Wisconsin-based atheists foundation answers citizens' calls to defend First Amendment
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- PSU frat members, victims aid in investigation
- PennDOT turns to roundabout intersections, citing safety, cost
- Authorities investigate racist letter to Pa. state police pick Brown
- Police: Some pictured on Penn State frat sites come forward
- Ex-prosecutor, alum becomes Grove City College president
- Heat lamp for cats caused fatal Lawrence County fire
- PSU president will back tuition freeze if Wolf’s funding plan passes
- VA pledges to ease restrictive rules on use of Veterans Choice Access program
- Pa. police officer charged with homicide for shooting unarmed man in back
- Penn State leader panned for anti-war visit
- Treasure of World War II posters comes to light at Grove City College