At the Madison headquarters of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Dan Barker's office is one floor above the office of his wife and co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor. So naturally, she had a sign made for his door that reads "The Man Upstairs."

Godless, yes. Humorless, not so much.

The two atheists also are proving to be far from powerless.

Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the foundation's lawsuit against the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives -- the first of the foundation's lawsuits to make it to the nation's highest court.

The Madison organization claims the office is unconstitutional because it shows preference for funding faith-based social service organizations over others.

Wednesday's court action will be limited to whether Gaylor and Barker have the ability -- called "standing" -- to mount such a lawsuit. Still, the decision will determine an important issue: Can taxpayers file lawsuits over executive branch actions if they believe those actions intrude on the boundary between church and state?

Gaylor says President Bush has trashed that boundary like none before him, yet Bush's actions undeniably have been a boon to her group. Dues-paying memberships grew by more than 100 per month in the last year, to an all-time high of 8,483, Gaylor said.

The soundbites begin In 1976, Anne Nicol Gaylor, an outspoken feminist and Annie Laurie Gaylor's mother, deduced that the root cause of much of the opposition to her pro-abortion and women's rights efforts came from organized religion.

She started the foundation at her dining room table with her daughter and the late John Sontarck. The soundbites have been flying ever since.

Gaylor, 80, who retired from the presidency in 2004 but remains an active volunteer, has called the Bible "a grim fairy tale," applauded abortion as "a blessing" and coined the slogan "Nothing fails like prayer."

Given Gaylor's sledgehammer way with words, one anticipates an intimidating physical presence to match. But she's just 5 feet 3 inches tall and 110 pounds. Her voice is high and soft, and she nearly tiptoes when she walks.

The effect is one of Southern charm-school demureness, yet she was born and raised 90 minutes north of Madison in Tomah, where she and her friend Isabel rose to prominence as the first girls to wear slacks to their high school in defiance of a skirts-only rule.

Gaylor said her small stature has hindered her just once, when an audience member at a taping of a Philadelphia television show rushed her from behind and got her in a chokehold, announcing plans to drive the devil out of her. Gaylor's husband, Paul Gaylor, broke the woman's grip.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, 51, is a physical replica of her mother. She has three brothers: Ian, her twin, a teacher in Verona; Andy, one of the owners of the Frugal Muse bookstore chain; and Jamie, a printer in Portland, Ore.

Gaylor and her mother coined the foundation's subtlety-challenged name, which seems all-too-eager to antagonize Christians. The older Gaylor said the intent merely was to be upfront. "I've never liked euphemisms. If you have something to say, say it."

The foundation describes itself as a group of atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and rationalists, collectively dubbed "freethinkers." The group has two goals: promote the separation of church and state and educate the public about non-theism.

Oprah the matchmaker

The Gaylor family supported itself in various ways. Anne Nicol Gaylor co-founded the city's first temporary-help service and, later, the first employment agency for people seeking permanent jobs. For three years in the 1960s, she and her husband owned the Middleton Times-Tribune, a weekly newspaper.

Paul Gaylor, 80, is a former vice president for a building maintenance company. He has supported the foundation as a volunteer and contributed recipes to "The World Famous Atheist Cookbook," published by the foundation in 1999.

The younger Gaylor grew up accompanying her mom to protests and press conferences. In fourth grade, her mother bought her a Bible. Annie Laurie Gaylor said she's read it cover to cover. "My mother wanted to expose me to it. I think she trusted I'd catch on."

As a seventh-grader at Madison's Cherokee Middle School, the younger Gaylor successfully took on the school's skirts-only rule for girls.

"It's been a long fight," her mother deadpans.

In 1984, the two were discussing atheism as guests on Oprah Winfrey's television show when they met Dan Barker, a fellow panelist who had recently left the ministry.

A videotape shows a steely Winfrey repeatedly trying to get the three to admit that religion can be a necessary force in some people's lives. Winfrey seems particularly troubled by Barker's rejection of his once-strong faith.

"You went from 17 years of being a minister to not believing in God?" she says. "What does that say about you?"

"That means I was wrong," Barker responds. "I made a mistake."

At one point, an audience member gestures toward Annie Laurie Gaylor and says, "This young lady here, the devil's got ahold of her."

Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor began dating six months later. "We were kindred non-spirits," Gaylor said.

They married in 1987 and have one child, Sabrina, 17, a junior at Madison West High School. Barker, 57, once a true believer who laid hands on people in an attempt to heal them, comes across today as laid-back and mellow, suggesting his days as a fiery evangelist are indeed behind him.

'Amazing' finances

The foundation operates out of an 1855 sandstone building at the corner of West Washington Avenue and North Henry Street that once was a church rectory. The foundation paid $220,000 in cash for it in 1990.

The staff of 4 1/2 consists of the two co-presidents, an assistant editor, an office manager and an administrative assistant. Lawyers are hired for each lawsuit -- the foundation spent more than $150,000 on legal cases in 2006.

Barker handles much of the public relations and freethought education work, often debating prominent Christians at colleges. Gaylor edits the newspaper Freethought Today and manages the legal cases. She also has a national profile from appearances on shows such as "The O'Reilly Factor." They both contribute to Freethought Radio, the foundation's weekly Saturday show on The Mic 92.1.

Critics will be disappointed to learn the tax-exempt foundation is good with money. It raised $995,000 in 2005 and spent $595,796, according to informational tax filings. It has $3.3 million in the bank.

"That's an amazing rainy day fund," said Sandra Miniutti, a spokeswoman for Charity Navigator, an independent organization that evaluates charities on financial health.

Charity Navigator gives the foundation its highest score of four stars. "Donors know they're going to get their money's worth," Miniutti said.

In 2006, Gaylor and Barker each earned just under $50,000 as co-presidents, salaries that Miniutti called "very reasonable."

Last fall, the foundation's board gave them sizable raises, and each will earn $65,000 in 2007.

Death threats, dead fish

Being prominent atheists, they get hate letters -- they once printed a batch of them in their newspaper under the headline "Nut mail" -- and the occasional death threat. One person sent them a dead fish. Others have proposed a Freedom From Gaylor Foundation.

"It has always been open season on us," said the older Gaylor, adding that she feels less alone these days now that polls show about 14 percent of the country identifies with no religion.

Robert Nordlander of Menasha, a retired teacher, has been a foundation member since 1978, the year the group incorporated and went national.

"They take a lot of scorn, but they have a lot of friends, too," he said. He likes that the foundation beats back "a lot of bunkum and nonsense."

Critics say the Gaylors have made a religion out of irreligion and are unaware of the harm they cause.

In 2005, the foundation won a lawsuit against MentorKids USA, an Arizona organization that matches Christian adults with children whose parents are in prison. MentorKids had to forfeit $145,000 in federal money, enough to provide mentors for 60 children, said Keith Staser, executive director.

"I have no animosity toward the Freedom From Religion Foundation, but I do have to ask the question: What are they doing to make a difference in the lives of these often-forgotten children?" he said.

Annie Laurie Gaylor said she's been a mentor herself. As for MentorKids losing the federal revenue, "that's 60 kids who won't get adults pretending to be their friends and proselytizing to them," she said.

Kevin Hasson, founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, an interfaith public-interest law firm in Washington, D.C., that has opposed the foundation in court, said the foundation acts as if it wants to banish all expression of religion in public life.

"That's an extreme position, and it's not good for any individual or society at large," Hasson said.

Jon Dahl of the InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship at UW-Madison said he agrees with the foundation that the country should not be run by a theocracy. However, he said he objects to how the foundation "promotes intolerance" of religion by condemning all public religious expression.

Responds the younger Gaylor: "We're not trying to banish religion from public life, just from the government."

Membership questioned

American Atheists, founded by the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair, predates the Freedom From Religion Foundation by many years yet has a membership of just 2,300. President Ellen Johnson said she applauds the foundation's work but is "respectfully skeptical" of its membership figure.

Johnson said her organization is in the media a lot, yet its membership pretty much stays the same. "Somebody tell me how every time we turn around, they are adding members?"

Barker said the foundation's membership list is private, but he sought to prove the membership claim in other ways. He showed an internal computer program that tallied individual and household memberships equaling 8,483. A receipt from the foundation's printing company showed 9,600 copies of its newspaper were printed in February.

Its 2005 tax filing showed revenue from membership fees of $290,302. A basic membership is $40, with price breaks for households and students. (There's also a cheeky "afterlife" membership for people who already are life members but want to keep giving.)

Barker said the rising membership isn't surprising given the prominence of its lawsuits and its increased advertising on Google and the Air America radio network.

"We're doing something, we're making a difference," he said. "We offer more of a product in activism and successful litigation."

The foundation hopes to have 10,000 members by the end of the year. It is hiring another full-time employee, and Barker and Gaylor both have ideas for more books.

Gaylor wants to write about the anti-slavery movement and show how "almost all" early abolitionists were infidels, not Christians as many believe. The book would reprint sermons that used the Bible to justify slavery, she said.

"Then I'd like to go to black churches and speak about it," she said. "That's my little fantasy."

She had a grin on her face. A devilish one.

They've won some, they've lost some

Key battles that the Freedom From Religion Foundation has fought over the years:

SUCCESSES

1976: Convinces UW-Madison to stop its 122-year tradition of prayers at commencement ceremonies.

1996: Wins lawsuit ending Wisconsin's Good Friday holiday.

2002: Convinces the cities of Milwaukee and Monroe to move Ten Commandments monuments off city property.

DEFEATS

1982: Loses an attempt to prevent President Reagan from declaring 1983 "The Year of the Bible."

1983: Loses a lawsuit to prevent the state Legislature form paying members of the clergy for leading prayers at sessions.

1996: Loses a challenge to "In God We Trust" on U.S. currency in Colorado.

WEB EXTRA

Audio slideshow: Atheists Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor explain their views on separation of church and state.

Go to: madison.com/wsj

WEDNESDAY

The foundation argues against the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives before the U.S. Supreme Court.

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