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FFRF’s Freethinkers of the Year awards

From left, Jeffery Koeberl, David Williamson and Keith Becher (along with Ronald Gordon and Chase Hansel, who were not in attendance at FFRF’s convention) were given FFRF’s Freethinker of the Year awards for being plaintiff’s in FFRF’s successful lawsuit over censorship of secular invocations in Brevard County, Fla. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
From left, Chris Nelson, Heather Coleman Nelson, Robert Corker and Randall Cragun were plaintiffs in FFRF’s successful Alabama lawsuit over a mandatory religious oath on a voter form. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
David Williamson watches a video of the secular invocation he gave in Brevard County, Fla., in January 2021 during his award acceptance presentation at FFRF’s Boston convention on Nov. 20, 2021. (Photo by Chris Line)
Jeffery Koeberl took his own advice that he gave to his daughter when he decided to become a plaintiff in FFRF’s lawsuit: “Don’t let fear inform your actions.” (Photo by Ingrid Laas)
Randall Cragun tells the convention crowd about why he would not sign the mandated religious oath on voter forms. “I was not willing to do that. I thought that would have been dishonest. It would have felt to me like I was betraying some of my values.” (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

The following are the acceptance speeches given by FFRF’s 2021 Freethinkers of the Year. They were introduced by FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert.

Rebecca Markert: It’s my honor to introduce this year’s Freethinkers of the Year awards, which are given to plaintiffs and litigants who have won lawsuits to end entanglements between religion and government. It includes a plaque and a $1,000 honorarium. This year we have multiple winners. They are plaintiffs in two of the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s recent successful lawsuits.

I’m going to call on our Alabama plaintiffs first.

Just before the 2020 election, we filed a federal lawsuit challenging an egregious mandatory religious oath, which citizens in Alabama had to swear in order to register to vote. FFRF’s Patrick Elliot and Elizabeth Cavell were the attorneys in the case, and I’m happy to report that we won that lawsuit in April [2021]. This significant victory was possible only because of these local plaintiffs who stood up publicly to challenge this religious test.

We’d like to congratulate and thank Robert Corker, Chris Nelson and Heather Coleman Nelson, and Randall Cragun. 

Speaking on behalf of these plaintiffs is Randall Cragun. He is a visiting assistant professor at Birmingham Southern College in Alabama. He received his master’s and Ph.D. in economics at Clemson University. He researches how the contraceptive ecosystem affects fertility, education, career choices and other life outcomes.

Please welcome Randall.

By Randall Cragun

Thanks, everyone. I want to say a little bit about why I think this case was important. This certainly was not a groundbreaking case. It didn’t set new precedent. It wasn’t something that should have had a big impact, say, on national level politics in the United States. But I think that part of why it matters is that it was not new. When I moved to Alabama three years ago, I went to register to vote, and I found that I had to sign this voter form that required that I made some religious statement.

I was not willing to do that. I thought that would have been dishonest. It would have felt to me like I was betraying some of my values. I contacted the secretary of state’s office and asked how I should go about registering to vote when I was not willing to sign this form. I knew that this had already been addressed by courts. The courts had already decided that they had to have some alternative. But the response that I got from the secretary of state’s office was that there is no alternative. If you modify this form, if you strike out those words, your registration will be rejected. And you will not be allowed to vote. 

They told me that I was not allowed to participate in the political system unless I made this religious claim, even though it had already been established by courts that they could not do that. So why does that happen? 

After that, I went looking for some representation. I contacted multiple attorneys and, basically, everyone said, “Well, we don’t have any expertise in this. There’s not much we can do, and we’re not willing to take this on.”

I had sort of given up hope on this. I said, “Well, I guess I’m just going to have to deal with the fact that I am not a full participant in Alabama society.” And then a friend said, “Why don’t you contact FFRF?” I was not a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation at the time, but I am now, and the reason is that I got a response from it saying, “This is important, and we want to help you.”

What happened then? Well, they changed the form. So now you can strike out those words, and there’s also a box that you can check to say, “I’m not willing to agree to this religious oath.” 

I have to wonder why Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill thought it was a good idea to change the form to be more complicated, instead of just getting rid of it. There’s no reason it needs to be in there, none at all. It serves no purpose. There’s no reason for administrative purposes or anything else that those words need to be there. But, instead, they made the process harder and more confusing just to try to keep that language there. 

So, even though this was a victory in some sense, where now I’m allowed to register to vote, there’s still this sense that I am not a full member of Alabama society because it is owned by Christians, because they are the default. 

And you don’t have to look very far to see this. In some of the conversations I’ve had with people, when they didn’t know that I was a plaintiff, they would say things like, “Why is this organization from Wisconsin coming into Alabama and trying to change our way of life?” And I don’t know who this “our” is because I live there. This is my way of life. And I just wanted to live my way of life. And yet people don’t see it that way. It’s very common. It seems people like to say, “This is a religious state. This is a Christian state. Alabama is a Christian place, and the people are Christian.” But only some are.

Yes, I am now allowed to register to vote, but that’s not enough. Inclusion is not enough. Accommodations are not enough. Every person deserves to have full ownership of society. And that’s true for cases of religion. It’s true for cases of race and all kinds of other things. And when we treat this like it’s just a thing that we have to deal with because it’s a minor issue where we have to sign a form, that’s not going to change.

And so I’m really glad that FFRF took this case and made me feel like I actually had a voice and could do something about it. Thank you so much.

. . .

Rebecca Markert: In 2015, FFRF, the Central Florida Freethought Community and a coalition of national and local groups plus five individuals sued over censorship of secular invocations in Brevard County, Fla. Our plaintiffs won that case, including an appeal to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

All five individuals are receiving this award. Unfortunately, Ronald Gordon and Chase Hansel could not make it. But Keith Becher, Jeffery Koeberl and David Williamson are here.

Jeffery wanted to say a few words, so I’m going to give him the floor.

By Jeffery Koeberl

Just to relate a quick anecdote: Why am I here? I was not really enthusiastic about jumping into this as a police officer employed by a chief who’s appointed by local politicians in a very conservative, very Christian area of the country. The idea of suing local politicians as an atheist, I was apprehensive. I was scared. 

One day my daughter came up to me and she said, “Dad, I’m having trouble with something at school. I need your advice.” She said some of her friends were bullying other people and it made her uncomfortable. And she wanted to know what she could do. And I said, “Well, if you hang out with them, you might as well be bullying them, too, because there’s no difference. So, you can do that or you can walk away.” I told her the best thing to do is speak up and say something because that’s how you stop them. 

She said, “I’m afraid of what would happen.”

I said, “Yeah, bullying thrives on fear.”

So, she did it, and she came back and she told me about it. She was very proud. And it occurred to me I should take my own advice. And I did. And I’m glad I did.

So my suggestion to you is: Don’t let fear inform your actions, and live in a way that’ll make your daughters proud.

. . . 

Rebecca Markert: Now, to tell us more, including a recent, very positive ending to this longstanding litigation, is our good friend and inspirational activist David Williamson. 

David is the co-founder of our Central Florida chapter and has built a thriving secular community in the Orlando area. He has served on the Central Florida Commission on Religious Freedom and the Interfaith Council of Central Florida. He’s the secretary of the Florida Humanist Association and the co-coordinator of the biennial conference FreeFlo. Welcome, David.

By David Williamson

Of all the effort that went into the victory in this case, the hardest work by far was done by attorneys. The passion the FFRF legal staff has for their work and our shared interest in secular government is truly remarkable. And the best measure of this isn’t just its successes, but in the longevity of the team that it has built. I want to acknowledge Rebecca Markert for her leadership of the fabulous team of attorneys at FFRF. Rebecca was involved in our case. 

The lead attorney in this case was Alex Luchenitser of Americans United for Separation for Church and State. They had staff working on the case, as well. We also had support from the ACLU and ACLU of Florida, so I want to be sure to thank all involved for their efforts.

And I also need to acknowledge Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, who have supported our chapter at every step and who continue to support the growing FFRF legal team. The work that Annie Laurie and Dan and others who lead national organizations have allowed the collaborations that are continuing to happen more and more in the recent years. So that’s fantastic. 

Since local groups are truly the backbone of activism, I want to also acknowledge the three organizational plaintiffs. Those groups are the Humanist Community of the Space Coast, the Space Coast Freethought Association, also known as the Brevard Area Atheists, and the Central Florida Freethought Community, or CFFC, where I serve. The power we wield, and especially the power sharing we can do at the local level, is more valuable than even a well-written letter by a constitutional attorney. The attorneys will tell you this, as well. 

We joined a battle against government prayer that was already well under way. Some of you know that when Annie Laurie was a lowly sophomore at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, she helped found the Freedom From Religion Foundation because of the prayers that she encountered when she went to interact with her local city and county governments. So, this is truly the first issue on which the Freedom From Religion Foundation has been working, and I thought that was notable.

While our 11th Circuit Court victory allows atheists to conduct invocations alongside others, unfortunately, not all of the recent government prayer cases have gone as well. In some venues, there is still inequality and discrimination against atheists and others. Our own experiences, even since this victory in Brevard, has shown that by no means have we fixed Florida’s prayer problem — yet. But we’ve done many good things outside the courts, as well. We don’t just sue people, right? That’s how we get into the news, and it makes it look like that’s all we do at the local level and at the national level. But there’s so much more than that. 

Since we sent those first letters requesting inclusion in Brevard and others in 2014, our FFRF chapter, the CFFC, has conducted many invocations. This initiative for secular humanistic invocations has, in my opinion, been the most successful one our chapter has pursued since we were established nine years ago. We’ve even made it possible for there to be a secular invocation in the Florida House of Representatives in 2018. So far, we’ve offered inclusive secular invocations in 23 city and county venues with the help of 41 different invocators.

As of early November [2021], the CFFC has conducted 107 invocations in central Florida.

I want to take a moment to give very special thanks to my partner in good trouble and everything else, Jocelyn Williamson. She really drives this initiative and even writes many of the invocations that are given by her and others, including myself. Our website is a great place to find out more: CFLFreethought.org. Each of those invocations are transcribed. For anyone who wants to plagiarize them, please feel free.

The CFFC has made one of our goals to ensure that in every local government meeting where legislative prayer is occurring there will be an atheist giving secular invocations. This project really has engaged our followers and has helped others, including our elected officials, to know that we exist, to understand that we care about local government, and most importantly, to learn that we have something positive to offer. Something, in my opinion, that is far superior to the exclusive sectarian Christian prayers that opened these meetings in the most divisive way possible — by starting with religion.

But the Brevard County commissioners liked it that way. For the five-and-a-half years of litigation, the county made a bet. They bet a lot of other people’s money that the court would agree that atheists didn’t belong. The court proved them wrong. So how much did it cost them to try and keep us out? Let’s watch the video of Brevard’s first secular invocation. This was back in January of 2021.

[Video plays of Williamson giving invocation.] “Thank you for the opportunity to be here with you today and for the honor of solemnizing your meeting on behalf of the citizens of the county. And I want to thank you and your staff, in particular, for its hard work during this challenging period, keeping us all safe. There’s only so much time available to us in life, and the fact that all of you have dedicated so much of yours is a credit to the service you do, and we really appreciate it. 

“Thomas Jefferson wrote that government is the strongest of which everyone feels themself a part. As we begin the day in service together, we remember the solemn responsibility we have to our shared community. With that in mind, we remember all those who live in or visit the community and who will be affected by the decisions made here today, possibly for generations to come, whether visiting the Space Coast for just a day as a visitor to a local beach or boutique or for an entire career of public service. While we are sometimes participants in it, we are always benefactors of our democracy and the important work of bodies such as this.

“Knowing that our words, our decisions, and our actions directly impact so many others, we strive to make compassion the foundation for our important work here today. And that we serve with integrity and kindness toward one another and to all those who serve as representatives in local government. Together, let’s embody the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when he said, ‘The good neighbors look beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all of us human and, therefore, family.’

“May we strive for balance between listening and reflecting, between speaking and acting. Finally, let us incline our ears toward reason, apply our heart to understanding and seek knowledge we can use to find common ground among the citizens for the betterment of the county. Thank you.” [Video ends.]

You know why that sounded like a prayer? Because religious people took speeches like that and pointed them upward. That’s the only difference. 

So, Brevard County bet a lot of money and lost. They paid nearly half a million dollars for that invocation not to happen. But it happened anyway. And another again by my co-plaintiff, Keith Becher, back in July [2021]. With that settlement, our attorneys were paid for at least some of their time. The plaintiff organizations and individuals received a small amount of damages, and the world is a better place for everyone, except the taxpayers of Brevard County.

Insurance claims covered the settlement. But that nearly half a million dollars does not include the effort of the county staff and outside counsel they hired that was spent trying to preserve the discriminatory practice they had in place. 

But there’s so much more to local activism than lawsuits. And our victories are most cost effective when they don’t go to court. Everyone wins when we don’t go to court. I want to encourage you to continue to push back against the mythology of Christian nationalists, to continue to fight for inclusion, to continue to demand for the equal rights for nonbelievers and anyone else who’s not in the majority. We need all the friends we can get. 

You never know which of those letters the FFRF legal team writes that will turn into a federal case and an important legal victory. All victories are worth celebrating. But remember, equal access for religious perspectives is not an acceptable alternative to secular government. It’s a temporary condition in which we must survive while we fight for the first and most fundamental freedom enshrined in our Constitution —  freedom from religion. Thank you.