Wisconsin-based atheists foundation answers citizens’ calls to defend First Amendment
By Rich Cholodofsky
Published: Saturday, November 17, 2012, 8:57 p.m.
Updated: Sunday, November 18, 2012
Residents rallying to keep Ten Commandments tablets posted on school property in Connellsville and New Kensington are going up against the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based atheist group with a growing presence in the state.
In the past two years, the group has challenged discounts for churchgoers at restaurants and college basketball games, Nativity scenes at public buildings and state lawmakers' attempts to declare a Year of the Bible.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation does not pick its fights; it only responds to complaints from citizens, said its co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor.
“I don't know what is going on in Pennsylvania to put out that kind of fundamentalism. It's something you would expect to see in the Deep South,” she said. “Our ultimate goal is to defend the First Amendment. We're not picking on anybody.”
Gaylor, 57, grew up with the foundation that started 36 years ago, got a boost on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and claims 19,000 members in the United States.
According to documents the private nonprofit filed with the Internal Revenue Service for 2010, it raised more than $2.4 million through membership fees, donations and sales of bumper stickers and other items promoting atheism. It reported a balance of nearly $9 million to finance legal battles, public relations and education.
Born of abortion
The abortion issue in Wisconsin in 1976 gave birth to the foundation.
Gaylor's mother, Annie Nicol Gaylor, now 86, founded it with her daughter. “It was the two of us, but we thought we'd be stronger if we had a group, so we called ourselves the Freedom From Religion Foundation,” Gaylor said.
The mother, a feminist author, lobbied for Wisconsin laws that legalized abortion. The daughter, a third-generation atheist and sophomore at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, halted a practice by Madison city leaders to start every government meeting with a Christian prayer.
With her mother running the organization, Gaylor returned to college and started a feminist newspaper. In 1980, she went to the Madison foundation to edit its newsletter and write books about atheism.
Eventually, she was joined in her work by Dan Barker, a former minister.
He was ordained in 1975 by the Christian Center in Standard, Calif., an independent charismatic group. He served three congregations in California, including Quaker and Assembly of God churches, and worked as a missionary in Mexico for two years.
After nine years, Barker abandoned religion.
“It was gradual and intellectual. I would pray and talk and feel the spirit. Then I started to realize that it was all an illusion,” he said.
In 1984, he read one of Gaylor's books. Then the two met at the Winfrey show during a program on religion and atheism.
They married in 1987. In 2004, they were elected co-presidents of the foundation, replacing Gaylor's mother. They have one daughter, Sabrina, a college student who helped craft an advertising campaign depicting atheists as “Out of the Closet.”
‘An unabashed atheist'
“Our mission is to keep government secular. We support religious freedom. We just don't want it to interfere with people's rights. We do complain when government takes a side,” Barker said.
The foundation runs with 13 staff members, including four lawyers who take on cases such as a lawsuit filed last week against the IRS for allegedly failing to enforce election restrictions against churches and other religious groups. They send out hundreds of cease-and-desist letters, many to remove religious symbols from public property.
They recruited Pittsburgh lawyer Marcus Schneider this summer to take on the districts over the Ten Commandments. “I don't know we knew the foundation even existed prior to them contacting us,” Schneider said.
Staffers read news accounts of a wrongful termination lawsuit Schneider filed for two former teachers in Lakeview Area School District, Mercer County, who claimed they were fired after complaining about being forced to pray at faculty meetings. They settled out of court.
Gaylor declined to disclose the foundation's membership or donor lists.
The group is governed by a 10-member board that includes individuals from Wisconsin, Alabama, South Dakota and Illinois.
It has 13 honorary board members who lend their name to endorse the organization's message. They include Ron Reagan, the son of the former president, who recorded a foundation radio ad describing himself as “an unabashed atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”
Other honorary members are former “Saturday Night Live” star Julia Sweeney of “It's Pat!” fame, neurologist and Stanford University professor Robert Sapolsky and cartoonist and illustrator Edward Sorel.
Members can join the foundation for $40; $25 for students. Lifetime membership costs $1,000; an eternal membership costs $5,000.
673 members in Pa.
The foundation mailed 565 letters of complaint in 2011, including 20 to Pennsylvania, where it claims 673 members.
Steven Hirtle, a professor at the School of Information Systems at the University of Pittsburgh, found the foundation's podcasts online in 2008. He liked the message, did some research and joined. Last month, he was elected to the board of directors.
“Clearly there is a growing secular movement in Western Pennsylvania,” Hirtle said. “Initially people feel they are being attacked, but they have a misunderstanding of the Constitution.”
In Connellsville, the Rev. Nelson Confer said the battle against the foundation is more than a civics dispute.
“We're living in the last days, and we're going to be attacked by Satan. I think if they would read the Bible and have God intervene in their hearts, they would have a change of mind,” Confer said.
Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or email@example.com.
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There are PLENTY of places that individuals are FREE to express their religious beliefs and there is no shortage of churches in our area to display this "piece of history". No one threatened to destroy it, just move it to private property. That is why this is America and those other countries are what they are. Here in the United States you are welcome to promote your religious propaganda, just make sure you do it legally by not using our government as a platform. If we want our children to be indoctrinated and marginalized, we know where your churches are. It's not like this monument is the original script that was supposedly handed to Moses and it speaks nothing about American history. It's plainly religious in nature and serves no secular purpose. I think we should relocate this monument and replace it with a monument of the Constitution which would be much more appropriate for a public school, not to mention the Constitution sends a positive message about the law of the land ~ not the laws of a particular monotheistic, Abrahamic religion.
Submitted by: Sam on Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Just give it up Rhonda. It has been debated. It has been debated in the Supreme Court, which is the ultimate authority of interpreting the Constitution under our democratic system. From Wikipedia: “Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. 39 (1980), was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that a Kentucky statute requiring the posting of a copy of the Ten Commandments on the wall of each public classroom in the State, was unconstitutional; and in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, because it lacked a secular .. purpose.” Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677 (2005) reiterated that a 10 Commandments Monument outside a public school is in violation of the 1st Amendment. I don’t have to convince you. The Supreme Court has decided it is illegal. There is nothing more to say, but move it off school property to a private/religious school, to a church, or to private land. There is nothing more to say.
Submitted by: Justice on Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Seems to me America is done anyway, Look who got re-elected to be president for 4 more years! Ever see a picture of the Obama family in church?
Submitted by: Rhonda on Monday, November 19, 2012
The Great Sphinx and the Pyramids have stood for 4,000 years as monuments to Egypt’s ancient culture and belief system. But these monuments offend the Muslim Brotherhood and so they want the monuments removed, the same way the Taliban dynamited the ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan. It does not matter to this group of Islamist that these monuments provide insight into the rich culture of these people groups. In much the same way, these divisive groups which want the Ten Commandments monuments removed are lobbing destructive legal attacks at our schools and society. They do not provide historical evidence or logical arguments that these monuments are contrary to the Constitution, because they cannot. They site nebulous theories that a child from a different culture might look upon them and feel offended. So, instead of teaching these children about America’s history and explaining that America is a diverse country where we teach healthy dialogue and debate, these groups want to erase America’s history. Many believed it would be ludicrous to think any people group would bomb the Great Sphinx and Pyramids. Some might say it would be outrageous for atheists to want murals of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. removed from our schools. But is it? When groups are filled with enough fear that they try to rewrite history and pass propaganda for truth; when they grab for power of young minds; and, desire to intimidate and harass school districts already suffering in a poor economy, we just are not sure what else they will do. Study the facts, learn America’s history, and think critically. Be respectful of all, but stand your ground.
Submitted by: Star on Monday, November 19, 2012
America has always been a melting pot of ideas and cultures. If it weren't, we'd all be polytheistic like the original Native Americans. It doesn't matter what religion our forefathers were, it only matters that their objective was to have a secular government to be free to practice their individual faiths respectively. You HAVE to be logical enough to understand that in order to have freedom OF religion, you must first have freedom FROM other religions. Use private property and funds to support your message and leave public resources out of it... Why is it SO hard to comprehend? I'm guessing it's the blindness caused by faith (a.k.a. brainwashing)... Please keep your unrealistic fairy tales away from our laws and out of our tax dollars, this is NOT a theocracy. We are a democratic republic formed by ideas from as far back as ancient Greece. Oh and, if the president signs his name to an agreement... I'm pretty sure he's SAYING that he agrees.
Submitted by: Sam on Monday, November 19, 2012
Rhonda has completely backwards. It is the religious right that "brainwash, and spoon feed ideologies to promote their agendas. These groups promote intolerance and divisiveness based on their religious bigotry." Rhonda wants all of us to read the words of her religion every day, but has no interest in hearing other views. That sounds like bigotry to me.
Submitted by: force on Monday, November 19, 2012
Rhonda's response below is rather accurate, and I think she is right. The other individual seemed to be quoting John Adams inaccurately. From what I can tell, John Adams never authored nor "said" what this individual is claiming he said. That quotation comes from an English translation of the Treaty of Tripoli, which was authored by someone else. When the house and Senate passed this treaty, John Adams signed it. It is very misleading to imply that instead of signing a treaty, that someone actually authored or said those things. There seems like there is some hate from those who do not want to acknowledge that there was *some* if not much Christian history in the founding and development of the U.S. All the major religions of the world appear to have their own country... Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, etc. The greatest country on the planet was known by the rest of the world as a Christian Nation, even recently. Other countries knew that America was, in general, a Christian Nation and that it was unique among all other nations in its freedoms, values, and desire to help and aid other nations in distress. "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." - John Adams, Second President and First Vice-President, to the Militia of Massachusetts.
Submitted by: Keith on Monday, November 19, 2012
673 does not represent even a one per cent portion of the population, THEY need to grin and bear it.
Submitted by: Star on Sunday, November 18, 2012
No one is taking away anyone's individual right to practice, promote, or endorse any religion they chose to follow, we're just asking you to do that without the use of our government. The fact is that the Ten Commandments monument stands alone in New Kensington on public school property and serves no secular purpose. It sends a message that the school favors one religion over another and "commands" its audience to adhere to a monotheistic way of life. As for removing historical facts from school because certain individuals claimed to be "faithful" is ridiculous. Many people have contributed secular ideas that have benefited our society and add to the useful knowledge accepted as truth without erecting a 6 foot tall, permanent structure. Forget the atheists, try walking a mile in the shoes of a Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist student who attends school and feels marginalized by the noninclusive "majority". Minorities have a right to a clear conscience and equal representation. Keep public schools secular and everyone will be equal... it's just a shame that these privileges have gone uncontested for so long and it's no wonder why. The majority cannot dictate the civil rights of the minority in the eyes of the law. Swallow your pride and relocate the Ten Commandments monument to an appropriate location or the school will suffer from a significant monetary loss and reinforce another important judicial decision.
Submitted by: Char on Sunday, November 18, 2012
Seems like folks are missing the point. Try walking a mile or two in the atheists shoes. As much as theists get offended when reminded of constitutional protections against aggressive religion, multiple that by a thousand fold to get just an inkling of how it feels to have intrusive, patronizing, controlling, prudish Christianity thrust at you again and again, over and over. Private religious beliefs are best private. Stop pounding people with Commandments, Holy Books and other cult-ish nonsense and just be decent caring people. Leave the agenda at home. If the Commandments and Holy Books were worth anything, this wouldn't need to be pointed out. Some of the new atheists do seem to hate christianity. Probably resent being force fed lies for so many years. In time, you tend to remember that most christians are decent people and good neighbors who don't intrude or push inappropriate things. It's the few aggressive christians that make you want to file lawsuits left and right. Do try to recall that all men are created equal. Atheists do not demand that Christians stop believing whatever it is they believe, or even require that their own lives live up to their pompous declarations. Atheist just persist, quite rightly, in insisting that church and state remain separate. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesars. Don't think majority/minority really makes sense. Religious belief is a personal thing. Any majority has no business forcing their beliefs on a minority. To suggest that the minority should just put up with it reeks of false entitlement and intolerance. That is not the American way. The Chicago way perhaps. Or maybe the way of the Pharisee. But not the American way.
Submitted by: Rhonda on Sunday, November 18, 2012
Do not be fooled by the rhetoric of groups like the ACLU, FFRF, and CU that state they are concerned about children. These groups attempt to erase historical facts, hide evidence, brainwash, and spoon feed ideologies to promote their agendas. These groups promote intolerance and devisiveness based on their religious bigotry. Their illogical assertion that the Ten Commandments must be removed from the sight of young children who might feel coerced to follow these principals leads down a slippery slope. We must then remove from every school building murals of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose civic activism was firmly rooted in and motivated by his Christian belief that all men are created equal. A child might see his picture and feel compelled to follow in his footsteps. We must remove from our history and science texts accounts of the great agricultural chemist of international fame George Washington Carver, because he emphatically stated before the U.S. Senate Ways and Means Committee that everything he accomplished was through the Creator who gave him the Bible as a guide. No other book went into his laboratory. We then must erase the story of Benjamin Solomon Carson, Sr. - an American neurosurgeon and the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, by President George W. Bush in 2008. He states that all of his success is due to his faith in God and hard work. Children would benefit most by learning to gather facts, evaluate evidence, think critically, and draw conclusions. We should teach children to be respectful and agree to disagree on issues where we differ. These groups who fight to eradicate the rich religious history of the United States are using children as pawns, because they know school districts are strapped for cash and may not be able to afford the millions of dollars in legal fees to fight the battle to exercise the right of free speech. If we as citizens allow these intolerant groups to intimidate us into silence, we are not protecting our children, society, and nation from their bigotry.
Submitted by: Star on Sunday, November 18, 2012
President John Adams, one of our founding fathers puts it in common English that any American should be able to understand: "The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion..." Our godless Constitution is an example of how much our nation was founded on secular principles. Many of our founding fathers were deists as well as of the Christian faith and other beliefs. The only way to remain equal and fair to our melting pot is to maintain a neutral stance when it comes to our government. Feel free to practice, promote, and exercise your own personal beliefs... just don't use public property to advance your religious agenda. That's what churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples are for here in the land of the free. Freedom of religion means freedom FROM religion as well...
Submitted by: Bob on Sunday, November 18, 2012
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." -1st Amendement, US Constitution "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." US Declaration of Independence No 'religion' is being established by having the commandments displayed. The reason for the 1st amendment is the US did not want an established state church like was the case with the Church of England. No such state church exists here in the United States. The Constitution never claimed to give a right to freedom from religion. The argument is therefore foolish that the US was not founded on 'Judeo- Christian' Values. When a 'Creator' is referred to in our first Historical document; indeed written by Christians, it is quite clear that God has granted these rights. The FFRF is trying to silence our rights and force their 'religion' onto the population. This 'Freedom From Religion Foundation' group is a known Christian Hate group that has a history of violent rhetoric. Their stance of hate and divisiveness is one that is not acceptable in the United States nor compatible with its history. The curtain has been raised on this groups hate campaign when they said the Commandments in Brownsville could not even be moved to Church property which abuts the school in question. Imagine in this country not allowing a church to practice religion in a way they choose. Almost sounds like a violation of the 1st Amendment. If the FFRF has nothing to hide, they will come out in support of school choice and vouchers. The state actually has been in violation of the 1st Amendment for years when they took away the right to worship God in schools, where it had been allowed for years. They will lose this lawsuit, just like they have lost others because of their disdain and hatred for Christians.
Submitted by: Sam on Sunday, November 18, 2012
The Supreme Court consistently rules in favor of FFRF, so their lawsuits are not frivolous. The Court has made several rulings since 1980 that schools are different from other public settings and that given the "impressionability of the young, government must exercise particular care in separating church and state." (Supreme Court Justice Breyer from Van Orden v Perry 2005). Thank you FFRF. Schools should leave religion to the parents and homes. The public school must remain neutral on religious matters (no posting of the Ten Commandments) and the Supreme Court agrees.
Submitted by: Keith on Sunday, November 18, 2012
They hide behind th first admendment, BUT we also have the same rights. If we as a majority want the display, I guess THEY will just have to turn their heads the other way when THEY pass by. Just the way I turn my head when I see one of THEM protesting.
Submitted by: Rhonda on Sunday, November 18, 2012
I have always been amazed that atheists vehemently fight a deity that they do not believe exists. They erroneously proclaim they are defending the First Amendment's "separation of church and state," which is NOT stated in the U.S. Constitution. It was a phrase used by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danberry Baptist Church to emphatically state that he would never do anything to infringe upon religious rights. Perhaps if atheists groups sought to educate rather than separate, they would promote tolerance and dialogue among all groups. The Ten Commandments have been woven into the fabric of this United States as a moral code, not necessarily as a force of religion. Please recall that the Pilgrims came to this land so that they could be free from the religious tyranny of George III, King of England. The following examples illustrate that those contributing to the building of this nation never intended to eradicate all mention of religion from our society. The sixth President of the United States, John Quincy Adams, declared the Ten Commandments to be "laws essential to the existence of men in society, and most of which have been enacted by every nation, which ever professed any code of laws." There is a marble relief of Moses and the Ten Commandments prominently displayed over the gallery doors of the chamber of the House of Representatives, in the United States Capitol. The Ten Commandments are prominently displayed in many Federal buildings, such as the United States Supreme Court, National Archives, and Library of Congress. 45 years ago in the case Abington Township v. Schempp, the Supreme Court said that it's entirely permissible for public schools to offer classes in "the study of the Bible," if they are "presented objectively as part of a secular program of education," adding, "[i]t certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities." These celebrities and self-proclaimed intellectual elite are actually decisive and intolerant. Purest science requires that that an observation is necessary to propel a theory into a law. Since neither creationism or atheism are observable, both are founded in faith. The atheists are attempting to force their faith on an American society rich with religious tradition.