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Annie Laurie Gaylor

Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor

Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has been busy of late shoring up the wall between church and state.

The group, whose mission to squelch religion in the public sphere was once prone to ridicule, is now a national force to be reckoned with.

"Business is flourishing," says Annie Laurie Gaylor, who co-founded the foundation in 1976 with her mother, Anne Nicol Gaylor. "We're busy all over the country."

Gaylor says the foundation, which advocates for the separation of church and state as mandated in the First Amendment, is involved in an unprecedented number of cases of what Gaylor says are unconstitutional encroachments of religion into government. Funded through dues from its 19,000 members and two annual fundraising drives, the foundation has upped its staff attorneys from two to four in the past year to handle the number of complaints coming in. 

As of June, the foundation had received a record 1,200 complaints on its online reporting system, plus a number of letters and phone calls. The group currently has about 10 active lawsuits. In past years, she says, that number was three or four.

The group also has three legal interns who sift through the complaints, prioritizing the ones that need immediate attention.

Gaylor doesn't have a clear answer as to why there has been such an increase in complaints. But she suspects that it stems from a number of factors, including push-back against tea party politics and the increasing secularization of America. But one thing's clear: The foundation is getting far more complaints than it can follow up on. 

UW political science professor Donald Downs, an expert on constitutional law, says some of the uptick probably has to do with recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that are friendly to public religious displays. 

"People allied with the government who believe in more public presence for religion are taking advantage of some of this leeway the Supreme Court has given and are pushing the envelope," he says. "And that's giving the Freedom From Religion Foundation more opportunities." 

Here's just a sample of the cases the foundation has taken up in recent months:

In Steubenville, Ohio, the foundation is working to force the city to remove a religious symbol from its official logo.

In eastern Tennessee, it has written letters to numerous local governments and school districts critical of prayers at school events and public meetings, and calling for the removal of the word "religion" from one municipality's police patches.

In Draper, Utah, it sent the mayor a letter urging him to "cease using Draper city resources and taxpayer funds to plan, organize and promote a religious concert."

And in Huston County, Ga., it issued complaints about religious events at high school graduations.

And these aren't empty threats. The group has recently won victories that include stopping a North Carolina public school from offering a "Vacation Bible School," ending the distribution of religious materials at schools in Tennessee, and putting a stop to prayer at several high school football games.

The foundation is racking up a string of successes, many of them relating to school prayer issues, that have people taking the group very seriously indeed.

"We always give student complaints priority," Gaylor says. "They're a captive audience. With school prayer cases, the law's on our side."

Downs says the foundation's success isn't based solely on its ability to win in court. Sometimes just the threat of going to court can get the attention of public officials.   

"If you have resources and membership, you're going to have some credibility," says Downs. "And in the American legal system, getting sued is almost as bad as losing a lawsuit, so it can make people more wary."

Gaylor says most of the foundation's cases are handled informally, with letters and negotiation.

"That's always our aim," says Gaylor, "to stop violations through education and persuasion."

But the threat of a lawsuit is always there.

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For instance, in Steubenville, where the foundation convinced the city to remove the image of a cross from its new city logo, the city reconsidered its retreat after religious groups offered free legal help. But Gaylor says her attorneys are sending out a letter telling city officials there that they're likely to get stuck with court-ordered legal fees when they lose.

"(Donors) never pay the costs when they lose for you," says Gaylor, "and they will lose this one."

As it rings up an impressive string of successes -- so many, she says, that the group no longer can report all of them on the front page of its publication Freethought Today -- the foundation has, predictably, provoked an angry response from the religious right. 

Most recently, the foundation raised the hackles of some Georgians after targeting prayer breakfasts organized by staffers in the Augusta mayor’s office.

According to the Augusta Chronicle, Mayor Deke Copenhaver started the monthly breakfasts after he took office in 2005. The gatherings are hosted by local churches, but were arranged by Copenhaver’s executive assistant, who sent or received 128 emails regarding the events between Nov. 29 and June 12.

The story in the Chronicle prompted numerous reader comments disparaging the group.

“Wisconsin residents, go back to where you come from,” says one. “We mind our business here in the South and you go home and mind yours.”

Another says, “Go back to Wisconsin you atheist and agnostic haters.”

Gaylor says the foundation regularly receives similar comments via email -- and worse. She maintains a "crank email" file to segregate messages that could be construed as threatening.

"Sometimes, when there's a huge issue, we'll have hundreds and hundreds in a day," she says. "We have the police over fairly often to report something or other."

A couple of weeks ago, she says, the foundation received death threats.

"We take these seriously, and we try to report anything the police can investigate," she says.  

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.