Founded in 1978, the nonprofit, tax-exempt Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) consists of more than 13,000 members and calls itself “the largest association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics) in the United States.” Its mission is “to promote free thought and to keep state and church separate.”
According to FFRF, religion invariably has been a negative force in human societies. “The history of Western civilization shows us that most social and moral progress has been brought about by persons free from religion,” the organization says. “… In modern times, the first to speak out for prison reform, for humane treatment of the mentally ill, for abolition of capital punishment, for women’s right to vote, for death with dignity for the terminally ill, and for the right to choose contraception, sterilization and abortion have been freethinkers [i.e., atheists and agnostics], just as they were the first to call for an end to slavery.”
FFRF promotes its message through a variety of vehicles, including a weekly national radio program; a newspaper titled Freethought Today; a “freethought billboard campaign”; scholarships “for freethinking students”; high-school and college “freethought essay competitions” with cash awards; annual national conventions honoring a “Freethinker of the Year” for state/church activism; and the sale of educational products, bumper-stickers, music CDs, winter solstice greeting cards, and books promoting “freethought.” The Foundation also provides speakers for events and debates on subjects related to religion, and has established a “freethought book collection” at the University of Wisconsin Memorial Library.
Most significantly, FFRF initiates lawsuits that center around issues involving religion in the public square. As of mid-2009, the Foundation had filed nearly 30 First Amendment lawsuits over the course of its history. It also “keeps several Establishment law challenges in the courts at all times.”
FFRF’s very first lawsuit, filed in the late 1970s, successfully challenged the use of a religious cancellation by the Post Office of Madison, Wisconsin. That decision set national precedent.
In 1979, FFRF complaints led to the removal of a large Christian cross from a Wisconsin state park. Such religious symbols have remained a major concern for the Foundation ever since. In 1985, 1989, 2001, 2003, and 2004, FFRF sued for the removal of “Ten Commandments” monuments from public grounds in Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Colorado. Similarly, an FFRF complaint in 2000 led to the removal of a nativity scene from public property in Batavia, New York.
FFRF complaints in the late Seventies caused public schools in Janesville, Wisconsin and Conway, Arkansas to end the practice of having students say “grace” before their meals.
In 1982 FFRF launched a protest that resulted in the removal of “Keep Christ in Christmas” posters which had been displayed on city buses in Madison, Wisconsin. In 1983 and 1984 the Foundation paid to have its own signs, mocking Christmas, displayed on Madison buses. Some of these signs read, “The Bible: A Grim Fairy Tale.” Others featured a cartoon depicting the Virgin Mary announcing, “It’s a girl!”
In 1989 FFRF complaints brought an end to school sponsorship of religious baccalaureates in several public-school districts.
In 1993 the Foundation went to court to enjoin the Denver, Colorado mayor’s office from co-sponsoring a National Day of Prayer.
In a 1994 lawsuit against the federal government, FFRF demanded that the words “In God We Trust” be removed from America’s currency.
That same year, FFRF complained that the Madison, Wisconsin school board was violating the law by not charging rental fees to Boy Scout groups that held meetings in the city’s public-school classrooms. This was a precursor to a later case where the Foundation sued Wisconsin’s Rio Community School District for failing “to charge rent for after-school meetings for elementary students on school property by the Child Evangelism Fellowship Group.”
In a 1996 lawsuit, FFRF argued that Wisconsin’s observance of Good Friday as a legal holiday violated the First Amendment by “favoring Christianity over other religions or no religion.”
In 2002 the Foundation challenged in court the government’s funding of Faith Works, a Milwaukee organization dedicated to bringing “homeless addicts to Christ.”
In 2005 FFRF filed a federal lawsuit challenging a state-funded fundamentalist Christian prison-ministry program in New Mexico.
In 2006 the Foundation filed yet another federal suit calling for the discontinuance of faith-based prison programs at the Federal Bureau of Prisons. That same year, FFRF charged that “the pervasive integration of ‘spirituality’ into health care by the Department of Veteran Affairs … unconstitutionally promotes, advances and endorses religion.”
Other noteworthy FFRF lawsuits have challenged: the display of a manger scene at the entrance of a city-government building; the inclusion of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance; a chaplaincy designed to bring “faith into the workplace” for state workers in Indiana; the display of a shrine to Jesus in a public park in Wisconsin; the presence of playground equipment resembling a biblical Noah’s Ark in another public park; the public financing of nativity pageants and Easter services; public subsidies to religious schools; and the recital of commencement prayers at a major university.
The Foundation is led by its co-presidents, Dan Barker and his wife, Annie Laurie Gaylor. Barker was a Christian preacher for 19 years before renouncing his faith in 1984. Gaylor, who earned a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1980, co-founded FFRC with her mother and the late John Sontarck in 1978. She is author of the books Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So (1981), and Betrayal of Trust: Clergy Abuse of Children (1988). She also edited the 1997 anthology Women Without Superstition: No Gods, No Masters. Today she edits FFRF’s newspaper, Freethought Today, which is published ten times annually. Since October 2007, she and her husband have co-hosted a one-hour weekly radio program called Freethought Radio, which is broadcast by Air America Radio.