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View of Freedom From Religion Foundation expansion

An architect's rendering shows the view from North Henry Street of the proposed four-story addition to the Freedom From Religion Foundation's Madison headquarters.



The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a fast-growing national organization of atheists, agnostics and other “freethinkers,” is scheduled to break ground Monday on a major expansion of its Downtown Madison headquarters.

The yearlong project will remodel and expand the foundation’s existing building at the corner of West Washington Avenue and North Henry Street and add an adjoining, four-story addition. Total square footage will quadruple.

The existing building is cramped and no longer can accommodate the staff needed to support the nonprofit organization’s membership growth, said foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor. Paid membership is at nearly 20,000, an increase of 130 percent in six years.

“We’re growing by leaps and bounds,” Gaylor said.

The foundation has 13 permanent staff positions, plus numerous interns and volunteers. It hired its first full-time staff attorney in 2007 and now has four.

“We’re winning a lot of legal victories, and the more victories you get, the more requests for help you get,” Gaylor said.

The foundation takes on alleged violations of the separation of church and state, sometimes filing lawsuits but more often using the threat of legal action to force changes. The organization also works to educate the public about non-theism.

Its existing two-story building, built in 1855, will be remodeled, with a third story topped by a cupola added. But first, the foundation plans to raze the three-story, six-unit apartment building directly behind its headquarters.

It purchased the apartment building in the past year. Demolition is expected to begin this week.

A four-story addition will replace the apartment building. The top floor will be an auditorium with seating for about 130 people, Gaylor said. The third floor will include a radio and television studio. The entire second floor will be a dedicated legal wing.

The foundation is in the midst of a $1.5-million fundraising campaign, which will fund much of the expansion, Gaylor said. She did not have a total cost for the project.

Ald. Mike Verveer, who represents the area, said foundation officials have been good stewards of their current historic building and attended several neighborhood meetings throughout the city approval process to explain the need to expand.

“From the neighborhood perspective, and my perspective, we appreciate them as neighbors and welcome their expansion,” he said.

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