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FFRF’s chapters stay engaged, build support

Judy Saint (right), president of Greater Sacramento Chapter of FFRF, stands with chapter board member Janet Thew (middle) and the director of the Mustard Seed School for homeless children. The chapter has given hundreds of $5 gas cards to parents who often sleep in their cars and must drive their kids to school.
FFRF Portland’s president Cheryl Kolbe (second from left) holds a package of sheets to be donated to Portland Homeless Family Solutions.

By Kristina Daleiden

FFRF’s network of 21 (soon to be 22 with the recent addition of the Metro Cincinnati Chapter) officially recognized grassroots chapters have continued to build support and increase the visibility of local freethinkers. Despite the challenges we have all faced due to the pandemic, these dedicated activists have embraced new strategies to keep their communities engaged, and helped those who find themselves in even greater need through the $1,000 annual charitable grant provided by FFRF.

Below are recent highlights from many of FFRF’s chapters.

Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC)

Continuing its remarkable history of building community, CFFC increased its outreach to include thousands of followers and local members. CFFC members volunteered nearly 200 hours cleaning up parks in central Florida, tabled at local events including Central Florida Earth Day, Central Florida Veg Fest, Valencia College’s Peace and Justice Institute, the Women’s March, FREEFLO (the biennial Freethought Florida Conference) and marched in the Come Out With Pride Orlando and the Orlando Veteran’s Day Parade.

CFFC hosted countless events of its own and in partnership with other organizations, including the Central Florida Summit on Religious Freedom. The Seventh Annual Freethought Cruise featured renowned atheist Matt Dillahunty. CFFC also shook up the Florida Film Festival with the premiere of the movie “Hail Satan?”, featuring Satanic Temple co-founder Lucien Greaves.

CFFC’s campaign for secular, inclusive invocation practices before governmental meetings continued apace, with more than a dozen secular invocations given around the region, topped off by a lauded victory in its 11th Circuit Court lawsuit against the Brevard County Commission. CFFC, along with FFRF and other organizations, joined to ensure the commission’s discriminatory selection practices for invocators at commission meetings would come to an end.

CFFC and FFRF contributed $2,000 to purchase PPE supplies for local teachers at the start of the 2020 school year, while in 2019 they collected nearly 100 STEM toys in conjunction with BE Orlando Humanist Fellowship for the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida.

Central Indiana Chapter of FFRF (CICFFRF)

The Central Indiana Chapter of FFRF (CICFFRF), which was just established in September 2019, worked to build its membership and engage with the community through meetings and informal gatherings. CICFFRF elected its governing board, attained official 501(c)(3) status and capped off 2019 with a celebratory winter holiday party.

Unfortunately, plans to increase local visibility by tabling at annual events such as the 2020 Indianapolis Pride Parade were stalled by the pandemic, but CICFFRF remains undaunted in its commitment to standing up for freethinkers.

Colorado Springs Chapter–FFRF

FFRF’s oldest chapter continued its long tradition of showing its notoriously Christian community how to be good without God. Beyond sponsoring the local PrideFest, members in Colorado Springs expressed their appreciation for teachers with gifts of Penzey’s Spices and supported their students with donations to food pantries serving schools.

The Colorado Springs chapter keeps busy at gatherings by creating “comfort scarves” for students in need of extra warmth or a cozy reminder that they have caring, rational allies who support them. According to long-time chapter leader Gary King, these gifts were inspired to be like constant hugs for children facing insecurity and difficult times.

With the closing of local schools, and the resulting lack of contact with students in families already stressed before the pandemic, members are exploring more ways to share their comfort scarves, and FFRF is ready to support their efforts with its annual charitable grant program.

FFRF–East Tennessee Chapter (FFRF–ETC)

FFRF-ETC is active on social media and has a robust Facebook presence that acts as a lightning rod for people to report violations of the Establishment Clause. The outstanding leadership and members of FFRF-ETC are responsible for alerting FFRF’s legal team to countless instances of religious encroachment into our secular public sphere.

In collaboration with the Rationalists of East Tennessee, these activists continue their effort to challenge the distribution of Gideon bibles in Blount County schools. In 2018, the group successfully eliminated bible distribution at the elementary school level. Although Blount County has been dragging its feet and creating roadblocks, FFRF-ETC and the Rationalists of East Tennessee intend to keep fighting until the Gideons are no longer given access to proselytize to students in junior and senior high.

Thanks to FFRF’s annual chapter charitable grant, FFRF-ETC members were able to distribute 48 well-stocked backpacks to the homeless population in Knox County, where individuals experiencing homelessness are required to have a backpack or luggage for their personal effects before they can be admitted into a shelter.

FFRF-ETC worked with our national office to post a “Proud Atheist” billboard in Maryville, garnering attention from the local TV news. Tennesseeans were further reminded through ads on the local NPR station that not  everyone shares the Christian beliefs. These PR initiatives were made possible through a grant from FFRF.

FFRF Metro Chicago Chapter (FFRFMCC)

The members of the FFRF Metro Chicago Chapter kept a rigorous schedule of activities, presentations, legislative efforts and highly visible secular displays around Chicagoland in 2019 and early 2020. FFRFMCC also streamlined its membership process to ensure that chapter membership aligned with FFRF membership requirements, beefing up the membership numbers of both organizations.

In keeping with ongoing efforts across the secular movement to build diversity, ensure equity and create inclusive, nonreligious spaces for people from marginalized communities, FFRFMCC and FFRF were delighted to co-sponsor the First Annual Women of Color Beyond Belief National Conference in Chicago, which came on the heels of hosting Black Nonbelievers President Mandisa Thomas, who delivered her presentation, “Fear of a Black Atheist: How Religion Crippled the Black Community.”

Critically, FFRFMCC reported to FFRF that the state of Illinois was considering giving grants to various religious organizations, using funds from its “Rebuild Illinois” program. This action prompted an investigation, which resulted in a letter to the department requesting the grants not be approved by the state, citing the Illinois  Constitution, which prohibits taxpayer funds from being used to support religious organizations. FFRFMCC members and leadership are also working to encourage legislation regarding compassionate “end-of-life” options in Illinois.

It wasn’t all business, of course. Everyone’s favorite satirical secular songwriter Roy Zimmerman performed for local freethinkers, sponsored in cooperation with the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago. FFRFMCC also continued its long-running tradition of placing secular “equal time” displays to counter religious holiday imagery around the Chicago area, including a large light-up Dawkins “A” and two banners at the Daley Center Plaza, and three of FFRF’s Bill of Rights nativity displays in public locations.

FFRF Metro Denver Chapter

FFRF Metro Denver Chapter continues to make the most of the vibrant secular community in its region. It was delighted to partner with a number of other groups to host the Colorado Secular Conference, which drew nearly 200 attendees from throughout Colorado and featured FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor as a headliner.

The Metro Denver Chapter hosts regular Coffee & Community Pancake Breakfasts each year, as well as celebrations for the Summer and Winter Solstice. Utilizing its connections in the community, the Denver chapter hosts speakers, recently welcoming Secular Student Alliance Executive Director Kevin Bolling, and FFRF’s own Andrew L. Seidel. 2019 was its sixth year attending Denver’s PrideFest, and was able to raise over $800 in donations in exchange for secular bumper stickers.

FFRF Kentucky

FFRF Kentucky kept up the pressure in the Bible Belt, continuing its dedication to serving as a critical state/church watchdog. FFRF Kentucky members executed multiple open records requests to reveal the troubling entanglement between creationist Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and the Ark Encounter with the city of Williamstown.

Working closely with the FFRF legal department, FFRF Kentucky raised the alarm over multiple violations of the Establishment Clause, including field trips to Ark Encounter and Creation Museum by high schools and colleges, sale of Christian CDs and books by the author and teacher’s aide in public schools, prayers at school events, violations by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, numerous violations by the previous  Gov. Matt Bevin, and a shocking episode of a Daviess County public school teacher playing religious videos during biology class, which earned the student involved an FFRF Student Activist Award.

FFRF Kentucky has worked tirelessly to foster relationships with other secular organizations, tabling at the 2019 American Atheist Conference and partnering with the Secular Student Alliance to support SSA chapters at numerous universities in the region. The outreach efforts of FFRF Kentucky are remarkable, hosting booths at the Kentucky State Fair, NanoCon, KY Freethought Convention, and publishing the informative and entertaining “Blasphemy in the Bluegrass” podcasts, on top of coordinating regular chapter meetings, group excursions, and speaker events. FFRF Kentucky also partners with a low-income senior living facility to provide essentials to many people without the resources to purchase new items for themselves.

Grand Rapids Area Freethinkers (GRAF)

In Minnesota, the Grand Rapids Area Freethinkers continued its regular meeting and social gathering schedule throughout 2019, shifting its focus from educational programs to highlight community organizations providing services to disadvantaged groups in order to determine what GRAF can do to support them.

GRAF members serve their community in a number of ways, from the “Adopt-a-Highway” program to a holiday food program at the Second Harvest Food Bank and toy packing program. With the support of the chapter charitable grant program, GRAF has continued to make an annual donation to the local Boys and Girls Club, who operate two programs in school buildings located in Grand Rapids and Coleraine. GRAF’s donation has served to fund memberships for children whose families are unable to pay the annual fee. Due to the increased need related to COVID-19, GRAF’s contribution to the Boys and Girls Club will also help supply the community food shelf in 2020.

In response to a weekly column in the local newspaper featuring area ministers called “Faith,” GRAF asked to participate in this use of the paper’s space and was invited to submit a column once per month in rotation with the church columns. GRAF’s column is called “The Humanist Voice,” which explains and defends the secular humanist perspective and the columns are published on the third Wednesday of the month.

Greater Sacramento Chapter of FFRF

In 2019, the notoriously non-sacramental Sacramento chapter continued to take on projects large and small with the zeal it’s become known for. Sacramento chapter members took advantage of their location in the California capital city to “Come Out to a Candidate” by handing out cards with secular population statistics to lawmakers and candidates. Chapter President Judy Saint hosted a lively event with Dan Barker, and the chapter board voted to help the local Gay and Lesbian Center. This support provided 20 HIV tests along with counseling, and five events of “cultural competency and diversity training for any agency, workplace or school seeking to create an affirming and compliant environment.”

Inland Northwest Freethought Society (INFS)

The Inland Northwest Freethought Society fills a surprising niche in eastern Washington and northern Idaho, where self-determination and freethinking aren’t necessarily associated with non-belief. However, this group has created a vibrant and active secular community. FFRF Co-President Dan Barker’s visit in March 2019 to the “Heathen Mexican Fiesta Potluck” was a fantastic success, with 108 people in attendance! While the pandemic has greatly impacted INFS’s traditional gatherings, it looks forward to returning to safe and fun social activities.

INFS also supports the work of its member, author and lecturer Jim Downard. His book, Evolution Slam Dunk: Why the Reptile-Mammal Transition Proves Macroevolution & How Antievolutionists Ignore It, is a great takedown of creationism. He is also a co-author of The Rocks Were There, an in-depth, well-researched book dealing with creationist claims. In keeping with its tradition of valuing and supporting members, INFS recognized three members with an Inland Northwest Freethought Achievement Award in 2019 for longtime contributions to the community and to the INFS organization.

Kenosha-Racine Area Freethinkers–Southeast Wisconsin (KRAFt)

In 2019, KRAFt held biweekly meetings over dinner and drinks at the Charcoal Grille for fun and engaging trivia nights.

The Adopt-a-Highway program continued with three occurrences over the course of the season from April 1 through Oct. 31, providing great exposure in front of a very popular tourist attraction.

In July 2019, KRAFt took a field trip to Freethought Hall, where Dan Barker and Andrew L. Seidel helped with content for a new YouTube channel and podcast. KRAFt members who had not yet seen the silicone Charles Darwin statue in FFRF’s library were charmed with his patience while they took pictures.

An alert KRAFt member in Racine exposed the county’s funding of a Christian youth group and we were able to stop the violation with help from FFRF Staff Attorney Ryan Jayne, whose swift letter explaining the constitutional violation was able to nip the program in the bud.

Lake Superior Freethinkers (LSF)

The LSF has distanced itself from any events that could be perceived as partisan political activities in order to avoid any inappropriate entanglements for a nonprofit organization. To that end, the LSF has established a subgroup, the People of Conscience Committee (POCC), which provides interested members with opportunities to engage in community activities (such as demonstrations of support for addressing climate change), without the endorsement of the LSF as a whole.

The LSF also engages in activities in support of local organizations and movements in order to enhance the visibility of secularism in general and the LSF in particular. Such activities include participation in Gay Pride events and fundraisers for the local women’s health center, the WE Health Clinic. With the support of FFRF’s charitable grant program and additional contributions from LSF members, LSF presented a direct grant to the WE Health Clinic in early 2020.

FFRF Portland Area

Sadly, in 2020 we are saying goodbye to this chapter, which had eight years of laudable advocacy! As a final hoorah, the chapter ran Independence Day ads in three local newspapers to counter the traditional Hobby Lobby misinformation ads.

Among the most notable achievements of any group was FFRF Portland’s successful effort to add “nonbelief” as a protected class in the city of Portland, which was approved in February 2019. Portland is now only the second municipality in the nation that recognizes nonbelief as a protected class. (Madison, Wis., FFRF’s home base, is the other.)

FFRF Portland participated in street fairs, hosted regular meetings, and speaker events over the years, and members provided hours of volunteer time at the Oregon Food Bank. Recently, FFRF Portland has directed support to Portland Homeless Family Solutions to purchase sundries for families experiencing homelessness to take with them to their new homes, and materials to create a calm and healthy environment while at the shelter.

FFRF will miss the tireless advocacy of FFRF Portland’s longtime leader Cheryl Kolbe, but we wish her the very best in the future and are deeply grateful for her work and on-going leadership as a current member of FFRF’s Executive Board of Directors.

Unfettered Freethinkers of South Sound

In December 2019, the stalwart members of the Unfettered Freethinkers of South Sound, led by Darrell Barker, persevered in their efforts to provide a counterpoint to a nativity display on the grounds of the Washington state Capitol, causing such consternation that the display was vandalized, as it was in 2017. Fortunately, the display was quickly “resurrected” with the support of FFRF members and UFSS volunteers. Local chapter members were rewarded with donuts and coffee from the grateful team in Madison.

Valley of the Sun (FFRF–VS)

The FFRF-Valley of the Sun was originally formed in 2011 by a Phoenix group, led by a determined activist who served as the nucleus for an informal secular group. With the death of that activist, a number of group members took up the banner and formalized the FFRF-VS chapter in late 2019. Even while they busied themselves with details of formally establishing their group, FFRF-VS members worked to build its core membership and engage with the community through meetings and informal gatherings. FFRF-VS elected its governing board and attained official 501(c)(3) status.

In the short time before COVID-19 prevented in-person activities from happening, FFRF-VS chapter hosted numerous events, including talks with FFRF’s Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel and FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, and tabled at the 2020 Women’s March before the pandemic sent all of their activities online. FFRF-VS has taken its virtual meetings and presentations to a much broader audience and has added virtual social meetings, which have become popular.

Kristina Daleiden is FFRF’s programs manager.