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What is the FFRF anyway?

Foundation taking on Honesdale Star

ELIZABETH LEPRO
Posted 10/17/18

HONESDALE, PA — Not much in recent news has inflamed the emotions of so many Honesdale locals as a June complaint letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The complaint, only …

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What is the FFRF anyway?

Foundation taking on Honesdale Star

Posted

HONESDALE, PA — Not much in recent news has inflamed the emotions of so many Honesdale locals as a June complaint letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).

The complaint, only recently made public, claims that a Honesdale resident has taken issue with the seasonally illuminated star and cross on top of Irving Cliff. The letter asks that the cross be taken down because it has an “exclusionary effect” for non-Christians in Honesdale. The land is municipally owned, which crosses the line separating church and state, according to the organization. Illuminating the structure during the holidays is a violation of the First Amendment and a Supreme Court ruling that says governments should not promote Christmas as a solely Christian holiday.

Many Honesdale residents—at a local city council meeting and on social media—have defended the star and cross, not necessarily as religious symbols, but as points of pride for the town. Signs in support of the structure on the hill have cropped up at homes and businesses from Route 6 to Main Street.

This kind of response isn’t rare for the 42-year-old nonprofit. The organization has sent 815 other letters of complaint so far this year, according to FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert, who signed the Honesdale letter.

The FFRF’s unending battle

If you call the FFRF and have to be put on hold, you’ll be treated to a song as unabashed in its message as the foundation itself.

The wall the Biblical Joshua faced in the Battle of Jericho is nothing compared to the one constructed by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, the song goes: that wall, of course, being the one between church and state.

Upholding that constitutional wall, along with educating the public on “matters related to nontheism,” is the central mission of the FFRF, according to its bylaws. A non-profit, tax-exempt, membership-based organization, the foundation consists of more than 32,000 “freethinkers”—an umbrella term for religious dissenters, skeptics and nonconformists—in chapters all over the country. It also employs a team of staff attorneys, legal fellows and legal interns. The FFRF is currently pursuing 16 lawsuits. 

According to its recent 990 tax filings, more than 60% of the organization’s funding comes from contributions gifts and grants, while another 35% is supported by membership dues. The rest comes from federated campaigns.

Though the organization gains publicity mostly by filing constitutional violation suits or issuing complaints—funneled from reports from members and nonmembers throughout the country—the FFRF also operates a number of educational and outreach activities. It publishes the Freethought Today newspaper, contributes speakers to events, hosts conventions, operates TV and radio shows and issues awards to public figures and high-schoolers.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is the co-president and co-founder of the FFRF. She founded the organization with her mother, Anne Gaylor, in the late ‘70s, based on what the pair saw as the inappropriate relationship between religion and women’s reproductive rights. It became a national organization in 1978.

Gaylor began protesting and campaigning for women’s rights as early as 14, and has co-authored three books published through the FFRF, one of which examines the relationship between the Bible and women. She is married to Dan Barker, who is also co-president, a former minister turned atheist. The two met on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show in 1984, where Barker discussed why he became an atheist after spending his prior life as an evangelical.

“In 30 years of going to church and being a preacher, I never got to sleep in on Sunday mornings,” Barker joked at the time.

“In 30 years of going to church and being a preacher, I never got to sleep in on Sunday mornings,” Barker joked at the time.

Case history

The foundation doesn’t necessarily pick its battles. Though it pursues far fewer cases than it receives, Markert said no incident of constitutional violation is too small.

“Every single violation chips away at the wall of separation between state and church,” she said. “The more that you chip away at it, the more it crumbles... once you start giving away certain aspects of your rights, suddenly you wind up with none.”

In 2010, Gaylor and the FFRF took on President Obama and his press secretary. Their suit called for an end to the National Day of Prayer. A Wisconsin judge agreed with the FFRF, but a U.S. Appeals Court judge overturned that ruling in 2011, by determining that the foundation hadn’t provided sufficient evidence that the alienation of non-Christians alone was enough to prove injury.

More frequently, the FFRF fights cases similar to Honesdale’s. In September of this year, the Central VA Hospital in Iowa agreed to cover a cross on a memorial outside the building after receiving a letter from Markert on behalf of the foundation.

Officials in small towns often resist change in their neighborhoods. A case in Whiteville, Tennessee—a town with a population fewer than 5,000—ended in 2011 when the town’s mayor, James Bellar, had one arm of the cross removed rather than taking it down.

FFRF representatives called Bellar’s response “bizarre.”

Honesdale locals have already begun tossing around options to keep the star without violating the law, including making the land private property. Legal director Markert said that if Honesdale were to finagle a way to keep the cross standing, she would consider it a “sham solution.”

“[That solution] actually exacerbates the problem because the town is then going to extraordinary measures to save a religious symbol,” Markert said. “And that just confers even more endorsement of the Christian religion than it has previously.”

In response to many people in Honesdale, including the nonreligious, who have said that they don’t mind the star and cross, Markert quoted retired Associate Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

“The Constitution doesn’t count heads before it enforces the rights of our individuals,” she said. “Just because everybody says, ‘Hey we’re not bothered by this,’ doesn’t mean it’s constitutional. That’s not how our system of government works.”

To read an old article about the Honesdale cross and star by The Daily Citizen, click here.

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