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An Interview with Annie Laurie Gaylor on the Work of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/06/08


Annie Laurie Gaylor is the Co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. She discusses: recent victories; notable cases; and women’s rights.

Keywords: Annie Laurie Gaylor, Co-President, Freedom From Religion Foundation, women’s rights.

An Interview with Annie Laurie Gaylor on the Work of the Freedom From Religion Foundation: Co-President, Freedom From Religion Foundation (Part One)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What have been the recent victories?

Annie Laurie Gaylor: We entered the year with a court victory. It was an affirmation by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last weeks, that refused to hear a petition for an en banc review. A decision by the Ninth Circuit, earlier this fall, in our favour, with a very firm victory against school board prayer, a lot of devotions and prayer by Chino Valley school district in California where the prayer and religious ritual made the school board meeting opening seem more like a church, more like a revival.

We had had some complaints. When we filed our lawsuit, with just two or three plaintiffs, we were contacted by dozens of parents, and people in the school district who were upset with the practice, to the point where we had 20 plaintiffs.

This is a school district near Los Angeles. The school board had been taken over basically by a megachurch. We trounced them at the federal level, and then we won at the Ninth Circuit, and then the school board asked a whole panel to review it, and so the victory that we had at the end of the year was that they would not take the petition for rehearing, which affirmed our strong decision in our favour.

The school board had voted to take this case to the Supreme Court but we’re glad to report that at the midterm elections, several the school board members that were part of the megachurch were defeated. There’s going to be a meeting next week about whether they will appeal. We’re hoping that they will drop the case, which has already cost the community over $200,000. [Postscript: The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the school board appeal and this case is a final victory.]

Jacobsen: Holy smokes.

Gaylor: For our costs. That doesn’t include their costs. It doesn’t include our extra-legal costs for the en banc review petition. That was very expensive even before that we had another victory earlier in December.

The other victory that we had was at the end of the year. We thought we were ending already on a very high note. An appeals court in West Virginia sided with us over a continuation of a very strong lawsuit against a bible class in the schools in Mercer County, West Virginia. This was where very small children, starting at first grade, were being indoctrinated in a fundamentalist Bible curriculum.

Among the curriculum items was something that said to the children, “Imagine how much fun Adam and Eve must have had sliding down the neck of a brontosaurus in the garden of Eden,” so it was creationist as well as fundamentalist. Just appalling.

When we filed the lawsuit, they suspended the classes, but then they refused to put anything in writing that they wouldn’t bring the classes back. Yet, when we continued our lawsuit, they said that our plaintiff did not have standing to sue, so although we had a victory, we had stopped the classes, we were very concerned that they could bring them back. We were concerned, also, with the legal standing that our plaintiff hadn’t been injured.

So, we appealed that to the federal Appeals Court and they strongly agreed with US, and the plaintiff who the school district said didn’t have the right to sue. She was a mother who had had to pull her child out of the school district and go to a different district in order to avoid the religious classes, and there had already been regular bullying that the child had received until she made that decision.

There was a CBS news program, a national program, about it, where they were interviewing a little girl who was talking about how bad it wasif children didn’t take the class. It was obvious what a bad environment this was and how wrong it was. Religion in schools builds walls between children and it’s wrong to proselytize other people’s children in a public-school district.

That case goes back to the federal court, where we hope that we’ll get the school district to go on record that they will not resume these classes.

2. Jacobsen: Are there any other cases that either come to mind or should be noted for the record?

Gaylor: Yes. We won a unanimous decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court in our favour this past year, saying the taxpayer money couldn’t be raided to repair houses of worship. This was a case in the state court in New Jersey. We had lost at the county level, and then it got appealed immediately to the state supreme court, and every single one of them agreed with us. This was where hundreds of thousands of dollars had been used to repair ongoing houses of worship. It was very bad use of taxpayer money.

That’s where the county that we’re suing had appealed to the US Supreme Court. We were represented by Erwin Chemerinsky, who is one of the most distinguished law professors in the United States. We’re very pleased to have him on our side, and pleased that this spring the Supreme Court turned back the appeal.

This had been closely watched for various reasons, because there was a bad decision by the Supreme Court negating state constitutional language barring tax funds going to churches. Our case hinged on the very strict language in the New Jersey state’s constitution, and we’re delighted our side has prevailed.

We have yet another victory at the Appeals Court in the Eleventh Circuit, which is in Atlanta, in a case involving a very large cross in a city park in Pensacola, Florida. We won that last year at the district level, and then we won it at the appeals court level this year, but they were very begrudging decisions in which the judges outright said that they only were ruling in our favour because the precedent forced them to.

Then they wanted the supreme court to overturn precedent against Christian crosses on government property. So, this is a little bit alarming. We are seeing an emboldened judiciary, that the religious right on the judiciary, of course, are emboldened and this is even before we had the latest appointment to the US Supreme Court, which is given the religious right a majority.

It’s very odd. We’re seeing pages and pages where they’re ruling in our favour, and then they’re saying why they wish they didn’t have to. The Appeals Court did that, the Eleventh Circuit did that. The other side, Pensacola with aid of a Christian legal group, is asking the Supreme Court to take our case, but nothing’s happened yet. They haven’t definitively said no, and this could go on for quite a while. We’re watching that one carefully.

That’s quite a concern because we don’t have a supreme court that we think is very friendly right now, but we do think these cases will not be heard by the Supreme Court. We think we will hold onto these rights now.

This year we won at the appeals court level in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, where they have a cross on the city seal, and then the city seal is used on the flag at the airport. It’s used on letterhead and stationery. It’s very ubiquitous in the county. It’s not just a seal that nobody sees. It has a cross in the middle of it. We’ve won that case.

We won it at the appeals level, and then, when the Supreme Court accepted a different case, not our case, a cross case, it’s been put on hold. The other side is asking the Supreme Court to do something and it’s all just in limbo right now. That case is the Bladensburg case in Virginia. That’s the case by the American Humanist Association, where it’s a large cross that was termed a war memorial. It used to be on private property.

That case is going to be decided by the Supreme Court. FFRF briefed it with several other groups. We have a pro bono representation by a law firm, which we’re very pleased about, that will be writing the brief for us. That case will have a lot of impact for us.

We also won a federal court ruling in 2018 that we were very proud of, which was that Governor Abbott of Texas was found to have violated our rights when he censored our Bill of Rights “nativity display” that we put up in the capitol there in Texas, after they allowed a Christian nativity display to go up. We had a proper sponsorship by a state representative. We had members who wanted it there, and Abbott called it obscene.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but it shows some of the Founding Fathers and the Statue of Liberty. It’s a cartoon. It’s whimsical. They’re gazing adoringly at a manger, which has in it the Bill of Rights. It’s the nativity of the Bill of Rights, which was adopted on December 15th, 1791, so we think that’s appropriate to put in a governmental building, whereas we don’t think Christian crosses are. But why not celebrate the Bill of Rights, which defends all of our rights?

Governor Abbott, who’s a fundamentalist Christian, termed that “obscene” and ordered it removed. In June, we won a firm ruling in our favour. Abbott, of course, is appealing this to the Fifth Circuit. It is a free speech case, and so we think we will win because we think that it’s very clear that he has discriminated. He’s shown preference for one kind of speech over another.

We have a lot of new litigation, as well, a lot of interesting litigation.

One loss that we did have was Barker v. Conroy. That’s where Dan Barker, who is co-president with me at FFRF and is a former minister, was invited by his state Representative, his US Representative, Mark Pocan to give the invocation to be a guest chaplain, they call it, before Congress, to open the house.

He was turned down. He was treated very badly by Patrick Conroy, who was the House Chaplain, who’s the Roman Catholic priest, and he kept putting stumbling blocks in the way of the request. Dan met a lot of these de facto requirements. He does have a good ordination. He was a minister. Conroy said, “You wouldn’t be able to invoke a higher power.” Dan wrote an invocation that invoked the higher power of “We the People” in The Constitution, and Conroy discriminated against him.

We sued and we lost. It’s complicated to sue Congress. We appealed to the DC Circuit. Unfortunately, the DC Appeals Court ruled against us this spring. In any case, we think it’s very important to point out how discriminatory it is that in what’s called the People’s House, an atheist cannot give the opening remarks.

This Chaplain is paid a lot of money, but his only duty is to deliver prayers, but 40% of the prayers every year are delivered by guest chaplains. It has never been done by an “out” atheist, but there have been others done by people who were not ministers and of minority religions. It certainly is a discriminatory situation against atheists and nonbelievers in the United States.

We had been winning our lawsuit against the IRS, wherein ministers of the gospel are given a housing allowance, can be paid through a housing allowance that can be deducted from their taxable income. This is a unique situation, where if you’re a minister, say your salary is $60,000, they can say $20,000 of that is for your housing expenses, so you’ll only be taxed on $40,000.

It’s an enormous benefit because, of course, tax-free dollars go a lot further, so it also benefits the churches. They don’t have to pay them as high a salary. It’s to reward ministers of the gospel for fighting godlessness, according to the Bill’s sponsor in the 1950s.

We’ve tried to fight these various ways. We’re on our fourth permutation. FFRF now pays Dan and me with a housing allowance that we are not able to claim. We asked for a refund. We weren’t given it. That gave us standing to sue. We won at a district level. We won before, but it got thrown out.

Unfortunately, this spring the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, a not very favourable panel, ruled against us. We’ve been on a winning the streak, but when you count heads, or you look at the Republican versus Democratic majorities on appeals courts, it’s getting to be very ticklish to go to court.

3. Jacobsen: If we also look at what are called David versus Goliath situations post-2016 election results, how are women’s rights, especially secular women, potentially under continual threat with that emboldened fundamentalism that you were talking about before?

Gaylor: There’s no question that women’s reproductive rights are in jeopardy in the United States. Nothing’s going to happen immediately, but we saw that an anti-abortion referendum, for example, passed in November in Alabama. We see legislatures in conservative states passing anti-abortion legislation and saying outright that these are intended to go to the Supreme Court.

We’ve managed to hold firm to most of Roe. v Wade this way, but there’s no question that they are gunning for Roe v. Wade, and that we are now in a situation where the swing vote is going to a very conservative person, and we’re hoping that Chief Justice Roberts will come forward for us, because Kavanaugh was replacing Kennedy, who was firmly pro-choice. He wasn’t that great a swing vote. He didn’t usually swing the right way, but he had held firm on abortion rights. We do not expect that to be true for Kavanaugh.

But we also don’t think that anything’s going to happen immediately. There’s a lot of speculation that Supreme Court Justice Roberts is going to try to make sure that the court doesn’t take a lot of controversial cases right away, following that very controversial hearing. Of course, we are sustained by the midterm elections.

It was very exciting to see our first two Native American women, very exciting to see a much higher percentage of African American women, all the women, much more of a cross-section of America in the US House than we’ve ever had before, and a lot of that a reaction to Trump and Kavanaugh. They’re going to be fighting very hard for our rights.  I was very thrilled to see it.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Co-President, Freedom From Religion Foundation.

[2] Individual Publication Date: June 8, 2019:; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2019:


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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