the current law is unchanged. In response, FFRF voluntarily dismissed its federal lawsuit in December.

Rebecca Markert is FFRF’s legal director.