Ongoing Lawsuits - Legal - Freedom From Religion Foundation

FFRF sues Texas judge to end courtroom prayer practice

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 resident who has appeared in Judge Mack's courtroom for a case.

Judge Mack has his courtroom bailiff announce the prayers and state that anyone may leave the courtroom and their case will not be affected, although the courtroom doors are locked to those outside. Then Judge Mack enters, talks about his chaplaincy program, introduces a chaplain, and gives the name and location of the chaplain's church. While everyone in the courtroom remains standing, the chaplain may give a short sermon, or move directly to a prayer. Attendees report Judge Mack surveying the courtroom during prayers and feeling that their cases may be affected by how they chose to react.

The legal complaint asserts that due to his "considerable influence and power as a justice of the peace, Judge Mack exerts coercive influence over those in his courtroom, effectively compelling their participation in his religious practice." FFRF is seeking a judgment enjoining Mack from opening his court sessions with prayer and declaring his actions a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

FFRF and its plaintiffs are being represented by FFRF Staff Attorney Sam Grover, with FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell serving as co-counsel. Attorney Patrick Luff of the Luff Law Firm in San Antonio, is serving as local counsel.

Press Release
Complaint
Brief in Support of Pseudonyms

FFRF, parent, sue to end 75 years of bible classes in W.Va. school system

 FFRF filed a civil rights lawsuit against Mercer County Schools on January 18, 2017, over the school system's egregiously unconstitutional "Bible in the Schools" classes for elementary school students. Joining FFRF as primary plaintiffs in the case are Jane Doe, an atheist and member of FFRF, and her child, Jamie Doe.

The bible instruction, taught by itinerant teachers who possess "a degree in Bible," begins in first grade. Classes are held in 15 elementary schools, one intermediate school and three middle schools. The classes meet weekly and last 30 minutes in elementary schools and 45 minutes in middle schools. The curriculum is equivalent to Sunday school instruction.

The plaintiffs seek a court order declaring that the classes violate the Establishment Clause and the West Virginia Constitution, an injunction prohibiting the classes from continuing, nominal damages, and attorneys fees and costs.

FFRF won a court victory before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ending similar bible instruction in Rhea County (Dayton), Tenn., schools in 2004.

The case (No. 1:17-cv-00642) was filed in the Southern District of West Virginia. Marc Schneider is serving as primary litigating attorney and FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott as co-counsel.

Complaint
Exhibit 1

Brief in Support of Pseudonyms

Press Release

FFRF and ACLU-KY challenge rejection of personalized license plate

FFRF and the ACLU of Kentucky filed suit on November 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.

Hart seeks approval of his license plate application, and a finding that certain provisions are invalid to the extent they allow government officials to deny personalized plates solely because they communicate messages about politics or religion.

The case (No. 3:16-cv-00092) is before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky.

Case Documents:
Complaint
Exhibit 1
Exhibit 2
Exhibit 3
Exhibit 4

FFRF and members file suit against Latin cross on county seal

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and several of its local members filed suit on August 16, 2016, against Lehigh County, Penn., to remove a Latin cross from the official county seal and flag. The case was brought in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

FFRF is a plaintiff, as are members residing in the county who have encountered the religious symbol on governmental property and documents, such as on letterhead, numerous official county forms and reports, the county’s website, a display in the Board of Commissioners meeting room and even on flags prominently displayed at the entrance of county buildings. Joining FFRF in the suit are four county residents, Stephen Meholic, David Simpson, John Berry and Candace Winkler.

By adopting and displaying a seal and flag with a Latin cross, the county is violating the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The purpose is religious, not secular, and “has the primary effect of both advancing religion and expressing defendant’s preference for Christianity above all other religions and nonreligion,” the plaintiffs contend.

FFRF and its co-plaintiffs are seeking a declaration that the religious symbols on the county seal and flag are unconstitutional, a permanent injunction against displaying them, nominal damages, costs and attorney fees.

Complaint

FFRF News Release: "FFRF sues Pennsylvania county over cross on seal"

FFRF sues Congress for invocation discrimination

On the 2016 National Day of Prayer, May 5, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed suit against Congress for refusing to allow Co-President Dan Barker to deliver the House of Representatives invocation as a guest chaplain.

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan sponsored Barker to deliver a guest invocation in February of 2015. Barker fulfilled all of the chaplain office's requirements, but House Chaplain Patrick Conroy denied Barker's request in January 2016, noting in a letter to Pocan that Barker had "announced his atheism publicly" and therefore was not a true "minister of the gospel" eligible for the honor of appearing in front of Congress.

FFRF is asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to declare that barring atheists and other nonreligious individuals from the position of guest chaplain violates the Constitution and RFRA, and that requiring guest chaplains to invoke a supernatural power violates Article VI's ban on a religious test for a public office or trust. The organization is also bringing an Establishment Clause claim under the First Amendment of the Constitution, pointing out the chaplain's office is showing an unconstitutional preference for religion over nonreligion.

Judge Rosemary M. Collyer, a Bush appointee, presides over the case, No. 1:16-cv-00580.

FFRF News Release: "FFRF sues Congress for banning atheist from delivering House invocation"

Complaint
Exhibits

Conroy and the rest of the defendants filed motions to dismiss on September 30, 2016, which FFRF responded to on November 14, 2016.

Conroy Motion to Dismiss
Defendants' Motion to Dismiss

FFRF Memo Opposing Conroy Motion to Dismiss
FFRF Memo Opposing Defendants' Motion to Dismiss

FFRF and AHA take on cross in Pensacola public park

A large white cross in Bayview Park in Pensacola, FL

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association filed suit over a government-owned cross in the city of Pensacola, Fla. on May 4, 2016. One version or another of the cross, which sits in Bayview Park, has stood for more than 50 years.

The city refused to comply with both groups' demands to remove the cross, leaving FFRF, AHA, and four Pensacola residents with no choice but to sue. 

The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the cross violates the Establishment Clause, and issue an injunction ordering the cross to be removed.

FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert and Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler represent the plaintiffs, along with AHA Legal Director David Niose and Senior Counsel Monica Miller.

The case, no. 3:16-cv-00195, was filed in Florida federal court and sits before Judge Roger Vinson, a Ronald Reagan appointee.

Complaint
FFRF News Release: "FFRF, AHA sue to remove giant cross from Florida park"

Gaylor v. Lew challenges IRS clergy housing privileges

The Freedom From Religion Foundation renewed its challenge against the IRS U.S.C. § 107 in a federal lawsuit filed on April 6, 2016, in the Western District of Wisconsin. FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker name as defendants Jacob Lew, U.S. secretary of the treasury, and John Koshkinen, IRS commissioner. The lawsuit challenges the clergy housing allowance, which permits clergy to be paid partly through a housing allowance which is subtracted from taxable income. Rep Peter Mack, the sponsor of the 1954 law, argued that ministers should be rewarded for "carrying on such a courageous fight against this [a godless and anti-religious world movement]."

The FFRF couple, who are married, are being paid in part by FFRF through a housing allowance. Their request for a housing allowance refund for the year 2012 was denied by the IRS. Anne Nicol Gaylor, president emerita, requested a refund which was not received prior to her death last year. Her son Ian Gaylor is also a named plaintiff representing the Anne Nicol Gaylor estate.

FFRF is asking the court to rule the provision unconstitutional because it provides preferential and discriminatory tax benefits to ministers of the gospel. The section "directly benefits ministers and churches, most significantly by lowering a minister's tax burden, while discriminating against the individual plaintiffs, who as the leaders of a nonreligious organization opposed to governmental endorsements of religion are denied the same benefit." Clergy are permitted to use the housing allowance not just for rent or mortgage, but for home improvements, including maintenance, home improvements and repairs, dishwashers, cable TV and phone fees, paint, towels, bedding, home décor, even personal computers and bank fees. They may be exempt from taxable income up to the fair market rental value of their home, particularly helping well-heeled pastors.

Gaylor v. Lew has case number 3:16-cv-00215.

Read about prior challenges, including a 2013 district court victory

Complaint
FFRF News Release: "FFRF renews David vs. Goliath IRS challenge"

 

FFRF vs. Abbott challenges Bill of Rights display censorship

1billofrightsThe Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit in the Western District of Texas, Austin division, on February 25, 2016, challenging the remove of its approved Bill of Rights display from the Texas State Capitol by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. FFRF had a permit and a legislative sponsor for its display. Abbott as chair of the Texas State Preservation Board ordered the display taken down only three days after it was erected on Dec. 18, 2015, lambasting it as indecent and mocking and contributing to public immorality. The whimsical exhibit, designed by artist Jake Fortin, commemorates the “birth” of the Bill of Rights (which was adopted on Dec. 15, 1791), depicting the founding fathers and the Statue of Liberty crowded adoringly around a manger scene containing the constitutional document. FFRF placed the display to counter a Christian nativity display at the Capitol. FFRF charges that Abbott and the other defendants violated the free speech, equal protection and due process rights of FFRF. FFRF also charges that Abbott’s action was motivated by animus toward FFRF and its non theistic message, following “a history of hostility directed at FFRF” by Abbott. The case, No. 1:16-cv-00233-SS, sits before Judge Sam Sparks.

FFRF sues Morris County, N.J., over grants to churches

1churchesformorris

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and member David Steketee filed a lawsuit Dec. 1, 2015, in New Jersey state court against Morris County and county officials, challenging public grants of tax dollars to repair or maintain churches. FFRF with Steketee, a taxpayer in Morris County, are contesting grants to churches by the board's Historic Preservation Trust Fund. Since 2012, the board has awarded 55% of its total Trust Fund assets to churches—more than $5.5 million. FFRF is specifically challenging $1.04 million in allocations to the Presbyterian Church in Morristown to allow "continued use by our congregation for worship services," and allotments to the St. Peter's Episcopal Church that would ensure "access to the church for worship, [and] periods of solitude and meditation during the week." The grants violate Article I, Paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution, guaranteeing: "nor shall any person be obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary to what he believes to be right."

The lawsuit is being handled by attorney Paul S. Grosswald. FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew L. Seidel and Diane Uhl Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne are co-counsel. FFRF v. Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders, Case No. C-12089-15 is in the Chancery division of Somerset County in New Jersey state court. The judge assigned to the case is Margaret Goodzeit.

The Superior Court ruled on Jan. 9, 2017 against FFRF’s challenge, contending the controlling case involved educational grants rather than historic preservation grants. However, Goodzeit praised FFRF’s “mission and it endeavor to promote a healthy separation of church and state.” FFRF and its plaintiff appealed the decision to New Jersey’s Superior court Appellate Division in February 2017.

Press Release
Complaint
Memo in Support of Order to Show Cause 
Order to Show Cause

The defendants attempted to move the case to federal court, but the New Jersey District Court agreed with FFRF that the defendants did not have any grounds to move the case and remanded it back to the New Jersey state court.

Federal Order Remanding to State Court

Order, Superior Court Justice Margaret Goodzeit, Jan. 9, 2017
Press release on lower court decision
FFRF appeals case, Feb. 22, 2017

FFRF, ACLU bring suit challenging public school’s live nativity scene

On October 7, 2015, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Indiana filed a federal lawsuit, along with a local parent and student, challenging an annual live nativity performance at Concord High School in Elkhart, Indiana.

The complaint notes that for several decades, Concord High School has organized a "Christmas Spectacular" each winter. Every performance, of which there were five last year, "ends with an approximately 20-minute telling of the story of the birth of Jesus, including a live Nativity Scene and a scriptural reading from the Bible. During this segment, students at the High School portray the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men, shepherds, and angels."

Plaintiff Jack Doe, a student at the school, is a member of the performing arts department. Attendance and performance at the Christmas Spectacular is mandatory for students enrolled in the performing arts department. In February 2016, concerned parents of two other Concord High School students joined the lawsuit as John Noe and John Roe.

Attorneys for FFRF and the ACLU argue in the complaint that the nativity performance and the reading of the biblical story of the birth of Jesus are, of course, "well-recognized symbols of the Christian faith. Their presence at the Christmas Spectacular is coercive, represents an endorsement of religion by the High School and the School Corporation, has no secular purpose, and has the principal purpose and effect of advancing religion."

A video of the 2014 Nativity performance can be viewed here.

FFRF has brought suit in conjunction with the ACLU of Indiana and the national ACLU. Attorneys on the case include Sam Grover and Ryan Jayne of FFRF, Gavin Rose of the ACLU of Indiana, and Daniel Mach and Heather L. Weaver of the ACLU. FFRF v. Concord Community Schools, Case No. 3:15-cv-00463, is in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division. Judge Jon DeGuilio has been assigned to the case.

On Sept. 14, 2016, Judge Jon DeGuilio ruled that the school district had adequately changed its performance so as not to violate the Establishment Clause. A nativity scene still appeared on stage at the 2015 Christmas Spectacular, but it did not include live student performers or a broadcast narrative of the biblical story of the birth of Jesus. It appeared for less than 2 minutes, rather than 20 as in previous years. The case is still ongoing. The parties are currently briefing the court on appropriate declaratory relief and nominal damages. FFRF has the option to appeal the final ruling.

On March 6, 2017, DeGuilio struck down the nativity performance as it had existed for almost half a century, whereby the school produced and staged 20-minute depictions by students of the story of the birth of Jesus while staff read from New Testament passages. The court issued a declaratory judgment that the nativity performances were unconstitutional.

"The manner in which the living nativity scene was presented and its context within the show combined to create an impermissible message of [religious] endorsement," U.S. District Judge Jon DeGuilio ruled. "The school's present filings offer no argument in defense of the constitutionality of this version of the show.” However, the judge ruled it was permissible for the school to place a static nativity display on stage during the “Christmas Spectacular.” FFRF and the ACLU are appealing that portion of the ruling, asserting that there is no legal precedent to permit schools to promote Christian devotional scenes, particularly with the Concord school’s history of flouting the First Amendment.

FFRF, AU, ACLU sue Brevard County (FL) over discrimination of nontheists

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, 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 (Fla.) Board of County Commissioners. The lawsuit asserts that Brevard County's persistent rejection of atheists, humanists and other nontheists who want to deliver solemnizing messages to start meetings violates the U.S. and Florida Constitutions.

The plaintiffs in the case include the Central Florida Freethought Community (a chapter of FFRF) and its chair David Williamson; the Space Coast Freethought Association and its president Chase Hansel; the Humanist Community of the Space Coast and its president Keith Becher; and Brevard County resident Ronald Gordon.

Litigators include Alex Luchenitser and Legal Fellow Joshua Hoffer at Americans United; Nancy Abudu and Daniel Tilley of the ACLU of Florida; and Daniel Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief; and FFRF Senior Staff AttorneyRebecca S. Markert and Staff Attorney Andrew L. Seidel.

The case, Williamson v. Brevard County no. 6:15-cv-01098-JA-DAB, has been assigned to Senior District Judge John Antoon, a Clinton appointee, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Orlando division.

In May, the parties each filed motions for summary judgment, asking for the case to be decided.

Press release 
Complaint 

Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment
Defendants' Response to Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment

Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment
Plaintiffs' Response to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment

FFRF sues over school board prayer in Chino Valley, Calif.

On November 13, 2014, FFRF filed a lawsuit in the Central District of California, Eastern Division, against the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education, whose meetings “resemble a church service more than a school board meeting.” There was such an outpouring of support that FFRF amended its complaint on December 15, adding 18 plaintiffs, for a total of 22. All the plaintiffs are families with students in the school or school employees who have had the prayers foisted on them.

School board meetings open with a prayer, and often include bible readings and proselytizing by board members. Board President James Na injects Christianity into many of his official statements, FFRF's legal complaint notes. At one typical meeting, Na “urged everyone who does not know Jesus Christ to go and find Him,” after which another board member closed with a reading of Psalm 143.

Students often attend the meetings to receive awards, speak about issues affecting their schools, attend disciplinary hearings and do performances. Student attendance is mandatory in some instances, and a student representative is a member of the board.

FFRF is represented by Attorney David J.P. Kaloyanides, who won a lawsuit in February on behalf of the American Humanist Association, which stopped the city of Lake Elsinore, Calif., from building a war memorial depicting a soldier kneeling before a Christian cross. FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert and Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel are co-counsel on the case.

The complaint asks the court to declare the board's religious practices unconstitutional under both the federal and state constitutions and to permanently enjoin the board from any further school-sponsored religious exercises. U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal, an Obama appointee, is handling the case (Case No. 5:14-cv-02336).

On February 27, 2015, CVUSD retained new counsel, the Pacific Justice Institute.

FFRF filed a motion for protective order to keep the plaintiffs' identities confidential and protect them from retribution. Pitzer College professor Phil Zuckerman, the foremost expert on secular demographics and sociology, offered testimony to support FFRF's motion. PJI opposed the protective order initially, then changed course and stipulated to the pseudonyms. The court granted the plaintiffs' request and ordered that pseudonyms be used from the case.

FFRF Complaint
FFRF Amended Complaint
FFRF Motion for Protective Order
Zuckerman Declaration 
CVUSD Brief Opposing Protective Order 
Order granting pseudonyms 

FFRF press releases:
FFRF adds 18 plaintiffs to school board prayer suit in Chino, Calif.
FFRF sues praying school board in Chino Valley, Calif.

FFRF and the other plaintiffs moved for summary judgment and submitted a memo to support that motion on Sept. 28, 2015. Plaintiffs argued that the legislative prayer exceptions in cases like Marsh v. Chambers and Town of Greece v. Galloway do not apply in the school context. Instead, the court ought to analyze this case as it would any other school prayer case. Defendants opposed this motion, but Plaintiffs had the final say in their reply.

FFRF Motion for Summary Judgment
FFRF Memo in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment
FFRF Reply in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment

On October 2, 2015, the defendants made a cross-motion for summary judgment, which plaintiffs opposed.

CVUSD Motion for Summary Judgment and Memo
FFRF Memo Opposing CVUSD Motion for Summary Judgment

In November, 2015, the Court ordered additional briefing on the issue of standing, raised by the defendants. FFRF submitted a supplemental brief in support of standing to the court at the court's request. The defendants objected to this submission, even though they were able to reply and even the court asked for the briefing.

FFRF Supplemental Memo in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment
CVUSD Objection to FFRF Declarations

On February 18, 2016, the Court ruled in FFRF's favor, finding that "permitting religious prayer in board meetings, and the policy and custom of reciting prayers, Bible readings, and proselytizing at board meetings, constitute unconstitutional government endorsements of religion in violation of plaintiffs' First Amendment rights."

Judgment
Decision

The school board voted to appeal the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in a controversial 3-2 vote at a contentious school board meeting. The defendants filed their official notice of appeal on March 16, 2016.

CVUSD Notice of Appeal

On March 31, the court ordered the district to pay more than $200,000 in attorney's fees and costs.

Fee Order

 

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