Wisconsin-based atheists foundation answers citizens' calls to defend First Amendment

| Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

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 rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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